With the horrifying news coming out of Sri Lanka over Pesach, we find ourselves with yet another atrocity perpetrated in the name of ideology over which to grieve. With over 300 killed in at least three locations, this horrifying attack on Sri Lanka by a relatively unknown Islamist group in the country is now added to a long list of 2019 terrorist attacks. Several of those, particularly the ones with a high casualty count, have been perpetrated by Islamist groups with an implicit or tacit allegiance to the defunct Islamic State:
In January, in Maidan Shar, Afghanistan, Taliban suicide bombers killed dozens just going about their business. In the same month, IS-inspired terrorists in the Philippines attacked the Jolo Cathedral in Sulu. Also in January, Al-Shabaab attacked a luxury hotel in Nairobi, killed dozens as well. That’s not to count the hundreds killed in January 2019 by Al-Qaeda associated Islamists targeting Tuaregs and Christians in Northern Mali, as well as spillover into Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and of course, none of that even touches on Syria– which itself has become a nonstop series of heinous crimes against civilian populations.
Even looking at a single month, we can see incredible violence perpetrated against civilians across the world, all inspired by the same vision– a terrifying, narrow-minded interpretation of Islam which has transformed Jihad into a post-modern death cult. Yet, it is not only Islamism which has led to unnecessary violence– the other ‘extreme’ of the spectrum, the new ethno-nationalist white-supremacist alt-right shares the responsibility for our world of terror. Between Pittsburgh, New Zealand, and the countless small attacks on houses of worship (synagogues, churches, and mosques alike) and the incessant graffiti and small property crimes, the violence of the far-right is as real today as it was a century ago.
These two extremes end up resembling each other more than anything else. Though they claim to be mortal enemies and complete opposites, they have the same basic worldview: a conspiratorial fear of modernity which is driven by a belief in secret behind-the-scenes actors who manipulate world events in order to threaten their population(s). In both cases, these agents of antagonism are– you guessed it: us.
The Jews are the great boogeymen of both alt-right neo-fascism and Salafi Islamic fundamentalism. The two great terrorist forces of our world both consider us to be the ultimate enemy. That should leave us plenty concerned! But it should also motivate us to fight these two forces equally. We may be tempted, when we see an atrocity by neo-fascist racists, to ally with the Muslim community without any qualification- but we sometimes do so at the risk of providing cover to Muslim ideologues and ideologies which also condemn our very existence.
Similarly, we may see an attack like that in Sri Lanka and go the other direction entirely– foolishly believing that the nationalist politicians calling for ethnic unity and ‘Western values’ have our best interests at heart (after all, they seem to like Israel!). This too is a trap– we are simply a fig leaf for their deep seated anti-Judaism, derived from a troubling combination of socialist nihilism and Christian millennialism. We are, regrettably and unfortunately, stuck. Stuck in the middle– doomed to be the target of both these forces of chaos and terror. Yet, that also gives us the ability to stand up to both of them at once.
The Hebrew word for ‘Egypt’ is Mitzrayim (as I’m sure you all have heard endlessly over last weekend’s s’darim!). For those grammar nerds at home, you’ll notice that Mitzrayim ends in the dual case. It is neither singular nor plural, but dual (-ayim). Thus the word Mitzrayim means: ‘Two straits/narrow places (metzer)’. Egypt likely earned this Hebrew moniker because nearly all of the Egyptian settlement was in two narrow strips along the banks of the river nile, making it look like two, long narrow countries.
It is this state, of being ‘between the straits’, cramped between two narrow and extreme alternatives, that Pesach celebrates our freedom from. Going out of Egypt/Mitzrayim must mean that we learn to liberate ourselves by breaking away from the narrow dichotomy of two choices. Freedom is not multiple-choice– it is not about eithers or ors, it is not a choice between two parties, two extremes, two visions of the world, or two countries. Freedom is a state in which we can defy those narrow prescriptions to gain a broader view. Especially in light of the tragedies of this week, and especially considering the ways in which Jews are endlessly put in the middle of the world’s great conflicts, we could do with a bit more freedom from the narrow places, between the straits.