4 Activists and 4 Questions: A Passover Challenge for Social Change

4 Activists and 4 Questions: A Passover Challenge for Social Change

As this Passover comes, the themes of oppression, liberation and redemption are at the forefront of my mind.  One of the Hebrew names for Passover is zman heyruteinu, the season of our freedom.  As I look at the political situation around me in Israel, as I travel to and from the United States, my heart is heavy.  Over the past few weeks I’ve been reading a few books about the lack of freedom, particularly about systemic racial segregation and oppression against African Americans in the United States.  It’s hard to look around me in Israel and see this time as a season of freedom.  During a recent anti-occupation protest marking nearly fifty years since the beginning of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, Breaking the Silence Executive Director Yuli Novak said, “These are dark, somber days.  Our country is dominated by occupation, messianism, racism, ignorance, callousness, and violence.” [1]  Emancipation from Egypt, freedom from slavery in the United States, the continued oppression of Palestinians by Israeli Jews, the continued oppression of African Americans in the U.S. penal system.  Oh how far we’ve come, yet how much we still need to speak of oppression, liberation and redemption. 

I’ve spent a fair amount thinking about different types of activism on social and political issues related to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, feminism and race relations.  One of the frustrating limitations of many activists is our inability to overlook particulars as we seek to maintain the “purity” of our particular cause, and as a result, people who ultimately want to effect similar change cannot combine the people-power necessary to amplify our voices and bring our goals to fruition.  Some non-activist but well-meaning individuals on the sidelines throw their voices in on occasion, “I support the cause in theory, but I don’t like the way [insert person/organization] expresses it.”  Many of us have expressed similar sentiments at one point or another.  What we have a hard time understanding is that people who advocate for rights that we too wish to obtain can legitimately express their desire for that right in ways that might seem unhelpful or ineffective to us.  This is because there are many ways and many roles needed to attain political goals.

Organizer and strategist Daniel Hunter discusses four roles of social change: helper, advocate, organizer and rebel. [2]  People can take on any of the four roles, but often times our personality or our social positioning might condition us to be better suited for one role over the other.  This is legitimate and important, and in order to effectively be part of a movement, it’s important to know what you are and how you can help.  While there are other approaches to social change, I find these categorizations helpful. [3]  The chart below explains the roles, what they look like, and their strengths and weaknesses.  

Four Roles of Social Change

In order to effectively have a movement, you need all four roles.  Many times the rebel’s actions are polarizing, loud, and sound angry, and it’s easy to dismiss them as unimportant, and unlike us.  We all have a place, and we don’t have to take all roles, or even the roles that we feel unsuited for.  Philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote  “Too often the excessive pursuit of one ideal leads to the exclusion of others, perhaps all others; in our eagerness to realize justice we come to forget charity, and a passion for righteousness has made many a man hard and merciless.”  Only fulfilling one of the four roles would result in bitter failure.  Having various personalities and foci in a movement can help us remember the broad range of approaches to realizing justice helping us maintain our strategy, passion and compassion for the long journey of social change.  

Last year I wrote a Passover post entitled 4 Daughters and 5 Questions, a feminist re-reading of this holiday featuring a contemporary midrash on the Passover Haggadah’s four children: the wise, wicked, simple and the one who does not know how to ask.  This year I’d like to leave you with a challenge, four questions inspired by these four roles.  It’s my hope that these questions will remind us all of the role we have to play in the pursuit of justice.  [4]

The Wise Child asks:  What are the structures and laws that benefit some but not all based on their race, ethnicity or religious identity?

The answer will depend on where you live.  If you are an oppressed minority, you are much more likely to know the structures and laws that work against your existence.  If you are part of a majority, whether in terms of your gender, skin color, religion, etc., you are likely less aware of how the systems that benefit you also exclude and oppress others.  If you’re unaware, look for the social justice organizations in your community and hear what they have to say.

The Wicked Child asks: Why should this concern me?

We all personally benefit from structures and laws that harm others; therefore, if we do not actively become part of the solution, we will remain part of the problem. Whatever your background, your religious tradition likely addresses our collective responsibility toward addressing injustice.  We should all pursue justice because we each have the inherent dignity and brotherhood of humanity binding us, a breath of the divine image of God within us, and thus we must advocate for others who may one day need to advocate for us, for voting rights, access to education, freedom of movement, and more.

The Simple Child asks: What do we mean by injustice?

Violations of justice and the manifestations of the occupation rear their ugly heads in many ways, but many times we don’t pay attention enough to notice them.  Stop and pay attention.  Do you see those border police standing on the edge of the road?  Why do they seem to only stop Palestinians?  Why do I receive medical coverage for my children without question when our friend who was born here must fight for children’s medical coverage?  Are there those in your areas that are being racially profiled and stopped more frequently than others?  Can you walk alone on the street at night, confident of your safety, not needing to keep your eyes downcast to avoid trouble?  These reveal the lack of justice, the rights you or I may have that others do not.

The Child Who Does Not Know How to Ask.

In response to this child, the one who looks around and sees so much injustice and is unsure of where to begin, or to the one who is just opening their eyes to the ripples of injustice beneath the surface of our lives and has yet to explore this through questioning, they too have an important role.  Watch and see, and learn to question, remembering the words of Rabbi Tarfon that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” [5]

This year as you celebrate Passover or observe the festivities of those who do, reflect with me on the themes of this season and how we can contribute to less oppression and more liberation and redemption.  What questions do you need to ask, and what role do you have to play?

[1] Yuli Novak, “The occupation will collapse. And then we’ll build a moral society here,”  +972.
[2]  Daniel Hunter, Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide. There are more roles than these, but these are the four Hunter focuses on, citing activist and researcher George Lakey and social activist and strategist Bill Moyer. 
[3] I first heard about this short book and these four roles in an excellent podcast entitled “Advocacy” by The Liturgists. The chart below quotes and adapts material from Daniel Hunter’s book Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide.
[4]  The format, questions and some content of these questions heavily draws from “The Four Children: A Racial Justice Haggadah Insert,” ReformJudaism.org. 
[5] Pirkei Avot 2:16.

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