1. Passover is About Liberation; Not Simply About Jews
In that hungry eternity of singing and praying in an alien tongue that spanned from your first taste of haroset on matzoh to the arrival of the matzoh ball soup, you could sometimes get to thinking about the meanings of the passover in universal context rather than in terms of the fetishistic rituals that have in many cases have replaced those meanings. (Does the Jewish God really care if there are a few breadcrumbs nestling undetected at the bottom of your toaster in a week when you’re supposed to constipate yourself on matzoh?) And growing up Jewish in apartheid South Africa, it wasn’t hard to see that the annual pesach seder was an elaborate exercise in missing the point. This from a little memoir thingie I’m working on:
Thus the bizarre spectacle, every Pesach, of our extended family – and countless others — sitting around elaborate Seder tables singing “Avadim Hayeinu” (“Once we Were Slaves”) while women who lived in our back yards in a latterday equivalent of slavery carried in steaming tureens of matzoh ball soup and platters of brisket and tzimmes.
Dai-dai-yeinu, we sang, that table-thumping beerhall-chant of a song praising God for his generosity to our people in bondage. “Had God brought us out of Egypt and not supported us in the wilderness, It would have been enough!” Dai-dai-yeinu. “Had God given us the Sabbath and not the Torah, It would have been enough!” But not only did he free us from slavery and support us in the wilderness and give us the Torah and the Sabbath; he sent us to sunny South Africa and gave us slaves of our own!
Unless the God of the Jews is nothing more than a tribal totem, it’s plain to my adult sensibility that the problem in Egypt wasn’t simply that WE were the slaves; the problem was slavery itself. That idea was hardly embraced by the adults around my seder table in those years. The cousins and uncles, small businessmen all, would race rapidly through the Hagada’s tales of bondage and deliverance in a Hebrew they’d learned by rote and scarcely understood, and then sit back to be served by people whose own reading of the Old Testament placed them squarely in the role of the Jews under Pharoah.
Years later, in my activist days, this was a theme I encountered repeatedly in the countless rallies and funerals I attended in African townships — ordinary working class black men and women, in the style of lay preachers, offering solace to crowds of squatters facing eviction or communities burying children shot dead in confrontations with the police by likening their own plight to that of the Hebrews in Egypt, and casting the road of struggle as the path to deliverance first charted by Moses.
But around my own seder tables, the descendants of Pharoah’s slaves paid scant attention to the plight of those in their kitchens. They were discussing real estate and accounting scams — and, of course, how long it might be before “the schwartzes” (yiddish for “blacks”) would rise up and spoil the party.
If the great rabbi Hillel was right (and I believe he was) that Judaism is less about rituals and the minutiae of halachic law than it is about the ethical treatment of others, I can safely say that I learned very little of Judaism in the more than 200 hours of family Seders I sat through in South Africa. In keeping with thousands of years of tradition, we always kept a chair empty and a glass full in case the Prophet Elijah showed up. Looking back, I shudder to think what he would have made of the spectacle had he actually accepted the invitation.
The great thing about growing up in apartheid South Africa, despite the country-club antisemitism that was an integral part of the South African Jewish experience — and despite the best efforts of some of my Zionist educators to convince me that we were history’s eternal victims — it was simply impossible for any intelligent Jew to claim the mantle of victimhood in South Africa. There was slavery and oppression going on, but we were not its victims; we were — unless we actively resisted — among its beneficiaries. South African reality challenged a young Jew to recognize the universal meaning of the Passover narrative and the Jewish experience and ethics more broadly.
But we were also in great danger of allowing what I’d call a narrow-nationalist reading of the Hagadah, and the Jewish experience more broadly, to blind us to the ethical obligations at the root of Judaism (“that which is hateful unto yourself, do not do unto others”). If we simply sat down once a year to gorge on matzoh balls and remind ourselves that once we were slaves, we could very easily blind ourselves to our individual ethical challengs in an apartheid society. Or to the ways that the state that claimed to act in our collective name had oppressed others — and had become the apartheid regime’s most important ally and collaborator on a military level — by virtue of engaging that sense of eternal victimhood to silence any challenge.
2. Toasting God’s Terrorism: Means and Ends
As a child, I loved nothing more than making a huge mess of sweet kiddush wine in my plate (for which I’d previously stomped the grapes in a plastic bucket in my aunt Sonia’s basement) as we chanted our way through the Ten Plagues visited by God upon the Egyptians in order to force Pharaoh to free us. Later, it just became another numb ritual that I executed without thinking. But I remember one year, now a twentysomething activist in the liberation movement, being a little horrified by what we were celebrating here. (After all, the ANC had, in the face of strong pressure from angry township youth, scrupulously maintained its rejection of terrorism, i.e. of deliberately targeting civilians — one or two guerrillas had crossed this line, but it was never policy and they were subject to discipline.) The plagues include poisoning the Egyptians’ drinking water, killing their cattle by disease, blistering their skin with boils, sending a hailstorm that killed people and destroyed a year’s crops and following that up with a plague of locusts to finish off the vegetation that survived the hail, and then, when Pharaoh still didn’t heed Moses’s plea, God killed the firstborn son of every Egyptian family.
