Editorial note: This article was updated to reflect that the number of Kehilah Seders being held this year is three, not two. Edited March 29, 2018 at 11:30 AM.
When you ask Jews what their favorite holiday is, many will say Passover. The holiday is a happy one; Jews gather together with their family and friends and have a feast filled with prayer, delicious food, and wine while they recount the story of Passover. This is called a Seder, and it celebrates the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery and oppression in Egypt. It ends with a proud cry of “next year in Jerusalem.”
Two of the three Seders this year are taking place on Friday and Saturday night. There is now a plan on campus to make the second of the two Kehilah Seders dedicated to discussing, among other things, the current realities of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Although these are important discussions, interjecting them into the Seder is a major mistake.
The Jewish community has always had ideological differences on every front, including the best way to bring about justice and peace in the Middle East. These discussions are extremely important, but the forced politicization of a unifying Jewish holiday is the worst possible venue for them. All that the planned politicized Seder can do is allow a divisive political issue to ruin one of the most enjoyable Jewish holidays. The first two days of Passover are considered Yom Tov, literally “good day,” and Jews are commanded to celebrate these days joyously. Such a politicized Seder will make this very difficult and will alienate Jewish students who simply want to celebrate the holiday with the festive atmosphere that normally accompanies it.
As Shmuel Rosner, political editor at the Jewish Journal, wrote in the New York Times at the same time last year, it is all too easy to take a unifying holiday and “turn it into a politically divisive event” depending on one’s own political views. “Some Jews celebrate their Passover by mourning an occupation of land; others celebrate by highlighting the reclamation of the same land.” No one, regardless of their views about Israel or anything else, should seek to hijack unifying Jewish holidays and turn them into politically charged events that both cause further division and cheapen the sacredness of religious holidays.
To be perfectly clear, discussions about Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are very important, and we should make every effort to continue forging a dialogue about them. That said, there is no reason that the Passover Seder should be the venue for it. Our common religious customs and traditions are a primary unifying force for American Jews; why should we compromise those unifying forces by attaching our political disagreements to them?
What is also important to note is that when such discussions do take place, they should incorporate a variety of perspectives on the best way to achieve peace. Unfortunately, the Seder aside, this particular discussion is already framed in a one-sided manner that will not foster this type of positive discussion.
The Seder description says directly that it will be discussing IfNotNow materials and those from other organizations. IfNotNow is a political advocacy group dedicated to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The framing of the discussion around an outside political advocacy group’s talking points already biases that discussion towards their political agenda. To have a positive discussion about bridging our differences and improving peace and coexistence for Israelis and Palestinians, the framework of the discussion must be neutral and the motivation behind it free of outside influence.
As for making the Seder the venue for such a discussion, no one expects other campus religious groups to force related political issues into their religious celebrations. No one expects MSA to have their Islamic holiday celebrations themed around political conflicts in Muslim countries. No one expects Catholic Newman to theme Easter dinner with political discussions about controversies within the Catholic Church. Why should Kehilah have to theme its holidays around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
Let students celebrate their religion in peace. While the political conversations are very important and worth having within the Jewish community, the Passover Seder is neither the time nor the place to have them.