On Monday, April 10, Jerusalem was abuzz. Frantic last minute preparations for Pesach, the Jewish holiday of Passover celebrating the exodus of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, quite literally filled the air. Everywhere I walked in the city, I came upon bonfires of burning chametz, or leavened bread, in anticipation of eating nothing but matzah, unleavened bread, for a week. During the festival of Pesach, which celebrates liberation and freedom, Jews around the world return to eating the bread of affliction to remind them of the oppression of the past.
That night, after the smoke dissipated, two of my friends and I headed to a Pesach seder, or the festive meal telling the story of the exodus. An American rabbi who had made aliyah, or immigrated, to Israel about 10 years ago invited us. Our 30-person seder was an eclectic group of Americans, immigrants, and Israeli kibbutzniks. As we poured our first glass of wine, the lens through which we would be telling the story became clear. This year in Jerusalem on Pesach, we would be grappling with the liberation of the Palestinian people.
Our host reminded us that June 2017 will mark the fiftieth year of Israeli military presence in the disputed territories, specifically in the West Bank. In June 1967, Israel launched a preemptive strike against Egypt, Syria, and Jordan, after the three countries amassed troops on Israel’s borders for an imminent attack. After the Six-Day War, Israel had gained control of the Sinai Desert, the Golan Heights, East Jerusalem, and the West Bank, which had previously been held by Jordan. Since 1967, after returning the Sinai to Egypt, Israel has been struggling with what to do in regards to the West Bank. Simultaneously, some territory has been turned over to the hands of the Palestinian Authority, while Jewish settlements under Israeli control continue to be built within the disputed territory.
However, our Pesach host did not want our seder to deal with the politics of Israeli and Palestinian statehood. Instead, through poetry and prayer, she urged us to look at Palestinian liberation as a humanitarian issue that exists separate from the political conflict. After all, we were reminded, a land can't be liberated; only a people can, and a state can’t liberate a people, only the moral treatment of civilians by all leaders can. While we ate horseradish to remind us of the bitterness of oppression, we discussed how some Palestinians living in East Jerusalem, just minutes away from our seder table, do not have access to the same clean water that West Jerusalem residents do. We learned that the Israeli police randomly detain Palestinian teenage boys, and that Palestinian homes have been demolished to make way for archaeological digs. It is also troubling to note that most people living a stone’s throw away from the West Bank, including myself, rarely think of these common occurrences.
When we discussed the ten plagues during the seder, our host highlighted when God turned the Nile River to blood. In the Torah, it is written that Pharaoh was frightened by this life-threatening situation. He asked his magicians to explain how the river turned to blood, and the magicians recreated the scene with potions. Once Pharaoh saw that the bloody river could appear ordinary, he relaxed and paid no more attention to it. However, just because it was commonplace and all around him, it didn’t make the bloody river any less deadly. The same, our host argued, is true of Israelis noticing the oppression that Palestinians face. Because it is all around us in Jerusalem, it has become normal and not worthy of note. This certainly resonated with me: I was shocked on my first day of classes at Hebrew University when I could see the security fence that borders the West Bank from my classroom window, but now in April, I don’t think twice about it as I walk by.
I have realized how easy it is to be lulled into complacency in the face of oppression when it does not impact your daily life, but Pesach comes as the perfect wake up call when I have a month left in Israel. The story of our ancestors’ exodus from Egypt reminds us of our own struggle for freedom, and therefore encourages us to not oppress others, for we too were oppressed in Egypt. Pesach provides Jews all over the world the opportunity to reflect on our own freedom, and in so doing reaffirm our work to free others.