A Passover Seder for new immigrants takes place in Mevaseret Zion in 2011..
(photo credit: REUTERS)
One of the main messages of Passover, which Jews have just finished celebrating, is the concept of freedom. The Exodus story recounts the Jewish people’s miraculous escape from Pharaoh’s tyrannical Egypt, their redemption from slavery and their eventual achievement of political sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
The holiday is referred to as “the holiday of freedom.”
The Exodus story has been universalized. It inspires not only Jews but also non-Jews – from abolitionists and opponents of dictatorships to human rights activists.
Yet, despite the progress that has been made since the Jews came out of Egypt, there is much work to be done. Not only has the spread of freedom stalled, we are witnessing a regression, particularly with regard to intellectual freedoms.
First and foremost among those persecuted for exercising freedom of thought and expression are journalists.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which has been keeping detailed data since 1992, the last three years have been the deadliest and most dangerous ever documented for journalists.
The worst cases of persecution include China (which became the world’s top jailer of journalists in 2014), Iran (No. 2), Eritrea, Turkey and Egypt, but threats and killings are epidemic in the Middle East, South Asia and Mexico, where drug traffickers and their accomplices conspire to shut down press coverage of corruption.
In Pakistan and elsewhere, blasphemy laws and mob rule make the subject of religion off-limits to all but the very brave. Islamic State-style terrorism has made whole regions lethal for journalists – for the notion of speaking one’s mind.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, argues in his book The New Censorship: Inside the Global Battle for Media Freedom that paradoxically, the more diverse media options provided by new technologies – which have made information accessible in nearly every place on earth – have also created a hostile climate for journalists.
If in the past journalists had a monopoly over information, which made them useful to terrorists, criminals and corrupt government officials, today many violent groups, such as members of Islamic State or Mexican drug cartels or autocrats like Vladimir Putin, can utilize the Internet and social media or create their own news network, such as Russia Today, to achieve the same ends while having better control over the message. Journalists are seen as dispensable – more useful as hostages or props in elaborately staged execution videos.
Also, the Internet has brought liberal, Western ideas of freedom of expression into direct conflict with formerly isolated traditional societies that place enormous value on personal honor and the sanctity of religious symbols. And many of these societies are fighting back.
Just last week, Turkey shut down access to Twitter and YouTube to prevent publication of images of a prosecutor held hostage by far-left terrorists.
Another factor that has contributed to the shutting down of debate and freedom of expression is the demand increasingly made, particularly by Muslims, that their right not to be offended be placed above the right to freedom of speech.
After the massacre at the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo in January, even defenders of free speech were wondering why the cartoonists had to be so provocative given the religious sensitivities surrounding depictions of the prophet Muhammad.
The value of intellectual freedom is far from self-evident.
Why should I fight for the right to publicize events or ideas that are offensive to the majority – including myself? Doing so entails expending time and energy in the defense of an idea that the defender might personally feel is reprehensible, all in the name of an abstract principle whose social worth is not immediately clear.
If we are honest with ourselves, how many of us are willing to defend the rights of Holocaust deniers? Did any of us voice concern when during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, left-wing anti-war demonstrators were intimidated and silenced in the streets of Tel Aviv? Large percentages of Israelis would support banning a number of Arab MKs from the Knesset.
As the holiday of freedom draws to a close, we should reflect on the Judeo-Christian tradition that gave rise to the sorts of freedoms we too often take for granted, and remind ourselves why they are worth defending.