At the seder, I felt I didn’t know who I was

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This is the third and last post based on journal entries from the author’s recent family visit to Israel-Palestine. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here.

A visit to the Druze restaurant

As a rounding up of a family outing, we went to a Druze restaurant, in the Druze town of Dalyat al Karmel.

I thought food would not be political, but it was.

At the center of the town, election billboards were still up from the recent elections. The leftist quasi-Zionist Meretz had an announcement there: ‘Repeal the Nation State law’. That law from last year was a sharp stick in the eye of many Druze, because it says that national rights are exclusive to Jews in Israel – and the Druze (men) have traditionally served in the Israeli military, while the women have done civil service – so many were offended by this unthankful law. Besides, Druze are linguistically Arab, and the law reduces their language from official status to a mystical ‘special’ status.

The Druze have the tradition of being loyal to their host country, and do not seek national-territorial self-determination. They came into bitter conflict with other Palestinians before 1948, since they rejected pan-Arabism, and in 1948 they forged an arrangement with the nascent Zionist Jewish State of Israel, to be loyal to it.

This construct needs no elaborate expansion, to explain how problematic it can be. Because what if the Zionist takeover of Palestine, even in part, is against the will of the Palestinian population, which it largely was? Israel seeks to sever the ‘Arab’ from the ‘Druze’. In a recent case regarding Druze military refuser Kamal Zidan, he reported how various officers came into his cell in the first couple of days of his imprisonment and told him he is “Druze, not Arab or Palestinian”. Zidan was subject to harsh treatment, including solitary confinement.

This problem shows itself in even starker colors in the occupied Syrian Jolan (Golan), where about 6,000 Druze remained from the roughly 130,000 Syrian residents, almost all of whom were ethnically cleansed by Israel in 1967, their roughly 200 villages razed.

So who do you become loyal to, an occupier? The Israeli unilateral annexation of the Syrian territory in 1981 has not been recognized by anyone, except the unhinged Trump this March, ahead of the Israeli elections, in a move widely seen as aiding Netanyahu’s win. Most Druze there, like Palestinians in the (also illegally) annexed East Jerusalem, accept to be residents, but view citizenship as a legitimization of their occupation and illegal annexation.

So we ate at a restaurant in Dalyat al Karmel, called Nurah’s Kitchen. I thought it was just a woman cooking at her home in a kind of unofficial way, from the description I got. But this is an institution, and a highly political one too, it turned out.

Indeed the restaurant is in a kind of tent in her backyard – but the walls are plastered with certificates of congratulation from Israeli military, police, and politicians. Someone said Yair Lapid was up there but I didn’t see it. Turns out she’s also an official supplier for the Israeli military.

At the end came a lecture about being Druze. She said that when she’s asked what it is like to be a Druze in Israel, she says “thank God we are living with the Jewish people, who respect human life”. She only said it in the ‘positive’, but this had a bitter taste of incitement against other non-Jews, that is, non-Druze Palestinians. And I had an awful, chilling feeling there. Really? Those who respect human life so much that they can take it from an unarmed Palestinian without hesitation for protesting their ghetto incarceration in Gaza, for example?

She talked further about how her grandfather was a main forger of the alliance with Israel. And she said he has reincarnated several times already and lives nearby. Who can argue with that.

She lightly criticized Netanyahu and the Nation State law, a critique which ‘liberal Zionists’ can often sympathize with – even though the law basically codifies Israeli practice from the state’s inception. And she said that Druze come from the same ancestral heritage as Jews. So basically she was saying we are brothers and sisters.

But I knew, that we were not there as equals. On Nurah’s website, it says that she promotes the notion that “Israel is a state of all its citizens and that all its residents feel as one”. But that is surely wishful thinking. Israel is not a state of all its citizens, just as Netanyahu had made clear in a recent statement. Pointing out the Nation State law, he made clear that while Israel has citizens, it is the nation state of Jews alone. And that is a correct and factual description of Israel as it has always been.

So Nurah goes around the world representing Israel in food festivals, as her website boasts, and she hosts top state officials and military.

