As Jews around the world sit down at the seder table to celebrate the first night of Passover, or Pesach, we should all remember to rejoice and give thanks, while commemorating Jewish resilience and heroism. Pesach commemorates the liberation of the ancient Israelites from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. Since that time, the holiday has become a celebration of freedom and redemption.
Pharaoh’s will to enslave the Israelites met the strong, determined Israelite spirit, as we will read in the Haggadah: “And he became there a nation” teaches that the Israelites were a distinct people in Egypt. “Great, mighty,” as it is said: “And the children of Israel were fruitful and increased abundantly, and multiplied and became very, very mighty, and the land became filled with them”.
Almost 3,000 years later, Jews were once again fighting for their existence. The 14th of Nisan also marks the anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. This Jewish resistance-made up of young socialists, communists, and Zionists- arose to oppose the Nazis’ efforts to transport the ghetto population to the Treblinka extermination camp. Although poorly armed, the young fighters held out for almost a month before German troops crushed them. To avoid capture, Mordechai Anielewicz, the 24-year-old commander of the uprising, took poison along with several of his comrades.
Both, the Israelites in Egypt and the Warsaw ghetto heroes took pride in their Jewish identity and heritage. They resisted suppression, fought for survival, and aspired to spiritual and physical freedom.
Fast forward to today in the Middle East. Since July of 2013, Israel and the Palestinians have been deeply involved in another round of peace talks in an attempt to settle the long term conflict. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has shuttled back and forth in tireless attempts to move the process forward, remove barriers and break misconceptions. Although both sides understand this may be the last chance to reconcile, the talks have hit serious roadblocks.
Israel is here today as a strong, democratic and advanced Jewish sovereign nation because since the Exodus from Egypt when we became a nation, we, as a people, never lost our Jewish pride; nor have we ever apologized or tried to minimize, blend or assimilate our Jewish identity. Balfour’s Declaration of Nov. 2, 1917 states that “His Majesty’s government views with favor the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.” This is what we fought for and we should be proud of our accomplishment.
It is a custom to ask questions in Pesach, and the practice is incorporated into the Haggada, the text that accompanies our festive meals, in “The Four Questions,” or Ma Nishtana. This encourages us to look into our collective story, debate and learn. Beyond the four famous questions that we will sing at the seder, we should look into many serious, existential questions about our identity, our Jewish mission and where are today. Our post-liberation world differs greatly from the one in which we were redeemed from Egypt nearly 3,000 years ago.
What does Lord Belfour’s declaration mean and what are its and implications regarding self-definition as the Jewish state? And what does it mean to us, and to the world, that Israel is in fact and reality the national home for the Jewish people.
In the current round of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, requested that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the national state of the Jewish people Yet to many this is considered as one of the sticking points in the peace talks.
I would like to suggest that we ask ourselves what this deceleration means. Why is it considered a red flag by many, Israelis included? And yet why for many others – both in Israel and around the Jewish world – this is a fundamental principle and condition that must be accepted before beginning peace talks of any kind.
Can we, a sovereign Jewish state for the past 66 years, expect to be recognized as the national state of the Jewish people? Is it not the Zionist dream, in which the nation was forged? And most importantly, would any other country around the world agree to sit around the same table and negotiate its own future with people who do not recognize its right to self-definition and determination. Isn’t it what the Israelites, the Warsaw Ghetto heroes and many generations of Jews in between have fought for?
And, in Pesach’s tradition of asking complicated questions, let’s complicate the debate even more: What are the consequences of this recognition for Israeli Arab citizens with equal rights that see the state as their homeland as well? What about our Palestinian neighbors with whom we are trying to reach peaceful future? Does asserting one’s identity diminish theirs?
Jews around the world hoped, fought, advocated and financially supported the dream that became Israel-the national homeland for the Jewish people. Jews around the world will celebrate in pride 66 years of Independence and sovereignty in just a few weeks. Jews, wherever they may be, pray three times a day, facing home, the land of Israel. Jews from distant countries pray for rain, fruitful crops and peace in Israel and choose to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvah, birthdays and other milestones in Israel, their homeland. Isn’t this enough? Do we need to insist on a declaration from others that which we know ourselves as part of the peace talks?
Is it merely political semantics or a matter of principle?
The reality is that we were redeemed from Egypt, we successfully built a nation, we stood against evil and danger, threats and horrors, and we formed a state, a wonderful home for all the Jewish people. We are a free people today – free to celebrate our Jewish identity, tradition and values. A free people should be mature enough to raise concerns, ask questions and argue. The Haggadah acknowledges four sons. They each represent a different mindset, narrative and level of connection. Only by debating, allowing many voices to be heard, and with respect, will we reach a sense unity that embraces our pluralism and the Israelites achievement in Egypt: “And he became there a nation”
And before concluding, on this very tragic day in Kansas City, I would like to add my deepest condolences to the families who have suffered loss, and to send from Jerusalem my support to our dear JCC friends in Kansas City.
May this holiday of freedom remind us of our strength, our collective journeys and our shared hope for peace in Israel and across the world.