In a few hours, I will be traveling home to celebrate Passover with my family, a holiday exalting freedom celebrated by Jews all over the world. In the wake of a recent trip to Jordan, where I had the opportunity to clearly examine the ramifications of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up close, and Ehud Olmert’s ambiguous declaration that he is “open to talks with moderate Arab leaders,” allow me to share a few words about freedom at this time.
Mah nishtana ha’layla ha’zeh — Why is this night different from all other nights? Is it, perhaps, the most hypocritical of them all?
After all, we are celebrating the Hebrews’ journey “from degredation to dignity” leaving out the fact that there are 4,255,120 Palestinian refugees to date (as estimated by the U.N.). The Hebrews struggled in the desert for 40 years before reaching the promised land; Palestinians have struggled in other areas for 59 years as of this May, and the truth is, there won’t be an arrival at the “promised land” for them.
As of now, right of return for Palestinian refugees is an unnegotiable issue for Arab nations, but they will have to compromise on this. Just as Olmert will have to agree to the as-of-now unnegotiable issue of withdrawing from the West Bank, there is physically not enough space in this space for over 4,000,000 refugees to return. If Olmert agrees to the Arab Peace Plan as drafted by Saudi Arabia in 2002, however, normal relations will be established between Israel and other Arab nations. Perhaps finally displaced Palestinians will then be able to visit their West Bank friends, neighbors and family members without being denied access by Israel.
Note: For a reality check of these nations’ proximities, I strongly urge each and every one of you to visit Jordan and drive along the Jordan “River” (read: “tiny stream”). As a fun game, count how many checkpoints you go through; almost like counting sheep, but with the opposite of calming effects.
And how bout that slaying of the first-born deal? We count the 10 plagues while dipping our fingers in wine to symbolically remove a piece of our happiness as a result of others’ misfortune. The plagues, miraculous as they are, are desperate tactics against an unfair oppressor.
The wine ceremony, inadequate as it may be, is meant to generate empathy for those who lose their lives for the sake of a higher cause. I am not condoning suicide bombing by any means, but this last plague especially reminds us of what subjugation will bring normal, good people to do — in the case of the ancient Hebrews, idly watching as an entire population of boys is obliterated, and in the case of modern-day Palestinians, watching as sons and daughters volunteer themselves for what they consider to be a just cause. The idea of helping your neighbor is strongly built into the major monotheistic religions. Standing still as your neighbor is wiped out by a heavenly force, or even by his or her own actions, would never be condoned by Judaism or Islam if not for extenuating circumstances.
A week ago at this time I was standing on Mount Nebo in Jordan, where Moses delivered his last speech to the Hebrews as he was not able to enter the Holy Land (which, actually was my Bat Mitzvah portion, Ha’Azinu, seven years back). The site overlooks Jordan as well as Jethro, the West Bank, and far in the distance, Jerusalem.
I sat by myself, trying to imagine what Moses must have felt when he looked out at a similar view thousands of years ago, as tourists around me chatted on their cell phones and snapped pictures. I also wondered what Moses, the biblical receiver of the Torah, would think if he knew that there is absolutely no mention of Judaism on the top of the mountain. Instead, there is a church, and the site itself is actually owned by the Vatican. On the way there, I sat in the front seat with our Palestinian driver, Abu Mohammad, who directy associated Zionism with Judaism and wanted no part in any of it. He explained to me how the site was holy to both Christians and Muslims. Judaism was completely omitted.
There’s something just a little bit off when the world’s first monotheistic religion is omitted when referring to its most famous and influential prophet. And if I had had more time with Abu Mohammad, in the spirit of the upcoming (fingers-crossed) Arab-Israel talks as well as my personal Atticus-Finchism beliefs of putting yourself in your neighbor’s shoes, I would have spoken to him about this discrepancy. I urge you as a Cornell student to resist the tempting polarity that I’ve borne witness to over my past year and a half at Cornell. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one which affects all of humanity, and this Passover season, I urge you no matter what your background to empathize with struggling people all over the world and appreciate your own freedom.
I might have alienated myself from the Jewish population here at Cornell with this article, along with good friends that I have in the Israeli army to whom I will send this at its completion. But to me, if you are a Jewish person who feels the suffering of our recent and ancient ancestors through years of diaspora, wandering and discrimination, you cannot idly stand by and accept everything that is going on in Israel. An acceptable solution is only one which does not weaken the unnegotiable rights which we have by virtue of being human.
L’shana ha’baa — next year in Jerusalem. But, with qualifications. Mr. Olmert, Mr. Abbas and you the reader, may we see next year an internationally-zoned Jerusalem whose holiness is protected and accessible to all.
Ariela Rutkin-Becker is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically.