“A new king arose over Egypt who did not know Joseph. And he said to his
people, ‘Look, the Israelite people are much too numerous for us. Let us deal
shrewdly with them, so that they may not increase; otherwise in the event of
war, they may join our enemies in fighting against us and rise from the ground.’
So they set taskmasters over them to oppress them…”
As we begin the Exodus story, we read that the oppression of the Israelites resulted from
Pharaoh’s fear that their growth would somehow overwhelm the Egyptian nation. These verses
certainly have an ominous resonance for the Jewish people. Indeed any member of a minority
faith or ethnic group knows all too well the tragedy that inevitably ensues when a nation views
their demographic growth as a “threat.”
Today it is all too common to hear Israel’s leaders and supporters suggest that the “Jewish
character” of Israel is threatened by the demographic growth of the Palestinian people. How
should we react to the suggestion that the mere fact of this group’s growth necessarily poses a
national threat to Israel? As Jews living in the Diaspora, how would we respond if our leaders
raised questions about the “demographic threat” of a particular minority group to the “national
character” of our country? In a multi-ethnic society, can a state’s identity ever be predicated upon
the primacy of one ethnic group without the oppression of another?
As we answer this question, pass olives around the table.
When our conversation is finished, we ask:
Zayit: al shum mah? – This olive: why do we eat it?
The olive tree is one of the first plants mentioned in the Torah and remains among the oldest
species in Israel/Palestine. It has become a universal symbol of peace and hope, as it is written in
Psalm 52: “I am like a thriving olive tree in God’s house, I trust in God’s loyal kindness forever and
ever.” We add this olive to our seder plate as a reminder that we must all be God’s bearers of peace
and hope in the world.
At the same time, we eat this olive in sorrow, mindful that olive trees, the source of livelihood
for Palestinian farmers, are regularly chopped down, burned and uprooted by Israeli settlers and
the Israeli authorities. As we look on, Israel pursues systematic policies that increasingly deny
Palestinians access to olive orchards that have belonged to them for generations. As we eat now,
we ask one another: How will we, as Jews, bear witness to the unjust actions committed in our
name? Will these olives inspire us to be bearers of peace and hope for Palestinians – and for all
who are oppressed?
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