Festival of freedom

This year, we will sit at our seder tables in the shadow of two hostage crises.

pessah plate.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
pessah plate.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tonight the Jewish people, all over the world, celebrates Pessah, the Festival of Freedom. This is a time of thanksgiving, a time when we are conscious of our personal freedoms, of those who remain in bondage, and of the threats to freedom in our own day. This year, we will sit at our seder tables in the shadow of two hostage crises: the kidnapped soldiers Gilad Schalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev; and the 15 British soldiers held by the Iranian regime. These crises are obviously related, since they underline the willingness of our enemies not only to attack across sovereign borders, but to refuse to recognize basic tenets of international law. Just as an arm of Iran, Hizbullah, started the war this past summer with a kidnapping, Teheran may be trying to start another war not just against the US, Britain and Israel, but against all free nations. At times, notions such as the "free world" seem crass, or even jingoistic. During the Cold War, the Soviet Union would mock such distinctions and claim that real freedom existed on its side of the Iron Curtain. In 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell and thousands ran to the West, not to mention the million Soviet Jews who came over the next decade to Israel, it became evident to all that such distinctions were meaningful. Within a few years, however, the term "free world" seemed once again to lose its meaning once again, if only because the whole world seemed to be free or inevitably moving in that direction. We were told it was the "end of history," in the words of a book title that captured the zeitgeist of the new, post-Cold War era. Today, it is clear that the free world is not only something real, but facing a clear and present danger. Militant Islamism, as represented by the Iranian regime, Hizbullah, Hamas, al-Qaida and other groups and countries, sees the wave of freedom that we took for granted a short time ago to be a mortal threat. They hope to combat the wave of freedom with a wave of Islamist dictatorships that will spread from Teheran to Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq, through Saudi Arabia and the Arab world, and will ultimately destroy Israel and dominate Europe and the US. This is the only way to make the world safe for Islamism, the tyrants reason. And they are right. Even if Western culture were not spreading via the Internet and mass media, the existence of free nations is in itself a threat to tyrannical rule of any kind, and certainly to totalitarian Islamists who ruthlesslessly suppress women, homosexuals, the practice of all other religions and all the other freedoms enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This is not, to put it mildly, a fight that free nations have sought or are eager to wage. Indeed, the tyrannies arrayed against us are weak and isolated and have only one simple theory of victory: that the free world is too demoralized and divided to lift a finger in its own self-defense. Like the Nazis in the 1930s, today's Islamofascists have slowly, but steadily tested the waters with escalating attacks, each one raising the bar enough to make the next atrocity thinkable, but not enough to awaken the victim nations to use their full resources in response. The threats to freedom change in every generation, as we learn in the Haggada of Pessah. In our generation, this threat has not been so much in the form of armored divisions, but rather in the shape of the suicide bomber. And, in the face of this new threat, free peoples wonder whether there is any antidote, or whether we must accommodate a permanent and growing threat to the liberties we hold dear. It is in this context that we should now, as we do in every generation, renew the power of the Exodus as a paradigm of liberation. In our own time, the Haggada should help us remember the words of Thomas Jefferson, one of the many non-Jewish leaders who was profoundly inspired by this human story: "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."