Rabbi Yehuda said: There is no removal of leaven except by burning; but the Sages maintain: he may also crumble and throw it to the wind or cast it into the sea. (Mishnah Pesachim 2:1)
On the eve of Passover, April 21, 1948,
leaflets and loudspeakers ordered
the 75,000 Palestinian Arabs of Haifa
to send their women and children away,
promising terrible consequences
if these warnings were disregarded.
At 6:30 pm a joint force
of the Haganah and Irgun
known as the Carmeli brigade
opened fire on the lower regions of the city.
The military called this “Operation Biur Chametz,”
which means “Operation Cleaning Out the Leaven” –
a reference to a sacred Jewish tradition,
which commands that leaven
be swept out of Jewish homes
prior to the onset of Passover.
This strange cacophony of loudspeaker voices
and gunfire lasted until midnight.
All night long, panic stricken civilians
fled homes that were in the path
of the Jewish militias heading
into Wadi Nisnsa and the areas
nearest Hadar HaCarmel.
Early on Passover morning,
the Irgun forces were making progress.
(As Menachem Begin, later remembered, they proceeded to advance through Haifa
like a knife through butter.
The Arabs began fleeing in panic,
shouting “Deir Yassin!”)
By 6:00 am the cacophony had grown
and now included the cries of fleeing families
as well as new loudspeaker voices:
Arab leaders urging residents
to gather in the old marketplace next to the port
and seek shelter until an orderly evacuation by sea
could be organized.
As Passover day unfolded,
Haifa’s market and port
turned into a scene of utter chaos:
children in pajamas,
men in old fashioned nightshirts,
women carrying babies,
toward the water.
The Carmeli brigade stationed itself
on the slopes of Mt. Carmel
and launched three inch mortars
on the fleeing crowd below who eventually
broke through the port and tried to climb
aboard the boats moored in the harbor.
One survivor later recalled: men stepped on their friends
and women on their own children.
The boats in the port were soon filled
with living cargo. The overcrowding
in them was horrible. Many turned over
and sank with all their passengers.
When the week of Passover was concluded,
scores of Palestinians had been killed
and 50,000 expelled from their homes.
The cacophonies have long since receded
and stillness now hovers
over the slopes of Mt. Carmel.
But every Passover, if you listen closely
to the water lapping back and forth
across the the shores of Haifa
you will surely hear a voice
How can you sing your songs of joy
while my children are drowning?
White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has suggested that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is worse than Hitler, because, “Even Hitler didn’t sink to using chemical weapons.” He later added the “clarification” that “[Hitler] was not using the gas on his own people the same way that Assad is doing.”
There are so many things that are so horribly wrong about Spicer’s comments, it’s difficult to know where to start. I’ll limit myself to four points (and I’m not even going to touch his inscrutable reference to “Holocaust centers”):
#1: Our own allies have used US-supplied chemical weapons.
During its 2008-2009 military assault on Gaza, Israel dropped white phosphorous – a chemical that burns flesh down to the bone and can cause fatal damage to the liver, kidneys and the heart – on densely populated civilian centers. Human Rights Watch (HRW) later issued a 71-page report, “Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” which provided numerous “witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property.”
Israel initially denied its use of white phosphorous, but when faced with overwhelming evidence, it admitted it did indeed deploy this chemical, claiming it only used it as a smokescreen to protect its troops. This statement, too, was false. HRW’s Fred Abrahams pointed out:
In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops. It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died.
HRW also noted that “all of the white phosphorus shells that Human Rights Watch found were manufactured in the United States in 1989 by Thiokol Aerospace, which was running the Louisiana Army Ammunition Plant at the time.”
More recently, it was reported that Saudi Arabia appears to be using US-supplied white phosphorous in its war on Yemen. When asked about this, the State Department responded that it was “aware of these reports” and is “looking into them.”
#2: Spicer doesn’t seem to believe that Jews were Germany’s “own people.”
Whether consciously or not, when Spicer noted that Hitler “was not using the gas on his own people,” he was suggesting that the 200,000 German Jews who were murdered by the Nazis were not Germany’s “own.” This is a time-honored anti-Semitic trope that stigmatizes Jews as alien elements in the nations in which they live.
