During a Passover Seder, we Jews tip our cups of wine and let drops spill. This symbolizes, and more importantly acknowledges and mourns, the suffering of the Egyptians under the yoke of the ten plagues God inflicted on them.
I always found this remarkably touching and meaningful. The ancient Egyptians were said to have enslaved the Hebrews, whose liberation we are celebrating. While the
Torah isn’t specific about the social dynamics in the era of Ramses II, one gets a very strong impression that the Pharaoh was not the only enslaver, but that much of Egyptian society held us in bondage. Nonetheless, we express sorrow for their suffering.
Sadly, as with so many religious traditions, this ritual has now lost its meaning for too many of us. For some it is mere rote, a ritual performed because it is part of the Seder, but stripped of its meaning.
Look, for instance at the contemptible words of Noah Pollak, the Executive Director of the ultra-right wing, fanatically anti-peace organization, the Emergency Committee for Israel. He could not contain his glee at the murder of Italian International Solidarity Movement (ISM) activist Vittorio Arrigoni. Among other comments, he sneers “My condolences to the anti-Israel crazies mourning their ISM friend. We who do not work with terrorists will never understand your pain.”
This is not about the ISM, whose politics I also disagree with (though far less so than I do with Pollak’s hate). This is about simple human decency. A man was murdered – in fact murdered, at least based on the information we have now, by terrorists not like Hamas, but much more like al-Qaeda (those differences are very important) – and that is a tragedy. Most people would agree with that, most Jews would agree, even those who might vehemently object to Arrigoni’s politics. Pollak is virtually dancing in the streets.
Pollak is neither typical of Israelis nor Jews, but the lack of empathy is not confined to radical anti-peace extremists like him.
We might think about the Israeli attitude toward the Gaza Strip. Let’s forget for a moment about international law, the Goldstone Report and all of that. Let’s dispense with dueling narratives and just look at it from an Israeli viewpoint.
Rockets fly out of Gaza, which has always been more radical, and much poorer, than the West Bank. Hamas, a group considered by Israel and many others a terrorist outfit, controls the Strip. We would say, this is intolerable. If this was happening in America, they’d be launching full scale attacks. We must act to protect ourselves.
OK, but what are the boundaries? Do basic ethics not compel the minimal use of force necessary, and the maximal care to try to avoid harming civilians?
But that isn’t what’s happened. Israel has besieged Gaza, driving an already impoverished populace much deeper into that poverty. It has destroyed thousands of homes and civilian buildings, while its closure of the Strip has prevented rebuilding materials from coming in. And it started years ago when Israel moved to declare Gaza a hostile entity so that it had legal justification for a much broader range of actions.
Food insecurity in Gaza is at 52%, unemployment at nearly 40%. These are among the highest figures in the world. The aquifer that is Gaza’s only fresh water supply is badly polluted. Over 90% of the water extracted from the aquifer and supplied through the network is brackish and does not meet World Health Organization standards for drinking water. And after the killing of hundreds of non-combatants in Operation Cast Lead, there have been at least 34 such non-combatant deaths by Israeli fire in Gaza since then.
Despite all of this, Hamas, according to Israeli intelligence, is more powerful than ever militarily. So civilians are suffering and Israel is not even benefiting in terms of security.
Where is our compassion? Where are the drops of wine, not just at our tables but in our politics and in the policies of our governments, Israeli and American?
Many will ask “what about Palestinian compassion? Are they weeping over dead Israelis?” Though I’ve heard from plenty of Palestinians, other Arabs, and pro-Palestinian activists about their horror and outrage at the murders, despite the victims being settlers, sure, it’s true; everyone on all sides could use more empathy for the other.
Indeed, the remarkable thing to me about the Seder tradition of spilling the wine is precisely that it is the oppressed expressing sorrow for the pain of the oppressor. And in that case, it was not the Hebrews who caused the pain, but God himself. Indeed, God went out of his way to make sure that he ran through all ten of his plagues, hardening the Pharaoh’s heart when he might have freed his slaves before getting to taste all of God’s planned scourges.
That’s not a very pretty image of God, but it also has a lesson for mere humans. God may exact his price, his vengeance, or, in a kinder interpretation, act in ways that may seem cruel to us but are just beyond our understanding. But people are not to revel in such things; they are to mourn them, even when they happen to the enemy.
It is much harder for the less powerful party to do such things, yet that is exactly what Jewish tradition directs in this ritual. And, while empathy over the long term surely requires an exchange, where both parties are expressing that empathy for the other, the more powerful one is in a much better position to start.
Israel is more than capable of pursuing security without the massive devastation it has inflicted on the people of Gaza. It is more than strong enough to move purposefully toward ending its occupation and finding peace with the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem as well with Syria and the rest of the Arab world by stopping the expansion of settlements and cutting out the excuse that Palestinians won’t talk to them while they keep building. It is more than stable enough to overcome the constant fear mongering of its current leaders as well as the fanatical right-wingers, and fearful others in the Jewish diaspora.
On this Passover, as it has been for many years, Israeli Jews celebrate the biblical liberation of the Hebrews while closing the West Bank completely, reinforcing not just Israeli but Jewish captivity of another people who are held under military rule with no rights.
We show compassion for the ancient Egyptian enslavers by spilling our wine in their memory. But if that compassion for the long-dead victims of God’s wrath is to hold any meaning, surely it must mean that no effort be spared to find a way to stop our own denial of freedom to the people of the Palestinian Territories.