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Pesach and ‘genocide’

April 4, 2010 – 5:19 pm21 Comments

By Keren Tuch

I look forward to Pesach every year (I might swallow my words when the day eventually comes for me to host a seder). Aside from kneidlach, charoset and walnut pate (liver for vegetarians), it is the Jewish festival that emphasizes a message of freedom that is still pertinent today, despite occurring some 3000 years ago. We have been telling the story of the enslavement of our people to the Egyptians for thousands of years, and despite our success at being a free people today, there are many groups of people throughout the world for whom freedom is still a dream. The human trafficking industry is rampant today in most countries, and according to a UN official, it is the largest slave trade in history.

The night before Pesach I was chatting with my housemate, who mentioned a heated argument he once participated in on seder night – the premise of which was that in retelling the exodus from Egypt, we ought to commemorate the genocide of the Egyptians’ first born sons.

My initial gut reaction was an indignant and defensive one. Why should we commemorate the ‘genocide’ of the Egyptians?  After all, this night is about retelling our success story. And besides, we didn’t actually kill the Egyptians either. Should we also commemorate the Cambodian genocide while we’re at it? But after a couple of days of eating and thinking and then some more eating, I’ve decided to exchange my emotional hat for a rational one to see if this changes my outlook.

Firstly, I’m a little troubled by the word genocide. Genocide is an emotive word that conjures up images of skeletal frames littering the streets.  What exactly is genocide, and who determines when genocide is committed?  According to the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide is defined as the deliberate and systematic destruction, in whole or in part, of an ethnic, racial, religious, or national group”. Well, the killing of the first born was deliberate and systematic, and it was a destruction of part of a national group.  However, Article 2 goes on to define the acts which are considered to be genocidal, and uses the phrase “with the intent to destroy”. This is a little more problematic, as the purpose of killing the Egyptian first born was more a strategic blow than a wanton act of destruction. Perhaps one could say the first born were mere casualties of an unspoken war, with God being an ally to the Jews. In any case, whether the term used is ‘genocide’, ‘massacre’ or ‘casualties of war’, the questions still remains, should we acknowledge the killing of the Egyptian first born with more than just a fleeting mention in the haggadah?

In contemporary society, there is a trend to be empathetic about the welfare of others, more so than in previous generations.  Even if the first born were not directly our enemies, I can hardly envisage that they would have been chummy with the Israelites.  But they were innocent civilians with their own narrative and perhaps do deserve recognition of the deaths that occurred. I can only imagine what it would feel like to be a resident of Nagasaki, where the atomic bomb killed thousands of innocent civilians – an act for which the Allies have apologized, and annually commemorate.  Do the Israelites owe an apology to the Egyptians, even if they were not directly responsible for their deaths?

Whilst it may not be an official apology, for thousands of years during the seder, during the recital of the ten plagues, it has been customary to dip one’s finger in the wine and remove a droplet of wine for every plague to lessen the joy that wine brings.  This act is an acknowledgment of the tragedy that befell the Egyptians for each plague, not just the killing of the first born.  We are celebrating our own freedom, yet still actively remembering the price that was paid by our enemies.  Considering this custom has been around for a long time, I’m rather impressed at the level of institutional empathy which would have existed in a context that appears to me to be unprecedented.  Is the finger dipping exercise enough of a commemoration, particularly as most Jews who partake in this activity are unaware of the symbolism behind it?

At the end of the day there are at least two sides to every story, but the winners write history.  Seder night is a chance for us to remember our history of servitude and celebrate our right to freedom.  It is appropriate to acknowledge and commemorate the loss of innocent lives, which has been done with the action of finger dipping for thousands of years, but maybe we should also put a little more thought as we’re dipping and not just continue to do it ritualistically. Thanks for the thought Mr. House Mate, and please continue challenging me.

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