As Jews around the world lock up their leavened bread and Jews in the Israeli army lock down the West Bank, I take far too long to pack a small bag for my annual trip to Cleveland to celebrate Passover. Come Tuesday night I’ll be surrounded by dozens of people who share my blood and my heritage, people I’ve been waiting all year to see.
But instead of packing to the memory of their voices rising above the our seder table in “Oyf’n Pripetshok,” a family favorite from the “old country” of Bialystok, the deadened refrain that repeats in my head chants “Next year in Jerusalem.” In the wake of Israel’s recent announcement of further settlement expansions in East Jerusalem, ever-increasing violence against Palestinians, and the still-echoing war cries of Netanyahu and so many others at this month’s AIPAC conference, “Next year in Jerusalem” sounds more and more like a threat.
Here in New Orleans, some friends are preparing for a vegan liberation seder, where each participant is asked to bring a reading to contribute to the evening’s envisioning of liberation. I spent a sunny Sunday afternoon strolling with an anti-Zionist friend who’s struggling to select an appropriate reading for the seder, which sometimes includes “Israeli Salad” (known to most as Palestinian tabbouleh) and rememberings of delicious meals shared on “Birthright” trips to Israel.
My friend would prefer to share a reading that fits into her anti-Zionist analysis, but is concerned about potentially challenging the “safe space” this seder is designed to create. We talk about the privilege of safe spaces, and whose safety is protected in them, as we dodge parading Mardi Gras Indians, groups of Black New Orleanians who dress in elaborate beaded and feathered costumes to commemorate the Native Americans who offered their ancestors safe spaces as they fled slavery.
The Mardi Gras Indians, like so many in New Orleans’ Black population, have their own stories to tell about displacement, and the state-sanctioned public housing demolitions and police violence that bring a piece of Palestine to New Orleans.
When I arrive at my family’s seder, there will be no talk of safe spaces. We claim to set our political differences aside as we sit down to remember the story of Passover, but in a family where many members are strong AIPAC supporters and some travel to Israel on an annual basis, “setting our political differences aside” means embracing an increasingly ethnocentric status quo.
There is no discussion when an elder within the family feels compelled to make a statement in support of the state of Israel, or to lead us all in Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. We all know the words from our many years of Hebrew school, but a few of us bite our lips instead of singing along. And as the evening wears on, we silent dissenters curl into corners to share news about the latest violence committed against Palestinians in our name, and what we’re doing to confront that violence.
But these conversations never happen around the seder table, a place reserved only for remembering our exodus from Egypt and, thousands of years later, from Bialystok. On Passover, the theme of displacement never expands to include Palestinians.
As I prepare for my Cleveland homecoming, scores of Palestinians from New Orleans’ own West Bank of the Mississippi river plan their annual summer homecoming to the other West Bank, where they’ll join their families in Silwan and a handful of other villages near Jerusalem and Ramallah. Their family reunions are always marked by the latest evictions and settlement expansions, and by the maze created by Israel’s apartheid wall.
I wonder about the spaces where these Palestinians feel safe. If my non- and anti-Zionist cousins and I carried our conversation to the seder table, the discomfort of our relatives wouldn’t begin to approach the torture that Palestinians face at Ben Gurion International Airport, and at the checkpoints that mar the landscape of their ever-shrinking homeland. Yet we dissenting few will swallow our truths along with our second or third glass of wine on Tuesday for fear of offending our elders, even though it is they who imbued us with a morality that turns our Manischewitz to mud as we anticipate those final words that will send us all back out into the diaspora: “Next year in Jerusalem.”
I’m beginning to believe that, in addition to failing in our obligation to support Palestinians in their struggle for self-determination, we do our Jewish communities a disservice when we allow Zionism to consume our family traditions. On March 16th, the seventh anniversary of the murder by bulldozer of Palestine solidarity activist Rachel Corrie, I attended an event called “Doing Business in Israel and the Middle East,” hosted by the Louisiana Department of Commerce and New Orleans’ World Trade Center.
During the question-and-answer period that followed the presentation, I asked if the presenters (from the Israeli company Atid EDI Ltd.) were warning small businesses of the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions campaign against Israel, and the potential ramifications the campaign could have on their businesses. Following the Q and A a livid representative of the World Trade Center approached me, hell-bent on drawing me into an argument.
When the word “settlement” slipped from my lips he flew into a rage,shouting “Jerusalem is not a settlement! Jerusalem is the eternal undivided capital of the Jewish people!” A roomful of New Orleans-area business owners turned to stare in shock at his outburst. Of course, his exclamation is at the core of “Next year in Jerusalem,” and lately variations of his outburst have appeared in The Washington Post and on National Public Radio, among other places, as Jewish journalists and businessmen forget their occupation and revert to a visceral response to the US’ growing condemnation of the aggressive state-sanctioned settler movement in Jerusalem.
As the WTC rep stood in front of me, red in the face and shaking, I was overwhelmed with a deep sadness for him and for the many others I’ve heard utter this phrase in the past few weeks alone. I wish his engagement with non- and anti-Zionist Jews didn’t begin with a confrontation at a corporate event, but instead could start with a conversation about liberation, for all people, around a seder table in a safe space.
For most of my life, I haven’t even thought about Jewish spaces that might feel safe to me. I just assumed that something inside of me was not Jewish, or was far less Jewish than my peers in Hebrew school and confirmation class. I never had Jewish friends, and saw my engagement with Judaism as purely familial: I could find no spiritual home in synagogues where rabbis railed against the terrorist Palestinian population threatening “our homeland.”
But in recent years, as I’ve become more vocal about my differences with Zionism, I’ve come across a large and growing number of Jews in my local and global community who are struggling with the same questions I am. These Jews can’t reconcile our history of oppression and resistance with the oppression of Palestinians that many in their families and communities support, and they’re actively seeking opportunities to tease out these questions together, as a community of Jews.
We’re anxious to reclaim a dynamic history and heritage that’s been hijacked by the Zionist movement, and with each Israeli incursion our numbers grow. This June, Jews from across the country will convene in Detroit for the first-ever US Assembly of Jews: Confronting Racism & Israeli Apartheid. The Assembly will offer thousands of Jews the opportunity to learn about each others’ work, and to think together about how we can be effective allies in the Palestinian struggle for liberation and self-determination.
While the Assembly’s focus is very much on supporting the broader Palestine solidarity movement, part of the still-developing program is dedicated to sharing strategies for broaching these difficult subjects with our families and our Zionist Jewish communities. As I prepare my body for a week without leavened bread and an evening without discussion of the kind of liberation I envision, I look to the Assembly as the nourishment at the end of a long fast.
Like many non- and anti-Zionist Jews struggling to pack their bags for this year’s Passover trip, I’m not really sure how to prepare for Tuesday’s seder, which coincides with Land Day, an annual commemoration of the death of six Palestinians and the injury and arrest of hundreds of others who stood up to Israeli appropriation of their land in 1976.
But I intend to take on the task of beginning this broader family dialogue now, and not next year, as I always promise myself. I intend to lovingly challenge my elders to apply the morality they’ve taught me to all people, including Palestinians. And, buoyed by the support of so many Jews facing the same hard conversations I am this week, I’m starting to think that saying No to “Next year in Jerusalem” might not be as hard as I think.
Emily Ratner is an organizer and mediamaker based in New Orleans. She is a member of New Orleans Palestine Solidarity (NOLAPS) and the International Jewish anti-Zionist Network (IJAN). In June she traveled to Gaza with a New Orleans delegation, and in December she joined the Gaza Freedom March. She can be reached at: [email protected] or at her website, http://publikemily.blogspot.com.