Pesach in Israel shows just how divided we are

By Nathan Jeffay, April 18, 2008

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?

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

Last updated: 5:24pm, May 13 2008