Wisconsin Has Become Egypt

DSC_5927A Passover Reflection on Worker Justice
by Chad Alan Goldberg, Professor of Sociology at UW-Madison

This reflection comes from Chad’s remarks at the 2016 Madison Labor Seder.
See more of the Labor Seder

The third promise is a promise of redemption: “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm,” says the Lord, “and with great judgments [בשפטים]” (Ex. 6:6).

At first, redemption appears as a single, momentous, exhilarating event: “You have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings” (Ex. 19:4). But it’s one thing to be borne on eagles’ wings from Egypt; it’s another to arrive in the Promised Land. We had to march on our own feet to get there, and it took 40 years. Redemption turns out to be a long road.

Five years ago, during the massive protests against Act 10, it seemed for a moment like we might not lose our freedom—like we might not even need redemption. But we know what happened afterward. Act 10 was passed and upheld, and it was only the first of a series of anti-labor measures. These include Act 55, which the governor has described as an “Act 10 for the University of Wisconsin,” as well as Act 1, which made Wisconsin a so-called right-to-work state. (Although it has been struck down by a Dane County circuit court judge, that ruling will not be upheld by the Wisconsin Supreme Court.) These laws have taken a heavy toll on Wisconsin’s labor movement, and it will take a long, hard struggle—years, perhaps decades of marching—to restore the freedoms they have taken away.

Earlier this semester, I asked my students to read an essay by the German sociologist Max Weber entitled “Science as a Vocation.” Weber closes that essay with a passage from the Book of Isaiah:

One calleth unto me out of Seir: “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” The watchman said: “The morning cometh, and also the night—if ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come.” (Isaiah 21:11-12)

Here is the prophet Isaiah trying to reassure us during the Babylonian exile, when all seemed lost, that we will be redeemed. Many of us may feel like the watchman Isaiah looking for signs of dawn. But Weber in his essay warned that “the people to whom this was said has enquired and tarried for more than two millennia, and we are shaken when we realize its fate.” He meant waiting two millennia to be delivered from exile. “From this we want to draw the lesson that nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone,” Weber wrote, “and we shall act differently.”

Weber was right that “nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone.” That was the conclusion that Jewish socialists and Zionists (in some cases they were the same people) began to reach in the late nineteenth century—though to be fair, traditional Judaism was never entirely passive in its conception of redemption.

According to a well known midrash, the Sea of Reeds did not automatically part when the Jews reached it. While the rest of us stood at the banks yearning and tarrying, a man named Nachshon plunged ahead into the waters. Only when he was up to his nose in the water did the sea part.

For the workers of this state, Wisconsin has become Egypt. The story of the Exodus reminds that there is a better place, a promised land in which we can be a free people. It may take a very long time to reach it, but nothing is gained by yearning and tarrying alone. The only way to get from here to there is to join together and march.

.חג פסח שמח, חברים

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