Dear Abigail,

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.

  • k.d. lang’s mangina

    “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.”

    Bingo. Well said. Thank you.

  • come on

    so where is your authority in saying all of this?! You “recognize the struggle of many Jews on this campus….”? You’re “merely suggesting…”? I don’t think the banner had the connotation of being “mere”. How condescending. Check your authority, brah.

    • Author

      I don’t claim to have any authority beyond expressing my own interpretation of a holiday and a tradition, brah.

  • hmm

    This is very eloquent and I appreciate the sentiment behind the banner 100%. I agree with most of your points, and liberation for all should absolutely be the end goal. However, I took issue with your statement that what is going on in Israel right now is an “apartheid.” Comparing the situation in Israel to what happened in South Africa is incredibly harmful and disrespects the systemic suffering and violence that went on there. I’m genuinely curious- do you think what is happening in Israel is honestly comparable to the South African apartheid? I think the two situations are actually quite different.

    • Worsethanapartheid

      In many ways, the situation in Israel and the occupied territories is far worse than apartheid, this is even agreed upon by many prominent former anti-apartheid leaders from South Africa like Archbishop Desmond Tutu. For more information on the similarities between South African and Israeli apartheid I suggest viewing the introductory documentary Roadmap To Apartheid, here is a link to watch it for free:

  • Another Eastern European Jew.

    Ben, I entirely agree with your argument that Israel is an extremely dangerous place non-Jews, but you fail to recognize the damage done to your own argument by your use of extremism. By outright attacking Israel as an apartheid state, you immediately alienate all people who might be offended by either the vicious condemnation of Israel or by its direct linkage to the South African Apartheid. You could convince so many more people of your sound notion of inequality in Israel. I really want to support you, but I can’t support a movement which essentially calls me and my family from Israel racist oppressors of an entire religion. We all strongly oppose King Bibi, so I fail to see how their residency makes us just as bad as Netanyahu. Please, for your sake and for the sake of your fantastic message, learn how to convince people rather than alienate them.

    • Ben

      I debated very hard with myself of the language to use in this piece. I knew that my audience might be alienated by the word apartheid, and that it might lessen the effect of my writing, but that was a better scenario than softening my depiction of the situation so as not to offend people. I firmly believe that Israel’s system of segregation based on ethnicity is akin to and worse than South African Apartheid, and deserves to be labeled as such.

      However I want to draw a distinction between the use of the word “apartheid”, and placing the blame on every Israeli individual. Some Israelis have devoted their lives and given up any chance they have of success in their own country in order to condemn the occupation and oppression of Palestinians. However I do think that it is important for all of us to recognize and take issue with the ways in which the place that we are from makes us oppressors. I didn’t have a choice to be an American Jew, but the fact that I am one means that I have a responsibility to be as loud as the people who are saying that the occupation is in my name, and scream right back at them that it is not.

      • Another Eastern European Jew

        This is exactly what I wish you showed in the original article! Thanks for clarifying your stance! I think that the difference between softening your depiction and explaining your depiction are very important. Good luck in your movement going forward!

    • anon

      the vicious condemnation of Israel is not quite as vicious as the mass killings and oppression of Palestinian civilians, not even close.

      how about the people of Israel learn to not support the oppressive crimes of your government?

      • Another Eastern European Jew

        In case you decided not to fully read my comment, I pointed out that my relatives oppose the Israeli government. So when you say that the people of Israel need to “learn to not support the oppressive crimes of their government”, you clearly are generalizing the Israeli people. How about you learn not to assume that all Israelis support the oppressive government.

      • anon

        The citizens of Israel elect their government! choosing people that commit heinous crimes. So yes when the majority of a population supports the oppressive regime, it is perfectly apt to say that the people of Israel supports their oppressive government. When the statement is based on actual facts representing the actions of the majority, in this case electing their officials, that is not a generalization.

        I find it quite frightening that certain people like yourself become indignant at the mention of Israel’s war crimes while not actually you know, questioning the slaughter of other humans. So f*ck you for prioritizing the “offensive” nature of his message over suffering of millions.

        Your relatives “oppose” the Israeli government? In what sense do they do that? Commenting on the poor state of Palestinian education doesn’t really count.

      • Ben

        While I agree that it is wrong to prioritize the sensibilities of students raised in Zionist settings over our responsibility to speak truth about the occupation and the apartheid, I think it is important to not paint all Israelis with the same brush as the Israeli government. The fact that the majority of Israelis vote for occupation and apartheid regimes does not make all Israelis complicit in these atrocities. To generalize as such erases the struggles of those Israelis that devote their lives to ending the injustices being committed in their name.

        However, all of that being said, because these injustices are done in their name, and purportedly in the name of all Jews around the world, silence is violence, and failing to condemn the apartheid and recognize what it is for what it is makes one complicit in the oppression.

  • NotsodifferentUandI

    Love the Dr. Evil reference in the intro

  • pogrom fighter

    Ben will you be putting up a banner at Christmas decrying the refusal of the Vatican to recognize women or gays? Will you be putting up banners on Muslim holidays protesting ISIS? No because there is a double standard.
    Does freedom of expression include the right to attack other religions in public spaces on their holidays? It seems France now has more focus on fighting racism and antisemitism than Wesleyan.

    • Hornets of the Pogrom

      That sign was quite an attacker. Think about it. If the tape had come undone, that sign could have fallen and given someone a really nasty paper cut! Ouchie!