As millions of Israelis sit around the Passover table, they should reflect on how far they have come from the values and moral principles they automatically mouth from the Haggadah, and why they continue to recite one particularly abominable sentiment
As a child of the kibbutz I loved Pesach. Decked out in the new clothes the children got on the holiday eve, we’d eagerly await the ceremony in front of the whole kibbutz, when each of us sang out in turn one of the Kushiot — the Four Questions.
Years later, when I was a student in the US, I and other Israeli students on campus (in Chicago and Salt Lake City) used to hold a jolly seder, organized and prepared together. It was a chance to get together, sing nostalgic Israeli songs and feel a little less homesick. As an adult in Israel, however, I found myself feeling increasingly less comfortable with this holiday, the ultimate ritual family meal and ceremonial package.
How did my favorite holiday turn into something sinister? Is it the air of rising tension and anxiety as the holiday looms? The frenzy of gift shopping and food hoarding that suggests a 7-year famine rather than a 7-day holiday is about to sweep the land? Cordoning off entire sections of supermarkets and grocery stores days before the big day and through the holiday, as if putting a source of some deadly plague in quarantine? This is especially absurd as in recent years freshly baked goods have been widely available in cafes and restaurants, at least in Tel Aviv.
But these are all trivial matters. It was something else. When, on occasion, I happened to be in London, Dublin, or Paris in the weeks ahead of Christmas, I was struck by the decked-out glittering streets and shops, the joyous atmosphere, the carol singing, even in the airports! That’s what a holiday should be like, filled with joy and goodwill. I’ve celebrated holidays with non-Jewish families, including Christmas at the home of a very senior Mormon bishop, and encountered nothing but genuine warmth and holiday cheer. No reference was made in any of the prayers or rites to “the Jews” or any other faiths or nations, except to wish peace to all on earth.
By contrast, our own holidays don’t seem complete without boasting about how we managed to “stick it” to some other nation. Indeed, they’re based on it. And always with that aftertaste of sourness and resentment or even vengeance. I learned that once someone close to you is the butt of this gloating, it is no longer possible to recite like a meaningless mantra. Take “pour your wrath on the goyim.” While I was single, I gritted my teeth and bore it. But after I married a non-Jewish European, it became intolerable, leading me and my spouse to avoid many Passover seders and also to question the whole Haggadah ritual. What justification can there be for “pour your wrath,” especially after the savagery our own people have suffered in the centuries since the Haggadah first doomed Amalek?
Cries for divine vengeance could perhaps be justified in a small weak community wandering in the desert, or under enemy siege, in a harsh world thousands of years ago. But today, when we are the strongest power in the region and have assumed the role of neighborhood bully?
It’s particularly egregious in an Israel aspiring to be seen as a liberal, tolerant democracy. Let us rather remember that we owe our very existence and prosperity to many nations full of those goyim. Isn’t it time to expunge that phrase, for a start? There’s not much logic in complaining about anti-Semitism when hatred of those who aren’t us is built into our most important holiday liturgy.
Even worse is the sheer hypocrisy embedded in our conduct. Year after year, millions of families mouth the words of our release “from bondage to freedom,” completely ignoring the bondage of occupation and oppression that we have been imposing on another nation for more than 50 years.
In the kibbutzim, the Haggadah was often rewritten to include seasonal and Zionist motifs, making reference to the rural lifestyle of each kibbutz or the recent history of the state’s founding and development. But the “official” Haggadah used everywhere else has not been changed for generations.
“More than any other Jewish text, the Haggadah forms the Jewish conscious – or, rather, unconscious – mind today, as in the past, influencing our collective behavior and Israeli national policy,” writer, politician and founder of the Gush peace movement, Uri Avnery, wrote in Counterpunch, in April 2012.
Few families encourage their children to question the Haggadah or explain to them that it does not actually reflect reality, archeology or history. This indoctrination has paved the way for all kinds of brutal conduct perpetrated against what is seen as “the other,” the goyim worthy only of wrath. Is it any wonder that fundamentalist settler gangs can attack Palestinians and peace activists, almost with impunity while Palestinian protesters against the occupation face a different experience at the hands of police and military? The soldier who shot dead a Palestinian assailant on March 24, 2016 in Hebron, after the latter had been shot and was lying bleeding on the ground, immobilized, is an example of our brutalization. To make things worse, the act was supported not only by parts of the public, but by politicians and public figures!
So when millions of Israeli children ask on Pesach eve why this night is different from all other nights, their parents should tell them that following last week’s election victory of a coalition intent on perpetuating the occupation and denying minority and human rights — Israel has deteriorated even further from the democracy it claims to be.
Surely it is time to take another critical look at the Haggadah and acknowledge that it is not just some harmless archaic text to stumble and mumble through before getting to the good stuff – the food.