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'Let my people go': Passover more solemn for Jews as more than 130 remain hostage in Gaza

Many Jews are leaving a seat at the table open to symbolize those who remain hostage in Gaza.

Published: April 21, 2024 10:54pm

Moses' command to Pharaoh of "Let my people go" has a whole new meaning for Jews across the world who are gathering this week to observe the holiday of Passover and commemorate the Exodus from Egypt as more than 130 people have been captive in Gaza since Oct. 7, 2023. 

"Why is this night different, citizens of Israel?" Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday, using the common question asked during Passover Seder: "Why is this night different from all other nights?"

"On this night, 133 of our dear brothers and sisters are not around the Seder table, and they are still held hostage by Hamas in hellish conditions. We have already freed 124 of our hostages and we are committed to returning them all home – the living and the deceased alike," Netanyahu also said. "And why is this night not different? That in every generation they rise up to destroy us, and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from them."

Hamas has rejected all proposals for releasing the hostages, Netanyahu said, and because of this, he said that Israel will increase military pressure on the terrorist organization. 

Other Jews are taking steps to remember the hostages during their Seder meals.

Traditionally, Jews leave a chair open for Elijah the Prophet during the Seder meals, but during this year's Seders on Monday and Tuesday evenings, many Jews plan on using the open space to also represent the hostages.

"With over 130 hostages still in captivity, the tradition of the empty seat of Elijah (Eliyahu Hanavi) will symbolize not only hope and expectation but also serve as a tribute to the hostages in Hamas captivity and as a message of support to the thousands of families who face the holiday with an empty place at their table," Sacha Roytman, the CEO of the Combat Antisemitism Movement said Sunday in a pre-Passover announcement.

Additionally, the Board of Deputies of British Jews launched a "Seder Seat for a Hostage" initiative, which encourages people to print a picture of one of the hostages and place the photo at a seat at the table. Those who participate are encouraged to share pictures online of the Seder table with the chair reserved for the hostage. 

"As in ancient days, we call 'Let Our People Go' – Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Buddhist – the hostages must all come home," the board's president, Marie van der Zyl, said, referring to the different religions of the hostages. "We pray for their release, and for this terrible conflict to come to an end with Hamas uprooted, so that Israelis and Palestinians can together build a better future."

The fate of many of the 130 remaining hostages, who were among the approximately 250 people kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7, is unclear. After Israel agreed to a ceasefire deal that would have seen the release of 40 women, elderly and sick hostages, Hamas reportedly told ceasefire negotiators this month that it does not have 40 living captives in that category. 

Israel says that more than 30 of the hostages are presumed dead, including at least two of the eight Americans who were kidnapped. The Oct. 7 attack also left about 1,200 people dead and sparked an ongoing war in Gaza, where the Hamas-run health ministry, which does not distinguish between civilian and combatant deaths, says more than 33,000 people are dead. 

"We must tell the stories of the hostages who are continuing to be held captive in Gaza," said Nicole Guzik, a Conservative rabbi at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

"It's a reminder that the story from Egypt continues thousands of years later — all of the stories being held captive right now that won't be around a table during Passover," she said, NPR reported Sunday

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