A Night Different From Others as Pro-Palestinian Protests Break for Seder

A Night Different From Others as Pro-Palestinian Protests Break for Seder

On the first night of Passover, the singsong of the Four Questions echoed from Jewish homes and gatherings around the world, including from unlikely, contested spaces: the center of pro-Palestinian protests at Columbia and other universities where demonstrations are taking place.

As evening fell over Columbia’s tent encampment on Monday, about 100 students and faculty gathered in a circle around a blue tarp heaped with boxes of matzo and food they had prepared in a kosher kitchen. Some students wore kaffiyehs, the traditional Palestinian scarf, while others wore Jewish skullcaps. They distributed handmade Haggadahs — prayer books for the Passover holiday — and read prayers in Hebrew, keeping to the traditional order.

But there were also there were changes and additions, like a watermelon on the Seder plate to represent the flag of Palestine. There were repeated references to the suffering of the Palestinian people and the need to ensure their liberation. There was grape juice instead of wine to respect the alcohol-free encampment, which was started last Wednesday and, despite a police crackdown last week, was stretching into its sixth day.

The question asked each year — Why is this night different from all other nights?— echoed with new meaning.

At other pro-Palestinian encampments and protests that have cropped up this week, similar scenes played out. Some protest organizers and participants are anti-Zionist Jewish students, and at Columbia, roughly 15 of the students who have been suspended for their involvement in the encampment are Jewish, organizers said.

At Yale University, just before 6 p.m., hundreds of students gathered on Cross Campus, the main university quad, to sit around a sheet painted to symbolize a Seder table. The action was organized by groups including Jews for Ceasefire, a Yale group, and the New Haven chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace.

There, the Seder marked the end of a day that began with the early-morning arrests of 47 students at a tent encampment on Beinecke Plaza. Then, for nine hours, students had occupied a local intersection, calling for Yale to divest from weapons manufacturers.

Surrounding the Seder, students held banners that read, “Our Seder plates are empty stop starving Gaza” and “Another Jew for a free Palestine.” References to suffering in Gaza and pro-Palestinian student activism were woven into the ritual.

“Tonight, we stand in solitary with the Palestinian people, not in spite of our Judaism, but because of it,” Miriam Levine, a 22-year-old Yale student who helped organize the Seder, told the crowd through a microphone. “Tonight we proclaim that our liberation is intertwined.”

Discussing the 10 plagues, Ms. Levine asked participants to identify “what is plaguing our university.” Answers came from throughout the crowd: “the confinement of free speech,” “the policing of New Haven,” “apathy, “misinformation,” “ignorance,” “capitalism.”

Toward the end of the Seder, students draped their arms across each other’s shoulders and swayed, singing, “If we build this world from love, then God will build this world from love.”

A more traditional scene played out at Chabad Columbia, a branch of an Orthodox Jewish movement with a headquarters off campus, where students sought a sense of community amid the tensions on campus.

Chatter and laughter filled a room in the center, as people connected with new and old friends. As an added measure of safety, there were five security guards standing outside.

Rabbi Yuda Drizin, 33, and his wife, Naomi, co-direct the group. Rabbi Drizin said they were expecting over 100 students. “It’s actually our largest Seder yet,” he said.

“Our motto is ‘Your Jewish home and family on campus,’ so for the students that can’t make it home, or that don’t make it home, or that are here, they’re celebrating as part of our family,” he added.

“My message to all the Jewish students that show up here, is to figure out a way to stand above it, to try and step above it,” Rabbi Drizin said, adding, “This is really a place for people to find a way to, you know, to just be Jewish, not in response to anything, not a reaction to anything, just because that’s who you are and that’s it.”

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