In 1965 I wore chinos and was still getting pimples as I shuffled my feet and rocked my butt back and forth to "Wooly Bully." I was eighteen when Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs sang out: "Hatty told Matty, Let's don't take no chance. Let's not be L-seven, come and learn to dance." I had no idea that L-7 was code for the hand sign of a square. Nefertiti and the pyramids was their standard stage set.
I was forty and had more or less stopped dancing by the time the Bangles released their hit song, "Walk Like an Egyptian" in 1986. "All the school kids so sick of books/ They like punk and metal band/When the buzzer rings/They're walking like an Egyptian." Even the cops in the coffee shop were walking like an Egyptian, they sang. Susanna Hoffs, the Bangles' lead, was a nice Jewish girl who went to my Los Angeles high school. Sam the Sham, a.k.a Domingo "Sam" Samudio, a Texas born Chicano, went around dressed in a turban modeled after Yul Brynner, the Pharaoh in The Ten Commandments.
To walk like an Egyptian, for both, was to be free, uncertain perhaps, unsteady, but free. This is a night to chew on that.
In the Passover rite, we eat an ancient story to remind ourselves how we might move -- towards freedom and justice. Who are the Pharaohs? And who the Jews? Who did what to whom? That is the Passover question for this and every year. We need to remember that anybody can sit in the Pharaoh's chair.
This year is crowded with exiles and Pharaohs. At this table we all descend from refugees and exiles. At this table there are emigrant families from Russia, Poland, Austria, China -- even New York City. Miguel, our gardener, used to sleep in the bushes near the Greyhound station. He still gardens, but now he owns two houses and raises horses. Turkish President Erdogan is stripping his people of their liberties, bombing the Kurds, and trading the million Muslim refugees he will keep in Turkey, for European assent to his tyranny. Bodies for power. Donald Trump, descended from Scottish and German immigrants, wants to deport Latino refugees and build a huge wall to stop more coming in, as well as blocking Muslims. He seems just like the Pharaoh, the man who did not know Joseph and the Jews' role in the prosperity of his land, and blamed us for the famine. Trump, married to Melania, herself an immigrant from Slovenia, blames white working class unemployment on the Latino immigrants.
As an American Jew whose grandparents fled here from an anti-semitic Czar, whose mother used to meet Communists in Manhattan who had somehow managed to escape the Nazi concentration camps, I cannot not identify with the waves of people fleeing the conflagration in Syria. And I cannot not worry that just as Hannah Arendt tied the rise of fascism in Europe to the hordes of stateless refugees -- many of whom were Jews -- unleashed in the wake of World War I, that the Western democratic nation-state is at risk as a result.
And then there is Israel. We are still the Jews, singled out and hated by peoples and states around the world. Anti-semitism is showing up in alarming places: at a Catholic high school basketball match with a predominantly Jewish school in Boston, in French public schools where Jewish parents increasingly will not send their children to learn, on American college campuses where Jewish sponsorship is sufficient to vilify a speaker having nothing to do with Israel. There is no question that anti-semitism feeds anti-Zionism, that the Jewish state is held to a standard and subject to vilification that is not comparable to that applied to other peoples and other states.
But there is also no question that the behavior of the Jewish state feeds both -- anti-semitism and anti-Zionism -- around the world. Increasing numbers of Jews, particularly American Jews, understand that Israel today is a new Pharaoh. That we are hated because the state most of us identify with and want to flourish continues to occupy, humiliate, expropriate and exploit the Palestinian people. (It is also true that when Israel did leave the Palestinians free in Gaza, the people chose not to develop their Mediterranean strip of land, but to use it as a launching bed for terror, that Arafat's Fatah government was unable to control or crush them. The future of peace is in the West Bank, not there.)
This is the first time in my life that I can vote for a Jew for the office of president of the United States. I am cheered, and frankly astounded, that there has been no groundswell of anti-semitism directed at him. It has taken a Jew to put the accountability of Israel on the political agenda, to publicly call out the human suffering of the Palestinians, to announce that the American government cannot abide Israel's continued rejectionism. Whatever his other failings, this, for me, was Sanders' crowning moment in the New York primary. In the story we are about to read, progressively harsher plagues were visited on the Egyptian people for their enslavement of the Israelites. Today, the plagues are upon us: proliferating acts of barbarity, marked erosion of democracy, the rising racism of Israelis and Palestinians, reciprocal dehumanization, rising anti-semitism and the stigmatization of Israel around the world.
We are now the Pharaohs. Israelite women danced on the far side of the Red Sea after having escaped Egypt. Tonight is still the night to dare imagine that we may all walk like the Egyptians.