Jewish student protesters celebrate Passover Seder in encampments

Written by on April 24, 2024

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(NEW YORK) — As pro-Palestinian protesters gather in solidarity and their tents, sleeping bags and banners dot the greenspace on campuses across the U.S., many students — Jewish and non-Jewish alike — could be seen at makeshift tables this week over a Seder dinner to honor the Passover holiday.

The start of this year’s Jewish holiday of Passover, which marks the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt, coincided with intensifying calls against Israel’s war in Gaza on college campuses.

“We as Jews have this idea of ‘Tikkun olam’ — to repair the world,” said Zoe Kanter, a student protester with Yale Jews for Ceasefire. “And that’s really a guiding principle for me … recognizing where there is injustice and suffering and working to repair it any way possible.”

At Passover Seders — when Jews traditionally gather to recount the story of the Exodus, share symbolic dishes and pray — participants reflect on themes of oppression, persecution, freedom and liberation, with many bringing contemporary social justice issues into their Seder rituals.

This year, some set aside an empty seat at the Seder table for hostages abducted from Israel on Oct. 7, when Hamas launched a surprise terror attack. Others put an olive on the Seder plate to recognize solidarity with Palestinians.

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In Israel, at least 1,700 people have been killed and 8,700 others injured since Oct. 7, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. There are about 133 hostages still being held by Hamas, 36 of which have been declared dead, according to Israeli officials.

In Gaza, at least 34,183 people have been killed and 77,143 injured since the start of the Israeli retaliation for the Hamas attack, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Aid organizations, including the United Nations, have said that the Palestinian territory is experiencing a humanitarian crisis amid ongoing blockades to the region.

Some Jewish protesters say their faith is tied to their calls for a ceasefire in Gaza and “Palestinian liberation.”

“A belief in justice and a belief in doing the right thing, a belief in human equality and dignity has been instilled within me, in keeping with my Judaism,” said Elijah Bacal, a student protester with Yale Jews for Ceasefire. “It’s a very complicated issue, and I’m very involved in Jewish life on campus, and I’ve had a lot of difficult and nuanced conversations.”

Students across the country have been sleeping out on campuses day and night to call for their respective schools to divest funding connected to companies enabling Israel’s war effort.

The protests on campuses have been largely peaceful, according to school administrators and officials; still, more than 200 students at Columbia, NYU and Yale have been arrested for trespassing, after allegedly violating campus policies regarding interrupting academic operations or other encampment restrictions.

New York Mayor Eric Adams and the NYPD have noted that individuals unaffiliated with the universities have been to blame for several instances of violence and offensive rhetoric: “We will not be a city of lawlessness, and those professional agitators seeking to seize the ongoing conflict in the Middle East to sow chaos and division in our city will not succeed,” Adams said in a statement.

For Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Palestinian and Israeli students — those whose identities have been tied to the conflict overseas — the conflict has prompted tough conversations among peers.

Some Jewish students continue to be on the frontlines of protests against Israeli policy and bombardment in Gaza.

“Passover has always taught me to think about who is oppressed and what we can do to fight for their freedom,” said one student in a statement released by Columbia University Apartheid Divest. “Palestinians in Gaza have been bombed and starved by Israel for months, and we have a responsibility to speak out against these atrocities, especially as our university is funding this violence through investments.”

Other Jewish students have stood in support of Israel’s actions following the Hamas attack.

“We pray for the return of each and every hostage from Hamas’ captivity to safety,” said Columbia University’s Students Supporting Israel earlier this month. “It’s been 6 months of a war Israel didn’t start. End this war. Defeat Hamas. Bring them all home now.”

The Columbia group has denounced the ongoing protests on campus, saying that “the situation on campus has become completely untenable — no student can be expected to work, study, express themselves and grow academically on a campus in which their basic needs — specifically their safety — are not met,” in an online statement.

Concerns in the Jewish community about safety and antisemitism have affected the holiday celebration for some.

Columbia Rabbi Elie Buechler told students in an April 21 WhatsApp message to “return home as soon as possible” due to safety concerns on campus amid the holiday, according to student newspaper Columbia Daily Spectator.

“The events of the past few days, especially last night, have made it clear that Columbia University’s Public Safety and the NYPD cannot guarantee Jewish students’ safety in the face of extreme antisemitism and anarchy,” Buechler said according to the news outlet.

However, the school’s Hillel told students they “do not believe” students should leave the school at this time and that it will remain open amid unrest.

“This is a time of genuine discomfort and even fear for many of us on campus,” said the campus’ Center for Jewish Student Life. “Columbia University and the City of New York must do more to protect students. We call on the University Administration to act immediately in restoring calm to campus.”

Shira, a freshman Jewish student at Columbia, told ABC News that she’s been impacted by the protests and hadn’t feared for her safety before the recent, intensifying wave of protests.

“It’s not only like mentally exhausting I found this past few days, it’s been like physically affecting me,” the student said in an interview. “It’s just so awful the things that I’ve been hearing and seeing and I have found that I haven’t been able to focus on any of my schoolwork. I haven’t been able to go to classes just because of the constant shouting and screaming for violence against Jews. It’s heartbreaking.”

Among Jewish protesters, they say they continue to have conversations and debate about the movement, protests and protest language.

Gabriel Colburn, a member of Yale Jews for Ceasefire, added: “It’s important to be honest that sometimes we do have different lived experiences and instinctive feelings about some of the language that is involved in these protests. And that’s OK. We can have those different feelings and still continue to work together and have the hard conversations that are needed to rally around the cause of divestment and ceasefire.”

Bacal added: “I’m very grateful for how much people really accommodate and embrace pluralism and a wide range of perspectives,” referring to his fellow protesters.

Jewish protesters also told ABC News that they believe generalized accusations of antisemitism against pro-Palestinian protesters are being used to “shut down very legitimate protests and grievances about what Israel is doing in Gaza right now,” said Colburn.

“Israel has, in many ways, perpetrated this genocide in the name of Jews around the world,” said Colburn. “As a Jew, I take the danger of antisemitism very, very seriously. And it is precisely because that danger is real that it is all the more important not to instrumentalize and cheapen the charge of antisemitism.”

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s encampment, the Passover holiday isn’t the only Jewish tradition to be honored among protesters.

MIT Jews for Ceasefire plans to host a Shabbat dinner in their encampment on Friday as well: “People have been so excited to have us share our Jewish traditions within this community,” said student protester Quinn Perian.

“They’ve been constantly checking up on all of us, when everyone here has been going through so much, as well. It’s just been really incredibly nice and empowers them to be out here and to just see what’s possible when we all fight for liberation together.”

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