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A very different Passover


WORLD Radio - A very different Passover

Jews around the world remember past deliverance and worry about current threats

A missing poster on a chair at a seder table on April 17 in London, England Getty Images/Photo by Carl Court

MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Thursday the 25th of April, 2024. Thanks for listening to WORLD Radio! Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown. First up on The World and Everything in It: Israel’s wartime Passover.

SOUND: [People setting out candles for Passover tables.]

The Jewish feast marking God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt began on Monday. Many in Israel set up empty tables remembering those still held hostage in Gaza.

SOUD: [Protestors chanting at Columbia University]

REICHARD: Meanwhile, protestors at Columbia University set up tents, planning to stay put despite police making more than 100 arrests. School officials canceled in-person classes because of pro-Palestinian protests that grew antisemitic and threatened Jewish students.

BROWN: Joining us now to discuss is Daniel Gordis. He’s a historian and a Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem. He’s also a graduate of Columbia University in New York.

REICHARD: Daniel, welcome back to the program.

DANIEL GORDIS: Thank you so much, Mary. Good to see and be with you again.

REICHARD: Well, as I understand it, part of the traditional Passover Seder meal is a series of questions the children ask adults sitting at the table. One of those questions is: “What makes this night different from all other nights?”

So Daniel, let me ask you, what makes this Passover in 2024 different from all other Passovers?

GORDIS: Yeah, this was an unforgettable Seder night. It was a very painful Seder night. And it was, frankly, Mary, a Seder night that all my friends were actually dreading. Passover is a joyous holiday, you know. It's the celebration of freedom and autonomy, and leaving slavery from Egypt and making your way to the promised land. And yes, you do recall ancient things that happened that were said, but it's really fundamentally a celebration with family and whatever. But in my congregation, for example, which is just around the corner from my house where I'm speaking to you, we have actually a family of one of the hostages as part of our congregation. The hostage thing is hanging over Israel so heavily, because we all gathered together, but there were, we left empty seats at our Seder table with yellow ribbons, and we had empty place settings. There is actually, as you mentioned, Mary, there's this thing at the beginning of the Seder, we ask these four questions, "why is this night different?" And almost as soon as we asked that question, the first thing that we do is we take parsley, and we dip it in salt water, and it's supposed to represent the tears of our ancestors when they were enslaved. You didn't have to actually think that hard to imagine the tears this year, because we were literally in tears in synagogue an hour earlier, looking at the place where this young man's father sits every week. It was a very different Passover. It's just, it was unbearably painful to celebrate knowing that these people are in some sort of hell that we can't imagine. And it did not feel like the year to celebrate freedom or liberation, quite frankly.

REICHARD: I can only imagine.

Let’s talk about money. On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate approved more than $26 billion in aid to Israel, with about $9 billion earmarked for humanitarian aid, most of it for Gaza. What’s the reaction of Israelis about this mix of military and humanitarian aid for that part of the world?

GORDIS: Israelis feel very, very indebted to the United States. And it doesn't matter whether they're right wing or left wing, Likud voters or Labor voters, or if they would be Democratic or Republican if they lived in the States. Israelis feel unbelievably supported by President Biden, his support of Israel militarily has been unbelievable. We did not have those kinds of reserves of armaments and bombs throughout the six months. It all came from the United States, which makes Israelis by the way, very nervous. What if they didn't give it to us? How would we have fought? That's a separate question. Israelis feel very, very indebted to the United States, and to Joe Biden in particular. And they also know that he's taken some political hits, because of his stance on Israel, with the African American population, with other populations, and so forth. Now, the bill, you're right, allocates money, first of all, some to the Ukraine and other other countries as well. And then a lot of it to the Middle East, some of it to Israel for military support, and some of it to Gaza. There are very, very, very few Israelis at this point, who do not want to see humanitarian aid going into Gaza. There was a point at the beginning of the war, where some Israelis thought we could starve Hamas out. In other words, they would run out of run out of food and water and whatever, and they would come out of the tunnels with their hands in the air. So even though we didn't want Gazans to starve, we can't let food in because we've got to starve the Hamas guys out. We understand now that that's never going to happen. They either have reserves or they have ways of sneaking the food in. But we understand that we're being judged very harshly, so the more humanitarian aid goes in, and the more Gazans are fed and cared for, the better off we are. We have absolutely no vested interest in seeing another human being suffer. So we're very grateful for the military aid, we need it desperately, but we're also very pleased that Gazans are going to get even more aid.

