Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

AFTER IRAQ WAR, WHY IS THIS PASSOVER DIFFERENT FROM ALL OTHER PASSOVERS?

Ira Chernus

All Jews know that Passover is the festival of freedom. It celebrates the ancient Israelitesí exodus from slavery to freedom. All Americans know that U.S. troops went to Iraq to bring freedom. At least thatís what Americans know if they rely on the mainstream media for their news.

The parallel between the two stories is no accident. The first English colonists who went to war against the Indians knew the Bible pretty much by heart. They were sure that they were the New Israel. They viewed their passage across the ocean as a new exodus. They saw themselves doing Godís work, bringing freedom, order, and civilization to the savages, by any means necessary. How much has changed in 400 years?

But letís assume that freedom means the ability to choose your own actions, shape your own life circumstances, and determine your own individual destiny. Then neither the story of Passover nor the Iraq war may have very much to do with freedom.

The people who first told and wrote the story of the exodus in the Bible were not primarily interested in human freedom. The story reaches its climax when the Israelites seem doomed, with the sea before them and the pursuing Egyptians close behind. Their leader, Moses, says nothing about making free choices to improve their situation. In fact, he tells them to do nothing: "Stand still, and see the victory of Yahweh."

The point of the original story was to demonstrate, not the freedom of the Israelites, but the omnipotent power of their God, Yahweh. According to the text, the Egyptians troops pursued the fleeing Israelites only because Yahweh "hardened their heart." Why would Yahweh endanger his chosen people like that? "Behold, I will harden the heart of the Egyptians, and they will go after them, and I will get glory. And the Egyptians will know that I am Yahweh when I get glory." It was a demonstration war, intended to show that Israelís God was the most gloriously rough and tough God in the universe. The implicit message was clear: Since this God is on Israelís side, donít mess with Israel.

The Bush administration has made it equally clear that the destruction of Iraq was a demonstration war. It was meant to demonstrate the new policy of preventive war. Everyone from the president on down is warning Syria, Iran, North Korea, and all the other bad guys to "draw the appropriate conclusions": the U.S. is the worldís most gloriously rough and tough nation, and we plan to stay that way, forever.

Of course there is one huge difference between the biblical and American stories. In the American version, the people are never passive spectators. They are the ones who do the fighting, destroy the bad guys, and create the new facts on the ground. The president occasionally reminds us that there is a God who wants us to do all this stuff.

Most of the time, though, Mr. Bush dutifully remembers the separation of church and state. He leaves God out of it. So the U.S. itself, represented by its government and its troops, plays the role of God in our media story. All the talk about bringing freedom and order and civilization is secondary, at best. The real message is: "We are in charge now. We run the show. Donít mess with us." The nation is no longer a servant of God. The nation has become God.

Many Jews gathered around the Passover table in 2003 will not regret that. When they recite the traditional prayer, "In every generation, an enemy has risen up against us," they will think of gun-toting Palestinians. They will talk about their hope that the Bush administration can force Israelis and Palestinians to follow the U.S. "road map" to peace. Some will know that this is part of a larger plan to reorder the entire Middle East, to create a coalition of states that will not merely tolerate, but actively support, the policies of the Israeli government.

If the administration carries out its Middle East plans, it is not likely to bring more freedom to anyone. The Arab peoples will have to accept governments whose friendly policies toward Israeli do not reflect the will of the majority. The Palestinians will have to accept some kind of continuing occupation. Bushís "road map," whatever its final form, will surely not grant them genuine independence in a viable state. The Israelis will have to accept the U.S. as a continuing protector, with ultimate veto power on the most vital matters of foreign policy. All of these people will have to accept the rules of the multinational corporate system, too. Their economic freedom will be as constricted as their political freedom.

With the Middle East under such a tight American thumb, the people of the United States will also lose freedom. As anti-American feeling grows, attacks on our own soil will become more likely. Our freedom from fear will dwindle even further. Pressure will mount for the government to monitor and control domestic life. Already, Congress is considering making the USA Patriot Act permanent and adding a sequel.

The Bush policies will make it harder for everyone to choose their own actions, shape their own life circumstances, or determine their own individual destiny. It will bring us closer to the day when the omnipotent U.S. government does all that for us.

The war in Iraq takes us back to the original meaning of the Passover story. It is not about freedom. It is about power and control. Again, many Jews may not regret that. They may conclude that, in the face of so much hostility, Israel must sacrifice freedom for the sake of the power to make itself secure. That is the same conclusion so many Americans are coming to: let the government have God-like power over us, as long as it protects us, even if it means a permanent USA Patriot II Act.

As we recite the Passover story this year, and reflect on its many meanings, we should add four new questions to the four traditional ones:

Can the U.S. government be trusted with unlimited power?

Will it use that power to make Americans, Israelis, or anyone else more secure or more free?

Is it worth trading freedom for security?

Is there any security for a people who have yielded up their freedom?

Let us pray that Jews and non-Jews alike will think deeply about each question, discuss it fully, and then answer each question with a firm resounding "NO." Only then can we really celebrate Passover as a festival of freedom. Only then can we get ourselves a government that really serves the interests of freedom around the world.


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