Observing Passover, the holiday celebrating the liberation of Jewish slaves from Egypt roughly 3,200 years ago, has become a problem for many Jews this year.
In the past, poll data indicated that more Jews attended a Passover Seder than participated in any other Jewish holiday. Whether religious or atheist, Jews would sit around the Seder table on the first night of this eight-day holiday (which begins this year on Wednesday night, April 8) and talk about the meaning of freedom and liberation, sometimes with family, sometimes with friends, sometimes impatiently waiting for the feast of food, sometimes with serious intention to fulfill the command to tell the story to your children and to experience themselves as though they personally had participated in the great Exodus.
The story itself is so compelling that it has become a metaphor for many other struggles. Black African-American slaves sang songs about Moses and the children of Israel as a way of identifying with the possibility that someday they too would be free, and the civil-rights movement often used the story as a challenge to the way American society had not yet fulfilled its promise of becoming a land of the free. No wonder then that through the ages even Jews who questioned the existence of God turned up in large numbers at a Seder.
This year I’ve been hearing a very different story from my rabbinic colleagues and from many Jews who are not part of any religious community. Millions of Jews have been watching Israel’s role in Gaza and the West Bank with particular horror this year. Most share anger at the ongoing terrorism that has made life in the Israeli town of Sderot so difficult. Few sympathize with Hamas. They are aware that over the course of the past few years dozens of Israelis have been killed by terror. Yet the wildly disproportionate response of the Israeli army that led to the killing of over 1,200 Gazans, hundreds of them children and women civilians, has shocked and dismayed many Jews whose identification with their Jewishness came primarily through their commitment to its ethical teachings.
Moreover, growing numbers of Jews in Israel and the rest of the world have become aware that the core of the problem lies in the way that Israel’s creation in 1948 led to the expulsion from their homes of some 800,000 Palestinians. Some fled in anticipation of a quick destruction by invading armies of the newly formed Israeli state. But Israeli historians in the past two decades have documented that hundreds of thousands of those refugees left their homes because of fear generated by Israeli terrorists that Arab civilians would be targeted during the war, or to escape a war zone as civilians have traditionally done during active hostilities, or, in the case of over 80,000 of them, because the Israeli army itself forcibly evicted them from their homes and marched them off to Gaza or the West Bank. And then in 1967 when Israel struck at Egypt, Syria and Jordan in a preemptive war (on the basis of a genuine perception of threat), it conquered the West Bank and Gaza and inherited control over the lives of many of these refugees. Today, some 2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli rule, without the right to vote in Israeli elections, and demanding their freedom.
The recent election of Benjamin Netanyahu, whose central campaign promise was to never allow an independent Palestinian state, and the selection of Avigdor Lieberman, whose campaign was filled with racist attacks on Arab citizens of the state of Israel, as the new Israeli foreign minister, have pushed many American Jews to question how they can celebrate Passover with a full heart this year. As several congregants put it to me, “We Jews have become Pharaoh to the Palestinian people — so we would be hypocrites to sit around our Passover table celebrating our own freedom, rejoicing at the way the Egyptians were stricken with plague and their firstborn killed, while ignoring what Israel is doing today in the name of the Jewish people.”
I’ve argued that this is precisely the kind of discussion that is appropriate for the Seder table this year. But what I fear is that increasing numbers of younger Jews are voting with their feet by distancing themselves from this, one of the most beautiful rituals of the Jewish year.
[Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun magazine (www.tikkun.org), chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun synagogue in San Francisco. His e-mail is RabbiLerner@tikkun.org.]