Passover reminds that slavery is not just ancient history

Passover reminds that slavery is not just ancient history

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz

ABC Online, Religion and Ethics Р6 April 2012

While Jewish Australians celebrate the Passover seder, we will remember that the Jewish people were not always free – but we won’t have to think back to biblical times to understand this reality.


On Friday night, while the Christian world is celebrating Good Friday and the rest of Australia is celebrating a four-day weekend, the Jewish community in Australia will be holding the annual Passover seder, marking the beginning of the week of Passover.

The story of the children of Israel’s escape from Egypt is well-known – there was even an animated movie about it – yet Jews are called upon to recount the Exodus each year in its entirety as if it were we who had left slavery in Egypt towards freedom in the Promised Land.

The Passover customs are mostly tied to this memory – the feast is centred around the reading of the story and we are obligated to forego any leavened bread over the week because when the Israelites left Egypt, they did so in such a hurry that they had no time to allow their bread to rise.

Agnostic British philosopher Alain de Botton has caused a stir recently with his book Religion for Atheists, in which he argues that many of the rituals and traditions in religion provide a great benefit to society and are something that even those who do not believe in God could find value in adopting.

Passover, to me, proves de Botton’s point. There is no time in a purely atheistic calendar at which a person would choose one week each year to repeat an old story and forego a luxury in order to remember that they were once slaves and now they are free – yet the exercise is both emotionally powerful and extremely valuable intellectually.

Freedom is something that most of us have always known and therefore take for granted; we constantly lose sight of the fact that we are lucky enough to be living in a time and a place where we have the ability to choose our own destiny without answering to any masters. Yet most Australians will probably never take a moment to be thankful for this liberty and intentionally reflect on what it means to be free.

It is particularly appropriate to do so because it is easy to forget that there are many people in the world today who are not yet free. Despite being one of the most heinous crimes under international law, slavery is unfortunately still thriving.

We have had a number of reminders recently that Australia remains far from ridding itself of the human trafficking and sex slavery trade – reminders like the Four Corners episode last year on the subject and a current prosecution in Canberra. The problem is not limited to sex slavery – there are still people trafficked to Australia and then subjected to forced labour and other forms of exploitation and abuse.

Of course, this issue is hardly limited to our shores. According to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the human trafficking trade is worth $31 billion per year and affects 2.4 million people at any one time – two thirds of them women. After illegal drugs, this makes human trafficking the second most profitable international criminal trade and yet, as DePaul University professor Mahmoud Cherif Bassiouni has said, “there is no human rights subject on which governments have said so much but done so little.”

Sudanese slave-turned-advocate Simon Deng is one person who speaks powerfully on the evils of slavery and the world’s wilful blindness. He gave a moving address (well worth reading in full) at a counter-conference to protest to last-year’s UN Durban III Conference – marking the tenth anniversary of the UN’s 2001 “World Conference Against Racism” in Durban South Africa, which descended into one of the most farcical events in the history of the international community.

At this conference, of all the nations in the world only one – Israel – was the subject of condemnation for its “racism,” sparing countries like Deng’s native Sudan, where the Arab rulers were busy wiping-out the black African populations of entire regions, murdering the parents and enslaving their children.

As I write this, the Sudanese regime in Sudan – still headed by President Omar Bashir, who has been flaunting an ICC genocide indictment since 2008 – is repeating the same crimes, this time in the Nuba mountains in order to consolidate Arab control of the South Kordofan region.

Aside from one or two brave reporters, this situation is being entirely overlooked by the world. There was not so much as a headline in Australia this year when the African Union resolved to continue protecting Bashir as he collectively starves the people of Nuba in order to bend them to his will.

In January of this year, I visited the Tel Aviv-based African Refugee Development Centre, which holds an annual Passover seder with people who have fled Sudan. At this seder, two stories are told: the ancient Jewish story of escaping slavery in Egypt for freedom in Israel and the modern Sudanese story along similar lines.

Over the last decade, tens of thousands of Sudanese refugees have found themselves making the same perilous journey today as the Children of Israel underwent three thousand years ago. They escape from the horror they face in the land where they are born and endeavour to walk north to the Promised Land. Like the ancient Hebrews they are hunted by Egyptian soldiers – the unlucky ones are shot on sight. In the Sinai desert, where the Israelites wondered for forty years, the Sudanese are often kidnapped by local Bedouins to be held at ransom – killed if they cannot pay, raped and tortured while they try to scrape the money together.

True to form, the UN ignores the problem and does not offer to take them into the refugee camps full of Palestinians and Iraqis that sit right next door; but when they reach the Land of Israel, they are afforded a safe haven. Israel is struggling with this huge influx of refugees, and their lives there are not ideal, but it remains the only country in the region where Sudanese are not hunted and killed.

When I sit on Friday at the seder table repeating Moses’s words to Pharaoh, “Let my people go,” I will remember that the Jewish people were not always free – but sadly, I do not have to think back to biblical times to understand this reality. I will be grateful that my people are free, but I will also remember and regret that not everyone can say the same.

While non-Jewish Australians do not have the same tradition of spending the next week reflecting on their freedom, I believe that there are aspects of this Jewish ritual that every individual and community would benefit from in their own way. We should find the time and space to take a moment, think about how lucky we really are and spare a thought for the millions of people around the world who still live in bondage.

After that, there are things we can do to change their fate – like support the programs run by Jewish Aid Australia to help the more than 25,000 Sudanese refugees who call Australia home; or help Anti-Slavery Australia in their work to eradicate slavery and trafficking around the world.

Daniel Meyerowitz-Katz is Policy Analyst and Social Media Coordinator at the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council.