Nationalism and foreignness are painted as opposites. In Israel and around the world, national movements express their commitment to nationality through an ideology that aims, as much as possible, to limit the presence of foreigners, refugees and strangers. The Exodus from Egypt – at the center of Jewish-Israeli nationalism – also invokes the period of Jewish enslavement in Egypt and seeks to create a different kind of nationalism. An inclusive nationalism.
The Exodus story that most Israelis read on Seder night is the origin story of Jewish-Israeli nationalism. The memory of the Exodus, with which many Jewish mitzvot (religious commandments) are associated, is the focus of this night, which is celebrated on the date the Israelites left Egypt about three thousand years ago. Along with the imperative to remember the redemption and the miracles that accompanied the Exodus and that came to exemplify God’s choice of the people of Israel, the Torah repeatedly mentions the obligation to remember the years of foreignness and slavery in Egypt.
The Torah enjoins us to learn a national lesson not just from the deliverance from slavery, but also from the long years of enslavement endured by our forefathers, the Israelites, in Egypt. The experience of hard labor, the constant denial of freedom, the long years as exiles from the land of Israel and as strangers in the land of Egypt – all these things did not constitute traumas to be forgotten. On the contrary: the Torah forges them into a national memory that must be perpetuated. In the eyes of the Torah, it is not just a passive memory, but a source of a moral order expressed in concrete commandments.
Many of the mitzvot pertaining to this aspect of the memory of Egypt relate to our attitude toward the other. The first of these mitzvot, the one that constitutes a foundation for the others, is to love the ger (the stranger) – “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” The Torah repeats this commandment no fewer than 36 times. Alongside it, a number of mitzvot also stem from the experience of slavery in Egypt, including those mandating fair and benevolent treatment of workers and several of the other social mitzvot with which the Torah abounds.
Some of the voices that have characterized Israeli nationalism in recent decades betray the memory of Egypt. These voices reverberate boldly among segments of the political right and in many religious seminaries. They seek to sharply and emphatically highlight those aspects of nationalism that exclude anyone who does not belong in a pure or strictly halachic-kosher way to the Jewish people.
Israelis who are not Jews according to halacha (Jewish law), immigrants under the Law of Return who are not Jews, Israelis belonging to the country’s minorities and, of course, those seeking asylum in Israel: all of these people are painted in the darkest colors and depicted as a threat to Jewish-Israeli nationalism and to the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.
These voices, in recent months, have featured prominently in the debates over conversion and the Ukrainian refugee crisis. The conversion reform currently promoted by the government, which aims to create a halachic conversion framework more welcoming than that offered by the existing state conversion system, has been criticized relentlessly by several rabbis who see it as a threat to the integrity of the Jewish people.
Even in the face of the plight of Ukrainian immigrants and refugees who have arrived in Israel or who are requesting refuge here until the crisis has passed, these same rabbinical circles and the politicians influenced by them have sought to erect a wall of exclusion. Again, for fear that the state’s Jewish identity will fade, God forbid, if the gates are opened to those seeking temporary shelter.
Jewish nationalism and identity are the basis for Israel’s existence. But Jewish-Israeli nationalism, in its purist and most literal form, wants to filter out foreigners and foreignness, and that is dangerous. Around the Seder table, the nationalism that we can and should remember, retell and cultivate is a different kind of nationalism. It is one with a uniquely Jewish dimension, one that asks us to maintain a distinct Jewish identity and a Jewish nation-state that is home to all of the Jews of the world. But, it is also one that carries within it the memory of enslavement in Egypt and the ability to open our Jewish national home to foreigners-refugees-strangers, out of a self-confidence in our national strength and our identity. Not extreme nationalism. Inclusive nationalism.
The writer is the vice president of the Jewish People Policy Institute and a lecturer of law at the Peres Academic Center.