April 07

Four Questions, Five Answers: On Passover, Peoplehood, and Policy

Yosef Israel Abramowitz and Stephen Hazan Arnoff

Even if all of us were wise and knowing sages in full command of Torah learning, it would still be a religious obligation upon us to tell of the going out of Egypt. And the more a person expands upon the story of the going out of Egypt the more it is praised.

-The Passover Haggadah

Each generation is commanded to understand the story of Passover in its own language based on the pressing issues of its own communal life. In recent times, the vision of the Exodus served as a living metaphor for leaders from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Abraham Joshua Heschel in their quest to deliver America from racism and grant equality in the 1950s and ‘60s. The same story offered spiritual power to the Soviet Jewry movement in the 1970s and ‘80s. In the 1990s, the struggle of Ethiopian Jews took place within the framework of the Passover story – both in a communities’ still-painful struggle to leave Ethiopia, and the unsteady and at times oppressive cycles of sacrifice and change required to establish meaningful life in Israel.

Zeek invited the newest member of its Advisory Board Yosef Israel Abramowitz (who joined the Zeek team this month along with comic megastar Sacha Baron Cohen) to convene a conversation on the meaning of the Exodus of the Israelites with a group of some of today’s Israelites of vision and purpose. All members of Kol Dor, a global network of people seeking new Jewish agendas for the 21st century, these young Israeli leaders from the realms of activism, philanthropy, politics, and policy were asked to think about the Passover story from the vantage point of 5767 – 3,700-odd years since that famous trek back and forth and up and down the Sinai out of slavery and toward freedom.

In the ancient tradition of starting an all-night conversation based on a question or two or or four, Abramowitz pushed the buttons of Zeek’s guests with four questions about the very real and at times maddening concerns in Israel and the larger Jewish world today. No one knocked Abramowitz’s teeth out – as the Haggadah says one should feel free to do with an uppity child at the table – but thankfully, opinions and responses were diverse, focused, and at times provocative.

Zeek hopes you will consider adapting these and other contemporary questions to the oldies but goodies at your Seder table this year. Israel, an idea and a nation of so much promise, sits at a nexus of the raging Middle East after a summer of war in Lebanon and raw wounds of conflict with the Palestinians still bleeding – this even as growing economic imbalance, social disillusionment, and political corruption gnaw at national stability. But all of this turmoil – reflected through the lens of the alternately violent, sublime, and redemptive Passover story – offers an unavoidable and compelling opportunity for re-imaging Jewish values and narratives at this sacred moment.

Transformative thinking and conversation on the present within the echoes of the past is what telling the Passover story is all about. And there is no better way to spark meaningful dialogue on the state of personal and public Jewish life then an engaging set of sharp, challenging questions.

Zeek thanks Yosef and our Passover guests Deborah Housen-Couriel, Einat Wilf, Moty Cristal, Barak Ben-Eliezer, and Jacob Ner-David for getting this Seder started.

Chag Sameach!

-Stephen Hazan Arnoff, Managing Editor

Yosef Israel Abramowitz (Moderator): To what are the Jewish people enslaved today and how are we going to break those chains?

Deborah Housen-Couriel:
No doubt about this one: We have become completely enslaved as a people to the concept of our own invincibility without realizing the ultimate costs of this point of view. Both within Israel and outside of Israel we see ourselves, almost exclusively, as having beaten history and as eternal survivors. Here’s one of the many ironies of the Shoah: the Jewish people has proved itself indestructible even in the face of pure evil bent on our final destruction. Yet our pride in survival, built on the agony of so many individuals, families, and communities and justified over thousands of years by so many true and real achievements, is turning into hubris. We are not doing a very good job at all of looking at the price of being ‘history’s winners.’ The next major project of the Jewish people is to begin to understand how we might return to the values and priorities that formed us as a nation – however each of us may understand these.