REICHARD: All right, what’s next for Israel’s offensive in Gaza?

GORDIS: I think the smart money is that Israel is going to go into Rafah. Hamas apparently has six battalions left, four of them, we believe, are in Rafah. We know that on Wednesday of this week, the IDF Chief of Staff was in Cairo. It's kind of ironic, because Passover is the holiday that the Jews celebrate leaving Egypt and going to the promised land, and the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army left the promised land and went back to Egypt on Passover, but he was clearly there to the to convey some message in person. I think the smart money is Rafah is going to get invaded, we're going to try to do some damage. Then my guess would be that international patience with Israel doing military stuff in Gaza is going to be over. Israel will pull back would be my guess. And we'll then do, you know, pinpointed attacks on people that we find, however we find them. Then, of course, we have the whole issue in the north. I mean, Hezbollah has been, you know, sort of testing our patience ever since October, the middle of October, a week or two after. So I don't see how Israel can end this without at least taking out those four battalions and then doing something major in Lebanon. But what that looks like, since I'm obviously not on the inside of any of these conversations, it's very hard for me to imagine.

REICHARD: One last question, given that you are a Columbia University grad: what are you making of the protests going on there now?

GORDIS: You know, Mary, I loved my years at Columbia, I was there in the late 70s, early 80s, I had an unbelievably wonderful intellectual, social, cultural experience. And it was really, it was really great. I look at it now just heartbroken and frankly, enraged, because I know that if there were tents pitched out there, and people were saying something about African Americans that they're saying about Jews, you know, “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground,” or “October 7th is gonna happen not once, or twice or 10 times, but a thousand times,” meaning we're gonna kill Jews. And that's what they're saying. But if we said that about gays and lesbians, if they said that about African Americans, if they said that about Asian or anybody, anybody else, the university would have torn that thing down a week ago. But it's Jews. And you can get away with a lot when you're talking about the Jews. And I'll just come back to Mary, if you'll give me a second, I'll come back to the Seder table. The Seder at the beginning of the Haggadah, we also say that "In every generation, they rise up against us to destroy us and the Holy One, blessed be he saves us and brings us salvation." And I have to say that I'm in my 60s, I've been saying that every year for 60 something years, I said yeah, they always just to come up and, and destroy us. But I grew up in a world in which they didn't do that anymore. Israel was secure and unassailed. American Jews were living an unbelievably secure, wonderful, accepted life. And all of a sudden this year with the Seder table that felt very, very poignant and heartbreaking. So Jews are fighting for their physical lives here. And I think American Jews are fighting for the kind of American Jewish confident, secure, accepted life that I grew up in as an American Jew, taking for granted which I should not have taken for granted. It's an unbelievably sad period for the Jewish people that reminds us of 1938-1939 Jews in Germany, having reached the pinnacle of all of those social professional letters. And then, of course, within a half a dozen years, they were all dead. I don't think that's what's gonna happen in America. But I think something very profound has changed in America for Jews. And what that looks like we don't know, but it's a very, very sad time there too.

REICHARD: Daniel Gordis is a Koret Distinguished Fellow at Shalem College in Jerusalem and author of more than thirteen books, many of them about Israel.

Daniel, thank you so much for your time. Stay safe.

GORDIS: Mary, it’s an honor. Thank you for having me! All the best.

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.


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