Josh Fine

Safe Spaces in Dangerous Places

Last night as I put away our Passover dishes and enjoyed some hot, freshly baked pita, I reflected on another holiday that has come and gone while our country is gripped with war. As days turn to months and time marches on, familiar rituals take on new meanings. How do we celebrate freedom when more than 130 innocents are held captive in tunnels and people around the world rally in support of the kidnappers?

With Passover behind us, our thoughts turn to the next round of holidays. We approach Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day) with trepidation, knowing it will be devastatingly painful. And we approach Yom HaAtzmaut (Independence Day) with uncertainty, unclear how to celebrate with so many Israelis buried and so many others whose homecomings we await.

In a world without answers, the rituals of our holiday cycle can provide comfort. They give structure to a year turned upside down. Holidays connect to one another, bridging one year to the next.

The day before Passover, it is traditional to burn your last remnants of chametz (leavened bread). Israeli towns organize central places where people gather around large fires to perform this ritual. Many Israelis bring their lulav, the palm branch used on Sukkot, to burn with their chametz to connect the previous festival with this one. But this year, the previous festival ended with unspeakable horror, and as I watched the lulavim burn it stopped me in my tracks. I recalled a recent visit to Kfar Aza, one of the kibbutzim devastated on October 7. The sukkot there were still standing among the charred houses.

Passover is also connected to Purim, which takes place exactly one month prior.  And I found myself thinking a lot about the themes of Purim and Passover this year. Both Purim and Passover celebrate our freedom as a Jewish people, but in different ways. Purim is about opposites, about reversals of fortune. As the Book of Esther states: “The very day on which the enemies of the Jews expected to subdue them, the opposite happened (ve’nahafoch hu), and the Jews subdued their enemies.”

I’ve felt in many ways things have turned upside down after October 7. Before October 7, I was the parent whose job was to protect my children. After October 7, in an instant, it was my generation being protected, and my children’s generation doing the hard work to protect us.

On October 7, a day that was supposed to be a joyous holiday, Israel was attacked with a level of savagery that the world has witnessed only at its darkest moments of human depravity. And if that wasn’t upside down enough, within days of these unspeakable atrocities, it was Israel that people around the world accused of genocide, not the genocidal terrorists who attacked us.

And so, when Purim came around, I yearned for its message of nahafoch hu, of reversal, of getting things right side up again. A time when red-headed preschoolers could go to gan instead of being held captive somewhere in a tunnel. A time when hospitals are places of healing and not command centers for terrorists. A time when our mamad (safe room) can go back to storing suitcases and boxes and not be stocked with water and food and weapons.

But Purim came and went and life in Israel and in Gaza is still just as grim for everyone. I went to the Nova Festival Site just before Passover to witness the memorials to the hundreds of beautiful young lives snuffed out. And while I was there, I heard sobs around me and bombs across the border a few kilometers away. We are all still crying. Hamas has been weakened but its reign of terror still holds, and all of us in the Holy Land are suffering as a result.

On Purim, we were slated to be killed but we reversed that fate. The “victory” on Pesach, on the other hand, is more ambiguous. The Haggadah is full of contradictions. We open the seder by saying, “now we are enslaved, next year we will be free.” And then just a few minutes later we sing, “we were slaves, now we are free.” We begin by lifting the matzah and saying, “this is the bread of the poor.” But we later explain the matzah as the bread of liberation. We joyously sing Dayenu recounting all the wonderful things G-d did in liberating us, but immediately before that we reduce the wine in our cups to remember that our freedom came at the expense of the suffering of others.

And while the reversal that we yearned for on Purim still has not happened, the ambiguity of the Passover message is all too real. There is vibrant life everywhere in Israel. The restaurants are bustling and the beaches are packed. And at the same time, households are broken. Thousands of evacuees cannot return home. Reservists with their rifles grab a moment with their children before heading back to the front lines. Yellow ribbons and “#BringThemHome” dog tags are ubiquitous.

