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Parting Waters

Passover at the Columbia encampment

On the eighth night of Passover, I taught my last class at Columbia University. It was my sixth semester, and the end of an adjunct contract I’m not applying to renew. I have about a hundred current and former students who still attend the university—I ran into one before class and one after; neither was sure if they were suspended.

That morning, we’d all received an ominous email from the university’s president, Minouche Shafik. She announced the failure of negotiations between administration and the students who had been occupying one lawn, then another, outside Butler Library for two weeks, demanding the university’s divestment from Israel. The email ordered students to disperse by 2 p.m. Flyers were distributed across the encampment, presenting two options: students could either sign a contract, which would put them under probation until June 30, 2025, but allow them to continue their coursework, or they’d be officially suspended. The administration claimed it had “already identified many students in the encampment”—one told me there were drones flying overhead all day, and suspected there was facial recognition technology tracking students.

The last such escalation took place on April 18, when Shafik suspended at least one hundred students for defying an earlier demand to disperse—and then called in the New York Police Department to arrest them for criminal trespassing. But Shafik, whose handling of the protests has been heavily criticized from all sides, later issued an assurance that the police would not return to break up the encampment. In an April 26 email Shafik and other top administrators stated, “We all share the view, based on discussions within our community and with outside experts, that to bring back the NYPD at this time would be counterproductive, further inflaming what is happening on campus, and drawing thousands to our doorstep who would threaten our community.”

As the 2 p.m. deadline on April 29 neared, the lawn was still full of tents, and hundreds more students, faculty, and press surrounded the encampment. Others, who couldn’t enter the campus without active ID cards, continued to rally outside the gates on 116th Street and Broadway. The deadline came and went, and the campus returned to our new normal: the lawn occupied and calm, with students coming and going to class and meals.

That afternoon, I lingered. I hugged an old professor of mine—I’m an alumna of the university too—who was wearing an orange vest and standing in a line of other faculty guarding the encampment. I stood there awhile with my painted sign, YOUR FACULTY STANDS W/ YOU, then took off after seven. The campus was calm. When things were quiet, I always felt a little awkward at the encampment, like a parent crashing a sleepover. The students were reading, talking to their friends. I’d hang around, trying not to look like some kind of mole, and then I’d be on my way.

About five hours later, students occupied Hamilton Hall, barricading themselves inside.

On the first night of Passover, I attended a seder inside the encampment.

Students distributed handmade pamphlets—a zine-like rendition of a Haggadah, the traditional book, whose name means “telling,” because it guides us through a retelling of the Passover story. Ahead of the traditional prayers, an opening note from the student organizers read, “If our Passover seder focuses exclusively on Jewish trauma—and not on the ways the ways our trauma is being weaponized to oppress another people, we will not have fulfilled the requirements of the Passover seder.” And, more specifically, “If our gathering does not motivate us to do everything in our power to end the genocidal violence Israel is unleashing upon Gaza, we will not have fulfilled the requirements of the Passover seder.”

We sat in a circle on and around a blue tarp in the grass. A kind freshman and I shared a copy of the Haggadah. Matzah was passed from hand to hand, split, and shared. There were some improvisations—the freshman and I sprayed my hand sanitizer onto our hands after the prayer for handwashing; the four glasses of wine were replaced with grape juice—as we moved through the familiar steps and songs. Together, we collectively told the story of Exodus.

Jewish students lead a seder at the reconstructed NYU Gaza Encampment on April 26, 2024. | Hannah La Follette Ryan

In the popular telling, the story begins with a decree by Egypt’s new and insecure pharaoh, who believes the enslaved Jews are becoming too strong. All Jewish newborns, he orders, will be thrown into the Nile. Yocheved, a Jewish woman, gives her child to the water herself: she places her infant son in a basket and floats him down the river, to where an Egyptian princess is bathing. The princess pulls the child from the water and decides to raise him alongside her son, the heir to the throne.

The baby, Moses, will not know he is a Jew for years, until his biological brother, Aaron, comes to tell him, asking for help to liberate his people. Moses rebuffs Aaron’s pleas; Moses is a prince. But when Moses witnesses an Egyptian taskmaster whipping an enslaved Jew, he kills the Egyptian and buries his body in the sand. Moses then flees to avoid punishment. Out in the desert, he finds a quiet life among the Midianite tribe, marrying one of the women, Zipporah.

One day, Moses comes across a bush that is on fire but doesn’t combust. He hears the voice of God, who tells Moses that he will be the one to liberate the Jews. Moses respectfully declines. He doesn’t know anything about Jews except his complicity in their enslavement, he is in hiding for his crime, and he has a speech impediment—not an ideal spokesperson, he thinks, and offers his brother instead. But God has spoken.

Compelled to free the Jews, Moses goes home. “Let my people go,” he demands. The pharaoh declines.

On the sixth night of Passover, I attended a seder at a friend’s apartment. We talked about Moses as an unlikely leader, how he acted despite his fear. We spoke about the ongoing genocide in Palestine and our own attempts to overcome our fear or to act in solidarity despite it.

