As you chant, be mindful of what this means for today
It was the spring of 2016. My son and I were in Israel together. He was 16, the same age I was on my first trip there.
We had a great time, busing up and down from Beit Hatfutsot, the Museum of the Jewish People on the campus of Tel Aviv University in Ramat Aviv, to the old city of Yafo; busing some more from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; busing from the heart of the city to Ein Kerem and back. And driving, too – to the north, up, up, up Mount Carmel in Haifa, across and up to Safed, and to the backroads of Kibbutz Alonim, where my family has names on its memorial wall.
Beit Hatfutsot, along with the detailed installations at the Israel Museum, were two of my son’s favourite destinations. He delighted in finding some of our family history at the former, and spent hours and hours at the latter with its displays of ancient history and with the vast outdoor model of ancient Jerusalem. And everywhere … the cats.
All of these were important to him, and I could see the threads of connection being woven. Through art, culture, history and our stories, he was coming to understand himself as part of his people, with a stake in a Judaism he could relate to and celebrate.
Our trip came to a close just as Passover was beginning. We celebrated with our family and an international collection of their in-laws and friends in the northern suburbs of Tel Aviv along the Mediterranean Sea. Before the seder began, a WhatsApp message popped up with the amazing news that the refugee couple we were waiting to welcome had received their papers. They would soon be on their way to Canada from Lebanon!
I was breathless. Looking out to the coast, I was trying to picture them, less than 200 kilometres away, and I could barely imagine what they were feeling. Then I looked at the Haggadah and thought about the concept of redemption. This was it. The concept was no longer “biblical,” theoretical, or embedded in a strange word rarely heard in casual conversation. This couple – and so many others seeking refuge, asylum, and safety – were being redeemed, the bondage exchanged for their freedom. Canada would be their safe haven, the place where – in this case – they could live without fear of persecution, or worse, for being queer.
For others, it could mean the freedom to practise their religion without fear, like the Yazidi fleeing Syria or Iraq. For many fleeing the African continent, it could mean freedom from gender-based violence, ethnic cleansing, or forced indeterminate conscription – all violations of international human rights.
Regrettably, as we approach this Passover, those from Africa who have fled to Israel as refuge-seekers have instead been met with a mean-spirited and even hostile reception. No matter the justifications, rationalization and explanations, I found it shocking to see pictures of people held in open-air cages in the hot desert at Holot. I found it incredible (meaning just that: not credible) to learn that deportations to various unstable nations are now underway.
As CBC correspondent Derek Stoffel reports, many Israelis, including Holocaust survivors and scholars, are declaring these actions contradict Jewish values, practices and beliefs. The Canadian government has taken a stand as well, effectively exerting pressure on the Israeli government to allow African asylum seekers destined for Canada to not be immediately deported to unstable third countries.
This tale of deportation and inhospitality differs so profoundly from the tale of liberation and redemption in our Haggadah. “My father was a wandering Aramean.” As we chant this phrase at our sedarim this year, may we be mindful, as Canadians and as Jews, that we have not only a moral, but also a religious, imperative to provide a safe haven to those who are wandering today.