Only in America: Building Bridges at a Unique Seder

By Andrea Barron

Published May 02, 2003, issue of May 02, 2003.
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Every Passover, Jews begin telling the story of the exodus from Egypt by reciting the Four Questions, starting with, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” This year, one Seder I attended was different not simply because of the matzo and the maror, but because of the people seated around the table.

There were eight Jews, including myself. But there were also nine Arabs and Muslims at the Seder: an Egyptian, two Yemenis, an Iraqi, a Lebanese, a Pakistani, a strawberry blonde American Muslim and two Palestinians — one of whom was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s counselor for political and congressional affairs in Washington. Despite our ethnic and religious differences, we had one important thing in common: Everyone believed in a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — security for Israel and an end to Israeli control over the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967.

We all gathered on April 20 at Glencarlyn Road Baptist Church in Falls Church, Va., where Pastor Greg Loewer welcomed everyone and explained that his church was hosting the unusual event because it is about “peacemaking and bridge-building.” The Passover story has always inspired him, he said, because it shows “how God provided a way for the ancient Israelites to gain their freedom and become a nation.”

We used a traditional Haggada and placed Seder plates, salt water and Elijah’s cup on the table. All the guests even had their own small Seder plates so they could better understand the parsley and matzo symbols, taste the bitterness of the horseradish and the sweetness of charoset. Mindy Reiser, a sociologist who attended Hebrew day schools in New York, lit the candles. Then we said kiddush and prepared to drink the first glass of “wine” — grape juice, actually, since this was a Baptist church and several of the Muslims do not drink wine.

Although we asked the Four Questions, said most of the blessings, spilled drops of grape juice for the 10 plagues and sang “Dayenu,” “Adir Hu” and “Echad Mi Yodea,” this was anything but a traditional Seder. One of our goals was to encourage dialogue about the Arab-Israeli conflict and co-existence among Jews, Arabs and Muslims. We expected a lively discussion, and that is what happened.

Tarek Khalil, who emigrated from Cairo six years ago, said he understood that the pharaohs were the enemy in the Passover story, not the Egyptian people. And he noted that the Koran also mentions how God delivered the ancient Israelites from Pharaoh.

(Verse 2:49 says: “And remember, we divided the sea for you [the Children of Israel] and saved you and drowned Pharaoh’s people within your very sight.”) Still, he said he felt relieved when Reiser told him about the Biblical verse commanding the Jews: “Thou shalt not abhor an Egyptian; because thou wast a stranger in his land.” (Deuteronomy 23:7).

Khalil presented an alternative interpretation for each cup of wine: The first cup stood for truth, the second for change, the third for tolerance, and the fourth for hope. “Jews and Arabs have to stop stereotyping each other,” he said. “It’s not true that all Arabs hate Jews and want to destroy Israel. And many Arabs have a false perception that Jews devote themselves to conspiring against Arabs and Muslims.” He said he hoped the mainstream on both sides would prevent radicals from dominating their respective communities.

Ghaleb Darabya, the PLO representative, said that for him truth means “correcting the misperception pervasive in Congress that Palestinians don’t believe in coexistence with Israel.” Darabya, who comes from a Gaza refugee family, said “The PLO has recognized Israel since 1988 and affirmed this again when it signed the Oslo peace agreement. Groups like Hamas, they are not part of the PLO.” He stressed that “Congress and U.S. Jews need to see the truth about Palestinian suffering — how people can’t get to the hospital, how women are forced to give birth at the 163 roadblocks Israel has set up in the West Bank. Labor and Likud supporters in Israel debate all the time — American Jews should do the same since Israel’s mistakes will affect them too.”

Steve Silverberg, a Washington lawyer, said that he believes that there are many Jews like him who do not support Prime Minister Sharon’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza, but that they have become more reluctant to criticize Israel since the breakdown of the Oslo peace process. “We’re trying to break through all the horrible feelings that have developed between Jews and Arabs over the last two years,” he said, “and show that both sides can still make public statements for peace.”

In the spirit of asking questions, Darabya wanted to know why the blessing over the matzo includes the words: “All who are needy, come and celebrate Passover with us. Now we celebrate here, next year may we be in the Land of Israel.” Did these words, he asked, mean all Jews should move to Israel? If not, then why were they still in the Haggada?

Paul Scham, a visiting scholar at George Washington University who recently returned to Washington after six years at the Truman Institute for Peace at Hebrew University, said these words were “never understood as an imperative for all Jews to physically return to the Land of Israel. Rather they expressed a yearning for return, especially when the Haggada first appeared over 1,500 years ago.” He added that “it’s important for Palestinians to understand that this yearning is an integral part of our Jewish tradition. That’s why Jews feel offended when Palestinians or other deny their connection to the land.”

Andy Shallal, an Iraqi-American restaurateur and political activist, wanted to focus on how people need to change themselves while they campaign for broader political changes. Shallal has been convening weekly Arab-Jewish “peace cafes” in one of his restaurants for more than three years. “I still believe that Palestinians are the victims in the conflict with Israel,” he said. “But to move forward in the peace process, we have to appreciate the sense of insecurity pervasive in the Jewish psyche and why so many Jews see Israel like an insurance policy.”

Abdulwahab Alkebsi, a Yemeni and the Middle East and North Africa program officer at the National Endowment of Democracy, said that moving forward meant that by next year at least one Arab country will have become a democracy and he will have one less country in his portfolio.

Alkebsi commented on how similar some of the Jewish prayers were to Muslim prayers. Then he passed me a note, asking if the Seder could break for 10 minutes so he and two other Muslims could pray. We all took a break while Pastor Loewer led them into a quiet library and pointed east, so they could pray facing Mecca.

When the Seder resumed, Alkebsi told everyone that in many parts of the Islamic world, Jews are perceived as enemies of Islam and Southern Baptists are among those Christians least tolerant of Islam. He said, “Only in America could three devout Muslims participate in a Passover Seder — a Jewish festival — and perform their communal prayers openly in a Southern Baptist Church.”

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