In each generation each [Jewish] person must regard themselves as if they personally were redeemed from Egypt. Abba Eban once said “The redemption of the Jews from Egyptian bondage must be regarded in any serious view of history as one of the authentic points of climax in the progress of mankind. The memory of Israel’s first struggle for freedom has inspired and consoled many subsequent movements for national independence. The Exodus is the original and classic episode of national liberation.”
That memory and that struggle are retold every year by us to our children so that they will remember that we, too, were slaves in Egypt and today we are free. This Pessah [Passover] season we will once again celebrate our liberation from slavery and our freedom as a nation.
Israel was born into struggle in 1948 and our national liberation movement was celebrated by us and by humanity as a great achievement, especially after our freedom from the Nazi Pharaoh. Our struggle for redemption was just and efforts to create a free State of Israel were viewed by the world with awe. In June 1967 our victory in war led to our imprisonment into modern slavery as the occupiers of another people. We were drunk in our victory and blindly strengthened our hold on the Palestinians. Their struggle for freedom and independence eventually gained international support and solidarity, and we became the modern day Pharaoh.
Since 1967 Israel has become a divided society – divided between those who saw our enslavement as occupiers and those who worked to further our entrenchment in the occupied territories. Now when the overwhelming majority of Israelis understand that we cannot continue to occupy the Palestinian people, we recognize that we are now struggling for a new kind of freedom. Our dream of national independence and liberation can only be fully fulfilled when we release ourselves from the infliction of occupation. Now, so many years later that we recognize that our freedom is inextricably linked to the freedom of the Palestinian people, it is much more complicated to leave behind what we have labored so hard with blood, sweat and tears to create.
The Exodus from Gaza was only chapter one of the new story of freedom and redemption. What we built with our own hands we destroyed with our own hands. What we built in the West Bank with our own hands, we will also destroy with our own hands. The ruins left behind are not only the physical remains of homes and communities. The ruins include the chances of building hope and of building peace with those who were enslaved by us. The wounds of occupation will take years and perhaps generations to heal.
For all of the years that too many Jews perceived the occupation as liberation, we are paying a price. For all of the years that the Six Day War was perceived as the beginning of Redemption, we are paying a price. For our blindness that our settling the territories was seen as providing labor and welfare for the poor Palestinians, we are paying a price. For our belief that we can rule by might, we are paying a price. For our arrogance that we can impose a solution and impose borders, we will continue to pay a price.
This is not a story of good and evil, or true and false, or of right and wrong. This is a struggle of two rights that have both done wrong. The Palestinians have been enslaved by their reliance on terrorism. The Palestinians remain enslaved by their belief that they do not have to recognize our rights. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon spoke about the rights of the Palestinian people to a state of their own. His statement was the first real step toward redemption for the State of Israel. The new Palestinian leadership will have to follow in his footsteps. But we do not have to be enslaved by their non-recognition of our rights.
The next government must not shackle itself by fostering the new myth that unilateralism will solve our problems. We will never be released from the occupation if we do not engage and negotiate with the Palestinians. We have helped to create the Palestinian non-partner. We have weakened their leaders by creating myths and lies about Trojan horses, about premeditated conspiracies at Camp David, about chicks without feathers – the words that Sharon used to mock Mahmoud Abbas.
The Palestinians have suffered and continue to suffer by the mistakes of their own doing. We, too, continue to suffer by missing opportunities that are at our doorstep. Mahmoud Abbas is not our dream of a Palestinian leader. He may be weak, he may be hesitant, he may lack charisma, but he is the leader of the Palestinian people.
He is struggling against the Hamas government, which he perceives as the entrenchment of his people in their continued suffering. He wants to lead his people out of enslavement. He believes in freedom and liberation, he recognizes Israel and he is ready to make peace with us. Yet rather than helping him to build his position and to strengthen the chances of a negotiated peace, we continue to weaken him and to undermine his leadership.
During Pessah this year let us remember that the experience of slavery has created for us a deep consciousness and a passionate commitment to freedom and justice as incorporated in the Torah. We vow to remember that we were once slaves in Egypt and today we can retell our story of liberation. Let us truly become free, free from occupation, free from conflict and free to build peace with our neighbours.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.