Pesach is my favorite Jewish holiday. The traditions are so rich and the Seder is the ultimate joyous, jubilant Jewish celebration: the symbols of the Seder plate, the smells and tastes of real Jewish food (I will put Margie’s golden chicken soup up against any in the world), the struggle with matzoh for eight days, the four cups, the laughter, the singing, Elijah. Those are all so memorable.
But it is the message that permeates the holiday that is so important. While the book of Exodus holds perhaps more of the basic concepts, precepts, commandments and narratives of the Torah than any other book, the Haggadah‘s lessons seem much narrower.
There are many different interpretations of the meaning of the story from the manifestation of The Lord acting directly in the world, to the molding of the Jewish people into a nation, to the miracles of the Passover and the parting of the Sea of Reeds itself. Yet to me the most straightforward and overriding message is simple:
- REMEMBER. You were slaves in Egypt
- RELIVE. How it felt to be enslaved. To be oppressed
- REPUDIATE. So that, You, personally, and, Jews as a people, will never become oppressors yourselves
Every Jewish holiday harks back to a connection with bedrock stories from the Jewish community’s past like the recitation of the Akedah and story of Jonah on the High Holidays, the Megillah on Purim, Akadmut and Ruth on Shavuot,, or the rededication of the Temple at Hanukkah. But the Seder and the Haggadah ask something of us that is wholly unique and of an entirely different nature than any other Jewish holiday. It specifically tells us that we must place ourselves inside the story – we must be in Egypt to feel the pain and oppression – and the redemption. This is one of the main lessons of the telling of the story of the Four Sons, which acts as an answer to Mah Nishtanah – Why is this night different from all other nights?
So why is it so important to more than sympathize, more than empathize, but to actually experience being slaves in Egypt? The answer seems straightforward. Each of us needs to understand what it is like to be oppressed so that we will never become oppressors ourselves. We must feel the weariness of the excruciating labor, the pain of the task masters’ whips, and shed the tears of a people without rights or freedom. Having lived through it ourselves, it should be unthinkable for Jews to oppress others. And lest we forget, we are commanded to relive our slavery each and every Pesah. We must understand the pain of the oppressed and the evil of the oppressor – so that we never allow the roles to be reversed.
One of the traditional prayers at the end of the Seder is “next year in Jerusalem”. The problem is that now when I look to Jerusalem, I see Israel occupying Arab neighborhoods. Pushing people out of homes that have been in their families for decades or longer. And beyond that, I see checkpoints, and identity cards, and political prisons. Most of all, I see one people subjugating another. This is not fantasy. This is reality for anyone who cares to take a look. But if an American Jew talks about it, he is told, “You have no right to criticize Israeli policy because you don’t live there. You don’t have to serve in the IDF. You don’t have to dive into bomb shelters when the sirens sound. You don’t have to fear that your children will be killed riding in a school bus.” That is so very true. And I am so sorry that life is indeed that dangerous for those living in Eretz Yisrael. But I am also sorry to say that I believe the Haggadah not only gives me the right, but also the obligation as a Jew, to speak out when I see fellow Jews oppressing another people. As Peter Beinart said when he spoke at Northwestern, “The morality of a people must not be measured when they are powerless. The question is how they act when they have the power.”
Anyone interested in the Israeli-Palestinian issue who didn’t hear Peter Beinart speak at Northwestern on Tuesday really missed something. Although the headline above looks like everyday hyperbole, if those who were there would have to agree that he captivated the near capacity audience for ninety minutes.
Beinart’s NY Review of Books June, 2010 article The Failure of the American Jewish Establishment sent a shock wave through the American Jewish community. Why this article has become a phenomenon among those who follow Jewish issues is not patently obvious. The ideas in it are not earth shatteringly unique. There are no secret papers uncovered. Not even any shocking off-the-record quotations. Instead, the article is simply so well written, its arguments so well documented, its organization so logical and compact that it strikes the reader (particularly those involved with the major American Jewish organizations that Beinart writes about) full in the chest like a hammer (one might say, a Hebrew Hammer – but that’s another story). And it certainly helps that he brings tremendous credibility as someone who comes from the Center Right, and who practices Modern Orthodoxy.
