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Tel Aviv, Passover Eve, 2024

Chag Sameach. Happy holiday.

What is supposed to be one of the most joyous holidays on the Hebrew calendar is anything but. Pesach (Passover), the holiday in which Jews celebrate our redemption from bondage and slavery, our freedom as individuals and as a nation, the exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, is this year a somber occasion. Throughout Israel few are greeting each other with ‘Chag Sameach.’ Most are either qualifying the greeting by adding something along the lines of ‘to the extent possible under the circumstances’ or omitting the greeting altogether. For, on this holiday of freedom, we remember that 133 of us are still held in inhuman conditions by Hamas, the murderous terrorist organization that orchestrated the orgy of slaughter, rape, maiming, and torture on October 7, 2023.

I am back home, in Tel Aviv, to do the Seder with my parents, aunt, brother and his family. And around the Passover table we have five others joining us this year. Five Israelis that we do not know personally at all and that we know so well.

Present in their absence. Celebrating a national redemption and freedom while their own personal freedom is still far from certain.

Pictures of the Bibas family, the father Yarden, the mother Shiri, and their two sons, four-year old Ariel and baby Kfir who celebrated his first birthday as a captive, and of Eden Yerushalmi, a 24 year old young woman kidnapped from the Nova party, are on seats that are around our Passover table. Present in their absence. Celebrating a national redemption and freedom while their own personal freedom is still far from certain.

Last Passover you were free. Now you are in the house of bondage, enduring suffering and affliction far worse than suffered by the ancient Israelites in Egypt.

I imagine Ariel singing the Four Questions that, traditionally, the youngest in the family reads, sings, and asks, and which the rest of the Haggadah that we read is answering. I imagine him starting with the words that every Jew knows so well: “Why is this night different from all other nights?” And as I look into his eyes and the shock of ginger hair that he and baby Kfir have become so famous for, the answer is painfully clear. Last Passover you were free, and you celebrated the bundle of joy that is Kfir. And now? Now you are in the house of bondage, enduring suffering and affliction far worse than suffered by the ancient Israelites in Egypt. Worse yet, for the 133, or at least for those of them not murdered by Hamas either during their capture or in captivity, this night is, in fact, no different from the past 199 nights since that horrible, dark Shabbat of October 7.

This night is, in fact, no different from the past 199 nights since that horrible, dark Shabbat of October 7.

Passover is about redemption, about freedom, about the transformation from slaves to a free people, about triumph in the face of evil and hatred. This Passover night we are reminded, not in some abstract way, but in a very real and painful manner, that “in every generation they tried to kill us.” We prevailed in the past and are still here. We shall overcome this latest challenge too. Yet, once again, the price will be high. It is high already.

It is often quipped that Israel has two Memorial Days coming in close proximity in the Spring: Yom HaZikaron (Memorial Day for Fallen Soldiers and Victims of Terror) to remind us the cost of having a Jewish state, and Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) to remind us the cost of not. Now we have two days coming in rapid succession in the Fall as well: Oct. 6, the day in which the surprise attack of the Yom Kippur War was launched against Israel, and Oct. 7, the day in which Hamas launched its surprise terrorist attack.

The bereaved families for whom the Seder table will never be full again. The families awaiting the return of their kidnapped members, not knowing if they are still alive and what is their physical and mental condition. The families of soldiers and members of the security services who risk their lives so that others can gather around the table in peace. Israelis in general who as individuals and as a nation suffer the on-going trauma of October 7. We are all aware of the price of freedom. For us this is not a happy holiday. It cannot be until the return of the 133, the removal of existential threats at our southern and northern borders, the return to their homes of the tens of thousands of Israelis who had to leave their houses on both ends of this tiny country, and the reinstitution of a sense of safety and security against threats near and far.

We look at the smiling faces of Yarden, Shiri, Ariel, Kfir, and Eden. Our voices break but at the same times are strong as we sing the final prayer of the night “Next Year in Jerusalem.” Amen. See you soon.

About the Author
Professor Oren Gross is the Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Irving Younger Professor of Law at the University of Minnesota Law School and a Senior Research Affiliate at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg, Germany. He is an internationally recognized expert in the areas of international law and national security law.