I remembered seeing the host of this seder at the Jewish-led mass civil disobedience at Grand Central Station in late October. Fear had flushed her skin red and she seemed overly caffeinated; it was the night of her first arrest. A few days before her seder, I’d greeted her for a second time outside 1 Police Plaza. She’d been arrested again at a mass Passover action in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza near Senator Chuck Schumer’s home. Before the arrests, Naomi Klein spoke to the crowd, announcing that this Passover, we weren’t repeating Moses’s demand to let his people go. “We have already gone,” she said, “And your kids? They’re with us now.”

Perhaps the university students—now occupying lawns, buildings, and plazas across the country—are not the most obvious leaders to call for a halt to the genocide in Palestine. Their demands are generally for their universities to divest from Israel and, in the case of Columbia, to end a dual-degree program in Tel Aviv. Ending the universities’ financial and cultural complicity in the genocide matters; it’s also a very minor step towards ending the brutality in Gaza. But what the students are modeling is the power of escalating disruption, a refusal for things to continue as normal during mass death. Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions, or BDS, campaigns are decades-old, as are other anti-Zionist efforts, but the students have now created a sustained and previously unimaginable spectacle in support of Palestine.

For two weeks now, the protests have drawn immense media coverage, forcing responses from everyone from campus administrators to the White House. Despite widespread mischaracterization of the protesters as violent and antisemitic, the sheer number of students involved—more than fifteen hundred have been arrested since April 18—makes clear the overwhelming public disapproval of the Israeli military campaign in Gaza. Parallels have been drawn between this movement and prior student protest movements against the war in Vietnam and South African apartheid. It may come to mark a watershed moment in the American public’s support of the Israeli state.

If the students’ leadership, bravery, and moral clarity, as well as their organization and tactics, were to be replicated more broadly, if more Americans were shutting down business as usual, those in solidarity with Palestine might gain actual leverage. It could force the United States to legitimately pressure Israel to end its genocidal campaign.

When the pharaoh refuses to let the Jews leave Egypt, things escalate. Ten plagues are inflicted on the Egyptians, each worse than what came before. With each the pharaoh is given another chance, and each time he declines. Moses returns, after plagues including lice, hail, an eclipse-like darkness, and the mass death of livestock, to reason again with the pharaoh. Really, he says, God is not messing around. The pharaoh again refuses to free the Jews. And so the angel of death comes to town. The Jews have been warned to streak lamb’s blood above their front doors so that the angel knows to pass over their homes. At the unmarked houses, the angel slips inside and kills the firstborn sons, including the pharaoh’s. Leave, he relents, stricken with grief. Go before I change my mind.

The NYPD blocks off the street in front of the CUNY City College gates while the encampment is raided and dismantled on April 30, 2024. | Hannah La Follette Ryan

At my friend’s Passover seder, the suffering and deaths of the Egyptians were acknowledged. We dipped our pinkies into one of our four ceremonial glasses of wine and took out ten drops, one to symbolize each plague endured by the Egyptians. This is part of the Jewish liberation story—that our freedom required Egyptian deaths. I think specifically about the moment in which Moses kills the taskmaster. He’s watched Jews be enslaved his entire life and benefited from their subjugation, but now that he knows it’s his people being hurt, he intervenes, killing a man who he no longer considers one of his own. And it’s not just this man actively enacting violence who is punished with death—what finally triggers the liberation of the Jews? Egyptian children are killed en masse. What are we meant to do with this being the center of our liberation myth?

The justification—that the Egyptians were an oppressive society, that there were so many off-ramps—sets a thornier precedent this year. Liberation that causes death is perhaps easier to wrap one’s head around in a story, when the liberation at stake is one’s own, or when the deaths are made to feel further away. Last fall, Arielle Angel, the editor in chief of Jewish Currents, invoked the Exodus story to think through October 7, effectively aligning the Palestinian liberation struggle with that of the enslaved Jews. In turn, this placed Israelis in the position of Egyptians—the oppressing country will suffer casualties of militants and civilians alike. “It seems that hiding in our liberation myth is a recognition that violence will visit the oppressor society indiscriminately,” Angel writes. In the days after October 7, those around Angel were “asking themselves how they [could] be part of a left that seems to treat Israeli deaths as a necessary, if not desirable, part of Palestinian liberation. But what Exodus reminds us is that the dehumanization that is required to oppress and occupy another people always dehumanizes the oppressor in turn.” These incredibly difficult conversations were hopefully among those had at Passover seders this year, as so many of us reckon with the weaponization of Jewish trauma in the continued oppression of Palestinians.

Still, the narrative of Jews as the eternally oppressed too often takes center stage. Last week, videos of Shai Davidai—a Columbia Business School professor who has made a name for himself as a tantrum-prone, student-endangering Zionist—attempting to enter Columbia’s campus went viral. Davidai discovers that his ID has been deactivated and his access to campus revoked. In the footage, he performs for the cameras, announcing that Columbia has banned him from campus because the university can’t guarantee his safety. Davidai is stuck in his own victim narrative; he can’t conceptualize that he may have been banned from campus because he is the aggressor. And yet just hours later, I scanned in no problem and attended the seder led by Jewish students inside the encampment.