The objective, universally accepted definition of terrorism violence directed randomly against the non-combatant population in order to force an authority to make a desired political change. And having watched the ANC grapple with that issue and then choose the ethical course, I was a little repelled by the fact that, for all these years, our seders had been celebrating the murder of children as a means of securing our freedom.
So, at that particular seder, I made a comment to the effect that this seemed to be the equivalent of the ANC deciding to start blowing up white kindergartens in order to hasten the collapse of apartheid. It seemed morally repugnant. A family member could see my qualms, but nonetheless insisted, “Yes, but this is different. In Egypt, this was the only thing that worked.” Which, of course, is exactly the argument used by those Palestinians who have advocated the morally and politically disastrous strategy of sending suicide bombers to kill Israeli children.
3. Jews Aren’t in Bondage, Today. But the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza Are
It is traditional, at the seders of more liberally-minded people, to invite those gathered to think, for a moment, of the many people in the world who are not free, and to whom the universal message of freedom inherent in the Passover story nonetheless applies. It is as well that we teach our children to think not only of their own freedoms, but also to remember the suffering people of Darfur, or Chechnya, or Burma or countless other places. But I wonder how often that injunction is taken as an opportunity to think about the Palestinians, whose bondage is maintained in our name.
Life for the average Palestinian on the West Bank is a Kafkaesque series of constantly changing restrictions on their freedom of movement. The Palestinian Authority cabinet conducts its meetings by video linkup, because members are unable to travel from Gaza or Jerusalem into the West Bank, and vice versa. Ah yes, but they’re Hamas, aren’t they? Of course they are. And a simple glance at living conditions on the West Bank and Gaza — and the failure of a decade of Fatah’s diplomatic strategy to even halt (never mind reverse) the encroachment of Israel’s settlements and its security wall onto more and more Palestinian land, bringing more and more restrictions on their freedom of movement — should be enough to make clear why the Palestinian electorate voted for Hamas. Israelis correctly point out that the second intifada begat Ariel Sharon. But it would be equally accurate to say that Israel’s failure to pursue a just peace with the Palestinians and instead look to hang onto as much of the colonized West Bank as possible via unilateral redrawing of boundaries etc. begat Hamas.
My South African Habonim elders, by then settled on Kibbutz Yizreel, warned us during a visit there in 1978 that the settlement strategy being pursued by the then-Begin government, and its Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, was a disaster that would turn Israel into an apartheid state. And they were not wrong. Even the mainstream (Sharon) Israeli right today speaks of ending the occupation. But by that they mean Israel doesn’t want to directly rule over the Palestinians — not that they’re ready to return the land seized after 1967, for example. Well, they’ll return some of it, as they’ve done in Gaza, keeping sovereign control that allows them to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas by laying siege and “putting them on a diet,” as former Sharon aide Dov Weissglass so bluntly put it. But in the West Bank, they’ll decide which settlements to evacuate and which to keep and expand, and then proclaiming the Olmert’s plan to unilaterally redraw Israel’s boundaries so that they surround two separate Palestinian enclaves divided by an Israeli corridor is a step towards “peace.” There’s no basis for that international law, as I understand it, and more importantly, there’s no justice in it.
Yet, by invoking our own historical suffering as a people as if it gives us carte blanche to dispossess and shackle others — and by branding those who would question or challenge the wisdom and morality of these actions as “antisemites,” the advocates of Jewish nationalism have been remarkably successful in enforcing a wall of silence around their activities. For my understanding of Jewishness as primarily an ethical calling that is in many ways inherently at odds with nationalism, the siege of Gaza is an outrage and the occupation and settlement of the West Bank is an outrage.
Five Questions for the 2006 Seder
* Do we honestly believe that Israel holding on to the West Bank settlement blocs or the Jordan Valley or East Jerusalem is justice?
* Do we honestly believe that the Palestinians will ever accept those terms?
* Do we honestly believe that the wider Arab world will ever accept the idea that all of Jerusalem, the battle for which hunreds of thousands of Muslims gave their lives during the Crusades (when, incidentally, we Jews were on their side) is to remain under Israeli control for all eternity, just because Israel says it will and currently has the military might to impose its will?
* Do we honestly believe that collective punishment and humiliation of the Palestinians will lead them to elect a government more to Israel and America’s liking?
* And, finally, how would we, honestly, think and act in relation to Israel if we’d been unlucky enough to be born Palestinian?