These same characteristics came through in his speaking. Not only his prepared remarks, but his answers to ad hoc questions were so well structured and economical that the listener was just carried along. It was amazing to me that he could construct responses to questions that were not only logical and understandable, but were chock full of facts, figures and quotations. This is a very rare gift. I have heard him speak several times, and regardless of the content, I find that listening to him speak, how he structures his points and arguments, is analogous to listening to Itzhak Perlman play the violin. Peter Beinart is simply a virtuoso.
But beyond admiring his intellectual and rhetorical abilities, what he is trying to tell us, the American Jewish community, is so very important. His main thesis can be summed up by a quote from that article:
For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.
Those in the Major American Jewish Organizations are at their own peril if they reject his analysis of the schism between today’s Jewish American youth and Israel. Since his article was published in NY Review of Books he has quickly become one of the most incisive commentators on what may turn out to be the most significant crisis in American Jewish history: the disaffiliation, disconnection and delusion of a majority of today’s non-Orthodox American Jewish Youth with Israel, and beyond that to their very Jewishness. Beinart’s ability to boil down complex themes and/or questions into an organized holistic answer – on the fly – is truly a gift. He is knowledgable, thoughtful, logical, insightful, understandable and direct, and quietly passionate. If you were not there, I urge you to be there when he returns. You will not be disappointed.
As many of you know, a group of former Israeli military and political leaders released an Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI) (full text here) on Tuesday to coincide with the visit to the United States of Shimon Peres, Israel’s President, and his meeting with President Obama. [Contrast that with what came from the Israeli government: a “coincidental” announcement by the Israeli Municipal Planning Commission that they had approved almost 1,000 new permits in the settlements]. The Initiative essentially combines elements of the Geneva Initiative of 2003 and the Arab League Initiative of 2002, but in substance doesn’t offer any dramatically different content.
But there was one thing different from anything that I have seen come out of either the Netanyahu administration, the PLA, or most of the “sense of Congress” letters (particularly those with the most signatures). That is the Preamble:
The State of Israel,
- Reaffirming that Israel’s strategic objective is to reach a historic compromise and permanent status agreements that shall determine the finality of all claims and the end of the Israeli Arab conflict, in order to achieve permanent and lasting peace, lasting and guaranteed security, regional economic prosperity and normal ties with all Arab and Islamic states,
- Recognizing the suffering of the Palestinian refugees since the 1948 war as well as of the Jewish refugees from the Arab countries, and realizing the need to resolve the Palestinian refugees problem through realistic and mutually agreed-upon solutions,
- Realizing that wide-scale multilateral economic cooperation is essential in order to ensure the prosperity of the Middle East, its environmental sustainability and the future of its peoples,
- Recognizing the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002 (API) as a historic effort made by the Arab states to reach a breakthrough and achieve progress on a regional basis, and sharing the API statement “that a military solution to the conflict will not achieve peace or provide security for the parties,”
This statement not only reflects the truth, but also a fresh breath of humility. Both the Palestinian and the Israeli governments claim to want peace, but inevitably each of their statements contain some element of accusation about the other side – whether the attack is overt or covert, or just in a related context [viz., the housing announcement referenced above]. And you know what? Usually those accusations are correct. But is that any way to actually get to peace? At the same time that you claim to be reaching out to your adversary, you excoriate them for everything that they have done. While there are plenty of excoriations to go around, the point is that you have to move beyond the past, and even the present, to the future. The Palestinians and the Israelis will only make peace when they can both envision a different, more productive, more secure life for the region. That is precisely the vision conjured up by the those behind the IPI.
One other thing that I like about this proposal is that it bases itself on the Arab Peace Initiative (API). While the API is not perfect, it does recognize the reality on the ground and makes several important philosophical concessions. But it is extremely significant that the drafters of the IPI chose to reference the API. It gives important recognition and respect to the other side’s views. Again, that is a crucial element that has been missing from the Israeli, Palestinian and mainstream American Jewish messaging. Without respect for the other, reconciliation is impossible.