Israel as Pharaoh: A Passover Reflection

By Ken Boas

Has Israel, the promised land for so many Jews all over the world, become a land of oppression and cruelty? Have the Palestinians become the people now waiting, after 70 years of bondage and Occupation, to cross the 25 foot high concrete apartheid wall, into freedom? It is now Israel who is Pharaoh, whose heart has been hardened, and who is obsessed with keeping the Palestinians from their freedom. Has the history of oppression suffered by the Jews so inured them to the suffering they are inflicting upon the Palestinian people? The Israeli society and those who support its illegal policies have become compassionless, violent, and in pathological denial about their crimes, like their Egyptian slave masters before them. Perhaps this Passover season is the time to look more closely at this.

So many of us still think we can reform Israel, that Israel is still the great democracy of the Middle East. This is an illusion. Far too few will accept that the entire Zionist system of Apartheid is intentional and always has been, and will not change. To accept this seems to be a place even the most liberal will not enter: a place that is a promise to ourselves that oppression will not be rationalized nor appeased, even though our daughters and cousins live in Israel, and we love the beaches of Tel Aviv.

The most difficult moment comes when we must confront our own refusal to condemn the policies of the Israel we have grown up loving, and the malignant nature of the State of Israel to which we feel such a deep allegiance. I suppose it is our moment of truth when we are asked to look in the face of those we love and defend and find that what we see can not be defended and must be exposed for what it has become.

How painfully hard must it have been for Moses to throw down the tablets inscribed by God and see them break against the rocks as he witnessed his people worshipping before the golden calf, so soon after he had led them from slavery and bondage. So too must we accept that Jews around the world now worship in idolatry the Golden Calf that has become the State of Israel. This is not Judaism; this is idolatry. Moses did not hesitate to call his own people to task for their essentialist betrayal.

Does not this holiday ask us to do the same? That is, to stare at truth and to call out the lies we witness. To be righteously angry and condemn injustice, especially when it comes from within ourselves. Just what is the Seder about if not to retell our story, to bring back to life our story of bondage and oppression, liberation and freedom? The story of the Golden Calf is never omitted from the Seder, yet we systematically delete our own perverse worship of the Golden Calf from the narrative of our lives. This has become the wrong story and has resulted in horrible destruction and human misery. We probably keep telling the same story every year because we haven’t figured it out yet. We only see ourselves in one role in the story, but in fact we play every role.

For shouldn’t we know by now that if allowed to continue as a Jewish State, Israel will never free the Palestinian people. If we were honest, we should be repelled by and not celebrate Israel; we should be able to accept that from the very beginning, when the earliest Zionist founding fathers conceived of this plot to take this land, that they would do anything they could to keep the Palestinians from their rightful heritage. Yet so many don’t want to walk into the light. So many persist in holding out hope that the Pharaoh will act compassionately and with justice. But we know this will not happen. It never happens. We know, but we continue to lie to ourselves and remain in darkness.

This Passover, our most important struggle is to accept that Pharaoh now rules within Israel and within us. We cannot continue to be shameful apologists for ourselves. How can we, at this time of remembrance of Jewish liberation, not stand up to this country that has betrayed us as Jews and betrayed the very best that is Judaism and human dignity—justice and compassion—love of the stranger—equality and democratic law?

The Pharaoh takes on many disguises; most sinister is the disguise of the beloved. We must see through this disguise, as discomforting as that might be. Only then can we heal the wounds we have inflicted upon the Palestinians; only then can we heal the wound in our own hearts.

Our discomfort and our fears are the places to begin; the door swings slowly open on the hinges of such discomfort, and enables us to walk toward a vision of peace and freedom we will otherwise never reach. Palestine/Israel can then finally become a promised land for all its people.

Ken Boas is Chair of ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions), retired Lecturer in the University of Pittsburgh English Department, a member of The Pittsburgh BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) Coalition, a Visiting Scholar at the University of Pittsburgh Humanities Center, and former Chair of The Thomas Merton Center Board.

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