What is Pesach?

Pesach, or Passover, is a major Jewish festival that traditionally celebrates the Exodus, as well as the beginning of spring (in the northern hemisphere) and the barley harvest. In Torah (the Jewish bible), the story of the Exodus describes the Jews as enslaved in ancient Egypt for hundreds of years before God sent Moses to free the slaves and lead them out of Egypt and to Canaan — what is now Palestine. It’s an uncomfortable story for antizionists (more on this below), but one we must wrestle with.

Pesach lasts for seven or eight days (traditions vary). During this time, adherents refrain from eating leavened products (grain-based products that have been allowed to rise, including most baked goods made of wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats). Instead, only unleavened foods are eaten, specifically a flatbread or cracker known as matza (plural, matzot). The central ritual of Pesach is the seder.

How can Pesach be antizionist if it’s about the Jews colonising Palestine?

From the Israeli Black Panthers’ Haggadah, (developed to protest the mistreatment of Arab Jews in the state of Israel, with Golda Meir starring as Pharaoh) to Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder (first held after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination), Pesach has always been radically reinvented and reinterpreted, and predates zionism by millennia. 

It’s true that the Pesach story is a challenge for antizionist Jews to wrestle with, now more than ever. It contains themes of Jewish exceptionalism and Jewish liberation at the expense of others (regular ancient Egyptians and Canaanites). Yet it is central to our theology, liturgy and culture, with the Torah exhorting us repeatedly to treat others with dignity and kindness “because you were slaves in Egypt”. Instead of ceding our traditions to Zionists, who have long twisted the story of Pesach to suit their colonialist and genocidal narratives, we believe it is crucial to engage with our culture — to find new interpretations, to argue with God (whether we believe in the Divine or not), and to build a robust antizionist Judaism and Jewishness. 

While some believe that the Torah gives an accurate historical account of the origin of our culture, others see this story as metaphorical. Regardless of historicity, this story gives us rich, if uncomfortable, material for examining structural power dynamics, oppression, liberation and self-determination, among other themes. We may finish with more questions than answers, but what could be more Jewish than that?

What does antisemitism have to do with Pesach?

In Europe, Pesach was historically a time of increased antisemitism due to its connection to Easter (the Last Supper was a Pesach seder). In the Middle Ages, an antisemitic conspiracy known as blood libel arose, claiming that Jews used the blood of Christian children in matzot. (FYI: humans, and all blood products, are not kosher.) This trope has persisted to feature in antisemitic attacks in the US this century. In the midst of the cruelty of genocide currently being perpetrated by the state of Israel, supposedly in the name of all Jews, it is neither helpful nor necessary to perpetuate these tropes. This form of antisemitism is politically expedient to zionist discourse, so it’s helpful if activists for the Palestinian cause can identify, avoid, and call out this type of discourse.

What is a seder?

Seder, or order, is a type of Jewish ritual wherein food is eaten, beverages are drunk, and words are spoken or sung in a particular order. The best-known seder is the Pesach Seder, where the story of the Exodus is told (in a perhaps deliberately roundabout way) through words and food. The seder is guided by a traditional text called the Haggadah, or “telling”. The seder is in many ways a child-focused event, where unusual foods are used to spark curiosity and engagement. Discussion is encouraged, for adults as well as children.

I’m not Jewish. How can I attend a Pesach seder?

  • Do not host your own. This is culturally appropriative.
  • Do not attend a Christian seder. They are supersessionist and ahistorical.
  • Be invited. Pesach Seders are traditionally a closed practice, so the only way to attend one without being culturally appropriative or antisemitic is to be invited.

I’ve never been to a seder. What do I do?

  • Do not bring bread or any other baked goods. Ask your host what is appropriate if you aren’t sure. (Note: Pesach displays in supermarkets and the internet are often incorrect about Jewish and other minority traditions.)
  • Consider eating a snack beforehand. There’s a lot of talking before dinner is served.
  • Do your best to follow along in your Haggadah but don’t worry if you get lost. The experience is more important than being on the right page.
  • Ask questions (respectfully, of course).

What is a seder plate?

  • In many Jewish communities, the ritual foods of the seder are placed together on a specially designed plate called a seder plate.
  • A seder plate traditionally features the following items:
    • Karpas, a green vegetable representing spring and dipped in salt water, representing the tears of an oppressed people
    • Charoset, a sweet mixture of fruit (often apples or dates), spices and/or wine, representing mortar used by Jewish slaves for building
    • Maror, a bitter vegetable representing the bitterness of slavery
    • Zeroa, a roasted bone (or beet for vegans), representing an earlier history of animal sacrifice
    • Beitza, an egg (or potatoes for vegans), representing another sacrifice or the renewal of spring
  • More recent additions include
    • An orange, representing the fruitfulness that results from including queer and/or transgender people in our communities
    • Olives, representing Palestinian liberation


1969 Freedom Seder: “It would not be sufficient”  

A Jewdas haggadah [$]

For times such as these [$] 

Hashta Hacha: a justice-oriented Haggadah reader with contributions from
members of Halachic Left, All That’s Left, and HaSmol HaEmuni

Hearkening to the voice of Gaza: Tzedek Chicago seder readings for Passover 5784 

HIAS Passover resources

Jelithin liberation seder haggadah  

Jericho Vincent’s seder plate additions

Jewish fast for Gaza – JVP/IfNotNow  

Justice-y Passover seder haggadot/supplements 

JVP liberatory Passover haggadah 

Pillar of Fire Haggadah [$]

Shulchan Orech readings

The Israeli Black Panthers Haggadah [$]

Take me back: a liberation primer