Pe­sach in Is­rael shows just how di­vided we are

If the seder meal is a time of unity, why will so many Jewish ser­vice staff in the Holy Land be work­ing against their will?

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT&ANALYSIS - NATHAN JEFFAY

IT SEEMS there could hardly be a greater ex­am­ple of Jewish unity and the power of Pe­sach to bring peo­ple to­gether. To­mor­row night, thou­sands of Jews from across the di­as­pora will cel­e­brate seder in Is­raeli ho­tels. At first glance, the scene in the av­er­age ho­tel tells this happy story. But like a Magic Eye pic­ture, on closer ex­am­i­na­tion things look very dif­fer­ent. In truth, the scene will epit­o­mise just how po­larised we have be­come as a re­li­gion. All chil­dren old enough to un­der­stand what they ask in the Four Ques­tions know that on seder night ev­ery­one must lean. The rea­son, par­ents ex­plain, is that ev­ery­thing we do, even the way we sit, should stress the fact that the Chil­dren of Is­rael were lib­er­ated from slav­ery, and all Jews as their de­scen­dants need to cel­e­brate this free­dom. Lean­ing is a free man’s priv­i­lege.

But keep­ing things run­ning smoothly in the ho­tel din­ing-rooms — as guests, mostly re­li­gious or tra­di­tional Jews, pon­tif­i­cate on top­ics like this — is an army of kitchen staff, wait­ers and wait­resses. They are not, as many peo­ple pre­sume, all non-Jews; but rather many are Jews com­pelled, by ho­tel ro­tas, to work.

Shmuel Zurel, di­rec­tor gen­eral of the Is­rael Ho­tel As­so­ci­a­tion, es­ti­mates that up to half the em­ploy­ees in some ho­tels to­mor­row night will be Jewish. In fact, so that guests can en­joy fine wines, many ho­tels pre­fer to em­ploy Jewish staff who can serve any bot­tles, whereas non-Jews — ac­cord­ing to halachah — can only serve boiled ( me­vushal) wine.

How ironic. You will be hard-pushed to find the word “I” in the hag­gadah — it is all about our free­dom as a na­tion. We make a truly in­clu­sive dec­la­ra­tion in Ara­maic: that whoever wants “should come and eat”. But it has be­come a night when non-ob­ser­vant Jews ab­stain from the cel­e­bra­tion to serve re­li­gious Jews who take part.

Is it wrong to go to a ho­tel for seder? Lon­don’s Charedi es­tab­lish­ment cer­tainly thinks so. Last month, Dayan Shalom Fried­man, of the Union of Ortho­dox He­brew Con­gre­ga­tions, is­sued a state­ment urg­ing a halt to the prac­tice. His rea­son is that you miss out on the virtue of clean­ing.

But far more in­te­gral to the true theme of the fes­ti­val is the prob­lem of the free­dom rite turn­ing in to one where some Jews take part and oth­ers serve.

You can­not con­demn hol­i­day­mak­ers for go­ing, or the staff for do­ing their job. How­ever, it in­di­cates that the Is­raeli tourist in­dus­try, which we all talk so much about sup­port­ing, can be prob­lem­atic.

The vi­sion of Zion­ism was to have a state where be­ing a Jew is no im­ped­i­ment to get­ting on in life. Just the other week, I was talk­ing to a man who stud­ied tourism and worked in ho­tels in Eng­land, where ro­tas were amended to fa­cil­i­tate his Ortho­dox ob­ser­vance. When he made aliyah, he was of­fered a job in a Jerusalem ho­tel, only to have it with­drawn when they re­alised he was re­li­gious and would not work on Shab­bat and hol­i­days. The end­ing of his story is not un­com­mon — he was forced to leave the ho­tel in­dus­try in or­der to re­main ob­ser­vant.

When hol­i­day­mak­ers sing hag­gadah songs, if they look care­fully at the wait­ers and wait­resses, it is likely some will be mouthing along. Many, while not Ortho­dox like the man I spoke to, would pre­fer to be at home cel­e­brat­ing Pe­sach.

Re­quired to pi­geon­hole them­selves as sec­u­lar to get their job, even if that does not quite de­scribe their Jewish iden­tity, they now need to face the con­se­quences of adopt­ing that la­bel. They must be will­ing to forgo any Shab­bat or hol­i­day, of­ten to spend it at the ser­vice of peo­ple from the other side of the re­li­gious spec­trum.

The fact that cit­i­zens of the Jewish state are con­stantly forced to cat­e­gorise them­selves in to a par­tic­u­lar group is one of its great prob­lems. They must do so for school­ing, for youth move­ments, for army ser­vice, and then for em­ploy­ment.

We so of­ten like to tell our­selves smugly that what­ever di­vi­sions like th­ese ex­ist among the Jewish peo­ple, seder night is a respite from them, a rare glimpse of unity as ev­ery­one cel­e­brates.

Non­sense. To­mor­row night Is­rael’s ho­tels will show­case our schisms. And then, through the rest of the fes­ti­val, re­sent­ment be­tween the coun­try’s sec­u­lar and re­li­gious is set to peak. This is be­cause a fort­night ago a Jerusalem court gave a carte blanche to shops and restau­rants to sell chametz on Pe­sach, and Ortho­dox politi­cians pledged to use po­lit­i­cal chan­nels to un­der­mine the rul­ing. Both sides are fu­ri­ous at the other.

In the Promised Land, in­stead of pro­mot­ing unity, Pe­sach ex­ac­er­bates di­vi­sion.

Nathan Jeffay is an Is­rael-based con­trib­u­tor to the JC

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