Demographic Threats and the Passover Story

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Then Pharaoh gave this order to all his people: “Every Hebrew boy that is born you must throw into the Nile, but let every girl live.”

Exodus 1:22

Each year, we retell the story of the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt as if it were our own liberation. Jews and non-Jews alike gather around the seder table all over the world and go through the steps of the seder. Some choose to commemorate the enslavement of the Israelites under the Egyptians as though it really happened, while others approach the story as symbolic. Exodus is an empowering, joyful story of freedom, liberation, and journey from the small, narrow places to expansiveness.
Whatever your tradition may be, the Passover story reverberates with relevance in our modern world. It is a story of resistance, struggle, community division, intermarriage, family conflict, self-doubt, and crises of faith. It is also a story of ethnic cleansing and the attempt to destroy a people perceived as the Enemy. This is a story of liberation, of an Exodus, but the conventional retelling of this story minimizes and excuses the violence perpetrated against the Other, our oppressors the Egyptians, in order to liberate “our people.” As the story goes, when a new Pharaoh took power in Egypt, he saw the Israelites as a demographic threat.
The Egyptians murdered Israelite baby boys out of a fear that the oppressed would overtaking the ruling class. Then, later, when Moses tried to convince the Pharaoh to “let my people go,” the God of the Israelites first hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not yield, and then slaughtered the firstborn sons of the Egyptians to force Pharoah to free the enslaved Israelites. This same God closed the waters of the Red Sea on the entire Egyptian army as the Israelites fled.
Today we face the reality that children are dying in both Israel and Palestine. This past summer, during the assault on Gaza, over 500 Palestinian children and one Israeli boy were killed. Already in 2015, in only three months, at least 30 Palestinian children have sustained gunshot wounds from the Israeli army’s use of live ammunition to quash protests in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Every life is precious, yet we hear very little about the lives of Palestinian children, who are considered “demographic threats” by the Israeli government.
Recently, at the 2015 Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) National Members Meeting in Baltimore, the inimitable Palestinian-American scholar Sa’ed Atshan spoke of the demographic threat that each Palestinian child presents to the Jewish state of Israel. Those who use this term express a fear of a growing Palestinian birthrate that would threaten the Jewishness of a truly democratic state with one person, and one vote. Atshan’s words on the racism and violence of this term were full of a powerful urgency that immediately brought to mind images I have seen in various Passover movies of the Egyptians ripping Israelite babies from their mothers’ breasts and throwing them to the waiting crocodiles in the Nile River.
In The Nation, Yousef Munayyer also describes his experience of being a walking, breathing, demographic threat.He writes, “I am a demographic threat; I am the son, grandson and father of demographic threats; and I am the husband of demographic spillover. I am a Palestinian citizen of Israel, and this is the language that the State of Israel, its leaders and its elites have sanctioned within their discourse to refer to me and to millions of other human beings.”
How have we come to this point? When our community sees other people’s children as threatening? When children are dehumanized and demonized as threats to Jewish dominance in the land of Israel?
Just as we mourn the loss of Israelite babies in Egypt, and just as we remove drops of wine from our cups to commemorate the Egyptian firstborn sons who were slain, so should we hold dear the thousands of Palestinian children who have been killed in the name of Israeli “security.” Let us bow our heads and take a moment of silence to remember these children, to protest their murders, and to stand in solidarity with their families.

Elana Baurer is an attorney in Philadelphia and a Jewish Voice for Peace member. An alumna of Jewish day school and AVODAH, Elana co-founded Pennsylvania Lawyers for Youth (PALY), a nonprofit focusing on educational services for recently incarcerated youth.