We have a lot in common, you and I. I too am a Jew of Eastern European origin. Passover is also one of the most important holidays in the Jewish calendar for me and my family, and if my family weren’t a twelve hour flight away, I too would be with them on this holiday. I also spend a lot of time at the Usdan Student Center.
Unlike you, however, I was the student who made and hung the banner (with the help of a couple of friends) that you cut down this week. Because you didn’t tell your readership what the sign actually said, here it is: “Passover means liberation for all; Oppose Israeli apartheid”. You described this as a “statement about the hypocrisy of celebrating Passover when there is an ‘apartheid’ occurring in Palestine.” This is an interesting interpretation of the message, but I think it is rather misguided. Please allow me to explain why by elaborating on my own interpretation of Passover, as I am well aware that my statement was rather widely misunderstood.
First of all, for the sake of those that are not familiar with the holiday, Passover celebrates the story in the Torah in which the Israelites, from whom Jews are descended, are liberated from 400 years of slavery in Egypt. It is a celebration of freedom, which is a state of being, but it is also a celebration of liberation, which is an ongoing process. Jews are commanded by tradition, if not by actual religious text, to ceremonially recount the story every year and examine the ways in which they themselves are still (metaphorically) slaves in Egypt, but also to examine the ways in which they have become the slave drivers. It is a holiday to recognize and celebrate our freedom, and to reaffirm our commitment to our further liberation.
The Jewish concept of Tikkun Olam means to make the world a better place and is rooted in an understanding of the unity and interconnectedness of the world. Our true liberation will come only when the entire world is free. While some Jews may not agree with the idea of universal liberation, I beg you, first with my banner and now with my words, to take the time to seriously reflect on whether freedom is true freedom if it is the privilege of the few.
Passover is often celebrated in a hypocritical way. One tradition is to end a Passover Seder (a Seder is a ceremonial dinner at which Passover is celebrated) with the affirmation “next year in Jerusalem”. For more than a thousand years, between the expulsion of Jews from Palestine and the birth of Political Zionism in the 19th century, this was read metaphorically. Jerusalem meant freedom. It was a literary device used to express the desire embedded deep in the Jewish psyche that each year we be freer than the last. Since the birth of Political Zionism, for some this has taken on a new meaning: a call for more Jews to move to Jerusalem each year. This desire represents a political movement that is sure to decrease the likelihood for peace and further emancipation of humanity from the bonds of colonialism.
Regarding your actions, I must say that while I feel rather attacked, it’s not such a huge deal. You have already recognized that what you did was an overreaction, and I appreciate that retrospective self-awareness. However, I would like to offer my own interpretation of the events. You suggested in your writing that you felt that the banner made Usdan an unsafe space for Jews. I think that by forcibly silencing a voice trying to express political and spiritual beliefs, you made Usdan a less safe space for everybody. Freedom of political expression must be respected. In the words of a very smart friend of mine, a safe space is not a mute one.
Passover celebrated as a commemoration of emancipation is a beautiful, liberatory holiday. But if Passover is merely consumed, with no time taken for reflection on the overall state of humanity and how our action or lack of action affects it, the holiday has the potential to become an empty shell, a ritual for patting ourselves on the back for our own freedoms, our own privileges.
These are harsh words. I recognize the struggle of many of the Jews on this campus who grew up in conservative zionist households and are now grappling with being exposed to ideas that suggest that the matter is not so simple. By posting the banner I was not condemning anybody for the way in which they celebrate their religious tradition. I was merely suggesting a broader interpretation of the holiday than the one that rejects the rights of non-Jews to live peaceful, happy lives.