When I was a kid learning about Pesach at school, the story we heard was more or less an analogy for the Zionist narrative. The oppressed Israelites fight against Pharaoh’s oppression—with God’s help of course—and then escape from the old land of slavery to the new promised land. In the process they also invade and colonise the people already living in Kna’an. This version of the story reflects the us vs. them mentality I grew up with. The Egyptians were the bad guys. They were our enemy. If their firstborn children died in the plague or if they drowned in the Red Sea, that really did serve them right.
Now when I celebrate Pesach I see it not as a festival of nationalism, but of liberation. I think of Shiphrah and Puah, the Egyptian midwives who risked their lives to protect Jewish babies from Pharaoh’s campaign of infanticide, even though as Egyptians they were benefiting from Israelite slavery. There’s an important lesson here about solidarity. It’s not really us Jews vs. them Goyim, it’s people who desire justice vs. people who are content to benefit from oppression.
Jewish feminists established the tradition of honouring the prophetess Miriam on Pesach. It’s said that when the Israelites were wandering in the desert, Miriam carried a magic cup that would refill with water each time it was emptied, and that is how the former slaves quenched their thirst. So we place Miriam’s cup on the seder table alongside Elijah’s cup, as a reminder that Jewish women have always played a central role in protecting and nurturing Jewish communities.
But this Pesach I had a different Miriam on my mind. Mariam actually. Twenty-year-old Mariam Barghouti is a Palestinian activist, translator, and student at Birzeit University. I know about her work from her excellent blog, and from her Twitter updates of protests in the West Bank.
A few days before Pesach, Mariam was arrested by the IDF in Nabi Saleh. According to a statement published by the ISM:
On Friday, April 11th, 2014, 20-year-old Mariam Barghouti, a university student at Birzeit, was arrested by Israeli forces. She was brought to court on Sunday, April 13th where she was charged and her detention extended until Wednesday, April 16th.
Mariam was arrested while leaving the village of Nabi Saleh. Mariam, along with Abir Kopty (a Palestinian with Israeli citizenship who was later released on bail), and three foreign journalists were detained by soldiers and searched. Mariam had been in Nabi Saleh accompanying some of the journalists on their assignments and translating for them. Soldiers on the scene fabricated charges against her and handed her over to the police who arrested her along with Abir. At her hearing yesterday Mariam was charged with stone-throwing and entering a closed military area; her detention has been extended until Wednesday. Mariam sobbed throughout the whole hearing and told her lawyer that the charges are simply lies.
Mariam is a student at Birzeit University where she is majoring in English Literature and Psychology. Mariam is also active in community work and organizing and received a two-month residency scholarship in the UK, part of a program supporting women.
Abir said that during the arrest incident on Friday, “one of the soldiers who detained us looked at me and with a big smile said, ‘I’m going to mess up your life.’ It was obvious to me then that not only will he fabricate everything for his own purposes, but he knows he has the power to do so.”
Mariam was released on bail on April 17, the third day of Pesach. 5224 other Palestinians are still imprisoned by Israel, including 210 children.
The day before Erev Pesach (actually it was Erev Pesach for me, New Zealand is about 24 hours ahead of the USA) a White supremacist and former KKK member named Frazier Glenn Cross shot and killed three people outside a Jewish Community Centre and a Jewish retirement community in Kansas.
The scary thing is, I wasn’t even that shocked when I heard about it. I know that during times of economic recession anti-Jewish racism grows. I see it all the time, even in supposedly leftist spaces like Occupy, or anti-asset sales protests: the banks are controlled by Rothchilds, John Key wants to privatise state assets because he’s a Jew. Anyone who’s ever read a history book knows that anti-Jewish racism can quickly escalate from scapegoating rhetoric to murder.
Most of the reactions to the shooting were predictable too. We had Zionists blaming Palestinians and BDS activists—as if there’s any connection between anti-colonial struggle and the KKK. We had anti-Semites blaming Israel—as if shooting Jews living in the USA is an act of resistance to Israeli apartheid. I’m used to this. Conflating the state of Israel with Jews worldwide is in the interest of both Zionists and Jew-haters, and they’re both opportunistic enough to exploit a horrific act of racist violence to reinforce their views.
The thing that did surprise me was the response of US media. Over and over and over I heard that the shooter’s motivations weren’t clear. The man was a White supremacist. He targeted Jewish sites. But no one would call this a racist attack. His motivations weren’t clear.
If Cross had carried out an act of racist violence against Muslims, or Arabs, or Sikhs, or Blacks, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see his racist motivations erased. I’m not stupid, I understand the role that mainstream media plays in perpetuating racism. Acts of violence committed by Whites are rarely attributed to a problem with White culture. They’re more likely to be seen as exceptional events perpetrated by a crazy individual.
I was surprised to see anti-Jewish violence treated the same way, because I’ve consistently been told that in America, Jews (at least Ashkenazim) are White. The USA is supposed to be the land of opportunity where Jews aren’t seen as outsiders or expected to give up our traditions and assimilate. At least that’s what I learned from films like Yentl and An American Tail, as well as conversations with both Jewish and Gentile Americans. But clearly Jews aren’t White enough to be protected from acts of racist violence.
It’s a good reminder that we shouldn’t confuse access to White power with liberation. Jews might be accepted into the fold of Whiteness when it suits the interests of White supremacy (for example when they can use us to perpetuate oppression of Muslims and Arabs) but our Whiteness is always provisional and can be taken away as political and economic circumstances change. Instead of seeking to become White we should be fighting to dismantle Whiteness.
This year I went to a seder organized by a Jewish discussion group I occasionally attend. I was apprehensive about going. I never feel like I belong at Jewish community events, mostly because of my opposition to Zionism and the state of Israel.
The seder was different from what I’m used to. There was no faux-chicken soup with kneidlach, we read the haggadah in English instead of Hebrew, and we didn’t sing Chad Gadya. There was much more talk of God than we have in my family, and less talk of politics.
There was also a different version of the Pesach story. In the story I learned at school, Jacob and his sons migrate to Egypt to seek relief from famine. Jacob’s descendants live peacefully in Egypt for several generations until a new Pharaoh decides that the Israelites are a threat and decrees that they will be slaves, and their sons will be killed. In the version I heard at this seder, Jacob’s son Joseph was responsible for stocking up on grains on Pharaoh’s behalf, which he then sold to the Egyptian peasants at inflated prices during the famine, forcing them into poverty. The Egyptians rebelled and installed a new Pharaoh, who enslaved the Israelites as punishment for Jacob’s greed. The story becomes very different when you look at it from the Egyptians’ point of view.
Halfway through the haggadah someone said that it felt hypocritical to be speaking about freedom when Palestinians are being colonised and oppressed by Israel. We had a short discussion about whether diaspora Jews bear any responsibility for Israel’s actions. No one wanted to get into an argument so we went back to the haggadah. But it was validating to know that other people there were thinking the same thing I was.
Pesach is a holiday of asking questions. So here are some questions:
What if the Israelites had chosen a different path? What if instead of organising as Israelites, they’d united with others who were being oppressed by Pharaoh? What if instead of escaping Egypt to a promised—but already inhabited—land, they’d worked to install an egalitarian form of government in Egypt? What if instead of organising as Jews today, we unite with others who are oppressed by White supremacy? What if instead of working to uphold a Jewish-supremacist colonial regime on Palestinian land, we fight racism and other forms of oppression right here where we stand? What kind of possibilities are there for a Jewish liberation movement that isn’t nationalist? What do we do now?