April 16, 2014

THROWDOWN THURSDAY: Once We Were Slaves

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By ERIC PESNER

This week, I, along with Jewish people across the globe, began to celebrate the holiday of Passover. One of the most important ways in which Jewish people mark Passover is through the retelling of the Biblical story of the Exodus from Egypt. As I read the story in the Haggadah, one sentence stuck with me this year — “Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free.”

Pondering the implications of this line, I could not help to be drawn to the controversy of the past week about the Student Assembly’s tabling of Resolution 72. When Moses led the Jewish people out of bondage in Egypt, it wasn’t into a freedom destined to last. Since that time, the Jewish people have faced captivities and expulsions, violence and injustices, pogroms and a Holocaust. We were a people wandering in the wilderness, a nation without a state, with no country to call our own. That is, until 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel. The hope of Israel is that the Jewish people can have a place — a home — to fulfill that line in the Haggadah and be free.

But that hope is not exclusive to the Jewish people. It is a hope shared by the Palestinian people as well. The Palestinians are still a nation wandering in the wilderness and they also long for a state of their own. And far too often, Israel and its supporters are the ones standing in the way.

When the Student Assembly tabled Resolution 72, its supporters reacted with fury in their defeat and its opponents reveled in their victory. They all then began to claw their way to the moral high ground for the next battle. The resolution’s supporters proclaimed again their fight against oppression and the resolution’s opponents lauded themselves for being so pro-peace. The opponents also claimed to be in favor of dialogue and criticized the supporters for being divisive and unproductive — even though it was the opponents of the resolution who blocked debate. If we at Cornell cannot sit down and talk to each other about this, how can we expect those in Israel and Palestine to do the same?

The two sides on this issue seem to be at war with each other. They seem to do everything in their power to lambaste each other, which accomplishes nothing. The supporters of Palestine pursue harmful actions such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and Resolution 72 which do little but alienate many potential allies of the Palestinians within the pro-Israel community. And the supporters of Israel have shown little willingness to listen to the legitimate grievances from the other side as we saw in the Student Assembly last week. Everyone on both sides claims to be in favor of peace, yet all they seem to do is fight.

Continuing to think about that line from the Haggadah also reminded me of something else – not everyone is free yet. In a Pew poll last year, a majority of American Jews said that working for justice and equality is essential to being Jewish. I am immensely proud of the long history of the Jewish people fighting for social justice — from standing with Martin Luther King Jr. in favor of civil rights to fighting with Nelson Mandela against apartheid. But the fight is not yet done.

While we at Cornell have been arguing about what is a good dialogue to have on campus, injustices have been claiming victories around the world. The Sultanate of Brunei in Southeast Asia decided last week to make being stoned to death the new punishment for being gay. Anti-Western militants attacked a school in Nigeria and kidnapped over 100 schoolgirls. And people across the globe are continuing their struggles against oppressive governments.

For me, being Jewish is in part about standing up against injustice everywhere. And this struggle for justice is in part what led me to become a Democrat. From the intersection of these two communities, I can see courageous people in both groups standing up for the rights of people in the United States and around the world, for the rights of women, of LGBT people and of racial and religious minorities.

However, in both communities, voices for justice often remain quiet when faced with the issue of Israel and Palestine. These voices either seek some safe middle ground or seek to hide from the issue altogether. But if we are truly to fulfill the hope of Israel echoed in the Haggadah, and create a world in which everyone can be free, then we must be willing to listen to each other. We cannot hide from this problem like the Student Assembly tried to do. I think Resolution 72 was a bad idea, but it couldn’t have hurt to listen to both sides.

Once we were slaves in Egypt, and now we are free. But a free and secure Israel can only exist in a free and secure world. Just because we are free now doesn’t mean we can’t be slaves again. If there’s one thing that I’ve taken away from this Passover, it’s that my freedom is bound to everyone else’s, and we all have to work together to make sure that freedom lasts.

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