By Benay Blend
In a new collection of seder readings, Rabbi Brant Rosen acknowledges that Passover 2020 truly is a night “like no other.”
In many ways, Rabbi Rosen also stands apart. In 2014 he resigned his post at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois after his Palestinian solidarity work became a divisive issue in the community. The following year he founded Tzedek Chicago, a non-Zionist and social justice focused synagogue, where he serves as a rabbi.
Traditionally one of The Four Questions asked by the youngest child, “Why is tonight different from all other nights,” takes on special meaning during this time of the Coronavirus pandemic. As Rosen observes, many families will be “dwelling in the ‘narrow space’ of social separation” as we celebrate with others via Zoom or other web-based platforms.
Rosen suggests that references to COVID-19 not dominate the evening, but how can it not? Most of us are not used to social isolation, though others who practice a solitary craft, like writing, as I do, might not find it quite as hard. Instead of dwelling on the obvious, Rosen suggests placing the “Exodus narrative” into a “spiritual framework” that might offer a broader context than our homes for this “unprecedented moment.”
Placed within a larger setting, perhaps this moment is not so unprecedented as first glance. While those with “privilege and power,” affirms Rabbi Rosen, tend to feel their world is shattered when disaster hits, “those who are oppressed or disenfranchised don’t need a disaster to remind them” that their world was broken long before the plague.
As Ramzy Baroud explains, Palestinians are no stranger to whatever term is used: “Call it a ‘quarantine’, a ‘shelter-in-place’, a ‘lockdown’, or a ‘curfew’, we Palestinians have experienced them all, though not at all voluntarily.”
In Gaza, the quarantine goes by “siege,” “blockade,” whatever label best describes the consequences of 1948 when Palestinians first experienced what has become an on-going Nakba (catastrophe), in short, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their land to make way for the Zionist colonial state.
In the Biet Ijza neighborhood, west of Jerusalem, Israelis have taken the Occupation to its logical extreme. “Our house is a real prison,” explains Saadat Sabri Gharib, surrounded as it is by land stolen by settlers who then turned the house into a cage surrounded by barbed wire and surveillance cameras. Though his family is “subjected to stone-throwing, live bullet shooting, insulting and burning,” Gharib remains at home.
Gharib’s area is only one of many which have been separated from Jerusalem by the apartheid wall. Though more than 50,000 Palestinians hold Jerusalem ID cards, the wall isolates them from their neighbors in the city. While such quarantine is involuntary, Gharib attempts to take control by refusing to leave his house. Even if Israelis destroy his home, he warns, he would prefer living in a tent to leaving his family’s house to settlers.
“We know in our hearts and minds,” writes Rabbi Rosen, that one day “we will eventually make it through this narrow place of pandemic” in order to “emerge into ‘wide open spaces’” of outdoors. For Palestinians, such isolation is far from voluntary, and emergence has a much more literal meaning.
“We know from history that the oppressed do not remain oppressed forever,” Rosen continues, a sentiment echoed by the late historian Howard Zinn. “The memory of oppressed people,” Zinn wrote in The People’s History of the United States (1980), is always close beneath the surface, ready to be transformed into revolt.
If the real lesson, as Rosen sees it, is that “we are all in this together,” how many Zionists, liberal or otherwise, will take heed to offer Palestinians a seat at the seder table?
In this time of the Coronavirus, there seems to be a special lesson, that social distancing, the practice of self-isolation, a procedure that Palestinians know too well, becomes an act of kindness in possibly preventing the spread of the disease.
Ironically, though, in that separation, as notes Rabbi Rosen, there is connection: “We are all in this together,” he proclaims, so that “my liberation is irrevocably bound up with yours. And… in the midst of the narrow place, there is no other way but forward.”
Due to a very real pandemic, the Haggadah’s mention of several plagues takes on fresh significance. In addition to the usual list of 10, Rabbi Rosen lists ten more afflictions that are part of a system of oppression that he says one day must fall. People of color, Indigenous populations, immigrants in detention centers, those in America’s prisons—all will suffer more than the general population.
In the end, Rabbi Rosen asks that we “make our way through this fearful moment together,” so that “this time of brokenness” might “lead to a deeper solidarity between all who are ready to fight for a better world.” What if we truly included all in a borderless world beyond our boundaries, such as Palestinians under siege; Cubans, Venezuelans, and Iranians under sanctions; and all other people who have been victims of US aggression abroad?
In particular, Ramzy Baroud asks that we “think of Palestine,” whose “people have been ‘quarantined’ for 71 years and counting.” What would it take to make the connections between detained children here and there; between prison abolition here and there; and all of the other ways that our foreign policy supports atrocity?
Rabbi Rosen ends with the traditional “Next year in Jerusalem,” an epitaph that I probably never questioned growing up. In the past few decades, for me, it has become increasingly problematic. As a metaphor, the way I think Rosen means it to be taken, it works, but still is multi-layered. “It’s worth considering,” he writes, “that we may have already entered the promised land,” in the way that our efforts are always geared towards social justice.
This is what Martin Luther King meant when he said that he had “been to the mountain” where he had “seen the Promised Land,” a place he had not yet reached, but with struggle his people would.
Taken literally, though, as the phrase has been in the past, it repeats the Zionist desire to return to Israel, regardless of whom lived there first. It also ignores that all of us in this country, with the exception of Native people, live also on stolen land, no matter our country of origin.
Indeed, Indian Country has been hit disproportionately hard by the Coronavirus pandemic for some of the same reasons as Palestinians. Taking this to heart, this Passover its more important than ever to connect the dots.
When we speak out against detained children on our border, make the connection to Palestine, and the same for prisons; refugee camps; lack of water, shelter, and all of the injustices that colonized populations share worldwide. Only then will what Rosen has called our “scattered, shattered pieces” come together to make a whole.
– Benay Blend earned 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