As someone who has spent the past four years reporting in Southeast Asia, I want to make a suggestion: this Passover, put down the Haggadah for a few minutes and read aloud from an essay by actor Mandy Patinkin about his trip to Cambodia.
On the Showtime series “Homeland,” Patinkin plays Saul Berenson, a senior CIA official who tirelessly attempts to thwart terrorist attacks while grappling with boneheaded government officials and unpredictable colleagues. One of the many charms of what he has written here is that it better acquaints us with the real guy behind the role. And yet, as we will see, some of Saul’s passion is evident here too.
Patinkin, who traveled to the country in the first week of February, went as a supporter of the American Jewish World Service (AJWS), which helps fund Cambodian civil society organizations working in everything from indigenous rights to labor advocacy. He also traveled with his wife, Kathryn Grody, a longtime friend of Ruth Messinger, AJWS’s outgoing president.
Cambodia has a way of making a strong impression on even short-term visitors, but Patinkin’s reflections on his trip in the context of Passover, complete with Biblical references, are especially poignant. The American Jewish World Service published his thoughts as part of its Chag v’Chesed (Celebration and Compassion) series of essays in which prominent figures use teachings from the holidays to highlight the links between Judaism and social justice.
“Several months ago, I felt the power of the thousands-year-old Passover story as palpably as I ever have,” Patinkin writes in the opening line of his piece. “My sense of what it means for a people to go from slavery to freedom deepened when I spent time listening to the modern-day narratives of Cambodians who live in the shadow of a genocide that claimed 2 million lives.”
While in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital, Patinkin visited S-21 prison and the ‘Killing Fields,’ two of the more infamous sites tied to the Khmer Rouge, a collection of merciless ideologues who seized power 41 years ago this month and enacted a reign of terror that lasted almost four years.
Through the prism of 2016, Patinkin was struck by the tragedy of the past compared with the energy he felt while meeting activists striving to effect change in today’s Cambodia.
“This juxtaposition between the deepest injustice and the most transcendent hope reminds me of our own people’s transformations – from slaves in Egypt to a free people at Sinai; from those Jews who did whatever they could to resist the genocide perpetrated against us, to Jews today who find meaning in that tragic chapter of our history by standing up for freedom for others in the new millennium,” he writes.
“In Cambodia, juxtapositions such as these are everywhere.”
He meets a woman named Sitha, who organizes fellow garment workers. Likening her to a “modern-day, female Moses,” Patinkin lauds her efforts to obtain fair wages and safe working conditions, “just as many of our grandparents and great-grandparents did in New York and around the world in the early 20th century.”
A paragraph later, he returns to the Passover story.
“Like the matzah, which reminds us that we were once slaves and are now free, the Cambodian activists we met are confident that the unleavened bread will rise. There is no sense of defeat within them,” he writes. “The young generation of Cambodia possesses the kind of optimism that is rare to see on this earth, much like the very optimism that freed us from Pharaoh’s grip.”
Some may quibble with Patinkin’s attempt to lump one historical experience with another–he wrote a similar piece last year juxtaposing the plight of Syrian refugees in Greece with relatives of his who fled the Holocaust and pogroms in Russia.
But such quibbling would be missing the point. Patinkin isn’t the first to mention the similarities between the Cambodian and Jewish experiences. Cambodians themselves have made the connection.
When Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge leader, died an old man in 1998, having never been held accountable for his crimes, Dith Pran, the Cambodian New York Times reporter portrayed in the film The Killing Fields, had this to say: “The Jewish people’s search for justice did not end with the death of Hitler and the Cambodian people’s search for justice doesn’t end with Pol Pot.”
Like the Holocaust, the Khmer Rouge era never seems that far off. Although a United Nations-backed tribunal still seeks to hold senior leaders accountable, countless functionaries and foot soldiers will never see the inside of a courtroom or be forced to explain their crimes. Cambodia’s Prime Minister, Hun Sen, was a former member of the Khmer Rouge who fled purges and returned with the support of the Vietnamese army. In the tradition of strongmen everywhere, he has invoked the horrific past to justify his stabilizing presence at the top, where he has been for more than 30 years.
To his credit, however, Cambodia today is, in many respects, a thriving place with a booming tourism industry, a rising middle class, and a relatively free press. But another version of the country, a version drenched in crony capitalism, human rights abuses, violence, labor fights, land grabs, environmental degradation and widespread corruption is alive and well. By highlighting the good fight in a Buddhist country in Southeast Asia, Patinkin reminds us that Passover is not just a time to reflect on our own history, but a very modern call to action.
And so, as Patinkin puts it, “let us all lean forward from our reclining positions at our seder tables, and awaken our hearts, our compassion and our abilities to listen.”
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Joe Freeman is a Southeast Asia-based journalist whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Guardian, The Christian Science Monitor, The Phnom Penh Post, and the Nikkei Asian Review.