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A Passover Plague: Harvard’s Israel Apartheid Week

By Rebecca S. Araten and Lauren A. Perl, Contributing Writers

“In every generation, they rise against us to destroy us,” Jewish students sang in the Vehi SheAmda prayer at Friday and Saturday night’s Passover seders. The passage first appeared in the Passover liturgy in the 8th century, and it still rings true. They did and still do rise against us.

They rose against us to destroy us during years of our people’s enslavement and backbreaking labor in Egypt, which we commemorate and relive during the Passover seder. They rose against us during centuries of inquisitions, expulsions, pogroms, and blood libels. Passover, in particular, was a time of fear for Jews throughout Medieval times. During this holiday time, gentiles raised baseless accusations against Jews, claiming that they murdered gentile children and used their blood for Passover rituals. These accusations exploded on an annual basis into pogroms, murder sprees that kept Jews reciting, millennia after their Exodus, “This year we are slaves, next year we will be free people.”

American Jews continue to face the seemingly eternal virus of antisemitism. In 2021, one in four Jews experienced antisemitism and there was a 12 percent increase in antisemitic acts such as vandalism, harassment, and assault. This Passover, our campus has witnessed antisemitism and callous disregard of Jewish students.

As students observing Passover returned from joyous celebrations, they were disturbed to enter Harvard Yard and see a large display resembling Holocaust imagery of planes, barbed wire fences, and boxcars, including bandying insults against Zionists, equating their belief in a homeland for the Jewish people with systematic oppressions as stark as racism and homophobia.

Passover tells the history of the Jewish people bravely uniting to break from the oppressive bonds of slavery. To host Israel Apartheid Week during Passover diminishes the experience of Jewish suffering and cries for Jewish safety because Israel Apartheid Week opposes the existence of the State of Israel and claims that Jewish people are racist oppressors.

By inviting known Holocaust denial apologist, Norman Finkelstein to campus, the Palestinian Solidarity Committee created a hostile environment for Jewish students. Finklestein is the author of ‘The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering.” This book evokes the antisemitic stereotype that Jews are greedy, manipulative, and power-hungry, by implying that Jews benefit financially from the Third Reich’s genocide of the Jewish people. Beyond that, Finkelstein has praised Holocaust denier David Irving, and terrorist groups such as Hezbollah.

The Apartheid wall, prominently featured on campus, declares that “Zionism is racism, settler colonialism, white supremacy, apartheid.” It includes graphics triggering for many Jewish students, cartoon depictions of a wired fence, World War II-style airplanes, and boxcar trains — images that call to mind a Nazi concentration camp. Additionally, when the great majority of Jews in Israel are Sephardi, Mizrachi, African, or of mixed Ethnicity, whitewashing Zionism as “white supremacy” is also inherently antisemitic.

The Anti-Defamation League defines Zionism as the Jewish movement for self-determination in the land of Israel — the historical birthplace and biblical homeland of the Jewish people. With this in mind, Zionism, manifested as the desire to return to the Land of Israel, has been at the heart of Judaism since the Jewish peoples were forced, oppressed, and exiled from their ethnic homeland two thousand years ago. Such Zionism is embedded in Jewish prayer, ritual, literature, and culture, and in turn, Pew Research Center reports that 45 percent of Jews say caring about Israel is “essential” to their Jewish identity, and an additional 37 percent say it is “important” to their Jewish identity. When the overwhelming majority of Jewish people identify as Zionist, to dismiss this ideology is culturally and historically insensitive and antisemitic.

Jewish individuals have been active participants in civil rights, gender equality, fair labor, and queer liberation movements all throughout American history. Jewish students work to promote the ideal of Tzelem Elohim, that all people have a divine spark in them and have equal dignity and value, and Tikkun Olam, world repair. To label a significant portion of Jewish students racist and colonial for following their religious values is antisemitic and disheartening.

Witnessing how people rise against Jewish communities in this generation has been a burden for many Jewish students, but they will remember the first verse of the Vehi Sheamda prayer: “It is this that has stood for our ancestors and for us,” this meaning the promise that God made to Abraham, that our ancestors would be redeemed from Egypt and make it safely to the biblical Land of Israel. It is this promise of a national homeland that we proudly sing at the end of the seder, “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

— Rebecca S. Araten ’23, a joint concentrator in History and Literature and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Mather House, is a former president of Harvard Hillel. Lauren A. Perl ’25 is a first-year student in Wigglesworth Hall.

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