Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense was staring at Yuli Edelstein from the library shelf when the TV replayed the justice minister’s self-congratulation.
“Where,” thundered the minister, with his trademark sarcasm, conceit, and deceit, “where is the school of reasonableness in which you can learn what’s reasonable?”
“Who is this guy and what’s he talking about?” asked Paine, the philosopher whose agitation electrified the American Revolution’s rebels.
“He is the government,” replied Edelstein, himself a former dissident whose own defiance had endured another superpower’s courts, gulags, and goons.
“Ah, the necessary evil,” said Paine, referring to his 247-year-old lines that continued with: “Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence,” for “the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise.”
“Evil – yes,” muttered Yuli, the bespectacled justice minister’s face still filling the TV screen, “but necessary – says who?”
- You don’t like this man, do you?
- Can’t stand him. Look what he has done to us – the citizens are rioting, the army is fraying, the economy is screeching, doctors are running for the exit doors, world leaders are shunning us, our voters are defecting, and all this for what: so this caricature of a liberal can crown himself the heir-apparent?
- What did he do?
- Never mind, it’s a long story.
- Does he want to be king?
- That’s the next stage. Right now he is smelting and hammering the tin crown that, if it’s up to him, he will personally place on his aging hero’s head.
- Wow. That’s harsh. You face kingship’s creators; we had business with a king born into power, the sweeping power of which I wrote: “Government by kings was first introduced into the world by the heathens, from whom the Children of Israel copied the custom; it was the most prosperous invention the devil ever set on foot for the promotion of idolatry.”
As I argued then, and as millions now agree, “exalting one man so greatly above the rest cannot be justified on the equal rights of nature,” nor does the Bible justify such superiority, “for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel, expressly disapproves of government by kings.”
- Yes, harsh it is. But that’s easy to say here, between you, me, and the bookshelves. The problem is that as soon as I go out and open my mouth, my tongue glues to my palate, and when I raise my hand to vote according to my conscience my arm withers, becoming heavy as a rock.
- How old are you, Yuli?
- I turn 65 this Shabbat.
- Mazel tov. I was 39 when I wrote Common Sense, and 55 when I fled arrest in London. They feared I would import the French Revolution. You are safer. Entering retirement age, you can once again ask no one what to do, the way you did in your twenties. What will they do to you, Yuli? Hang you? At worst, people you no longer respect will throw you out of a party where you no longer belong.
So now, pick up the pen in that cup, sit at that handsome desk of yours, close your eyes, dream big, and write down what your mind thinks, your heart feels, and your conscience demands. That’s what I did back in 1776. Believe me, you will feel great.
The speech Yuli Edelstein needs to give
[Yuli walks away from the shelf, sits down slowly at his desk, opens the laptop, places his fingers on the keyboard, and starts typing. Two minutes later, the printer on the desk prints, Edelstein pulls the printout and paces between the desk and the library, reading it out loud.]
I have come here to tell you that tomorrow, as your assault on our judges resumes, I will be voting against you. I do this with a heavy heart, but with a clear conscience, because your scheme threatens everything for which I have lived, suffered, and fought: liberty, Zion, and faith.
Unlike all of you, I faced tyranny and I know all about it. I know the cruelty of its government, the violence of its agents, and the servility of its courts. No, this is not to say any of us here is a tyrant, but it is to say that what you are up to is how tyranny begins.
When I was rotting in a Siberian labor camp, I recalled having once listened secretly to the Voice of Israel where I heard Menachem Begin say: “There are judges in Jerusalem!” It was inspiring, as if Isaiah had emerged in my trial and put tyranny’s judges to shame. The prophet’s Zion, a place “filled with justice, where righteousness dwelt,” was, and will remain, Israel’s quest and tyranny’s fear.
Zion, therefore, was for me not just the religion that I secretly practiced, and not just the Hebrew that I secretly studied and taught. Zion was first and foremost justice, liberty, and equality before the law.
Moreover, Zion was the place where my brethren returned not to fight each other, as our ancestors did here, but to embrace each other; to seek not what divides us but what connects us; and to build our future not separately but collectively, not as a set of disjointed ghettos and shtetls but as a modern state guided by social solidarity and national aim.
That’s the Zion I dreamed about and fought for, the Zion of which some of you have never heard, and all of you are now set to undo.
[Paine’s voice emerges from the bookshelves.]
- Well done, Yuli. Now go outside and tell the rest of the world what you just told me. Do that, and you will not just feel great – you will be great.
The writer, a Hartman Institute fellow, is the author of the bestselling Mitzad Ha’ivelet Ha’yehudi (The Jewish March of Folly, Yediot Sefarim, 2019), a revisionist history of the Jewish people’s political leadership.