If Passover Is the Holiday of Freedom, Why Do Israelis Feel So Trapped?

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A Passover seder plate.Credit: Dreamstime

Shortly before Passover last year, former Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert was convicted of accepting bribes in the Holyland corruption case. This week, almost a year to the day after his previous conviction, Olmert was again found guilty in a separate bribery case, this time for receiving envelopes full of cash from American Jewish businessman Morris Talansky. (Olmert had already beaten the charge in 2012, before his acquittal was reversed by the court).

Another year, another Olmert conviction. But it isn’t just Olmert’s conviction that might evoke a general feeling of déjà vu among Israelis this seder night. Ironically enough, the holiday in which Jews ask “How is this night different from all other nights?” serves as a bitter reminder than not much — if anything — has changed this year.

The parallels between Passover 2014 and Passover 2015 are striking: In the days before the holiday began last year, the situation between Israel and the Palestinians seemed as hopeless as ever, after the John Kerry-orchestrated peace negotiations finally blew apart, having trudged along for almost a year. U.S.-Israel relations seemed unbelievably tense, with Kerry putting most of the blame for the breakdown of the talks on Israel in his notorious “poof speech” and after Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon reportedly called him “obsessive and messianic” two months before.

Tales of abuse and irregularities in the prime minister’s residence dominated headlines, after the former caretaker of Netanyahu’s official residence, Meni Naftali, claimed he was poorly treated by Sara Netanyahu. And Benjamin Netanyahu, following some rough months filled with diplomatic incidents and embarrassments related to his private life, enjoyed a resurgence in his public image following a successful guest appearance on a popular comedy show.

A year later, Israel’s situation looks remarkably similar, albeit more ominous. The right wing is still as strong as it was in 2013, with Yisrael Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman improbably surviving yet another corruption scandal that threatened to remove him from Israeli politics but only somewhat diminished his political clout. U.S.-Israel relations are still in dire straits, and any hope of progress on the Palestinian front was destroyed by the summer’s war in Gaza. Sara Netanyahu’s alleged abuse of her employees still receives widespread news coverage, after Naftali’s lawsuit alleged disturbing details about the Netanyahu household. And Netanyahu himself is still prime minister, following elections that were predicted to end in his downfall but ended up making him arguably stronger than ever.

In the past year, it seems Israel has come a long way — war, corruption scandals, a hectic election campaign — only to end up in the same exact spot, on the same exact path.

For many Israelis, Passover this year will be characterized by a very distinct feeling that, as Ecclesiastes puts it, "That which hath been is that which shall be, and that which hath been done is that which shall be done; and there is nothing new under the sun."

How is this night different from all other nights? If on previous nights we had thought things might be different, now we know that while some things may change, in general everything looks exactly the same.

Passover, in short, catches Israel in a moment of determinism, with many disappointed Israelis dismissing the very feasibility of change. The danger of such despair is that Israel’s feeling of déjà vu becomes perpetual and self-perpetuating, an eternal loop of detachment and lethargy: war every two years, Netanyahu still wins elections. Rinse, repeat.

There are tiny specks of change, though. Yair Lapid is no longer finance minister, for one. Last year, there was no Joint List, no unified Arab front in the Knesset, no way for Israel’s Arab population to find meaningful political strength in numbers. Reuven Rivlin was not president, and in an age in which the prime minister allows himself to incite against Arabs, the importance of a president who promotes equality and inclusion over hate and bigotry is not to be dismissed. Even the election results, demoralizing as they are for many, could serve as catalyst for a real change, the kind that Israeli discourse — and the Israeli left — badly need.

So how is this night different from the nights before it? It’s not. Not really. But with a little luck, and a whole lot of work, the next ones just might be.

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