This essay previously published in Liberating Your Passover Seder (Ben Yehuda Press, 2021).
When I think about Passover, I remember the cold evenings and late nights of Toronto’s early spring months. I see my family and our friends around a long table in whichever neighborhood home was hosting that year. We were gathering, as we do in every generation, to tell the story of our people finding liberation in becoming a people.
We were there to examine our ideals and ethics through classic parables read throughout the world, and new additions that one of us had decided to include that year. In my memory, the kids would spill swiped wine on the already beaten up Haggadot while the parents were out in the backyard striking a match to begin what they called “The Burning Bush” ceremony before we began the Seder.
I can hear the hysterical laughter echoing in the dining room. I can feel the heaviness of too much gefilte fish and too many deviled eggs. I remember the annual arguments over the meaning of this or that portion of the Exodus story, the off-key singing of our entire clan, and the warmth in that room.
Our celebrations of a hard-won collective freedom weren’t just warm. They were radical, critical, and feminist. Our table always included Miriam’s Cup filled with water and an orange on our Seder plate. There was no ‘Wicked Child’ in our Haggadah. This character was recast as the Rebellious Child. Defiance and independence were celebrated.
Those values were emphasized in our Seder as we marked the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which began on the eve of Passover. We would tell of the revolt and read the final letter written by their leader, Mordecai Anielewicz, a member of the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement, where I grew up too. Sitting around our secular-humanistic table we emphasized the connections between the ancient oppressions that we escaped and celebrated each year, and this more recent example of Jewish resistance, a piece of collective history with a personal connection to our community.
Discussion of self-determination, justice, and equality were common in our home, community, and education. I remember learning how to organize my peers in a letter writing campaign at some point at Cherrywood, the alternative elementary school I went to. I grew up on stories of my parents’ activism, learning about my mom’s high school sweetheart, Andy Goodman, and the racists that killed him when he went down to Mississippi as part of the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964. When I was a kid I remember once asking my mom about some story or another from her hippy days. She looked at me sternly and said, “I was not a hippy. I was a radical.”
My Jewishness and the ongoing work of social change that I take part in are inextricably tied up with one another in my identity, and I am not alone. The idea that culture and community inform and enrich activism and action for a better world is at the core of the idea of the Freedom Seder, and it formed the common tapestry for the group of activists who organized the Freedom Seder in Hebron, in the occupied West Bank, in the spring of 2018.
One of the most important and unique elements of the Freedom Seder in Hebron was that it was organized by Jews and Palestinians together. Palestinian nonviolent activists from Youth Against Settlements and the Hebron Freedom Fund, all living under occupation in Hebron, one of the most violent and stark examples of the reality of the occupation, and Jews – folks from around the world, including Israelis – from All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective.
Though we had been engaged in organizing anti-occupation actions, events and education together for a number of years it’s not a given that this kind of thing could have taken place. Differences in opinion on politics and tactics, as well as fears about how this event might impact one’s image all could have easily stopped this Seder from happening. But none of those things stopped us. Our aim was both to build and strengthen the movement by creating this space together, and to honor the work that has been done so far in the long march to freedom.
The Freedom Seder that we held took place in the heart of the occupation. Youth Against Settlements hosted us at their community center, which sits in the shadow of the Tel Rumeida Settlement. The event brought together more than one hundred people including Palestinians living under occupation, Israeli members of Knesset, Jews from around the world and others in a space surrounded by violence and oppression, with armed soldiers and settlers on all sides.
It’s because of determined nonviolent resistance and organizing that they’ve been able to hold on to that incredible space with an almost unbelievable view of the old city of Hebron, Shuhada Street directly below and off limits to Palestinians, and the Ibrahimi Mosque/Tomb of the Patriarchs in full view, filled with prayer and bloodshed.
