Flight from Egypt: Blacks, Jews, Diasporas

By Philipson, Robert | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Flight from Egypt: Blacks, Jews, Diasporas


Philipson, Robert, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


"Are you not like the Ethiopians to me,

O people of Israel?" saith the Lord.

"Did I not bring up Israel from the land of Egypt,

and the Philistines from Caphtor and the Syrians from Kir?

- Amos 9:7

LET US START BY UNRAVELING AN AMERICAN CULTURAL tangle. The Reverend Al Sharpton, African-American gadfly of New York politics, has led scores of protest marches against assaults and injustices perpetrated on the Black community. This man's name has become anathema to many Jews for what they perceive to be his inflammatory role in the Crown Heights riots of 1991 and the 1995 arson that killed 8 people in a Jewish-owned clothing store in Harlem. Yet when Al Sharp ton published the autobiography that has become the standard accessory of American celebrity, he gave it the title Go and Tell Pharaoh (1996). The reference, as anyone familiar with the African-American religious tradition would know, is to the spiritual, "Go Down, Moses," which retells the Biblical story of Exodus. Although no member of the Judeo-Christian world could miss the grandiose comparison to Moses, Sharpton prefaces his book with the following lines from the spiritual.

Go down Moses,

Down to Egypt land,

Go and tell Pharaoh,

Let my people go.

The irony of a Black leader considered by many Jews to be an antisemite appropriating a narrative of Jewish origin to explain his role in the world is the result of the peculiar positioning that Western -- specifically American - culture has imposed on Jews, Blacks, and, collaterally, upon their interrelations.

We recognize the cultures we belong to by the myths which we consume within those cultures. British citizens are familiar with the stories of King Arthur; Ibos tell each other about how Mbe, the trickster turtle, got cracks in his shell; Americans know all about the boy Washington and the cherry tree; and Israelis refer to Masada when they wish to invoke a history of militant resistance. Within nations, ethnic cultures operate by similar rules. Jews know about the 36 Just Men who watch over the conscience of the world, and Black Americans are as familiar with Stagger Lee as white ones are with Billy the Kid. As Roland Barthes pointed out in his 1957 essay on the subject, "what allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one." [1] Myth tells us who we are.

The situation becomes more complex when, as in the case of Sharpton's title, a single myth operates in multiple settings. The Flight from Egypt, central to this meditation on the nature of Black and Jewish relatedness, is at the heart of African-American and Jewish culture, although the myth plays different roles--I stress the plural here--in each. For Jews the Exodus story is so essential that it is rehearsed at length every year at Passover, as commanded by God (Exodus 12:1-20). [2] The story is subject to an ever-changing constellation of interpretations, as the myriad of haggadot testify. Still, the recounting of Israel's delivery from Egypt, no matter how adapted for contemporary use, has remained through the centuries a fundamental Jewish ritual. "With the exodus of this people," the renowned rabbi Leo Baeck wrote, "its national history commences." [3] Israel only came to know itself as a people--a people with a will of its own rather than as an instrument of others' power--when God brought it out of Eg ypt. The rehearsal of the Passover narrative, Baeck continues, links Jewish existence from its beginning to the present and thus to the future.

The Exodus story did not remain solely a Jewish myth, and the reason for this can be found in Barthes' observation that "[m]en do not have with myth a relationship based on truth but on use." [4] Although Israel enjoyed a distinctly unique link to Jehovah, [5] the epigraph from the prophet Amos shows that Gentile nations also had a relationship with the Lord. …

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