Thoughts on freedom as we celebrate Passover - opinion

How do we in Israel define freedom? Perhaps the answer is found in our national anthem “Hatikvah."

JEWISH FESTIVALS are part of the national calendar. Two men in Safed dip pots into hot water to rid them of hametz. (photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)
JEWISH FESTIVALS are part of the national calendar. Two men in Safed dip pots into hot water to rid them of hametz.
(photo credit: David Cohen/Flash90)

Is it really one year since we celebrated Passover? For many, including me, COVID has made a mockery of time, as it becomes difficult to differentiate between three weeks and three months. Yet here we are, once more, celebrating Passover, the festival of freedom.

What does it mean to be free? Our forebears, slaves in Egypt, were obliged to carry out the commands of their Egyptian taskmasters; they were not in the business of making decisions for themselves. Becoming free gives one the responsibility of making decisions which, history has proven, can be challenging. 

This Passover, our festival of freedom coincides with Ukraine’s fight for freedom – a country that chose a democratic way of life far removed from its earlier existence under the former Soviet Union. 

We cannot fail to be moved by the strength of President Volodymyr Zelensky and the bravery of Ukraine’s soldiers battling against the might of the Russian army. For all that the West is doing – sanctions, select military aid and humanitarian assistance – they are steering clear of becoming involved militarily.

What can Israel learn from this reality? It graphically validates the necessity for Israel to retain the ability to defend itself by itself alone. 

 A worshiper draped in Ukraine's flag during priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover, April 18, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) A worshiper draped in Ukraine's flag during priestly blessing at the Western Wall in Jerusalem during Passover, April 18, 2022 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

HOW DO we in Israel define freedom? Perhaps the answer is found in our national anthem “Hatikvah,” whose concluding sentence is “To be a free people in our land, in the land of Zion and Jerusalem.” 

As a people, denied our homeland for 2,000 years, we suffered manifold vicious attacks during this exile, with the most horrific being the loss of six million souls barbarically murdered in the Holocaust. I recall, as a young WIZO member in Britain, the words of a shaliach (emissary) working for the World Zionist Organization’s Youth and Hehalutz Department, whose name I have long forgotten, but will always remember his words. 

He said, “We lost six million not only because of Hitler and his barbaric act of mass murder; we lost six million because of the passive collaboration of the free world.” 

Yes, Hitler was responsible for the meticulously planned murder of six million Jews solely because they were Jews. But there were far too many countries whose gates were firmly closed, preventing Jews from finding refuge at a time when it was still possible for them to leave Europe prior to the murdering machine that the Germans meticulously created.

While today’s unprecedented rise in antisemitism is cause for concern, it operates in a world that has an Israel – a country whose gates are open to those seeking refuge from hatred and killing, the like of which we are witnessing in Ukraine. To date, Israel has provided refuge for some 16,000 Ukrainians.

THERE ARE many citizens of Israel who, like me, have chosen to live here because it offered a specific freedom unattainable in our countries of origin. It is true that in Britain I enjoyed a good life, was able to practice my Zionism by involvement in Zionist activities. Life was comfortable and choosing to leave the familiarity of many years (and often close family) is not an easy decision. 

What brought me here? I was fortunate to have a father (born in Warsaw, and who came to Britain as a 10-year-old child) who gave me a love of Israel from an early age. He sang me “pioneer” songs, whose words continue to resonate with me. 

“With your packs upon your shoulders 

Oh pioneers, pioneers prepare

Come and let us all march eastward 

Out of exile everywhere –

Be the road how rough and winding 

Who’s afraid of toil and pain?

One breath out of life in Zion gives us all our strength again”

The first time I visited Israel was in 1957. I entered Israel by boat and, as I stood on the deck coming closer and closer to the Haifa port, the sense of excitement was overwhelming. And… then to see Hebrew words of welcome seemed little short of miraculous.

Israel represents freedom for me because I live in a land where the Jewish High Holy Days and festivals are part of the national calendar. One does not have to be an observant Jew to know the date of each festival; it is part of our daily living.

In my previous life, living as a minority, I would feel embarrassed if I was in a restaurant where a Jewish couple might be behaving in a loud and inappropriate manner. Here I am at home and am used to everyone speaking their mind either loudly or softly; we do not need to look over our shoulders in apprehension of what others might think about us. 

Living here is living one’s Judaism. My late husband found it exceedingly moving when, prior to the onset of Shabbat, “Shalom Aleichem” was played over a loudspeaker, ushering in the Shabbat in our hometown of Netanya. An added gift (which I particularly enjoy) is to join in the singing of the prayer for Israel “Avinu Shebashamayim” (our Father in Heaven) for it has special meaning because Israel is my home.

Yet the price of freedom continues to be heavy. Israel’s 18-year-olds enter the army where, following a short period of training, they place their hand on the Bible swearing to give their lives for the State of Israel. 

Perhaps it’s indicative of reaching a certain age that one thinks back to experiences that have left their indelible mark.

I will always recall one Remembrance Day when I visited the major military cemetery on Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl. I wandered up and down the rows of graves, arranged in chronological order of the wars that Israel has fought. What painfully registered was the number of young who had given their lives for the State of Israel. How sad to see fathers saying kaddish for their sons; it is the wrong way around. Yes, we pay a heavy price for the freedom that we enjoy.

As we embark on celebrating, once again, the festival of freedom, the journey of the return to our homeland and freedom is movingly described by the late Holocaust survivor and poet Abba Kovner.

“This is the story of a people which was scattered all over the world and yet remained a single family; a nation which time and again was doomed to destruction and yet, out of the ruins rose to a new life.”

Chag Pessah Sameach!

The writer is chairperson of Israel, Britain and the Commonwealth Association. She is also the public relations chairwoman of ESRA, which promotes integration into Israeli society.