It is also a meme that Donald Trump and his followers openly apply to immigrants, Muslims, people of color and any other group they deem “un-American.” As Michael Daly correctly observed in the Daily Beast:
When the Trumpians tell us that the president is only fulfilling his promises to The American People and doing what The American People want in the interest of The American People, you can be sure that they meant it in the same sense that Hitler spoke of The German People.
#3: We’ve heard this before.
Even if we chalk up Spicer’s comments to ignorance, this kind of insensitivity is part of a growing pattern of disturbing dog whistles Trump has repeatedly been sounding in relation to American Jews: his appointment of “alt-rightist” Steve Bannon as a close White House advisor; his reluctance to disavow his support from full-bore white supremacists, such as David Duke and Richard Spencer; his use of an anti-Semitic image in his campaign; his International Holocaust Day statement that made no mention of Jews; and his use of the “America First” slogan, which has historically anti-Semitic roots.
Some were hoping that given Trump’s fraught relationship with the American Jewish community, he would at least attend the White House Passover Seder, as Obama did on each of the eight years of his presidency. Alas, neither Trump, nor his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, chose to attend. (He did, however, issue a tweet wishing a happy Passover “to everyone celebrating.”)
#4: On Passover?!
Yes, it certainly added insult to injury that Spicer made these comments on the first day of Passover. However, let’s choose to make this a teachable moment. After all, one of the central themes of the Exodus story that is read on Passover is the danger of the Pharaohs who use xenophobia to single out Jews and other minorities for oppression.
So let’s take heart from the lesson that Exodus teaches us. As poet Kevin Coval so aptly puts it in his poem “all the pharaohs must fall”:
wake in this new day
neighbors are allies
we don’t have to compete with
we can ally and fight with them
there are more of us
who don’t drill or bomb or legislate
more of us who 3rd shift and wash dishes
more of us who forge papers and sneak over fences
more of us worried about unlawful arrests
and whose worry arrests in the night without sleep
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
The weeklong Jewish festival of Passover is coming to a close, but like many Jews around the world I’m still digesting the myriad questions, answers and discussions that ensued as we retold the biblical story of the Exodus at our seder. While it’s a story our community returns to over and over again, I’m continually astonished at the ways it provides a frame for understanding struggles for liberation past and present.
This year, I’ve been contemplating one aspect of the story in particular: when a new pharaoh arises over Egypt “who did not know Joseph.” We immediately learn in no uncertain terms that this new ruler was considerably more xenophobic than his predecessor:
And (Pharaoh) said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us.” (Exodus 1:8-9)
To use contemporary parlance, Pharaoh clearly views the Israelites as a “demographic threat” to the Egyptians.
The demographic threat meme, of course, has been played out countless times since the age of the pharaohs. It has certainly been a deeply woven thread in the fabric of American culture from our very origins. To cite but one example: Centuries before Donald Trump started railing against Mexican “criminals” and “rapists,” Benjamin Franklin wrote a 1751 essay in which he bemoaned the influx of “Palatine Boors” into the colonies who would “shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our language or customs, any more than they can acquire our complexion.”
So yes, as an American, I can’t read these words from the Exodus story without connecting it to an ignoble aspect of my own country’s legacy — one that is all too real even today.
And as an American Jew, I can’t help but connect it to another country that also purports to act in my name.
Indeed, ever since Israel’s establishment, Zionist leaders knew well that the future Jewish state would only be “viable” if it could create and maintain a demographic Jewish majority in historic Palestine. In the late 19th century, this must surely have seemed like a tall order, since Jews constituted but 2 to 5 percent of the population. By 1947, following decades of Zionist colonization and Jewish immigration, their number had swelled to 32 percent. Under the UN-sponsored partition plan, the percentage of Jews allotted to the new Jewish state would have been 55 percent.
During the 1948 war — known as the War of Independence by Zionists and the Nakba (“catastrophe”) by Palestinians — the issue of demographics was solved through the forced expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and Israel’s refusal to allow them to return. However, the demographic stakes were raised once again in 1967, when Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza and began a military occupation that exists to this day.
