The Israelites finally make their way out of Egypt in this week’s Torah portion of Beshallach. Having been freed by Pharaoh, the people make their way to the shore of the Red Sea. After Pharaoh dispatches his army after the freed slaves, the Israelites cry out to be saved from a seemingly impossible situation. Moses raises his staff, the waters part, and the Israelites pass through to safety. This stage of the Exodus is complete.
In describing the Israelite exodus from Egypt, the text notes that when they left, “a mixed multitude (erev rav) went up with them.” The mixed multitude was, according to commentaries, made up of Egyptians who joined with the Israelites in their leaving–former oppressors who had renounced their association with an oppressive regime and found common cause with the oppressed.
The population that went out of Egypt, according to the text, therefore was diverse, multicultural and multinational. Perhaps, we can posit, that liberation such as this is only possible with a diverse coalition of people who are willing to make the journey, with a mixed group of the oppressed and their allies.
It could not have been easy, this erev rav. Being in a diverse coalition such as this involves difficult work, confronting that which you at best disagree with or at worst dislike. Movements of liberation built on coalitions will bring together those who are united on some causes but not on others, and it is up to all of those present to be honest and open as to where the differences are, and when is it necessary to put them aside to be focused on the task at hand.
It is not comfortable to be in that position, but sometimes necessary.
This weekend is the Women’s March, and we are confronted with such a situation. With accusations of anti-Semitism leveled at some of the leaders of the national march—primarily because of various associations of some of the leaders—the Jewish community has been forced into difficult conversations both within itself and with its partners. Is it possible to be in partnership with those who share common cause yet who also associate with others we would find anathema?
Some answer “no” and distance themselves. Others answer “yes” and take the difficult seat at the table. At that table is an opportunity to share one’s own truth, and hear others’ truths. And this is where real relationship and change is forged.
We have seen change at the national level in the Women’s March as the organizers sat down with Jewish leaders, released a statement specifically condemning anti-Semitism, and most recently added Jewish women—including Jews of Color—to the organizing committee. Progress like this needed to be made because fighting forces of hatred in this country, which are being given official sanction by elected leaders, is too important at this moment in time.
We as Jews do need to call out anti-Semitism when we see it. And we also must remember, the anti-Semitism that killed 11 in Pittsburgh came from the right and not the left.
In movements of social change, we need to be in dialogue with those we do not agree with. Looking back, that was the failure of the Olympia Food Co-op a decade ago when they instituted their boycott of Israeli products. Not the boycott itself, but the failure to engage in the hard conversation of talking with their neighbors, understanding the spectrum of Jewish experience and opinion. Rather the leadership chose the easy path of listening to only those they agree with, and not only that, using those opinions to serve as representative of a whole (i.e., talking to some Jews, but not all Jews) thus pitting a minority community against itself.
We have the opportunity to do things differently. Our current political situation gives us the opportunity to forge new alliances and relationships, if only we embrace the discomfort. If only we show up. If only we do the work.
It is work that will continue. For we know that while it is easy to point out other’s perceived biases, it is much harder to see them in oneself. While it is easy to tell others who they can and can not associate with, we get much more resistant when the same charge is leveled at us. But we need to be both strong and humble in our convictions and identities.
I know that within the Jewish community there are those I need to be in relationship and dialogue with at times for the sake of the greater Jewish community. I will engage with Chabad even though I find their Orthodox practice and ideology, especially around gender, to be far from my own. I will dialogue with StandWithUs even though I disagree with their politics on Israel and their assault on free speech. There are times we can be in coalition, and sometimes we can’t. But we must maintain the relationship, difficult and uncomfortable as it may be at times. The same is true in interfaith work, when I work on issues with those faiths whose theologies are antithetical to mine.
I do plan to spend part of my Shabbat this weekend participating in the Women’s March in Olympia. (For those who are tracking, the Washington Women’s March organization actually broke with the national organization over some of the issues referenced and is independent.) The times demand we show up, and I’m prepared to do the difficult work that entails, and I trust my partners are willing to do the same.
And I believe that standing there at the Temple of Justice on the Capitol Campus will be the closest we can come today to being a part of the erev rav, the diverse coalition that confronted oppression and joined together in the march to liberation.