Over the last two weeks, as the country has been embroiled in a debate over “free speech,” the students, again and again, have tried to turn the attention back to Gaza. “There are no universities left in Gaza,” the Columbia students reiterated in their statements to the press. “Everything we’re doing at the encampment is for Gaza,” a student of mine read aloud on the fourth night of Passover.

Days earlier, more than three hundred bodies were found in a mass grave outside Nasser Hospital in Khan Yunis; some of the dead had their hands tied. More died in airstrikes, including the daughter and grandchild of Refaat Alareer, the poet made famous by one of the final poems he wrote before his own death last December, “If I Must Die.” More children starved. Just before Passover ended, reports surfaced that “military aged men” would not be permitted to leave Rafah ahead of an expected ground invasion. Bombs continued to rain down.

The Jews rush out of Egypt. They are in such a hurry, they do not have time to leaven the bread; this is why Jews traditionally don’t eat leavened foods during Passover, instead eating matzah—the blander, cardboard cousin of the saltine.

Soon after the Jews are permitted to leave, the pharaoh changes his mind. Perhaps, he has entered a different stage of his grief—anger. The Egyptian army quickly mobilizes their chariots. The Jews now have the Egyptians behind them and the Red Sea ahead of them, which splits, allowing the Jews to cross safely.

When the Jews have safely emerged on the far side, the walls of water collapse inward again, drowning the Egyptian army.

In traditional celebrations of Passover, we have always turned to the youngest. We expect them to recite the same four questions about what distinguishes Passover from other nights, for which they are given four scripted answers. Jewish student protesters seem to understand that the struggle for liberation is not a finished story but a value that demands something of them. They also seem to understand, organizing within a diverse student movement against the Zionist state, that true allegiance to liberation can never center on Jews alone.

Last fall, I wondered if, as a teacher, I had adequately helped to prepare my students for a moment of such moral urgency. I’d spent years lecturing on the powerful, queer-led activism of the AIDS crisis—the tactics, the way ordinary people stepped into roles of leadership and expertise. I’d spoken about needle exchange and broader harm-reduction organizing. But did my students, I worried, understand that these lessons weren’t taught for the sake of memorizing history, or even for the purpose of honoring elders, but to give them skill sets and playbooks that could be acted upon for their own pressing causes? Did I ever say this?

I shouldn’t have doubted them. The students have been listening—in their many classes, in their religious practices, in this moment of mass death. This year, students, Jewish and not, have new questions, but they also have new tactics. They have taken their university—a space generally of conceptual work—and activated it. On April 20, the students at the Columbia encampment screened a documentary about the 1968 campus protests, during which Columbia students, protesting the university’s complicity in the Vietnam War and the gentrification of Morningside Heights, occupied Hamilton Hall for a full week. Then, hours after I taught my last class, students occupied Hamilton Hall themselves, renaming the building Hind Hall, after a six-year-old Palestinian child who was killed by the IDF, alongside members of her family and the medics who attempted to save her.

As a child, I was taught one origin story of the Mi Chamocha prayer: when the Jews were being chased by the pharaoh’s army, the sea would not split for Moses. It was another Jew, Nahshon, who walked into the water until he was neck deep, then deeper, believing it would part. In the first verse of the prayer, it’s chamocha, then the first syllable chokes on water—mi kamocha. Nahshon had gotten mouth-deep in water, still believing God would split the sea, and then God did.

It’s said that it wasn’t just the Red Sea that parted but every body of water everywhere, all at once. As Palestinians struggle for freedom from occupation, they’ve inspired struggle in streets and on campuses across this country and the world over. In the wake of Columbia’s encampment, dozens more followed. At Ohio State University, a human chain protected praying Muslim students from police, screaming, “Let them pray!” At Emory, a philosophy professor was tackled to the ground as she attempted to protect her students. The world watched as students at UT Austin were violently arrested by state troopers, some of whom arrived on horseback. Around two hundred pro-Zionist protesters attacked an encampment at UCLA. Each day, new encampments, new protests, cropped up.

The morning after my last class, I woke to news that Hamilton Hall had been occupied. I was told my ID would no longer allow me to access campus; the students were on their own now. I spent the day listening to Columbia’s radio station, WKCR—the student journalists were still inside the gates. They narrated what they saw on the ground between short stretches of jazz music.

It was impossible for me to know how many, if any, of my own students were inside the building. The following evening, hundreds of police officers stormed Columbia’s campus. I listened live, along with so many other people that WKCR’s site kept crashing; the young journalists apologized for the interruptions between their updates. They described an approaching “sea” of officers so thick they couldn’t “see a speck of street.” They observed batons drawn, the human barricade outside Hamilton Hall singing “your people are my people” as the police descended, then students being thrown from the barricade. Within hours, armed officers had cleared Hamilton Hall and the surrounding grounds. Just a few blocks uptown, more than a hundred students at CCNY were also arrested.

The youth are no longer asking. They are demanding. They are putting their own bodies on the line; they are walking into the water.