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Whose Freedom?

The first Passover was a bloody one

The first Passover was a bloody one, the Bible says. God spent the whole night killing off first-born males all over Egypt. But He told every Israelite family to slaughter a lamb and smear its blood on their door, so that He could recognize the Israelites’ houses and “pass over” them, sparing their eldest sons. When dawn came, the Jews exited from slavery to freedom.

God also told the Israelites to keep on sacrificing lambs on that same day every year, on Passover, to commemorate their great escape.

This year’s Passover in the Holy Land was a bloody one, too. Nowadays, God doesn’t do the killing. The Jewish state has its own Army, the IDF, to do the job.

Israelis spent the first day of Passover reading headline stories about 15-year-old Mohammad Zeid Al Farmawi, shot dead by the IDF, according to Palestinian sources. (The IDF but denied the death report). I don’t know if Mohammad was a first-born son. But his mother and father are surely crying tears as bitter as any the Israelites ever shed. Mohammad was apparently this year’s sacrificial paschal lamb.

A nine-year-old boy was severely wounded in the same incident, along with numerous others injured.

Their crime? They wanted to leave Gaza for a day to join the throngs throughout Israel celebrating Land Day. On the first Land Day in 1976, a protest against Israel’s expropriation of Arab-owned land, six Palestinians were shot dead. Since then, Land Day has become a worldwide occasion for Palestinian protest against Israeli injustices.

Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, supposedly the most moderate and “pragmatic” of Palestinian leaders, used a horse-drawn plow to dig a furrow in protest against Israeli control of Palestinian land. “This is a symbol of our complete rejection of settlers’ plans and of our people’s determination to hold onto and care for their land,” he said. “Our people are deeply rooted here.”

This year, by an eerie coincidence, Land Day fell on the first day of Passover. Both are proclaimed as festivals of freedom. Yet, the differences between the two could hardly be more striking. Passover celebrates a legendary escape from near tragedy. Land Day marks continuing tragedy. On Passover, a tender, innocent lamb, held in captivity with no way to escape, substitutes for human death. On Land Day, real humans insist on seeking escape from their captivity, and some die seeking that right.

Another difference, perhaps the most important, now: Despite the sometimes bitter political differences among Palestinians, Land Day is one day that all unite around the fundamental commitments that bind them together: justice and an independent state for Palestinians, resistance to all the forces that prevent them from achieving those goals.

On the Jewish Israeli side, though, this Passover brings a notable lack of political unity. It’s reflected in competing interpretations of the Jewish holiday that appeared in the Israeli press on the first day of Passover.

From the right, journalist Moshe Dann paints President Obama as the new pharaoh, the hard-hearted oppressor of the Jews. But that’s not a bad thing, Dann says. The pharaoh’s cruelty awakened the Jews to their unity as a people and their spiritual destiny: “the conquest and settlement of the Land of Israel as the fulfillment of divine commandments.” Obama’s “hard-heartedness” and “wrath” against the Jews can now do the same.

Not all Israeli right-wingers are inspired by religious concerns, though, far from it. The editors of the rather conservative Jerusalem Post used Passover to call for the abolition of the office of chief rabbi, the most powerful religious post in Israel. “One of the themes of the Exodus story is freedom,” the Post’s editorial explained. Judaism needs “freedom from mistaken self-conceptions, dogmatism, and old modes of thinking,” to which the chief rabbinate is enslaved.

But the Post’s reason is most revealing: “This is the only conclusion any clear-headed observer, concerned about the way Judaism is being represented in the public domain, can draw.” Indeed, Israelis across the political spectrum are increasingly worried, some even obsessed, by their fears about Israel’s public image.

The widely read Israeli daily Yedioth Aharonot used Passover to publish a warning from its columnist Eitan Haber: “The State of Israel’s global status has been deteriorating to the point of genuine danger.” U.S. governments never recognized Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza “and never recognized a united Jerusalem,” he pointed out. “Obama is presenting us with the bill of all American administrations.”

Haber is no fan of Obama, but he, like so many Israeli commentators, knows where the power is: “Obama is exaggerating, conducting himself too harshly, and insulting us – yet we’re no angels either. Besides, Obama is allowed to do it. He’s America. How many times this week did you hear and read that joke about the eight-ton elephant that can sit down anywhere it wishes? Well, Obama sat down on us this week.”

Yedioth Aharonoth also printed this comment, more friendly to Obama, by Alon Pinkas, Israel’s former consul general in New York: “The Arab world and Europeans are watching Netanyahu’s visit to Washington and Israel’s isolation will grow.” To avoid isolation, “two strategic Israeli interests are overwhelming here: Firstly, preserving the alliance with the US while undertaking adjustments that would reflect an understanding of US interests; secondly, a diplomatic process vis-à-vis the Palestinians.” Since Obama is actively promoting both, Pinkas concluded, he’s “pro-Israel,” protecting Israel’s image and interests along with his own country’s interests too.