I suppose this makes a lot of Israelis feel good about themselves – see here’s a ‘good Arab’, and a good Arab is basically Zionist.

Finally, a Hebrew poem by the Israeli Jewish poet Yehonatan Geffen, called “A Ballad for a Druze”. It refers precisely to the town we visited, as well as the Druze conundrum.

In a green village at the feet of Mount Carmel
A loyal son is born to the state of Israel
Taught at his school (a boys only class)
Two hours on Muhammad and three on Zionism
He rushed ahead with the tailwind
And joined the army at eighteen.
Specifically into the Sayeret* and then an officers course
His commanders took great pride, of course.
And they said; with the Doobon** and the Uzi***,
who on earth can see he’s a Druzi?
At Kiryat Shmona, facing a murderers fire
He forged ahead with his gun drawn
And was the first to be wounded and collapse
badly injured, his feet paralyzed
And the medevac crew told the news:
With that blood being spilled on the Doobon and the Uzi, who on earth can see he’s a Druzi?
The next day, the demonstration starts
while the wounded hero’s brother cries in the corner
When suddenly, without a word of warning
he starts taking stone throws to the head
Because without a Doobon and with no Uzi
it was all too clear he’s a Druzi.

* Elite commando unit
** Doobon is the typical winter coat used by Israeli soldiers.
*** Machine gun


The Passover that passed, and left me traumatized

It’s actually been long since I had celebrated Passover, before this year. Rarely visiting Israel at this time of year, I simply skipped it, I passed over it. I felt better not recycling the myth of slavery and exodus with all its inherent sadistic violence and celebration of death, framed as a celebration of freedom.

But I was in Israel at this time, this year. And so there’s the family, and there are the traditions, and it becomes this thing you do.

Somehow, the distance of time and space gave me pause to experience the Seder afresh. Now the fact that we were singing songs of praise about drowning Egyptians seemed just all too gory. I couldn’t sing it.

My niece mentioned at the table, before we read about the ten plagues, that she had told her teacher at high school that by killing all the Egyptian first-born, God was essentially doing the same thing that Pharaoh did in killing all Israelite babies. Not a bad observation, I thought, not bad at all. And she added: Her teacher responded that she sounded like Hitler. There you go. One of the brightest observations I’ve heard about this, and her teacher calls her a Nazi.

We read about the four sons with their four questions (not daughters, mind you, and don’t ask!): One wise, one wicked, one simple and one who does not know how to ask a question.

Here’s how it goes:

What does the wise son say? “What are the testimonials, statutes and laws Hashem our G-d commanded you?” You should tell him about the laws of Pesach, that one may eat no dessert after eating the Pesach offering.

What does the wicked son say? “What does this drudgery mean to you?” To you and not to him. Since he excludes himself from the community, he has denied a basic principle of Judaism. You should blunt his teeth by saying to him: “It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt. For me and not for him. If he was there he would not have been redeemed.”

What does the simple son say? “What’s this?” You should say to him “With a strong hand Hashem took me out of Egypt, from the house of servitude.”

And the one who does not know how to ask, you start for him, as the Torah says: “And you should tell your son on that day, saying ‘It is for the sake of this that Hashem did for me when I left Egypt.'”

And me? Oh, I definitely identified with the wicked one. And I am supposed to feel very guilty, because I “exclude myself from the community”, and if I had been in Egypt (which I wasn’t), then God would not have redeemed me (which he didn’t anyway). And since we’re all supposed to identify with those Israelites as if we were there (while they probably weren’t), then the implication is that not participating in the “community” today with this ritual may mean that God would not save me today, if I needed saving. Moral: Don’t be wicked, it’s bad for you – be part of the cult, or else. I chose not to express my wickedness at the table, and for this time, play my part in the game. I don’t know if it was wise, maybe it was just simple. But I didn’t rock the community boat.

