“You shall not oppress the stranger [immigrant] because you know the soul of the stranger, for you yourselves were immigrants in the land of Egypt”
“The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe in the river; and her maidens walked along by the river-side; and she saw the ark among the flags, and sent her handmaid to fetch it. She opened it, and saw it, even the child; and behold a boy that wept. And she had compassion on him, and said: ‘This is one of the Hebrews’ children.’ Then said his sister to Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘Shall I go and call thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?’ Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: ‘Go.’ And the maiden went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her: ‘Take this child away, and nurse it for me, and I will give thee thy wages.’ And the woman took the child, and nursed it. The child grew, and she brought him unto Pharaoh’s daughter, and he became her son. And she called his name Moses, and said: ‘Because I drew him out of the water.”
Exodus 2:2 ff.
Tonight is the first night of Passover. On that theme: yesterday, I saw a wonderful Facebook graphic composed by Amir Schiby. It features the traditional Moses-in-the-bulrushes theme with Pharaoh’s daughter and Miriam, Moses sister, along with the baby Moses in a basket in the Nile.
Given that this is work by Schiby, there is an ironic subtext for the graphic. The caption says:
Meantime on the Yarkon [River]:
Pharaoh’s daughter: Another Sudanese infant. The crocodiles will be out tonight.
The backdrop to this graphic is the predicament of African refugees from Ethiopia and Sudan who travel hundreds of miles across barren deserts to find refuge in Israel. Once there, they face a fierce and mounting level of racism and violence from nationalist Israelis in the mold of the English EDP, Jean Marie Le Pen and other European anti-immigrant groups. There have been riots in Tel Aviv and MKs, including some pictured in the graphic (Likud MK Miri Regev plays Pharaoh’s daughter), have goaded them on with rhetoric that calls the refugees a “cancer” and worse.
Unlike Pharaoh’s daughter in the original Biblical story, who saves the infant Moses, Miri Regev and her other racist MK friends are going to throw this poor Sudanese baby to the Israeli crocodiles. The ones who lie in wait somewhere in the poor neighborhoods of Tel Aviv, where racism flourishes as well as want.
Schiby’s brilliant work reminds us that we too were once strangers in an African land. We too faced persecution and murderous racism. We too were viewed as aliens and foreign enemies of the state. The underlying message is that if we forget our history and its connection to the history of other peoples, we will lose our humanity. Further, we will betray our own Jewish heritage by ignoring the suffering of the stranger in violation of the explicit command of the Book of Exodus.
A further incendiary thought: what is the Nakba but yet another mass expulsion in which a people was rendered homeless by the massed power of the Israeli state? If you think of the Palestinians of Israel driven from their villages by the Palmach and the horsemen and chariots of Pharaoh’s army pursuing the Children of Israeli into the Red Sea, they are historical mirror images.
I have written a great deal in past years on the Passover holiday and its themes. I hope you’ll read some of my pieces which deserve attention. In 2010, I wrote a longer blog post on the themes above. I produced an hour-long radio documentary of Passover music. I also wrote this meditation on the power and meaning of the Abraham and Moses stories for contemporary Jewish identity. I also translated a Sholem Aleichem children’s Passover story about Elijah the Prophet.