Gerald M. Steinberg

Imagining the Exodus

I have often tried to imagine the way that Israelite slaves in Egypt responded to the ten plagues, the midnight flight and sudden Exodus into the unknown desert, the splitting of the Sea of Reeds with Pharaoh’s army in hot pursuit, and the abrupt transition from bondage to freedom.

Slavery was all that they and numerous generations before them had known. Suddenly, Moses appeared out of nowhere (actually, the Sinai desert) and without any primary elections or other democratic processes, claimed to have received divine instructions to become their leader and to negotiate on their behalf with Pharaoh. But instead of improving their situation, this only made it worse, as the taskmasters added to the workload and the overall suffering.

When the plagues began to cripple Egypt, did the majority of Israelites, who were mysteriously protected from the worsening crisis, worry that their all-powerful overlords would eventually exact revenge? How many were able to grasp the scale of these events and their significance, and to go beyond the immediate traumas and fears for the future in an entirely different and unknown environment? Did leaders of powerful human rights groups, Israelite Voices for Peace and C (Cairo) Street organize demonstrations and sign petitions labeling Moses and Aaron as “war criminals”, and publish angry columns in leading newspapers?

In recent generations, more than 3,500 years later, the Jewish people are again in the middle of tremendous historic events. The Shoah, the return to the Land of Israel and re-establishment of national sovereignty after 2,000 years of exile, accompanied by the ongoing wars and threats of extinction, are all wrenching changes in our individual and collective existence. This suffering includes mass terror attacks, barrages of missiles from Hamas and Hezbollah, and the cold-blooded murder of Jewish children.

In our exodus, the Jewish people moved from exile and subjugation into freedom and self-determination, embodied in the State of Israel, with all of its faults and growing pains. For the majority of Jews around the world, Israel has become the center of their religious, cultural and national identities—about half of the Jewish population now makes their homes in Israel. Millions more identify closely with Israel, weigh-in on the efforts to renew diverse traditions in a modern democratic society, and contribute to or benefit from the rich Jewish cultural renaissance.

But for a small group of marginal Jews, the modern mix of afflictions and triumphs is too overwhelming to deal with, the relationship to Israel is distant and alienated, and Jewish political self-determination is a burden and an embarrassment. This group turns away from freedom and looks to a generally hostile “international community” to impose a form of political slavery. These post- and anti-Zionists travel the world, denouncing Israel on university campuses, in United Nations frameworks, and some churches supporting the boycott, divestments and sanctions (BDS) movement.

But history does not move in reverse, and Israelites who stayed in Egypt quickly disappeared. Similarly, in our times, Jewish history is moving in one direction. We have witnessed terrible suffering leaving the Diaspora and regaining freedom. And while Israel is not yet the perfect Jewish and democratic state that has been imagined, what we have managed to accomplish is still miraculous.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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