It is Shavuot, when we as Jews celebrate receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, when Our God shared with us It’s divine plan, the blueprint of the universe as received and conveyed by Moses, prophet to three major world religions. Moses and his brother Aaron led the ancient Hebrews across the Red Sea (as the story of Exodus goes) out of Egypt , fleeing Pharaoh’s chariots after many years in slavery.
But for consideration now, I want to look earlier in the story, at what led Pharaoh to imprison and enslave the ancient Hebrews. As stated in the story, it was his fear that this multitude of guests would renounce his welcome and align themselves with his enemies in time of war. Growing up with this story, I never understood how someone could fear such a thing or why a people thriving somewhere would actually turn on their neighbors with whom they are sharing a relatively good life. Where does such a seemingly irrational fear come from? Once slavery is being considered, imposed or implemented, I can understand agitating for better conditions or the right to leave. But do people actually bite the hand that feeds them, or turn on those who have helped them during times of suffering? I have never understood that idea or tendency.
I still don’t really know or understand it, but I see from history that a flourishing people “sojourning” in a land they arrived at “not-first” may indeed turn on their hosts and friends. I see how that could undermine one’s faith in helping the stranger in need, turning away from suffering. That was Pharaoh’s fear and evidently Pharaoh’s fears were fair. I’m positive that such “biting the hand that feeds us” isn’t unique to Jews, but the teaching is ours; this mirror is ours to look at first, not to hold up for others to face instead. Hence, I want us to honestly consider the actions carried out in the name of Zionism over the past 100+ years and project back in time as we celebrate this Jewish holy day. I think it is good, not to excuse Pharaoh’s violence and inhumanity, but to try to understand his motivation. If he saw into the future, maybe he would have thought it wise to contain us (despite recent collusion between Egypt and Israel against the Palestinians). Jews and Zionist in the 20th century did side with outsiders at significant junctures, and we need to deal with that.
The overwhelming strand of Zionist leadership, from its inception to the present day, has sought support not from the people of The Levant or the Arab world, but from the British and other “Western” colonial powers. Since then, Israel has taken over homes and land and water from the people who were there (Palestinians) and has claimed the resources for themselves, dispossessing tillers of soil, planters of trees, sellers of goods, people with keys to the homes of their grandparents.
In Algeria in the 1950’s most of the longstanding Jewish population chose to side with France’s colonialists against their Arab neighbors who were throwing off the yolk of colonial rule. The Arabs, as I understand it, were surprised at their neighbor’s choice. I don’t understand it either, after all the historic violence European Christians have committed against Jewish communities over many centuries.
I don’t know why Moroccan Jews didn’t fight their deportations to Israel in the early 1960’s. I don’t know who pushed the issue more, the Moroccan king or the Israeli leaders, but by all accounts it wasn’t due to any rift between Jewish and non-Jewish Moroccans. They were promised Haifa and the sea, but given Beersheva and the desert instead, as their reward for heeding the call of a drum someone else was beating.
Pharaoh’s enslavement of the ancient Hebrews, to whom modern Jews like me claim descent, was a wrong response to his fears morally and practically since (as we’re taught as children) “two wrongs don’t make a right.” But if he could see into the future, it seems his fears weren’t actually unfounded. A grateful and prosperous people can and sometimes do turn against their neighbors and friends. I don’t know if the Hebrews of the Bible would have ever sided with a foreign power against the Egyptians. Looking at modern Zionism and the actions of its adherents and advocates though gives retrospective credence to Pharaoh’s fears.
Now, as Egypt’s military dictatorship actually colludes with Israel against anything Palestinian, is the story coming full circle? Just as I refuse to grant veracity to any 2000 year old land claim, I don’t want to lump modern Egypt with its namesake of the past. There is a sad poetry in this geographical reprise of nations turning on nations once deemed friends. It makes the offering of hospitality to strangers seem like a risky business, and that is a huge impediment to our survival, not just as a people, but as a species. I refuse to renounce mercy, kindness, generosity. The lesson, I’m positive, isn’t for us to mistrust and not care about others, or to act attack or enslave people out of fear. The lesson is to keep trying to get it right so we have justice and can live together in peace.