The Book of Exodus and The Case for Palestinian Refugee Return
Writing about politics is my job. Studying Jewish texts is my hobby. But sometimes they intersect. Sometimes Jewish texts help make political ideas that many Jews find terrifying—like Palestinian refugee return—a little less alien. Which brings me to last week’s Torah portion.
But first a word about next Friday’s (we’re back to Friday) Zoom call. Although we often discuss the Middle East, the biggest crisis in American foreign policy right now is occurring due north, in Ukraine, where Russian troops may be poised to invade. Friction and resentment that has been building since the cold war’s end could explode into all-out war. I’ve invited two very smart people with very different views—The Brookings Institution’s Thomas Wright and the Quincy Institute’s Anatol Lieven—to discuss what the Biden administration should do. It should be a fascinating conversation. Please join us.
Back to Exodus. One of the strangest parts of the story is God’s pledge that as the Israelites leave slavery in Egypt, the Egyptians will give them items of great value. As Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein has noted, the promise begins even before Joseph and his brothers enter Egypt in the first place. In Genesis, God offers Abraham a glimpse of the future: “Your seed shall be an alien in a land not their own and shall serve them” but “afterward shall they come out with significant property” (15:14). When God encounters Moses at the Burning Bush, the pledge becomes more specific: “You will not go empty but every woman shall ask of her neighbor, and of the one lodging in her house silver items and gold items, and clothing” (3:21-22). Then, in the Torah portion that many Jews read last Saturday, Parashat Bo, the promise is fulfilled. Panicked by the final plague, the killing of the Egyptian first-born, Pharoah tells the Israelites to leave right away (before later changing his mind). As they leave, the Israelites “asked of the Egyptians silver items and gold items, and clothing. And God gave the people favor in the sight of the Egyptians, so that they gave them what they asked” (12:35-36).
The Israelites who received this bounty were not saints. Some rabbinic commentators suggest they obtained the Egyptians’ gold and silver through deception. To make matters worse, they later used it to build the Golden Calf, their greatest sin.
Nonetheless, Jewish tradition is clear that the Israelites, whatever their flaws, deserved what they took. And the Exodus story becomes the basis for a legal requirement that Jewish ex-slaves be given what we would call reparations. In Deuteronomy, Moses tells the Israelites that in the society they build when they cross the Jordan River, a master must not release a slave “empty handed.” Rather, he must “furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat.” By way of justification, Moses cites Exodus: “Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and the Lord your God redeemed; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today” (15:13-15).
Some American Jewish groups have drawn on these sources to endorse reparations for Black Americans. The Reform Movement endorsed the idea in 2019. The Anti-Defamation League has flirted with it as well. But no establishment Jewish group has come close to linking the reparations in the Exodus story to reparations for Palestinian refugees, and in particular, to the kind of reparations Palestinians have been demanding since 1948: The right to return home.
One reason Jewish groups don’t make this link is that they see Palestinian refugee return as a menace. In its statement on the issue, the ADL notes that Israel believes “the influx of millions of Palestinians into Israel would pose a threat to its national security.” One of the most popular speakers on the American Jewish establishment’s lecture circuit (she spoke to the Democratic Majority for Israel just last week) is the Israeli ex-Knesset member Einat Wilf. Two years ago, Wilf co-authored a book about Palestinian refugees entitled, The War of Return. The message is clear: The Palestinian desire to return constitutes an act of war.
Parashat Bo, however, can be read in exactly the opposite way—as suggesting that reparations bring not hatred and war but reconciliation and peace. In a commentary several years ago, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks puzzled over Moses’ instruction in Deuteronomy that the Israelites should not “hate an Egyptian, because you were a stranger in his land.” How could the Israelites be expected not to hate the people who enslaved them for hundreds of years? The answer, Sacks suggests, is reparations. The Israelites should overcome their hatred because the Egyptians made concrete amends. Sacks quotes the early twentieth century German rabbi Benno Jacob, who suggests that the Hebrew word venitzaltem, which is generally translated as “stripping” or “plundering” can instead be translated as “saving.” What were the Israelites “saving” the Egyptians from when they took their silver and gold? The Israelites were saying the Egyptians from being hated by the people they had enslaved.
It’s a point many contemporary advocates of reparations have made. The late Bishop Desmond Tutu argued that true reconciliation requires restitution. “If someone steals my pen and then asks me to forgive him,” he once explained, “unless he returns my pen the sincerity of his contrition and confession will be considered nil.” Some Palestinians have made a similar argument. A sincere effort by Israel to repair the harms of the Nakba, wrote the Palestinian-American law professor George Bisharat, could unleash “an untapped reservoir of Palestinian magnanimity and good will that could transform the relations between the two peoples.”
