This year, we asked a new four questions…
The week of Passover in the year 5776 (according to the Hebrew calendar), over 500 young Jews across the country convened both inside and outside prominent American Jewish institutions to hold a series of Passover seders calling for an end to Jewish American institutional support for the occupation and freedom and dignity for all Israelis and Palestinians. In Boston, New York, Washington D.C., Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, young Jews held rituals that lifted up the inherent integrity and holiness of the lives of both Israelis and Palestinians and called, as a collective prophetic voice, for justice (you can see videos of the 2016 Liberation Seders at the end of this article.)
I was a part of this voice. And this Passover, we asked a different four questions. We asked, in the wise words of Hillel the Elder, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? If not now, when?” And our fourth question: “Jewish community, which side are you on?”
IfNotNow Liberation seder outside the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. (Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood-Survival Media Agency)
If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
I am a Jew, born to an Ashkenazi Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic father. I was raised Jew-ish, in a part of the U.S. with a sparse Jewish population and few Jewish institutions. I was raised knowing the inevitable existence of the state of Israel, never having lived in a world in which Israel did not exist. Yet as I grew up, I was also made aware of Israel’s precarity—the sense of consistent and constant “existential crisis” that surrounds the Jewish state. But I was raised by peaceniks of the ‘70s; war and violence, I knew, were not good. The Israelis and Palestinians needed peace.
As a Jew with only one Jewish parent and no knowledge of or experience in Jewish institutional life, I had to fight for my Jewish identity. And fight I did. In college, I made sure to center my Jewish identity. I did what I felt I was supposed to do to be Jewish: go on a Birthright trip to Israel, join the executive board of Hillel, a campus Jewish student group, go on pilgrimage trips to Jewish communities around the world. I became what one might call “a model young Jew,”—the kind of young Jew the Jewish American community is scared of losing. And I also started organizing for peace in the Middle East. I was not yet organizing for justice.
As my politics have developed and as I delved deeper into anti-occupation activism in solidarity with the Palestinian people, those same institutions that I chose to step into and those same people who I believed to have afforded me my Jewish identity began to take it away -- they called me a self-hating Jew; they said I was not one of them.
I am a Jew. I feel it and know it deep in my bones. It is my inevitable truth. But I also know the inevitable truth that my Judaism calls for justice. And that, as a Jew, I am obligated to stand up for the Jewish soul and proclaim and claim a Judaism grounded in justice.
Reading from the Liberation Haggadah at the Liberation seder in the East Bay. (Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood-Survival Media Agency)
If I am only for myself, what am I?
In 2013 and 2014, I lived in Israel/Palestine. My entire time in the region was one of deep deconstruction of my power and privilege while simultaneously feeling the heavy burden of oppression that weighed upon all of us.
And it was there that I discovered for the first time that what was happening in the region was not necessarily about me—a contrary narrative to the one I had been told by Jewish institutions. I learned, while living there, that I am part of the story, but I am not the story. And the story is actually one in which my people are acting as the oppressors of another.
I wanted justice. I needed justice. But I realized that the locus of my desire for justice was not necessarily stemming just from a desire for justice for my people, but a desire for justice for the other. A desire for justice for the Palestinian people. A desire for justice for the people whom my people are oppressing. A desire for justice for the people who, through time and relationship, also became my family. That my humanity relied upon an empathy for the other and that I myself am dehumanized without that empathy.
And yet I also realized that justice and liberation for the Palestinian people necessarily meant justice and liberation for myself and for my people as well. That any system of power in which there is an oppressed and an oppressor ultimately harms us all, and therefore in advocating for the other, I am inevitably also advocating for myself, whether or not that is my intention.
If not now, when?
I keep hearing in the news that if something does not shift in Israel/Palestine soon, that a morally corrupt system will take over that will taint the nature of the Jewish democratic state forever. My friends, I feel compelled to tell you that moment is now, and has been now for the past 49 years.
We do not need more talk about action. We need action. And we need it now. There have been too many lives lost and destroyed by an unsustainable status quo. The Palestinians cannot wait. Israelis cannot wait. Our community cannot wait. The time is now.
The IfNotNow Liberation Seder outside the Magnes Building in the East Bay. (Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood-Survival Media Agency)
Jewish community, which side are you on?
We are all called to pick a side. Are you on the side of endless occupation, or are you on the side of freedom and dignity for all? There are no other options. It is time to choose.
Will you join us?
https://www.facebook.com/IfNotNowOrg/videos/1025126867574281/ Video of the Bay Area If Not Now Liberation seder which author Faryn Borella participated in.