Hundreds hold ‘Liberation Seders’ outside (and inside) major Jewish American institutions in five major cities, demanding that the Jewish community take a stand against Israel’s occupation. ‘The history of Jewish oppression is not an excuse to oppress Palestinians, but rather an imperative to fight for freedom for all people,’ one arrestee tells +972.
BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — Twenty-three American Jews were arrested over the past week in a series of anti-occupation demonstrations across the United States.
The protests, which took place in major American cities ahead of the weekend’s Passover holiday, brought out over 500 members of the Jewish anti-occupation collective, IfNotNow. Demonstrators used civil disobedience to push major American Jewish institutions to publicly end their support for Israel’s occupation policies in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Protests took place in Washington DC, Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Berkeley.
The demos followed a similar formula in every city: demonstrators who were willing to be arrested usually tried to enter a major Jewish institution and lead a “Liberation Seder” — a take on the traditional Passover meal, in which the Jews recount the story of their enslavement and struggle for freedom in Egypt. The Liberation Seders, however, fused the traditional ritual with Jewish freedom songs, chants against the oppression of Palestinians, and calls for the collective liberation of all those living in Israel/Palestine.
The first demonstration took place on April 19th, when over 100 activists demonstrated in Washington DC outside the headquarters of Hillel International — the largest Jewish student organization in the world. Later that afternoon Jewish activists in Boston chained themselves to the entrance of the local AIPAC office. The demonstrators then decided to escalate the action, chaining themselves inside the lobby. Six protestors were arrested; they were released later that night and summoned to court the following day. Their next court date is scheduled for May 18.
IfNotNow activists arrested during protest at the ADL:
On Thursday over 100 demonstrators held a Liberation Seder inside the entrance to the the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in New York City. Seventeen people were arrested and charged with criminal trespassing and disorderly conduct, with some of spending over 20 hours in jail.
On Wednesday afternoon approximately 40 activists gathered at the Chicago Jewish Federation to hold their Liberation Seder, while 50 people protested outside the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in downtown Berkeley, California. When they were forced out of the building by local police, the activists set up their seder in the middle of the street, blocking traffic. No arrests were made at either demonstration.
IfNotNow was established in the summer of 2014 during Israel’s last war on Gaza by young American Jews. Angered by the overwhelming support by American Jewish institutions for the war — which lead to the deaths of over 2,200 Palestinians and 72 Israelis — they began organizing actions calling for an end to the war, an end to the occupation, and freedom and dignity for all. Since then IfNotNow has been led numerous nonviolent actions with the aim of pushing Jewish institutions to condemn the occupation.
Alysha Schwartz, who helped organize the demonstration in Berkeley, told +972: “We are asking our community to end the occupation and support freedom and dignity for Palestinians and Israelis. We came here to welcome our community into our movement, and make clear to the American Jewish establishment that we will no longer be silenced.”
“On Passover we celebrate the liberation of our people while actively denying freedom to Palestinians,” Schwartz continued. “We deeply believe that the liberation of Palestinians, Israelis, and Jews across the world are deeply entwined. Only once we end the occupation will we be able to achieve liberation for all.”
For Rae Axner, one of the six activists arrested in Boston, her privilege as an American Jew allowed her to risk arrest on this issue: “The history of Jewish oppression is not an excuse to oppress Palestinians, but rather an imperative to fight for freedom for all people. As an American Jew, fighting against U.S. support for the Israeli occupation is a place where I hold a bit of political power — and I’m glad to have the opportunity to use it.”
Yotam Marom, an activist arrested in the demonstration against the ADL in New York, described how the urgency of events on the ground in Israel/Palestine are pushing more activists to be willing to risk arrest: “This is an emergency. When we recognize things as emergencies we act differently — we are willing to take risks. The American Jewish community sees the occupation as business as usual. We are here say that we will not allow the community to continue to allow this immense amount of suffering to happen any longer.”
The protestors demands did not fall entirely on deaf ears in the American Jewish establishment. Following the protest against the ADL — an organization that says it aims to “defend democratic ideals and protects civil rights for all” — invited members of IfNotNow to a meeting where the two groups could discuss their “shared goals.” IfNotNow turned down the offer, instead publishing the following response titled “meetings won’t end the occupation” (click here to read it in full):
The ADL may say they share our goals, but their actions have not reflected as much. In the past two years alone, the ADL has justified the excessive force used against Palestinian civilians in Gaza, defended the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, and remained silent while its former CEO and other Jewish community leaders launched a vicious attack against IfNotNow leader Simone Zimmerman over her political views.
“This is only the beginning of what is yet to come,” says Marom. “We are going to see a massive uprising by young Jews who want to reclaim the Jewish institutions that claim to represent us. Either they will represent us or we will replace them.”