(Mohammed Talatene / picture-alliance / dpa / AP Images)
For Jews, the Exodus is one of the key events that shaped Jewish narrative, history, and identity. It is a foundational story of the Jewish people. Not only for Jews, but for many of us, followers of the Christian faith, it is a key story in our faith – at par with the importance of the story of Creation and Noah’s Ark from the Old Testament.
According to the Bible, life for slaves under the Egyptian occupation was a brutal one. Exodus 15:13 states that the slaves were to be strangers in a land that was not theirs, and they would be enslaved and oppressed for four hundred years. There is debate on how many years they were enslaved in Egypt, and even if the lowest number is true, then two hundred years of living under a brutal and violent system of oppression would still be unbearable. Some might have normalized their lives to slavery, and others might have aligned themselves with Pharaoh and the powerful to gain favor. However, many died from brutal treatment or starvation. Some were sold or imprisoned for life. In the face of brutal depravity, Moses tried to negotiate with Pharaoh, but, when negotiations did not work, violence to achieve freedom became the option. Maybe none of us ever questioned Moses (or God) choosing a nonviolent path; though, Pharaoh’s response may have been the same.
Yet, no matter what attempts were made to divide, break, or destroy the people, at the end of the day, the unbreakable vision of liberation and returning to the homeland resulted in the Exodus.
As a child, I was amazed by the story of a people that suffered under Pharaoh’s evil regime, yet stood for unity and freedom. There was no doubt who was good and who was bad, and my cheering, compassion and love was for those who were in pain and seeking their liberation. Exodus became mainstream, even in Hollywood. How many of us remember Charlton Heston’s famous words “let my people go” from the movie “The Ten Commandments?” How many of us disagreed with the option of violence, killing, and destruction that took place, ensuring the Exodus? How many of us jumped up and down with joy as the Red Sea waters drowned the oppressive Egyptian army?
The story of the Exodus even became the motivation of many enslaved communities around the world fighting colonialism, oppression and racism; from Africa to the Civil Rights movement in the US, people sang, “Let my people go!”
While many may speak of correlation between the story of slavery and the Palestinian people’s struggle for liberation in the face of the Israeli occupation; what struck me recently is the fact that the Jews after centuries saw themselves as “strangers” in the land of Egypt. This struck me because when it comes to Palestinians protesting in Gaza; the international media, the Israeli propaganda, even the Palestinian lingo talks of the “people of Gaza,” yet 65% of Gaza’s population are “strangers in the land of Gaza” as Jews were strangers in the land of Egypt, and like Jews, have the full right to return to what they call “home.”
Israelis and the global community need to stop buying into the lies and understand that the refugees in Gaza (like all Palestinian refugees) are not murderous peoples coming out of thin air, demanding to take over a land that does not belong to them, and destroy those who claim to be its indigenous inhabitants. Palestinians are as indigenous and have rights that need to be honored. To also say Gaza is Palestinian and that is enough is only an argument to keep a people entrapped in poverty and depravation, living in ghettos and slums. It is an insult not only to them but also to humanity. What do we call nations that do that to their own people or others?
Most of the people that live in Gaza are not Gazans and Gaza is not their original home. If in seventy years, two hundred years, four hundred years, or two thousand years these people still do not accept Gaza (or anywhere else refuges live, including Boston and Hong Kong) as their home, then they would have the historic right to return to their ancestral home, no different than the Jews or any other nation group.
If Israelis can learn anything from the story of Exodus, it is this: slavery, oppression, and the containment of an entire nation in a land that is not their home (as a result of fear or privilege) is something that can not last forever, Pharaoh learned this lesson the hard way. Palestinian refugees, like the Israelites of the Old Testament are strangers where they live, and like the Israelites, have the right to return to their home. Yes, it is going to take a lot of courage, healing, and creativity to realize this without negating the rights of others, but this is the work that is needed now.