an argument about Passover
by Philip Weiss on March 28, 2010 · 22 comments
As I often mention, many of my friends are in intermarried couples. This
just seems to be the way in my privileged scene; and there is sometimes
among us the sense that we are a tribe, that we share certain values and
cues that inmarried couples with their unadulterated cultures do not have.
The other night my wife and I went to visit such a couple. I was at the
stove with the non-Jewish wife when she and I talked about some mishegos,
which is Yiddish for craziness, in her husband's family, and she said flatly
that Jewish families have a lot of nuttiness in them. I nodded and said, I
think this is one of the reasons I married out, I needed to temper that
nuttiness with another reality.
Later we were sitting in front of the fire when we talked about Passover.
They are going to two seders, I'm just going to one, at my family's. We
spoke about our apprehension about the festival. Mine is all to do with the
Palestinians. It is very hard for me to take any part at all in the
celebration of ancient Jewish liberation when the Jewish church is today
firmly aligned with the Israeli government, which desecrates a Muslim
cemetery and builds separate roadways for Jews in the West Bank. The wife in
the other couple asked whether I would say anything. I said, No, I did so
many years ago and it just upsets people. I will be a good member of the
story-telling, and whisper thanks to Richard Goldstone under my breath, and
maybe go outside to cry out for the people of Gaza who are shot while they
pick through rubble as my ancestors were persecuted in the Warsaw ghetto. So
you might say that the seder lives for me in Palestinian terms.
I said, "It is a great liberation story and that's what I like about the
seder. It belongs to all people."
The friend's wife is sophisticated religiously, she has read widely. She
said firmly, No it is confined to the Jewish people. There is the sense
throughout the festival that this is What God did for us. There is a sense
of chosenness throughout the seder.
I got upset. I said flatly, she was "wrong." But she persisted, and I was
quiet. I just listened. She quoted some of the liturgical stuff in the
seder, also the violence directed at Egypt, the ten plagues down to the
slaying of the first born. I bet she knows the seder better than I do.
The next day she sent me an email saying that she took my point, that there
is an interpretive aspect to the seder, and that it can be made to be a
universal teaching. I wrote her back thanking her and also saying that I
agree with her about the selfishness of Jewish life.
This seems to me the issue that I am wrestling with on this site more than
any other, the hard hard selfishness of my people in the generations since
the Holocaust. Norman Mailer said this was Hitler's bitterest achievement,
causing Jews to ask always, Is it good for the Jews? And yes I am sure that
hard selfishness taps on ancient currents inside the small Jewish caravan
that made its way thru history; Michael Walzer said that Jews had a great
political achievement, they had governed themselves through 2000 years
without territory or sovereignty but that we have not done a very good job
of governing others.
And speaking of selfishness, I don't think we know what Enough means. We've
been badly hurt, dispossessed. It explains Madoff and it explains the
failure to be satisfied with 80 percent of a piece of land that the world in
a fit of guiltridden generosity said you could have half of.
This is really the only question for me as a tribal person: what can I do to
help my original community enter the modern global era of respect for
others? Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace has said that the
liberation of the Palestinian people is necessary for the liberation of the
Jews, that Jews cannot be free so long as they are oppressing the
Palestinians. That's a good silent prayer for my seder tomorrow.
We're alive, we have power: to change history, to change our rituals, to
change ourselves. We don't have to throw out all the old songs.
Mr. Obama and Israel
Published: March 26, 2010
After taking office last year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel
privately told many Americans and Europeans that he was committed to and
capable of peacemaking, despite the hard-line positions that he had used to
get elected for a second time. Trust me, he told them. We were skeptical
when we first heard that, and we're even more skeptical now.
All this week, the Obama administration had hoped Mr. Netanyahu would give
it something to work with, a way to resolve the poisonous contretemps over
Jerusalem and to finally restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It would
have been a relief if they had succeeded. Serious negotiations on a
two-state solution are in all their interests. And the challenges the United
States and Israel face - especially Iran's nuclear program - are too great
for the leaders not to have a close working relationship.
But after a cabinet meeting on Friday, Mr. Netanyahu and his right-wing
government still insisted that they would not change their policy of
building homes in the city, including East Jerusalem, which Palestinians
hope to make the capital of an independent state.
President Obama made pursuing a peace deal a priority and has been
understandably furious at Israel's response. He correctly sees the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a factor in wider regional instability.
Mr. Netanyahu's government provoked the controversy two weeks ago when it
disclosed plans for 1,600 new housing units in an ultra-orthodox
neighborhood in East Jerusalem just as Vice President Joseph Biden Jr. was
on a fence-mending visit and Israeli-Palestinian "proximity talks" were to
Last year, Mr. Netanyahu rejected Mr. Obama's call for a freeze on all
settlement building. On Tuesday - just before Mr. Obama hosted Mr. Netanyahu
at the White House - Israeli officials revealed plans to build 20 units in
the Shepherd Hotel compound of East Jerusalem.
Palestinians are justifiably worried that these projects nibble away at the
land available for their future state. The disputes with Israel have made
Mr. Obama look weak and have given Palestinians and Arab leaders an excuse
to walk away from the proximity talks (in which Mr. Obama's Middle East
envoy, George Mitchell, would shuttle between Jerusalem and Ramallah) that
Mr. Obama was right to demand that Mr. Netanyahu repair the damage. Details
of their deliberately low-key White House meeting (no photos, no press, not
even a joint statement afterward) have not been revealed. We hope Israel is
being pressed to at least temporarily halt building in East Jerusalem as a
sign of good faith. Jerusalem's future must be decided in negotiations.
The administration should also insist that proximity talks, once begun,
grapple immediately with core issues like borders and security, not
incidentals. And it must ensure that the talks evolve quickly to direct
negotiations - the only realistic format for an enduring agreement.
Many Israelis find Mr. Obama's willingness to challenge Israel unsettling.
We find it refreshing that he has forced public debate on issues that must
be debated publicly for a peace deal to happen. He must also press
Palestinians and Arab leaders just as forcefully.
Questions from Israeli hard-liners and others about his commitment to
security are misplaced. The question is whether Mr. Netanyahu is able or
willing to lead his country to a peace deal. He grudgingly endorsed the
two-state solution. Does he intend to get there?