Just yesterday you were slaves

This Pesach was the first one in my life that I haven’t attended a Seder. I could’ve made plans for the holiday if I’d thought of it in advance, but life has been getting ahead of me lately and it’s hard enough remembering to get out of bed and eat something, let alone make travel plans to see my family.

Instead, I watched the documentary Free Voice of Labour: The Jewish Anarchists.

It’s perfect Pesach viewing. I felt like I was getting a peek at this secret hidden Jewish culture that no one remembers anymore. It was a culture built on the experience of racism and capitalist exploitation, built by migrants who were shocked by the shitty living conditions in their new country. Their response wasn’t to work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps; they didn’t try to be model minorities. They created a class struggle movement based on Yiddish culture and anarchist ideals.

I find it reassuring to be reminded that Zionism was never the only Jewish response to oppression. One of the things that struck me about the Jewish anarchists interviewed is that none of them mention Zionism, they barely even talk about Israel. It’s as if it didn’t enter their consciousness at all. It’s so different from the compulsory Zionism of mainstream Jewish culture today.

Free Voice of Labour also has an excellent soundtrack. I fully recommend watching the whole film if you get a chance.

After I watched The Free Voice of Labour I made some toast and thought about the custom of putting bread on the Seder plate, as a commentary on the idea that ‘there’s as much room for a lesbian in Judaism as there is for a crust of bread on the Seder plate’. I told myself I was eating chametz on Pesach as an act of solidarity with all those marginalised by the Jewish mainstream. But actually it was because I had nothing else in the cupboard and the supermarket was shut for Good Friday.

I think Pesach holds a really mixed significance for me. It’s an important family time, and family times are always stressful and full of conflict. Every year I tell myself that it’s not worth the hassle, and next year I should just stay home. But sitting alone at home on Friday I realised that I actually really miss them.

The holiday itself is also imbued with a mixed significance. We celebrate the struggle of the Israelite slaves against slavery, the escape from Mitzrayim to the promised land of Canaan. There is no mention of the people who were already living in Canaan, who were conquered by the invading Israelites. It echoes the Zionist narrative of Israel’s establishment: The survivors of genocide and anti-Semitism escape to the promised land and establish their own state. No mention of the Palestinian people ethnically cleansed from this land (incidentally, today is the 64th anniversary of the Deir Yassin massacre).

+972 Magazine published an interesting commentary on Pesach and the construction of a nationalist Jewish identity. I agree with Matar’s analysis of the Latma video (which is both hilarious and disturbing). It’s worth remembering that there is a historical reason for the ‘nationalistic ethos of Jews looking out for one another as a group no matter what’. It comes from a time when Jews were oppressed on the basis of our ethnicity, and our survival depended on solidarity with each other. We had to stick together in the face of anti-Semitic persecution. Somehow that solidarity mutated into the sense that our loyalty is first and foremost to other Jews, even when they’re guilty of horrific crimes against other peoples. The lesson here being that solidarity should not be based on national or ethnic identity, it should be based on supporting oppressed people against oppressors.

This is why I’m reluctant to let the Zionists have Pesach. The story of people’s struggle against racism and slavery is too powerful to let them ruin it for me. Although I would like to expand that story so there’s space for the experiences of non-Jewish people too.


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