Israel is a democratic country, and with that freedom inevitably comes disagreement and protests. I count myself among the many Israelis who want new elections so we can restore faith in our government. I do not trust the Prime Minister to act in Israel’s best interest. And I think our country has made some mistakes in its prosecution of this war with tragic consequences for Israelis and Palestinians alike. The devastation in Gaza is unfathomable. And while Hamas is clearly the main culprit for Palestinian suffering and Israel takes pains to minimize civilian casualties, could Israel do more? Most likely. But I hold that anger and distrust alongside immense pride in the bravery of our soldiers and the justness of our cause. So many of us feel deep ambiguity. Avadim hayinu – we were slaves and now we are free. And at the same time, hashata avdei– we are currently enslaved and yearn for true freedom which is yet to come.

It is hard to celebrate holidays while fighting a war. But it is important, for the timelessness of our traditions helps us make sense of the incomprehensible world we find ourselves in. Our holidays are linked to each other to teach us that we need to embrace all of their lessons. For in a world that is only the nahafoch hu of Purim – the black and white reversal of fortune – there is no room for ambiguity, for gray areas. In Purim it was either us or them. There was clear righteousness and wickedness. But our reality is that conflicts aren’t that simple. So, while the war we are fighting could not be more just, there are also ministers in our government who say and do things that cannot be justified.

But we also cannot live in a world that is only the ambiguity and internal contradictions of Passover. For if everything is two-sided then there is no up and down. The black-white, good-bad, us-them paradigm is intensified in our social media echo chambers where algorithms reward stridency and punish nuance. I think that is what is happening on American college campuses. While the ringleaders are clearly driven by antisemitism, many of the students who have joined the protests are well-meaning but see the world only through the Purim lens of reversal. Only in a worldview of a single oppressor and a single oppressed can you arrive at the absurdity of progressive young Americans supporting jihadists, of an encampment purportedly opposed to genocide making common cause with the only combatant that is unequivocally and unabashedly genocidal.

My son is serving in the IDF and my nephew of the same age is studying at an American university. They were talking on the phone while my son was at his base and my nephew complained about the “safe spaces” on his campus where professors shield students from ideas that may challenge them. An army friend overheard half of the conversation and was confused. He translated “safe space” literally, and in Hebrew merchav batuach or merchav mugan refers to the reinforced rooms that protect people from rocket fire.

This illustrates the different worlds these young men are in. It also highlights the danger of a worldview that is too black and white. A culture that sees the world in an unnuanced dichotomy of powerful and powerless, that clamors for boycotts and cancels those with whom they disagree, a culture that tries to create safe spaces to avoid difficult questions and true dialogue, does nothing to advance peace and understanding and contributes to an extremist world where instead we need to build safe spaces to protect ourselves from missiles.

Our challenge is to embrace both paradigms. We must confront the ambiguity of Passover. As Israelis, we must recognize the shortcomings of our leaders and demand accountability. And just as we take wine from our cup to recall the ten plagues, we must remember that innocents in Gaza are suffering as well. But at the same time, we must also hold fast to the nahafoch hu of Purim. Not everything is relative. Not everything is complex. There is unfortunately unadulterated evil in the world and we must be able to recognize it. There is still up and there is still down even though the lines between them may not be straight.

And so, as we continue this hellish year, as another holiday wraps up, and as we approach the coming holidays of Yom HaZikaron and Yom HaAtzmaut, I will steel myself and attend the ceremonies with my fellow Israelis. I will hold on to the structure of the year even though there is madness all around us, and I will hope that by embracing these holidays and learning their lessons, we can make a little more sense of these horrors we are in.

About the Author
Josh Fine develops cabin resorts in mountain and rural areas of the United States. He made aliyah in 2019 from Denver, Colorado. Josh lives in Raanana with his wife and three children. His oldest child currently serves in the IDF. Josh graduated from Harvard University and Harvard Law School and was the president of a Denver-based real estate development company before moving with his family to Israel.