Savir's Corner: On the value of freedom

The festival of freedom should remind us that freedom is a universal value and that the freedom of individuals and of peoples are interrelated.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas 390 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas 390 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
On the Passover of 1996, I was invited to a Seder at US Ambassador Martin Indyk’s residence, where I discovered two surprise guests – Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), then the number two to Yasser Arafat, and Mohammed Bassiouny, the popular Egyptian ambassador to Israel. My mind raced with thoughts as to how the two leaders would react to the reading of the Haggada in English – the Egyptian to the ten plagues, and the Palestinian to the Jewish journey to the Promised Land.
Both surprised us when we came to the relevant parts of our story of the Exodus from Egypt. Bassiouny said that he had little empathy for the old Pharaohs and more for the human desire to freedom from slavery.
Abbas sounded even more enchanted: “This is a great text. You constantly speak and sing about an end to oppression – that is exactly what we seek and deserve, as the Palestinian people.”
And there we were around the table, Americans, Israelis, an Egyptian and a Palestinian, united by the value and notion of freedom.
Passover is the festival of freedom. The Almighty freed our ancestors from the chains of slavery into a march of freedom to gain the Ten Commandments and our historical homeland. Ever since, freedom has become a central value of our existence as a people, yet a commodity that was hard to come by, be it in the historical Land of Israel or in exile.
Freedom is not only one of the most fundamental of Jewish values and aspirations, but perhaps the most fundamental need of human beings throughout history. Without it, there is no real human expression or a real sense of identity.
Throughout history, man has aspired for freedom. The philosophers of ancient Greece defined freedom as primarily related to freedom of thought. This freedom of thought and expression laid the foundations of democracy in ancient Athens. In modern history, the American and the French revolutions represented the historical and intellectual foundations of freedom and democracy.
The American Revolution was inspired by a flamboyant political philosophy of seeking not only independence from British rule, but putting in place a system of collective and individual freedoms. From Patrick Henry’s battle cry, “Give me liberty or give me death” to the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the magnificent US Constitution – all of these are the moral and political foundations of America as a free and open society that espouses – despite some important historical exceptions relating to civil rights – equality, freedom of speech, freedom of faith, and the freedom to be different.
The French Revolution saluted “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.” Liberty and equality were the ideological cornerstones that led not only to an unstable political process, but became part of the foundations of universal freedoms.
The philosophers and prophets of freedom expressed a fundamental aspiration of the human being, as strong as the right to life itself. It suffices to watch small children, who insist on expressing their desire freely and independently, to realize that human nature fundamentally aspires for freedom.
Freedom translates into many types – the freedom to live, to think, to express, to create, to believe, to move, to work, to socialize, to be different. It seems that the most basic of freedoms is the freedom of thought – because our functions and activities result from thoughts being translated into language.
Almost every human being who is free to think will prefer life over death, free self-expression, freedom to make choices, freedom to fraternize, freedom of faith, freedom to create. All these can be suppressed mainly by curtailing freedom of thought and expression, as we have witnessed throughout history from totalitarian regimes, be it in the Middle Ages, or in modernity by the Fascists and Communists who aspired to dictate thought and behavior.
In the Middle East, which historically was a cradle for the fundamental values and beliefs of modern civilization, we witnessed in the last century a restriction of freedoms, initially by colonial powers and later by Arab regimes. Today, however, the Arab world is undergoing a dramatic transition, dubbed the Arab Spring.
The young generations of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria are rebelling against the infringement of their basic rights and freedoms. Tunisian shopkeeper Mohamed Bouazizi, in December 2011, adopted Patrick Henry’s outcry and preferred death over a lack of freedom. He served as an example and inspiration to hundreds of thousands, who in the squares of Arabia toppled four dictators, and in Syria are showing the courage to withstand brutal killings by their own leaders.
The road to democracy is still a long and bumpy one – but Arab democracy will eventually occur, as the old leadership will succumb with time to the technology and information revolutions. The Internet as well as modern and new media have made the dictation of information and thought virtually impossible, with Iran being a tragic exception.
As for Israel, our state was founded on the very notion of freedom, freedom from oppression, an end to genocide and the renewal of Jewish sovereignty, on the basis of fundamental freedoms as expressed in our Declaration of Independence. This led Israel to becoming a vibrant democracy, despite being in conflict with much of the Arab world. Our democratic institutions and our political and judicial systems are a source of strength.
Yet 1967 was a watershed year, as against our own will, we became the masters of three million Palestinians in the occupied territories.
With time, given mistakes on both sides, we became enamored with the occupation, which found its expression in the settlement movement. We forgot one of the most important commandments, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s house!” Curtailing Palestinian freedoms, whatever the motives, cast a shadow over our own freedom.
Our thoughts are intoxicated by the rhetoric and attitude of superiority. We also lack freedom due to the dangers of war, because we have failed in the attempt to secure the most important of freedoms – the freedom to life and to make peace, which was and still is possible.
This Passover, we turn again to the lands of Egypt and Israel. The Egyptians are expressing a move from slavery to freedom, and we Israelis must express our right to freedom by defending ourselves against real enemies, engaging in a real peace process, and freeing ourselves from being the rulers of another people’s destiny.
The festival of freedom should remind us that freedom is a universal value – and that the freedom of individuals and the freedom of peoples are interrelated. Hag Sameah!
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.