In the spring of 1968, a now-familiar scene befell the city of Washington. In the aftermath of the assassination of MLK on April 4th, the pain and frustration of African-Americans reached a boiling point. Decades of unfair treatment in the areas of housing, education, and employment — compounded by the murder of an innocent man — resulted in multiple days of civic unrest across the nation’s capital. What started as a peaceful attempt to compel D.C. businesses to close out of respect for the fallen leader, turned into smashing store windows and setting fire to local buildings. The uprisings lasted four days. Before long, the National Guard was called in to restore order, and the military began enforcing a strict curfew.
As is the case with the recent protest movement in response to the murder of George Floyd, in 1968 many white Americans believed in the value of progress and were deeply committed to supporting the black community in their struggle for equality. During the week of April 4th, 1968, many white activists in D.C. ferried supplies to the men and women fighting on the frontlines. One of these white individuals was named Arthur Waskow. A Baltimore-native in his mid-30s, Arthur had spent his early career in Washington working on public policy issues like renewable energy and the Vietnam war. Although raised in a Jewish home, Waskow was, at that time, more focused on his identity as an agent of social change. One night in 1968, however, that began to shift.
As Arthur walked home for the first night of Passover — only a week after MLK’s murder — he passed countless soldiers and National Guard vehicles. For Waskow, a clear comparison emerged: the military suppression of African-American’s struggle for freedom was reminiscent of the ancient Egyptians’ attempt to keep the Hebrew people held in bondage. “This is Pharaoh’s army,” Waskow reflected.
Invigorated by this idea — that black and Jewish Americans shared a history of oppression — Waskow spent the following year creating what would come to be known as the Freedom Seder. Arthur’s new Haggadah overlaid the ancient story of the Exodus with messages about fighting injustice in America. It named movement leaders like Gandhi as “prophets” alongside the biblical Elijah. In 1969, on the anniversary of MLK’s assassination, 800 people — black, white, Jewish, and Christian — gathered in Washington for the first-ever Freedom Seder. The crowd lit candles, broke matzah, and shouted “Liberation now!” in place of “L’Chaim.”
The Freedom Seder symbolized a high-point for black-Jewish relations in D.C., and ushered in a decades-long tradition of using Passover as a point of reflection on many different forms of oppression. Today, (non-black) Jewish Americans are faced with a comparable juncture in history. Racial inequality — made evident by police brutality — has reached another boiling point, and the African American community is no longer willing to accept the status quo. In 1968, Arthur Waskow heeded this call with creativity, compassion, and bravery. Over 50 years later, how will the Jewish community again rise to the challenge?