Human rights and Pesach: 4 cups, 4 women, 4 values for activists

We’re currently in the period of Pesach – the Jewish festival of Passover. An incredibly important time in the Jewish calendar, this festival marks how God led the Israelites out of Egypt, from slavery under the rule of Pharaoh to freedom

Over one or two nights, the Exodus story is told during a “Seder” dinner. Here, friends and family gather to recall the story and reflect on the oppression of the past and just how precious freedom is.

Central to the festival and the seder nights are of course of the values of freedom, justice and equality, as opposed to slavery (a gross human rights abuse). Whatever our faith, we should all treasure these values.

Non-Jews can learn a lot from this festival – I know how I have over the years!

With that in mind, I attended a women’s seder run by the Jewish human rights organisation René Cassin last March.  A fantastic evening, this seder brought to light the role of women in Judaism and called for us to reflect on human rights.

4 questions: 4 calls to action

So how does a seder work?

Well, throughout this (as with any) seder, four questions were asked:

How is this night different from all other nights?

Untitled design (3)
A traditional seder plate – where the food items help observers reflect on the Exodus story.

1. On all other nights, we eat chametz (leavened foods) and matzah. Why on this night, only matzah

Eating matzah (unleavened bread) reminds Jews how their ancestors had to flee for their lives. In the rush, they did not have time to allow the bread to rise. The bread they took with them was therefore unleavened.

2. On all other nights, we eat all vegetables. Why, on this night, maror (bitter herbs)?

Bitter herbs remind them of the sadness (and bitterness) of living in slavery.

3. On all other nights, we don’t dip even once. Why on this night do we dip twice?

Dipping the leafy vegetable (e.g. parsley) reminds us of the tears from the suffering in slavery.

4. On all other nights, we eat either sitting upright or reclining. Why on this night do we all recline?

Reclining whilst eating and drinking emulates the customs of the free, prosperous people during Biblical times (as opposed to the oppressed slaves).

So, what does this mean for human rights?

Well, during a seder, after each question and corresponding item of food is eaten, a glass of wine is drunk. You remember, you reflect and you commit to freedom for everyone.

These questions are important. They call on us to think about the ills of slavery, the rights of asylum seekers, the harm of hate and the importance of standing up for human rights.

As the saying goes, no one is free unless we’re all free.

So, what are we doing now to uphold human rights in today’s world? How can we embody the values of the Passover story to build a better future? 

Well, here are René Cassin’s four present-day questions to get us started:

    1. What have we done to support the journeys of refugees and asylum seekers today?
    2. How do we understand hate crime? Have we reported it? What can we do to combat hate?
    3. What have we done in our personal and professional lives to combat modern slavery?
    4. What action have we taken to support persecuted groups such as Uyghur Muslims and Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities?

These are all critical areas which we need to take action on (see here and at the end of this blog for more info on how to get involved!).

So, to help us embody our commitment to human rights and these causes, here are four key values to represent each cup formulated by René Cassin. These are critical to any kind of activism – as embodied by the following four inspirational Jewish women!

4 cups: 4 values in action

1. Resistance: Hannah Szenes

PikiWiki_Israel_7706_Hannah_SeneshCampaigning for universal values, such as freedom and equality, is everyone’s duty. And resistance against injustice is something that Hannah Szenes dedicated her life to.

Born in Hungary in 1921 into a Jewish family, Hannah was a poet and a famous partisan figure during WWII. She joined the Special Operations Executive (SEO) as one of 37 Jewish SEO recruits from Mandate Palestine.

Parachuted into Yugoslavia to help the effort against the Nazis, she helped save Hungarian Jews from being sent to Auschwitz. Sadly though, she was arrested at the Hungarian border.

During her imprisonment, Hannah was subjected to torture. However, she never revealed any information. For her role in saving lives from the Nazis, she was later executed by firing squad in November 1944.

This is one of Hannah’s poems found in her cell after she was executed:

One—two—three … eight feet long,
Two strides across, the rest is dark …
Life hangs over me like a question mark.

One—two—three … maybe another week,
Or next month may still find me here,
But death, I feel, is very near.

I could have been twenty-three next July;
I gambled on what mattered most,
The dice were cast. I lost.

May her memory be a blessing.

2. Solidarity: Laura Marks OBE

WhatsApp Image 2020-04-13 at 15.35.54Human rights belong to us all. We must stand for the rights of everyone, everywhere.

