Celebrating Seder at Columbia’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment

As a spring holiday, Passover typically comes at a transitional moment in climates like New York’s, which has always made sense to me since it celebrates transformation — the passage from bondage to freedom. This year was no exception and I felt that sense of change in the air especially keenly because I was celebrating the first night of the eight-day festival at an outdoor seder on April 22. Specifically, I was taking a seat on the campus lawn at Columbia University, where I work as a journalism professor, in the Gaza Solidarity Encampment. As the roasting sun began to set and a sharp breeze picked up, I felt the simultaneous heat and chill that is a corporeal correlative to the dialectics of the seder story and ritual: slavery and freedom, sweet charoset and bitter herbs, bland flat matzah and tasty fermented wine (or, in this case, grape juice), individuality and collectivity, tradition and adaptation.

The hosts of this “Gaza Liberation Seder,” Jewish students from Barnard College and Columbia University who had been arrested and suspended days earlier for protesting Israel’s war in Gaza, leaped shrewdly into these antinomies as they joined a millennia-long cultural practice of shaping the seder to urgent circumstances. Countless Haggadot (the booklets that outline and elaborate on the essential elements of the seder) have focused on myriad pressing issues of their moment. To cite just a few from the 20th century: the African American Civil Rights struggle; the protests of the Israeli Black Panthers (comprised of Jews from Arab and Muslim countries); the plight of Soviet Jews; and women’s liberation. My personal collection of such publications and supplemental leaflets — decades’ worth of zines, essentially — also includes materials for seders addressing themes like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, the Holocaust, HIV/AIDS, labor justice, immigrant rights, the environment, queer liberation, Black Lives Matter, and, just like this year, Palestinian freedom.

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The students authored their own Passover Haggadah.

“As we move through this seder,” read the student leading the ritual, who wore a watermelon kippah, “we will be exploring what it means to celebrate Passover during an ongoing genocide, what it means to tell stories of Jewish displacement and persecution as the Palestinian people have their land colonized in the name of ‘Jewish safety.’”

Hearing those opening words, I remembered the first time Israeli aggression had been discussed at a seder I attended in 1983, nearly a year after Israel invaded Lebanon (an incursion that sent me into the streets for the first time to protest Israeli actions). By the late 1980s, during the first Palestinian Intifada, the Israeli occupation had become a common theme around the seder tables of liberal Jews and spurred major “Passover Peace” demonstrations in 1988-89 in the streets of Manhattan featuring prominent rabbis, NGOs, and activist groups. My Haggadah archive has anti-occupation poems by Israeli writers like Gilgi Hauser (“Matzah crumbs / are splayed bullets . . . The Israelite’s sight of Canaan / is the heavy metal in Gaza / The taste of honey is the bitter herb of today”) and Dan Almagor (“The Palestinian state will come to pass. / It will. / Not a poet wrote this./ History will.”), along with texts by Palestinians like Mahmoud Darwish and Taha Muhammad Ali. Their pages still bear the stamps of a long-gone fax machine and the beet-horseradish stains of dozens of seders since.

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Matzah and Passover dishes at the encampment seder

So, how was this year’s seder different from all the other progressive seders? For starters, the unbearable fact that those old texts are still relevant, three more decades of occupation and siege, and a brutal campaign streaming live at all hours, which has cost at least 34,000 Gazan lives at this point, along with the decimation of the enclave’s infrastructure, a majority of homes, and all universities, all while settlers, unchecked, carry out pogroms in the West Bank. 

The other difference is the emergence of a new generation of activists, who have built a movement of clarity, conscience, and commitment, grounded in astonishing camaraderie among Jews, Muslims, Palestinians, and others. Despite media and politicians, who never bothered to talk to these students, relentlessly depicting them as pro-Hamas hoodlums spewing Jew-hatred and describing their encampment as a violent threat, that is nowhere close to what I witnessed over the months of campus protests. Yes, there were some isolated cases of individual students expressing vile antisemitic sentiments — which the movement denounced and the university has systems in place to address — and there were some non-Columbia demonstrators outside the campus calling, ignorantly and offensively, for Jews to “go back to Poland,” among other disgusting slogans. But the students risking their academic futures, and possibly worse, were out there for the humanistic cause of Palestinian life and liberty and for no other reason. The encampment, which never blocked any entrances or impeded anyone’s movements, was an oasis of cooperation and mutuality with food and first-aid stations, study areas, a library, and an art corner, a most fitting setting for a peaceful, focused, and deeply moving seder.

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“The students risking their academic futures, and possibly worse, were out there for the humanistic cause of Palestinian life and liberty and for no other reason.”

So, a week later, when the administration, hardening its heart like the Pharoah of the Passover story, threatened students with suspension and worse if they didn’t disband the encampment at once, some students, like the God of the Israelites who brought down plagues on Egypt, escalated (in far more peaceful ways than that God of the Exodus story). They demanded that the university let its investments in Israeli weapons and occupation go. The activists placed themselves within another narrative tradition: the honored legacy of Columbia activism against South African apartheid and the Vietnam War (so honored, in fact, that it has been celebrated by the university itself). They occupied Hamilton Hall and renamed it “Hind’s Hall,” after Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl killed by the Israeli army. New York Police Department cops and its notorious Emergency Service Unit stormed the campus late the next night, April 30, brutally clearing the building, arresting more than 100 people, and sweeping the encampment.

For a couple of days after, cops remained on campus, but students who don’t reside there and nearly all faculty were barred from entering, and most students are still locked out. End-of-semester classes and final exams were ordered to move online. The main commencement was canceled. Despite the colorful blossoms that burst to life on the grounds each spring, the place feels lifeless and depressing as it is bereft of the learning, teaching, debate, research, socializing, and, yes, activism that give breath to a university’s power and purpose. In the name of stomping out phantom antisemitism, Columbia’s administration has delivered, only temporarily I dearly hope, what the MAGA Republicans hounding its president wanted all along: the suppression of honest intellectual inquiry and scholarly autonomy.

Now, on the emptied encampment lawn, yellow patches mark the spots where student tents once stood. Summer sun and rain will surely make them blend in with the rest of the grass again. But a transformation, the kind celebrated on that first Passover night, took place there and cannot be washed away: A national campus movement was born.

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