Campus Freedom Seders, BDS, & Israel: Freedom For Whom, Exactly?

Posted on Apr 29, 2019

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Submitted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow

I am sharing with you an article from an on-line campus Jewish magazine. The article used the original Freedom Seder of 50 years ago as the springboard for a discussion of how to treat debate over Israeli-Palestinian relations. Naturally, as the author of said original Freedom Seder, I was intrigued. And I responded.  Here are the original article and my response to it.

At the end of this longer-than-usual Shalom Report, I will add my thoughts about the underlying issues, beneath and beyond this article.

Shalom, salaam, paz, peace —  Arthur

 Campus Freedom Seders: Freedom For Who, Exactly?

New Voices [on-line magazine for Jewish college students]

April 23, 2019 by Jess Schwalb

Lift your head from the haggadah. Where is Pharaoh’s army today?

This inquiry motivated Rabbi Arthur Waskow to create the first Freedom Seder. After Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s April 1968 assassination, Waskow saw the police occupation of black neighborhoods in DC and other cities nationwide as an uncanny parallel to the Passover story. The next year, Waskow hosted the first Freedom Seder in Washington, DC with a group of Black and Jewish activists. He created a new haggadah, which detailed the biblical Jewish exodus from slavery alongside the history of US racism and slavery. This Seder was a revelation, Waskow told New Voices. “I realized that the seder was in the streets; the streets were the seder.”

Social justice-related Passover content today seems ubiquitous; haggadot about queer liberation, environmental equity, and racial justice likely graced many of our Seder tables this weekend. But Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a Philadelphia-based radical faith leader, explains that this was not always the case. Though most Jewish organizations now embrace modern-day takes on Passover, Waskow says that many Jewish leaders initially disapproved of the Freedom Seder. “They said to me, ‘There already exists a haggadah!’”

Waskow remembers that when he hosted the first-ever college campus Freedom Seder at Cornell in 1970, over 2,000 people crowded into the school’s fieldhouse to break matzah –– but Cornell’s Jewish institutions did not officially sponsor the event. This 1970 Freedom Seder was a preview for the ways campus Jewish organizations struggle to reconcile the story of Passover with the fight for freedom in our own time. In conversations about the Women’s March and Movement for Black Lives, Jewish groups agonize about whether we should stay in coalition with other marginalized groups when differences over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arise.

In this context, the Freedom Seder seems a useful parable for the most pressing questions facing Jewish life on campus. When groups such as Hillel and J Street U refuse to host events with most pro-Palestinian student organizations, they prevent Jewish students from building relationships and coalitions necessary to fight white supremacy, regardless of our opinions on Israel-Palestine.

In particular, the history of the Freedom Seder at my own Northwestern University proves that instead of engaging with difficult questions around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, campus Jewish institutions frequently choose to defend their pro-Israel stance at all costs. The contentious campus history of the Freedom Seder should remind Jewish institutions this Passover to recommit to justice and solidarity, instead of actively excluding students of color and Jewish students who criticize Israel.

In 1971, The Daily Northwestern offered a brief advertisement for Waskow’s Freedom Seder haggadah: “You saw it condemned by the Jewish Establishment. Now you can buy the “Freedom Seder” at Hillel.” (They enticed cash-strapped students with a “Special Price”). The first Freedom Seder at Northwestern occurred in 2003 as a collaboration between Hillel and For Members Only, the black student union. The event was not actually held on Passover (attendees ate leavened bread) but referenced the Jewish holiday to frame discussions of historic Black-Jewish coalitions during the Civil Rights Movement. A version of this event continued on campus between 2003 and 2014.

The Freedom Seder at NU ceased after 2015, when the Associated Student Government successfully passed a resolution to divest from companies profiting from human rights violations in Israel and Palestine. When I arrived at NU the following September as a first-year student, I was told that hosting a Freedom Seder was now impossible because of the divestment vote.

