by: Valerie Elverton-Dixon on March 28th, 2013 | 6 Comments »
When Holy Week and Passover are the same week, the simultaneity reminds us that Jesus was not a Christian. He was a radical Jewish rabbi who called himself the Son of Man, teaching his followers to understand their tradition at its basic purpose – love for God and for all of God’s creation. The Last Supper, the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist began as a Passover meal, the purpose of which is to remember Jewish liberation from slavery in Egypt. Jesus instructed his disciples to use the table meal to remember him, and he gave a new commandment: Love one another.
Maundy Thursday commemorates this mandate to love. Thus, a Passover Maundy Thursday commemorates liberation and love.
Exodus (the movie)
I became interested in Israel/Palestine when I was a girl, and I saw Otto Preminger’s movie Exodus on television. The fine Paul Newman and the too cute Sal Mineo were fighting for the establishment of a Jewish state so that Jewish refugees from World War II could have a homeland. Their characters were handsome and brave and able to at once fall in love personally and remain committed to a larger cause. Newman, playing Ari Ben Canaan, and Mineo, playing Dov Landau, were the good guys. Dalton Trumbo wrote a screenplay that gives us much to contemplate, even today.
I was inspired by the story not only because of a little girl crush on handsome Hollywood actors, but the story of the 1948 Palestinian partition made sense within the context of the biblical exodus, and the Old Testament Bible. My Baptist born and bred mother was committed to Sunday School, and we went every Sunday. I know from all that Sunday School that God brought the Jewish people to their promised land. Beyond that, I had good relationships with Jewish people – our family doctor who cared for me as a daughter and local grocers. As I grew older, I came to love and to appreciate Jewish colleagues and friends. When I studied and taught the civil rights movement, I saw the presence of Jews in the struggle to end apartheid (apart hate) in the United States. They marched and bled and died with African-Americans and others to make a more perfect union.
I have never agreed with the idea that Zionism is equal to racism. I understand Zionism as a nationalist movement, not unlike Africentric, pan-African Black Nationalism. There has always been a strain of African-American thought that argues that black people in the Diaspora ought to understand their connection to Africa, and that black people would get respect in the various countries in which they live when Africa is independent and economically strong. I agree with this thinking.
There is no doubt that some Zionists are probably racists, but Zionism in and of itself is no more racist than any other nationalist ideal.
In Exodus we see that Ari Ben Canaan is friends with an Arab, Taha, the son of a local village ruler. They love each other as brothers. We see Jewish and Arab children going to school together. When the children from the ship Exodus come to Gan Dafna, a fictional Jewish village, Taha gives a short speech. He says:
“In the Valley of Jezreel we dwell together as friends. It is natural that we should live in peace since even our words for it are almost exactly the same. We say salaam and you shalom. Let us seal our friendship forever with that most beautiful f of Hebrew toasts – l’chaim, to life.”
This is representative of the historical reality that Jews and Arabs lived together in peace n Palestine for centuries. Some Israelis and some Palestinians are friends and allies today, but violence and fear between these two peoples make efforts to bring about a just peace difficult. When I watch the movie now, 53 years after its release in 1960, I see a more complicated story. I see how the same divisions that faced Jews working for and fighting for a Jewish state in 1948 exist among Palestinians today.
In the movie we see the division between the Haganah who, not unlike the Palestinian Authority, wanted to practice restraint, and who wanted to work through the United Nations to establish a Jewish state. The Irgun, not unlike Hamas today, used violence to bring a Jewish nation to birth. The division is represented by the rift between the Ben Canaan brothers – Barak, Ari’s father and a leader of the Haganah, and Akiva, the head of the Irgun. In a conversation with Ari, Akiva gives his rationale for terrorism:
“This is not the first time this has happened in history. I don’t know one nation existing now or in the past that was not born in violence. Terror. Violence. Death. They are the midwives that bring free nations into this world. Compromisers like Haganah only produce abortions.”
Ari makes the case that violence is counterproductive, that it weakens the Jewish moral case before the United Nations. He speaks of justice. Akiva answers with a logic of a negative ethics of violence:
“You just used the words – ‘just decision.’ May I tell you something? Firstly, justice itself is an abstraction, completely devoid of reality; secondly, to speak of justice and Jews in the same breath is a logical absurdity; thirdly, one can argue the justice of Arab claims on Palestine just as one can argue the justice of Jewish claims; fourthly, no one can say that the Jews have not had more than their share of injustice this past ten years; I therefore say fifthly let the next injustice work against someone else for a change.”
This speech is interesting to contemplate. Is justice an abstraction? I say yes because justice is never complete. We sometime define it in the negative, not unlike a negative theology that can say nothing positive about God. We look at the world around us and the inequities we see and say: this is not justice. Is justice devoid of reality? I say no because our ideas of justice do sometimes become laws and practices that aids the moral evolution of humankind, and the moral evolution of humankind changes laws and customs. We see this in reality because there is less open anti-Semitism, racism and homophobia in our world. Abstractions can become reality.
Is it absurd to speak of justice and Jews in the same breath? I understand the question in a post Holocaust moment. As a child of survivors of the Maafa, the horror of the Middle Passage, I know that there are certain human events that make justice a logical absurdity. However, I say we can and we ought to speak of justice in relation to every human individual, tribe and nation in the same breath because the meaning of justice is respect, due regard, even radical love for the Other. And just as there is no forgiveness unless we forgive the unforgivable, there is no justice unless we insist upon justice even in the face of horror and Holocaust. Without justice there can be no peace.