We sang the Chad Gadya. It’s about a kind of ‘food chain’ of death: a father buys a goat kid, which is eaten by a cat, cat bit by dog, dog hit with a stick, stick burned by fire, fire extinguished by water, water drunk by ox, ox slaughtered by slaughterer, and finally slaughterer killed by the angel of death. Actually the thing was stopped before the angel of death (maybe to save the little ones from excessive trauma, although the death of babies and drowning of adults was, I thought, bad enough). A family member mentioned Chava Alberstein’s rendering of the song from 1989, noting her punch-line: “How long will the cycle of horror last?”.

Alberstein’s rendering actually deserves substantial quoting, from its last part:

And what has changed for you?
What has changed?
I myself have changed this year
And on all nights, on all nights
I have asked only four questions
Tonight I have another question:
How long will the cycle of horror last?
… Hunter and hunted, beater and beaten
When will this madness end?
I used to be a sheep and a calm kid, today I am a leopard and a predator wolf
I’ve been a dove and I’ve been a deer, today I don’t know who I am.

Ira Glunts has a newly-modelled Passover ritual, he described it on this site as a “Seder Lo’Bseder” – that is a “Passover that is not in order”. In that setting, the only ritual song is Chad Gadya, but they view Alberstein’s video of it. That’s a rewriting of these traditions into modern context, and I think that’s good, because there’s so much awful violence in those old texts that needs to be rewritten and reformed.

Actually, I am thinking that calling Chad Gadya a “cycle of horror”, in the apparent political context that Alberstein is alluding to (remember: 1st Intifada), is not really representative. It’s not a cycle – it’s a hierarchical chain of death. And nowadays, the Zionists are definitely the angel of death, targeting Palestinians kids.

Like Alberstein, I felt that I didn’t know who I was either, in that Seder. I couldn’t separate the politics from the deadly and violent advocacies of the Haggadah. I know, I know, it’s just a ritual and you’re supposed to separate religion from politics – but the ties keep surfacing, and I’m hardly the only one to notice it. So the lip tax is paid, and a conservative ritual maintained with much of its horrors.

And now the news is that top rabbi educators at a leading military prep-school in an Israeli settlement are praising Hitler in their lessons, and they’ve been doing it for a long time. They’re saying Hitler was “100% correct”, only that he was on the wrong side. That is, if you’re Jewish and you’re a racist genocider, that’s just perfect. And the secular centrist lawmaker Yair Lapid will tell them that “this is not Judaism”, but he’s not a rabbi, and his Zionism with “maximum Jews”, “maximum territory” and “minimum Palestinians” is not that liberal either, really.

So it all really does seem so connected – politics and religion, past genocidal advocacy and present genocidal advocacy. And I’m sitting there at the table, trying to separate it all. You don’t want to throw away everything because some of it is rotten, you don’t want to make a family gathering political, but it’s hard to be part of it and reduce it to mere ‘tradition’. You sit there, and you’re wondering what you are enabling, indirectly, by not speaking out, or by saying too little, or by not opposing things more clearly. These are not easy decisions to make, and I don’t have the answers about how to make them. But something has got to change.

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RE: A family member mentioned Chava Alberstein’s rendering of the song from 1989, noting her punch-line: “How long will the cycle of horror last?” ~ Ofir ■ Had Gadya – Chava Alberstein (English Lyrics) Orly Yahalom Photography & Israeli Music Published on Oct 9, 2015 Had Gadya (“one little… Read more »

simple solution: lay off the seders and go find yourself. its not mandatory and just an fyi: there are quite a few interpretations (by Hebrew scholars) but not definitive, that put the four ‘sons’ as a euphemism for a lifespan and not actually four sons. they being when a child… Read more »

I think you know perfectly well who you are, but, if not, the by-line “Jonathan Ofir” on your article should tell you. Perhaps you are not sure about what sort of person you are (though you seem clear that you are the wicked son) or where you fit in to… Read more »

Looks like we’re going to have to wait ’til Christmas if we’re waiting for the gift of a few positive comments regarding holiday religious rituals from the crew of Mondoweiss.

I have had contacts and talks with Druze people from Syria, never from home (except soldiers or border police). The ones we have in Palestine amaze me. Some of them are so hypocrite without even realizing it, having Saddam Hussain’s picture hung up together and slogans/logos of “Israeli” millitary or… Read more »