Harvard Hillel hosted a Seder last week meant to publicly oppose Israeli presence in the West Bank and Gaza, though student organizers complained of some “censorship” from Hillel administrators.
The Seder—a ceremonial service and meal that takes place at the start of the Jewish holiday of Passover—was run by student group Harvard College Progressive Jewish Alliance. The event was intended to honor what organizers called the Palestinian victims of the Israeli government’s policies.
Noah R. Wagner ’18, who helped organize the Seder, said the holiday afforded an opportunity to address what can be a touchy subject for many Jews. Harvard Hillel is the only nationally affiliated college Hillel chapter to allow an anti-occupation seder this year, according to Helene Lovett ’19, another organizer. Swarthmore College’s chapter held a similar event, but their chapter disaffiliated from the national organization, Hillel International, in 2015 after objections to the chapter’s Israel-Palestine events.
“I think that often our Jewish communities sort of turn away from asking difficult questions and discussing painful truths about the occupation,” Wagner said. “I think we wanted to approach the issue with a lot of care and thought and compassion at a holiday that is very much about human dignity and freedom for all.”
In Dec. 2017, President Donald Trump officially recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, prompting criticisms from international leaders and reversing seven decades of U.S. policy precedent. Trump’s decision received much criticism from those who view the West Bank as occupied by Israeli forces.
Organizers of Thursday’s Seder said they had to contend with strict standards mandated by Hillel International, an umbrella organization that supports more than 500 Hillels—centers for Jewish students—at college campuses around the world.
Hillel International’s “standards of partnership,” implemented in 2010, state the organization—presumably including its chapters—will not “partner with, house, or host” groups or speakers that “delegitimize, demonize, or apply a double standard to Israel” or “support boycott, divestment from, or sanctions” against Israel.
“We had to be really deliberate, make a really deliberate, conscious effort to ensure that all of the programming was in line with Hillel’s ‘standards of partnership,’” Wagner said. “That meant, for instance, omitting two poems that our Palestinian peers had submitted when we asked them for content for our Haggadah, our program, at the request of Hillel.”
“It also means contending with the discomfort and really alienation and silencing that is the experience of Palestinian students and students who do Palestinian organizing on campus who have historically been excluded from Hillel,” Wagner added.
Harvard Hillel Executive Director Jonah C. Steinberg wrote in an emailed statement that his staff worked closely with student organizers of the Seder to formulate a program that fit within Hillel’s guidelines.
“One of three poems suggested shortly before the Seder by Palestinian guests (after the 'Haggadah' for the program was already printed) was chosen for inclusion,” Steinberg added. “The students' decision to hold this program within Harvard Hillel and in coherence with Harvard Hillel's commitment regarding Israel was the students' own, as was their decision to seek guidance in doing so.”
Steinberg sent an email to all members of Hillel ahead of the Seder affirming Hillel is a “pluralistic Jewish community.”
“The range of pro-Israel views within our walls is very much like the diversity within the Jewish politics of Israel itself,” he wrote.
Participants in Thursday’s Seder have faced harsh criticism from some Jewish leaders. Adam Milstein, a prominent Israeli-American real estate developer and philanthropist, called attendees of the Seder “self hating Jews” in a tweet he posted in late March.
Lovett praised Harvard Hillel for allowing the Seder to take place, despite some students’ frustration with what they called “censorship.”
“We want to be clear, we feel very lucky and supportive that Harvard Hillel decided to let us have the Seder,” Lovett said. “Harvard Hillel is a leader on the national stage in taking that step and hopefully inspires other Jewish institutions and local Hillels to do that in the future.”
Last week’s Seder was also meant to honor various civil rights movements including the push for LGBT rights, for racial justice, and for the rights of immigrants and refugees, according to Wagner. Wagner said attendees poured a ceremonial cup of wine for these three movements, along with Palestinian liberation.
The event came just days after tensions flared up on the Gaza-Israeli border, with Israeli troops killing at least 17 Palestinians and wounding hundreds more during a demonstration calling for the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The Israeli government has repeatedly justified its use of force, arguing that protesters were rolling burning tires and throwing stones at Israeli soldiers.
Wagner and Lovett were arrested last week at the Israeli Consulate in Boston during a protest against Israel’s presence in Gaza and its use of force against Palestinians, according to Lovett.
“I think that only reaffirms our commitment to these issues,” Lovett said.
—Staff writer Jonah S. Berger can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jonahberger98.