• 133 empty places set at a Passover table outside Downing Street.
  • This Passover we join with Jews in Israel and around the world in declaring, “Let thy people go”

Jewish people around the world are about to celebrate Passover. This year is different. The cry ‘Let thy people go’ feels more relatable today than in most of our lifetimes. Outside Downing Street, amid the hustle and bustle of passing red buses and intrigued tourists, a long table is meticulously laid for Passover. Each of the 133 places are bespoke for the invited guest, from babies and toddlers to adults and the elderly. Wine glasses for some, baby bottles for others. Each place has an empty chair, or in some cases, a highchair. But these 133 empty seats will not be filled by London’s Jewish community or by politicians across the road. Instead, posters of all those held hostage in Gaza are placed on each chair. They remain empty to remember all those still captive by Hamas since 7 October 2023 and who heart-breakingly remain separated from their families this Passover.

There is a tradition among many in the Jewish community to leave a seat empty at the Seder (Passover) table. For some it is to honour a loved one who is unable to join family for Passover. Some say that the tradition began in the 1970s and 1980s during the Soviet Union when an empty chair was left empty on Seder Night for the “Prisoners of Zion”. The idea was to remember the Jewish prisoners in Soviet prisons. Many of them were arrested and imprisoned in their homelands because of their Zionist activities, others were deported because of their Jewishness or because of their country’s hostile relations with Israel. At the time they were called “The Jews of Silence” and many Jews around the world left an empty seat at Passover in solidarity with their suffering brothers and sisters behind the Iron Curtain. There are some who say the tradition relates to the “Elijah’s seat”, known as the “seat of hope” in expectation for Elijah’s return. Many Jewish commentators clarify that this ancient custom is intended for the meal honouring circumcision only and not Passover, although those who do practice it for Passover do so perhaps because of its similarity to the “Elijah Cup”, which is left at the Passover meal for Elijah’s return.

Either way, the empty seat at the Seder Meal has become widely synonymous with remembering Jews in captivity. The installation outside Downing Street (now moved to a Jewish community centre, JW3), aptly represented each one of the 133 hostages in Gaza. Each chair had a poster attached bearing the hostage still in captivity. The seats included two highchairs for Ariel Bibas, 4, and his brother Kfir Bibas, who spent his first birthday in captivity, along with juice boxes instead of glasses of wine. A place was also set for the oldest hostage, Shlomo Mantzur, who turned 86 in Gaza.

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Co-organizer Nivi Feldman said: “The hostages were dragged into Gaza into conditions no one should endure. The suffering they’ve been going through for six months now, no one should endure.

“The Jewish people are waiting for them to come back home. This Pesach, I know I will see myself as if I’m in Gaza today with them and I will feel that a part of me is captive in Gaza.”

Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis said: “At our Seder, a highlight is when we recognise that there are four types of Jewish children around the Seder table; the wise child, one who is bad, one who is simple, one who doesn’t even know how to ask. Throughout our history, we recognise that actually there’s always been a fifth Jewish person and that is the one who is not there.

“Through our history, there have been so many reasons why sadly some people have not been with us, and this year, for the saddest of reasons, we recognise that fifth Jewish person is the hostage. And there are so many of them.

“This Seder, we will be so saddened because members of our global Jewish family will be absent.”

Chief Rabbi Mirvis, drawing attention to the installation, added: “Just look at this long Seder table. So many chairs, and it is so heart-breaking to see for some there is wine, for some there is grape juice. Some are tiny kids. What cruelty this is to hold them as captive.”