With empty chairs and forlorn homes, Israelis prepare for solemn Passover

Celebrating freedom of ancient Israelites is a struggle with 133 hostages in Gaza and over 100,000 displaced, as some look to mark trauma of past months within holiday traditions

Ilan Ben Zion is an AFP reporter and a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Members of Kibbutz Be'eri set up tables for the Seder on the first night of Passover, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. April 22, 2024. The kibbutz was among the worst hit in Hamas's October 7 massacre, and its residents have not been able to return. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Members of Kibbutz Be'eri set up tables for the Seder on the first night of Passover, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv. April 22, 2024. The kibbutz was among the worst hit in Hamas's October 7 massacre, and its residents have not been able to return. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

AFP — Jewish people mark on Monday the start of Passover, a celebration of freedom, and around many holiday tables in Israel chairs will stand empty for hostages still held captive in Gaza.

The weeklong Jewish festival, also known in Hebrew as the “holiday of freedom,” celebrates the Israelites’ liberation from Egyptian slavery, as told in the Bible.

Passover is traditionally observed with a Seder: a holiday feast when families eat symbolic foods and read the Haggadah.

The text, which is nearly 2,000 years old, recounts the Jewish people’s Exodus from Egypt and their ties and yearning for the Holy Land.

For many this year, Passover will be stained by absence and anguish, particularly for the relatives of the hostages, grieving families, and more than 120,000 Israelis displaced from their homes in the north and south of the country because of the war in the Gaza Strip and ongoing hostilities between Israel and the terror group Hezbollah in Lebanon.

“All of the symbolic things we do at the Seder will take on a much more profound and deep meaning this year,” said Rachel Goldberg-Polin, whose son Hersh is being held hostage in Gaza.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews burn leavened items in a final preparation before the Passover holiday in the Mea Shearim neighborhood, Jerusalem, April 22, 2024. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

These symbols include “the bread of affliction, the bitter herbs, the saltwater that represents the tears of the Jewish people when they were in captivity, in slavery,” she added.

Over the past few days, Israeli Jews have been making preparations for the holiday through fastidious house cleaning, burning leavened goods eschewed during Passover, and copious food shopping.

‘How can we celebrate?’

But the holiday mood has been dampened by more than six months of war in Gaza, with many Israelis away from home as they serve in the military.

Above all, the continuing captivity of the 133 hostages who remain in Gaza has cast a pall over Passover. All but four of them were abducted on October 7, when Hamas terrorists carried out an onslaught in southern Israel, killing nearly 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253, over a hundred of whom were released during a brief ceasefire last year.

Israel’s ensuing offensive has killed over 33,000 people, according to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry. These numbers cannot be independently verified and include some 13,000 terrorists Israel says it has killed during the war.

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)

“Everything is deadlocked and nobody knows how to move forward, on our side and on the Hamas side,” said Gershon Baskin, an Israeli activist who has mediated between Israel and Hamas for over a decade to free hostages in Gaza.

“We’re held hostage by our government and held hostage by Hamas,” he said. “There is no freedom this year.”

For many relatives of the captives, this Passover will not be joyous.

“How can we celebrate such a holiday while … people are still without their freedom, still waiting to be liberated?” asked Mai Albini, whose grandfather, Chaim Peri, was taken hostage on October 7.

Hostage Chaim Peri (left) and his grandson, Mai Albini, at an earlier Passover in Kibbutz Nir Oz. (Screenshot/Courtesy)

Haggadahs sold out

Tzohar, a rabbinic group, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum and President Isaac Herzog have all urged families to leave an empty chair at their Seder table, with the picture of a hostage on it.

“There is great hardship” this Passover, said Tzohar’s head rabbi, David Stav.

“Even at the most traditional Seder night, the practice is that we also mention that which is missing and difficult.”

The Hostages and Missing Families Forum published a special edition of the Haggadah that “integrates new hopes and introduces inspiring messages of contemporary spirit.”

A sign reading ‘Happy Freedom Holiday’ refers to Passover, with the words ‘Happy’ and ‘Freedom’ crossed out, in Tel Aviv, April 16, 2024 (Photo by Miriam Alster/Flash90)

It contains contributions from hostages’ relatives, a former chief rabbi of Israel, and Rita, a prominent Iranian-Israeli singer.

It has sold more than 250,000 copies in Israel and abroad, according to Itay Shenberger, who heads the Haggadah project.

“It’s basically all the stock we had,” he said. The proceeds go to the forum’s efforts to secure the hostages’ release.

‘Wander in the desert’

Many families will mark Passover away from home, after having been driven out by fighting between Israel and the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah that has turned northern and southern border communities into ghost towns.

Around 60,000 Israelis from the north and almost an equal number from southern Israel remain internally displaced, according to official figures.

Hotels still house more than 26,000 displaced, many of whom will hold Seders there.

Kibbutz Be’eri, one of the hardest hit communities in the October 7 attack, will hold a communal Seder at “Hostages’ Square,” the Tel Aviv plaza that has become the epicenter of the hostage protests.

Illustrative: A Shabbat table exhibit for hostages held by Hamas is seen at Hostages’ Square in Tel Aviv, December 15, 2023. (Noam Amir)

Nisan Zeevi, an entrepreneur from Kibbutz Kfar Giladi near the Lebanese border, said his family has been “uprooted from our homes” for more than six months.

Political leaders have given them no hint as to when they might return, he said.

“We’re not celebrating Passover in a normal way,” Zeevi said. Like the biblical Israelites, he added, this year they will “wander in the desert.”

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