As much as Mia Warshofsky is looking forward to spending time with her family this Passover, the Florida college student is already bracing herself for the political arguments that she knows will break out over the Seder table on Friday. The subject of Israel has become a point of contention between Warshofsky and her grandparents, following Israel’s 50-day offensive in Gaza last summer, and she anticipates that these disagreements will be further inflamed by more recent political events.
“I would like my Seder table to not be a political minefield,” said Warshofsky, 20, a sophomore at the University of Central Florida in Orlando and a critic of the Israeli government’s policies toward Palestinians. “But all of my grandparents have recently picked up this really wonderful habit of bringing up Israel every time they see me… I don’t like to start debates, but they always seem to steer the conversations toward the hot-button issues.”
Warshofsky’s family will not be the only one navigating potentially charged political discussions this year. Passover comes in the immediate aftermath of Israel’s contentious elections and just after the announcement of a preliminary agreement over Iran's nuclear program, a process Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned will endanger the Jewish state.
These sensitive issues mean that for many U.S. Jews, regardless of political or denominational affiliation, the rituals of the Passover ceremony, which commemorates the Israelites’ freedom from slavery, will be particularly charged this year.
In Warshofsky’s case, the divide is stark. “For my grandparents, the meaning of Passover is that we have historically struggled and now we can celebrate having our own nation state,” she said. “But the way I look at Passover is the connection to liberation movements and the importance of standing in solidarity with other oppressed groups.”
The traditions of the Passover dinner may be freighted even when there aren't political differences among the Seder guests.
For Allison Josephs, an Orthodox Jewish mother of four, the recitation of the Haggadah, the text detailing the Israelites’ exodus from Egypt, will be especially loaded this year. “It says in the Haggadah that ‘in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us,’” she said. “Now when we utter those words this year, we’re going to be thinking about Iran and the attacks on Jews in Europe and the words will be very true.”
Josephs, who lives on the U.S. East Coast -- she would not specify where -- and runs the popular blog “Jew in the City,” said the most important issue that will be on her mind is the possibility of an international deal on Iran’s nuclear program. Negotiators in Switzerland reached a preliminary agreement Thursday that would allow for a final phase of nuclear talks between Iran, the U.S. and five other countries. Netanyahu has been perhaps the most vocal critic of the negotiations, saying this week that concessions to Iran would endanger Israel and the peace of the world, after telling the U.S. Congress the same thing.
Recent attacks against Jews in France and Denmark have also highlighted rising anti-Semitism, the issue that Josephs said has made Israel a more important subject than ever. A recent report by the Anti-Defamation League found that 2014 was a particularly violent year for Jews around the world. The report linked a spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. to Israel’s war in Gaza.
The war, and the broader issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be prominent in Passover discussions this year for some Jewish people. The theme of liberation often provokes the question of how this idea should translate into the contemporary Israeli context, said Yotam Amit, 30, an Israeli-American living in New York.
“I think one of the main imperatives of the Passover holiday that is so important is that you treat the story as imminent and in the present tense rather than something that happened in the past,” said Amit, who works with Jewish Voice for Peace, an activist organization that promotes an end to the Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. “For us as Jews and Israelis, it has to mean the freedom of the Palestinian people from the oppression they are facing.”
According to Amit, these discussions will be more important than ever following Israel’s election last month, which he said exposed “bald-faced racism” toward Arabs. Many Israelis have criticized Netanyahu for warning of “droves” of Arab voters in an effort to promote turnout from right-wing supporters on the morning of the election.
The implications of the election, which saw the incumbent Israeli leader sweep to a landslide victory after a tightly contested campaign, will be a particularly prominent topic at Seders in Israel, said Alan Schneider, the director of the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem. However, Schneider argued that for most Israelis, intense debates about Middle East politics are nothing new and that this year’s Passover would not necessarily be a departure from previous year’s holidays.
This view was echoed by Aviva Goldstein, an Orthodox Jewish resident of Jerusalem. “So many people who are invested in the conversation about Israel and the two-state solution don’t live here,” she said. “As a mom of four young kids living in Jerusalem, we’re not immune to difficult conversations, but the lesson we focus on during Passover is the value of hope, freedom and optimism whatever the political climate here.”