Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Let my people go!

The night of the Passover Seder, the streets of Israel's cities were empty and deserted, and from the windows could be heard the singing of ancient hymns and passages from well-accustomed texts.

Slaves we were, now we are free. Slaves we were, now we are free!  With hard labor, with mortar and with bricks, and with all manner of service in the field the Egyptians embittered our fathers'  lives. We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and our God took us out from there with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm. And if He had not taken our fathers out of Egypt, then we, our children and our children's children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt. Not only our fathers did He redeem from Egypt, but also us did He redeem with them. Slaves we were, now we are free. Slaves we were, now we are free!

Already for forty-six year all these things have been read out and sung and chanted also by settlers in the Occupied Territories. Sitting down at armed enclaves surrounded by wire fences and walls and guarded by the soldiers of a mighty army, they told at length of slaves going out of bondage and into liberty. Did the echo of the singing reach the villages nearby whose land was confiscated and their springs clogged and their water taken away and their sons held behind bars and their roads blocked by military checkpoints?

In the city of Hebron Palestinians held a protest march, their faces covered with masks of Martin Luther King, the Black leader who was deeply inspired by the story of the Exodus. When the Palestinian disciples of Martin Luther King dared s to get closer to the fences of the settler enclave at the heart of Hebron, soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces attacked them and beat them up, sprinkling them with tear gas and dragging them into custody, so as to ensure they would not interfere with the settlers’ Passover festivities.

What is it which makes this Passover different from the forty five which preceded it, the forty five Passovers celebrated under an ongoing occupation and burgeoning settlement enterprise? This year, three days before Passover, we got a visit from Barack Hussein Obama. The Black man who managed to do what was long considered impossible and got elected President of the United States of America – elected, not just once but twice. The Black man who tried to remind us of the meaning of the holiday we are celebrating.

(...) I come to Israel on the eve of a sacred holiday – the celebration of Passover. And that is where I would like to begin today. Just a few days from now, Jews here in Israel and around the world will sit with family and friends at the Seder table, and celebrate with songs, wine and symbolic foods. After enjoying Seders with family and friends in Chicago and on the campaign trail, I’m proud to have brought this tradition into the White House. I did so because I wanted my daughters to experience the Haggadah, and the story at the center of Passover that makes this time of year so powerful.

It is a story of centuries of slavery, and years of wandering in the desert; a story of perseverance amidst persecution, and faith in God and the Torah. It is a story about finding freedom in your own land. For the Jewish people, this story is central to who you have become. But it is also a story that holds within it the universal human experience, with all of its suffering and salvation. It is a part of the three great religions – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – that trace their origins to Abraham, and see Jerusalem as sacred. And it is a story that has inspired communities around the globe, including me and my fellow Americans.

To African-Americans, the story of the Exodus told a powerful tale about emerging from the grip of bondage to reach for liberty and human dignity – a tale that was carried from slavery through the civil rights movement. For generations, this promise helped people weather poverty and persecution, while holding on to the hope that a better day was on the horizon. For me personally, growing up in far-flung parts of the world and without firm roots, it spoke to a yearning within every human being for a home.

 As Dr. Martin Luther King said on the day before he was killed – “I may not get there with you. But I want you to know that… we, as a people, will get to the promised land.”

For the Jewish people, the journey to the promise of the State of Israel wound through countless generations. It involved centuries of suffering and exile, prejudice, pogroms and even genocide. Through it all, the Jewish people sustained their unique identity and traditions, as well as a longing to return home. And while Jews achieved extraordinary success in many parts of the world, the dream of true freedom finally found its full expression in the Zionist idea – to be a free people in your homeland.”

“Peace is necessary. Indeed, it is the only path to true security. You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream, or you can face a growing challenge to its future. Given the demographics west of the Jordan River, the only way for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realization of an independent and viable Palestine. Given the frustration in the international community, Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation. And given the march of technology, the only way to truly protect the Israeli people is through the absence of war – because no wall is high enough, and no Iron Dome is strong enough, to stop every enemy from inflicting harm.

This truth is more pronounced given the changes sweeping the Arab World. Peace must be made among peoples, not just governments. No one step can change overnight what lies in the hearts and minds of millions. But progress with the Palestinians is a powerful way to begin. The Palestinian people’s right to self-determination and justice must also be recognized. Put yourself in their shoes – look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day. It is not just when settler violence against Palestinians goes unpunished. It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student’s ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer. Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land."

Thus spoke Moses Obama to the ears of Israel, the State of Israel which has long since become a collective Pharaoh while continuing to speak at length of the Exodus from Egypt. And the hundreds of young Israelis who heard the speech responded with a prolonged standing ovation.

So, maybe this time the story will be a bit different. Maybe this time  Pharaoh's heart would not be hardened. Maybe the Palestinians would go from bondage to liberty and from darkness into light and will be a free people in their own land, even without our waiting for ten plagues to come upon us.

Perhaps the most important thing we heard from Obama was: " Today, I want to tell you – particularly the young people – that so long as there is a United States of America, Ah-tem lo lah-vahd [you are not alone]. A promise very pleasing to the Israeli ear, but which contains - to those who can listen - also a warning and an alert. As long as the United States of America is there, we're not alone. But nowadays it is no longer science fiction to speak of the decline of America and reflect on the possibility that once upon a time the United States would no longer be the dominant power in the world. The day when the condition of the American Empire would approximate that of the British Empire and that even if it wanted to, America would not be able to offer much help to Israel. And should the Israeli Pharaoh continue to harden his heart until that moment, we might have to refer also to the  continuation of the story. Also to a mighty wave of water descending upon horse and rider.