Einat Wilf: Fear. We continue to be enslaved and even dependent on fear to constitute our sense of ourselves. We excel at living in a world where we are hated. It is a world that makes sense to us. We are confused by a world where we are accepted, and even loved. When met with acceptance, we reconstitute it in terms of fear, because we are better programmed to deal with fear. Thus, the American embrace of Jews into marriages is termed as assimilation and a threat to the Jewish future, rather than the expansion of the circle of people who come in contact with Jewish life. Perhaps, just as in intelligence agencies there is a need for a ‘devil’s advocate’ to offer a different interpretation of data, we need a ‘God’s advocate’ for Jewish data. We should have self-appointed advocates who take it upon themselves to celebrate that which we fear, and weave it into a narrative that does not depend on fear.

Moty Cristal: The Jewish people are enslaved to our eternal and paradoxical identity cycle of living in constant fear and our strong sense of superiority. There’s no chance that we will free ourselves from this cycle. It is our spirit.

Barak Ben-Eliezer: The Jewish people today lack a positive, long-term, relevant, unified, and action-inspiring vision. Some of us are prisoners of concepts appropriate to the 19th and 20th centuries, yet that are not relevant for the 21st century; others are enslaved to globalization, which does not always reflect Jewish values; still others are searching for a path. Consolidating the Next Jewish Vision and agreeing thereupon is a task no easier than splitting the Red Sea. Such a vision must be rooted both in an understanding of global trends and Jewish values, particularly tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Jacob Ner-David: Why do we assume slavery? Perhaps that in itself is the problem, for we have lived for so long under enslavement and persecution. We have not yet begun to think through, or certainly act upon, the reality of our freedom. We need to realize that we are not the result of ‘anti,’ but rather we exist as a people to be freely for a set of values and freedoms in the world. We need to start acting free, and voicing our concerns in the world for those who still are not free, and for the world itself, which is trapped so often between a rock and a hard place.

Yosef: Under the Law of Return, [Israeli legislation allowing people with Jewish parents or grandparents and their spouses to establish Israeli citizenship –Ed.] hundreds of thousands of Christian Russians – including some Anti Semites and criminals – have not only immigrated to Israel, but have benefited from Jewish charitable dollars and state support. Is it time to consider amending the Law of Return, which has facilitated many modern Exodus tales, and if so, how?

The assumption behind this question is wrong and unacceptable. Under the Law of Return an amazingly strong Jewish sovereignty was created, benefiting from the richness of former USSR Jewry including thousands of scientists, scholars, engineers, doctors, and artists. The Law of Return is still the most relevant legal, political, and practical tool to link the three dimensions of Jews: Being a religion, a people, and a nation.

Jacob: Let’s stop thinking about physical Return (which it almost never was; maybe, maybe, our direct forefathers thousands of years ago lived in this land, but certainly not us) and instead think about a spiritual Return, which is an open invitation to all people willing to dedicate themselves to the calling of Jewish history. Will some accept the invitation under ‘false’ pretenses? Sure, but no system is perfect. So far it has worked well...our inane arguments over the Falasha Mora [Ethiopians whose Jewish descent is disputed in some circles –Ed.] have only concerned tens of thousands. If there were really an issue of too many people taking up the call, the discussion would be about millions. We need to welcome with open arms any would-be ‘Ruths,’ saying your people are my people.

Einat: The phrasing of this question is an excellent example of demagoguery. We have plenty of Jewish criminals and prostitutes and Israel has no law that forbids prostitutes and criminals from being citizens of the state. Also, contrary to the situation depicted in the question, Israel as a sovereign state retains the right to deny citizenship to those clearly abusing the Law of Return (remember Meir Lansky?). If we care about preventing Christians from abusing the Law of Return, we should not care if they are criminals, prostitutes, or paragons of virtue. We should only care whether they are Jews. And if we want to keep the Law of Return as it is, the most recent immigrant group has as much right to benefit from it as previous groups. Despite the known tendency to assume that the new batch of newcomers is the worst ever, the new group is probably no worse than previous ones. The proper question then is whether Israel wants to keep the Law of Return as it is, or whether it wants to take it in one of two opposing directions: limit it to Jews according to the halacha or replace it with a civil, point-based system of immigration, a la Canada. These two directions reflect clear and distinct views about what kind of country Israel should be. Neither of these views – the strictly religious nor the strictly civilian – is accepted by the majority of Israelis. The Law of Return is not perfect. Yet, it is still the best reflection of what the majority of Israelis and Jews would like Israel to be, or at least, what they would like it not to be.

