At Passover Seder, African Asylum Seekers Ask: Where’s Our Freedom?

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Asylum seekers and members of humanitarian aid groups and of Rabbis for Human Rights, at the Holot seder, April 15, 2016.
Aid group workers and members of Rabbis for Human Rights at the event. "Many tears have been shed in this place right here," said Rabbi Ascherman.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

HOLOT – As several hundred detained African asylum seekers, Israelis and foreign volunteers gathered under the scorching desert sky for a pre-Passover seder ceremony last week, the symbolism – or perhaps, the irony – was inescapable.

Not just because the story of liberation from slavery was recounted, as per tradition, at the seder, while many of the participants were still craving basic freedoms, but also because of the particular location of this event: barely a mile from the Egyptian-Israeli border, in close proximity to the path the ancient Israelites took on their biblical journey to freedom thousands of years ago.

This is the third year that this alternative seder was held in Holot, a detention facility that houses 3,300 asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea. The event was organized by Rabbis for Human Rights, a nonprofit that represents hundreds of rabbis and rabbinical students from across the spectrum, and a group of volunteer advocates for African asylum seekers.

For the detainees, mostly young men in their twenties, it was an opportunity to remind the Jews of their own history of persecution and the responsibilities it imposed.

“You endured slavery under the Egyptians who embittered your lives, then the Nazis came and embittered your lives,” Eritrean-born Ilave Argay told the participants, addressing them in fluent Hebrew. “With all that, the State of Israel should have been able to understand our situation and help. But it, too, has chosen to ignore the wrongs we suffered in our home countries, to cause us further suffering and to force us to return to the darkness.”

Asylum seekers at the Holot seder, on Friday. "The State of Israel should've been able to understand. But it has chosen to return us to the darkness," said one participant.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

The seder fused classic elements with special features mandated by the unusual group of participants as well as the venue. As many of the asylum seekers are observant Muslims who abstain from alcohol, the traditional four glasses of wine were replaced with grape juice.

For lack of proper furniture at the open-air facility, the seder was not conducted in the traditional manner, with participants seated around a table. Rather, food and drinks were passed around from hand to hand, with those in attendance standing or seated on mats spread out on the ground.

As he conducted the event, Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the president of Rabbis for Human Rights, took special care to cite relevancies for modern times.

“This salt water,” he said, pointing to a pitcher on a nearby table, “is for the tears we shed when we were slaves in Egypt, but many tears have been shed in this place right here.”

Asylum seekers detained in Holot are allowed to leave the premises during the day but must report back at night. Last August, the Supreme Court ruled that the state is prohibited from holding detainees at Holot, the only facility of its kind in Israel, for longer than a year.

Rabbi Ascherman, president of Rabbis for Human Rights, leading the seder. Took special care to cite relevancies for modern times. Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Segments of the Haggadah, created especially for this event, were read in turn by Jewish and African participants, with the traditional “Ma Nishtana” song (“Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?”) reworded to address the plight of asylum seekers in Israel. The opening lines of this new version read:

On all previous nights some of us sit between guards and imprisoners.

Tomorrow night we will all be seated comfortably.

How will tomorrow night be different from all previous nights?

From all previous nights?

One of the potluck gatherings held before the seder at Holot. Asylum seekers were encouraged to share their personal stories.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

On all previous nights there are some who fall asleep with an empty stomach

Tomorrow night we will put an end to this shamefulness.

Bitter twist

Among the other new elements incorporated in the revamped Haggadah used in Holot were Bob Marley’s "Redemption Song," readings from Eli Wiesel and Martin Luther King Jr., and references to Israel’s Declaration of Independence. An additional text, following the traditional declaration of “We were slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt,” recalls the story of the modern-day exodus of the Sudanese and Eritrean refugees – with a bitter twist.

“But a new order has arisen in Israel,” this supplemental passage notes. “The people remembered only their own pain. They did not know the soul of the stranger.”

About 100 Israelis and foreign volunteers, among them predominantly English speakers, traveled on chartered buses to Holot to attend the event. Dozens of others arrived on their own.

According to Elliot Vaisrub Glassenberg, an advocate for asylum seekers in Israel and an organizer of the event, the turnout exceeded last year’s. Local and foreign volunteers brought food to share with the asylum seekers during small gatherings held before the seder. At these potluck meetings, the asylum seekers were encouraged to share their personal stories.

Asked for his impressions of the event, Argay, who has lived in Israel for nine years and attended high school in Tel Aviv, conceded it was somewhat strange. “We don’t belong to the Jewish religion,” he explained.

At the same, he said it was encouraging that so many locals had turned up to show their support.

“I’m happy that the Jewish people obtained their freedom and now have their own state, and I hope our turn will soon come,” said Argay.

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