Exodus amnesia

The Jewish world must redouble our efforts and support for youth movements and student organizations.

Hunger strike on behalf of Prisoner of Zion Alexei Amagarik, 1987 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Hunger strike on behalf of Prisoner of Zion Alexei Amagarik, 1987
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The tastes, texts and theatrics of the Passover Seder have been a potent vaccine against forgetting that we were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt and miraculously escaped to freedom.
This seminal story, roughly 3,700 years old, is a redemptive narrative that is recalled every Shabbat eve, in the civil rights speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. and others, and was even suggested by Benjamin Franklin to be the defining narrative of the American Revolution.
One wonders about the sense of awe that the bewildered Israelites felt as the plagues hit the Egyptians, as the sea splashed open, as our enemies gasped for air. How could the Israelites not feel the power of their experience as anything but miraculous and defining, worthy of eternal celebration? As potent as this distant memory is to us, especially during Passover, it stands in contradistinction to the exodus amnesia of our generation. Could it be that we have witnessed signs and wonders, redemption and freedom, on an Israelite scale and have already forgotten the miracle? Let us examine the record. The escape from Egypt featured an active God in history, plenty of supernatural interventions, and we are told 600,000 men stood at Mount Sinai, so it is several million people who left Egypt. And there is plenty of death and destruction of our enemies.
The aliya of Soviet and Ethiopian Jewries may not have had a Moses or an obviously active God in history, but they are, perhaps, too, of monumental theological and historical importance. I subscribe to the Natan Sharansky philosophy that I, too, believe in miracles – created by people.
The fruits of the Soviet Jewry movement, including Operation Exodus, brought over a million souls to Israel and a similar number to the US and elsewhere – without firing a single shot or drowning an army. The Ethiopian Jewry movement of the last 40 years brought home an entire historic community, transporting people not only thousands of kilometers but also leapfrogging 2,000 years of Jewish and human development.
These miracles are treated as footnotes, taken for granted as one of those stories that the Jewish people and Israel had managed to pull off but not relevant to us, as the rebellious child would point out at the Seder.
I was in Moscow in 1998 leading a delegation from the Union of Councils for Soviet Jews to train the next generation of human rights activists. As we began, it quickly became clear that with the emigration of the leadership of Soviet Jewry, there was no institutional memory even there about how the Soviet Jewry movement was won. Less than a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, “exodus amnesia” had settled in not only among Jews of the West, but also of the former Soviet Union.
Passover Seders in the 1970s and ’80s featured the Matza of Hope, a fourth matza slipped into the traditional mix on behalf of Soviet Jews. The bitter herbs were not only for recalling the taste of slavery, but also of the condition of Prisoners of Zion and refusenik families. Then beautiful, colorful handwoven matza covers began to appear on Seder tables, made by Jews in Addis Ababa and Gondar as they awaited their redemption. A generation of free Jews celebrated Passover as a relevant rallying cry, as a generation of Jews longing for freedom found an age-old story in which to experience their own.
Addis Ababa, 1998Addis Ababa, 1998
Elie Wiesel’s The Jews of Silence, published after a trip to the Soviet Union in 1965, was part of the awakening, as were the student demonstrations outside the UN. And over a million Jews were freed, while opening up emigration and religious freedom for others. This Passover we can and must declare that the Soviet Jewry movement was the most successful human rights movement in the history of the world, and it was the result of global Jewish action, bolstered by alliances with other people of good conscience.
THIS STORY needs to be woven into all of our Passover celebrations once again.
Not only because the everyday heroes of this mass movement are likely to be at one’s table, but because it serves as positive testimony to what a global Jewish people with Israel at its center can accomplish.
When I made aliya to Kibbutz Ketura in 2006 with my family and began, with David Rosenblatt of New Jersey and Ed Hofland of Ketura, the solar power industry, the Soviet Jewry movement served as my playbook. Israeli politicians and investors declared that our efforts would fail because of the legendary politics and bureaucracy of the Jewish state. Yet I used to specialize in freeing Prisoners of Zion during the bad old KGB days. If I could free Alexei Magarik, a Hebrew teacher, from solitary confinement in Siberia, I reasoned, then surely we would be able to change some laws and regulations in our own country.
And we did. A few weeks ago, David, Ed and I interconnected five more large solar fields to the national grid, providing green energy in an effort to not only enhance Israeli energy independence, but to bolster the global campaign to fight climate change.
The audacity of the movements to free oppressed Jews is a helpful backdrop to winning the fight against extreme climate change. It took a global people, with a universal freedom narrative from Egypt, to dream and act and succeed.
When I speak with climate activists around the world, the discussion has shifted from winning the battle against climate change to merely coping with its inevitable negative effects. Except with Jews.
The only people I have met on my climate journeys who believe we can actually beat back global warming and climate change are Jews, especially those who grew up during the heyday of Soviet Jewry activism. The Passover story is an ancient one of hope; the victory of the Soviet Jewry movement is a modern story of hope.
With both these templates, there should be no doubt that if the global Jewish people focuses our massive intellectual, social and financial capital on achieving great things for ourselves and for humanity, then surely we can succeed.
And let us not forget the idealism of youth. The first activists for Ethiopian and Soviet Jewries were young people, often from the US and youth movements (like Young Judaea), and then the State of Israel and Jewish establishments jumped on board. The social justice movement in Israel, too, was started by young people.
The Jewish world must redouble our efforts and support for youth movements and student organizations, for the next redemptive chapter in our history will come from them. But only if we actively gift to them not only the Passover story of old, but the exodus story of our generation.
The writer was co-nominated three times for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the former Soviet Union, and was named by CNN as one of the six leading Green Pioneers worldwide. He currently serves as CEO of Energiya Global Capital, a solar development firm.Twitter: @Kaptainsunshine