The very existence of the Jewish people is predicated on the notion that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. We were slaves in Egypt, we’re told, strangers in a strange land, and then we were freed – and it was only upon being freed that we could receive the Torah, learn who we are, and become a people.
The collective memory of that cruel oppression serves as the bedrock for all modern Jewish efforts to bend the universe’s arc yet further, in social justice movements anywhere and everywhere. We are called to remember our bondage, our strangeness, and act righteously toward those in need of God’s hand.
“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless, you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn,” we read in Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there.”
Every year, as I approach the celebration of our freedom, I cannot help but think of the more than four million souls – strangers to us – in the Palestinian territories, too many of them fatherless or widowed by Israeli hands. The dead, the hungry, those without medicine, those without hope – an entirely human-constructed calamity.
There are many arguments swirling around Israel’s control of Palestinian lands, many fears, many military concerns. I know that the conflict is, in fact, a conflict – too many of my fellow Israelis have been left fatherless and widowed at Palestinian hands as well, and the Palestinian leadership has made many bad decisions. I have no doubt that Israel will have to remain on its guard, should we finally do the right thing and release our strangle-hold on the lives of the strangers in our midst. Decades of mutually murderous rage do not end without leaving a mark.
But refusing to admit the power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, refusing to acknowledge our own guilt, refusing to admit that our real world actions have real world consequences, is simply not a moral alternative.
We seem to forget: One side of the equation is occupied, the other occupier. One side has the power to decide who and what goes in and out of Gaza, who and what goes where in the West Bank, and the other – the side that actually lives in in those places – does not.
To continue this way – to continue the occupation, and the stealing of land for settlements, and the blockade of Gaza, to continue policies that leave children hungry and parents without income, to continue treating the Palestinians as if they were somehow less human, less worthy of dignity, than we — is a shanda, a disgrace.
The occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and all they entail are an affront to all that is good and right about Judaism. They are an affront to Moses, and Sinai, and all those who have tried for centuries to remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land.
“And a stranger you shall not oppress,” we read in Exodus, the very book of our freedom, “for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”
We know the heart of the stranger, for we were once strangers ourselves.
May this be the Passover in which we choose to act on our own story, choose to know the heart of the stranger we have occupied for nearly 45 years, choose to remember the command given us by God as we stood before Him in the desert. May this be the Passover in which we choose to act, not as Pharaoh, but as Jews.
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