On Passover, when we gather at the seder table to tell the story of the Exodus, we are reminded by the haggadah (the seder text) that merely telling the story is not enough. We are asked to not only relate but to interrogate this sacred narrative, to contemplate its meaning and to discuss the questions it raises for us. Most importantly, we must connect the lessons of the Exodus story to liberation struggles “in every generation.”
This year, many have inevitably been making connections between the Passover story and the recent anti-government protests that have unfolded in Israel since January. In a widely read sermon last February, for instance, Rabbi Sharon Brous compared the protests to the “great birth story” of the Exodus. In a recent New York Times op-ed, Bret Stephens wrote that the protests were “as close to a revolution as the modern state of Israel has ever seen.” One Jewish leader commented to the press that he plans to read from the Israeli Declaration of Independence at his seder, particularly the passage that promises the “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants.”
On the surface, this framing might seem to make sense: Since late last year, thousands of Israelis have regularly been filling the streets to protest draconian policies proposed by the newly elected far right government of six-term Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The protests have largely focused on the “threat to democracy” posed by the government’s plans to drastically curtail the power of the judiciary. The demonstrations seem to have succeeded: late last month Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that he would seek a compromise with his political opponents in order to “avoid civil war.”
While this certainly seems like a “power to the people moment,” it’s worth asking: who exactly are the “people” who have taken back the “power?” Though it was not widely noted by the mainstream media, the protests were largely organized and attended by centrist and liberal Israeli Jews — Palestinians were notably absent. Indeed, it was difficult to ignore the sea of Israeli flags at these demonstrations, along with the drumbeat messaging over “saving Israeli democracy.” By the end, it had become clear that these protests were less about equal rights for Jewish Israelis and Palestinians alike than a desire to reclaim the patriotic Zionist mantle from a newly elected far right government.
In other words, before we’re tempted to connect the Israeli demonstrations to the festival of Passover, it’s worth investigating how we tell the story of liberation, who tells it, who we include, and who we leave out.
These questions are not, in fact, unique to this year. It is common for Zionists to refer to Zionism — the movement to build a political Jewish nation-state — as “the national liberation movement of the Jewish people.” Many might find this to be a curious use of the term, as it is typically used in regard to movements that struggle for liberation against colonial oppression — not settler colonial movements themselves. Such rhetoric belies the origins of an ideology inspired by 19th-century European nationalism and a movement that actively sought to transplant European Jews in historic Palestine.
However, even Zionists who view Jewish nation-statehood in liberative terms must ultimately admit that from the beginning, Zionism focused exclusively on Jewish liberation — and that this liberation most certainly did not extend to Palestinians. Quite the contrary, of course. As a nation-state whose identity was predicated on a demographic majority of Jews in the land, Palestinians were, through their very existence, viewed as an obstacle to Jewish liberation.
Israel’s Declaration of Independence makes it clear that this nation was created first and foremost for Jews. The 10 paragraph-long preamble essentially reads as a Jewish history lesson, ending with the line, “This right is the natural right of the Jewish people to be masters of their own fate, like all other nations, in their own sovereign State.” There is only one paragraph that pertains to the rights of non-Jews:
THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open for Jewish immigration and for the Ingathering of the Exiles; it will foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; it will be based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel; it will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture; it will safeguard the Holy Places of all religions; and it will be faithful to the principles of the Charter of the United Nations.
Note that the Declaration “ensures” social, political and religious — but not national — rights to its Palestinian citizens. This language is quite intentional: Israel considered Jews throughout the diaspora to be part of the “Jewish nation,” granting any Jew who immigrated to the state from anywhere in the world instant citizenship through its Law of Return. Conversely, the over 700,000 Palestinians refugees who were forcibly displaced from their homes and forbidden to return were decidedly not included as part of the newly established nation.
To this day, Israel has maintained a careful distinction between “nationals” and “citizens.” As non-Jews, Palestinians in Israel can be citizens, but they are not nationals, thus depriving them of rights and privileges enjoyed by Israeli Jews. As a result, to this day, there are more than 60 laws that discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel directly or indirectly, impacting virtually every aspect of their lives, including housing, employment, education, health care, and who they can marry.
The status of Palestinian citizens was compromised yet further in 2018 with Israel’s passage of the so-called Nation-State Law, which determined that “the right to exercise national self-determination” in Israel is “unique to the Jewish people,” established Hebrew as Israel’s official language, and established “Jewish settlement as a national value,” mandating that the state “will labor to encourage and promote its establishment and development.” According to Adalah:
This law – which has distinct apartheid characteristics – guarantees the ethnic-religious character of Israel as exclusively Jewish and entrenches the privileges enjoyed by Jewish citizens, while simultaneously anchoring discrimination against Palestinian citizens and legitimizing exclusion, racism, and systemic inequality.