Deborah: It is time to reconsider the Law of Return. Two elements are crucial: First, clarification of the conditions and requirements for olim hadashim [new immigrants] prior their aliyah so there are as few surprises as possible after landing at Ben-Gurion Airport; and secondly, a solid, transparent immigration policy with specific criteria – along the lines of those being developed by other states in the West – leading to either citizenship, temporary residence, or some other status. The process will be agonizing. We will have to work out the question of who is a Jew once and for all; or to re-frame the issue of aliyah [immigration by Jews to Israel] in a way that is least offensive to most potential olim [Jewish immigrants to Israel]. Those ‘crazy’ enough to want to join the Jewish state as non-citizens should be welcomed; but, as in other countries, their welcome must be subject to the needs and constraints inherent in a still-young, developing democracy.

Barak: There are four non-Jewish children who nevertheless are eligible to take advantage of the Law of Return: 1) The wise child: a non-Jew with Jewish awareness; 2) The evil child: a non-Jew with anti-Semitic or criminal intentions; 3) The innocent child: a non-Jew with little or no Jewish awareness; 4) The indifferent child: a non-Jew with no Jewish awareness. The Law of Return does not distinguish between these four ‘children,’ nor do I believe that it should. Instead – and before we can amend this law – I recommend considering changes of today’s policies – the policy objectives of the Jewish Agency, the Absorption Ministry and the Israeli government, and the conversion policy of the rabbinic establishment, or rabbinate (especially with regard to the ‘wise child’ and the ‘innocent child.’) Obviously, no change will prevent undesirable elements from entering Israel; but this is true of all countries’ immigration policies.

Yosef: There are 300 Sudanese refugees who crossed from Egypt to Israel, were arrested, and 200 are currently in Israeli prisons. In this case, how do we balance a state’s legitimate security concerns with the Exodus narrative, the Biblical call to embrace the stranger, and the unique situation of these people fleeing genocide?

Border policy in Israel – from the air, sea, and land – does not stem only from security concerns. Let me explain: Today, thousands of people cross illegally the Egyptian border into Israel every year, most of whom are smugglers of goods, drugs, or women. Fewer are supporters of terror and a tiny minority of whom are simply Africans who in the best of circumstances are looking for work (usually West Africans), and in the worst scenarios, are fleeing for their very lives (such as the Sudanese).The question we must ask strikes at the core of the challenge of Jewish sovereignty: What should our relationship be to the stranger, the orphan, the widow, and the downtrodden? Currently, while this relationship is not an exemplary one, comparing it to the Holocaust is inappropriate.

Einat: The keyword here is balance. No doubt we are now erring on the side of cold-hearted security considerations, probably mostly unjustified. This case also raises some of the core issues about the nature of Israel: was it established in the name of protecting the Jewish people, or was it established in the name of justice? Both are critical to Israeli identity. But taken to the extreme, the first view could lead us to commit injustice in the name of protecting the Jewish people, and the second could lead us toward erasing the Jewish communal identity in the name of justice. Israel’s history is a continuous, often failed effort to find a balance between these two elements. In this case, we probably got the balance wrong and we should correct it, but this is not to say that we always get the balance wrong, or that global justice should always trump Jewish security interests.

Moty: No balance is required here. These people do not challenge Israel’s security. These refugees should be granted a special status, as asylum-seekers, and be given the right to choose their domicile, either in Israel or any other safe haven.

Deborah: The guiding elements for Israeli decision-makers should be crystal clear. As many refugees as possible should be taken in immediately; provision should be made for temporary housing – in caravans, not in prisons – and for supplying basic humanitarian needs. Those who cannot be accommodated in Israel should have their passage onward, to other receiving states, facilitated by Israel. Legitimate security concerns can be addressed as an integral part of this entire process. Moreover, planning for the future of this Sudanese refugee community, either in Israel or elsewhere, must involve the refugees themselves.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we have plenty of models to draw on from recent Jewish history for coping with this issue. Anything less than an immediate, calm, focused, and humane response by the Jewish state is a direct insult to those Jewish refugees of the past who suffered and perished as a result of the callousness of other nations’ refusal to accept them.

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