On Passover, the festival of freedom, we are commanded to view ourselves as if we personally had come out of Egypt. As such, it’s a traditional time to ponder the concept of liberation from bondage and tyranny and what that might mean in our own lives.
Sometimes the parallels are pretty straightforward. On the first night of Passover 1943 the Warsaw Ghetto rose up in revolt. On the fourth day of Passover 1775 the first shots of the American Revolution were fired at Lexington and Concord.
At other times it’s hard to tell which side is which. In Ukraine right now, the forces of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian Russian imperialism are facing off against a rebel government that seems to unite pro-Western conservatives with an array of fascists and nostalgic Nazi sympathizers.
There are times, though, when the torch of freedom turns out, on closer examination, to be an arsonist’s matchbook. The days leading up to Passover this year saw an alarming pattern, in several far-flung hotspots, of malicious vandalism masquerading as patriotic heroism. On the surface the incidents might seem utterly unrelated, but they bear remarkable similarities, and they point to a larger trend.
On Tuesday, April 8, six days before the Seder, hundreds of Jews in the northern West Bank settlement of Yitzhar staged a violent assault on the Israeli military. A unit of soldiers and Border Police had come to dismantle several illegal structures at the edge of the settlement. A mob of settlers attacked them, wielding sticks, throwing stones and burning tires. Six soldiers were wounded. Two were hospitalized. One group of 50-odd youths then attacked the military post that guards the village, ransacking it while the soldiers looked on. The prime minister and defense minister said perpetrators would be shown zero tolerance. Eight suspects were arrested. Seven were released within three days.
That Saturday, April 12, halfway around the world in the southeastern Nevada desert outside Mesquite, several hundred armed vigilantes surrounded a unit of federal officers. The feds, agents of the Bureau of Land Management, came to confiscate cattle belonging to deadbeat rancher Cliven Bundy. He owes some $1.1 million in unpaid fees and fines for grazing his livestock on federal land, claiming he doesn’t recognize federal authority. His cause has drawn anti-government extremists and far-right militia members from throughout the West. That Saturday the feds saw they were outgunned and withdrew. The outlaws won the showdown.
In both confrontations, Yitzhar and Mesquite, the vigilantes won support from right-wing sympathizers who claim government has no right to enforce its laws on dissenters. In both cases, broader circles of conservatives conceded that laws should be enforced, but decried the “brutal” tactics of gun-toting law enforcement officers.
A Nevada state lawmaker who stood with the vigilantes at Bundy’s ranch, Republican Michele Fiore, told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes that it was natural for citizens to resist if they faced agents “coming to your house pointing guns at your wife and children” merely because they “owed the federal government money.” No mention of the thousands of Americans arrested each year by armed federal agents because they owe the government money in evaded taxes. Nor of the estimated 10 million Americans evicted from their homes since 2007, typically by armed federal marshals and county sheriffs, because they owed money to banks.