This is the season of victimhood myths, but also of inspiring facts. In nearly every conflict around the world, we yearn to separate one from the other. If we start with our own history, we readily dismiss George Washington's cherry tree confession, but believe that he was a great general. Would it matter if this were false, or even if the British had never been over here in the first place?
The Passover story is much older, and historical facts are harder to come by. The best evidence suggests that the Israelites were not slaves in Egypt. There is no archaeological evidence of a great migration to Israel. The leading theory is that some of the tribes living in northern Israel coalesced around the bondage-in-Egypt myth. Powers from the south were then governing the area, so that the historical claim about bondage to taskmasters would have resonated. The myth gave these people a unique story and distinguished them from other groups.
To be sure, there are actual facts that reflect elements of the Passover story. Joseph's rise to power may be linked to a disruption in Egyptian dynastic succession, when a mixed group of Canaanite tribes came to power and were then expelled. Ancient papyrus scrolls refer to plagues, and there are linguistic connections between Egyptian relics and the Bible, and therefore with the Haggadah, the 1,000-year-old text that guides the Passover meal. But there is no direct evidence corroborating any specific element of the bondage and emancipation it describes.
For a believer, the absence of direct evidence is inconvenient, but not fatal. The non-literalist is free to think of the Exodus story as a metaphor for redemption through a relationship with God. For a skeptic or nonbeliever, the likelihood that we are dealing with a myth is also jarring. This is much more than a story such as Noah's Ark. It is the fundamental creation story of a people and its rituals. Its details have everything to do with Jewish prayer and with Passover, one of the most robust rites of Judaism.
Jewish identity is tied up with suffering and learning from experience. Many Passover celebrants incorporate the Holocaust and other, real and well-documented, mass expulsions of Jews, as well as atrocities experienced by other groups. One can read selections from Eli Wiesel and Martin Luther King and teach about oppression. But there is something objectionable about unnecessary and potentially false claims of victimhood. Stories about frogs and the parting of the Red Sea are harmless, but the celebration of freedom does not require the more serious claim that one's ancestors were enslaved in Egypt. Those who preceded us and suffered terribly because of their religious identities are not honored by extra claims of victimhood.
It is natural to revel in confirming evidence. If we discovered the DNA of a Moses, or the remains of an infant Israelite in the walls of a Pyramid, where legend, and generations of religious-school teachers, claims that Pharaoh's people used children to fill gaps, it would certainly inspire tribal affiliation. If we cannot find evidence, and conclude that there probably is none, then that, too, ought to make a difference.
Hard evidence and photographs of the Holocaust have made an enormous difference to many of us. There is enough good and bad in the world with which to instruct our children, that we do not need to subscribe to a story about victimization. If the Israelites were never in Egypt, then that country and its Pharaohs have been unfairly faulted for millennia. Politicians, like religious leaders, often find it useful to blame outsiders in order to discourage dissent at home and to rally the faithful. Close to home, the Occupy Wall Street movement provides an example of assigning blame from the grass-roots. In all these cases, it is important to identify enemies only when the identification is accurate and constructive. It is noteworthy that our country's story of origin is more about the value of self-governance than about exaggerating stories of British oppression.
The Passover Haggadah famously omits Moses, even as it dwells on oppression and then deliverance. The conventional explanation is that the strategy is to emphasize the divine. An interesting alternative is that the myth itself developed out of a grass-roots movement. "We were the 99% in a foreign land, and we rose up; we can do anything now!" The storied Moses was accepted at Pharaoh's court, and would have been in the 1%.
The best argument for the Passover story is that it succeeded in maintaining a people. Archeologists tell us that of the Canaanite tribes, only the Israelites survived intact. No doubt the Exodus bond may have played a role in that. It is impossible to know what would have happened if long ago tribal elders had not advanced the Passover fable or had not repeated a story which surely created doubts. They inherited or constructed other inspirations, like that of David and Goliath, but they must have needed a sweeping story that an entire people could share and use to maintain its identity far in the future. But to what end? Has the story made a people better or more secure? Has it stirred its believers to blame others? Most damaging, has it encouraged a sense of victimhood? That it has is cause for concern and for discussion at the annual Passover meal.
Nathaniel Levmore is a student at Lawrence University. Saul Levmore is the William B. Graham Distinguished Service Professor of Law at the University of Chicago.