At a West Bank seder, Jews commemorate a modern quest for freedom
For Jews living in the West Bank, a Passover seder is an opportunity to discuss how one of history's most famous liberation stories can apply to freedom struggles today.
Ramallah, West Bank — The seder plate on the table is traditional – matzah, sweet charoset, a simple hard-boiled egg – but its location in an apartment in the de facto West Bank capital is not.
As Jews around the world gathered to celebrate Passover, a holiday commemorating the ancient Hebrews' liberation from enslavement in the land of Egypt, a small group have joined together in the Palestinian city of Ramallah. Here the seder, or Passover meal, is being done a bit differently.
Eight Jews and Palestinians have gathered to read from several alternative Haggadahs – the ritual text read during the meal – which emphasize the need for equality and liberation for all people. In addition to the standard symbolic fare on the seder plate is an orange to represent gender equality and olives to show solidarity with Palestinians.
“The main message of Passover is that we, as Jews, are free,” says a Jewish Canadian who asked to be called Josh because his Israeli work visa does not allow him to live in Ramallah. “It’s taking this message of freedom, which is the main theme of the seder – freedom from slavery of the Israelites in Egypt – and applying that freedom story to other people.”
At the meal, Josh reads from an alternative Haggadah: “For slavery to be truly over – for a people to be truly free – we must know we can feed ourselves and our children today, tomorrow and into future generations. In Palestine, olive groves provide that security."
Palestinian olive trees are sometimes scorched by Israeli settlers or bulldozed by the Israeli army.
“When olive groves are destroyed, the past and future is destroyed,” Josh continues. “We eat an olive to make real our understanding of what it means each time a bulldozer ploughs up a grove. Without the taste of olives, there will be no taste of freedom.”
Josh says he learned his support for Israel alongside Jewish culture and religious practice. By the time he was in high school, his backing was so staunch that he asked his cousin, who had immigrated to Israel, to send him an Israeli flag. He hung it in his family's living room – a symbol of his connection to a country he had never visited.
After graduating from high school, Josh began reading critical literature on conflicts in Latin America and decided he should seek an alternative perspective on Israel. At the same time he signed up for a popular, free 10-day trip to Israel with a program called Birthright.
He says that as he traveled around Israel with a group of other young Canadian Jews, he read about what he wasn't being shown. He began seeing parallels between the struggles of indigenous movements like the Zapatistas in Mexico and Palestinians.
"I came back really confused. I had a lot questions," says Josh. Eventually, he says his ability to defend Israel diminished.
He now lives in Ramallah, where he is working on a research project that studies the effects the Israeli military occupation has on the health and well-being of Palestinians.
For most Jews, the idea of visiting the Palestinians territories seems dangerous, or at least unnecessary. But Josh is not entirely alone. At least 20 foreign Jews live in or work in the West Bank. The numbers fluctuate throughout the year, with some just volunteering or studying over the summer and others living for years at time.
The International Solidarity Movement (ISM), one of the most active and hardline pro-Palestinian groups, also attracts large number of Jewish volunteers who make a temporary home in the west Bank while volunteering. ISM was founded by two Palestinians, an Israeli, and an American Jew named Adam Shapiro, who was recently denied entry to Israel because he has a 10-year ban on entering the country after being arrested in the West Bank during a previous visit.
“There have always been Jewish people in the organization,” says Aaron Gregory, a British-South African who volunteers with ISM. “Compared to 30 years ago, young people’s ability to feel a connection with Israel is less, when every couple of days they see Israel’s bad behavior in the occupied [Palestinian] territories.”
Gregory says in the last month alone there have been at least six Jewish volunteers. The organization has a high turnover rate and the percentage of Jewish volunteers fluctuates.
'A light unto the nations'
Gregory says that while not all Jewish volunteers are open about their religious background, those who are have been welcomed by the Palestinian communities they work in.
Alana Alpert, now a rabbinical student in Boston, came to the West Bank to volunteer with Palestinian farmers last year. She grew up in a conservative Jewish family in California's San Fernando Valley. Both her parents are Jewish educators. She describes her family members as “active and committed” – not just to their faith, but also in their support for Israel.
But when she went to college at the University of California in Santa Cruz, she started what she calls her “unlearning process.” Most of her fellow organizers in workers' rights, racial justice, and environmental movements had starkly different views on Israel.
“I thought there was a blind spot,” says Alpert, “But then I started to think maybe I had the blind spot.”
A number of encounters with activists and Palestinians over the next few years drastically changed they way she saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She remembers the first time she experienced tear gas, fired by Israeli soldiers at protesters in the West Bank village.
“We were supposed to be a light unto the nations. Jews weren’t capable of doing the same kind of things that other people do. And I remember that feeling coming back very strongly [...] My eyes were burning. It was so painful,” recalls Albert. “And I just kept thinking, ‘nice Jewish boys wouldn’t do this’."
Josh, who regularly hosts other foreign Jews in his Ramallah home so that he can show them another side of this conflict, says the problem is most Jews abroad lack knowledge and understanding of life in the West Bank and Gaza. Their perspective quickly changes when they see the reality on the ground.
“I’m a proud Jew, but I don’t think that being proud Jews has anything to do with supporting Israel,” says Josh, explaining that he feels like Jews and Jewish organizations who criticize Israel are ostracized.
“In the mainstream Jewish community now in North America, you don’t have to really believe in God or go to synagogue, but you do have to support Israel, or you’re out.”