My First Racist Haggadah

Every year, a few weeks before Passover, I do a little research and try to purchase the most interesting Haggadah I can get my hands on. One year it was Jonathan Sacks’s effort(excellent explanation for the enigmatic B’nai Brak passage), another year it was the JTS Haggadah(different historical manuscripts for the 4 sons), and a few years later it was The New American Haggadah(Rebecca Goldstein’s masterful commentary). This year, my research drew me to the Asufa Haggadah. The concept of the Asufa Haggadah is simple and elegant. Forty Israeli artists and design firms are invited every year to provide an illustrated interpretation of one panel of the Haggadah. The only rule is that they need to incorporate the traditional text.

Thanks to the Philadelphia-based online merchant Print-O-Craft, the Asufa Haggadah was made available to the American public this year. So excited were many of us to get our hot little hands on this publication that it very quickly went into Back Order and for some only arrived hours before the start of the holiday. When my Asufa 2015 finally arrived, I was very excited. Beyond the breathless online recommendations, I was primed by the artistic possibilities. What wonderful interpretations would this heterogeneous visual approach yield? Would it open new vistas in understanding the all-too-familiar script? Being an Israeli project, how would the conflict with the Palestinians be integrated into the old story of Jewish redemption?

As I flipped through the pages of the Asufa Haggadah my initial excitement very quickly gave way to the bitter taste of disappointment. The introduction tries to strike a serious tone, but ends up sounding absurd: “And what is the difference between Pharaoh and smartphones, between a never ending desert and the loneliness of our day? ” The artist’s renderings were certainly different, but not particularly insightful or interesting. And then I came to the Four Sons panel by Studio Avitalster.

For those unfamiliar, The Four Sons is one of the most iconic parts of the Passover Seder. The redactor of the Haggadah imagines four archetypal sons: The “wise” son, the “wicked” son, the “simple” son, and the son “who doesn’t know how to ask.”We are then told the manner in which they each engage with the central themes of the holiday and how we should best respond to them. In the Asufa 2015 Haggadah, the wise son is a happy-go-lucky athletic type. The wicked son is a narcissistic gay man taking a selfie with his smartphone. The simple son is an elderly gullible man who is being conned by the check out woman into contributing to a fraudulent cause. And the son who doesn’t know how to ask is an Ethiopian bagger who speaks Amharic instead of Hebrew.    IMG_1405

Making the wicked-son Gay and the son-who-doesn’t-know-how-to-ask Black are clear indications that the artists behind this panel harbor a gross insensitivity to two of the most persecuted minorities of our day. The casual racism of the latter is all the more striking given Israel’s abject failure to properly integrate Ethiopian Jews into its society and the state’s appalling mistreatment of African refugees.

Make your way further into the Asufa Haggadah and you will stumble upon this panel by Eliran Harush:


Now it’s clear that Harush is trying to tie the struggle of African Americans to the Passover story and it’s worth mentioning that this connection has a long and distinguished history in progressive circles. But Harush uses Sambo/Mammy imagery here and in so doing defeats the purpose of the exercise by uncritically duplicating racist visual tropes.

My hopes that one of these dozens of Israeli artists would take the obvious opportunity to broach the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were sadly proven naïve. Not a single pen stroke is devoted to anything that remotely resembles a Palestinian and the conflict goes unreferenced.

On one level, the 2015 Asufa Haggadah is representative of nothing more than the individual artists who created it. But art also reflects society and this art has some very disturbing things to say about Israeli society in the year 2015. Moreover, it is our shared human responsibility to call out homophobia and racism for the harmful prejudices that they are. May this Passover give us the strength to free ourselves from the slavery of prejudice and work together towards the freedom of a world with dignity for all.

6 thoughts on “My First Racist Haggadah

  1. I’m wondering if you can even apply norms of racism in that last example. The “sambo” imagery would be insulting in the US, but does it mean the same thing in Israel? Does it even transfer across the cultural lines?

    1. If big-nosed Jewish bankers appeared in, say, an Asian context, I’d ask the question. (Such things may have happened, but I haven’t heard of it.)

  2. We live in a global society. These images did not emerge from thin air. They were appropriated consciously or subconsciously by the artist as a result of exposure to racist culture. The work itself by perpetuating that culture is harmful. Whether the artist who conceived of it is racist is an interesting side question, but doesn’t really change anything. At best it’s negligent ignorance. At worst it’s malicious. Either way it’s disturbing given the context of Israel’s record towards people of African descent.

    1. EXACTLY my question – negligent ignorance or malicious? I am unfamiliar enough with Israeli society to know which. I expect Israelis to be up on African tropes, but the “sambo” stereotype I think is uniquely American. Maybe. Which is why I asked the question in the first place.

  3. One year I found an Israeli Defense Forces-themed haggadah, as opposed to an IDF-issued haggadah, which might be offensive to some and not to others. The text was traditional but full-color photos throughout were of Israeli soldiers, equipment, and armament.
    But my breath was taken away when the first page about “Searching for Hametz” was a photo of soldiers through real night vision conducting a night raid on a Palestinian house. Oof.

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