March 30 will be the first night of Passover, a holiday widely recognized as a celebration of freedom, justice, and renewal. It is therefore seen as a fitting moment for social justice champions to gather for a seder, the ritual meal in which the past is remembered and commitment to liberation struggles is reaffirmed.
The traditional Passover Haggadah recounts the Jews’ escape from Egypt under the leadership of Moses and journey in the wilderness en route to the Promised Land, as told in the Old Testament book of Exodus. (They don’t get there till Joshua, four books, many years, and many complaints later). Contemporary progressive humanists have enlarged the moral scope: the vision of freedom for Palestinians, refugees, and others who are oppressed is now included; there are gender-neutral, feminist, and LGBT-friendly Haggadahs, and niche Haggadahs focused on issues such as mass incarceration, Black Lives Matter, nuclear disarmament, and slavery in the cocoa industry. As Jewish Voice for Peace’s “Liberatory Passover Haggadah” puts it, “This year we dedicate our seders to all of us, to our insistence on intersectionality, from gentrification to colonization; we are organizing to disrupt the root causes of displacement and violence at home and abroad.”
Over many years I taught a few bible excerpts from anthologies for literature survey courses, but it wasn’t until recently, in researching the history and symbology of Zionism, that I sat down and attentively studied the longer text. The context I found for the liberation of the ancient Hebrew people was, to say the least, disturbing. Aside from the traffic in women, the abuse of animals, the imperative to obedience, the copious administration of capital punishment, and the self-aggrandizement of an authoritarian in absolute command, there was the inescapable ultimate hook on which all the liberation depended: ethnic cleansing and genocide. Neither Yahweh nor his followers were troubled about the Chosen, upon release from bondage in Egypt, being gifted with “a land rich and broad, a land where milk and honey flow, the home of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites and the Jebusites” (Exodus 3:7-9).
I began to search for commentary on the dark side of the saga. Edward Said, in a 1986 essay, may have been the first to note that Exodus could certainly be regarded as a “tragic” and dystopic rather than uplifting tale. He described “the injunction laid on the Jews by God to exterminate their opponents” as “an injunction that somewhat takes away the aura of progressive national liberation…. [I]t isn’t clear how the dehumanization of anyone standing in Moses’ way is any less appalling than the attitudes of the murderous Puritans or of the founders of apartheid.”
The Native American scholar Robert Warrior (Osage) was once a student of Said’s and has written movingly about the elder’s influence on his own thinking. In an influential 1989 essay called “Canaanites, Cowboys, and Indians,” Warrior expanded on Said’s perception that the Exodus narrative left little to rejoice in if read “with Canaanite eyes.” He acknowledged that the Exodus story, “with its picture of a god who takes the side of the oppressed and powerless,” has been inspirational to many, including enslaved African Americans and Latin American liberation theologists. Nevertheless, he wrote, “I believe that the story of the Exodus is an inappropriate way for Native Americans to think about liberation.” The covenant,” he emphasized, “has two parts: deliverance and conquest.” Even progressive, anti-imperialist theologians have “ignored…those parts of the story that describe Yahweh’s command to mercilessly annihilate the indigenous population.”
Putting the Canaanites at the center of the story completely upends Exodus as a paradigmatic liberation narrative. Warrior and others –such as Steven Salaita, Hilton Obenzinger, Lawrence Davidson, and Lester Vogel, – have shown that American visitors to the Holy Land in the nineteenth century were instrumental in adapting Orientalist fantasies based on biblical narratives to justify conquering native peoples at home. Ideals of sacred landscapes, chosen people, covenants, Manifest Destiny, and the divine mandate for the civilized to uproot and slaughter the savages in the way were imported. Some tropes crossed back in the other direction: the kibbutz- and moshav-founding members of the early Aliyot are still, in modern-day Zionist lore, hailed as the “pioneers.” Salaita writes of “Israeli historian Benny Morris’s justification of the expulsion of Palestinians: ‘Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians.’”
Vincentian priest, liberation theologian, and biblical scholar Michael Prior took this theme further, arguing in 1997 and 1998 that the bible has been used as a “legitimating document” that has “served as a model of…persecution, subjugation, and extermination for millenia….” It has been used “to sanction the British conquest of North America, Ireland and Australia, the Dutch conquest of South Africa, the Prussian conquest of Poland, and the Zionist conquest of Palestine…. Nevertheless, liberation theologists from virtually every region (Latin America, South Africa, South Korea, the Philippines, etc.) have appropriated the Exodus story in their long and tortuous struggle against colonialism, imperialism, and dictatorship.” It does take some very selective reading to ignore passages that follow, such as, “You must destroy completely all the places where the nations you dispossess have served their gods” (Deuteronomy 12:1-2) or this blunt reckoning, which Prior highlighted:
And when the Lord your God brings you into the land which he swore to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give you, with great and goodly cities, which you did not build, and houses full of all good things, which you did not fill, and cisterns hewn out, which you did not hew, and vineyards and olive trees, which you did not plant…. You shall fear the Lord Your God; …lest the anger of the Lord your God be kindled against you, and he destroy you from off the face of the earth (Deuteronomy 6.10-12).
In an article extracted from his book “The Bible and Zionism” (2007), Palestinian historian Nur Masalha built explicitly on the arguments of Said, Warrior, and Prior. Masalha emphasized the use of biblical traditions as “a reservoir of collective memory.” In Israel they are central to school curricula, nationalist identity, and the persuasive discourse of its leaders. David Ben-Gurion, for example, used the biblical land traditions as a “mobilizing myth” of the Jews’ “title to the land,” and, said Masalha, ”wrote in his first published work that the Jewish ‘return’ to Palestine is actually a ‘repeat’ of Joshua’s conquest of ancient Palestine….On more than one occasion Ben-Gurion pointed to an ‘unbroken line of continuity from the days of [Joshua] to the IDF…’ in and after 1948.” This perspective from the Zionist “left” can be hard to distinguish from Vladimir Jabotinsky’s “Iron Wall” doctrine on the Zionist right; Masalha wrote that the latter’s “revival of militarist biblical traditions from Joshua to Samson, and its celebration of modern militarism, has formed a central plank in Zionist attitudes towards the indigenous occupants of Palestine….”
These writers stress that the problem does not pertain solely to those who view the Old Testament as a historical document. In fact, it appears likely that whatever events substantively occurred were far less violent and “ethnically” pronounced than those conveyed from generation to generation in the famous written account. Whatever really happened, though, says Warrior, “History is no longer with us. The narrative remains.” And it does so as “part of the heritage and thus the consciousness of people in the United States.” Scholarly exegesis, archaeological and other forensic correctives, or radical tweaking by freedom-loving Haggadah-writers and seder-goers will not change the fact that, in Prior’s words, “It is the narrative itself that has fueled colonial adventures.” We cannot escape the truth that the “divine right” to violate lives of the indigenous “becomes the climax of the liberation to be celebrated.” And we act in bad faith if, in Said’s words, we “mute or minimize” certain parts in order to keep the positive message intact.
Many of us are bemused by the PEPS (Progressives Except for Palestine) whose propensity for doublethink unites a professed universal love of justice with a refusal to acknowledge the injustices borne by the Palestinians. It is equally disingenuous to “include” all oppressed peoples in the embrace of a “liberation” story that is only made possible by racism and genocide, which we deplore. What would happen if those around the seder table deviated from the script and continued the story – from the POV of the Canaanites? Dayenu?