Of course, the injustices facing the almost 3,000,000 Palestinians who live under military occupation in the West Bank — and the over 2,000,000 who live under a crushing blockade in Gaza — are dramatically worse than those experienced by Palestinian citizens of Israel. But it would be a mistake to draw a fundamental distinction between these different Palestinian populations. As the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem puts it in its 2021 report, Israel maintains “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.” Put simply, as a Jewish nation-state, Israel systemically denies basic civil and human rights to all non-Jews who live under its control.
It’s interesting to note that the “selective liberation” story we tell about Israel is not dissimilar from the story we tell about the establishment and history of another notable settler colonial state — namely, the United States. Indeed, I’m often struck that we typically use the term “American Revolution” to refer to what was essentially a political-economic secession by colonists from the British empire, whose nation was built on the genocide of Native peoples, enabled by the stolen labor of Black slaves.
Here too, it’s critical to interrogate how we tell the story of this national liberation, who tells it, who we include, and who we leave out. It has often been observed that the opening words to the American Constitution, “We the People,” is a radical misnomer as the founders originally defined “we” to be limited to white, property-owning males. This inherent inequity was already being openly challenged not long after the founding of the state. As Frederick Douglass famously declared in his 1852 speech, “What to a Slave is the Fourth of July:”
The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not me. The sunlight that brought light and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.
When it comes to this legacy of American structural injustice, one can draw a direct line from Douglass to the words of Malcolm X, from his 1964 speech “The Ballot or the Bullet”:
No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of Americanism. One of the 22 million Black people who are the victims of democracy, nothing but disguised hypocrisy. So, I’m not standing here speaking to you as an American, or a patriot, or a flag-saluter, or a flag-waver — no, not I. I’m speaking as a victim of this American system. And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American dream; I see an American nightmare.
At the same time, however, there remains a uniquely American tension between the “American nightmare” of Malcolm X and the “American Dream” referred to by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his “I Have a Dream” speech, where he famously challenged the United States to be true to its stated intention to form a more perfect union: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”
More recently, Nikole Hannah-Jones, author of the “1619 Project” has observed that “the United States is a nation founded on both an ideal and a lie.” Still, she concluded:
Despite being violently denied the freedom and justice promised to all, Black Americans believed fervently in the American creed. Through centuries of Black resistance and protest, we have helped the country live up to its founding ideals. And not only for ourselves — Black rights struggles paved the way for every other rights struggle, including women’s and gay rights, immigrant and disability rights.
Of course, we are currently witnessing a white supremacist backlash against those who seek to challenge the legacy — and reality — of American structural racism. As ever, Americans are struggling openly over how inclusive, extensive and complete our liberation will be. It is a tension that has been ongoing since the very founding of this country — it is at its core, a quintessentially American struggle.
In Israel, however, the struggle for democracy is far more complicated. As a Jewish state, Israeli democracy can only truly extend to its Jewish citizens. Unlike the U.S., where those who advocate equal rights for all can still be described as “believing fervently in the American creed,” those who call for one state with full citizenship for all are routinely accused of antisemitism, seeking nothing less than “the destruction of the Jewish state.”
Another important difference: unlike the U.S., Israel does not have a Constitution that, theoretically at least, ensures equal rights for its citizens. Noting Israel’s early, aborted attempts at creating a Constitution, journalist Joshua Leifer has recently commented:
America’s Constitution begins, “We the People.” One of the things that’s very striking when you read the drafts of the Israeli constitution that were written in 1950 is that the proposed version of Israel’s constitution began with “the Jewish people.” The ethnos was imagined as the demos from the beginning.
Like many Americans, I believe it is my responsibility to challenge my country to, as MLK put it, “live out the true meaning of its creed.” Among other things, this means actively supporting anti-racist struggles in the U.S. that demand full and equal rights for all its citizens. As an American Jew living in the age of Zionism, I can demand nothing less for all who live between the river and the sea.
As Aurora Levins Morales concludes in her classic poem “Red Sea:”
This time that country
is what we promise each other,
our rage pressed cheek to cheek
until tears flood the space between,
until there are no enemies left,
because this time no one will be left to drown
and all of us must be chosen.
This time it’s all of us or none.
This Passover, it is clearer than ever before that we need a new Jewish liberation story: one that is inseparable with the vision of liberation for all.