No Jewish Liberation with Israeli Occupation

Our History of Resistance Compels Us to Resist the OccupationThis Passover and Every Day

 Photo Courtesy of IfNotNow. More information at https://www.our5thquestionforhillel.com/

Photo Courtesy of IfNotNow. More information at https://www.our5thquestionforhillel.com/

As Passover nears, set to begin at the end of the month, we once again explore the Jewish holiday of liberation. Our rich tradition imparts the importance of mitzvot (deeds of loving kindness), tikkun olam (repairing the world), and cheshbon hanefesh (reflecting upon one’s soul). In the 1st century BCE, Hillel the Elder asked three central questions to guide Jewish practice: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” His prompts resonate to this day, encouraging us to act immediately and forcefully for others as we would for ourselves.

Many Jewish organizations claim that the Jewish people are supposed to feel an unwavering connection to Israel; that Israel is homeland to all Jews and no one else; and that due to increasing anti-Semitism throughout the world, we ought to champion the State of Israel regardless of its policies. Yet, Israel’s illegal military occupation of Palestinian territory is wholly unjustifiable. A moral catastrophe, it desecrates Jewish principles and creates a daily nightmare for Palestinians, from home demolitions to endless checkpoints to the imprisonment of children like Ahed Tamimi.

As Jewish members of the Swarthmore community and as American Jews living in this political moment, we share the hunger for authentic Jewish life on campus that embraces both our religious traditions and our values. We also know that Judaism, at its core, is rooted in social justice. Together, we stand on the shoulders of our ancestors — courageous leaders who, even under the most trying circumstances, summoned the strength to speak truth to power.

The story of Passover itself highlights our community’s resilience and determination. Abraham’s descendants arrived in Egypt long ago, but when a new pharaoh came to power, he enslaved the Israelites, fearing their growing numbers and influence. After many years, God spoke to a man named Moses and commanded him to talk to Pharaoh to let Moses’ people — the Israelites — go. Despite Pharaoh’s repeated refusals, Moses persisted, even warning that God would punish Pharaoh and his people if he did not free the Israelites. Finally, after ten plagues, including the death of Pharaoh’s firstborn, he agreed. After fleeing Egypt, Moses received the Ten Commandments from God, a central tenet of Judaism. In other words, we would not be who we are today as a Jewish community if not for Moses’ perseverance, fortitude, and moral compass.

During the Holocaust, Jews again resisted efforts to persecute and destroy their community. On April 19th, 1943, the eve of Passover, the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland resisted the Nazis’ final effort to transport the remaining Ghetto population to Treblinka, a Nazi death camp. Armed with homemade weapons, the Jewish resistance fought against planned deportations. Despite a police crackdown, even burning the Ghetto down one block at a time, individuals and small groups continued to evade capture for nearly a month. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising remains an incredibly important example of forceful Jewish resistance to oppression and even death and inspired uprisings in other ghettos and death camps, including Treblinka.

Jewish resistance has historically included opposition within our own communities and institutions — just like any other group, Jews are not a monolith, and resistance to Zionism within the global Jewish community is as old as Zionism itself. One strong source of opposition to Zionism was Bundism, a secular Jewish socialist movement with its roots in the General Jewish Labour Bund founded in 1897 in the Russian Empire. From its founding, the Bundism movement believed in focusing on improving the material realities of Jews living in the diaspora rather than on building a separate Jewish state. In fact, Bundists strongly criticized the idea that Jews should have to leave their homes in order to move to a supposed “safe haven” rather than fight to make their own homes safe for them.

As Zionism gained political influence and plans for the creation of the State of Israel began to form, Bundists continued to criticize the formation of a new, Zionist state. The Jewish Labour Bund opposed the United Nations General Assembly’s vote to partition Palestine in 1947 and reaffirmed its support for a single bi-national country that would guarantee equal rights for all Jews and Palestinians within its borders.

At a conference in 1955, the International Jewish Labor Bund, a New York-based international organization built on the legacy of the original General Jewish Labour Bund, acknowledged that the creation of a Jewish state was an important moment in Jewish history. At the same time, the organization asserted that the only way that the State could truly play a positive role in global Jewish life would be if it enacted a few crucial changes, including ensuring equal government policies towards all citizens regardless of nationality and fostering peace by specifically halting territorial expansion and resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis. From the earliest days of Zionism to the founding of the State of Israel, our ancestors knew that our liberation is bound up with the liberation of Palestinians and that Occupation is wrong for all of those involved.

This Passover, we say: Enough. We cannot spend another year remembering our biblical Exodus without confronting the Israeli Occupation that oppresses so many today. We must extend our community’s tradition of fighting for liberation and social justice to a commitment to ending the Occupation and holding our institutions accountable for their reprehensible actions or shameful inaction. We must talk honestly about the plight of Palestinians. In order to truly liberate ourselves and build a thriving, joyous Jewish community, we must actively fight to liberate all peoples.

Students are already organizing on campus to uphold our community’s values and to fight for freedom and dignity for all. Last month, Swarthmore Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) released a petition calling for an end to the sale of Sabra products at campus locations. Sabra is owned by Strauss Group, a multinational corporation that invests in the Golani Brigade, a military unit of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) known for particularly brutal human rights abuses, even by the IDF’s dismal standards. And last week, more students launched a petition urging Kehilah to host a Freedom and Dignity Seder to talk openly about the Occupation this Passover. Although small, these initial steps are vital for transforming our community’s support for the Occupation into meaningful resistance and progressive change.

Each Passover, we further our understanding of our shared fight for social justice. We ask the Four Questions and read, “You shall not oppress a stranger...for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 22:20). With our Jewish legacy of activism in mind, we must keep marching on the path towards freedom and dignity for all peoples. This Passover, we must ask ourselves and our community institutions two additional questions: Will we talk openly about the Occupation at our seders? If not now, when?

Editor's Note: Kehilah's Seder-planning committee is currently in the process of planning a Freedom and Dignity Seder. This Seder is open to the entire campus community and will take place on March 31st at 5PM in Bond Hall. 


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