In 2010, Jews officially become a minority population from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea; around the same time, it was determined that the Jewish majority in Israel proper was slowly diminishing. For some time now, Zionists have been warning that the Palestinians’ birth rate poses a “demographic threat” to the future of the Jewish state.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this rhetoric is that it doesn’t only come from Israel’s far right, but from liberal Zionists, who use the demographic argument to advocate for a two-state solution. Witness, for instance, the words of J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami:
When it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peace, the two-state solution and the inexorable demographic threat to Israel’s future as a democratic state that remains the homeland for the Jewish people, our position is the same as that of the Israeli government, the Obama administration and the vast bulk of the American Jewish community.
Leaving aside the issues of whether or not the two-state solution actually is the policyof the Israeli government, let’s unpack this statement for a moment. The liberal Zionist argument for a “democratic Jewish state” is predicated on a view of Palestinians as a “demographic threat.” As an American, if I referred to any other ethnic group in this country with such a term, I would surely be viewed as a bigot or a racist. But as a Jew, I can refer to Palestinians with this epithet and still remain a member in good standing of the liberal peace camp.
Thus the inherent contradiction of liberal Zionism: democracy and demographic engineering simply do not go hand in hand. At the end of the day, there is nothing liberal about supporting an ethno-national project predicated upon the identity of one group over another. The late Meir Kahane, revered by Israel’s ultra right, loved to make liberal Zionists squirm by repeatedly articulating this point: “A western democracy and Zionism are not compatible. You can’t have both.”
This, along with its massive settlement expansion has brought Israel’s demographic problem home to roost. The real decision before them is not between a one-state or two-state solution, but between two one-state solutions: an apartheid Jewish state or one state of all its citizens, regardless of religion or ethnicity.
As I watch this tragic process unfold this Passover, I find myself returning to the universal lesson this festival imparts on the corrupt abuse of state power. Although the Exodus story is considered sacred in Jewish tradition, it would be a mistake to assume that the contemporary state of Israel must be seen as equivalent to the biblical Israelites.
On the contrary, any people who suffer under oppressive government policies are, in a sense, Israelites. And any state — even a Jewish state — that views a people in its midst as a demographic threat can become a Pharaoh.
Here’s a new Passover video message from the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, which uses the final line of the seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem,” as a cue to examine the current dire reality in earthly Jerusalem. Please watch – and consider using its text as a reading/call to action at your seder this year:
This year in Jerusalem, Israeli policies seek to limit the number of Palestinians who can live in the city.
This year in Jerusalem, Palestinian Jerusalemites are deemed “permanent residents.” Israel considers them immigrants even though for many, Jerusalem has been their family’s home for generations.
This year in Jerusalem, the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, is maintained by daily practices of surveillance and control. In recent years, these practices have increasingly relied on technology provided by international corporations.
This year in Jerusalem: a Hewlett-Packard powered system divides Palestinians into four categories, each with different rights: blue Israeli IDs, green-blue Palestinian-Jerusalem IDs, green West Bank IDs and orange Gaza IDs.
According to Human Rights Watch, over 640,000 Palestinians risk separation from a direct family member who holds a different colored ID. Hewlett-Packard profits from this colored ID system that divides Palestinian families and loved ones.
This year in Jerusalem: Israel’s “Center of Life” policy requires that Palestinian Jerusalemites prove continuous residency in the city to retain their Jerusalem IDs. There is no such requirement for Jewish Israelis.
This year in Jerusalem: More than 120,000 family unification applications remain unprocessed. Over 10,000 Jerusalem children are estimated to be unregistered and more than 14,000 Jerusalem residencies have been revoked.
The decision to grant or deny Jerusalem residency for Palestinians is at the discretion of the Israeli government. Meanwhile Jews throughout the world are entitled to receive automatic and immediate citizenship through Israel’s Law of Return for Jews and reside in Jerusalem at will.
Hundreds of churches, colleges and socially responsible retirement funds continue to be invested in Hewlett-Packard. This year let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we’ll be one step closer to the day when Palestinian families can gather and pray freely in Jerusalem.
This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, bashana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem being a just home for all of its residents.
This year, let’s divest from Hewlett Packard, so that next year, b’shana ha’baah, we will be one step closer to Jerusalem truly being a city of peace.
(To take a Passover pledge to support full freedom of movement for all Jerusalemites, click here.)
