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Amid Israel protests, ‘Passover table is the new Thanksgiving table’

As Israelis continue to protest in unprecedented numbers against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s proposed overhaul of the judicial system, political tensions arise within Jewish families during Passover.

Protesters gather outside the Israeli Consulate in midtown Manhattan, March 27, 2023, in New York. Photo by Henrietta McFarlane

Jerusalem (RNS) — For Passover, Tsiyona Sharvit, an Israeli woman who lives on a kibbutz in a West Bank settlement, plans to join the holiday meal of the family of her daughter’s partner. It’s the first time she’ll be meeting them, which should be an exciting time for her, but Sharvit admits she’s worried about what to do if political talk breaks out at the Seder table.

An observant Jew, Sharvit normally looks forward to the holiday and its celebration of Jews’ delivery from Egyptian slavery. This year, though, it’s felt overshadowed by unrest in her country, as tens of thousands of people in Israel have gathered to protest efforts by Israel’s right-wing coalition government to overhaul the country’s judicial system. Sharvit, who said she leans conservative politically, has participated in protests. And although her family has not experienced division around politics, she can’t say the same for many of her friends.

“I have friends who have asked me to spend Passover with them because they aren’t speaking to their families,” she said. “They’re really angry.”

One friend, she said, canceled plans with her sister to celebrate the holiday after an argument over the protests. They had spent almost every Passover of their lives together.

For 12 weeks, protesters have been attending demonstrations across Israel in record numbers. According to recent polling from the Israel Democracy Institute, roughly two-thirds of Israelis oppose the judicial overhaul. Many citizens — like Sharvit and her friends —believe the future of Israel’s democracy is at stake.

The proposed changes would grant the elected government control over the choice of judges and diminish the power of its legal advisers, limiting the Supreme Court’s power to rule against the legislative and executive branches and affecting the government’s system of checks and balances.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has put the changes on pause amid public outcry, protests and labor strikes, the issue remains a live wire — even for those outside of Israel.

“He’s just buying time. That’s what he’s trying to do,” said Einat Admony, an Israeli-turned-New Yorker protesting outside the Israeli Embassy in Manhattan last week.

Admony owns Balaboosta, a critically praised Israeli restaurant in the West Village. While working full time as head chef, she’s also been active in demonstrations — which many of her family members in Israel don’t support.

“It’s been mixed opinions,” Admony said. “Which sometimes leads to tough conversations and screaming like crazy.” Admony said this year, she’ll remain in the States during Passover.

“Passover table is the new Thanksgiving table,” added Basya Gartenstein, referencing a timeworn tradition of fraught conversations when different generations of family get together over turkey and mashed potatoes.

The view from Sara Tesler’s home in Efrat, an Israeli settlement in the West Bank, on March 14, 2023. Photo by Henrietta McFarlane

Sara Tesler, a mother of five who lives in the West Bank settlement Efrat, agrees: Everything’s political right now, though she acknowledges life in Israel has often circulated around politics even before these demonstrations.

“Like, where do you buy your milk? Where do you send your kids to school?” she said. “Which roads will you drive on and which ones you don’t?”

An American who immigrated to Israel seven years ago, Tesler attends weekly protests in her settlement. She doesn’t go to larger demonstrations in cities like Jerusalem and Tel Aviv because she wants her neighbors, who she says are split 50/50 on Netanyahu’s proposed judicial changes, to see her stance on this issue. However, she does this without her husband, who doesn’t approve of the demonstrations.

“He feels like there’s never any nuance at a protest,” she said.

He believes they attract extremists and “a lot of people on the fringe,” she added.

Despite their differences, Tesler said she and her husband are expecting a peaceful Passover. They’ve always followed the precedent of no politics at the dinner table, and that’ll be a rule that’s doubly reinforced this year, she said.

But it’s tough to be apolitical in this environment, said Israeli public opinion expert Dahlia Scheindlin, who noted the protests aren’t compartmentalized and have edged into most aspects of life in Israel, including home life.

On March 25, more than 630,000 people attended demonstrations all across Israel — the largest demonstration in the nation’s 75-year existence. The sheer momentum of these weekly demonstrations for multiple months is historic, according to Scheindlin, who for 20 years has advised on campaigns in Israel as well as more than a dozen other countries,

“It’s very rare for a protest this big to go for so long,” she said, noting that outside of ultra-Orthodox communities, who are vastly in support of Netanyahu, the Israeli protesters have been diverse in age, gender and commitment to faith.

“Right-wing people are scared to see how many actors are in on this,” said Scheindlin.

On a recent Saturday in Jerusalem, Yael Ziv, Israeli flag in hand, arrived early to join a growing group of protesters outside the president’s residence as they geared up for another night of demonstrating.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors, Ziv, 75, said it’s challenging to witness families clash over this issue in a nation that’s supposed to be a designated safe space for Jews and “the only country in the world where Jews can feel that they are among themselves.”

“My friend just told me that his 30-year-old son decided not to join the family celebration in order to avoid explicit and painful conflict,” Ziv said.

But she believes there are important issues at stake and that protesting will “bear peaceful fruits,” regardless of the cost to people’s personal lives.

“Our pride is that we used to have a democratic country. Now the threat is that this will cease to be a democracy,” she said.

“The Jews suffered when we were not in a democracy.”

by Henrietta McFarlane, Laura Esposito, Religion News Service