From slavery to freedom

Tonight I was among the 400 people who sat down along a festive table in Levinsky Park for a very special evening. The “Seder” is a festive evening meal during which Jews all over the world gather to remember their exodus from Egypt. A time for reflecting about issues such as freedom and liberation, as well as violence and discrimination which target minorities in every single nation.

Amnesty international, the UNHCR and many local NGOs joined hands to organize this evening with shared food and live music, in a true melting-pot atmosphere. The Seder took place in a park in the South of Tel Aviv, because this is the neighborhood which counts the highest numbers of migrant workers and refugees among its residents. This same park doubles as an informal dormitory for 50 to 200 refugees every night. In Israel there are today more than 35.000 asylum seekers and refugees, mostly from Eritrea and Sudan. For a long time I have been wanting to write something about this issue, and I suspect this will be only the first of other immigrants-related posts.

I arrived at Levinsky by 6 pm. Many people (mostly Africans) were gathered on the outside of the fence. The entrance was wide open, but it seemed that none of the immigrants dared to go inside, preferring to mingle informally or to simply stare with the inscrutable look of those who have been through a lot in their life, and do not trust the simple way. Volunteers had to go around and actually drag people in, so that the ceremony could start. I was squeezed between some friends and a happy looking young Israeli. ” I am afraid I am the only Israeli here“, he confessed. It is true that most of the non-African guests walking around were speaking English with either American or non-Israeli accent. Many of the volunteers serving food, though, were from a local yeshiva (religious school), which was also the organization leading the prayers.

Tables were dressed with Matzos, the traditional unleavened bread, sweet wine, and small informative booklets.

“Thirty-six times in the Torah we are told to remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Thus, we are commanded to treat other humans with dignity and respect, because we were once slaves and we remember the degradation […] Each generation is obliged not only to remember its own exodus, but also to be attentive to those among us here, and in the whole world, that find themselves today in a state of slavery, oppression and suffering”.

Then a quote from the Leviticus book:

“The foreigners residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt” (Leviticus 19:34)

This point is, I think, a particularly interesting one: Jewish people have suffered on their skin the bitterness of slavery, discrimination and collective punishment. Is it legitimate to ask wether this sad fact make them more or less sensitive, as a people, to the journey of exile of others? Reflecting on the situation of foreigners in Israel (refugees and migrant workers), I must say that I have experienced first-hand what I would call an unfortunate high level of racism. I heard incredible racist jokes from students, from older people, from the rich and from the less rich. The kind of offensive words that in other democratic countries people would be ashamed to let out, here are dropped in a casual conversations with alarming nonchalance.

One of the most beloved songs of the Jewish Seder is the “ma ishtana” – built around questions that children are supposed to ask their parents about the Exodus from Egypt. The first line says: “Why is this night different from other nights?”. For me, this night was different because it gave me the opportunity to look in the eyes of people whom I normally have no chance or time or upfrontness to meet on a personal level. A large population of immigrants that I do not come across in my daily routine. Thanks to the mediation of a wonderful Canadian woman, Anne-Sophie (who is very active in the world of refugees aid) I gained insight into the stories of bereaved families, lonely children, adults facing prison, people lost in bureaucracy traps and lacking very basic rights, such as the right to a translator when dealing with legal issue. On a positive note, she also pointed out to the leaders of the different communities, the Congolese, the Ethiopians, brave and courageous people who did not sit idle in their new reality of outsiders. They founded shelters, organized lectures, donation events, all different ways of reaching out to others.

A collective thought was also directed to the many refugees (220, including women and children) who recently lost their lives at sea while attempting to cross over from Libya to Sicily. The survivors of the shipwreck have seen their dearest ones swallowed by the waves, and are being treated for condition of shock. The facilities on the little island of Lampedusa are overwhelmed and Italy lacks the political leadership who could make a difference in handling the increased number of refugees that the situation in Libya has pushed towards our shores. Prime Minister Berlusconi has stepped forward to say he intends to buy a villa on the island (its #29th), but it is unclear how this is going to affect the situation of the migrants. My little heart ached for my country and the challenges it faces in dealing with the refugees boats.

I drank the fourth glass of wine, took in once more the sight of the lovely atmosphere generated by this unusual Seder, and then I went home, where I crushed into my sofa and switched on the TV. I did it to seek temporary amnesia from all the sufferance of the world, which is really a lot.

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