In the more liberal Israeli paper Ha’aretz, just before Passover, the widely respected Jewish Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar took a harsher tone. He warned, “the plague of darkness has struck modern Israelites…. The Israeli public have been living in the darkness of the occupation, which some call liberation.”

His scathing column accused Israelis of damaging their public image by “stumbling about in pitch darkness, bumping blindly into anyone in their way as they head toward the edge of the precipice. Warm friends, cool friends, icy enemies: Jordan and Turkey, Brazil and Britain, Germany and Australia – it’s all the same. And if that’s not enough, the myopic Jewish state also has gone and collided head-on with the ally that offers existential support,” the United States. Israel, he concluded, “has become its own greatest threat.”

Eldar also dug up a buried gem, a note from the legal adviser to Israel’s Foreign Ministry written to his prime minister in 1967, just months after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza. He pointed out the categorical prohibition against civilian settlement in occupied territories, under the Fourth Geneva Convention, and then added: “There is great sensitivity in the world today about the whole question of Jewish settlement in the occupied territories, and any legal arguments that we try to find will not remove the heavy international pressure, from friendly states as well.”

Eldar is among the growing minority of Israelis who are glad for mounting international pressure for peace. But he concluded with an ominous warning: “When we read the Passover Haggadah, we should note the plague that follows darkness. That may open our eyes.” The plague that follows is the slaying of the first-born males. As it turned out though, apparently, the slain male was not Israeli, but Palestinian.

The debate about the meaning of Passover indicates that political opinion in Israel is open to change. The political climate here in the US is changing too, both among Jews and among the general public.

That bellwether of elite opinion, The New York Times, celebrated Passover with op-eds from both of its Jewish foreign affairs pundits. Thomas Friedman pronounced an Israeli-Palestinian settlement “a necessity” for the United States; Roger Cohen praised Obama’s tough stance against Israel and rightly claimed that “already, there are shifts in Israeli attitudes as a result of the new American clarity.”

The Israelites spent 40 years in the wilderness, according to the Bible story. Palestinians have now spent 43 years in the wilderness of occupation. Despite all the continuing tragedy, there are glimmers of hope. The change is coming.

But it is painfully slow – too slow, it seems, to protect innocent Palestinian children from being sacrificed.

Sacrificed to what? To Israeli power and the need so many Israelis feel for an enemy to dominate. For too many Israelis, that need outweighs even the importance of Israel’s image, said Avraham Burg, the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, in his Passover reflection in Ha’aretz: “Passover and its customs are imbued with a defensive sort of spirituality and imagined aggression…. The exhortation for God to ‘pour out thy wrath’ upon the gentiles is meant to give the impression of fearlessness when facing any enemy.” And it does give a “momentary delusion of power” – as long as there is an imagined enemy out there to face.

The defining question for Jews, Burg said, is: “Can the Jewish people survive without an enemy from without … without a pharaoh?” One option is “seclusion and the building of even higher walls to separate the Jewish people from the rest of the world, all the while creating perpetual conflicts that will repeatedly prove that ‘the entire world is against us'” -even though, as he added, this tough stance is “in reality an expression of fear.”

However Burg speaks for all those Jews – and there are plenty of them, though not yet enough – who choose “a victory of human rights over a lust for conquest … a victory over fear and terror.” He calls on Israelis to embrace real freedom – “the freedom to create dialogue with, and acceptance of, the ‘other’ who opposes me” – because “only the liberation of the ‘other’ from my enslavement of him will bring about my liberation from his slavery. The lord and the slave, like prisoner and prison guard, are both captive in the same facility.”

Ha’aretz columnist Bradley Burston echoed Burg. Burston would have Jews read the traditional text not as a call for God to pour out his wrath on enemies, but as a call to all Jews to “let go of your wrath, let it drain out and be gone…. The freed person in us is justly terrified by the path to a shared Jerusalem…. But it is the freed person in us who takes the first step on to that uncertain path. And, in so doing, for the first time, knows what it is to be free.”

So, Israelis are reading a new message: As long as Palestinians are captives, Israelis can never be free.

And as long as the US supports the Israeli occupation policy, Americans can never be free.

Perhaps, Barack Obama understands that. In his Passover message, he said, “wherever we live, there is oppression to be fought and freedom to be won … In retelling this story from generation to generation, we are reminded of our ongoing responsibility to fight against all forms of suffering and discrimination … [and] we reaffirm the ties that bind us all.”

Obama’s latest comment on the Middle East sounds like he means it: “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu understands that he will have to ‘take some bold steps.'” That’s a diplomatic way of saying that Netanyahu had better understand.

Is it just empty rhetoric? Or will the “eight-ton elephant” put all his weight behind it? That depends on how the White House assesses the domestic political climate. It’s up to all of us to deliver a Passover message to the president, loud and clear: Next year, in an equitably shared and peaceful Jerusalem, it is time to let all of our peoples go.

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