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Article: Sharing our freedom

Published: April 4, 2017. Author: George Newhouse. Theme:  Asylum seekers.

About The Author

George Newhouse is the Principal Solicitor at National Justice Project, and an Adjunct Professor of Law at Macquarie University.

Sharing our freedom

A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England.

 

Every Passover, many Jewish people sit through yet another Seder – a lengthy, elaborate ritual that must be endured before the food appears. It’s designed to remind us of the oppression that the Jews suffered as slaves in Egypt, our desire for freedom, and our escape from Egypt to the Promised Land.

As we get peckish, it’s easy to wonder why we bother. Things were bad then, they’re good now. Let’s eat! What’s the point of eating symbolic bitter herbs and plain matza (little more than a cracker), reciting tales about what happened thousands of years ago, when chicken soup with matza balls await?

Some might say the meal is a Jewish ‘Thanksgiving’; that we should appreciate what we have today. For many of us this will be true; for others, less so. Those of us lucky enough to have a roof over our heads, a generous Seder meal, and loving family and friends by our sides, can be grateful that we are no longer slaves.

Yet in and of itself, this is a rather sterile reminder. Surely we don’t need to repeat the story of the Exodus each year just remind ourselves that our lives could be worse. We don’t need all the singing and rituals to get that point either. Why place so much emphasis on how things were back then?

Let us suppose the Seder should be about more than our present good fortune; that there is an ethical lesson in the story of our bondage in Egypt. What might it be?

From our point of view, the story of slavery in Egypt is relatively straightforward. We suffered, then G-d freed us. However, suppose we were not Jews. Suppose we were Egyptians. Would we have extended a hand in solidarity to the Jews? Or would we have avoided thinking too hard about those who toiled to build our wonderful civilisation, and how our lives happened to be so privileged while others around us suffered?

We are used to thinking of ourselves as victims of persecution. We remember being oppressed by the Egyptians, and persecuted by many other nations in the years since. We can never forget the Holocaust. Yet today, things are a lot better for most of us. Our years of persecution are just a memory for many.

Today, there are people seeking asylum on Manus Island and Nauru. Many of them have escaped oppression, just as we did on Passover thousands of years ago. For years, asylum seekers in the Pacific have been held in conditions so inhumane that Amnesty International has described them as torture.

In its Island of Despair report, Amnesty notes that our government has adopted a policy of “intolerable cruelty”, and “the destruction of the physical and mental integrity of hundreds of children, men and women”. Story after story has emerged of the horrors that our leaders are inflicting on innocent people, whose only crime was to do as we once did: to escape oppression, and seek freedom.

It is easy to say it is not our fault. We are not the government that chose to legislate and implement the policy of offshore detention. But many of us turn away, and ignore their desperation and suffering. If the asylum seekers of today in our detention centres were to hold their own version of a Seder in 200 years, what would they say about Australians?

In the story of Passover, we were not freed by the goodness of the Egyptians. G-d delivered us from Egypt, and delivered a terrible judgement on the people of Egypt. This culminated in the killing of their firstborn sons, which is described as a miracle. Let us leave aside the question of why it OK for G-d to kill these people, including babies. G-d’s action raises the issue of the complicity of the Egyptians. G-d held families across Egypt accountable for the Jews’ suffering. Presumably, the average Egyptian should have cared. They should have fought for us, because of the wicked persecution and the violent oppression of the Jewish people. But the Egyptians lived under the thumb of an unelected ruler, how might G-d judge us all for the actions of the governments that we have elected?

National Justice ProjectThe point of the Seder doesn’t have to be confined to the liberation of the Jewish people. If we don’t want to be like the Egyptians, judged for their complicity in the oppression of others, we should act to free those oppressed by our own leaders today. One or two nights a year, we are called on to remember what it was like when we were slaves. Perhaps, on this night we could take a moment to consider those people so cruelly rejected as undeserving of our solidarity or decency.

And in the leadup to Passover, what better time than to do something concrete for those seeking asylum in our country? Donate time or money to the National Justice Project. Write letters and call your Member of Parliament and Senators. Call up radio stations to defend the rights of asylum seekers. Make your voice heard. Our ancestors had the good fortune to be liberated with the help of a series of miracles. If we are going to distinguish ourselves from the Egyptians, we will need to perform our own miracles.

 

 

 

Main image: A print from the Phillip Medhurst Collection of Bible illustrations in the possession of Revd. Philip De Vere at St. George’s Court, Kidderminster, England.