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Is anti-Zionism anti-Semitism? Is denying the Jewish people their right to independence in their ancestral homeland an acceptable opinion among civilized people, or a racist bias, a prejudiced position no decent person could possibly hold?
On Passover we celebrate the freeing of the Israelite slaves from a murderous, barbaric Egyptian regime, a regime which not only enslaved the Jews, but also murdered their male infants. The message of freedom, equality, and justice, which Pesach celebrates, is clear. The fact that this holiday, and this message, is so central to the Jewish sensibility is something that we, as Jews, have every right to be extremely proud of – as long as we live up to it, of course.
Let’s take a look at what it is God actually expected of – demanded from – the Egyptians, in terms of the rights which they should have granted the Israelites. When God first appears to Moshe, he makes His plan for the Jewish people clear: they will be taken out of Egyptian slavery and brought to the land of Canaan, which God had promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. It would appear that nothing short of independence, in their own land, governing themselves according to their own beliefs, is what is demanded here by the Israelites from the Egyptians.
Interestingly, however, this is not the demand which God instructs Moshe to make of Pharaoh. Instead, he is told to ask for something much less dramatic: a short holiday, during which the Israelite slaves would leave Egypt, go out into the desert, and worship their God, after which they would return. God tells Moshe that Pharaoh will not agree to this minimalist request, even after great plagues, but, nonetheless, this is the demand you need to make.
Now, we can understand this as a trick: ask for the vacation, leave, and then never go back, escaping, instead, to Canaan. At the end of the Exodus story this is, in fact, what happens: after the slaves leave, the Egyptians, even after suffering the ten plagues, want them to come back, and when they don’t, they chase after them, right into the Red Sea. However, one can understand this differently.
What if Pharaoh had agreed? What if he had allowed the Israelite slaves to take their religious holiday? One can infer that that would have been the end of the story. The Israelites would have gone, worshipped, celebrated their God, and returned. Because, given a reasonable level of civil rights – the ability to take time off, to worship as you see fit, to maintain one’s own religion and culture – there would be no real need for an independent land of the Jewish people; they could have managed reasonably well in Egypt. According to this understanding, the request for a few days off is not a trick, it’s a test. Pass it, and we will remain your slaves, as the framework in which we are enslaved is reasonable, and, to a sufficient degree, fair.
But wait a minute – what about the Land of Israel? What about the promise to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov? Could it be possible that a reasonable life in Egypt, with time off to be practicing Jews, would have been acceptable, and a full-blown, independent Jewish state might be unnecessary?
Well, here’s the thing: God, when instructing Moshe to just ask for a holiday, also tells him that He knows Pharaoh will not acquiesce. He knows what tyrants are like, what xenophobic dictators are like, in fact, He knows what the world is really like: this leader, and these people, will not be fair, or reasonable, to their slaves. The only solution, in such a world, in such a reality, the only real guarantee of a nation’s various freedoms – to worship, to take time off, to live as they see fit - is freedom, independence, and self-determination. That is the only real guarantee of your rights as Jews: to live freely and independently as Jews, and not as slaves in a foreign land who are perhaps given, now and again, a few rights – or not, as the case may be. That granting of rights is, in theory, always rescindable, making it no right at all.
In a perfect world, it may be reasonable to let go of the maximalist nationalist demand and simply live as Jews, with some rights, and some freedoms, in Egypt. But God is teaching us here that “Pharaoh will not let you go” – even for a few days, just to worship – because that is the way of power when dealing with strangers, with the weak: their rights may sometimes be granted, but are not guaranteed. To be dependant on the good will of others is not freedom.
And that is why it is racist to be an anti-Zionist: denying a people their freedom and autonomy is the act of a Pharaoh. The only reason that otherwise reasonable people call themselves anti-Zionists (there are many unreasonable ones, real haters, real racists, real Islamist imperialists, who are also against the existence of a Jewish state, but they are not worth thinking about too much; we know what’s wrong with them) is because they mistakenly believe that we are free enough if we live in America, Canada, the UK, or elsewhere in the West. They mistakenly believe that “Pharaoh” (and by this I mean a non-Jewish power, the power of others, even nice, reasonable, democratic others) will always let us go and worship freely. They mistakenly think that Jews have enough rights and enough freedom in a country which is not theirs, so why do they need more? Why do they need to guarantee those freedoms themselves?
Now, I don’t know why these people, who do seem to understand that other nations, in order to guarantee their freedoms, and their particular ways of exercising them, need and deserve the full and absolute right to run their own affairs, don’t think that Jews, one of the oldest and most beleaguered nations in the world, with a presence in and connection to their homeland that goes back millennia, don’t. But whatever the reason, the position is untenable, racist, and murderous, given the neighborhood we live in (and by that I mean not only the Middle East, I mean the world). In a world which recognizes the right of self-determination for all, it is profoundly biased. I hope that this Passover, when they sit around the seder table - or don’t - they come to their senses, and understand what God explained to Moshe so very long ago: to be free of Pharaoh we can not depend on this or that right being granted to us by him – we have to be free.
Rabbi Shimon Felix