Israeli Families Urge Empty Passover Chairs for Unreturned Gaza Captives

Families of Israeli captives in Gaza urge remembrance with empty chairs at Passover Seder, as hostage crisis casts shadow over Jewish holidays.

Muthana Al-Najjar
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Israeli Families Urge Empty Passover Chairs for Unreturned Gaza Captives

Israeli Families Urge Empty Passover Chairs for Unreturned Gaza Captives

On April 20, 2024, families of Israeli captives urged to remember those held in Gaza since October 2023 called on Jewish Israelis to leave empty chairs at their traditional Passover Seder meals to honor the unreturned prisoners. The initiative was backed by Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

The Hamas attack on southern Israel on October 7, 2023 killed around 1,200 people and resulted in the capture of about 250 hostages. While half of the hostages were released in a ceasefire in November, Israel believes that 129 remain in Gaza, including 34 who are presumed dead.

For many Israelis, the normally joyous Passover holiday, which commemorates the biblical story of the Israelites' exodus from Egypt, is overshadowed by the ongoing captivity of their loved ones. The government has scaled back festivities for Independence Day in May and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan due to the somber national mood and public protests.

Why this matters: The crisis has deeply affected not only the hostage families but the broader Israeli public, casting a shadow over major holidays and receiving little attention in the country. The hostages' pain has also reverberated around the world, with some in the Jewish diaspora asking for prayers for the captives and Israel at their Seder meals.

Negotiations for the release of the remaining hostages appear to be at a standstill, making it unlikely they will be freed in time for Passover. The families have been holding demonstrations and prayer services in Tel Aviv's Hostage Square to call for their release, led by strategist and PR agency owner Ronen Tzur.

Sofi Cohen Ben Dor, daughter of the famous Israeli spy Eli Cohen, spoke at a gathering of the hostage families, noting that her father's body is still kept in an unknown place in Syria 60 years after his death. "Israel did not create the opportunity to return his body for burial in Israel," she said.

The hostage crisis has added to an already somber Passover season for Jews worldwide, as rising antisemitism is a major concern. The U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League reported 8,873 incidents of antisemitic assault, harassment, and vandalism across the country in 2023, a 140% increase from 2022. Many Seder tables in Israel and elsewhere are expected to have empty seats representing those killed or taken hostage, as well as soldiers unable to return home for the holiday.

Key Takeaways

  • Families of Israeli captives in Gaza urged Israelis to leave empty chairs at Passover Seder.
  • Hamas attack in Oct 2023 killed 1,200 and captured 250 hostages, 129 still held in Gaza.
  • Hostage crisis overshadows major Israeli holidays, with scaled-back festivities and public protests.
  • Negotiations for hostage release at a standstill, families hold demonstrations to demand their return.
  • Rising antisemitism adds to somber Passover season, with empty seats representing killed or captured.