At U. of C. encampment, Jewish organizers explain significance of their anti-Zionist Shabbat service

After a tense day of protests, counterprotests and increased university police presence on the University of Chicago’s Main Quadrangle, the sun began to fade Friday evening and the Jewish holy day of Sabbath began.

Within the encampment established by the University of Chicago United for Palestine coalition, about 50 Jewish students and faculty and community members sat down on a blue tarp among tents and kaffiyehs to observe a planned prayer service. One challah was decorated with a Palestinian flag in seeds and herbs; the ceremonial “wine” (grape juice) was chosen because it was not made in Israel. Palestinian flags and handmade posters with slogans protesting genocide hung from trees. As they prayed, other students, many of whom were Muslim, held up kaffiyehs, jean shirts and checkered blankets to form a privacy screen.

Since April 29, Jewish anti-Zionist protesters at the Hyde Park campus have used food, ritual and community in the encampment as one of many ways to express their religious commitment to divestment from Israel, a multiethnic future and an end to killings in Gaza. In a practical sense, that means Seders and Shabbats (or Sabbaths), with non-Israeli kosher products, teaching about the pluralistic elements of Jewish traditions like the Moroccan Jewish Mimouna, and eating Palestinian food with Muslims and others in their coalition.

Avi Steinberg, a writer, faculty member and graduate of Orthodox yeshivas who spoke at the event, described Shabbat as a time of reflection.

“People sit with their thoughts and their emotions,” Steinberg said on a phone call Saturday. “It’s a time of stopping the clock completely.”

After the prayer and singing concluded, the Shabbat observers — a small but sizable portion of the broader encampment — dispersed; at the central food tent, a half-dozen or more unflipped maqluba pots sat beside rice and meat already doled out onto steam plates. Cold chopped salads and hot lentil soup were also served. This meal, donated by Arab restaurant Al Bahaar, acted informally as the Shabbat meal. The encampment food tent staff relies on donations of hot food and attempts to keep a variety of vegan, kosher, halal and nonallergenic options available for encampment dwellers.

The Muslim maghrib prayer began soon after on the same blue tarp. The University of Chicago United for Palestine coalition includes Students for Justice in Palestine, UChicago Jews for a Free Palestine, and several other organizations.

Nationally, encampments like this one have been accused of antisemitism. But in interviews with a half-dozen or more Jewish students and affiliated faculty members within the pro-Palestine encampment at the U. of C., none of them said they felt anything resembling antisemitism within the camp. Instead, they said they felt more connected to the Jewish tradition through their activism during the protests. They argued that anti-Zionism and advocating for Palestinian freedom is in a long tradition of Jewish values of pluralism and agitation for justice.

“When we’re praying for peace and human emancipation, to me this is the essence of what it means to be Jewish,” said graduate student Daniel Fernandez, speaking outside the encampment. “What is so profoundly disappointing is that this is somehow controversial.” Fernandez has stayed at the encampment, attending or sometimes leading several of the religious services this past week.

Chicago Jewish leaders held a news conference Wednesday where they called the encampments “platforms for antisemitism.” The university’s major Jewish organizations have disavowed, criticized or ignored the protesters.

In an email to the Tribune, Rabbi Yossi Brackman of Rohr Chabad at the University of Chicago wrote, “Movements have always had a token minority, this is no different. For example, there were some Black slave owners and Black people who fought for the Confederacy.”

Talking to the Tribune from within the encampment, graduate student Sofia Butnaru said many of the Israel-critical Jewish students did not feel they had a “religious home” at the U. of C. “We felt we weren’t represented in the other spaces, so we were really interested in building our own rituals and coming together as like-minded people to do the religious practices that are very near and dear to us,” Butnaru said.

Callie Maidhof, a professor of global studies and a member of Faculty for Justice in Palestine, agreed. “(Our Jewish institutions) have not made space for this,” she said. “That is especially true of the largest Jewish campus organizations like Hillel.”

While Hillel International’s Israel guidelines say the organization welcomes political pluralism and a diversity of student perspectives, its standards also state that it will not “partner with, house, or host organizations, groups, or speakers” that support practice certain positions, like the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement against the state of Israel. Members of organizations like FJP and Jewish Voices for Peace, which support BDS, would not be allowed to speak at Hillel under this policy.

A Hillel rabbi acknowledged but did not respond to a request for comment from the Tribune.

Despite feeling isolated from campus Jewish groups, UChicago Jews for a Free Palestine have organized several religious events since the encampment went up. According to messages with a Jewish organizer at DePaul’s encampment, a similar Shabbat service was held within the encampment on their campus. These events have attracted supportive community members like retired researcher Sandy Perpignani. She sat outside the U. of C. encampment and engaged with critical onlookers. At Shabbat time, she entered the encampment to pray with the students and organizers.

Regardless of some personal challenges, organizers constantly recentered the conversation toward what they see as the oppression and bravery of the Palestinian people. The protesters asked the university to divest from Israel and call for a cease-fire.

