Palestine and Passover: Whose Liberation is Missing from the (Seder) Table?

Palestinian children wrote the names of the villages and cities of their ancestors that were destroyed by Zionist forces in 1947-48. (Photo: via Social Media)

By Benay Blend

Passover for me has always been a time to think about liberation struggles. A holiday that stands for justice and liberation, it is the very opposite of what is happening in Palestine today. As reported on April 8, 2019, Israel closed off checkpoints and crossing from the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip in advance of preparations for Passover.

Growing up in the 1960s with A. Stanley Dreyfus as my Rabbi and mentor, I was introduced as a teenager to the civil rights movement through his participation in the sit-ins that were happening in Galveston, Texas where I lived. We also used his Haggadah, a text that has long since been passed on to my daughter. In his reinterpretation of the liturgy, Rabbi Dreyfus called attention to the Black struggle for liberation as it related to our own exodus from Egypt.

My religious upbringing was progressive up to a point; it never included the suffering of the Palestinian people. It wasn’t until 1978 when I moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico that two experiences converged to rectify that omission.

Here I joined a dialogue group composed of members of the Muslim Student Association and Jewish graduate students at the University of New Mexico, a conversation that now would be correctly labeled “normalization,” but at the time was transformative for me.

At about the same time Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb founded Nahalat Shalom (Inheritance of Peace), a Jewish synagogue in Albuquerque that reflected her own commitment to nonviolent protest as a means to bring about an end to the Occupation. Her teaching added a political dimension to my understanding of Palestinian resistance that led to my own commitment that has grown and changed over the years.

The past few years have seen various musings over how or even if the Passover rituals can be transformed in order to give Palestinian liberation a seat at the Passover table. Rabbi Gottlieb has published a new Haggadah, A World Beyond Borders (2017) that updates the liturgy in a way that tells everyone’s liberation stories, including Palestinians. She calls it “an out-of-the matzah-box rendition/Of an ancient, still rockin’ it Jewish tradition”.

Indeed, it is inclusive, reflective of how our community Seders welcomed the larger fellowship—Quakers, Native Americans, Jews of color, Palestinians—everyone came to see what new ritual Lynn would create that year.

This year I didn’t attend a Seder. I’ve become more aware of what I’m not willing to “pass over,” especially at this time of the year. For example, I’m not inclined to read from a Zionist Haggadah, no matter how liberal, how progressive, how committed to other peoples’ rights. Progressive Except Palestine is not progressive, indeed, it is instead “regressive,” as Steven Salaita says:

“As for appending ‘except for Palestine’ to a positive identity (progressive, feminist, and so forth), we ought to consider what happens to Palestine in these formulations. It unwittingly becomes background context to liberal self-absorption.”

Until recently, Palestine has not even been background noise at the Seder table. Partly out of fear for their careers, students and scholars both have been afraid to speak.  

In an Op-Ed in the New York Times, on Martin Luther King Day, January 2019, Michelle Alexander likened Israel’s practices to apartheid in South Africa and Jim Crow. If we are to honor King’s actions, she explains, rather than whitewash the man, then she feels the time has come to speak out on Israel’s actions.

Like others who have supported the Palestinian struggle — Angela Davis and Alice Walker, to name a few — there has been a backlash. One day after Alexander’s Op-Ed, Mondoweiss Editors ran a piece entitled “Israel advocates land on Alexander’s MLK/Palestine piece as ‘strategic threat’ and ‘shameful appropriation’ of King’s memory.”

Regardless, as Israel ramps up its violence against Palestinians, supporters of Palestinian rights are heeding Alexander’s call. In a Blogpost in Patheos, Robert Cohen asks if Palestine makes celebrating Passover even possible. Cohen plans to use his “home-curated” Haggadah, a blend of “radical and contemporary” thought, to commemorate the Exodus out of Egypt.

For others, though, he claims that “our relationship to the Palestinian people has become the greatest challenge to our Jewish identity and values.” He concludes that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians casts “a profound challenge to our faith and understanding of our own history.”

That phrase “our own history” here is key, for it places his own crisis of faith, and that of fellow Jews, at the center, while casting the suffering of Palestinians to the side. To be fair, Cohen recognizes that the Nakba is ongoing:  1,000,000 Palestinians jailed, kidnapped and murdered since 1948. He also understands why some Jews are “deliberating choosing not to celebrate,” which would include me.

But his conclusion that “how we see our Jewish selves, our relationship to Israel and the global Jewish community, and how we link our historical experience to others, and in particular the people of Palestine”, constitutes our major challenge falls short of calling for dismantling the Zionist regime altogether.

Finally, an Op-Ed by Alona Henig in The Michigan Daily also laments the violence against the protesters in Gaza, that on this past Friday occurred shortly before the first night of Passover. In reality, there has been increased violence against Palestinians for several weeks leading up to that night.

“Why is Jewish liberation more important than that of Palestinians?” she asks, a question which forms the core of this essay.

A few lines down, she answers her own question with the following question:

“So why is this country that is supposed to be a safe haven for Jews treating others the way we were treated?”

It is this core Zionist belief that stands in the way of giving Palestinians a seat at the liberation (Seder) table. What gets ignored is that when Israel was founded it was done so at the expense of those very people whose suffering Henig now laments.

“We need to question and criticize Israel if we care about a fair and just Jewish nation,” she concludes. What she does not realize is that Israel will never be a fair and just nation for Palestinians as long as it exists as a Jewish state.

Finally, she states that:

“On April 19, some will celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut, or Israeli Independence Day. On that day, take pleasure in how good it feels to be liberated and remember that everyone deserves that sense of freedom. It’s time to free Palestine.”

Until Israel’s Independence Day gets renamed Colonization Day, Palestinian liberation will be missing from the (Seder) table. There are now two conflicting observance days: one a celebration of independence on May 14, the other followed one day later by Palestinians commemorating their “nakba” (catastrophe), the Israeli expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their homes. Indeed, there is no understanding of events today without this historical context.

For example, beginning on March 30, 2018, Gazans launched a series of non-violent Friday protests called the “Great Return March,” which in reality is partly directed to make possible their legal right of return to their former villages.

In this regard, Hussein Ibish that “until we come to grips with the political and cultural legacy of the nakba, calm, stability, and normality will elude Israel and the rest of the Middle East.”

Only after replacing one commemoration with another can there be any kind of Passover celebration that includes liberating Palestinians from their decades-long nakba-induced trauma.

– Benay Blend received her doctorate in American Studies from the University of New Mexico. Her scholarly works include Douglas Vakoch and Sam Mickey, Eds. (2017), “’Neither Homeland Nor Exile are Words’: ‘Situated Knowledge’ in the Works of Palestinian and Native American Writers”. She contributed this article to The Palestine Chronicle.

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