It was at a family Seder night a few years ago that I first felt that celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover was becoming an impossibility for me. This was a pity since Passover is easily my favorite Jewish festival and indeed the one most observed in Jewish homes around the world. But there I sat, thinking that I really can’t keep doing it this way year after year.
As happens in most Jewish families, three generations were gathered around the table to tell the story of our miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Our service book, the Haggadah, was the standard liturgy which has hardly changed since medieval times. As always, we followed the rituals of this ‘feast of freedom’ with appropriate rigor, including the dipping of bitter herbs in salt water to recall the tears of oppression our people suffered under Pharaoh. As ever, we recounted the plagues sent by God to persuade Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go’ and recalled how in every generation new Pharaohs have arisen to bring us torment.
It is, of course, a terrific story and the founding mythology of the Jewish people. The Exodus has also given the world the quintessential expression of hope in a better future and the eternal promise of the possibility of freedom from oppression of all kinds. ‘Egypt’ itself becomes a metaphor for being constricted. The Hebrew word for Egypt ‘Mitzrayim’ is also translated as ‘the narrow place’.
So what was my big problem with all of this?
Well, in a word – Palestine.
I’d always been on the liberal end of the Zionist spectrum but the more I read about the history of this 100 year conflict between Zionists and the indigenous Arab population, the more I had come to realize that we had become the ‘oppressors’, we were now the Pharaoh for another people. Once my enlightenment on the Palestinian narrative was ‘out of the box’ it was impossible to put it back in. And how could we celebrate Passover without making any mention of this?
These days I use my own Haggadah, one that both acknowledges Jewish tradition and recognizes that it is possible for the victim to become the victimizer. The poem below is an attempt to express the moral question that now surrounds and profoundly challenges our annual commemoration of the Exodus.