Happy 5775. Here’s to a year of love, a year of solidarity, a year of justice, a year of liberation, a year of dachshunds and vegan donuts.
Tag Archives: Judaism
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.
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?
I love stuffing my face with latkes and donuts—you can’t beat a holiday dedicated to fried food.
I love the smell of Hannukah candles burning. It evokes childhood memories of celebrating at my grandparents’ house, all the cousins playing together while the grownups drink whiskey and discuss politics.
I love playing dreidl with my non-Jewish friends and laughing at them struggling to differentiate between נ and ג.
But mostly I just love a good story, and Hannukah comes with a great story. It’s got an oppressive occupying army, and a brave guerrilla struggle, and a miraculous victory against all the odds.
Like all good stories, it develops and adapts as circumstances demand. The version I grew up with was all about nationalism and military might and God’s greatness:
The Greek military (technically they were Syrian but why let historical accuracy interfere with the story), led by King Antiochus, had occupied Judea. Antiochus forced the Jews to worship Greek gods. He placed a statue of Zeus in the temple of Jerusalem, destroyed the holy oil used to light the Menorah (the seven-branch lamp in the temple) and demanded that Jews sacrifice pigs to the Greek gods (not kosher and mean to pigs). In the town of Modi’in, one brave man named Mattityahu (yup like the rapper) the Hasmonean and his five sons stood up to Antiochus and led a rebellion. They became known as the Maccabees. They lived in caves and ate carob and had a bunch of military victories until they liberated the temple itself. They cleaned out the temple and were ready to rededicate it, but all the holy oil had been desecrated. After much searching our illustrious heroes found one tiny jar of oil, enough to burn for one day. It would take eight days to make more oil. They lit the lamp anyway (I never understood why they didn’t just wait a week til they could get more oil) and miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days.
You can see how this story fits into Israel’s nationalist narrative: The brave pious warriors fighting for Jewish self-determination, the cruel and powerful enemy that surrounds the Jews on all sides, but most of all the way the Jews won against their enemies, not because they had the support of the world’s largest superpower, but because they had God on their side.
Luckily I am a champion at tactical reading. If I don’t like a story I just rewrite it in my head. What resonates with me about the story of Hannukah isn’t the nationalism or religious zealotry. It’s the idea that people will always resist economic and cultural colonisation, and that eventually they will win. This is an important message, particularly in relation to the current Israeli colonisation of Palestine.
There’s another important lesson we should learn from the Hannukah story. The Maccabees defeated Antiochus and established a Hasmonean dynasty that ruled for a hundred years. Eventually the Hasmonean regime became as oppressive as Antiochus had been and began persecuting the rabbis. I read this as a warning about the dangers of nationalism. The Maccabee rebellion was motivated by Jewish nationalism, not by a desire for liberation. What started out as a movement for freedom from oppression eventually became oppressive towards others. Again, there are obvious parallels with the Zionist movement.
The lesson I take from this story, is that solidarity should be based in ethics, not identity. If my solidarity is with the Jews because I am a Jew, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will also stand with Jews when they oppress others in the name of Jewishness. If this is the basis of my politics, then I cannot expect solidarity from anyone who is not Jewish.
However, if my solidarity is with the oppressed against the oppressors, then I will stand with Jews against anti-Jewish oppression, and I will stand against any Jews who oppress others—even if they do so in the name of Jewishness. It means I stand with diaspora Jewish communities against anti-Semitism and I also stand with Palestinians against Zionism and I expect solidarity from both Jews and non-Jews in that stand.
If I were writing a sappy daytime TV special about a group of kids who go on a magical quest to discover the true meaning of Hannukah, this would be the conclusion: Hannukah is about resistance to oppression, it’s about decolonisation, and it’s about the dangers of nationalism and fanaticism.
This Pesach was the first one in my life that I haven’t attended a Seder. I could’ve made plans for the holiday if I’d thought of it in advance, but life has been getting ahead of me lately and it’s hard enough remembering to get out of bed and eat something, let alone make travel plans to see my family.
Instead, I watched the documentary Free Voice of Labour: The Jewish Anarchists.
It’s perfect Pesach viewing. I felt like I was getting a peek at this secret hidden Jewish culture that no one remembers anymore. It was a culture built on the experience of racism and capitalist exploitation, built by migrants who were shocked by the shitty living conditions in their new country. Their response wasn’t to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps; they didn’t try to be model minorities. They created a class struggle movement based on Yiddish culture and anarchist ideals.
I find it reassuring to be reminded that Zionism was never the only Jewish response to oppression. One of the things that struck me about the Jewish anarchists interviewed is that none of them mention Zionism, they barely even talk about Israel. It’s as if it didn’t enter their consciousness at all. It’s so different from the compulsory Zionism of mainstream Jewish culture today.
Free Voice of Labour also has an excellent soundtrack. I fully recommend watching the whole film if you get a chance.
After I watched The Free Voice of Labour I made some toast and thought about the custom of putting bread on the Seder plate, as a commentary on the idea that ‘there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate’. I told myself I was eating chametz on Pesach as an act of solidarity with all those marginalised by the Jewish mainstream. But actually it was because I had nothing else in the cupboard and the supermarket was shut for Good Friday.
