Passover at a Time of Darkness, the Magnes Zionist, 29 March 2010
Happy Passover from Gaza, Sam Bahour, talkingpointsmemo.com, 28 March 2010
The Magnes Zionist writes:”I don’t have time to write a proper Passover post, and I don’t have the strength either. Only those who are of the “things-need-to-get-worse-in-order-to-get-better” school can take cheer this Passover…; and Sam Bahour, from Gaza, explains the six traditional items on the Seder plate and draws analogies between then and now, between the Jewish suffering in Egypt and the Palestinians in Gaza today, making an impassioned plea for Jews to speak out…
I don’t have time to write a proper Passover post, and I don’t have the strength either. Only those who are of the “things-need-to-get-worse-in-order-to-get-better” school can take cheer this Passover. The State of Israel continues to disappoint erstwhile supporters. Liberal Zionists never expected Israel to be a Zionist utopia; they would have been happy with what the Israeli philosophy professor, Avishai Margalit, calls a ‘decent society’. Israel, today, is not by any stretch of the imagination a decent society. That it contains many decent and truly good people, that many of its institutions are decent and good, provides comfort in the present and hope for the future. But, as Akiva Eldar points out in an excellent piece here, we are now suffering our own plague of darkness and hard-heartedness. And there is no end in sight.
Those Jews who suffer the most today are liberal Zionists like Eldar. For years they believed that they could wipe clean the stain of 1967 (and, with the resettlement of the refugees, of 1948), by a fair and decent compromise with the Palestinians. They believed that most Israelis were in favor of such a compromise. But at the same time they were aware that they were a dwindling breed, and as the years have gone by, they have become increasingly marginalized by the chauvinistic center, from Labor to the Likud. Most Israelis never supported a two-state solution; they simply supported getting rid of the Palestinians one way or the other. I am waiting for the liberal Zionist to realize, as I had to realize, that the problems for Israel are much deeper than land for peace, that a question mark hangs – or should hang – over the entire Zionist enterprise of creating a state against the will, and without the participation, of the natives of Palestine. Yet as long as there was hope that the Palestinians could have their own state, where they could exercise their self-determination, where they could receive the refugees, where they could build their own society with its own problems, then one could arguably defend the legitimacy of the Zionist state founded in 1948. But now that that hope has faded, what remains? What moral justification can remain for the systematic and never-ending deprivation of fundamental human rights? Only a society where Palestinians are accepted as equals; only a state which defends Jewish and Palestinians rights to self-determination will be sufficient. And how long will it take for that society to come about?
So the night is long and dark; the lights at the end of the tunnel are flashing, and the time between the flashes become longer. As many have recently pointed out, even the perennially clueless Tom Friedman, Israelis don’t really care much about a just settlement with the Palestinians; they have lived very well without it, and as long as they are an economic power, who will refrain to do business with it? Demographically, politically, and, yes, Jewishly, Israel has moved to the right, but frankly, they haven’t moved as much as is reported because the society always was on the right.
So what to do? Where there can be no liberation on the national front, one can only turn inward and seek personal liberation – liberation from prejudice, self-righteousness, intense tribalism, and from the insensitivity to the Palestinian, whose land we took and take, and whose aspirations we continue to deny. And to forge bonds with like-minded individuals of all types.
In that struggle for liberation from spiritual slavery, we Jews have much to learn from ourselves and our history, but also from others and their history. So tonight at your seder table (or some time over the holiday, if you don’t like to let the contemporary intrude) you may want to ponder this post by my friend, Sam Bahour. Sam is a Palestinian-American businessman living in Ramallah who has taken the time to write his own interpretation of the foods of the Seder Plate. His interpretation is here; I urge you to see the original and to read the comments, which prove, by their very insensitivity, how hard our Jewish hearts have become.
In 2010, Jews in Israel and around the world will celebrate Passover beginning on March 30th. Passover is the seven-day holiday of the Feast of Unleavened Bread commemorating the ancient Hebrews’ escape from enslavement in Egypt. (In Israel, March 30th is also Land Day: the day when Palestinians commemorate and protest the confiscation of their lands by the Israeli government; but that’s another story.)
As I’m learning, the Passover holiday begins with the Seder, a traditional ceremonial meal. Its centerpiece is a special Seder plate containing six symbolic foods. Each has its own significance in the retelling of the story of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt. The stack of three matzos, or unleavened bread, a kind of cracker made of plain white flour and water, has its own separate plate on the Seder table.
