A year ago, we posted on an alternative Passover Seder at Georgetown Day School where we told the story of Egyptian author Ali Salem and his crossing of the desert in a beat-up old Soviet jalopy on a journey through Israel. This year, we’ve asked Andrea Barron–a friend, JCC neighbor, Peace Cafe stalwart, GMU professor, and Program Manager for International Affairs at The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars, to tell us of another extraordinary Passover gathering between Muslims and Jews in our area. Here’s her article. (Comments welcome)
Every year Jews all over the world gather together to celebrate the ancient holiday of Passover, which commemorates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt over 3,000 years ago and the universal desire for freedom. This year Barack Obama made history when for the first time, the president participated in a traditional Passover seder meal in the White House.
But just 25 miles from the White House, Washington area Jews and Muslims made their own kind of Passover history. On April 11th, the fourth night of Passover, over 30 Jews and Muslims and a few Christians came together to celebrate Passover at the All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS), a large mosque located in Sterling, Virginia.
The seder organizers –ADAMS Board Member Rizwan Jaka, Interfaith Director Farhanahz Ellis, and Andrea Barron from Washington Area Jews for Jewish-Muslim Understanding– said they wanted Muslims and Jews to build bridges of understanding and mutual respect at a time when the world was being polarized by extremists. Discussion was organized around this seder’s own Four Cups of Passover — Understanding, Respect, Justice and Peace – with a focus on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict and other current issues.
For Imam Mohamed Magid from ADAMS, the Seder was an example of the kind of interfaith dialogue the mosque seeks to promote. “I believe that the Seder’s message is a message for all humanity,” he said. “As Muslims, we commemorate when God freed the children of Israel from Pharaoh –the Seder is a way for us to appreciate the Jewish community.” Two years ago, after Iran held a conference denying the Holocaust, it was Imam Magid who organized an event at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum where Muslim leaders honored the memory of Jews murdered by the Nazis.
The seder’s Jewish organizers were long-time activists for Israeli-Palestinian peace committed to security for Israel and a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem based on the 1967 borders. The Muslim guests included Nihad Awad, executive director of CAIR (the Council on American–Islamic Relations), the largest Muslim organization in the U.S.; Hassan Al-Ibrahim, Vice-Chairman of the – Muslim Public Affairs Council; Omar Ashraf, Chair of the ADAMS Board; Ashraf Nubani, a Virginia-based attorney; and several African-American Muslims.
This was Nihad Awad’s second seder—in 2007 he attended one organized by the same group held at a private home in Washington, D.C. He remembers being “pleasantly surprised to meet American Jews who strongly believe and are attached to their faith, but also recognize Palestinian suffering.” Now, two years later, after dialoguing with a small group of Jewish activists and deep personal reflection, Awad says he has come to understand the Jewish narrative, and that listening to it does not invalidate his own. “In fact, as a Muslim leader in the United States, it is my responsibility to understand the Jewish narrative and discuss it with my community.”
Jews at the seder were impressed that Awad was trying to “break down his absolutes” about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, just like some of them had done. Attorney Steve Silverberg explained what it had been like for him over 30 years ago. “Because of my deep emotional connection to Israel and the Jewish people, it was very difficult for me to accept the fact that the creation of Israel had displaced another people.”
Judith Lelchook, a social worker and doctoral student in health policy at the University of Maryland, was one of the Jews who engaged in the dialogue with Nihad Awad. Judith’s brother David was among the 43 Israeli civilians killed in the 2006 war with Hezbollah. He was a citrus farmer on Kibbutz Saar in northern Israel when a Hezbollah missile killed him. “David would have wanted me to be at this seder,” said Lelchook, “celebrating with Palestinians and Muslims dialoguing for peace.”
Ashraf Nubani, a Virginia-based lawyer and a Palestinian activist with an Islamic orientation, came to the Seder directly from Dulles Airport after spending a week at a conference in Khartoum organized by Sudanese students. “My wife was surprised when she picked me up from the airport and I told her we weren’t going home—we were going to a Passover Seder!”
Nubani explained how important it was for him to attend the Seder. “I wanted to show my Jewish-American friends that while we still might differ on a solution to the Israel-Palestine question, we could still sit down at the seder and talk about justice and peace.”
Andrea Barron directs seminars on the Arab-Israeli conflict for university students and teaches history at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia. She organized the first annual Jewish-Arab-Muslim Passover Seder at the Columbia@Crossroads Baptist Church in Falls Church, Virginia in 2002.