Israel and the heart of a stranger.

The very existence of the Jewish people is predicated on the notion that the arc of the universe bends toward justice. We were slaves in Egypt, we’re told, strangers in a strange land, and then we were freed – and it was only upon being freed that we could receive the Torah, learn who we are, and become a people.

The collective memory of that cruel oppression serves as the bedrock for all modern Jewish efforts to bend the universe’s arc yet further, in social justice movements anywhere and everywhere. We are called to remember our bondage, our strangeness, and act righteously toward those in need of God’s hand.

“You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless, you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn,” we read in Deuteronomy. “Remember that you were a slave in Egypt and that the Lord your God redeemed you from there.”

Every year, as I approach the celebration of our freedom, I cannot help but think of the more than four million souls – strangers to us – in the Palestinian territories, too many of them fatherless or widowed by Israeli hands.  The dead, the hungry, those without medicine, those without hope – an entirely human-constructed calamity.

There are many arguments swirling around Israel’s control of Palestinian lands, many fears, many military concerns. I know that the conflict is, in fact, a conflict – too many of my fellow Israelis have been left fatherless and widowed at Palestinian hands as well, and the Palestinian leadership has made many bad decisions. I have no doubt that Israel will have to remain on its guard, should we finally do the right thing and release our strangle-hold on the lives of the strangers in our midst. Decades of mutually murderous rage do not end without leaving a mark.

But refusing to admit the power disparity between Israel and the Palestinians, refusing to acknowledge our own guilt, refusing to admit that our real world actions have real world consequences, is simply not a moral alternative.

We seem to forget: One side of the equation is occupied, the other occupier. One side has the power to decide who and what goes in and out of Gaza, who and what goes where in the West Bank, and the other – the side that actually lives in in those places – does not.

To continue this way – to continue the occupation, and the stealing of land for settlements, and the blockade of Gaza, to continue policies that leave children hungry and parents without income, to continue treating the Palestinians as if they were somehow less human, less worthy of dignity, than we — is a shanda, a disgrace.

The occupation, the blockade of Gaza, and all they entail are an affront to all that is good and right about Judaism. They are an affront to Moses,  and Sinai, and all those who have tried for centuries to remember that we, too, were once strangers in a strange land.

“And a stranger you shall not oppress,” we read in Exodus, the very book of our freedom, “for you know the heart of a stranger, seeing you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

We know the heart of the stranger, for we were once strangers ourselves.

May this be the Passover in which we choose to act on our own story, choose to know the heart of the stranger we have occupied for nearly 45 years, choose to remember the command given us by God as we stood before Him in the desert. May this be the Passover in which we choose to act, not as Pharaoh, but as Jews.

A happy, healthy, and kosher holiday to all.



  1. Nothing to add, great text.

    Do you think that this war is going to end some day?

    • I have an Israeli friend who says “Emily, it’ll be fine in the end, because in the end, it’ll be the end.”

      One way or another, the war will end. The question for me is how badly we’ll suffer on the way to that end, and what the end will look like. That’s what I’m still fighting for: An end that’s better than the one we seem pointed to now.

  2. Yes, I was thinking about positive ending of that conflict…

    Good luck Emily!

  3. Chris

     /  April 10, 2012

    Since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 The rocketfire from Gaza showers into Israel every day. Every day. The blockades were put in place for a reason. Oh and meanwhile, Hamas executed three Palestinians on Saturday. Want talk about that?

    • I appreciate that your opinions about this are passionately held – mine are as well. All the more reason to try to keep the conversation on a level that allows for mutual respect.

      A) If you read other things I’ve written about Israel, you’ll learn that I lived there for 14 years, and if you read that material in which I talk about Hamas directly, you’ll see that I lived there during the waves of suicide attacks of the 1990s. I know who and what Hamas is, and I have no love for them. On more than one occasion, it was sheer luck that kept me and mine from being killed in those attacks.

      B) The blockade has actually been in place in the election of 2006, when Israel and the US didn’t like the outcome of the democratic process. I don’t like Hamas, but the Palestinian people narrowly (not broadly, as has been reported) elected them as an answer to Fatah corruption, and the very next day, polling showed that 75% of voters hoped that Hamas would seek a two-state peace deal with Israel. But Israel and the US didn’t like the results of the elections, so they organized an international blockade. Which, regardless of the reason, is a form of collective punishment, which is, in turn, both illegal and immoral. I don’t support BDS, and I don’t support the blockade. Those who have not carried out the acts I protest should not be punished for them.

      C) Hamas didn’t simply “take over” in Gaza – Fatah, with the support of, and arms supplied by, the Bush Administration, started a civil war, and lost. And then, yes, having won, Hamas chased Fatah out of the Strip, and took over the government.

      D) I watch the news out of Israel closely. One rocket is one rocket too many — 50 rockets is 50 rockets too many. But rockets do not fall on Israel daily. What does happen, on a frequently daily basis, is that the Israeli military attacks inside the Gaza Strip, or at the very least flies sorties over it. Gazans never know if the jet above them is merely spying on them, or is going to release a bomb. I encourage you to look at the statistics page on to see the level of killing with which Palestinians live. If Israelis were living with those kinds of casualties, we would have a full-bore war on our hands, and the complete support of the entire international community.

      E) I have protested Palestinian human rights violations in the past and will continue to do so. As an Israeli, however, my greatest concern has to be with my own country’s behavior.

  4. jeffinvancity

     /  April 12, 2012,_2012

    I would say that your argument comes from the wrong direction (i.e. statement D), but I think that the Wikipedia article can just flat out show you that. In the past 1-2 months, you unfortunately (and I do say unfortunately – I do believe in the right of the Palestinian people to their own state, and their own independent solidarity) are mistaken. Israeli military policy would NEVER allow for blind attacks on Gaza without a tactical target. The information on btselem, as it always has been, is inflated by the “defensive” tactics taken by the targets of Israeli attacks in Gaza who are often high profile terrorist leaders who have no qualms to hide in the basement and put 25 families on the roof.

    • and put 25 families on the roof

      I genuinely don’t have time to argue this right now but your last seven words require some sourcing. Do you have any? (And while we’re at it: Any sourcing for “Israeli military policy would NEVER allow for blind attack on Gaza”? My request is a serious one, so I add, in all seriousness: Please not Wikipedia).

  1. Administrative Detention is Not Judaism | The Palestinian Talmud