Leaving Egypt: What Passover Can Teach Us About Mideast Peace

April 3, 2009

As we prepare for Passover, we’re pleased to have J Street Advisory Council member Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater join us for a guest post.

Following Israeli politics can often be like a game of deja vu.  Here we are again with Prime Minister Netanyahu and we might be downtrodden, tempted to stare backwards into history.  Yet, with the celebration of Passover upon us, I want to urge a more forward thinking perspective, a perspective that engages in the themes and metaphors of the exodus, themes that have inspired the Jewish people, and many others peoples, toward great accomplishments.  Three themes of the exodus that can be brought to bear on the conflict, and they are certainly not the only three, are: persistence, desire for change and radical action.

Moses and God are very persistent in the story of the Exodus.  Dealing with an intransigent leader in Pharaoh, Moses, with God’s help, knows that he must continue to push and prod to get his desired goals.  Imagine if Moses had given up after the first time Pharaoh said no?  Imagine if he had given up after the first plague, or the second, or third?  While I am quite aware that this story operates with a direct divine power that we no longer see in our world, and so the metaphor doesn’t carry through completely, I do see the theme of persistence as a necessary component in our struggle for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.  Of all the arguments against the chance for peace, one of the most troubling and painful is “we came so close in 2000 and we failed to get a peace deal, instead the Palestinians launched the 2nd Intifada and now all hope is lost.”  This argument is precisely the one that the exodus story comes to address.  Pharaoh actually agrees to let the people go before the 10th plague, and then recants.  Moses had the agreement!  And yet, when it didn’t happen, he didn’t give up, didn’t back down, but rather came back with stronger and more powerful plagues.  Today, in our struggle for peace, we must continue to come back to the table, but unlike Moses in this case, we don’t need more plagues, but rather, we need stronger and more powerful overtures for peace, persistent efforts with real actions behind them.  We must not let past failures beat us down.

The Jewish tradition teaches that the exodus from Egypt only became possible, after 400+ years of slavery, because the Israelite people cried out for change and freedom.  As long as the people accepted the status quo of slavery, God could not help them.  The same is true of the Israelis and Palestinians.  New polls recently show that more than 70% of both populations seek a peaceful, comprehensive agreement.  One poll showed that 70% of Palestinian young people believe that violence is not the way to peace.  These are encouraging numbers.  We can’t let the extremists on either side dictate the process otherwise we will continue to be stuck with the status quo, or worse, a return to all-out regional war.  Here in the United States, a recent J Street poll showed us that an overwhelming majority of American Jews favor a negotiated, fair two-state solution to the conflict.  The key is to now get the leaders to hear the messages of the people and follow their lead.  We are seeing that the Obama Administration is willing and ready to help foster these next round of talks.  Will Prime Minister Netanyahu accept and lead?  Will President Abbas be able to reign in the militants, bring Hamas to the table and form a unity government that has the authority to negotiate final agreements?  Will the leaders of these beleaguered peoples hear their cry for peace and overcome the obstacles, which are not be minimized, and forge a peace agreement?  Does the political will exist to seal the deal?  In the season of Passover, I leave these as my “four questions.”

One of the most famous midrashim, rabbinic commentaries, on the exodus story is that of Nachshon.  He is the one who, as the Israelites stood scared on the banks of the sea with endless water before them and the charging Egyptian army behind them, waded into the water up to his nostrils, risking his very life, before the sea actually began to part.  Nachshon has become a symbol of what I am calling “radical action,” steps that seem impossible, unheard of, too risky or purely irrational.  We are in need of a Nachshon today in the world of Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution.  The days of incrementalism, which is what the Oslo Accords were predicated on, are over according to Daniel Kurtzer, former US ambassador to both Israel and Egypt, in his book Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace.  It is an accepted fact that there is no military solution to this conflict.  We need radical action toward peace and reconciliation.  And, as the stronger and more powerful partner in this conflict, Israel has to be the leader, for they control most of the shots.  Here are a few radical actions I could suggest: a total settlement freeze, in action not just words, and commitment to return the most egregious settlements and settlers back into Israel; lifting the blockade on Gaza so that the humanitarian crisis can be attended to; release Marwan Bhargouti and other Palestinian prisoners in exchange for Gilad Shalit as a huge opening salvo in a new peace process; offer to sit down with the leaders of Hamas and dare them to reject the offer, thereby showing the world that Israel is ready to make peace.  These are not rational options for many people, but rational options have not worked for the past six decades.  In fact, the most “radical action” is the one that actually worked: the Six-Day War was a huge “radical action” that paid off for Israel, even as it has been the moment we are still trying to recover from.  That war changed the scope of the Middle East and could have brought about peace if, among other factors,  the settlement enterprise didn’t take over.  President Obama has shown himself to be a man that is willing to take big risks, radical action, to advance his agenda and vision.  The Israelis and Palestinians have the chance to follow his lead.

With the coming of Passover, I encourage each of us to contemplate a world where there is a state of Israel living along side a state of Palestine in peace and security.  With persistence, desire and radical action, this world doesn’t have to remain a dream but can become a reality.  I urge the American Jewish community to support the cries of the Israeli and Palestinian populaces who are working for peace and make sure President Obama knows that we are behind him as he seeks peace.  This could be our moment, our time.  And as our tradition teaches, “If not now, when?”

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center.  He welcomes your thoughts at [email protected]