This is where solidarity and allyship are crucial, as together we are stronger and we embody the values we are working towards.

A great example of this is the work of Laura Marks. A social entrepreneur incredibly active in the Jewish community, Laura was awarded an OBE for her interfaith work, bringing people together across faith divides. 

Founder of Mitzvah Day – an NGO dedicated to social action – Laura later set-up the NGO Nisa-Nashim with her Muslim friend and fellow activist Julie Siddiqi in 2015:

It’s not enough, nor is it right, to only stand for ourselves. We are in this together, as Jewish and Muslim sisters, especially when the hatred is targeted at women.

Laura Marks and Julie Siddiqi, Co-Founders of Nisa-Nashim

The largest Jewish-Muslim women’s network in Europe (and one that I’m very proud to be a part of!), Nisa-Nashim, brings Jewish and Muslim women together to develop friendships, build understanding, strengthen women’s leadership and combat both antisemitism and Islamophobia/anti-Muslim hate.

Nisa Nashim’s Active Allies campaign, embodies the key message of Laura and Julie’s work: standing together in solidarity to fight hate together and make the world a better, safe place for Muslim and Jewish women, and society as a whole.

3. Empowerment: Sally Berkovic

Sally Berkovic High Res photo

We need to empower others to help lead each other into tomorrow, with drive and determination to bring about a better world.

One Jewish woman who has made this her mission is author and blogger Sally Berkovic.

Born in Australia to Slovakian Holocaust survivors, Sally studied at Melbourne University. She then worked as a social worker and academic for several years.

After living in Jerusalem and New York, Sally later moved to London in 1993 where she established a career in freelance writing. Since 2009, she has been the CEO of the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, where she works to support Jewish culture and heritage across Europe.

Her book Under My Hat: How Orthodox Women are Shaping the Future of Judaism, critically discusses the challenges of raising daughters as an Orthodox Jew in a secular world. The work was shortlisted for the Jewish Quarterly Prize.

First published in 1997, the book merges sociology, history, memoir and perceptive observations on Orthodoxy and modern life. It raised issues that now dominate the Orthodox world.

Recognising the role of women in Judaism, she’s challenging narratives and striving to empower women, within their faith:

If we accept that knowledge is power, then women must acquire the same tools that men take for granted and use against women to keep them in a dependent position.

Sally Berkovic, Under My Hat: How Orthodox Women are Shaping the Future of Judaism, KTAV (2019)

As a woman of faith and an outspoken feminist myself, I know how important women like Sally are.

4. Legacy: Anne Frank 

AnneFrank1940_cropBy looking at the past, we’re not only reminded of the need to stand against human rights abuses, but we’re also reminded of the powerful legacies of some incredible people.

We must continue the work of great human rights activists, of writers, social entrepreneurs and of people who continue to inspire us all through their wisdom.

One of the many people whose legacy continues to live on is Anne Frank, whose diary is one of the most well-known writings covering the Holocaust and WWII period. 

Documenting her life in hiding from the Nazis from 1942 to 1942, her writings have inspired books, films, charities and people all over the world. Her diary alone has been translated into more than 60 languages.

Eleanor Roosevelt – who was fundamental (along with the late René Cassin) in drafting the Universal Declaration of Human Rights – described Ann’s diary as:

One of the wisest and most moving commentaries on war and its impact on human beings that I have ever read.

Below are just a handful of her inspiring words:

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.

In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.

I don’t think of all the misery, but of the beauty that still remains.

Where there’s hope, there’s life. It fills us with fresh courage and makes us strong again.

Thank you Anne for your beautiful soul. May your memory continue to be a blessing to us all.

So, we’ve seen four key questions and four key women who embody the values behind them, to inspire us all to stand for human rights.

No matter what our faith, we can all learn from the story of Pesach!

Chag Pesach Sameach! Happy Passover!

Take action

Human rights are for everyone. We must work for the rights of each and every one of us.

Here’s how you take action:

    • Resistance: Speak out against sexist narratives – join our #NotFragile campaign (male allies are of course welcome too!)
    • Solidarity: If you’re Muslim and have previously expressed antisemitic views, take part in our research on antisemitism in the UK
    • Empowerment and legacy: Spread the word! Share this blog and the stories of Pesach and these inspirational Jewish women

Credits and further information

This blog was compiled using material from the René Cassin Women’s Seder Haggadah companion (2020). For more information about René Cassin and how you can campaign for human rights, please visit their website.

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