Akiva is right that Arabs have a just claim to Palestine and that the Jews have historically had more than their fare share of injustice. However, he is wrong to think that injustice against an enemy Other can stay within certain boundaries. Injustice knows no boundaries and will make its way back to the door of the perpetrator of injustice in the due course of time.
Passover invites us to remember this. In his book – The Family Seder: A traditional Passover Haggadah for the Modern Home – Rabbi Alfred J. Kolatch quotes Morris Joseph on the essence of Passover:
“Passover has a message for the conscience and the heart of all mankind. For what does it commemorate? It commemorates the deliverance of a people from degrading slavery, from most foul and cruel tyranny.”
Moreover Joseph tells us that Passover reminds us of God’s “protest against unrighteousness.” God is not pleased with either individual or national injustice. I say no individual, tribe, or nation enjoys ontological goodness. None is righteous by virtue of any sort of identity. It is what we do that makes us good or not. We each have the capacity and the responsibility to decide. I say the messianic age will come when we decide righteousness, justice, peace and love will rule our personal and national actions.
Further, it is important to remember that every element, even humanity itself, can be defeated. Rabbi Kolatch quotes Rabbi Judah bar Ilai who taught that for every element there is another that can overcome it. For example, iron shatters rock; fire melts iron; water extinguishes fire and so on. “But more powerful than all ten are sweet acts of charity and lovingkindness.”
In the movie Exodus, we see the simultaneous joy and sorrow when the UN votes to end the British Mandate over Palestine with a two-state solution. Still Ari, our hero, believes that Jew and Arab can live together as equal citizens in a free Israel. We see his father inviting Arabs to stay in their homes and continue their businesses. In reality, the Israeli Declaration of Independence says:
“THE STATE OF ISRAEL will be open to the immigration of Jews from all countries of their
dispersion; will promote the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants; will be
based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew Prophets; will uphold the full
social and political equality of all its citizens, without distinction of race, creed or sex; will guarantee
full freedom of conscience, worship, education and culture; will safeguard the sanctity and inviolability
of the shrines and Holy Places of all religions; and will dedicate itself to the principles of the Charter
of the United Nations.”
It also says:
“In the midst of wanton aggression, we yet call upon the Arab inhabitants of the State of Israel to
return to the ways of peace and play their part in the development of the State, with full and equal
citizenship and due representation in its bodies and institutions – provisional or permanent.” (http://stateofisrael.com/declaration)
Many Palestinian Israelis would say that they do not have “full social and political equality.” The Palestinians see the day of Israel’s birth as a Nakba, a catastrophe. The history is complicated. Some 700,000 Palestinians left the new state. Some left voluntarily while others were forced to leave their homes and property. A homeland for a homeless people created a new homeless and nation-less people.
In a funeral oration over the grave shared by an Arab and a Jew, Ari Ben Canaan says:
“It is right that these two people should lie side by side in this grave because they will share it in peace. But the dead always share the earth in peace. And that’s not enough. It’s time for the living to have a turn.” He vows that the day will come when Arab and Jew will live together in peace. This is the artistic, prophetic imagination speaking through this movie.
An Academy Award went to Ernest Gold for best original score. Sal Mineo won a Golden Globe for best supporting actor. He was nominated in this category for an Oscar. Now fast forward to 2013 and two movies nominated for Academy Awards for best documentary film are about the continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. The Gatekeepers is a film directed by Israeli director Dror Moreh that interviews six men who once led Shin Bet, Israel’s security agency. They are critical of Israel’s policies on the West Bank and Gaza.
Similarly, the movie 5 Broken Cameras– a collaborative effort by Emad Burnet, a Palestinian living in the village of Bilin on the West Bank, and Guy Davidi, a Jewish Israeli– tells the story of non-violent protests against Israeli settlements and against the dividing wall that encroached upon Palestinian land near Bilin. We see the sacrifice and the suffering of the Palestinians. It shows the tragedy of Palestinian protestors killed by the Israeli Defense Force and of olive trees bulldozed by the Israeli government and burned by settlers. Neither of these films will inspire sympathy for Israel.
Yet, this Holy Week Passover, I am still hopeful. I hope in the power of remembrance that God is able to liberate us from the bondage of intractable conflicts. I hope in the mandate of Rabbi Jesus to love one another with a love so radical that it even loves enemies. I hope in the power of friendship and of solidarity. In 5 Broken Cameras we see Jewish Israelis and activists from all over the world protesting the wall and the confiscation of Palestinian land. The Israeli courts ruled against the government and the wall was rerouted.
And I was reminded today of an effort by ordinary Iranians and ordinary Israelis to friend each other on Facebook. The idea is that if ordinary people get to know each other through social media, it will be more difficult for governments to demonize the Other as an enemy that must be destroyed in war. Fear comes with ignorance, and this is a way for people to dispel the ignorance that leads to fear and to violence.
Both Passover and Holy Week require us to remember. At the same time they ask us to trust and believe in a transcendence that is holy, who is Divine Love loving us out of bondage and into the light of radical love.