Israelis grapple with Passover theme of freedom as hostages languish in Gaza

Celebrations will be kept low-key for many, as nation’s thoughts remain with those still held captive, while their families cling to hope they will soon be freed

Chairs are set for missing members of the Bibas family who are held hostage in Gaza at a symbolic Passover Seder table on April 11, 2024, at the communal dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, where a quarter of all residents were killed or captured by Hamas on October 7, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)
Chairs are set for missing members of the Bibas family who are held hostage in Gaza at a symbolic Passover Seder table on April 11, 2024, at the communal dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, where a quarter of all residents were killed or captured by Hamas on October 7, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Every year, Alon Gat’s mother led the family’s Passover celebration of the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Egypt thousands of years ago. But this year, Gat is struggling with how to reconcile a holiday commemorating freedom after his mother was killed and other family members abducted when the Palestinian terror group Hamas attacked Israel.

Gat’s sister, Carmel, and his wife, Yarden Roman-Gat, were taken hostage in the devastating October 7 attack. His wife was freed in November but his sister remains captive.

“We can’t celebrate our freedom because we don’t have this freedom. Our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers are still in captivity and we need to release them,” Gat said.

On Monday, Jews around the world will begin celebrating the weeklong Passover holiday, recounting the biblical story of their exodus from Egypt after hundreds of years of slavery. But for many Israelis, it’s hard to fathom a celebration of freedom when friends and family are not free.

The Hamas October 7 cross-border attack killed some 1,200 people amid numerous atrocities. At the SuperNova outdoor music festival, terrorists massacred over 300 people, some of whom were brutally raped before being executed.

Terrorists also abducted 253 people who were taken as captives to Gaza. About half remain in Gaza, more than 30 of them believed to be dead.

Israelis visit a memorial bearing portraits of people taken hostage or killed in the Hamas attack on the Supernova music festival on October 7 at the site of the festival near Kibbutz Reim in southern Israel on April 10, 2024. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 33,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas gunmen Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. Two hundred and sixty IDF soldiers have been killed in the Gaza offensive.

For many Jews, Passover is a time to reunite with family and recount the exodus from Egypt at a meal known as the Seder. Observant Jews avoid food made of certain grains, known as chametz, and eat matzah as a reminder of the unleavened bread the Israelites ate when they fled Egypt quickly with no time for dough to rise.

But this year, many families are torn about how — or even if — to celebrate.

When Hamas attacked Kibbutz Be’eri, Gat, his wife, 3-year-old daughter, parents, and sister hid for hours in their rocket-proof safe room. But fighters entered the house and killed or abducted everyone inside, except for his father who hid in the bathroom. His mother was dragged into the street and shot.

Gat, his arms and legs bound, was shoved into a car with his wife and daughter. During a brief stop, they managed to flee. Knowing he could run faster, his wife handed him their daughter. Gat escaped with the toddler, hiding in a ditch for nearly nine hours. His wife was recaptured and held in Gaza for 54 days.

Passover this year will be more profound as freedom has taken on a new meaning, Roman-Gat told The Associated Press.

“To feel wind upon your face with your eyes closed. To shower. To go to the toilet without permission, and with the total privacy and privilege to take as long as I please with no one urging me, waiting for me at the other side to make sure I’m still theirs,” she said in a text message.

A candle burns for Tamir Adar, killed by Hamas on Oct. 7, 2023 before his body was taken to the Gaza Strip, at a symbolic Passover Seder commemoration on April 11, 2024, at the communal dining hall at Kibbutz Nir Oz in southern Israel, where a quarter of all residents were killed or captured by Hamas on October 7, 2023. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Still, Passover will be overshadowed by deep sorrow and worry for her sister-in-law and the other hostages, she said. The family will mark the holiday with a low-key dinner in a restaurant, without celebration.

As hard as it is in times of pain, Jews have always sought to observe holidays even during persecution, such as in concentration camps during the Holocaust, said Rabbi Martin Lockshin, professor emeritus at Canada’s York University, who lives in Jerusalem.

“They couldn’t celebrate freedom but they could celebrate the hope of freedom,” he said.

The crisis affects more than the hostage families. The war, in which 260 soldiers have been killed, casts a shadow over a normally joyous holiday. The government has also scaled back festivities for Independence Day in May.

Likewise, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, capped by the three-day Eid al-Fitr feast, was a sad, low-key affair for Palestinians. Over 80% of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been displaced by the fighting.

The scenes of suffering, devastation, and hunger in Gaza have received attention in Israel though much of the public and national media remain heavily focused on the aftermath of the October 7 attack and ongoing war.

After several months of fits and starts, negotiations on a deal to release the remaining hostages appear at a standstill — making it unlikely they will be home for Passover.

Illustrative: Pictures of some of the hostages held captive by Hamas are on display at the Fraenkelufer Synagogue in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district on March 18, 2024. (David Gannon/AFP)

The hostages’ pain has reverberated around the world, with some in the Jewish diaspora asking rabbis for prayers specifically for the hostages and Israel to be said at this year’s Seder.

Noam Zion, the author of a new Haggadah –the book read during the Seder — that reflects the current situation, has donated 6,000 copies to families impacted by the war.

“The Seder is supposed to help us to relive past slavery and liberation from Egypt and to learn its lessons, but in 2024 it must also ask contemporary questions about the confusing and traumatic present and most importantly, generate hope for the future,” said Zion, emeritus member of the faculty of Jewish studies at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.

The revised Haggadah includes quotes from hostage families urging people not to hate despite their pain. It offers a guide for navigating the mixed feelings during the holiday while posing existential questions about the Jews and the State of Israel.

Some families say it’s too painful to celebrate at all.

The girlfriend of Nirit Lavie Alon’s son was abducted from the Nova music festival. Two months later the family was informed by Israel’s military that Inbar Haiman, a 27-year-old graffiti artist, was dead, her body still in Gaza.

“It’s impossible to celebrate a freedom holiday,” said Alon. Instead of being with family this year, she’s going to spend a few days in the desert. There will be no closure until all of the hostages are back, including the remains of those who were killed, she said.

Shlomi Berger sits in his daughter Agam’s bedroom in Holon, Israel, April 17, 2024. (Maya Alleruzzo/AP)

Ahead of Passover, some families are still holding out hope their relatives will be freed in time.

Shlomi Berger’s 19-year-old daughter, Agam, was abducted two days after the start of her army service along the border with Gaza.

Videos of her bloodied face emerged shortly after the Hamas attack, one showing an armed man pushing her into a truck, another showing her inside the vehicle with other hostages. The only proof of life he’s had since was a call from a released hostage, wishing him happy birthday from Agam, who she’d been with in Hamas’s vast network of tunnels under Gaza where many of the captives are being held, he said.

Still, he refuses to give up hope.

“The Passover story says we come from slaves to free people, so this is a parallel story,” Berger said. “This is the only thing I believe that will happen. That Agam will get out from darkness to light. She and all of the other hostages.”

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