Tonight, most of the world’s 13 million-plus Jews, including about 100,000 in Australia, will sit together for the second consecutive night, break bread — and cry.
The bread won’t be white, brown, multi-grain or rye — it’ll be bone-dry and crunchy. And the tears won’t be real either. Instead, we’ll eat horseradish and other bitter herbs. They’re key symbols of Passover, an eight-day festival that celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Pharaoh’s Egypt thousands of years ago.
The bitter herbs symbolise the pain and suffering they endured as slaves; the crackers, known as "the bread of our affliction", are a reminder that the Israelites had no time to allow the dough to rise as they fled for freedom. Just like Easter, when Christians re-enact the Stations of the Cross and eggs symbolise Christ’s resurrection, Passover is replete with rituals.
But the irony of the so-called festival of freedom is that although it celebrates an ancient piece of history about the Israelites, it is a modern-day parable because Israel is not free; it is chained to the shackles of Palestinian terror.
Their suicide bombers have blown any notion of our freedom to pieces, arguably none more so than the Hamas "martyr" who bombed the Park Hotel in Netanya, just north of Tel Aviv, on this exact Passover night in 2002, killing 30 Israelis.
Likewise, the Palestinians, inextricably linked to Israelis in this zero-sum conflict, are not free either; they’re chained to the Israeli occupation.
Amos Oz, Israel’s best-known novelist and one of its intellectual giants, helped draft the so-called Geneva Initiative back in 2003, which was based on a two-state solution, or as he describes it, "a painful, complicated divorce … that unlocks the handcuffs".
"The Land of Israel will no longer be a prison, or a double bed," he wrote at the time. "It will be a two-family house. The handcuffed link between the jailer and his prisoner will become a connection between neighbours who share a stairwell."
Years later the two peoples — occupier and occupied — are still imprisoned by this seemingly intractable conflict. That’s why the bitter herbs we eat tonight should not just be to remember the suffering of our ancestors; they should also be a symbol of our tragedy. Not just for the physical terror and psychological trauma the Palestinians have wrought upon us, but for the untold damage the 42-year occupation has saddled us with.
The bitter truth — hard as it may be to write, horrible as it is to admit — is that the occupation has brutalised us, corrupted our children and tarnished our image in the international arena.
The very debate raging in Israel right now about whether the Israel Defence Force is the "most moral army in the world" (as its military brass declares), or whether it was guilty of "war crimes" during its recent offensive in Gaza (as the United Nations will now investigate) is a snapshot of the morass we have been dragged into.
Israel’s miraculous military victory in 1967 saved the Jewish state from oblivion. But the consequences of that victory — the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — may not save our souls. The quicksand is rising.
The Palestinians, for their part, are far from blameless. What they have done to us is and what we have done to them is, tragically, written in blood. But as the bulk of the world’s Jews sit down to remember our march to liberation thousands of years ago, far too few of us will admit our march of folly today.
For the narrative we are re-telling our children is not just a biblical tale but a tragic modern-day moral of how a people called upon to be a "light unto the nations" has been dragged into dusk by an occupation whose shadow stretches 42 long years.
The ripple effect of the conflict has even reached these shores. When I drop my two young daughters at their Jewish school in Sydney, I have to drive through a barricaded steel gate where a guard, armed with a pistol, stands watch.
Mercifully, my kids are too young to understand; regrettably, we parents may have grown too old to remember how it used to be, or are just too numbed by this post-9/11 world.
Although it may be tempting to pray that Barack Hussein Obama is a modern-day messiah of the Middle East, it’s likely to be yet another false dawn. Between Israel’s new hardline Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, and the tyrant of Tehran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, there seems precious little hope of a détente in the war of words, let alone a rapprochement in the region.
We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt but now we are free. That’s what we remember during Passover. The crying shame is we are still enslaved today by an occupation that has become an albatross around our collective neck. That’s the real reason why we should eat bitter herbs — and shed tears tonight
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