October 18, 2018

The Arab Seder

This has been a good year for freedom.

The Arab spring that began in Tunisia spread through Algeria, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen, Bahrain. The pharoahs who haven’t fallen are plenty nervous.

For decades they enjoyed a stable social contract with their people: You put up with our corruption, economic stagnation and lack of civil liberties, and we won’t kill you, maybe.

Now, suddenly, the contract is irrevocably broken. The outcomes will be various and remain uncertain. Egypt may turn more Islamist. Libya might be a long, bloody disaster. But the sphinx is out of the bag. Arabs, like all people, prefer to be free.

It’s impossible not to see the parallels to the ancient Passover story in the events unfolding today. The pharoahs, the plagues, the oppressed — it’s all being played out across the Middle East and North Africa, often in authentic dress.

For that reason, this year, I would love to hold a seder in Egypt. In Libya. In Bahrain. In Syria. In Iran.

Why not? Passover is a holiday that enshrines the value of freedom as a God-given human right. The seder meal is an ingenious invention (more accurately, an ingenious merging of Greek custom with Jewish narrative). It is a way to physically reaffirm the immorality of oppression and the imperative of liberation: You eat freedom. It is difficult for any people to take the holiday seriously and not fight for their own freedom and that of others. Freedom is a great Jewish value, but not only a Jewish value. Arab families could use a good seder now.

The fact that this is such a far-fetched notion points to another symptom of Arab oppression. It may not be a coincidence that the Dark Ages of modern Islamic political, cultural and intellectual development coincide with the demonization of Jewish self-determination and the rejection of all things Jewish. When the Arabs and Persians in the region can truly study and learn and engage in cultural interchange with their Jewish peers, in Israel and abroad, their own cultures and lives will be richer for it. If the liberation movements in the Middle East truly lead to more open societies — and I recognize that is still a big if — one healthy side effect will be the reintroduction of Jewish culture, history and values into the region where Judaism was born, developed and among whose people it flourished. 

I grew up in a generation that rewrote and redesigned the traditional haggadah to mirror the cause du jour: I’ve seen black/Jewish seders; seders designed for farm workers, feminists, gays, addicts, Darfurians. I once was invited to an animal-rights seder where the haggadah read more like “Animal Farm.” Needless to say, there was no brisket course.

Give me a few hours and some good page layout software, and I could compose a modern-day haggadah for the new Arab world:

The Children of Israel are of course the Muslims and Christians living under a succession of Middle Eastern pharoahs, from Tunisia to Iran.

The Ten Plagues are the disasters this collection of strongmen, criminals, crooks and bureaucrats brought upon their nations: Poverty, Illiteracy, Torture, Oppression of Women, Unemployment, Corruption, Hunger, War, Ignorance and the Killing of the First Born — yes, just think of the generations of young Arabs and Persians denied their true potential, or sent to their deaths in foolish wars, sacrificed for nothing.

The Four Questions are these: How can Islam serve as a true moral compass and not as an instrument of oppression? How can we develop our human capital, and not just our oil? How can all men be free when so many women aren’t? How can we join with free peoples throughout the Middle East, including Israel, against political extremism and religious fanaticism?

As for the Passover foods, the symbols on the seder plate, that’s easy:

Matzah: The unleavened bread that didn’t have a chance to rise can symbolize the speed of these revolutions. They caught every single “expert” off guard and forced our president to make fast choices between an increasingly elusive “stability” and the perhaps equally elusive promise of democracy.

Maror: The bitter herbs can represent the enduring sorrows these populations both have suffered and inflicted on others as a result of their oppressive leadership. 

Charoset: This mix of chopped fruit and spices stands for the mortar of the pyramids we were forced to build; here it can symbolize the cohesiveness of societies that came together to overthrow their leaders: think of Tahrir Square, where religious and secular Muslims and Christians, Kurds and Coptics at least temporarily overcame their differences to fight together as one.

Beitzah: The egg can represent Facebook, Twitter and social media. Don’t ask me why, but something has to. Technology didn’t start the fire, but it sure helped spread the flames. 

Zeroa: The roasted shank bone can represent the sacrifice people made for their own freedom. Hundreds dead and wounded in Egypt. Thousands dead in Libya. Innumerable murdered, tortured and imprisoned in Iran. “I’m not afraid to die,” a 28-year-old Libyan blogger and civilian journalist named Mohammed Nabbous told an NPR reporter, “I’m afraid to lose the battle.” A day later, Libyan soldiers shot and killed Nabbous. 

Elijah the Prophet: Jews open the doors of our homes to welcome Elijah, with his promise of peace, to our seder table, where we pour an extra cup of wine (or grape juice) for him.  How fitting — to Muslims, he is the Prophet Ilyas, defender of monotheism. To Christians, he is often compared to Jesus and John the Baptist. He would be a welcome guest in the homes of all three faiths.

If only they can keep their doors open.

Happy Passover.