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Monday, April 21, 2008

Passing over Passover

As an "assimilated", secular Jew who grew up in Los Angeles, I skipped Passover this year--just as I do nearly every year. In fact, I had to be reminded when it came and went this past weekend. I am teaching in Boston at the moment, and enjoying the hospitality of my aunt who lives here, but she was not the slightest bit interested in organizing a seder. One of my cousins came by yesterday evening, and he had done nothing to mark the occasion either. He did inform us, however, that his older brother and his wife had gone to celebrate Passover at a local country club. I immediately volunteered the possible significance of this: When the Jews were leaving Egypt, they were in such a rush that they forgot their golf clubs, and the country club seder was meant to commemorate their suffering. My cousin and my aunt thought this was funny, although I will bet some readers of this blog might not--but then who can tell a Jewish joke better than a Jew, and who has a better right to tell it?

This brings me to an interesting story in the New York Times last Friday by Ethan Bronner, datelined Jerusalem (registration on the Times site required.) Apparently there has been a hot debate over a judge's decision overturning the conviction of four shops and restaurants for selling pizzas and rolls during Passover last year. What's wrong with that? Well, Israeli law bans the sale of such leavened items, called hametz, during Passover. As most of you probably know, the Bible relates that when the Jews left Egypt they didn't leave their golf clubs behind but rather they didn't have enough time to allow their bread to rise (or, perhaps, they left the leavening behind, I have never been clear on that and don't have a Bible to hand to check it.) Of course, they ended up wandering in the desert for 40 years, so eventually they must have found bread, or leavening, or both (perhaps someone who knows the details can provide a comment.)

At any rate, this court decision was controversial, as the Times article points out, because "it speaks to a palpable anxiety over the need to define and defend the Jewish nature of the state..." The article cites Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and others to the effect that since the Palestinians "and their supporters" rejected defining Israel as a Jewish state, "it was more important than ever to do so." In other words, the anti-hametz law, while a relatively minor matter in and of itself, is nevertheless important because as Livni put it "this prohibition is part of the substantive question of how we wish to characterize our identity in the national home for the Jewish people."

Bronner quotes another supporter of the law, Sharona Mazalian (a "conservative" legislator) as follows: "The further we allow ourselves to go from Jewish tradition, the easier it will be for those who reject our legitimacy as a Jewish state... the less Jewish we are the easier it will be for others to say, 'Why not just be a democratic state for Jews and Arabs to live together?'"

My answer to that is: Yes, why not? Does the survival of the Jewish people and Jewish traditions require a "Jewish state"? I am very mindful, of course, of the historical background in which Israel was created, and European Jews could not be blamed for seeking refuge from a continent in which murderous anti-semitism was the rule rather than the exception (talking here about Nazi or fascist movements in nearly every European country, although many, many Jews preferred instead to come to the United States or stay in Europe.) But Jews have done very well, thank you, as a small minority in the United States, and it is hard to imagine that they could not also do very well as a majority within the 1967 borders of Israel. Let me take this further: According to what principle can we justify a Jewish state? Many of those who bristle at the idea that the United States is or should be a "Christian" nation, or who feel nothing but contempt for the notion of an "Islamic republic," seem to have no problem with the notion that a state should be organized around the identity of a particular religious or ethnic group; moreover, many seem to suffer only mild embarrassment that it should be organized around the religious views of one particular segment of its society, namely that of the orthodox rabbinate which tries to enforce religious laws and prevents Jews and Arabs from marrying (Jews can't marry Christians either.)

In essence, in the case of Israel, we have carved out an exception to the principle that all citizens of a state should be equal in the eyes of the law and the values of society. And, as many commentators much wiser than I have pointed out--many of them speaking from inside Israel itself--the Israelis are fighting a losing "demographic" battle to keep themselves ethnically pure, by walling out the Palestinians, keeping them subjugated, and taking over their land.

Not so long ago it was difficult to say such things. Yet it is getting easier all the time. Some American Jews, in particular, want to forget what we all talked about openly when I was growing up Jewish in Los Angeles: We had a right to all the land, and we intended to take it away from the Palestinians. Yes, when I was in Hebrew school, when I was attending my (roughly 50% Jewish) high school in the San Fernando Valley, we made no bones about it--because back then the Palestinians were entirely powerless and no one cared about them. Today, only a minority of Jews dare express such ideas openly; and to be fair, the history of the last 40 years has taught most Jews that this is an unrealistic goal.

Many of us, out of those early experiences, went on to become politically active in the 1960s, to become internationalists, indeed to formulate a new kind of Judaism that was socially aware and sought justice for all peoples. We put aside the tribalism that made us uncritical supporters of Israel, even if we tried to preserve Jewish customs and traditions, or even just Jewish food (the bagel being one of our greatest legacies to humankind.) Indeed, this is the choice for Jews today, in Israel or in the "diaspora": Internationalism vs tribalism. We can't have it both ways, and sooner or later, history won't let us.

1 comment:

Anne Gilbert said...

About Jews, "internationalism", and your experiences growing up, and now. I feel I must comment. I am not, myself, Jewish. Never have been, probably never will be. But OTOH, it seems like I've always, practically from the Year One, so to speak, had Jewish friends, classmates, acquaintances, some of whom I quite like. And just two days ago, I went to bear witness to scattering the ashes of a woman I knew, who happened to be an artist, and a totally secular Jew, who had died of more or less galloping cancer, just before Passover. She was very hostile, for reasons I don't entirely understand, to what she considered "antiquated" Jewish tradition. Her only son was taking all of this very, very hard, because he had become more immersed in these Jewish traditions his mother had so brutally rejected. To be fair, he is not rigid about these things; he's not one of these people who goes "Orthodox" from "nothing". So after the scattering of the ashes, everybody who was invited, went to his and his wife and son's(and cat's) home to share his memories. And also, to have a seder squeezed in. I'm not sure what they were memorializing during this seder, other than acknowledging that there had been a death, because the prayers were in Hebrew, but it was interesting, because it was kind of half Seder and half mourning. He can't "officially" mourn until Passover is ended(I was wondering how the poor man was going to cope, since his mother had died jsut before Passover, which is supposed to be, as I understand it, both joyous and solemn). And I also found out that he is not a "Zionist": he considers Israel to essentially be a nation just like any other nation, and should be subject to the same kinds of standards. But what I sensed out of all of this, was that there is an interesting and ever-changing "mix" going on among modern Jews in the more "developed" parts of the world, just as is happening everywhere, I suppose. I'm still processing a lot of what I saw and heard, in my own mind, and trying to fit it in with other experiences I've had. I suspect Passover, for Jews, can mean a lot of things, depending on who the person is who is examining it. I've read, for example, that St. Patrick's Day in Dublin, Ireland, is not a particularly "religious" day; it's basically an arts festival(for the record, my ancestry is Irish). But it started out as a religious observance in Ireland. So, I think your dilemma, or whatever it is, is hardly unique. And maybe this is a way for you to process things, too.
Anne G