What’s Our Story? by Rabbi Josh Weinberg
Friday January 5, 2023 – כ״ד טֵבֵת תשפ”ד
“Joseph died, and all his brothers, and all that generation. But the Israelites were fertile and prolific; they multiplied and increased very greatly, so that the land was filled with them. A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of war they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.” So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor; and they built garrison cities for Pharaoh: Pithom and Raamses. But the more they were oppressed, the more they increased and spread out, so that the [Egyptians] came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians ruthlessly imposed upon the Israelites.” (Exodus 1:5-9)
This week we crossed the 90-day mark of this war and saw significant developments. On Monday, January 1, 2024, the Israeli Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision upholding the reasonableness doctrine, a key pillar of judicial review. In doing so, it struck down the only component of the current government’s attempted legal coup that passed in the Knesset. This is the first time in Israel’s history that the Supreme Court struck down a Basic Law, a type of legislation that is supposed to function as Israel’s constitution. This is a significant and controversial ruling that was critical in preserving Israel’s democracy even during a time of war. To read more about it see IRAC’s Executive Director Orly Erez Likhovsky’s analysis.
On Tuesday, an Israeli drone assassinated Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri. It gave Israelis and their supporters a sense that, even though the war in Gaza is still very much ongoing, and it will for many more months, Israeli officials remind us, even if Hamas, while batteredת is far from demolished, Israel remains powerful and able to deal a significant blow to the leadership of Hamas where ever they are located, inside or outside of Gaza. Arouri was not only viewed as one of the master planners of Hamas’s October 7 massacre but was also one of its main liaisons to Lebanon and Iran. He was credited with giving the order to organize a significant terror operation in 2014 that led to the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers – a terror attack which itself eventually led to the Gaza conflict that year.
This week we also begin to read the book of Exodus, which can be seen as the foundational and formative answer to who we are as a people and the story we tell ourselves about ourselves (much more than the book of Genesis). When taught who we are as a people, our master story teaches that we are the children of Abraham and Sarah who were slaves in Egypt, rose up and were liberated from the house of bondage, and sojourned towards the Promised Land where we were to live as a free people. It is a classic narrative and one we reinforce annually at our Pesach seders and daily in our prayers.
At the heart of our story is oppression.
To be a Jew, we are taught, was to have been a slave. To have been an oppressed people, and the more we were oppressed the more we increased and spread out causing the powerful Egyptians to fear us and double down on their oppression. Being an oppressed people is a central theme in our lachrymose Jewish history since we were enslaved in Egypt until contemporary times. According to Professor Shaul Magid, “Jewish oppression has been baked into the covenantal experience, into the self-fashioning of the Jews, and arguably has become a cornerstone of Judaism.”1
Are we today to continue our biblical foundation as an oppressed people or can we do away with that beleaguered distinction and move on? And why does it matter?
Magid continues: “A subtext to the discussion of oppression and antisemitism is power: Oppression is not simply a state of hatred – it is an exercise in power.”
It is easy to fall into the false binary of oppressed vs. oppressor. Oppressor groups are today’s strong, wealthy ethno-racial groups, and oppressed groups are the weaker, poorer and powerless groups who have little or no power because they have been deprived of this by the Oppressors. Oppressed groups are fundamentally noble while Oppressor groups are fundamentally not so.
A poll conducted this July showed 62 percent of Gazans supported Hamas “maintaining a ceasefire with Israel.” We can safely infer from this that most Gazans would have preferred Hamas to not carry out its recent attack; which, of course, makes their current suffering under Israel’s reprisals all the more tragic and horribly unfair. Paulo Freire, in his landmark book Pedagogy of the Oppressed, argued that “with the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun …Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed…Force is used not by those who have become weak under the preponderance of the strong, but by the strong who have emasculated them.”
Under this logic, Hamas could never be blamed for an attack on Israel because, and follow the logic here, it was the Israelis who initiated the violent relationship of oppression with the Palestinians. In this worldview, the moral evaluation of an act is dependent less on the characteristic of the act itself but on who perpetrated the act: Oppressed or Oppressor? The Oppressed hold the moral high ground by virtue of being oppressed. Their lives constitute a struggle to no longer be oppressed, as should be obvious to any fair-minded observer. The oppression of the Oppressed is strong evidence of their morality and that they are not as prone to violence as their Oppressors.
But this logic is flawed. Our moral outrage at injustice, not to mention violence, should not be conditional on the ethno-racial category of the perpetrators. We should feel as compelled to condemn violence against Jews as violence against Palestinians. The incredibly high death toll in Gaza and the horrific humanitarian conditions are not helping Israel’s strategic goal of providing security for its citizens. If we say one of these acts is somehow ok, then indeed “morality is simply an attitude we adopt towards people we dislike,” as Oscar Wilde suggested.
After 91 days of fighting, the situation in Gaza is dire. The starvation and disease are reaching levels that are unfathomable to many in the Western world (for more on this see this Haaretz report). It would be in Israel’s interest to come to their aid and enable an international coalition of support to alleviate the untenable emergency situation there. It doesn’t matter that Hamas is ultimately morally culpable for the situation, which it is, and that sympathy for the Palestinian people has, by and large, not been on the agenda for the average Israeli.
Centuries of oppression have led us, even 125 years after the beginning of our own national liberation movement, to often see ourselves as oppressed, as victims, and as a vulnerable people. October 7 perpetuated and reinforced this feeling for many Israelis, who hear the calls for ceasefire from abroad and hear them as calls for the end of the Jewish State. At the same time, those who call for ceasefire see themselves as upholding the moral line devised from our ancient Jewish sources.
Here’s the thing. We Jews can be both powerful and victims at the same time. Many Jews in the Diaspora feel a sense of belonging, affluence, and powerful in their own countries and societies, yet lament the feeling of being excluded from a status of oppressed people because our self-image as an oppressed people is so baked-in historically in the Jewish psyche.
As we experience our narrative unfold from oppressed people to those who are masters of our own destiny, let us embrace both truths and do what we can to help those who are in need.