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A Fifth Question for Israelis to Ask Themselves on Passover

This Passover, as we thank God for our liberation in times of old, and for modern redemption, let us reflect on the moral responsibility that redemption brings

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Israeli officials demolished 11 buildings put up without proper permits in the Israeli Arab city of Kalansua. January 10, 2017.
Israeli officials demolished 11 buildings put up without proper permits in the Israeli Arab city of Kalansua. January 10, 2017.Credit: Moti Milrod

In the context of my human rights work on behalf of "Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights," I often conduct human rights tours. Recently, I conducted several such tours to the South Hebron Hills and/or the Negev for Israeli youth, including a religious khug sayarut (Hiking club).

With Israeli groups, even more than the tours and talks I do for groups and individuals from abroad, I make a point of teaching Jewish texts. Given the behavior of our current government, I have been particularly emphasizing the very text from Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch I suggest every year as an addition to the Haggadah. With the khug sayarut, I also taught Ibn Ezra's classic medieval commentaries on some of the 36 times that the Torah commands us not to oppress the non-Jews living with us, reminding us that we were the powerless minority in Egypt.

I explained that sometimes we get what we pray for. We Jews are a people scarred by 2,000 years of the powerlessness and oppression that came from being homeless and stateless. We yearned to return to our homeland, and to have control over our own destiny. Every year we concluded the seder with the hope, "Next year in Jerusalem."

We got what we wanted. Now what? If we are commanded "in every generation" to see ourselves as if we had personally been among those who were liberated from Egypt, how should that experience be guiding our lives today?

Psychologists tell us that the human impulse is to do to others what was done to us. Those who were abused as children are more likely to abuse their children. Yet, it is perhaps Ibn Ezra's own experience of escaping persecution in Spain, and wandering most of his life, that caused him to identify with God's concern for those who are weak and who stand alone. Years before Herzl, Rabbi Hirsch says in his commentary to the Torah, that Exodus 22:20 is saying that one day we will have a state:

"Therefore beware - so runs the warning - from making human rights in your own state conditional on anything other than on the basic humanity which every human being as such bears within him/her by virtue of being human. Any suppression of human rights opens the gate to the indiscriminate use of power and abuse of human beings that is the root of the entire abomination of Egypt."

Sometimes you get what you pray for. And, as the saying goes, "Absolute power corrupts absolutely."

This past Wednesday, we were given another rude reminder that Israel is today ruled by a government intoxicated with its own power. The Knesset was called back into session during recess in order to pass the so-called Kaminitz Law. Under the seemingly reasonable guise of stricter measures to prevent building violations, the law imposes draconian penalties that don't distinguish between true violators and those who build without permits because the legacy of discrimination gives them very limited legal options to put a roof over their head. The law reduces the ability of the courts to take circumstances into account, and further reduces the authority of local municipalities to plan their own communities.

Increasingly similar to what happens in the Occupied Territories, the ruling coalition's guaranteed majority is closing the noose around Israeli Arabs. Building and zoning laws are exploited to limit their ability to live on their own lands. I used to find the comparison facile. I don't any more, although significant differences remain.

Another example of the abuse of absolute power is the recently passed "land-grab" law legalizing the building of settlements on land known to be private Palestinian land. In this case, Israel's own attorney general says he cannot defend the law. Unless the High Court strikes down these laws (and more are on the way), they are "legal" because the majority decided.

This is precisely why Ibn Ezra says that the Torah's repeated prohibitions against oppressing the non-Jew, the orphan and the widow are particularly directed to the judges. This is why it is so important to remember God's warning against the abuse of power that Hirsch finds in Exodus 22:20.

The fact is that the seder is a time to ask many questions, not just four. One of the reasons for Elijah's cup is that he will answer unanswered questions, such as whether there should be five cups of wine in the seder, because God makes five promises in Exodus, not four. The fifth is "I will bring you into the Land," prompting some today to say that we should drink the fifth cup because we have returned.

However, our return poses new questions.

This Passover, as we thank God for our liberation in times of old, and for modern redemption, let us reflect on the moral responsibility that redemption brings. We are no longer at the mercy of others. We have the guns so long denied us. We have the majority in the Knesset, deciding everything from the fate of minorities, to the distribution of wealth between rich and poor.

We therefore cannot say dayeinu after asking the four questions, and remembering that we were slaves in Egypt. An additional question is, "What are we doing with that memory?"

Will we be different?

Rabbi Arik Ascherman led Rabbis For Human Rights for 21 years, and this past September was a co-founder of an interfaith human rights organization, "Haqel-Jews and Arabs in Defense of Human Rights.

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