Talmud Yerushalmi (Pesachim 10a) associates the four verses that describe the liberation of the families of Israel from subjugation with the four cups of wine at the Passover table. As it is written, “Say, therefore to the Families of Yisrael, ‘I am Adonai and I will take you out from under the burdens of Mitzryim, and I will save you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments and I will take you to Me as a people…and you shall know the Spirit that draws you forth from under the burdens of subjugation.”
The four words imply a process a process of transformation. This process has four parts: Mitzryim is the Hebrew word that refers to the condition of structural subjugation. Pesakh moves from limping under the burden of the oppression to leaping like a liberated lamb through the parting seas that lead to freedom. The process happens in stages.
V’hotzayti~I will take you out: Complete subjugation is resisted by resisting the occupation of the mind that oppression imposes. In this stage we must ask questions that release us from the narratives that justify subjugation. That is why the seder begins with a collective invitation to the poor and oppressed to speak their stories and share a meal. The four children are a way of exploring one’s own relationship to subjugation.
V’he’tzal’ti~I will save you: Mitzryim is not mentioned by name, implying a lessening of the power of subjugation. At this stage, the community engages in acts of resistance and noncooperation-direct action in order to embody the liberation and begin the long journey of stepping out of subjugation. The midwives boycotting Pharaoh’s order to harm children, and instead, made the healing of children their first priority. Some traditions say they were non-Jewish midwives, and other traditions equate them with Miriam and Yochevet. What is clear for all of us? Liberation depends on multicultural, intergenerational and multifaith solidarity. Freedom is a country without borders.
V’ga’al’ti~I will redeem you: Redemption requires collective mass action and the building of pillars of support in sections of society that have not yet taken action. Systematic and structural violence can be overcome when the society as a whole no longer accepts the normative status quo. Oppression is moved out of the margins into the center as a social issue. During this stage oppression can increase because people are moving closer to the goal of overcoming subjugation. Pharaoh sends his armies to attack those seeking liberation. At this moment we need to call upon the entire nation’s faith that the seas will part.
Lakach’ti~I will take you in beloved relationship: Liberation requires a communal effort to building alternative institutions, and to create alternatives to the violent narratives of oppression. Liberation is the creation of a new reality outside the subjugation framework where the dignity of every single human being is valued. Dignity is a country without borders, it is the promised land.
As the process of liberation proceeds, we come to V‘yadatem~and you shall know.This knowledge is the knowledge of the heart that comes from faith in nonviolence and compassion. When liberation is internalized it is a powerful turning point in the healing process. It is awakening to the realization that we are all equal and precious in the eyes of the Creator.
As Jews, how do we respond when we hear the tragic news regularly coming out of Israel/Palestine? How do we respond to reports of checkpoints and walls, of home demolitions and evictions, of blockades and military incursions?
It might well be said that there are four very different children deep inside each of us, each reacting in his or her own characteristic way.
The Fearful Child is marked by the trauma of the Shoah and believes that to be a Jew means to be forever vulnerable. While he may be willing to accept that we live in an age of relative Jewish privilege and power, in his heart he feels that all of these freedoms could easily be taken away in the blink of an eye. To the Fearful Child, Israel represents Jewish empowerment – the only place in the world that can ensure the collective safety of the Jewish people.
The Bitter Child channels her Jewish fears into demonization of the other. This child chooses to view anti-Semitism as the most eternal and pernicious of all forms of hatred and considers all those “outside the tribe” to be real or potential enemies. She believes that Palestinians fundamentally despise Jews and will never tolerate their presence in the land – and that brute force is the only language they will ever understand.
The Silent Child is overwhelmed with the myriad of claims, histories, narratives and analyses that emerge from Israel/Palestine. While he dreams of a day in which both peoples will live in peace, he is unable to sift through all that he hears and determine how he might help bring that day about. At his most despairing moments, he doesn’t believe a just peace between these two peoples will ever be possible. And so he directs his Jewish conscience toward other causes and concerns – paralyzed by the “complexities” of this particular conflict.
The Courageous Child is willing to admit the painful truth that this historically persecuted people has now become a persecutor. This child understands and empathizes with the emotions of the other children all too well – in truth, she still experiences them from time to time. In the end, however, the Courageous Child refuses to live a life defined by fear, bitterness or complacency. She understands it is her sacred duty to stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed, particularly when she herself is implicated in that oppression.
