At Seder, a Different Image for Israel : To Ignore Palestinian Cry Is to Invite Plagues of Pharaoh

<i> Arthur Waskow is a faculty member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia and the author of "Seasons of Our Joy" (Summit, 1985) and "The Freedom Seder" in Ramparts Magazine (1969). </i>

For millennia the Passover Seder has given the Jewish people a mirror of ourselves. In that mirror we have seen a band of slaves who, with God’s help, resisted Pharaoh and won perhaps the first great human victory for freedom. Because of that mirror we have kept on seeing ourselves, not once but in every generation as those who continue to resist all Pharaohs.

But this year the Seder will be different from all others Seders. When we look into its mirror we will see, as always, the image of ourselves as those who resisted Pharaoh. But shadowed in the mirror’s depths will be another image: a hint of Pharaoh’s own grim countenance within our own, a fear that some element of Pharaoh may live within us, too, a fear that we might learn to act like Pharaoh.

For this past year we have known that another people--the Palestinians of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip--are seeking to win their freedom: their freedom from us.


We feel their pain--the present suffering of people, including children, who are not only created in the image of God like all human beings but who in some ways are part of our own larger family; a family caught in rage and fear, precisely because both branches glimpse and fear the family resemblance.

Why family? It is not only biblical archetype and tradition, teaching that the one people are the children of Abraham through his wife Hagar and their son Ishmael, and the other the children of Abraham through his wife Sarah and their son Isaac. In the present, the two peoples have had an agonizing family resemblance--each loving the same land, each denying the other’s right to the land. Only recently have the Palestinians given up their desire to drive out their cousins, and instead called out the ancient cry, “Let our people go!”

Now that they have, more and more Jews are remembering what happens when a government ignores that cry. We fear that if Israeli policy toward the Palestinians does not change, then upon Israel itself and the Jewish people may be visited such plagues as grew from the hardheartedness and hardheadedness of Pharaoh, when he ignored that outcry. These were plagues that did not end until Pharaoh and his army lay defeated, shattered on the Red Sea sands.

What is the career of Pharaoh? At first, he hardens his own heart against the sufferings of the Israelites and their demands for freedom. When they persist and when God--the very truth and power of the universe--closes in upon him with the first few plagues, he hardens his heart and head still more.

And then God takes over. Pharaoh loses the ability to choose. Even when his own advisers say to him, “You are destroying Egypt!” he cannot change. Now it is God who hardens his heart--against the sufferings of the Egyptians as well as those of the Israelites. Now God--Reality--is turning Pharaoh’s rigidity, which he thinks will save him, into what will actually destroy him. What began as choice ends as addiction.

For this past year the government of Israel has chosen hardness, over and over--even though 54% of the Israeli public now supports talking with the PLO to see whether it is serious about making peace with Israel. As a result, plagues have begun to descend upon Israel. Disaffection among Israeli Arabs. Disaffection in the army, where some officers have refused to serve in the occupied territories. Disaffection in American public opinion. Economic strains.

If we want to prevent the recent choices of hardheartedness from becoming an addiction to hardheartedness, the addiction that brings down even worse plagues upon us, what must we do?

What would be a cautious and openhearted policy on the part of the Israeli government? It could simply say that it accepts, as a victory for Israel and for common sense, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s long-delayed recognition of Israel; that it sees as its own goal the achievement of legal and physical guarantees of Israeli security (for example, through demilitarization of the West Bank and Gaza), and that without prejudging the question of diplomatic recognition, it is ready to meet informally with representatives of the new Palestinian “state” in order to discuss the conditions under which formal negotiations might occur.

And we American Jews--what do we do? If our goal is real change, we must keep in mind how vigorous we were and how effective we became when we insisted that the Israeli government forgo making changes in the “Who is a Jew” laws. Everything we did then would be relevant now.

Where do we begin? Passover is upon us. In that great mirror of our peoplehood, we must create a version of ourselves that is not Pharaoh and is not Pharaoh’s victim, which instead reaches out to our cousins, the children of Abraham and Hagar.

In the great Passover tradition, let us ask ourselves these questions:

--Why is this Passover night different from every other?

Because on every other Passover, we call out to another people--”Let our people go!”--and tonight another people calls out to us: “Let our people go!”

--Why does the Torah teach: “When a stranger lives-as-a-stranger with you in your land, you shall not oppress him. The stranger who lives-as-a-stranger ( hager hagar ) with you shall be as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself.

“For you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

--Why do we break the matzo in half?

Because the bread of affliction becomes the bread of freedom when we share it. Because the land that gives bread to two peoples must be divided in two, so that both peoples may eat of it. So long as one people grasps the whole land, it is a land of affliction. When each people can eat from part of the land, it will become a land of freedom.

--Why do we dip herbs twice, once in salt water and once in sweet charoset?

For the tears of two peoples, Israeli and Palestinian; for the sweetness of two peoples, Palestinian and Israeli; for the future of both peoples, who must learn not to repeat the sorrows of the past but to create the joys of the future.

--Why is there an egg upon the Pesach plate?

It is the egg of birthing. When we went forth from Egypt-- Mitzrayim , the Narrow Place--and came to break the waters of the Red Sea, it was the birth time of our people, the People of Israel; and today we are witnessing the birth of freedom for another people, the People of Palestine.

And at the Seder table this Passover, perhaps we can begin to explore a new theology of the land, one that would understand it as twice-promised land, both to the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael. Promised twice as a test put to both peoples: Can we, precisely because we are intended to be in some sense “model” or “chosen” peoples, learn to share this little land so that the many peoples of the human race can learn to share the great unboundaried Earth?