NU’s divestment vote divided Jewish institutions from affinity spaces and groups led by students of color. FMO, the former co-sponsor of the Freedom Seder, joined the NUDivest coalition. On the other side of the debate, a coalition formed to oppose the divestment resolution. That group, NU Coalition for Peace, was largely made up of students in the Hillel-affiliated J Street U and Wildcats for Israel, as well as members of AEPi. Hillel International’s political guidelines put Jewish students involved with Hillel in a bind –– they could not publicly partner with those who supported divestment without violating Hillel’s standards of partnership.

The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement both explicitly and implicitly drew lines in the sand between Jewish and Black groups at NU. I have rarely, if ever, seen a Jewish group on campus sponsor or host an event with FMO in the last four years. Nor have Jewish groups acknowledged with the extent to which they have stepped back from building coalitions with communities of color. In 2016, a private prison divestment campaign called Unshackle NU received no campus Jewish institutional support or endorsement.

A group of students are now attempting to revitalize the Freedom Seder at NU, and we have been consistently met with push-back from Jewish institutions. Our group felt it was impossible to host a Freedom Seder that ignored the Israeli-Palestinian conflict –– in a practical sense, how would we purport to rebuild the relationships between Black and Jewish students on campus without acknowledging a central reason (i.e. divestment) those relationships are strained?

At first Hillel and J Street U were willing to co-sponsor a liberation seder. But when we began to compile our own haggadah that calls for fighting white supremacy through collective liberation, and when our group insisted we discuss Palestinian liberation in partnership with Students for Justice in Palestine, Hillel and J Street U relinquished their official support for the Freedom Seder.

J Street U leadership told us that the group was not permitted to co-sponsor events with SJP, for reasons which seem to be nebulously justified in the group’s official policy. (Other campuses have hosted events between J Street and SJP, such as Bryn Mawr). By contrast, Hillel International’s standards of partnership do not just prohibit conversation with groups that support divestment, effectively shutting down official spaces for dialogue between Jewish and pro-Palestinian students on campus. These standards also preclude Hillel from working with campus groups that “Exhibit a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.” This not-so-coded language preventing Hillel from working with “disruptive” students means that activists in our group, whether a part of SJP or FMO, would not be allowed to be an official part of the Seder if Hillel were a sponsor.

In the wake of constant Jewish outrage at Black solidarity with the Palestinian cause over the past year –– whether regarding divestment, the Women’s March, or Rep. Ilhan Omar –– this year’s Freedom Seder is an opportunity to speak across divides and address the issues that frustrate our attempts at intercommunal solidarity. But across the country and on campuses beyond NU, the standards of partnership preclude Hillel from sponsoring a Seder which brings together Black, Jewish, and Palestinian students to actually discuss what liberation and freedom might mean to each of our (often overlapping) communities.

Campus Jewish institutions would do well to take a page from Rabbi Waskow’s haggadah. His 1969 and 1970 Freedom Seders reminded us that our liberation requires building solidarity with non-Jewish communities. The Freedom Seder at its core challenges us to speak to, not avoid, that which divides our coalitions. That major Jewish institutions instead have chosen to opt-out both hurts my heart, and also deeply worries me. In a time of rising white supremacy and of anti-Semitic and Islamophobic violence, I fear the consequence of Jewish groups walking away from coalitions because of Israel and Palestine.

Rabbi Waskow reminds us that there are no shortage of Pharaohs in our time. In attempting to revive the Freedom Seder on NU’s campus this year, it has become ever more clear to me that we cannot shy away from conversations about Israel and Palestine when we discuss freedom and liberation. Instead of removing support from an event that seeks to bring student activists together, Jewish organizations should support young Jews’ desire to have conversations in the face of our seemingly-insurmountable political differences. We as students have chosen to create a Freedom Seder that demands collective, not partial or selective, liberation. I hope that Hillel and J Street U will join us.