I think Pesach holds a really mixed significance for me. It’s an important family time, and family times are always stressful and full of conflict. Every year I tell myself that it’s not worth the hassle, and next year I should just stay home. But sitting alone at home on Friday I realised that I actually really miss them.
The holiday itself is also imbued with a mixed significance. We celebrate the struggle of the Israelite slaves against slavery, the escape from Mitzrayim to the promised land of Canaan. There is no mention of the people who were already living in Canaan, who were conquered by the invading Israelites. It echoes the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment: The survivors of genocide and anti-Semitism escape to the promised land and establish their own state. No mention of the Palestinian people ethnically cleansed from this land (incidentally, today is the 64th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre).
+972 Magazine published an interesting commentary on Pesach and the construction of a nationalist Jewish identity. I agree with Matar’s analysis of the Latma video (which is both hilarious and disturbing). It’s worth remembering that there is a historical reason for the ‘nationalistic ethos of Jews looking out for one another as a group no matter what’. It comes from a time when Jews were oppressed on the basis of our ethnicity, and our survival depended on solidarity with each other. We had to stick together in the face of anti-Semitic persecution. Somehow that solidarity mutated into the sense that our loyalty is first and foremost to other Jews, even when they’re guilty of horrific crimes against other peoples. The lesson here being that solidarity should not be based on national or ethnic identity, it should be based on supporting oppressed people against oppressors.
This is why I’m reluctant to let the Zionists have Pesach. The story of people’s struggle against racism and slavery is too powerful to let them ruin it for me. Although I would like to expand that story so there’s space for the experiences of non-Jewish people too.
It seems portentous that the new year coincides with the Palestinian Authority’s doomed attempt to gain UN recognition for a Palestinian state. I assume it’s G-d’s way of letting us know the new year will contain the same bullshit as the old year. It seems like nothing ever changes around here, or rather, the more things change the worse off Palestinians are.
I want to write more later about the response within Israel to the possibility of a UN recognised Palestinian state, especially Netanyahu’s speech.
But since it’s nice to start the new year off on a happy note, here’s the Unternationale singing Oy ir narishe tsienistn:
Today is the 15th of Nisan on the Jewish calendar, which means it’s the eve of Pesach. Pesach being the Jewish festival commemorating the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. You all know the story right? Pharaoh enslaves the Israelite minority, forces them to build pyramids for him, orders the sons killed at birth (which doesn’t quite make sense, cause he has a good economic incentive to keep reproducing the slave population). Baby Moses’s mum leaves him floating in the Nile, where he’s found by Pharaoh’s daughter who raises him as her son. As an adult, Moses is approached by God, in the guise of a burning bush, who orders him to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Ten gruesome plagues later Moses and the Israelites are walking out of Egypt, towards Canaan. I’m sure you’ve all watched the movies.
When I was a kid this was my most hated holiday, because it mostly involved sitting at the dinner table for hours, listening to grown ups read from a book in an archaic language I didn’t really understand, getting hungrier and hungrier, waiting for the whole ritual to be finished so we could finally eat.
Now that I am a grown up (or at least pass for one), it’s become my favourite Jewish holiday. Because if you ignore the whole God-will-save-you-from-oppression thing, it’s actually a really inspiring story about an oppressed group of people fighting for their liberation. So for me, it’s very much a holiday for celebrating liberation struggles everywhere.
Of course, there are some problematic aspects to the Pesach story. Not least of which, is the part where the ancient Israelites, having been delivered from slavery to freedom, having spent forty years wandering in the desert eating nothing but manna, arrive at the Promised Land of Canaan and proceed to murder and colonise the local population. Not exactly the heartwarming ending I like my anarchist fairy tales to have. I see this as a cautionary tale: it reminds us how easily the oppressed who are fighting for freedom can go on to become oppressors themselves.
This tale reflects the story of modern Ashkenazi Jews, a persecuted minority in Europe, delivered into freedom (if you can call it that…) who arrive at the Promised Land of Canaan, now called Palestine, and proceed to murder and colonise the indigenous population. It’s hard to celebrate Pesach and not think of the ongoing liberation struggle in Palestine today.
Which is why the first part of my Pesach offering is this poem by Aharon Shabtai:
Instead of scalding
your pots and plates,
take steel wool
to your hearts:
You read the Haggadah
like swine, which
if put before a table
would forage about in the bowl
for parsley and dumplings.
is stronger than you are.
Go outside and see:
the slaves are rising up,
a brave soul
is burying its oppressor
beneath the sand.
Here is your cruel,
dispatching his troops
with their chariots of war,
and here is the sea of Freedom,
which swallows them.
It used to be, that Pesach also marked the beginning of the new year, what with it being springtime in the northern hemisphere and all. So part two of my offering is this poem by Martín Espada:
Imagine the Angels of Bread
This is the year that squatters evict landlords,
gazing like admirals from the rail
of the roofdeck
or levitating hands in praise
of steam in the shower;
this is the year
that shawled refugees deport judges
who stare at the floor
and their swollen feet
as files are stamped
with their destination;
this is the year that police revolvers,
stove-hot, blister the fingers
of raging cops,
and nightsticks splinter
in their palms;
this is the year
that darkskinned men
lynched a century ago
return to sip coffee quietly
with the apologizing descendants
of their executioners.
