Dayenu

Tonight is the first night of Passover.

This is a night for celebrating Jewish liberation from slavery with friends and family. Jews first came to Egypt during a famine and lived as guests a short while, but then in a bitter turn became slaves under Pharaoh. Only after generations of suffering, and only by miracles and plagues demonstrated to Pharaoh and his sorcerers and military, were the Israelites able to gain their freedom. A final miracle — clearing a path for the Israelites across a dry sea bed — brought forty years of wandering in the desert before the establishment of their own kingdom.

This, in a nutshell, is the story told at Passover. It is both a story of liberation and persecution (“In every generation they rise up against us)”. For many liberal Jews there’s far too much of the supernatural and too much about one peoples’ story. For this reason many of us prefer to see our story as the universal struggle for freedom. In our family we sing “Go Down Moses” as poorly as we do “Dayenu.” In years past we’ve had an orange to signify gay liberation. We’ve had an olive for Palestinian freedom. When conducting a seder, in fact, innovation is a requirement. What always brings life to Passover is the truth that — in every generation they rise up against someone.

Dayenu — literally “enough” — is a song with fifteen questions that begins by asking if it would have been enough for god to bring us out of Egypt, to part the sea, to provide manna, and it ends with the building of the temple. The grateful answer to each question in turn is — yes, this would surely have been enough even without all the other gifts.

But one question Dayenu doesn’t ask is what would have happened if the Israelites had met immigration agents in the desert. What would the arc of history have been if we were sent back into Egyptian slavery?

Dayenu doesn’t ask what the descendants of the Israelites would be expected to do with 40,000 African refugees who — just like their own ancestors — travelled thousands of miles across deserts to Israel and now sit in detention centers awaiting deportation. Or Palestinians, who have lived under martial law almost twice as long as the Israelites wandered the desert.

Dayenu doesn’t ask what kind of society we are obliged to create to treat fellow human beings better than we were treated by Pharaoh — an especially relevant question this year as the number of police murders of black men is exploding. And at a time white Americans still continue to rise up against African-Americans, even after centuries.

Dayenu never asks, but the seder certainly points at, the seemingly endless procession of new Pharaohs emerging on the world stage — strutting dictators surrounded by their modern-day sorcerers and charioteers. A plague on all of them; they certainly do rise in every generation.

Dayenu doesn’t ask, but the implication seems clear to me, that those who have found their freedom are now obligated to help others realize their own liberation. After all, didn’t the Israelites take the mixed multitudes with them out of slavery?

For some it is enough to recognize persecution and victimization. Dayenu. For others it’s enough to recognize persecution and demand liberation. Dayenu. But for liberation to be truly realized, as the Passover story reminds us, injustice and cruelty must be directly challenged and crushed.

Chag pesach sameach.

Brothers and Sisters

We Boomers lament our waning powers if not the short time left to us. Many of us also shed tears for what might have been — changes that could have truly made the world a different place. But history won’t be kind to us for our failures and omissions. Today the world we’ve savaged is in worse shape than ever.

Of course, numerous impediments to change have always stood in the way — money, power, law, religion, capitalism, ignorance, apathy — for starters. Yet all of us either jumped whole-heartedly or dipped a reluctant toe into the system, inevitably playing our part in preserving injustices that have afflicted the nation right from the start. When we are finally gone I suspect we won’t be greatly missed.

Whether it’s just a fleeting hashtag or something greater, something like a movement is growing following the slaughter of seventeen high school students in Florida — a movement some have called a Children’s Crusade, one the religiously-inclined see echoing the words of Isaiah 11:6 — “and a small child shall lead them.” The sentiment has its appeal — a pure, new beginning.

But the children of the March for Our Lives movement — these sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters — are no ordinary children. These young victims of school shootings have acknowledged gun violence throughout our society. They seem to recognize intersectionality that never occurred to many of us. These young people are well-informed and fierce, and they promise to be a political force to be reckoned with. At least one hopes.

Yesterday our group of mostly older activists piled into a school bus headed for March for Our Lives in Boston. There was a distinct feeling we were there to support their efforts. It was clearly their movement, their moment, their debut. For me it was a poignant, bittersweet moment — one generation passing into irrelevance as another took up its challenges.