At one time or another we have heard within ourselves the voices of any or all of these children.
In honor of Passover, I’d like to share an excerpt from article I’ve recently finished that attempts to articulate a Jewish Theology of Liberation. The longer piece will hopefully be published soon – in the meantime, I offer this snippet to you as “food for thought” for your seder table. All the best for a liberating Pesach!
The Exodus is, of course, the sacred liberation story par excellence, in which God hearkens to the cry of the persecuted, rebukes the oppressor Pharaoh and frees the enslaved. While this narrative is clearly presented within a particularist context (God hearkens to the cry of God’s oppressed people), it has historically resonated with universal power. As the social and political scientist Michael Walzer has observed, a myriad of liberation movements have been indelibly marked with Exodus consciousness throughout the course of Western civilization.
On the most basic level, then, a Jewish theology of liberation must necessarily view the Exodus as both a particular narrative of a certain people as well as a universal narrative that encompasses all humanity. The oppression of the Jewish people must be understood as inseparable from the oppression of all peoples – likewise the liberation of the Jewish people must be inextricably linked to the liberation of all peoples. While the historical events may differ in the details, they are all bound by a common sacred truth: the voice of the God of Liberation calls out in every language and in every generation to demand the liberation of the oppressed.
However, if we read the Exodus story honestly and unflinchingly, we must be ready to admit the presence of another, darker voice present in this narrative. The Exodus does not only describe the liberation of an oppressed people from bondage – it also contains the story of a journey toward and entrance into a “Promised Land” inhabited by other peoples – indigenous inhabitants whom the Israelites are commanded to dislodge and exterminate without pity.
As difficult as it may be to read morally repugnant passages such as these in one’s “sacred” text, it is even more unsettling when we consider that these imperatives are deeply embedded within our cherished liberation narrative. In a sense, the “Exodus” is only the first half of a much longer story – a saga that begins with the Israelites exit from Egypt (Exodus) and ends with their entrance in Canaan (Eisodus). As the narrative would have it, we cannot have the Exodus without God’s promise of the land – and this promise cannot be fulfilled without the Israelites obedience to a commandment that demands nothing less than ethnic cleansing and even extermination.
This Pesach I’m thinking about the exceedingly radical message at the heart of the story we’ll retell around the seder table tonight.
I’m thinking in particular about what the story tells us about power, about the ways the powerful wield their power against the less powerful, and about the inevitability of corrupt power’s eventual fall. And I’m thinking about what is possibly the most radical message of all: that there is a Power greater, yes even greater than human power.
Woe betide the empire that fails to heed this message. Powerful empires have come and gone, but the Power that Makes for Liberation still manages to live to fight another day. Will the Pharoahs among us ever learn?
There’s no getting around the fact that our seder story is not a neat, tidy or particularly pleasant story. That’s because – as we all know too well – the powerful never give up their power without a fight. No one ever made this point better or more eloquently than Frederick Douglass when he said in 1857:
The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.
We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed.
It is my fervent hope that this Pesach, we American Jews, who rank among the most privileged and powerful citizens on earth, will talk openly and honestly about the wages of our power when we gather yet again to tell the story. What would it mean if we truly took to heart our tradition’s most challenging teachings: that God hears the cries of the enslaved, that God is a God of Liberation, that God stands with the oppressed, not the oppressor and demands that we do as well?
Conversely (and much more painfully), are we, as Americans and as Jews, ready to confront the ways we regularly wield our own power and privilege in any number of oppressive ways at home and abroad? Might we possibly be willing to contemplate this truth: that the power that we chronically take for granted, will eventually, inevitably go the way of history as well?
wake in this new day
we will all die soon
let us live while we have the chance
while we have this day
to build and plot and devise
to create and make the world
this time for us
this time for all
this time the pharaohs must fall
Read that one around the seder table too.
I’m so proud to be part of a tradition, a people, a spiritual nation that has survived to outlast far mightier nations because it has affirmed a Power even greater. Greater than Pharaoh, greater than Babylon, even greater than the Roman empire that exiled us and dispersed our people throughout the diaspora, where this sacred vision was sown, took root and eventually blossomed forth.
May the story we tell tonight inspire us to be bearers of that vision in our lives and in our world.
All the best for a challenging and liberating Pesach.