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A Passover Drash on Jewish empowerment, racism and the responsibilities of citizenship

In my last blog, I took to task a group of Palestinian activists for being critical of non-Palestinian antisemitism while failing to turn a mirror onto their own national movement’s shortcomings in this area.  Now, with Passover upon us, I thought I would turn the mirror on ourselves.

Several weeks ago a shocking thing happened here.  After a football game in Jerusalem, some 300 fans of the home team Beitar Yerushalayim poured out of the stadium, crossed the foot bridge to the Malha Mall, and once inside began chanting “death to the Arabs,” spat on Arab patrons in the food court, and beat up a number of Arab workers.  It took the police some 40 minutes before they arrived, but once there they made no arrests.  The mob dispersed, and a number of Arabs ended up in hospital.  Thankfully, nobody was seriously hurt or killed.

Much of this was caught on the mall’s security cameras, and Israeli TV  played these videos repeatedly for days, prompting public outrage.  Under this pressure, the police finally opened an investigation, made some arrests and now the defendants will face charges.  But, why did it take the better part of an hour for Jerusalem police to arrive on the scene, and a week before they began an investigation?  The Minister for Public Security expressed his outrage saying the police reaction to these attacks was unmotivated and unacceptable.

These videos are strikingly similar to another mob chanting racist slogans that I personally witnessed in San Francisco at a protest in front of the Israeli Consulate in July 2006 during the Second Lebanon War.  During that demonstration, organized by a coalition of socialist and Islamist groups, a rabble of young people began marching down the street chanting, in Arabic, “Palestine is our country and the Jews are our dogs.”  As with the Malha Mall incident, this was caught on video.

A "Tag Meir" poster announcing a rally last Hanukkah to speak out against a recent "price tag" attack.

A rally against racism
Last week a group calling itself “Tag Meir” (Shining Tag) organized a rally at the Malha Mall demanding an investigation and arrests. Tag Meir is a play on words of the tag mechir, or “price tag,” attacks carried out by extremist Jews against Israeli Arabs, West Bank Palestinians, Israeli liberals and even the Israeli army.  The threat to Israel’s social fabric is clear.

Our own Masorti Movement, the Israeli branch of Conservative Judaism, co-sponsored the Jerusalem rally, and my wife and I took our daughter Tamar and her best friend Eli to the protest.  (Their photo appeared in the Jerusalem Post, and I conveniently placed it below.)  Following some speeches by Jews and Arabs alike, all 150 of us walked into the mall where we handed out sweets and flowers to the mall’s Arab workers.  Informing them that we are Jews, we apologized for the behavior of our fellow Jewish citizens.  The flowers and sweets were graciously received.

Tamar and Eli at the anti-racism rally, March 28. An important civics lesson.

But, this just isn’t enough.  We can’t go home from the rally, say to ourselves “we did good,” and just continue our lives as if all is fixed now.  We have a problem  here, and we need to face it squarely.

A drash for our times
At the rally, we met an elder woman named Michal who offered her own “drash” (or a hermeneutic) on the modern Hebrew word ezrah (אזרח) meaning “citizen.”  In ancient Hebrew the word has the meaning of “home born” or “native.”

Now, for those of you whose eyes glaze over whenever there is “bible talk,” please bear with me.

We come across the word ezrah many times in the Torah, for example in Leviticus 19:33-34:

לג וְכִי-יָגוּר אִתְּךָ גֵּר, בְּאַרְצְכֶם–לֹא תוֹנוּ, אֹתוֹ.  לד כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם, וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ–כִּי-גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם, בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:

33 “‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat him. 34 The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your home-born (ezrah).  Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt.”

This admonition of treating the “foreigner” (sometimes translated as “alien” or stranger” but always taking on the meaning of “other”) as if they are your own people is repeated dozens of times throughout the Torah, always with the reminder that we, too, were once the “other” in Egypt.  Another example is found in Exodus 23:9, “Do not oppress the stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger as you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”

Returning to Michal’s drash, she sees not one, but two words in ezrah: zar meaning “alien” or “other,” and ah meaning “brother.”  A pithy, but loose, translation: the other is my brother.

This insight is more than poetic.  It is a deep understanding of the meaning of citizenship in a modern state.  All citizens are brothers and sisters.  Jewish tradition is emphatic that the responsibility for seeing to the fair and equitable treatment of the “other” lies with the majority.  Likewise, the writers of Israel’s Declaration of Independence made a promise to its citizens, all of them, that Israel

will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture…

On Passover most of us Israelis, secular or religious, will hold a Seder meal where we will retell the story of our people’s liberation from oppression in the Land of Egypt to freedom in the Land of Israel.  The lesson of this ancient story — whether you take it as history or allegory — resonates deeply within the contemporary Jewish psyche, particularly here in Israel whose modern history in many ways parallels the ancient Exodus narrative.  From slavery to freedom, from Shoah (Holocaust) to Ge’ula (Redemption).  In both cases, we Jews went from being powerless minorities at the mercy of often hostile majorities, to becoming an empowered majority in our own country.

While some of us seemed to have forgotten the “soul of the stranger” and the sting of oppression, it is incumbent upon others to remember and remind.  We did not build a modern Jewish state just so we could act like pogromchiks or to become “good Germans.”  The urgent question facing us today is this: are we capable of living up to the high standards set both by the Torah and modern Israel’s Declaration of Independence?

Now, go talk among yourselves, and Happy Passover!