For each of the six traditional items on the Seder plate (as per Wikipedia and the Chabad website) –listed here by its Hebrew name–I note its traditional symbolic role and offer an additional, alternative interpretation. I hope my alternative can help Jews around the world, and especially in Israel, connect with a broader perspective on the meaning of Passover right here, right now, in the land that became the eventual endpoint of that ancient exodus.
Maror and Chazeret — Bitter herbs, symbolizing the bitterness and harshness of the slavery which the Jews endured in Egypt. Slavery: severe curtailment of one’s freedom. Today, one and a half million Palestinians in Gaza are tasting the bitterness of unfreedom, hermetically sealed in their encircled enclave with no end in sight. Sixty percent are under the age of 16. The Jewish citizens of Israel have hardened their hearts to this reality and they have expected the rest of the world’s Jews to do likewise. For how long will you wait for Palestinians to vanish?
Charoset — A coarse mixture of chopped nuts, apples or dates, and wine, meant to symbolize the mortar used by the Jewish slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. Today, Israel permits no mortar, or cement, or any other building materials, to enter Gaza. Let them sleep in tents! This, after last winter’s assault on Gaza, internationally documented war crimes (and possibly crimes against humanity), causing over 1,400 deaths in 22 days between December 2008 and January 2009- leaving scores homeless in the rubble. Is this the freedom Moses envisioned? The freedom to attack civilians with the tanks, planes and warships of the “Jewish” State? Doesn’t sound very Jewish to me. Not at all.
Karpas — A vegetable other than bitter herbs, dipped into salt water (which represents tears) to recall the pain felt by the Jewish slaves in Egypt. Tears! Pain! In your name, my Jewish friends, Israel continues its inhuman siege on Gaza. The folks there shed tears as salty as anyone’s; their pain is beyond description. Two of every three of today’s Gaza residents originally lost their homes in what is now Israel when the state was established. Six decades later, they find themselves living a nightmare, a kind of living death: their economy in ruins, their neighborhoods in ruins, their educational and health systems in ruins, even their sanitation systems in ruins. Israel refuses to allow reconstruction. What comes after stripping Gazans from their last remaining sense of sanity?
Z’roa — A roasted lamb shankbone (or a chicken wing, or chicken neck) symbolizes the paschal sacrifice offered originally on the eve of the exodus and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifice! Do you insist on sacrificing the possibility of a sustainable future for modern Israel in the name of its founding myth – since discredited – that Palestine was “a land without people, for a people without a land“? A million of today’s Gazans are from the families that Israel expelled. Gazans have remained steadfast under conditions even the early Hebrews might have found intolerable in Egypt. Gazans, together with all Palestinians, are the people that Jews in Israel are destined to live with, today, tomorrow, and forever. The only uncertainty is how much more hate will be generated by military occupation and armed assault before a process of shared rehabilitation can begin.
Beitzah — A hard-boiled egg, symbolizing the main festival sacrifice that was offered in the Temple in Jerusalem and roasted and eaten as part of the meal on Seder night. The egg is a symbol of mourning. Eggs are the first thing served to mourners after a Jewish funeral. The egg on the Seder plate evokes the mourning over the destruction of the Temple and the subsequent inability to offer sacrifices there in honor of the Pesach holiday. Mourning! As Jews, you know a lot about mourning; consider the sixty-two years of mourning, consider every day of every one of those years, among the people–real people, with real names and real children–in Gaza and in squalid refugee camps all around Israel who can see their homeland with the naked eye, but are denied their basic human right of returning home. Sixty-two Passovers and counting. All I ask of you on this year’s holy day, as you contemplate the egg on the Seder plate, is to remember them, no more.
My Jewish sisters and brothers, you can continue to look away as Israel claims to speak and to act in your name. It kills and maims in your name. It dispossesses and occupies in your name. It talks peace and wages war in your name. If you turn a deaf ear to their mourning again this year, if you harden your heart again this year, if your voice is not raised this year in protest – then you are acquiescing in the ongoing ethnic cleansing of another people, in your name. If you cannot see Palestinians as fully human now, you will hear them trying to give voice to their humanity in your nightmares, year after year, until you can see and until you can hear.
It is written in the Talmud: We do not see things as they are. We see them as we are. I urge you, while you commemorate the Hebrews’ ancient slavery and deliverance, to see yourselves finally as equals in this world: equal with your neighbors, neither their masters nor their slaves. I urge you to see yourself and your children in the image of every Palestinian mother, father and child in Gaza. Let this year be the year of your shared redemption!
Free Gaza now! End the occupation now! Happy Passover from Gaza!
Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American living under Israeli occupation. He may be reached at email@example.com and blogs at www.epalestine.com.