This is part of Marc H. Ellis’s “Exile and the Prophetic” feature for Mondoweiss. To read the entire series visit the archive page.
As Passover arrives once again, the occupation continues, fifty years now and counting, with no end in sight. For all practical purposes, the Israeli occupation of Palestine is permanent. How can Jews celebrate Passover in such a context?
That “celebrate” seems out of place in such a situation seems obvious. Are Jews called instead to commemorate Passover as a false flag, a deflection, a ritual that may even work against the freedom story Jews are commanded to recall?
Writing in Haaretz, Salman Masalha, a Druze Israeli, cautions that in Israel, Passover’s liberation theme must be viewed in the context of the closure, robbery and murder Palestinians experience before, during and after the holiday season. Masalha states it quite simply: “While households in Israel prepare for the Festival of Freedom, Palestinian households also need to prepare: With the advent of Jewish holidays they are obliged to remain under siege.”
Jews of Conscience in the United States have taken Masalha’s understanding to heart with their various revised narrations of the Passover story. Instead of liberation for Jews, Jews of Conscience see Passover now as the antithesis of what it is supposed to be. So during Passover this year many Jews of Conscience are reinterpreting the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians in the Israelite struggle for freedom in Egypt. They will recite instead the Ten Plagues of Occupation and the Ten Sacred Acts of Resistance to Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.
While this counter-narrative of the Exodus has been gaining momentum over the years, I wonder if we have reached the Exodus revision limit. True, these counter-narratives are fantastic, poignant and colorful, with, among other additions, non-Jewish texts used to feature our new Jewish landscape of power and oppression. Even Diaspora Palestinians are invited to Passover and attend. This expansion of the Exodus story is important. It reflects and represents a turning point in Jewish history.
Yet the stubborn fact of the continuing occupation is more than troubling. Is it time to move in another direction? Jews of Conscience, like the British blogger, Robert Cohen, call for a further revision of the Passover telling. Why not abandon the Exodus story itself and simply catalogue Israel’s abuse of power and the international community’s condemnation of Israel’s crimes against humanity?
Perhaps it’s time Jews of Conscience to reach beyond the proverbial conference, movement and Seder closer, ‘We Shall Overcome.” It isn’t obvious that we shall overcome, Not at all.
Should Passover now be seen as an act of mourning and contrition?
Perhaps the preface to the Seder should be stated starkly: “What we, as Jews, have done to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong. What we, as Jews, are doing to you, the Palestinian people, is wrong.” Though confession won’t end the occupation, it states clearly the context of whatever Passover narrative follows.
Regardless of the particular telling, our Passover confession is a judgment on Jewish history and the present. It will remain for the future.
For confession is a witness that something has gone horribly wrong. Holding up that witness, in a stark and unadorned way, is the only forward.
When the Passover telling itself becomes a deflection, we have no other choice but to fare forward into the unknown. Dwelling as we Jews do this Passover, in the abyss of injustice, wonderful Passover Seder’s won’t do.