Freedom and Solidarity in a Time of Plagues – A Passover Reflection

B’khol dor v’dor – from generation to generation

In my secular left tradition, the celebration of Pesach (Passover) has always been about more than retelling the story of liberation of ancient Jews from Mitzrayim (ancient Egypt or “a narrow place”). It serves as an opportunity to make meaning out of a people’s history of oppression.

I woke up at 5 a.m. on Wednesday and my mind was racing with lessons the Pesach story offers for us living through the COVID-19 plague.

Sadly the meaning that many Jews have made from the Pesach story is that freedom is theirs alone and that the only way to protect your own is to cut yourself off from other communities.

In Palestine, this has been taken to an extreme where Jews have taken on the role of the Pharaoh. 2020 is the year the UN had declared Gaza would be unlivable. Gaza has been turned into a ghetto where 2 million people have virtually no ability to move and have had strict controls on what comes in and out for 13 years. The crowded conditions, lack of medical equipment, and lack of resources have led to a perfect storm where COVID-19 threatens to be absolutely devastating. The oppression of Palestinians is rooted in the false idea that our safety as Jews will come from isolating ourselves, aligning ourselves with the powerful, and walling ourselves off from the suffering of other people. 

B’khol dor v’dor – from generation to generation

My people, Jews and non-Jews, have chosen to make a different meaning, one in which histories of oppression, resistance, and survival call us to stand with those who are fighting for freedom today.

Growing up, Pesach seders with the Kinderland Kindershule were one of the most powerful ways that I, as a 9 year-old was brought into solidarity with Black communities. We learned about the history of slavery in this country, and how enslaved people drew on the story of Pesach as inspiration as they made their own journeys from slavery to freedom.

A favorite midrash (an aside to the Torah) of mine is that of Nachshon. The midrash goes that the waters did not part until Nachshon walked into the Red Sea up to his nose – casting away his fear and declaring himself a free person. What I love about this story is that it takes the agency in the story away from an all-powerful God and returns it to people making their own history. The story of the end of enslavement of Black people in this country is among other things a story of millions of enslaved people seizing the opportunity of the Civil War to free themselves—refusing to work, walking off the plantations, joining the Union Army, and by doing this, forcing Abraham Lincoln to make it a war about ending the institution of slavery.

The word "Free" with a hand coming out of it, the word "Our" inside of a hear. The word "Mamas" with a hand coming out of it.
Art by Shoshana Gordon for People’s Paper Co-op

B’khol dor v’dor – from generation to generation

The oppression of Black people did not end with formal enslavement. It was not enough. One of the most painful things to witness during the current plague has been the ways in which a disease that does not discriminate based on race is filtered through a system in the US, and around the world, that is rife with racism and oppression.

In Chicago, 68% of people who have died from COVID-19 are Black, while only 30% of the city’s population is Black. The story is the same in Milwaukee and Detroit and New Orleans. The deadly toll in Black communities is about the woeful lack of adequate healthcare for poor and working class communities, particularly communities of color. It is also about the role of Black workers in our economy in some of the lowest paid jobs many of which have suddenly been recognized as the essential services that they have always been. I think of how I have been able to work from home while millions of working class people are forced to continue to expose themselves to the dangers of the disease either as part of their job or because they don’t have jobs and need to seek an alternate means of survival.

I think of the ways in which the homelessness crisis in cities like Oakland, where I live, has forced many long-time Black and Latinx residents out of their homes and into crowded encampments without running water. In LA, unhoused people have responded by seizing empty houses. In San Francisco, community pressure forced the city to partially go back on its plan to put hundreds of people in crowded conditions without adequate bathroom facilities.

In thinking about the racialized impacts of COVID-19, I am also thinking about mass incarceration which impacts many communities, but disproportionately impacts Black people. People in prisons, jails and immigration detention cannot socially distance as their confinement and lack of hygiene supplies mixes with the prevalence of underlying health conditions and woefully inadequate health care to create a perfect environment for the virus to wreak havoc.

As we appeal to the local pharaohs in the form of governors, sheriffs and prosecutors to release people on a scale that the crisis demands (and that has always been possible), we also have the opportunity to contribute directly to people’s freedom. Catalyst Project has set a goal of raising $100,000 for Black Mama’s Bail Out.(Please also fill out this form to let us know how much you’ve given so that we can track our progress towards our $100,000 goal).

Black Mama’s Bail Out is an annual project that was launched in 2017. It is led by the National Bail Out collective which describes itself as: “a Black-led and Black-centered collective building a community-based movement to support our folks and end systems of pretrial detention and ultimately mass incarceration. We are people who have been impacted by cages — either by being in them ourselves or witnessing our families and loved ones be encaged. We are queer, trans, young, elder, and immigrant.”This year it is more critical than ever that we contribute to this effort. If you have an income, if you have wealth or savings, or if you want to dig something up anyway, I ask you to extend the legacy of freedom by donating now.

B’khol dor v’dor – We are in a new generation–one that started in the past two months

We are at the beginning of making meaning out of the COVID-19 plague, and the meaning of it is not guaranteed. There are people and forces that are preying on people’s loss of personal security to push a story of isolation and scapegoating. Whether it is forbidding US companies from helping supply PPE abroad or blaming Asian or Asian American people for the spread of a virus, many people are turning to the very story of division that left us so dramatically unprepared in the first place.

Let Pesach this year be an opportunity for us to make very different meaning. This moment is an opportunity to move from oppression into freedom. It is an opportunity to remake the world by releasing people from prison – Iran has temporarily released more than 1/3 of its prisoners, many cities in the US have released people (not enough people) from jail. It is an opportunity to implement Universal Basic Income as Spain is doing. It is an opportunity to make healthcare a guaranteed right. It is an opportunity to house the unhoused. We have seen a dramatic decrease in global society’s burning of fossil fuels, revealing what’s possible in reducing our carbon emissions and working together to limit the worst impacts of climate chaos.

May we come out of this moment with a greater sense of our interconnectedness and a greater commitment, rooted in solidarity, to meeting everyone’s needs. May this fortify us to face crises like climate change with greater unity and with people’s liberation at the center.

Next year in freedom!

Love and soldidarity,
Lee Goodman-Gargagliano