Avi Weiss
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This Passover we say: Let my people go – now!

The call is aimed at Hamas, but even more so at those who stay silent when they should speak out against evil
This image from video published January 11, 2024, shows a Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza's Khan Yunis where the IDF believes hostages were held by the terror group. (Israel Defense Forces)
This image from video published January 11, 2024, shows a Hamas tunnel in southern Gaza's Khan Yunis where the IDF believes hostages were held by the terror group. (Israel Defense Forces)

As the focus of the Israel-Hamas war shifts to the direct attack by Iran on the Jewish homeland, we dare not forget the suffering of the hostages held now for almost 200 days by the Iranian proxy Hamas in the dark tunnels of Gaza.

Soon, Jews gathering around the Passover seder table will remember the clarion call of Moses to the Egyptian Pharaoh: “Let My People Go.” Today, that call resonates powerfully – demanding the hostages be freed.

It is a far more fitting outcry than “Bring Them Home Now.” For better or worse, especially in Israel, that slogan has become political – a demand directed at the Israeli government to do more – some would say, at any cost. And while there are times for respectful disagreement about the actions of the Israeli government, “Let My People Go,” places clear and unequivocal culpability where it belongs – at the hands and feet of the oppressors, the Hamas butchers and their supporters, whose murderous rampage began this crisis.

“Let My People Go” is also directed at our own government here in the US, which too often fails to come through when most needed. Certainly, there are some, like my own congressman, Ritchie Torres, and others who consistently stand with us, but as time goes on, we feel we stand alone.

We felt this way when the United States shamefully failed to link a UN demand for a ceasefire to the freeing of the hostages. This sent a dangerous message to Hamas to continue upping the ante for the hostage release, inviting world pressure to increase on Israel rather than on the terrorist organization whose charter seeks to destroy Israel. We need our friends in Washington to step up and clearly help to “Let Our People Go.”

“Let My People Go” is also directed at the bystanders, those on the sidelines. As a rabbi-human rights activist for decades, I’m proud of the myriad Jews who stood beside the Black community, the LGBT community, feminists and environmentalists, joining in their righteous struggles. Our participation in these causes was, is and will always be unconditional.

In contrast, Jews today feel abandoned. We wonder – to the larger world – do we count, do we matter.

In his magnificent work “Legends of Our Time,” Elie Wiesel of blessed memory wrote about the sin of indifference. He posits that the Holocaust victims were more broken by the silence of the onlookers than the brutality of the murderers. The victims knew their foes – they had come to expect nothing from the evil Nazis. It was the mute non-response of those who chose to remain uninvolved that broke them.

Today, we expect nothing from the evil Hamas. However, to paraphrase Wiesel, it is the cruel silence and indifference of the bystanders who should know better. Those “whom we believe are our friends” are the ones that cruelly break our hearts.

I felt this abandonment very personally when I stood with our community recently at a synagogue event to raise funds for ZAKA, whose volunteers collect the remains, including the blood, of victims of terror – like 10/7 – for proper Jewish burial. Hamas supporters besieged the building with chants and flags. I recalled the scenes of the KKK with their flags marching on churches. There was one glaring difference. Then, our Black brothers and sisters did not stand alone. Good people, who could have stepped aside, stepped up and drowned out the voices of evil. Today, for me and my people, those voices seem silent.

At the Seder everywhere this year there will be an empty chair remembering the Israeli hostages. Together we will raise our voices as we recite the Seder passage: “In every generation, there are those who rise up to destroy us, yet against all odds, with the benevolence of God, we have overcome.”

With one united clear voice we will cry out to God and to the world, and to those who are responsible for this crisis, to hear the voices of the captives who have been languishing in darkness and underground for well over half a year, “Let My People Go – Now”!

About the Author
Avi Weiss is the founding rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, N.Y., and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a co-founder of the International Rabbinic Fellowship and longtime Jewish activist for Israel and human rights.