This is the year that those
who swim the border’s undertow
and shiver in boxcars
are greeted with trumpets and drums
at the first railroad crossing
on the other side;
this is the year that the hands
pulling tomatoes from the vine
uproot the deed to the earth that sprouts the vine,
the hands canning tomatoes
are named in the will
that owns the bedlam of the cannery;
this is the year that the eyes
stinging from the poison that purifies toilets
awaken at last to the sight
of a rooster-loud hillside,
pilgrimage of immigrant birth;
this is the year that cockroaches
become extinct, that no doctor
finds a roach embedded
in the ear of an infant;
this is the year that the food stamps
of adolescent mothers
are auctioned like gold doubloons,
and no coin is given to buy machetes
for the next bouquet of severed heads
in coffee plantation country.
If the abolition of slave-manacles
began as a vision of hands without manacles,
then this is the year;
if the shutdown of extermination camps
began as imagination of a land
without barbed wire or the crematorium,
then this is the year;
if every rebellion begins with the idea
that conquerors on horseback
are not many-legged gods, that they too drown
if plunged in the river,
then this is the year.
So may every humiliated mouth,
teeth like desecrated headstones,
fill with the angels of bread.
My mother likes to say that every Jewish holiday can be summarized in nine words: They Wanted To Kill Us, We Won, Let’s Eat. So part three is this recipe for vegan kneidalach (matzoh balls) from the Post Punk Kitchen. I make these every year and they are delicious (though not strictly kosher according to Ashkenazi tradition). Be’teavon.
The traditional toast at Pesach is, ‘le’shana ha’ba’a be’yerushalayim habnuya,’ next year, in Jerusalem rebuilt. In this day and age I’d say this phrase has more relevance to Palestinians than it does to Jews. My Pesach toast is ‘le shana ha’ba’a be’falastin ha’bnuya.’
Next year in Palestine rebuilt.
Gordon Campbell published a piece last week’s criticising John Key’s support for Mubarak in Egypt. It begins,
‘All very well that John Key is New Zealand’s third Jewish prime minister…’
Which reminds me of a lot of the discourse in New Zealand during the Israeli Air Force assault on Gaza in December 2008 – January 2009, which maintained that John Key was supporting the Israeli government because John Key is Jewish.
Now, if John Key was a socialist and a humanitarian known for his solidarity with people’s liberation movements worldwide, then I could see how his support for the Israeli state would seem unusual. But John Key is the leader of the New Zealand National Party, an organisation dedicated to upholding capitalism and Western imperialism. So his support of repressive regimes in Israel and Egypt is not some strange aberration. It is completely consistent with his political stance on everything else (and personally I think that the reason he’s framed this issue as being all about Israel is that he’s a moron who knows sweet fuck all about the Middle East, and is regurgitating American foreign policy lines in an effort to hide his ignorance).
Like John Key, I am Jewish. In many ways I am more stereotypically Jewish than John Key. Both my parents are Jewish, I was brought up in Israel, I speak Hebrew fluently, I celebrate Jewish holidays and I fix a mean bowl of vegan matzoh ball soup.
Unlike John Key, I am an anarchist and a communist. Which means that I am opposed to capitalism and Western imperialism, I support Palestinian struggles for self determination and I support the current Egyptian uprising against Mubarak.
Like John Key, my stance on Middle East politics is informed by my political views, not my ethnicity. To say that John Key’s political stance is based on his Jewish ethnicity is antisemitic. It assumes that all Jews share the same political views simply because we are Jews. Antisemitism is not OK. Seriously. Just because Zionists accuse anyone who supports Palestinian liberation of antisemitism does mean that it’s suddenly cool to be antisemitic. I get tired of saying this.
Now here, for your reading pleasure, are some other Jews who don’t share John Key’s opinion of Egyptian politics. I disagree with a lot of their analysis. This is because Jews are a diverse group of individuals who share a common sense of identity, not a common political analysis.
First of all, there’s Michael Warschawski’s piece on the Alternative Information Centre’s website, which is always a good source of info on Palestinian and Israeli politics.
This opinion piece by Roy Arad published in Ha’aretz criticises the hypocrisy of supporting democracy for Westerners but not for Arabs.
+972 also has some good commentary. Mati Shemoelof challenges the idea that Israel is a democracy. Yossi Gurvitz asks why people are so preoccupied with Islamic fundamentalism and not Jewish fundamentalism.
Outside Israel, Al Jazeera published a piece by Michael Lerner supporting the Egyptian revolt. Jew on this has a good critique of it, which also applies to a lot of the above articles (they also have a good range of links on the uprising).
Finally, my pal David Sheen put together this video of a solidarity demo in Tel Aviv. It gives you some idea of the racism and ignorance of the Israeli public. Which to be fair isn’t much different to the racism and ignorance of the New Zealand public. And another video of a different solidarity demo, which gives you some idea of the connections people are making between struggles in Egypt and Palestine/Israel.