Opinion | At Israeli Seders, Pick Your Pharaoh

Some say Bibi, some say Biden, but there's no Moses in sight.
By | Apr 11, 2024

This Passover, before or after reading the Haggadah, many Israeli Jews are likely to mention a casual but common Hebrew phrase: “We got past Pharaoh, we will get past this too.” But this time, they would be wrong. Israel’s current trouble is deep, the threat it is facing borders on the existential, and—most disturbingly—the identity of both the “we” and the “Pharaoh” are angrily disputed. Never have we been more divided, under a worse government, in the face of a more barbaric enemy, drawing more global hate. We will not “get past” this unless we take democratic action to change our present leadership, and very soon.

No doubt, Hamas is our common enemy. The Egyptian king of the biblical Exodus—probably Ramses II—was, by comparison, immensely tame and civilized. Yes, he murdered male children, but he let the other members of the Hebrew families live. Had today’s Israelis been united against Hamas while enjoying the leadership, prudence and vision of a Moses, things would have looked different: Gaza might still have suffered ten plagues, but a modern Moses would have been wise and far-seeing enough to spare as many civilian lives as he could. Our friendship with the United States, Germany and other liberal Western governments would have been treasured as carefully as Moses kept his alliance with Jethro and the Midianites, and Abraham with his own crucial allies.

And, on the horizon, there would have been some promised land. Perhaps an internationally brokered negotiation for a territorial agreement with the Palestinians. Perhaps U.S. and European Union guarantees for Israel’s security. Perhaps, eventually, peace.

We are not so fortunate. Present-day Hebrews are deeply divided among themselves. Are “we” the nationalist-messianic Jews, a minority in Israeli society but currently its de facto rulers? Are “we” the liberal democrats, peace-seeking and inclusive of both Jewish and Arab citizens? Are “we” the Netanyahu family and its ministerial and media cronies, bent on saving their lucrative domain and surviving the next election? Are “we” the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians, bent on nothing but their own privileges and upkeep, deaf and blind to the public good?

Competing Pharaohs, too, will be mentioned around the Seder tables. For the messianic river-to-sea Israelis, Joe Biden and Antony Blinken have come to be seen as present-day pharaohs, along with any other friend of Israel vocally telling us to fight Hamas more wisely, avoid further innocent casualties, and give serious thought to the U.S. administration’s proposal for the “day after.” The Ben-Gvirs and Smotriches, our extremists-turned-overlords, are cheerleading this refusal to listen. So are many of Netanyahu’s ill-chosen ministers, Knesset members and accomplices. (Please understand, dear American friends: The Likud party has gone over to fanaticism and derangement. It is putting its trust in divine intervention to rescue Israel from the abyss. The government of Israel is, for the first time in history, unworthy of your support. Surely many of you understand that the signs are no longer ignorable.)

For my kind of Israelis, Netanyahu is a Pharaoh of sorts—has been for a while, but now in a new and deadly way. The main three plagues he has cast on our society are domestic strife, the ongoing toppling of the rule of law and the ghastly mishandling of the October 7 massacre, which has made Israel—rather than Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah—into a global pariah. I do not want Netanyahu and his ilk to drown in the Red Sea. All I want is for them to retire in shame, making room for a new coalition led by responsible adults, a rethinking of the necessary war against Hamas and Hezbollah and a realignment with our best international friends, especially the United States.

Benny Gantz is no Moses, nor are any of his potential coalition partners, including Gadi Eisenkot, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett. Israel is still in the throes of a leadership deficit. If a young David Ben-Gurion or a young Yitzhak Rabin is currently maturing somewhere—personally, I’d settle for a Levi Eshkol or even a Golda—he or she is yet to arise and lead the nation. Gantz and company are all we have, and they are good enough for the immediate future of Israel, perhaps even for the future of Palestine. They are rational, honest and genuinely want the good of the country.

Netanyahu no longer does, and perhaps he never did.

It may take decades, some say a generation or more, to undo the harm caused to Israel’s inner unity, public and political morality, and international standing. But under a democratic and reasonable government, Israel’s best hope and only current pride—by which I mean our strong, beneficent and forward-looking civil society—can spring into action. Let my people go.

Fania Oz-Salzberger is an Israeli essayist, political activist and history professor emerita at the University of Haifa.

Opening picture: Moses before Pharaoh. (Photo credit: Wentworth Fund, 1950)

One thought on “Opinion | At Israeli Seders, Pick Your Pharaoh

  1. Deborah Salazar says:

    I’ve been struggling for months over what to say at the seder this year. It usually just four of us. The husband brings a stack of books (academic, philosophy), the son brings difficult questions, and the daughter brings jokes. I do the cooking, even though the son is the better cook now (he insists he can’t reproduce my charoset), and because my Hebrew is better than everyone else’s, I lead the readings. Because I’m the poet, I write a short piece, often before Vehi Sheamda, that’s topical and hopeful. This year, I’m frozen.

    I’ve been looking to your writing lately, Fania, to keep believing in peace, even if its not realistically possible in my lifetime. I marvel how you can speak of too many Pharoahs and the darkness that everyone feels, even those of us in the Diaspora, without the treacle of how Israel is the pinnacle of the Jewish experience and is the light to all nations. In so many writings that are pro-Israel and pro-peace, I sense an oppressive expectation that all Jews have to serve this nation, built by those who knew hard work that we can never know. You write so beautifully with simple common sense, in a voice that is recognizably Israeli but touches universal hopes, ambitions, and terrible fears. Jews this year have been praying every day for miracles. I’ve only recently learned that hard work and service doesn’t earn a person how many miracles one can ask for; I used to think I hadn’t earned enough prayer points. But my life is as worthy as any other life–no matter how much I have or haven’t suffered: I do pray for miracles. A young Rabin somewhere may have manifested without those prayers, nu?

    My 81-year old rabbi told me to look for blessings. A philosopher married a poet, and we reproduced. Two kids, both special needs, but we eat and own our house. Dayenu. Yet our days are filled with thoughts of Israel, hopes for the land, our children making Aliyah. Thank you for writing.

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