Arthur Camins on The Passover Principle and Its Meaning for All Today

Arthur Camins wrote about what he calls “the Passover Principle” and why it has lessons for all of us today.

Passover is a Jewish holiday that celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It is a quintessential story of freedom and empowerment of a subject people. To give a small example, I was at the beauty salon the other day, where everyone is a refugee from Ukraine. Most have been in this country for decades. The manicurist told me that her family was Jewish but they were not allowed to practice their religion. I asked, “How did you know you were Jewish?” She said, “It was stamped on my passport.” I asked, “Did you celebrate Passover?” She said, not really. Most of the rituals had been forgotten, and there were no Haggadahs (prayer books for the occasion). It suddenly occurred to me that any dictatorship must banish Passover because of its explicit subversive message of rebellion and freedom.

Arthur Camins writes:

As a society, we have failed to follow what I’ll call the Passover Principle of identification generating retelling. Virtually everyone in the diverse crazy-quilt fabric that is the US has a justice and freedom story to tell. Some narratives are “they tried to defeat us, but we prevailed” legends with persistent resentment as the result. However, tales can also highlight the commonality of struggles. They can recall the courage of the Underground Railroad supporters aiding escaped slaves, of the French Resistance to fascism, or of civil rights workers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Then stories can unite and rekindle the spirit of personal and collective responsibility.

Stories are powerful, evoking persistent historical loves or hatreds. Whether and how history is recounted and interpreted is not neutral. First, retelling must be truthful. To do so, it must acknowledge multiple perspectives. For example, the scientific and engineering advances from industrialization, computers and information technologies have enhanced human wellbeing as they also brought suffering, exploitation and dislocation. History is too often written from the perspective of the victors, ignoring the plight of its victims. Second, it must surface human agency. What happened in the past was not the result of inevitable forces, but rather moral and strategic choices. What leaders– democrats and dictators alike– accomplished- was the result of either the struggles or acquiescence of ordinary (and sometimes extraordinary) people.

The story of winning expanded freedoms and justice in the United States has not been one of continuous progress, but instead of hard-fought, contested battles. At times we have taken two steps forward and one step back. At other times it has been the reverse. Our history has been one in which at times politicians and citizens made both moral and reasoned choices and in other instances, immoral irrational choices. The tale of those choices and taking sides is important to tell and remember, for it defines our values, how we regard ourselves and others, and whether or not freedom and justice will expand or be extinguished.

The Passover Principle is the responsibility of anyone who values freedom and justice for all. If stories are framed intentionally and not just out of unexamined habit, they can be catalysts for change. Retelling may fall to parents, grandparents and caregivers. When young people hear about proposals to restrict Mexicans from entry into the US, are they told of efforts to restrict Asian and Southern Europeans? It also falls to religious leaders who are in a position to exert moral leadership. When congregants hear about efforts to bar entry of Muslims, do clergy give sermons recalling efforts to keep out Catholics and Jews? Similarly, it falls to educators. When students learn about westward expansion of the United States, do they learn about stealing land from and exterminating Native Americans? When they learn about Rosa Parks, do they just hear a story of her individual courage or of her resistance training at the Highlander Folk School?

The point of retelling is not simply memory. How we choose to remember reflects the values we cherish, who we want to be, and the future we want to make.

from novemoore


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