I also felt that these were no longer simply children to be protected. These were newly-forged Brothers and Sisters in one of a number of long-simmering national struggles.

Better than a hashtag, a moment, or a movement, I hope this represents a generational reset. As these young folks grasp political power they will need to consider all the insidious institutions they have inherited, recognize the links between violence in our communities and the violence American militarism wreaks throughout the world, and the racism and violence inherent in growing American authoritarianism.

These young Brothers and Sisters — and all who come after them — must not merely hold politicians accountable but reform the political and economic systems at the root of so many problems. And as these younger activists fill the ranks of political institutions the aging leadership must also gracefully, and rapidly, make way for them.

Our generation may not be finished with our work. But our time is up.

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Photos from yesterday’s march in Boston (click to enlarge):

Thirteen Democratic Senators

I’ve written about this before and it is now closer to becoming law. The Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720) is a piece of legislation promoted by a foreign nation that will violate the civil liberties of Americans. It joins recent laws in Turkey and Poland criminalizing “insults” to a nation. But it is fundamentally a form of thought control that has no place in a democracy.

S.720 is co-sponsored by 51 U.S. Senators. To their shame, thirteen are Democrats: Michael Bennet (CO); Richard Blumenthal (CT); Maria Cantwell (WA); Christopher Coons (DE); Joe Donnelly (IN); Margaret Hassan (NH); Joe Manchin (WV); Claire McCaskill (MO); Robert Menendez (NJ); Bill Nelson (FL); Gary Peters (MI); Charles Schumer (NY); and Ron Wyden (OR).

S.720 criminalizes speech and forbids political expression. The Anti-Israel Boycott Act is basically a Sedition Act in disguise which punishes any American joining a boycott to oppose the Israeli government’s occupation of Palestinians with a fine of up to $1 million or imprisonment up to 20 years.

S.720 wants to have it both ways — doing the bidding of a foreign nation (Israel) while punishing Americans from following boycotts suggested by a foreign entity (the UN and the still-stateless Palestinian people).

Whether the bill is eventually successful or not, the ACLU notes the harm it has already done:

“On its face, the bill appears to directly prohibit boycott activity that is protected under the First Amendment. Even if the bill could be interpreted more narrowly, as some of its supporters claim, its broad language could still chill protected expression by scaring people into self-censorship. Either way, the bill would impose serious First Amendment harms.”

According to S.720’s subsection (a)(1) the bill criminalizes even gathering information about companies doing business in Israel or in occupied Palestinian territories. You post an inquiry on Facebook — for example, does Sodastream manufacture its products in the West Bank? The next thing you know, you face arrest or a fine.

Besides violating the rights of Americans, S.720 is a perfect example of the sort of foreign meddling that Democrats claim to hate. S.720 is promoted by numerous pro-Israel groups like AIPAC whose single focus on promoting Israeli interests should require it to register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). Even Canada is obliged to register its lobbyists but no such limitations apply to AIPAC, which literally pays American legislators to work for Israel’s interests.

Imagine if Russian lobbyists did the same — worked through a group we’ll call ARPAC — the American Russian Political Action Committee — to create legislation to criminalize sanctions against Russia and its oligarchs. Or imagine ATPAC — the American Turkish Political Action Committee — buying support to keep Americans from mentioning the Armenian Genocide or protesting Turkey’s treatment of Kurdish people.

What’s especially galling to Americans is that the Senate is telling us we can’t take political action against a foreign country knee deep in corruption — a country with a prime minister about to be indicted for criminal conspiracy. A country in which the former prime minister went to jail for bribery and influence-peddling. The Senate needs to be reminded: Israel is not our 51st state.

S.720 echoes laws in Israel which have already criminalized the BDS movement in “the Middle East’s only democracy.” The Senate bill also joins a growing list of American “gag” legislation written for agribusiness, anti-abortion zealots, and pipeline companies. The Trump administration now seems eager to join its authoritarian counterparts in China, Russia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Poland, the Philippines, and elsewhere in policing the views of its citizens.

And thirteen Democratic senators, including Chuck Schumer, are just fine with that.