By Eric A. Gordon
April 12 2011
The Jewish festival of Passover comes around every spring, but in 2011 it has taken on ever more powerful relevance.
Based on the Biblical story of the flight of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery, the eight-day holiday has become the best loved and most observed in the Jewish calendar (this year it begins on April 18). Everyone can relate to its appeal, in every generation, to expand the horizons of freedom, even if in reality there is scant historical or archeological proof for the legend. The prominence of the escape from bondage theme in the Jewish mind explains in very large part why historically Jews, far out of proportion to their numbers, have been so active in progressive struggles.
The Passover story has become emblematic of freedom struggles worldwide. Indeed, the Christian festival of Easter is intimately associated with Passover, for Jesus returned to Jerusalem precisely to celebrate the Seder, the Passover meal, his "Last Supper." Similarly, Easter for Christians also represents rebirth and regeneration in the spring, redemption from sin and the resurrection of hope for humanity.
For African Americans, all throughout the centuries of slavery, the Exodus stood out as the central episode of the Old Testament. The spiritual "Go down, Moses" is but one song that refers to this early paradigm of freedom; many others yearn for emancipation "over Jordan." Black Americans recognized in Moses the first documented leader of a mass labor walkout.
The villain of the story is, of course, hard-hearted Pharaoh, who has to be persuaded by ever more dire plagues, to free the Hebrew people, and even at the end he has his armies pursue them. Jews, and all who know the Passover story, always ask metaphorically, "Who are the Pharaohs of today?" In 2011 the name of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker comes easily to mind, and by extension the whole corporate ultra-right with its GOP yes-men and tea party thugs.
The labor movement paused this spring to remember the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, which took place 100 years ago, on March 25, 1911. When an entirely preventable fire broke out in a notoriously anti-union, anti-regulation sweatshop in New York, 146 young workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, burned or jumped to their deaths. The "Pharaohs" were the Jewish owners of the factory, but the union leaders, activists like Rose Schneiderman and Clara Lemlich, prominent rabbis and Louis Brandeis, a Boston lawyer before he became a Supreme Court Justice, were also Jews and all committed to workers' rights. Marxist theory is always hesitant to place ethnicity or color or creed foremost: Almost always, it's about class.
During the Seder, when the names of each of the 10 plagues are recited, it is custom to reduce the amount of wine in your cup by one drop, thus diminishing our own joy knowing of the suffering of the Egyptians. If the Jews were oppressed, the Egyptians also felt the pain. It was Pharaoh's time-tested strategy of "divide and rule." For decades, corrupt Arab leaders, in Egypt, Tunisia, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and elsewhere have used militant nationalist and anti-Zionist rhetoric to cover their own crimes. If immigrants in the U.S. are disparaged by their legal status or by whipped-up xenophobia among the American public, how long will it take for all working people to feel the heat, as is happening now with the attempt to eliminate unions and collective bargaining rights? The Jewish Bible justifies its humanitarian principles 36 times by reminding us, "For you were strangers in the land of Egypt."
The universe is naturally more complex than easily reducible categories of "slavery" and "freedom." The Jews left Egypt and entered "the promised land" of Canaan, claiming it as their own. But they carried no passports. Nor did our Pilgrim ancestors ask anyone's permission to land at Jamestown and Plymouth. Today, the global economy, climate change and war have made refugees of millions of the Earth's inhabitants. People will gravitate toward any place there's hope, a paycheck, education, healthcare, security. Only collective, peaceful, worldwide solutions can address these issues with any degree of success.
For Jews and non-Jews alike, Passover has been a symbol of their own quest for liberty, a promise that the freedom they desire can be won. From Pharaoh's defeat, people take confidence that they can break the chains that bind them. Sí se puede! Yes we can!