When The ‘Arab Spring’ Meets The Seder


The Workmen’s Circle/Arbeter Ring of Boston, a secular liberal Jewish group, has been hosting an interfaith seder for Muslims and Jews for the past five years and writing a progressive Haggadah to go with it.

This year, seder organizer Alice Rothchild is tapping the zeitgeist to animate the ancient seder story — she plans to emphasize “the Arab spring.”
“Often when people think Arab, they think ‘terrorist,’ they think ‘backwards’,” she said. “But [the Arab revolts] show that [Arab] people, if given the window of opportunity, want democracy.”

Every year the Passover seder’s story of freedom begs for contemporary parallels. And this spring’s headlines offer a tantalizing one: the Arab revolts erupting across the Middle East, especially the one in Egypt where a modern-day Pharaoh of a sort was overthrown.

But most Jewish groups, of many political and denominational persuasions, are more ambivalent than the Workmen’s Circle about how — or even whether — to discuss the current revolts.

The main impediment seems to be Israel, and what the revolts might mean for the Jewish state. Some worry that even passing references to the Arab revolts might derail their seder into a fraught political debate.

“I’m sure many people will bring it up,” said Rabbi Irwin Kula, president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a think tank that focuses on enlivening Jewish discourse. But he worried that any serious discussion about the Arab revolts would be quickly subsumed by proxy debates about Israel.

The rabbi continued: “Liberals will use the Exodus story to confirm what they already believe — Wow, isn’t this great! The Arabs are having their own exodus now! And if one is conservative and suspicious of what’s going on in the Middle East, they’ll tend to see the Pharaoh and slavery lurking just beneath the Arab spring.”

Both kinds of thinking, he added, are “their own form of oppression.”

Large synagogues serving communities with a wide range of political views on Israel seem to be struggling most with whether to bring up the Arab revolts.
B’nai Jeshurun, a nondenominational synagogue on the Upper West Side, holds a community seder each year that deliberately focuses on contemporary issues. While topics often touch upon Israel — this year will focus on the 30th anniversary of Israel’s repatriation of Ethiopian Jews — it tries to avoid the state’s conflict with its Arab neighbors.

“If somebody wants to relate [the seder] to the Arab revolts happening now, I’m not opposed to that,” said Marcelo Bronstein, a rabbi at B’nai Jeshurun. “We don’t want to avoid politics, but we don’t want to make it the center of our seder either.” He worries that the Arab spring will be too easily yoked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or Israel’s conflicts with its Arab neighbors generally. “I feel this is a celebration, a moment of unity. But on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, everyone has an opinion.”

Michael Lerner, the rabbi of a mostly liberal congregation in San Francisco and editor of the progressive Jewish magazine Tikkun, conceded that the politics of Israel make the Arab revolt a theme many Jews might be wary of discussing. “Of course, there’s a lot of anxiety about what it might mean for Israel,” he said. But he said that it will not preclude him from making the Arab revolts a focal point of his congregation’s community seder, or urging others to do so.

“We’re definitely going to make this a main topic at our [community] seder,” he said. “Now, we’re not saying that the current struggles have been victorious,” noting that tyrants in Egypt and Tunisia may have been overthrown, but democracies have not been fully implemented yet.

“But we want to challenge the realists in our community that believe nothing fundamentally different can happen in the Middle East,” he added. “We’re saying, ‘No way!’ There is a God in this universe who makes [freedom] possible, and not just for Jews, but for all people.”

Rabbi Lerner provides a revised, progressive-themed Haggadah each year on Tikkun’s website. This year’s Haggadah was completed before the Arab revolts swept the Middle East, but in late February he sent out an e-mail blast urging readers not to let their concerns about Israel prevent them from championing the Arab freedom theme.

“The worriers have a point,” he wrote. “If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza. Yet it is impossible for Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant — the Pharaoh … that story of freedom retold each year at our Passover ‘Seder’ celebration.”

Some Orthodox Jews are also thinking about the parallels, though the Arab revolt theme is not on the front burner.

Yitzhak Bronstein, a student at Yeshiva University who leads the school’s social action committee, said that many Modern Orthodox Jews he knows, young and old alike, organize more traditional seders where contemporary themes — no matter the issue — are less likely to be discussed.

But, he said, “Personally, I think there’s potential value [to discussing the Arab revolts]. I think we can relate to their struggle against oppression and their fight for human rights.”

He went on, “But let’s not forget that as soon as the Israelites left Egypt, it was not just about repelling oppression. It was about adopting the Ten Commandments and a legal code. Until [the Arab rebels] take that second step, I think it will be premature to make that parallel.”

Barry Freundel, rabbi of the Modern Orthodox congregation Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C., said of Jews who choose to make the parallel to the Arab revolts: “I think it’s fine … but I don’t plan on doing it.”

As far as parallels to the Arab world are concerned, Rabbi Freundel seems most interested in focusing on the oppression of Jews that still live within Muslim countries, rather than Arabs themselves. “I certainly think it’s a good conversation because there are Jews in these countries who are still being persecuted today.”

He added that he is dismayed that Arabs revolting today have not make the connection to the Exodus story themselves. After all, he said, non-Jews in the past, like black civil rights leaders, have taken inspiration from the Exodus story. “What’s surprising is that Muslim groups have not done so. But that’s not to say that I don’t think they should.”

Interestingly, Jewish Voice for Peace — the pro-Palestinian group that the Anti-Defamation League included in its “top 10 anti-Israel groups in the U.S.” list — is not focusing on the Arab revolts as a Passover theme.

The reason, said Rabbi Alissa Wise, head of the group’s rabbinic council, is not that the Arab revolts are not an enticing theme — “it’s certainly a pretty salient example,” she said. The issue is that it would detract from the main theme the group encourages its supporters to focus on each year: Palestinian rights.

The Haggadah the organization publishes on its website this year mentions the Arab revolts in its introduction. But it is mostly devoted, as in years past, to Palestinian issues. It reinterprets the Ten Plagues as the “Ten Plagues of Israeli Occupation,” for instance.

Keshet, a national organization for the Jewish LGBT community, also promotes activist-themed seders. But Gregg Drinkwater, Keshet’s deputy director of research and special projects, said that the organization was also apprehensive about embracing the Arab revolt theme because its members tended to have diverse views on Israel.

“We try to create a space [at Keshet-organized seders] where we’re all coming together,” he said. “If we were to have a focus that would appear to be critical of Israel, that might alienate some people who are on the right, and if we were to have one that appeared to celebrate Israel, it might alienate people who are more to the left.”

He said that the Keshet-sponsored seder he will attend this year in Denver will focus on gay rights issues, which most participants he expects will support. But, in addition to what has become a modern tradition on many progressive seder plates — an orange, symbolizing the marginalization of gays in the Jewish community (the orange began as a symbol of women’s rights within Judaism) — his plate will also include olives.

Palestinian rights’ seders have used olives to symbolize Israeli oppression for years, but Keshet has not advocated that practice before. But this year is different, said Drinkwater. “This year we’re including it,” he said — but with a different meaning, something more like an olive branch. “When we get to the olives, we’re going to ask for peace in the Middle East and North Africa.”