My Word: On bondage and bonds, refugees and nationhood

By
April 6, 2017 21:35




Passover

A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

This Passover I’m not on the same page as some of my friends and acquaintances in the US. Or maybe we’re on the same page but we’re using different editions of the Haggada, the book that sets out the order and text to be read at the Seder meal.

The good news is, we’re all celebrating. Out of all the Jewish holidays, Passover (or Pessah as it’s called in Hebrew) is the one that most unites us.

Be the first to know - Join our Facebook page.


We are positively commanded to treat the story of the Exodus from Egypt as if it happened to each of us personally. Every year, there are stories of the hundreds of Jewish backpackers from Israel and the Diaspora who flock to a Chabad House in places like Kathmandu, drawn by the need to be together, get a taste and feel of home, and hear the story – no matter how many times we’ve heard it before – of how the Children of Israel fled Pharaoh’s hardships so hastily that there wasn’t even time for the bread to rise. Thousands of years later, we still eat unleavened matza and other symbolic foods to remind us of the tears and the hardships but also of the miracles and wonders.

Almost every Jew has memories of Seder nights. It’s part of growing up Jewish.

The basic text and songs of the Haggada are familiar to all, but the interpretation changes with time.

This year people I know are preparing for Passover based on a theme of refugees, some having invited refugees to partake in the meal.

And it makes me uncomfortable.

I don’t belittle the need to share a meal and warmth with the less fortunate (itself a Seder night commandment), but Passover is not about the refugee experience.

It’s not about being forced to leave Egypt, but about the start of the journey to the Promised Land, the beginning of our nationhood.

Thanksgiving is the perfect time to invite refugees to an American-Jewish home; Seder night is not.

It is awkward, verging on the insensitive, to invite Muslim guests to a meal which centers around drinking four cups of wine and the message: “This is the bread of affliction that our ancestors ate in the land of Egypt.

Whoever is hungry, let him come and eat: Whoever is in need, let him come and celebrate Pessah. This year we are here; next year may we be in the Land of Israel. This year we are in slavery; next year may we be free people.”

I looked at the Haggada supplement produced by HIAS, formerly the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which was founded in the US in 1881 to assist Jews fleeing pogroms and now helps non-Jewish refugees. It suggests that before the Seder begins the leader reads: “Throughout our history, violence and persecution have driven the Jewish people to wander in search of a safe place to call home. We are a refugee people. At the Passover Seder, we gather to retell the story of our original wandering and the freedom we found...

“As we step into this historical experience, we cannot help but draw to mind the 65 million displaced people and refugees around the world today fleeing violence and persecution, searching for protection....”

A friend wrestling with the dilemmas in her own community referred me to the AJWS (American Jewish World Service) “Global Justice Haggada” which proclaims that on Seder night “we connect our story with those of people who suffer from a range of issues that matter deeply today: refugee crises and genocide, global hunger, poverty, violence against women and LGBT people, and the persecution of minorities.”

Taking a deep breath, I sought the 2017 “Liberatory Passover Haggada” of JVP, Jewish Voice for Peace, the organization that last weekend hosted convicted Palestinian terrorist Rasmea Odeh at its annual conference.

Its 2014 Haggada left me with such a bad taste in the mouth that I wasn’t sure I could stomach the updated version ahead of the Seder meal.

This is the digest-and-divest version of Haggadot, another tool in the BDS boycott movement box.

With a wish that readers find motivating “moments of fierce righteous rage,” its introduction dedicates the Seder to “our insistence on intersectionality, from gentrification to colonization.”

It has its own twisted take on the traditional narrative, asserting “the word Yisrael (Israel) when found in the liturgy does not refer to the modern nation/state of Israel.

Rather it derives from the blessing given to Ya’akov (Jacob) by a stranger with whom he wrestles all night.”

I’m not sure whether a JVP Seder is more consumed by self-hatred for the Jewish part of the group’s name or a feeling of self-righteousness.

There is still the call to include an olive as a symbol of Palestinian self-determination, and the theme of perceived Israeli oppression overrides all else, but Muhammad Ali was conspicuously absent from the JVP Haggada I downloaded this year. In the 2014 version, the organization included the story of the souvenir salesman who fled his home in rural Galilee in 1948 and settled with his family a year later in Nazareth, “one mile away from the village of his childhood.”

Perhaps even JVP now realizes that millions of Muslims displaced by other Muslims would happily settle for a home a few minutes’ walk away, with full rights to vote, free education and healthcare.

There’s still no mention, of course, of the 850,000 Jews who left Arab lands in 1948 in a modern exodus, or were forced out of places like the Old City of Jerusalem and Gush Etzion.

A Reconstructionist rabbi friend, Jen Feldman of Kehillah Synagogue in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, was working on her sermon as I was writing this column, and shared her thoughts when I asked her about this year’s non-Jewish refugee Seder theme.

“I think the story is both universal and particular (just as in Torah God is both the God of all creation/humanity while also having a special relationship with us),” she said. “What is interesting to me is that in the Diaspora the emphasis is on the universal. I think it speaks to our experience of being a minority and seeking the universal lessons that connect us to our broader culture. In Israel, of course, the goal of the story is getting to the Promised Land.

“A question is, can we find a way to not let either narrative ‘erase’ the other? Can we have sedarim that do both? Or do we just name the tension?” Strangely, I think I found the answer in the AJWS Haggada. After reading the social justice stories relating to people in countries like Burma, Cambodia, Congo, Haiti and Guatemala, there were some “Questions for Discussion”: “With whom would you like to grow in solidarity this year? How can you deepen those relationships?” Might I humbly suggest that wherever you are celebrating, at some point during the evening you initiate a discussion at the Seder table on how Israel and the Diaspora can improve ties. The traditional conclusion of the meal, calling out “Next year in Jerusalem!” should bring us together. It’s the shared millennia-old dream of one of the world’s oldest and most remarkable minorities.

liat@jpost.com


Related Content
December 14, 2017
TERRA INCOGNITA: Abbas, Fakhri Nashashibi and the legacy of the mufti

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

Israel Weather
  • 8 - 19
    Beer Sheva
    12 - 20
    Tel Aviv - Yafo
  • 10 - 15
    Jerusalem
    12 - 18
    Haifa
  • 11 - 23
    Elat
    12 - 22
    Tiberias