Free at last!

A peek at a recent Exodus journey - and an opportunity to savor our freedom from racism.

women in black 88 (photo credit: )
women in black 88
(photo credit: )
On Passover we are reminded that we came out of slavery to freedom. This past seder night I had the chance to witness the story of a modern-day exodus to freedom. And a few days into the week-long holiday, I happened upon an incident that made me appreciate anew the liberation from racism that living in our own state affords. I had the honor to sit at the Passover table of an extended Ethiopian Jewish family living in a small Jewish community in the West Bank. This was not an ordinary family. At the head of the table sat the elderly grandfather and grandmother surrounded by nine of their 12 children and two dozen grandchildren, in-laws and cousins. During the Seder the story of the family's coming out of Ethiopia is traditionally related alongside the story of the coming out of Egypt. This lends the story of Passover a very real meaning. It is even more poignant because in front of each person is a copy of the Haggada specially published with Amharic alongside the Hebrew. For the older generation this is a way of preserving their language, but for the younger generation which was born here this is a way of preserving their heritage. This was not an ordinary family. The grandfather received an award from former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir for having a large family. The great-uncle is one of the most respected Ethiopian religious leaders in arrived in 1984 with Operation Moses, having trekked through the hot Sudanese desert and having lived in refugee camps where contaminated medicine supplied by the Red Cross and Sudanese government led to the deaths of many. The great-grandfather died in those camps, as a result of the medicine, never able to see the promised land. But after arriving here, with all the tragedies and hardships, there were still several family members left behind. One of the sons-in-law had been forcibly drafted by the Ethiopian army in 1978 and was not allowed to leave because of the communist Ethiopian government's longtime war in Eritrea. His wife had to return to Ethiopia by way of Djibuti to bring him, and he didn't arrive until after the completion of Operation Moses in 1991. BUT THE STORY of this extraordinary family and its modern day exodus is not the only thing that made this Passover different than others. While walking on King George Avenue in Jerusalem on the Friday of the holiday, I came upon the protest of Women in Black, a small fringe group. This weekly demonstration is usually staffed by elderly wealthy Jewish women wearing black with small signs that declare "end the occupation" in English, Hebrew and Arabic. But they too, like this Ethiopian grandmother and grandfather, evidently, have grandchildren, and for them too, just once a year the Jewish tradition can clearly trump the protest tradition, because most of the elderly women were not present this Friday. In their place were young blond men and women from Scandinavia, members of the World Council of Churches. This group was oblivious to the fact that it was a Jewish holiday in the state for which they have such criticism. I asked one if he would protest during Ramadan in a Muslim country. He said he wouldn't because he did not speak Arabic. So I then asked, "In Israel, people speak Hebrew, and yet you protest here during one of the holiest weeks in its calendar?" He replied, "Most people here understand English." Then out of the corner of my eye I noticed that one of the police officers tasked with protecting this foreign group of protesters was an Ethiopian woman. So I queried the protester, "Do you think her language is English?" He refused to look. I described her to him and asked, "Where were you to protest when this woman's family was starving and dying in the Sudan?" To this he replied that he did not want to continue the conversation. These wealthy Europeans, who come on their protest tour as part of a church group - in substitution, perhaps, for the older European tradition on Passover of accusing Jews of stealing children for their blood for the matza - refuse to acknowledge the existence of Ethiopian Jews. Why? Because it might change their neatly crafted image of Israel as a white, Nazi, apartheid, crusader occupier. Or is it because he knows that the Scandinavian countries themselves either collaborated openly or covertly with the Nazis? Whatever the case, the sight of youthful Scandinavians smiling and laughing with their "end the occupation" signs in English on Passover may be infuriating, but it is also the miracle of Israel. We no longer have to live under the tyranny and the racist arrogance of these people or those like them throughout the world, from the communists of Mengistu Haile Mariam to the "soft" haters like Britain's MP George Galloway or the pharaohs of old. The writer, a PhD student in geography at the Hebrew University, is a contributor to Frontpage magazine and Middle East Quarterly and runs the Terra Incognita Journal blog.