Jess Schwalb is a 2019 New Voices Fellow at Jewish Currents. She is from Washington, DC and currently studies history at Northwestern. Whether organizing with Chicago’s Jewish Council on Urban Affairs or leading The Daily Northwestern’s Opinion desk, she has found both meaning and community in interrogating stories about American Jewish communal memory and challenging national perceptions of young Jewish life. 

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 Comment by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, posted after reading the New Voices article:

The family member of a Northwestern University student sent me this article from New Voices. Of course I feel great joy in hearing that my work across the decades, continuing from 50 years ago, continues to stir creative and transformative thought today. And I very much agree with Jess Schwalb. Attempts by Hillel and others to forbid events that encourage dialogue among Jewish, Black, Muslim, and pro-Palestinian groups on and off campus are worse than mistaken — they are acts of idolatry. They make the Government and/or the State of Israel into an idol that cannot be criticized or confronted.

The Talmud tells a story, a parable: Some ancient rabbis went searching for the Yetzer Hara, the Evil Impulse, for Idolatry, intending to kill it and thus wipe out idolatry.. They found it hiding in the Holy of Holies. The teaching: there is a danger that even, or especially, the most sacred place or practice can be made into an idol.

What distinguishes what =is sacred from what is an idol? Carving out any piece of the Great Flow of Life, the Interbreathing Spirit of the world, from that great flow of Truth and bowing down to that one piece as if it were the whole Great Flow – that is idolatry. The most important way of “bowing down” is forbidding and punishing criticism. Today some Jewish institutions have done that to the State of Israel, by forbidding any connection with those who support nonviolent efforts to change or criticize it.

BDS itself should not become an idol. Should we discuss BDS, debate about or against it? Sure! (I have.) Forbid discussion and cooperation with those who support it? Idolatry.

We don’t forbid working with the Roman Catholic Church on issues like immigration where we mostly agree, though its thought and actions on abortion and birth control are repugnant to most Jews.  What makes the difference? Clearly, one involves Israel and the other doesn’t. The sign of idolatry.

When I wrote the first Freedom Seder, I replaced the debate in the traditional Haggadah over whether there had been 10, 50, or 500 plagues with a debate between violence and nonviolence as a path to freedom. That issue in 1969 was just as fraught, the debate just as intense, and the consequences just as important as any debate over BDS today.

In the same spirit, today I welcome the creation of a new version of a Freedom Seder that will discuss the issues roused by the conflict between Israel and Palestine, alongside many other Seders that the first Freedom Seder stirred into being.

At The Shalom Center, we ourselves this year created a new #FreedomSeder50 that was celebrated in a mosque (!!) and led by Rev William Barber and Ana Mara Archila, among others. (See

https://theshalomcenter.org/freedomseder50 ). God forbid that the Freedom Seder itself should be frozen into an idol!

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Over the years, The Shalom Center and I have rarely addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We have focused on the major issues of US public policy that the American Jewish community has faced, and we have especially addressed issues where Jewish religious tradition, especially the Hebrew Bible, has offered wisdom on those issues. In recent years that has meant especially the climate crisis and the question of how to respond to refugees and immigrants.

But increasingly, Israeli-Palestinian issues have entered into the very fiber of US  politics and the very fiber of American Judaism:

  • How should American Jews respond to criticisms of Israeli government policy by African-American and Muslim American activists and officials?
  • How should American Jews respond to words and actions by the Trump White House that bespeak white nationalism, including antisemitism?
  • How should American Jews respond to claims by Trumpist officials that critics of Israel are spouting antisemitism?
  • How should American Jews respond to the close alliance between the Trump Administration and the Netanyahoo government?

Do any of these questions call for responses not in political terms alone, but in terms of Jewish religious thought? In terms of God?

I am feeling called to address these questions when they arise from and speak to the deep crisis in American democracy and to the deep crisis facing the future of a number of religious communities, including Judaism.

Blessings of Emet, Tzedek, v’Shalom — Truth, Justice, & Peace, the three pillars that the ancient Rabbis taught us uphold the universe. — Rabbi Arthur Waskow