Each and every year, at precisely this time of year, I find myself struggling with the question of who owns Jewish history.
It sounds like an odd question, I know. In a sense, it is. But what I mean is that there are some chapters of our history that are so imprinted on the broader consciousness of western civilization that it often feels as if we have handed over our historical experience to the rest of the world, to use as it pleases.
And the reason why I undertake this annual intellectual exercise at this time of year is because the example par excellence of the phenomenon is tied in to the story of the Exodus and the holiday of Passover.
“From enslavement to redemption” is the central theme of the celebration of Passover. We recall, amidst painstakingly elaborate rituals, how our ancient ancestors were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt, and how God, hearing their pleas, redeemed them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm.”
By most scholarly reckonings, this transition from enslavement to redemption was the true beginning of Jewish peoplehood and our history as a nation. The story of Passover is the story of a particular people- our ancestors- at a particular time in history, undergoing a particular series of events. It is, I would say, our history, and we own it.
Having said that, however, one would have to admit that, as metaphors go, “from enslavement to redemption” has been, through time, one of the most widely and liberally used means of expressing the struggle of oppressed peoples seeking to be freed of the shackles imposed on them by others.
What immediately comes to mind, at least for me, is the deep bass voice of a man singing the words of the classic Negro spiritual: “Go down, Moses, way down to Egypt-land. Tell old Pharaoh, to let my people go.” The struggle of African Americans to be liberated from their enslavement by white people was, of course, epic, and arguably continues until this day. When they sang about Moses saying “Let my people go,” it resonated with them. They were the modern-day Israelites, and their struggle was one of biblical proportions. Right was on their side.
Similarly, black South Africans invoked the metaphor as they struggled to break free from the cruel yoke of apartheid. Nelson Mandela used it with great effectiveness, and invoked it as well- unhappily for friends of Israel- in describing the struggle of the Palestinian people to be freed from what they saw as Israeli occupation of their lands.
There are many more examples, all similar in one way or another. But this year, the nightly news has provided us with perhaps the most ironic examples of our history being co-opted by others- ironic in the literal sense of the word.
As hundreds of thousands of people were gathering in Tahrir Square in Cairo, seeking to be freed, once and for all, from the oppressive, authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak, I couldn’t help but notice that one (at least one, that I saw) protester was carrying a sign emblazoned with the words “Let my people go!”
“Whoa,” I thought to myself; “I need a few minutes to wrap my brain around this!” Egyptians using the language of the ancient exodus from Egypt to frame their own, twenty-first century struggles for liberation. How surreal is that!
But as we all know by now, first it was Tunisia, then Egypt, and still, even as I write, there are ongoing demonstrations in Syria- Syria! There has been unrest as well in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and even Iran. I sort of doubt that anyone in those countries is carrying a sign saying “Let my people go,” but of course, even if they were, we would never see it. The governments of those countries would never allow foreign media that close to an anti-government demonstration.
I think it would make excellent grist for the mill at our Seders this year to ponder the question of how uniquely our own Jewish history needs to be. On the one hand, being a “light unto the nations,” as Isaiah would challenge us to be, essentially requires us to lend our history and its lessons to all who might learn and grow from them. But then again, it is our history, isn’t it? Do we diminish its import for us when we so liberally lend it to others?
Food for thought…
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is spiritual leader of The Forest Hills Jewish Center, a Conservative congregation, and vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly. To read more "A Rabbi’s World" columns, click here.