Jewish texts rarely permit just one interpretation, and a skeptic might note that the story in Exodus—and the subsequent law in Deuteronomy—only refer to Israelite former slaves. There’s a deep tension in Jewish texts because the Torah’s universal message and its particular concern for Jews. My interpretation only works if you read Exodus as making a moral argument that applies to humanity as a whole. But it’s worth noting that when the Reform Movement uses these texts to argue for reparations for Black Americans, they’re reading Exodus universalistically too. They just don’t extend that universalism for Palestinians.
A critic might also observe that the kind of material payments discussed in Exodus and Deuteronomy are different from allowing refugees to return. The assumption underlying the Exodus story is that the Israelites must leave in order to go home. The assumption underlying the call for Palestinian refugee return, by contrast, is that Palestinians already were home and must go back. It is possible, therefore, to read Parashat Bo, as a story about the virtues of reparations and physical separation—in which case the contemporary lesson is that Israel should compensate Palestinians financially for having stolen their lands but demand they remain somewhere else.
The problem with this reading is that it denies victims any right to decide what kind of reparations they should receive. In Exodus, it is God—not Pharoah—who determines the form reparations should take. And in the absence of a deity who speaks on victims’ behalf, surely victims should be able to speak for themselves. The point of the right of return is not that Palestinians must return to the lands from which they or their ancestors were expelled. It is that they can return if they wish. The choice is key because choice is what expulsion, like slavery and other forms of subjugation, denies people. Denying people a choice over the kind of reparations they receive, therefore, risks compounding the initial injustice rather than remedying it.
Many Jews worry that allowing Palestinians to return would shift Israel’s demographic balance. Indeed, it might. As I’ve argued in two essays, I don’t think such a shift would imperil Jewish safety. I actually believe Jews would be safer in one equal state that faced and tried to remedy the injustice created at Israel’s birth than in the oppressive and amnesiac Jewish state that exists today. But since today’s newsletter is primarily theological, it’s worth adding that in the Book of Exodus the person worried about demographic threats is Pharoah, who fears that “the Israelites are much too numerous for us” (1:10) before making them slaves.
The implication is that seeing individuals as part of a faceless mass—reducible to its sheer size—is dehumanizing. As Rabbi Sacks has written, in explaining why God punished King David for taking a census, “counting devalues the individual.” Perhaps the lesson is that Jews today need to stop thinking about Palestinian refugees the way Pharoah thought about the Israelites and instead view them as individual human beings—remembering, as Sacks reminds us, that “every life is like an entire universe.”
In November I had the privilege of talking to Hasan Hammami, who was born in Jaffa in 1932 and forced to flee on a cargo boat at the age of 15, and Nida and Dina El-Muti, the daughter and granddaughter of Fatima Radwan, who in 1948 survived the massacre at Deir Yassin. Each of their lives does indeed contain a universe—a universe ruptured by Israel’s expulsion of their families. Parashat Bo can help us think about what it would take for that rupture to heal.
Instead of only suggesting things to read, I’m experimenting with excerpting the most intriguing responses I get to the things I write. Here’s an email I received in response to last week’s newsletter about the unprecedented way in which Palestinians last year entered America’s Israel-Palestine debate. It’s from a former opinion editor at a prestigious US newspaper, who suggests I overlooked a key factor that in the past kept Palestinians off of America’s op-ed pages:
“Self-appointed media-monitoring groups like CAMERA and Honest Reporting (sic) and ‘watchdog’ bloggers at pro-Israel publications like Jerusalem Post were very effective in raising the cost of publishing Palestinian voices. They made complaints that purported to be about factual errors but were usually matters of legitimate dispute and interpretation, not purely factual, in ways that tied up editors in labor-intensive research and response exercises. This technique of complaint was very well designed to exploit the good faith of news media institutions with bad-faith pseudo-factual error claims. The overall effect was to make less well-informed executive editors risk-averse about such assigning, and to punish individual commissioning editors with the high cost of publishing such voices.
To the extent that these groups appear to have lost some of their clout and have less power to deter editors from better assigning and a fairer platforming of Palestinian voices, that is very welcome (would be interesting to inquire more deeply why). But I think the erosion of influence of this proxy front in the hasbara campaign is a really important development.”
If other readers who work in the US media—or at the kind of pro-Israel advocacy organizations mentioned above—have an experience they’d like to share, please email me. As in this case, I can keep your identity anonymous if you’d prefer.
See you Friday,