Passover has lost its meaning

April 14, 2017
Sarah Benton

When the Passover story of escape and liberation had deep meaning for Jews: Passover seder, Warsaw ghetto, 1943. Photo from Yad Veshem.

Zionism, Apartheid and the Delegitimisation of Passover

By Robert A. H. Cohen, Writing from the Edge/ Patheos
April 02, 2017

‘Delegitimisation’ is the favourite attack word used by defenders of Israel’s unique (mis)understanding of democracy.

It’s usually deployed to accuse human rights campaigners of wanting to ‘wipe the Jewish State off the face of the earth’ for daring to suggest an alternative and fairer way of running the country. The apocalyptic rhetoric is designed to close down a debate about institutional discrimination and portray the call for Palestinian rights as the most poisonous act of antisemitism since the Holocaust.

It often works.

In fact most of our political leaders have wholeheartedly bought into the linguistic scam of ‘delegitimisation’. But there’s another ‘delegitimisation’ taking place, one that should be of far more concern for anyone that cares about the past and the future of Jews and Judaism. This delegitimisation works by gnawing away, year by year, at our right to uphold the most universal values of our Jewish heritage.

Communal hypocrisy

Passover is the most popular and well observed of all Jewish festivals. This year’s eight day celebration of redemption, liberation and religious and political freedom begins on Monday 10th April. But long ago our uncritical commitment to the project of Jewish nationalism began to undermine it. So much so, that Passover today has become little more than an annual act of communal hypocrisy. And in this year of bitter anniversaries (Balfour, the UN partition plan, the Occupation of the West Bank, the siege of Gaza) we’ll be taking that hypocrisy to depressingly new heights.

Zionism, which set out to create a modern redemption of the Jewish People, has slowly and surely destroyed the integrity of our Passover remembrance. The ongoing persecution of the Palestinian people in the service of a misguided notion of Jewish national self-determination has delegitimised our right to proclaim our foundational story of religious and political freedom. Why would anyone take seriously our right to speak out as Jews on the great moral issues of the day when we fail to face into the moral catastrophe of our own making?

In good times and bad

For centuries our retelling of the Exodus story served a vital purpose. It bound us together in a narrative that put religious and political liberation at the centre of Jewish consciousness.

We told ourselves this story in good times and bad.

The medieval Jewish philosophers of Andalusia told it in Spain under the benign rule of Islam. The Jewish fisherman of Salonica told it in 16th century Greece. The sweatshop tailors of Whitechapel and the Lower East Side told it. We told it, as best we could, just before the liquidation of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. We even told it in the concentration camps.

As a minority people living beside sometimes welcoming but often hostile neighbours, Passover was a sustaining act of solidarity and a celebration of our Jewish values. It’s hardly surprising that it’s remained so popular.

The impossibility of Passover

But for those with eyes to see, ears to hear and the heart to learn, celebrating Passover in the 21st century has become a near impossibility.

We can pretend that it’s okay to separate our religious tradition from the politics of the day. But in truth we’ve never done that.

In the words of our Seder night liturgy, in every generation new Pharaohs have risen up against us. And at Passover they were always at the front of our minds, the unwelcome guest at our table.

We looked at our surroundings and read into our storytelling our present condition. Yes, we ended our meal with the words “Next year in Jerusalem” but few made the effort to actually get there. In practice ‘Jerusalem’ was an expression of the ideals of liberation and justice rather than a physical destination.

What’s different in this generation is that we have become the Pharaoh, we have become the oppressor and destroyer of others. But unlike those previous generations we don’t allow our present condition to intrude at our Passover table. That would make things far too awkward and uncomfortable.

Life in the ‘narrow place’

For those Jews who recognise the seriousness of our present condition, we find ourselves in a very ‘narrow place’ this Passover. But perhaps that’s the one aspect of the festival that hasn’t been delegitimised.

In Hebrew we call Ancient Egypt ‘Mitzrayim’. Our rabbis have made great play with the root meanings of this word creating a strong theological theme that underpins our annual retelling of the Exodus.

The word Mitzrayim, can be understood as meaning to border, to shut or to limit. It can mean to bind, to tie up, to be restricted. It can mean scant, tight or cramped. But most commonly you hear Mitzrayim talked of as ‘the narrow place’.

This Passover, being Jewish and calling for equal rights for all who live in Israel/Palestine is a very narrow place to be.

I posted this in my Facebook page last month reflecting on how cramped and constricted life had become for dissenting Jews over the last twelve months.

Thanks to a series of increasingly absurd decisions, by people with apparently only a glancing acquaintance with Jewish history, religion and basic humanity, I now find myself portrayed as a dangerous radical. Here’s how it happened:

First, the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis said I wasn’t Jewish because I’m not a Zionist.

Then, Prime Minister Theresa May said I’m antisemitic because I question Zionism’s notion of Jewish national self-determination.

And now, the Israel Knesset has decided I’m a would be terrorist because I support non-violent protest in support of human rights.

Did I go mad. Or did the world?

Plenty of Facebook friends assured me my sanity was not in question. But where does that leave the world? And if Passover has lost all legitimacy what should a dissenting Jew do with their time during this key religious festival?

Abandon your Haggadah

There are alternative Passover gatherings if you live in the right cities around the world, including Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. There are Seder night ‘supplements’ written to provide thought provoking content to add to the liturgy of the traditional Haggadah service book. But I have another suggestion this year.

This Passover abandon the traditional Haggadah. Set aside the alternative Haggadahs too. Leave the supplements alone. Instead adopt an entirely different religious text.

My proposed liturgical replacement also tells the story of slaves and of a Pharaoh. It also describes oppression and it shows a route to liberation. It represents all that makes Passover delegitimised and, simultaneously, exactly how it can be made legitimate once again. It was published last month on the 15th March.

My recommended reading for your Passover celebration is the UN’s Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) report on Israeli Practices towards the Palestinian People and the Question of Apartheid. Its authors are Professor Richard Falk, a former United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied and professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University; and Virginia Tilley, professor of political science at Southern Illinois University.

Their report is not a rant or a ‘hate fest’ against Israel. It’s measured in tone and scholarly in the presentation and analysis of international law. It even anticipates and addresses the main objections to its findings.

Its conclusions are well argued: In different ways, Israel operates policies, with clear purpose and intent, that create an apartheid situation for Palestinians in Israel itself; in annexed East Jerusalem; in the Occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza; and for Palestinian refugees.

The outrage from the Trump and Netanyahu administrations was so instantaneous that they clearly hadn’t had time to read the report they were condemning. But putting the words ‘Israeli’ and ‘Apartheid’ in the same sentence was more than enough. Two days later on the 17th March the report was removed from the ESCWA website at the insistence of the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Rima Khalaf, the head of ESCWA, resigned her position saying: “… it is my duty not to conceal a clear crime, and I stand by all the conclusions of the report,”.

Once again, the truth is too painful, too difficult, too political to face.

But the report is a worthy Passover text for this year. If we read it, carefully and faithfully, if we pay attention to its descriptions and analysis, it can free both Jews and Palestinians from our joint (but very differently experienced) modern slavery to Zionism. And, if enough others join this movement of liberation, then we Jews may even find a way back to a legitimate Jewish Passover.

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