Thursday, April 17, 2008

Center Field: Remember the terror victims at the Seder

Posted by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Wednesday Apr 16, 2008

Once again, we will celebrate our joyous holiday of liberation this seder with heavy hearts. Even as we revel in our freedom as Jews today, even as we marvel at Israel's steadiness amid the terrorist onslaught, even as we begin celebrating Israel's 60th anniversary, too many Israeli families are in pain. This year, as we think of three Israeli hostages in a Mitzraim, in dire straits, and think of an entire region, the western Negev, including the city of Sderot, held hostage, we must reclaim our symbols, remember our losses, reaffirm our commitment to Israel, to the Jewish people, and to a true peace.

In the bloody, unnecessary war the Palestinians began by turning away from negotiations toward violence, too many died, too many have been injured, on both sides. And too many seders now have empty chairs - missing husbands, fathers, brothers, sons; missing wives, mothers, sisters, daughters.

The seder's power and popularity comes from ritualizing memory. It is primal, sensual, literal. The seder plate - representing the mortar used in building, the charoset, and the tears shed by the slaves, the salt water - helps us visualize the trauma of slavery.

The physical acts of reclining, of eating special foods, of standing to greet Elijah the prophet, help us feel the joy of Yetziat Mitzrayim, leaving Egypt. And, affirming the importance of peoplehood, we mark this moment not as individuals but as a community.

In that spirit, we cannot proceed with business as usual. We must improvise a new ritual marking our present pain, illustrating the Jewish people's profound unity. We should intrude on our own celebrations at seder by leaving one setting untouched, by having one empty chair at our tables.

Let us take a moment to reflect on our losses from these terrible seven-and-a-half years, for even as stability has returned, terror attempts continue, freshly dug graves pockmark the Holy Land, the mourning for those lost persists. And as we reflect, let us not just remember the dead as nameless and faceless people, let us personalize them. Let us take the time to uncover one victim’s name, one Jew who cannot celebrate this year's holiday, one family in mourning.

Let us call out the names of Oleg Lipson and Lev Cherniak, civilians killed days ago by terrorists attacking the Nahal Oz fuel depot, which supplies Gaza with power.

Let us call out the names of Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old with a shy smile, kidnapped by Hamas on the Gaza border in July, 2006; and that of Ehud Goldwasser, a 31-year-old engineer, and Eldad Regev, a 26-year-old pre-law student, kidnapped by Hizbullah just south of Lebanon. The joy we take in our freedom must remain incomplete knowing that the Shalit, Goldwasser, and Regev families are missing their loved ones - even lacking information about their status.

Still reeling from the carnage amid the holy texts in the Mercaz HaRav library, let us call out the names of Yohai Lifshitz, 18, Neri Cohen, 15, Yonatan Yitzhak Eldar, 16, Yonadav Haim Hirschfeld, 19, Segev Peniel Avihail, 15, Avraham David Moses, 16, Roee Roth, 18 and Doron Mahareta, 26.

Remembering the Second Lebanon War sacrifices, let us call out the name of Yaniv Bar-On, the 20-year-old son of a South African father and a Canadian mother, ambushed while trying to save Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev from Hizbullah's clutches, and of Roi Klein, 31, a father of two, who jumped on a grenade crying "Shma Yisrael," Hear O' Israel, sacrificing his life to save his troops from certain death.

Remembering previous victims, let us call out the name of Benny Avraham, age 20, one of three young Israelis murdered by Hizbullah in a failed kidnapping in October 2000, whose body was kept frozen as the sadistic terrorists toyed with the emotions of the three grieving families.

Let us call out the name of Koby Mandell, age 13, a young American immigrant brutally killed in May, 2001, whose father, Rabbi Seth Mandell, talks about the empty seat at his Shabbat table and shares the pain of watching other boys grow up, watching their voices deepen, their shoulders broaden, their gaits quicken, even as his son lies dead.

Let us call out the names of Ernest and Eva Weiss, aged 80 and 75, residents of Petach Tikvah who survived Nazi concentration camps only to be slaughtered while sitting down for the seder at the Park Hotel exactly six years ago, Pesach, 2002.

And as we condemn modern-day Pharoahs in Iran and elsewhere, as we recoil from the worldwide scourge of anti-Semitism this terrorism also unleashed, let us call out the names of Ilan Halimi, the 23-year-old French Jew cellphone salesman kidnapped, tortured and murdered in a Parisian suburb by anti-Semitic thugs, and of Daniel Pearl, the 38-year-old Wall Street Journal reporter kidnapped, then murdered, in Pakistan almost exactly four years earlier.

As we call out these names, let us vow to do what we can to bring the three hostages home. As we call out these names, let us commit to some action to embrace the families of the victims - the thousand who died and the nearly ten thousand who were injured. As we call out these names, let those of us in the Diaspora commit to building a friendship with Israel which is not just about politics, and not solely about mourning and memory; let those of us in Israel commit to building a nation which can bring pride to the memories of those who sacrificed so much.

And as we call out these names, unlike too many of our enemies, let us not call for vengeance; let us not call for more bloodshed. Instead, as we mourn, let us hope. As we remember the many lives lost during this crazy and pointless war, let us pray ever more intensely for a just and lasting peace.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

A Zionist Seder

By Gil Troy,, April 5, 2008

This year’s seder should launch the big buildup to Israel’s 60th anniversary celebration. Just as in my youth we had a “matzah of hope” to carve out time from the historic ritual to remember the contemporary challenges of Soviet Jewry, we need to use this most popular Jewish ritual to delight in the miracle of Israel’s surviving – and thriving.

The power of the seder - which remains one of the most popular of Jewish ceremonies in Israel and abroad - comes from its ritualization of memory, and its dramatization of history. It is a most primal, most sensual, most literal, of services. The seder plate - with its representations of the mortar used in building, the charoset, and of the tears shed by the slaves, the salt water - helps us visualize the trauma of slavery. The joy of Dayenu – and the building toward the festive meal – helps us feel the redemption of freedom.

There are many entry points within the Seder ritual for discussion and commemoration of Israel. We could start by setting one empty seat at the table, to remember the three kidnapped Israeli soldiers – and the other soldiers and victims of terror who cannot join this festive night because they were murdered by modern-day enemies. We could continue by only serving Israeli wine, and celebrating the emergence of a sophisticated wine culture that both fills traditional kashrut requirements and is beginning to make a splash on the international wine scene. We could give our children an Israel related toy – or simply make a charitable donation to Israel in their names – in exchange for the Afikomen. We could add contemporary readings and modern Israeli songs at the point of Dayenu – the song detailing the many miracles of redemption. And we could culminate with a discussion over dinner about just how do we celebrate the modern miracle of Israel, wherever we might stand on the political spectrum, because Zionism is an idea that should transcend the left-right gravitational physics of everyday politics.

Let us start this countdown toward Israel's birthday with an ambitious goal. Every Jew who attends a seder this month should end up celebrating Israel in some way next month. If we really could fulfill that goal, we would trigger such a torrent of ideas and waves of participation that we would accelerate the needed renewal of the bond linking Diaspora Jews with Israel, and the bond linking Israeli Jews with their brothers and sisters in the Diaspora.