Mock seder at East Bay federation office part of national week of protest

A group of 60 young protesters staged a “Liberation Seder” outside of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay in downtown Berkeley on Thursday afternoon, calling upon the Jewish establishment to end its support for Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories.

Protesters assemble the seder plate in the middle of Allston Street

The protest was part of a national week of actions organized by IfNotNow, an American Jewish group formed in the summer of 2014 in response to Israel’s war in Gaza.  

The group was co-founded by former U.C. Berkeley student Simone Zimmerman, 25, who was fired by the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign last week two days after being hired as its Jewish outreach coordinator. Zimmerman, a leader of J Street U at Cal before becoming national president of the liberal pro-Israel lobby group, had been outed as calling Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “manipulative asshole,” among other things, in a Facebook post.

This past week, Liberation Seder protests took place in five major American cities, including New York, Boston, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. In New York on April 20, some 100 protesters staged an action in the lobby of the building where the ADL is located, the Forward reported; 17 were arrested. In Boston on April 19, around 75 protesters held a mock seder outside the AIPAC building; six chained themselves to the seder table and were arrested.

No arrests took place in Berkeley, where eight activists, each wearing a “No Liberation With Occupation” T-shirt, sat with their arms linked outside the Federation building’s front doors, blocking entrance and exit. A large seder plate sat at their feet, and a table with matzah, wine, and kiddush cups stood in front of them on the sidewalk. They were surrounded by a circle of about 50 other protesters, who held signs calling for freedom and liberation for Palestinians and Israelis.

Members of the crowd took turns reading passages from a personalized Passover haggadah that the IfNotNow group had compiled.

“As young Jews, we are committed to fighting oppression in all forms,” one protester read out loud from the haggadah. “Our past trauma teaches us to never inflict suffering on others.”

The readings were interspersed with songs from the traditional haggadah that were adapted to relate to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I woke up with my mind on justice, hallelujah,” the group sang.

Protesters dance and sing at the end of the seder.

During the reading of the Ten Plagues, two women poured water and wine into a bucket. The bucket was then poured into the street in front of the building.

About midway through the seder, the activists took to the center of Allston Street, linked arms and refused to move, blocking a city bus. Two police officers re-routed the bus, and the action continued in the street for about an hour without incident.

“This afternoon, members of the organization ‘If Not Now’ came by our office to publicly ask where Federation stands on Israel,” said Rabbi James Brandt, CEO of the Jewish Federation of the East Bay. “We work to build bridges between Israel and our local community and to advancing a just, pluralistic and shared society for all people in Israel.”

In a statement on April 21, ADL CEO Jonathan A. Greenblatt said IfNotNow and the ADL share the same goal of a two-state solution.

“ADL had no role whatsoever in the arrest of the protesters,” Greenblatt said, referring to the New York arrests. “The protesters trespassed in the lobby of a private office building in which ADL happens to be one of dozens of tenants.

“It is unfortunate that [If Not Now] seems to be more interested in spectacles and ultimatums than in discussion and dialogue grappling with the difficult issues involved in achieving peace,” he added.

Former ADL chief Abe Foxman had called for Zimmerman’s firing last week.

“I think it’s hard to come to something like this and say it’s anti-Semitic,” said Rose Mendelsohn, 23, an organizer with IfNotNow at the Berkeley protest.  “We’re young Jews coming together to uphold our Jewish values about justice. This was about love and joy. This was about us telling the Jewish community that it’s okay to speak out against the occupation, to join us.”

jta contributed to this report.