On Friday evening I joined thousands around the world in the tradition of reciting the Haggada during the Passover Seder. It was a special night of sharing tradition, welcoming strangers, eating amazing food, and – of course – asking questions.
I drove with a guest I had just met, a German exchange student, from my family home in Haifa to Lod. Once everyone arrived, I learned that my friends regularly invite strangers to their home through an online network connecting olim to holiday events. Following introductions, we learned that there were at least seven languages represented, not including the Israeli Sign Language communicated by my friends’ neighbors, who visited us halfway through the celebration to give us each a traditional Mizrahi blessing.
This was not my first Seder. Since I returned to Haifa four years ago, I have been blessed to join friends in Tel Aviv, Hannaton, and now Lod for their traditional family celebrations.
One year, however, I did not. While working for an American company in Ramallah, I joined Palestinians in the annual lockdown of the Palestinian territories by the Israeli government during the holiday.
This year, while getting ready for the evening, the IDF killed 17 Palestinians and wounded over a thousand during non-violent protests in Gaza and the West Bank.
Palestinians in the territories were being held captive and exposed to extreme levels of violence by Israelis, who in the same moment were commemorating their own escape from oppression, persecution, and death.
Passover is a time to reflect, to be thankful for freedoms gained on an individual and collective level, while remembering it was not always so. It is also a famed time to ask questions, rooted in the wisdom that although this tradition has been upheld for hundreds of years, there are always questions to ask. The lessons of the Haggada remind me of the words of Gibran Khalil Gibran, who beautifully illustrates the necessary dichotomies between joy and suffering in The Prophet: “When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy. When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.”
One participant shared reflections on her experience working with Sudanese refugees in Israel. With pain, we listened as she shared stories of how, in their escape from certain death, they now found themselves feeling like prisoners – helpless, with their future in the hands of the same people who once fled their own persecution in Africa.
As the conversation continued, I felt the urge to ask my own question. The descendant of Palestinian refugees from Iqrit, who has been blessed by freedoms awarded to me by my passport, I was curious: during Passover, do Israelis talk about how they and/ or their government continue to hold the Palestinian community captive? Is there any mental connection between the Passover celebration of freedom and the experiences of fellow human beings living under occupation across the border? Are there actual conversations, or simple justifications based on security concerns? Challenging your identity, belief system, way of understanding the world and your relation to it is among the most difficult things a person can do. It can devastate you, as you lose your grounding in this world. It is much easier to live within structures and belief systems that have been defined for you, by your family, community, how you happened to have been raised.
But if we are going to ask questions – honest questions of ourselves, our communities, our governments, not seeking to make a point or test an argument, but to truly consider – then when else can we do it but during a time dedicated to such questioning and exploring your own understanding of the world and your place in it. Too often, particularly in the context of this conflict, we let our prefabricated understanding of the world, and pure fear, keep us from digging deeper.
I asked my question without agenda, and I was safe. I was among friends, who may have made political decisions I disagree with, but whom I love nonetheless as we together seek to live impactful, mindful lives in this place.
I got honest answers. One had no idea that Palestinians were on lockdown during the holiday, another offered the security excuse.
A third shared with me later that from now on, she was going to ask that question at the Seder – that it was a good one, and honestly, one that Israelis do not really think about.
My host, a sabra with Mizrahi roots, perhaps had the most interesting perspective: that in the minds of most Israelis, talk about Palestinians is put in a political category, not a moral one. They do not connect.
So, if I may, I would like to add a fifth question to reflect on during Passover: are our own actions and choices causing suffering to those among us? For Israelis, I challenge you to broaden your understanding of the government’s and perhaps your own actions towards Palestinians in Israel, Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. Put yourself in our shoes, ask my fifth question again, and be willing to be uncomfortable with the answer.
The author is a business consultant and yoga teacher based in Haifa. She is also an Ambassador Warren Clark Fellow with Churches for Middle East Peace.