This week Jews all over the world celebrate Passover, the ancient festival commemorating the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. The narrative of liberation is read within the context of food and fellowship. As Jews we are commanded to place ourselves in the original struggle to be free, to experience the suffering and hope of the ancient Israelites as they did, to see this ancient liberation as our own. Despite the plagues and death, the wanderings in the desert and admonishments of God, Passover is a festive holiday. Food and wine is plentiful. Family and friends come together.
How we celebrate our freedom in the past with the complexities of the present is always a challenge. Over time as Jews became free, struggles of other peoples were mentioned in the Seder meal. As a child being raised in the 1950s and 60s, at Passover we incorporated the civil rights struggle into our narrative. In the 1980s and 90s there were specific Passover narratives featuring the struggle of women, freedom movements in Central America and elsewhere. And in some Jewish homes and synagogues, Palestinians were featured as a people struggling for liberation.
There is hope in remembrance applied to the present. If we are in Egypt demanding our freedom, the Passover story accompanies us as we demand freedom now. Freedom is interdependent, across time and community boundaries. No one is truly free if others are not also free.
Today with Israeli helicopter gun-ships daily firing rockets into defenseless Palestinian towns, cities and refugee camps, it is difficult to accept the Passover narrative in its deepest implications. We as Jews are free but is that freedom at the expense of others? If Palestinians are being taught the “lesson” of opposing Israeli power and standing up for their rights and dignity, if the message from the Israeli government to the Palestinian people is surrender or die – a message not unfamiliar to Jews – do we repeat this story at the Passover table?
Most Jews will be silent about the helicopter gun-ships at Passover. Since the beginning of the most recent Palestinian uprising in November, Jewish organizations have placed full-page paid statements in newspapers around the country. They trumpet Israel’s desire for peace, call for Jewish unity and castigate Palestinian terrorism and the deficiencies of Palestinian leadership. These statements will continue to be published during the Passover season.
The call for Jewish unity is a caution against Jewish dissent and the dissent of others who see the Passover story as embodying their own struggle today. Should we as Jews celebrate our own liberation while being silent about or even denigrating the Palestinian struggle? Are the helicopter gun-ships guarding Jews in Israel and Jews around the world on these Passover nights? Or are these helicopter gun-ships a symbol of our own need to reconsider the road we as Jews are traveling?
War is war, and in the midst of war few rules of civility are left unbroken. But is the expansion of Israel through settlements, land confiscations, assassination squads and the terror of exploding rockets, a war Jews want to fight, should fight or can be silent about under the guise of unity?
Can we recall the ancient struggle for freedom as our own and praise the violence of Israel as justified? As our own? Or are we, while speaking of our liberation struggle, undermining its essential meaning, that we and all peoples should be free?
During these days of celebration I will remember my first Palestinian friend, Nyaela Ayed, who was murdered in Jerusalem in 1999. A health advocate and planner who studied in the United States and was known by all as a gentle and principled person, I last saw Nyaela in Jerusalem in 1998 and spent many hours speaking to her about her life and the future of her people. I also visited the land her family owned in Jerusalem that Jewish settlers coveted. These settlers were willing to pay large sums of money for a small piece of land that would then forever be removed from Nyaela’s family and from her people. The Ayed’s refused to sell the land. A short time later, Nyaela was murdered, a single stab wound to the heart, a professional execution.
It was during Passover last year that I learned of her death and visited her mother and sisters one morning in the same home where I had previously visited with Nyaela. In the afternoon, I went to Nyaela’s grave just outside of the walls of the old city. In ancient understandings of Islam, those buried there are to be among the first resurrected in the last days. In contemporary Palestinian life Nyaela was designated a martyr, her grave sealed with the love of a grateful people.
This Passover I remember Nyaela and all those Palestinians known and unknown to me. As helicopter gunships reign terror on a defenseless people, I remember the faces and cries of a people whose freedom is integral to my own and to that of my people.
Is this the last Passover that I will celebrate? My heart is not in the celebration this year. And it can never be again until freedom for Jews is also freedom for Palestinians.
What do I answer my children when they ask the simple and difficult questions they are commanded to ask as we gather to tell the story of our origins thousands of years ago? That helicopter gun-ships are like the parting of the sea? That Ariel Sharon is like Moses leading us through the difficult times of the desert and rebellion?
I no longer have the answers to their questions. But I will respond as a Jew in the only way possible today. That the Palestinians are part of our story of liberation and until they are free, we are not.
Mr. Marc H. Ellis is University Professor of American and Jewish Studies and Director of the Center for American and Jewish Studies at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.