A Night of Seder Solidarity

I spent Tuesday night at HLS’ Sixth Annual Freedom Seder, which was my first Seder of any kind, and was definitively one of the best events I’ve attended this year. Supplementing the typical Seder’s four traditional questions with a set of questions generated by the event’s leadership committee stimulated fascinating conversation, to say the least. The questions, each paired with a glass of red wine, were as follows:

First Cup of Wine: Communities gather for many reasons. Tonight we gather for food, conversation, and reflection. Describe a time when your family or community has gathered and why it was meaningful to you…

Second Cup of Wine: What injustice do you see in the world that you hope future generations will never have to face. Why?

Third Cup of Wine: Describe a time where you were motivated to stand up against something you believed was unjust. What pushed you over the edge to action? Have you ever remained silent and had regrets? What challenges stood in the way?

Fourth Cup of Wine: The road to justice is often paved with low expectations and pessimism. Throw that out for a few minutes. What is your radical hope for the future? What would it look like?

These guiding questions invoked the sharing of personal narratives and visions for the future that made for a candid and powerful dinner discussion. However, the experience also made me question my own upbringing—namely the fact that I attended a predominately Jewish school for twelve years of my life, yet had never attended a Seder. What barriers existed that allowed my peers and me to live alongside each other for over a decade, but to never share such intimate cultural moments as these? Sure, my social calendar reached its apex through my attending the deluge of Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s in seventh grade, but what more would I have been able to understand about the cultural lives of my peers had I had the opportunity to engage with them through the experience of a Seder? What more would my peers and their families have been able to understand about me?

The Freedom Seder, like my schooling experience, also spurred interesting thoughts about the relationship between two historically marginalized populations: the Black and Jewish communities. The first Freedom Seder occurred in 1969, a year after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., for the purpose of commemorating Black and Jewish communities’ shared history of being enslaved peoples. However, one only needs to understand a fragment of U.S. history to know that the relationship between these two communities has been filled with moments of, both, cooperation and tension. Any awareness of this occasionally fraught history seemed to melt away but for a few hours. Various other student affinity groups, too, were given the opportunity to add their own objects to the proverbial Seder plate, creating a profound mélange of cultural symbolism.

With the contemplation of justice echoing through the night, this event was profoundly juxtaposed with the HLS community’s email notification of “a disturbing incident” in which a demeaning, ad hominem inquiry was directed towards an Israeli guest speaker during a recent event on campus, co-hosted by the Program for Negotiation and various Jewish student organizations. Politics aside, I will never support the practice of disruption that rests upon malicious stereotypes intended to degrade, and which only detract from the legitimate causes for which so many are fighting. Irrespective of whether the words were intended as hate speech or “just a terrible attempt at an insult,” the words chosen represented an intolerable contribution to the type dialogue we aspire to engage in at HLS. Situated with such awareness, the Seder conversation became a microcosm of the decision-making we would have to face upon exiting those familiar Milstein doors–each attendee being forced to ponder, “How does this instance of egregious injustice require me to react?”

Although I feel extremely hurt knowing that this incident took place, I would be remiss to ignore that the Freedom Seder provided an overwhelming sense of hope as a counterpoint to a collective distress. In its wake, two thoughts emerge:

(1) If we can find opportunities to recreate the experience of the Freedom Seder within the educational lives of our students, we would most certainly be graduating lawyers with a heightened level of consciousness, with payoffs to be gained in the structuring of law and in the attorney-client relationship. On Tuesday night, the President of the Jewish Law Students Association (JLSA) made a point to demonstrate such. He explained the experience of conversing with the perpetrator of the incident (whose identity was preserved out of respect for his privacy); and reported that although the two parties agreed to disagree on the politics motivating the incident, the conversation presented a rare opportunity for dialogue, understanding, and clarification. Although the diversity of perspectives within this community means that we will likely have to agree to disagree more often than not, every discussion, perhaps, brings us one step closer to understanding “the other” in a way we wouldn’t have prior. Israelis and Palestinians may not have the luxury of sitting back in wooden-paneled buildings to “discuss” their perspectives–but we do, and it’s unfortunate that institutional pedagogical structures currently squander the chance to ensure that every student is exposed, in some formal way, to the latent opportunities for individualized dialogue that exist within the vast diversity of this community.

(2) Some of the experiences we seek, however, undoubtedly exist in the present. It occurred to me that attendees appreciative of Tuesday’s event would be greatly benefitted from attending some of Reclaim’s events as well. My sense is that many students are still wary of the perceived stigma of being associated with Reclaim if they don’t support every goal or tactic that the group has espoused; however, the reality is that the content of many Reclaim events substantially overlaps with issues addressed at the Freedom Seder, so these discussions needn’t be had only once a year.

I leave a recommendation for two-thirds of my peers: please do not allow yourself to graduate without attending a Freedom Seder. And further, I challenge all of my peers to stop by Belinda Hall at least once before the end of the school year. Attend an event, or bring a friend with you to start a dialogue, and just see where it goes. You just might be surprised.

Contributor’s Note: After reading two Letters to the Editor opposing The Record’s decision not to disclose the name of the perpetrator of the insulting comments, I want to encourage readers to ensure that their shaming is not misdirected in times of passion. At Tuesday’s Seder, JLSA itself announced its intention not to name the perpetrator, and The Record made the decision not to disclose such information, in part, out of respect for JLSA’s choice. Of course one may legitimately take issue with the institutional decision to edit out the comments from the event recording, but I believe we begin treading into murky waters when one student organization is met with “shame” for its decision while another is lauded for its “restraint.”

Tyra J. Walker ’18 is a writer and an op-ed contributor for The Record.

Editor’s Note: Comments that include personal threats, ethnic slurs, or the name of the student involved in the controversy will be deleted. We encourage readers to view our policy on “respectful” speech in our About page.

Tyra J. Walker

Tyra J. Walker is a member of theHarvard Law School Class of 2018.

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