In a first-of-its kind event, Palestinian activists in Hebron played host to 100 Israelis and international visitors on Wednesday evening in what was billed as a “Freedom Seder.”
The Passover celebration featured texts in English, Hebrew and Arabic that interwove the traditional Jewish tale of liberation from Egypt with messages opposing the occupation.
The visitors assembled atop Tel Rumeida, overlooking the disputed West Bank city, as smoke from the barbecue holiday meal wafted in the air at the Youth Against Settlements community center, festooned with Palestinian flags.
Youth Against Settlements spokesman Izzat Karake greeted the visitors, who had been bussed in from across Israel. He said it was exciting to experience a Passover seder, explaining that for Hebron and other West Bank residents, Jewish holidays were dreaded as times when already oppressive security measures tighten further and their movements are restricted even more.
“It means a lot for us as Palestinians to have people like you joining us,” Karake said. “Your holidays make our life difficult and hard, but this shows us that things can change.
"Together,” he continued, “we can change the future and we will never lose hope, and we will continue to struggle until we end the occupation.”
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The seder was conceived and jointly organized by the All That’s Left: Anti-Occupation Collective, together with Youth Against Settlements.
Karake said he hoped it would become an annual event.
“This year we have 100 of you – next year I hope we have 1,000,” he said.
All That’s Left members prepared the text of the seder’s Haggadah, in which the 10 plagues included checkpoints and curfews. The bitter herbs were described as symbolizing a refusal “to look away from the bitterness of the occupation as we commit ourselves to ending this injustice.”
All That’s Left activist Daniel Roth said the texts had been used in seders around the world.
The seder was timed to mark two major anniversaries: It was on Passover 50 years ago, in 1968, that Rabbi Moshe Levinger – a leader of the Jewish settler movement – received special permission from the Israeli government to spend the holiday with a group of his supporters in Hebron, part of the Palestinian territory that Israel had captured a year earlier during the Six-Day War.
At the end of the holiday, though, they refused to leave, paving the way for the establishment of what is perhaps the most controversial of all Israeli settlements: the compound located in the heart of Hebron.
And it was on the precise date of Wednesday's event that U.S. civil rights activists held their first "Freedom Seder." That event took place on April 4, 1969 – a year after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. That event, which was held in the basement of the Lincoln Temple, a black church in Washington, drew some 800 people and forged a connection between the biblical saga of the Israelites' liberation from slavery and the U.S. civil rights movement and protests against the Vietnam War.
After the Haggadah was read, former MK and Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg addressed the crowd. He said it was appropriate that a festival of freedom should come to “a place in which freedom is really needed.” It also countered the fact that “50 years ago to the day, the first settlers moved into the city and started the process of the oppression,” he said.
Burg’s mother was a survivor of the 1929 Hebron massacre and that history, he said, lent the event special meaning for him. “Seeing that something like this can happen in Hebron – for me it is a moment of fulfillment and joy,” he said.
Also in attendance was MK Mossi Raz (Meretz), who praised the creativity of the young activists in initiating the event. “It’s rather amazing nobody thought of it before," he said. "Maybe it took American activists who were familiar with Freedom Seders from their backgrounds to come up with it.”
As he stood beside the large buffet of grilled chicken, rice and potatoes, Youth Against Settlements' Muhannad Qafesha said recent events in Gaza made it more important to send a message of “love and peace” through nonviolent resistance.
“As a Palestinian, it was painful that we lost 17 lives in Gaza," he said. "But we don’t blame the people who are here with us now. Doing this makes us stronger; we see there is hope for the future – we will never give up our hope or our rights, and we welcome everyone who wants to join the struggle for freedom.”
Across the community center courtyard was a group of young women from the United States, participating in a year-long volunteer program in Israel.
“It feels really good to be here,” said Ariana Solodar-Wincele, 23, from Portland, Maine.
“I think it's really powerful to shift the narrative of what happened 50 years ago when the settlers came. Now we are here and I’m really proud to be a part of this,” she said.