Israel makes sense only from the perspective of Passover
The tradition at Passover is for the youngest child of the family to ask why this night is different from all other nights. And though my new son is only four months old – and the only thing he asks for is his mother’s breast – we are in Israel for Passover and so I have taken to trying to explain this extraordinary place to him, half in my head, half out loud. Some may accuse me of goysplaining – him being Jewish, me not. But seeing as I’m his father, he’s just going to have to get used to a lot more of where that comes from.
Israel only makes sense from the perspective of Passover. On Monday night my extended family will sit around the table in the heart of the Jerusalem forest and tell the story of how they got here. It makes little difference that these are secular people, and distrustful of Israel’s religious politics. The story they tell is from the Bible. And it is identity politics on the grand scale.
It all begins over a thousand years before the birth of Christ, in Egypt and with the most powerful pharaoh of them all, Ramses II. With his colossal building programme, Ramses sought eternity in architecture – his name and his face to be carved in stone for ever. And for this he required a huge workforce of slave labour. But Ramses’ great cities returned to the sand long ago. Instead, it was a rebellion within his apparently insignificant labour force that created a story and a sense of momentum that rings out to this day. The Greeks may have invented democracy. But the Hebrews invented freedom. And Passover is its anniversary.
Moses was an unlikely revolutionary. Lacking confidence and afflicted with a stammer, he found God in the desert and was thus inspired to lead his people out of their chains and into a hostile desert with little more than the promise of a burning bush. For 40 years, the Jews were a refugee people looking for a home. This is why the Bible is essentially refugee literature.
The reason Passover is told in different ways at different times is that history has thrown up many different enemies of the Jewish people – from the Romans who drove the Jews from their home, to the Christians fathers, to Adolf Hitler. But it was the antisemitism of secular France that prompted the early Zionist movement. In 1894, a stitch-up trail of a Jewish colonel let loose ancient forces of Jewish hatred in the French mob and gave a Hungarian journalist covering his trial reason to conclude that Jews would never be safe without a home of their own.
Thousands of years after the Exodus, the secular Theodor Herzl became the modern Moses, reviving the idea that Jews needed their own homeland. This Zionism, the return of Jews to the land of Israel, as well as the reclamation of the Hebrew language, was a miracle every bit as extraordinary as a burning, talking shrub.
Interestingly, among the words that the reborn Hebrew language had to borrow from modern languages was “history”. Like “television” and “sociology” – but rather more surprisingly – the Bible had no word for it. The nearest concept was that of memory. Remember this, remember that, the Jews are instructed. In other words, history is personal. It is my story, our story. And this also I will tell my son: that Passover is his story and he has a duty to retell it.
But this freedom story is far from concluded. For the tragedy of things as they stand is that freedom for some still means enslavement for others. And as soon as he can walk I will take my boy over to the West Bank and show him the dehumanising consequences of 50 years of occupation. This was not an empty land when Moses pointed his people here and it was not an empty land when Herzl did the same. Jewish sages over the centuries have insisted that the message of God to the Jewish people is intended as good news for all humanity. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has put it: “The Jewish people became the guardians of a vision through which, ultimately, ‘all the peoples of the earth will be blessed’.” This remains work in progress.