Within the Divinity School, Aviva Waldman, a writing instructor and alum who acts as a faculty liaison for organizing students, described a Passover event held by encampment organizers and allies that reflected their commitment to divestment from Israel, commitment to Palestinians and embrace of interreligious pluralism.

During Passover, which ended last week, Jewish communities avoided chametz (leavened goods like wheat and spelt) and instead consumed matzo. Encampment organizers are, for the most part, supportive of the demands of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, but many matzo brands, including Manischewitz, make much of their product in Israel. Though Manischewitz is not officially part of the BDS boycott list, organizers felt they needed to make a modification. Unable to find non-Israeli-origin matzo in Chicago, Waldman said they ordered matzo from a specialty farm in New York. Earlier, Butnaru cooked matzo ball soup for Passover using a matzo meal that was not a product of Israel.

“Our home is wherever we are,” Waldman said. “There’s no nation-state that is our national homeland. We wanted our ritual items, the matzo, to come from our home.”

Palestinian olive oil from Jenin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank was also added to the Seder plate. The oil was available a bit closer to campus, from Canaan Palestine, a Madison, Wisconsin-based company that sources organic and fair trade olive oil from Palestinian orchards.

“The Seder plate is the most symbolic ritual item,” Waldman said. “(It) symbolizes Palestinian connection to the land and commitment to nurturing the land through farming olives and olive orchards.”

Organizers also revised their Haggadah, the text traditionally read at Passover Seder, to highlight parallels between the Palestinian freedom struggle and the story of the Jewish community fleeing from Egypt.

These changes reflect deep rifts and debates happening within Chicago Jewish communities.

“The Passover Seder is about one thing and one thing only,” Yossi wrote in an email. “The exodus of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery to return to the land of their Patriarchs, what would then become known as the Land of Israel. Anything else is a bastardization of Judaism. “

Another Chicago-area rabbi was supportive of the protesters.

“I’m in favor of Jewish people observing Shabbat, praying three times daily and fulfilling the commandments wherever they are,” Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein wrote in a message on X, formerly Twitter. Bernstein said the students and organizers’ actions are “not in conflict with (the Torah and Jewish law and teachings).”

On April 30, organizers held a Mimouna, a Sephardic tradition where Moroccan Jews celebrated the end of Passover by partaking in leavened goods and sweets with their Muslim neighbors. According to the organizers, observant Jews “sell” their leavened goods to Moroccan Muslims, only to buy it back when Passover is finished. While the festival is celebrated in Israel, Waldman says the important element of coexistence is not present.

Undergraduate student Andrew Basta helped organize the Mimouna; he has stayed most nights at the encampment tents since they were established.

“The traditional kind of food of the holiday would be mofletta, which is a kind of crepe-like pancake that is sweet,” Basta said on a phone call Saturday. “Sadly, we are not able to achieve making that within the encampment, based on (lack of) access to stoves.” Instead, they settled on pita and sweet dates.

“There were moments where we could be neighbors and be friendly and celebrate together,” Butnaru said. “Not to say that it was perfect coexistence, but there was coexistence.”

Basta is optimistic about the future and sees the Mimouna as symbolic of what is possible.

“We can rebuild joyous futures and multiethnic futures where Jews and Muslims can be neighbors without being part of an apartheid state or ethnic cleansing,” Basta said.

While Passover had ended by the time of Friday’s Shabbat, many organizers were still thinking about the lessons of that story: the struggle for liberation in the face of oppression.

“There’s nothing Jewish about an ethno-state,” Butnaru said. “There’s plenty of things that are Jewish about building community.”

Many students expressed the challenges of bringing their activism to their parents. Fernandez described his parents as “deeply committed to Zionism” and said that their conversations around the subject of the war in Gaza and his organizing have been “agonizing” for both parties.

“They think when I am in these camps, standing on this tarp praying … they think I’m praying for the destruction of the Jewish people.” But Fernandez said he is committed to nonviolence. He and other organizers believe that there can be coexistence and repair between Palestinians and Jews.

For the most part, the organizers in the encampment wish things were different with their families; but that won’t stop them from protesting.

“I want to begin from a premise that their hurt is real,” Fernandez said. “Our history as Jewish people is rooted in that; it’s real and palpable and omnipresent. I don’t want to dismiss their fear … but the same Torah has placed us on opposite ends of the issue.”

During the Shabbat, Avi Steinberg spoke and referenced a daily prayer from the Book of Numbers that translated to “How goodly are your tents, oh Jacob?”

This reference got a chuckle, but he explained the deeper meaning: You need to live every day as if you are in the tents.

In a later message, Steinberg explained “that talk was presenting tent life as a metaphor for radical politics specifically … the need for maintaining that radical edge even on a daily basis when we’re not literally in the tents.” He said he believed the encampment itself is a victory and that they would succeed in getting university leadership to divest financially from Israel and call for a ceasefire.

In the meantime, they were building their vision here, in the impermanence of the tents. In what they say is a multiethnic, pluralistic group committed to justice and peace.