Against this backdrop, the Freedom Seder in Hebron happened because of trust and relationships. It happened because of years of joint actions and solidarity work which built trust and deepened the friendships that we were drawing on to create a space where we could share our cultures and traditions, and connect them at their roots to the cause we are all pursuing: Ending the occupation, and freedom for all people. It happened because our relationships were built on the shoulders of the previous relationships that our partners in the struggle from groups like Breaking the Silence and Ta’ayush had built over the years.
The Freedom Seder happened because we had a long history of examples to draw upon that connect who we are and where we come from to what we do in the world. For us, the thread from the first Freedom Seder in Washington DC to the Freedom Seder in Hebron, an ocean away and nearly five decades later, was explicit. This is how we opened the Seder in front of that extraordinary gathering of people from Palestine, Israel, and around the world:
There is a long tradition of Jewish ritual in justice work and members of All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective have built upon that in recent years, even if it isn’t the most common practice in this land. We’ve rooted a number of anti-occupation actions and events in our Jewish traditions - The Global Shabbat Against Demolitions in 2016 drew attention to the threat of home demolitions for villages like Susiya in the South Hebron Hills, Global Sukkot Against Demolitions continued this tradition with its built in themes of shelter and home supporting villages like Al Araqib in the Negev and Khan Al Ahmar in the occupied West Bank, and Purim Against Kahanism exemplified an alternative to supremacy and violence in the streets of Jerusalem.
Passover lends itself especially well to the project of weaving our culture and identities in with our movement work. The ancient story of the exodus from slavery to freedom is not isolated in the past. It informs and inspires our actions here and now. For me, participation in our culture is about examining where we come from, to inform and inspire how we act as individuals and as a collective in the world today. The values of equality, justice and freedom that we read, discuss and sing about around the Seder table are central to the Jewish story, and they are also human values. They have the power to break down the barriers and blur the lines between the particular and the universal, and for a growing number of us, it is impossible to disconnect the violence and dispossession of the occupation from the values that we celebrate every spring.
In Hebron, the aim was to connect the culture and ritual of Passover to the ongoing struggle to end the occupation and to build equality, but it wasn’t an easy process. Anyone who has ever engaged in a process of building a Jewish event in a collective way knows that each of organizers brings their histories and norms and readings to the table. Now imagine engaging in that creative process with folks who primarily know annual Jewish celebrations in Hebron as the times when their freedom of movement is restricted even more than the usual that the Israeli military dictatorship they live under allows. Connecting along those fragile lines required listening deeply, deconstructing ideas and traditions that we come from, and rebuilding them in this context.
At the outset of the evening the lead Palestinian organizer from Youth Against Settlements ensured that everyone understood where we were. He reminded us that even though we were all sitting together in the same plastic chairs, eating the same chicken, rice, and vegetables, and reading the Haggadah that we compiled and wrote in Arabic, Hebrew and English in turns, equality, justice, and freedom are not realities for him or any of the other Palestinians there that evening. His opening ended with a reminder that none of us are free until all of us are.
We read poetry by Mahmoud Darwish and Marge Piercy and we centered the biblical civil disobedience of the midwives Shifra and Puah who saved Moses’ life at a time when the Pharaoh’s hate and violence became policy, and we recognized that the resistance that would come later was only possible because of their bravery. We worked together to face the violence all around us and the half century of occupation in the ritual we built, as we created space for Jewish and Palestinian life and stories to merge in order to hold up multiple voices in one space. One example can be seen in our version of The Four Questions:
The Hebron Freedom Seder was possible because we came together, as our whole selves, in defiance of the occupation. It was possible because we are part of a larger movement, which is built on courageous friendships and the core value that we are all equal. That particular evening was possible, in large part, because of the deep understanding that our traditions, rituals, and cultures are alive, and ours to shape and employ in creating a world that reflects the values that we celebrate every year. We did exactly that in our Freedom Seder in Hebron, defying the powers that be in that place by creating, for an evening, a world in which a community built on friendship, trust, and a commitment to the equality of all human beings was present, active, and alive.
You can download the Arabic, Hebrew, and English versions of the Haggadah text that was created for the Freedom Seder in Hebron.