Robert Cohen stands in front of the Seperation Wall in 2011. Credit: Robert Cohen

It was at a family Seder night a few years ago that I first felt that celebrating the Jewish festival of Passover was becoming an impossibility for me. This was a pity since Passover is easily my favorite Jewish festival and indeed the one most observed in Jewish homes around the world. But there I sat, thinking that I really can’t keep doing it this way year after year.

As happens in most Jewish families, three generations were gathered around the table to tell the story of our miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt more than three thousand years ago. Our service book, the Haggadah, was the standard liturgy which has hardly changed since medieval times. As always, we followed the rituals of this ‘feast of freedom’ with appropriate rigor, including the dipping of bitter herbs in salt water to recall the tears of oppression our people suffered under Pharaoh. As ever, we recounted the plagues sent by God to persuade Pharaoh to ‘Let my people go’ and recalled how in every generation new Pharaohs have arisen to bring us torment.

It is, of course, a terrific story and the founding mythology of the Jewish people. The Exodus has also given the world the quintessential expression of hope in a better future and the eternal promise of the possibility of freedom from oppression of all kinds. ‘Egypt’ itself becomes a metaphor for being constricted. The Hebrew word for Egypt ‘Mitzrayim’ is also translated as ‘the narrow place’.

So what was my big problem with all of this?

Well, in a word – Palestine.

I’d always been on the liberal end of the Zionist spectrum but the more I read about the history of this 100 year conflict between Zionists and the indigenous Arab population, the more I had come to realize that we had become the ‘oppressors’, we were now the Pharaoh for another people. Once my enlightenment on the Palestinian narrative was ‘out of the box’ it was impossible to put it back in. And how could we celebrate Passover without making any mention of this?

Political grafitti by British street artist Banksy on the Separation Wall. Credit: Robert Cohen

These days I use my own Haggadah, one that both acknowledges Jewish tradition and recognizes that it is possible for the victim to become the victimizer. The poem below is an attempt to express the moral question that now surrounds and profoundly challenges our annual commemoration of the Exodus:

On the Impossibility of Passover
‘On Passover we celebrate as if we ourselves have been set free’

On my journey
To the Promised Land
My feet have become entangled
In the roots of upturned trees

Across the Jordan
I see homes turned to rubble
By the strong hand and the outstretched arm
Blocking the path to righteousness

Deliverance is held up at the checkpoint
Freedom chooses hunger
To make its case

And what is there left to celebrate
With timbrels and dancing?

I ask my questions
Eat bitter herbs
And count the plagues that we have sent

Cleansed
Refugeed
Absenteed
Unrecognised
Occupied
Besieged
Walled
Segregated
Sewaged over
Passed over

Grafitti on the Separation Wall in the West Bank. Credit: Robert Cohen

We have melted our inheritance
To cast a new desert idol
And the words from Sinai
Are crushed beneath its hooves

There is no Moses to climb the mountain a third time
Elijah is detained indefinitely
The mission is lost
Freedom is drowned
And the angels gather to weep

It is the first night of the Feast of Freedom
I open the Haggadah
Place olives on the Seder plate
And confront the impossibility of Passover

This year in Mitzrayim
This year in the narrow place

This poem originally appeared on the author’s blog, Micah’s Paradigm Shift.


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