At ‘Seder in the Streets,’ protesters in Brooklyn denounce US support to Israel

As the Senate voted on an aid package for Israel, participants of a ‘Seder in the Streets’ denounced the death and devastation in Gaza and urged Congress to end military support for the war.

Demonstrators attend a “Seder in the Streets

NEW YORK (RNS) — On Tuesday (April 23), the second night of the weeklong Passover holiday, thousands of New Yorkers filled Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn for a mass Seder dinner organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice.

The sit-down protest, called “Seder in the Streets,” came as the U.S. Senate was preparing to pass a $95.3 billion aid package for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan after the House passed a series of parallel aid bills on Saturday. 

Though Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer was likely in Washington shepherding the measure, the crowd, gathered within shouting distance of the senator’s home, urged him to drop his support for the bill, which would send $26 billion to Israel for wartime assistance and to Gaza for humanitarian aid. 

“Schumer, Schumer, talk is cheap. You’re sending bombs. How can you sleep?” chanted the crowd, and some held aloft signs accusing the Democrat of having received funds from pro-Israel group AIPAC to support the bill. 

Demonstrators attend a “Seder in the Streets" event Tuesday, April 23, 2024, on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, New York. The Passover-related protest was organized by Jewish Voice Peace, IfNotNow, and Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. (RNS photo/Fiona André)

Demonstrators attend a “Seder in the Streets” event April 23, 2024, on Grand Army Plaza in Brooklyn, New York. (RNS photo/Fiona André)

Other participants, standing at the entrance of nearby Prospect Park, came with signs reading “Stop funding genocide,” wore black T-shirts reading “Jews for Cease-fire” and “Not in our name” and chanted slogans heard at previous cease-fire protests organized in Washington and New York since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war.

By the end of the evening, more than 200 were arrested.

At Passover, Jews commemorate the end of the Israelites’ captivity in Egypt and their journey through the desert led by Moses, as told in the Bible’s Book of Exodus. The Seder dinner, where the Exodus story is retold each year, is the most widely celebrated Jewish ritual in the U.S.

At the Seder in the Streets, rabbis and activists took turns on a stage for more than three hours, each talking about the special meaning of Passover amid the Israel-Hamas war.

Rabbi Miriam Grossman, spiritual leader of the Brooklyn Jewish congregation Kolot Chayeinu, kicked off the rally by praying for the people of Gaza and performing the kiddush, the Seder blessing over the wine. 

Standing in front of a white banner reading “Let Gaza Live,” Canadian social activist Naomi Klein gave a speech about the contemporary meaning of Passover and how it relates to the war. She drew parallels between the story of Israelites worshipping the golden calf as an idol, as told in Exodus, and “the false idol of Zionism.”

“Too many of our people are worshipping a false idol once again, they are enraptured by it. They are drunk on it. They are profaned by it,” she said before adding, “We need to take our exodus from Zionism.”

Syrian Rabbi Esther Azar took the stage to perform traditional Syrian Passover rites. As she proceeded to accomplish the fourth step of the Syrian Seder, the yachatz, the breaking of the middle matzo bread, Azar explained to the audience that her bread had already been broken in pieces to echo the rubbles of Gaza and the “brokenness” of the war victims.

The Seder was inspired by the 1969 Freedom Seder that brought together Jewish and African-American activists to denounce the Vietnam War and the oppression of Black people. The Freedom Seder’s Haggadah, drafted by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, linked the Israelites’ struggle to that of Black Americans.

Beth Miller, a political director for Jewish Voice for Peace, said political figures have not been listening to their demands. “Most politicians speak about the Jewish community like it is a monolith, and as though all Jews support the Israeli government. They conflate Jewish communities with Israel,” she said.

Miller explained that an important part of JVP’s work focuses on decoupling Jewish identity from Zionism. “We’re creating many other communal spaces where people can bring their full Jewish, anti-Zionist selves,” she said.

As the event wrapped up and the message “Stop arming Israel” was projected on the front of the Brooklyn Library, the crowd received the news that the Senate aid package bill had been approved.

Eva Borgwardt, a national spokesperson for IfNotNow who attended the rally, charged political figures like Schumer with hypocrisy, pointing out that they have criticized the Israeli government’s tactics in the current war but still voted for the aid bill.

“The senator, a couple of weeks ago, had some extremely harsh words for the Netanyahu government and said that Netanyahu was unfit to rule,” said Borgwardt. “And yet, yesterday, he pushed the Senate to send billions of dollars of weapons funding directly to the Netanyahu government.”

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