Let God’s people go — and return, too

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Erik Rubin's image of checkpoints, from The 10 Plagues of the Occupation
Erik Ruin’s image of checkpoints, from The 10 Plagues of the Occupation, available as a poster at this site

This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.

Like politics, religion is shameless – it persists through every hypocrisy imaginable. “House of Cards” could easily be “House of Cardinals” or “House of Rabbis.” The political shenanigans of those who cloak themselves in religion are endless.

Does religion encourages hypocrisy as a way of heightening its own contradictions? Like theater, religion is a high-wire act. Even when the ritual closes, there’s always another ritual to perform.

Yet another fascinating aspect of religion is that it believes it exists outside of history. Religion acts as if it has no past or present.

So Passover – and Easter – continue – when there’s justice, when there isn’t, when rabbis and priests are for others, when they’re only in it for themselves, when followers of religion are striving to embrace peace with justice, when they’re at war to conquer and take the spoils with a clear conscience. Religious rites go on.

At times, adjustments are made. History evolves. The audience changes view. What was once proposed becomes a no-go area. The show goes on with a somewhat different meaning.

So, on the second day of Passover, is it time to erase the “Next Year in Jerusalem” Seder sign-off? Especially since we have returned with a vengeance. Glossing the sign-off with “in justice and peace” or “in solidarity with Palestinians,” as well-meaning as these additions are, seem gratuitous. In my mind, they can add insult to injury.

“This Year in Jerusalem” isn’t pretty at all. For Palestinians the Jewish return is a form of fascism elevated to liberation in religious liturgy. Somewhat like what Christian “love” historically meant for Jews in Europe.

Fascism in the name of love for Jews or liberation in the face of the plight of Palestinians can only be disguised for so long. So rather than expanding the Passover view as in the innovative Rainbow Seders of yesteryear and Jewish Voice for Peace’s more recent attempts, the Passover narrative has to be inverted.

Instead of the distant past, we should begin with the here and the now. Then see, for example, if the conquering and Jewish settling of East Jerusalem with the cleansing of Palestinians, the evolving ancient Israel theme park motifs that cleanse more Palestinians and the relentless (successful) encouragement of Christian pilgrims and (unsuccessful) appeal to Diaspora Jews, lend themselves to the wonderful liberation narrative that follows.

Take the Ten Plagues. Though they have been poignantly reinterpreted into the Ten Plagues of Occupation, even this may not be enough. The plagues are not primarily concerned with understanding the plight of the oppressed. The plagues are acts by God that cause suffering to Egyptians as a direct challenge to Pharaoh’s rule. To reenact the Exodus story in our current time – as we are instructed to do through the ancient story – is to reverse Jews and the state of Israel out of the liberation paradigm altogether.

Today the plagues can’t be about instructing Jews where the state of Israel went wrong or how Jews and Palestinians can live together in peace and harmony. To be true to the plain meaning of the Exodus narrative, the plagues have to be conducted on behalf of Palestinians against Israeli power.

Imagine this: God appearing to the Palestinians, claiming them as God’s people, promising Palestinians freedom under God’s guidance and leading them to the Promised Land. If they’re in the Promised Land of Palestine, it simply means demanding Israel to let God’s people go where they are. If they’re outside the Promised Land of Palestine, then Israel must be convinced to let them return. Remember, as the Seder continues – if it can – that “convincing” means demonstrating God’s power through causing the oppressors – in this case Jewish Israelis – to suffer until God’s chosen, the Palestinians, are free.

The Exodus story isn’t for the faint of heart – unless you’re play acting, which most Jewish observance of Passover amounts to, if we’re honest.

Of course, few Jews, even the Orthodox, expect God to speak, let alone act. To act against us? Perish those “anti-Semitic” thoughts.

Turned inward, today the Exodus appears upside down, foreign, alien, against us. Are the Palestinians worthy to be God’s chosen?

But then the Israelite slaves in Egypt didn’t appear worthy to the Egyptians either.

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Marc Ellis — Thanks so much for a beautiful re-interpretation. Indeed, with so many seeming contradictions, there is room for every “religious” leader to find what he wants to find in any religious book. For instance, Who (in a Jewish view) are God’s people? At a seder last night (Monday)… Read more »

Nice Catholic Work art.