Every spring since 1992, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) has staged a mock Passover Seder for the DC diplomatic community. But, to paraphrase the famous question traditionally asked by the youngest at the table: Why was this year different from all other years?
The answer is two-fold. This year’s Ambassadors Seder, held May 25 at Congregation Adas Israel in Washington’s Cleveland Park district, was the first in-person celebration since 2019—delayed like everything else because of the pandemic.
But more importantly, this year’s festival of liberation coincides with the worst bloodshed in Europe since World War II: Russia’s invasion of a neighboring country led by a Jewish president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in the name of “liberating” it from Nazi rule.
“We watch in horror and continue to watch as Russia commits war crime upon war crime in its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” said Jason Isaacson, AJC’s chief policy and political affairs officer. “We also saw last month’s heightened tensions in Jerusalem during the confluence of Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays. But we remain captivated by the new flowering of outreach between Israel and Arab states, a process to which AJC has been proud to contribute. That historic pivot has riveted us all, and yielded a new recognition of the urgency of interfaith understanding.”
Some 250 people including representatives of 47 countries from Argentina to Vietnam attended the traditional Jewish feast of liberation, as did those of the African Union and the Kurdistan Regional Government.
But all eyes were on Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, as she recounted the story of her people’s 400-year-old struggle against Russian domination.
“We are reliving the story of liberation in Ukraine. This story is felt deeply in the heart of every Ukrainian, regardless of religion,” said Markarova, who is not Jewish. “I really hope that next Passover, we will be able to tell a different story.”
For now, however, the statistics are grim. Despite Zelensky’s success at keeping Russian forces from conquering Kyiv and other key cities, Ukraine has suffered horribly, and its economy is shattered. So far, at least 470 hospitals and clinics have been destroyed, as has 60% of Kharkiv and 95% of Mariupol. More than eight million people are internally displaced inside Ukraine, and an additional 10 million live under occupation or constant shelling.
“It is difficult to explain how human beings can do something like that to each other. But we’ve seen it before during World War II,” said the ambassador. “But this will not push us into surrendering. We will not surrender and we will not give up. We will win. The question is, how fast will we win?”
One critical ingredient in Ukraine’s resistance up until now has been Zelensky himself, she said.
“From day one, our president surprised everyone—even some people who knew him. He said ‘I’m staying here and fighting here until the end,” Markarova told her audience. “The second ingredient is the generosity of our friends and allies. I don’t think we have a better friend or strategic ally than the United States.”
Rabbi Aaron Alexander, spiritual leader of Adas Israel, which serves over 1,700 families, said the exodus of the Jews from Egypt more than three millennia ago “happens to be a very universal story.”
“Over and over again, the story from degradation to emancipation plays itself out. Until today, human beings are degraded and rejected and diminished at the whims of those seeking to achieve or retain power for their own nefarious purposes,” he said. “It’s happening today across the world, in a war of aggression against Ukraine. It happened last week in Buffalo, where a racist anti-Semitic credo, the ‘great replacement theory,’ once again led to violence.”
“And it happened again today in Texas,” said Alexander, referring to the May 25 massacre of 19 students and two teachers that shocked a nation earlier that morning.
Besides Markarova, eight other ambassadors attended the meal: Cameroon’s Henri Etoundi Essomba, Costa Rica’s Fernando Llorca Castro, Estonia’s Kristjan Prikk, Lithuania’s Audre Plepyte, Niger’s Kiari Liman Tinguri, Serbia’s Marko Djuric, Slovakia’s Radovan Javorcik and Suriname’s Marten Schalkwijk.
“At the end of this story, there will be freedom. There will be liberation,” Markarova said to a standing ovation. “We need our country back. We need to get the invaders out and go back to our normal lives in a peaceful, free and democratic Ukraine.”
Before the evening concluded, AJC’s Washington regional director, Alan Ronkin, pleaded for action in the wake of the Ukraine war, rising antisemitism globally and violence here at home.
“Don’t leave here tonight unmoved by the message of the urgency of freedom, the urge to rid ourselves of bigotry. This isn’t about platitudes, about building a better world, but literally about telling our children and grandchildren that we did not stand idly by as the world pulled itself apart. Every one of you tonight bears this sacred responsibility,” Ronkin said. “It’s time to stand up to bigotry no matter what the source. Hate is hate, and it’s our job collectively to drive it back to the fringes. Everyone has a way to make a difference.”