Reading the news from Israel, my mind immediately went to how this would all play out at my Passover Seder.
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Ruby Rayner-Haselkorn is a recent graduate of Clark University who joined WhoWhatWhy as an editorial assistant in 2023.
Many families choose to avoid “political” and “controversial” topics at holidays and family gatherings. In an increasingly polarized political climate, these conversations are often what turn an otherwise pleasant dinner into a night of arguments, slamming doors, and uncles being asked to leave.
But Passover is a holiday explicitly about remembering and confronting past oppressions.
Passover recounts the story from the Torah in which Jews were freed from slavery in Egypt. The Haggadah, the special book that tells the story of the exodus, is traditionally read during the Passover dinner, called the Seder.
The Seder centers around remembering the oppression Jews experienced while enslaved in the land of Egypt and the sacrifices made by those Jewish ancestors for the freedom of all Jews. Because Passover reflects on the Jewish struggle and celebrates Jewish freedom, it’s very common to discuss other social justice issues and ongoing forms of oppression during the Seder.
My own Passover table has always been filled with family and friends across various generations, political ideologies, degrees of Jewishness and religiousness, all together. Suffice to say, opinions, experiences, and conversations at the table are diverse.
As so many of us have this week, I’ve been closely following the protests in Israel after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to curb the power of the independent judiciary.
In short, Netanyahu is proposing a plan that would give the parliamentary majority the power to override any Supreme Court ruling, and give the party in power the ability to appoint judges.
In an interview, Yair Rosenberg, a journalist who has been following the story for The Atlantic, described the weight of the proposed policy, stating, “This was less a reform than a revolution. In Israel, a country without a written constitution, it would remove the sole check on the government’s power.”
Amid growing public concern about the plan, Netanyahu fired his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, one of the few officials who spoke out against Netanyahu’s power-grab.
This triggered alarm bells across the country and an increase in the number of protesters, transforming local demonstrations into a national strike.
Those protesting are fearful for a multitude of reasons — some fear this is a complete dismantling of Israeli democracy as it stands. Others speak of individual rights being under attack. Netanyahu’s coalition has already proposed legislation that would limit the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people, and Israel’s Arab minority, and further restrict the rights and movement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
Reading this news, I immediately considered how this would all play out at my Passover Seder Wednesday evening. What would my 85-year-old great-cousin visiting from Israel say about it? What would my Israeli cousin who lives in Westchester, NY, and whose children attend Jewish private school, say? What about my mother, a Catholic criminal defense lawyer who argues for a living? Or my cousin who will undoubtedly be stoned? What will my sister’s poor gentile boyfriend think? What will I say?
Evelyne Diaz Araque, Activist
In preparation for Wednesday night, I wanted to ask people who are closer to the situation what they think is important to understand and communicate about the protests. So I called an old school friend, Evelyne Diaz Araque, who is a 28-year-old activist, artist, and student. She was born in Colombia and is neither Jewish nor white. She has lived in Israel for over 20 years. Her take on the burgeoning protests was remarkably nuanced, emblematic of the many threads of Israeli history that have been drawn together in the current moment.
“I have been truly amazed and motivated by how things are evolving,” Evelyne told me over the phone. “I think seeing how everyone is reacting to this is very inspiring. We are slowly understanding that the laws that are getting promoted will affect not just minorities but everybody.”
Evelyne explained how the current protests are deeply connected to a long history of mistreatment of a number of marginalized groups by the Israeli government. And she’s concerned that people are trying to “restore” Israeli democracy to some imagined ideal that existed a few years ago, whereas in truth Israel has never been a democracy for all of its inhabitants — not for Palestinians, or Ethiopian Jews, or for recent immigrant and refugee communities.
She then went on to describe something deeply ironic:
Israel houses a really diverse group of individuals; however, the mainstream protesters — i.e., Jewish centrists — protect and advocate for white Jews… When the general discourse is, “let’s fight for democracy,” we say “Which democracy? The democracy you promote is not the democracy that provides justice for all of us.”
While the ongoing protests in Israel are a direct response to the judicial overhaul plans, Evelyne sees a deeper layer in the fight for Israel’s democracy. She believes that it’s not just this one set of policies; at its very foundation, Israel’s democracy is broken.
A pause on the judicial overhaul plan — or even a permanent halt — won’t preserve a democracy that, as she sees it, was always lacking.
The traditional symbols of Israeli patriotism flaunted by many protesters have drawn large numbers of people into the streets, but those symbols also speak to the fraught question of whose interests are being represented and whose are being left out.
The street demonstrations are filled with Israeli flags, and many participants have painted their cheeks with the star of David and have dressed in the national colors. Evelyne speaks about the performative patriotism of the protest, stating, “[Even] within the protests, we [minorities groups within Israel] are still being marginalized and looked at as traitors as opposed to partners in the struggle.”
She goes on to discuss how the current plans for the judicial overhaul are deeply connected to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and how this makes the protest’s symbol — the Israeli flag — complicated:
It’s the same people in power right now who have been promoting … violent laws against women and against Palestinians, laws that encourage Jewish settlers to exercise violence against Palestinians … [So] of course we [minority groups within Israel] don’t feel comfortable raising the Israeli flag because that flag has not represented us for the longest time. And so when pilots and military people are taking to the streets to “reclaim” the flag… No! That flag represents you, and only you.
The flag becoming the symbol is problematic. …[It] shows how deep and in denial Israeli society is about the occupation. … First and foremost they [white Jewish Israelis] will fight for their so-called democracy but in reality it’s not… We have more than five million Palestians in the occupied territories who can’t vote in Israel. So how is that a democracy?
But, despite the presence of the flag as an exclusionary protest symbol, the protests have opened an interesting space for dialogue that has been sorely missing in Israel.
Oren Ziv, Journalist
Oren Ziv, a journalist and documentary photographer, has been living in Tel Aviv for more than 18 years. We discussed what he’s been observing while covering the protests. Oren describes the opportunity for conversation the protests have created, stating:
People are very open to hearing new ideas and going out to the street in big numbers, and they come not just to protest, they come to feel together, to get new ideas, to discuss. So we have more radical groups and the anti-occupation bloc that go to the protest to support it, but also to challenge it.
We’re hearing from them that this conversation hasn’t really been had for dozens of years because this public — the center-left public — is usually at home. They are consuming mostly mainstream media so there are not many ways to reach these people.
And now finally when they are going out to the street because of the general threat to democracy, it’s a great opportunity to talk.
The unlikely diversity of people protesting and a collective fear have created a moment for a larger conversation between marginalized people in Israel and white Jewish Israelis who otherwise often don’t occupy the same space. Oren urges us all “to take advantage of the protest to talk about democracy and look at a wider picture.”
After my conversations with Evelyne and Oren I felt that I had a much clearer understanding of the intricacies of the protests and have much to share at the Seder. I want to make sure that when the inevitable topic of the protests comes up I get these three points across:
- Look beyond the headlines.
There is so much more wrapped up in what’s going on. It’s far more nuanced, and human, than pro- or anti-Israel and…
- We should all be talking about it.
We should talk about how the struggle for freedom in Israel has been going on long before the threat of judicial overhaul; that the violence perpetrated by the Israeli government against Palestinians is deeply connected to the policies Netanyahu wants to pass today; that you can’t talk about one without the other.
Passover is a natural time to start these conversations around freedom and oppression, but…
- We must continue talking after the Seder ends.