Thursday, April 1, 2010

"We were slaves in Egypt"

The act of celebrating Passover is one of retelling the story of the Exodus in a setting of a festive meal, the Seder, many of whose ingredients have symbolic significance. The story is introduced, as many stories are, by a series of questions, which are supposed to be asked by the youngest child at the Seder. MavenSearch provides the following translation of the text of these questions:

Why is this night different from all other nights?
On all other nights we eat either leavened or unleavened bread. Why on this night do we eat only unleavened bread?
On all other nights we eat all kinds of vegetables. Why on this night do we eat only bitter herbs?
On all other nights we don't dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?
On all other nights we eat either sitting or reclining. Why on this night do we recline?

The answer begins with the words "Avadim Hayinu," usually translated as "We were slaves in Egypt." MavenSearch provides a slightly different translation and an extended context:

Slaves were we to Pharaoh in Egypt, and the Lord our God brought us out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. If the Holy One, Blessed by He, had not brought our fathers out of Egypt, then we and our children and our children's' children would still be enslaved to Pharaoh in Egypt.

From this point of view, Passover is an appropriate time to contemplate the current labor situation in Israel. Jon Donnison has provided a particularly apposite account this morning for BBC News:

The beautiful moshav or communal farm at Netiv Haasara in southern Israel, right on the border with Gaza, is green, lush and fragrant with jasmine and orange blossom.

In the moshav's vast greenhouses they grow everything from cucumbers to coriander, peas to peppers.

The sounds and smells are pretty typical of Israel in springtime - except, that is, for the murmur of conversation in an unlikely language - Thai.

"Virtually all our workers here are Thai," says Roni Keidar who runs a seed production business on the moshav.

"We tried to get Israelis to do the work but it's too difficult. It's too hot for them in the greenhouses," she says.

"Too posh to pick?" I ask. "Maybe," Ms Keidar laughs.

The Israeli government says there are around 28,000 Thais working legally in Israel.

As the above text explains, a moshav, like a kibbutz, is a communal enterprise. The distinction, as I understand it, is that all kibbutz property is communal, while the moshav makes some allowances for individual property rights. In both cases community is determined by membership, whose rights usually extend from parents down to their children.

In the early days of the State of Israel, there was a heavy dependence on volunteer labor at both kibbutzim and moshavim. Many of those volunteers were students from the United States. I first became aware of the Camp Ramah system, one of the sources of those volunteers, as a teenager. Since I lived in the Philadelphia area, I first heard the name Noam Chomsky in conjunction with Camp Ramah; and Chomsky himself had lived in the HaZore'a kibbutz. One of the side-effects of the 1967 war was an upsurge in volunteer interest that benefitted many of these communal enterprises.

It goes without saying that volunteers were just that. They were not members. They were provided with food and shelter. I suspect that they also received medical care when it was necessary. However, they never enjoyed the full spectrum of membership benefits; nor did they expect to do so.

At the time I was teaching at the Technion (which happened to be the two-year period before the outbreak of the 1973 war), talk of privatization was beginning to emerge and the more successful kibbutzim and moshavim. This was when I first learned that economic principle that has served me since then without fail: People are happy to share poverty, but they want to keep wealth. I do not know when moshavim began to take on salaried labor, nor do I know if the kibbutzim shared the practice. However, this decision provides a major shift in any utopian thinking about communal living, not to mention how the members think about wealth and poverty.

If we are to take Donnison's report at face value, then Netiv Haasara is one example of a communal enterprise that has prospered; and we now see what happens when the path of rising prosperity crosses the path of declining ideals. Prosperity means growth. Growth means more work, more than can be accommodated by volunteers in the best of times. Thus, employment enters the economic system; and with its entry comes a new class distinction, because, like the volunteers that preceded them, employees are not members. However, they are there because the wages justify the "underclass" status, as Donnison observes:

"I earn about a thousand dollars a month here," says 33-year-old Kai, who gives only his first name, as he picks coriander. "That's double what I could earn back home."

Kai has worked here for four and half years. He has six months to go on his five-year visa.

This is not quite the wage slavery that the Marxists had in mind, but it still indicates that dependency on compensation trumps all other considerations.

Of course Israeli use of Thai wage slaves is a relatively recent phenomenon. Donnison offers the following historical context:

Netiv Haasara is right on the border with Gaza. Standing by the greenhouses you can literally touch the huge concrete wall that separates Israel from the Palestinian territory.

Less than a kilometre from Netiv Haasara is the Erez Crossing, the main checkpoint from Gaza into Israel.

These days just a trickle of people are allowed to cross.


But until the start of the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising, in 2000 when Israel tightened the border, thousands of Gazans used to travel daily through Erez to work on Israeli farms.

Yes, the land that had enslaved the ancestors of the current Israeli population was, not very long ago, a major source of wage slaves for Israeli enterprises. Thus, the history of intifada is probably as much an economic history as a political one with the usual twist that comes with prosperity: If you cannot get you cheap labor from one source, you are sure to find another. I doubt that many Israelis see the irony of this parallel to the Exodus story, nor do I think it is explored very much at any Seder gathering in the United States. However, those who put so much time into puzzling out why negotiating differences in the Middle East might do well to consider that parallel and the context it defines for both Israelis and Palestinians.

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