Liberated, once and again

We're lucky to be celebrating the ancient holiday of freedom as a free nation.

'Anyone who doesn't believe in miracles is not a realist." So said David Ben-Gurion. Realistically speaking, it is the time of miracles and wonders. Every year we end the Passover Seder with the hope: "Next year in Jerusalem." Every week, as we bless the wine on Shabbat, we recall the Exodus from Egypt, which in effect marks the birth of the Jewish nation. Passover, Pessah, is the Festival of Freedom - hag haherut. That we continue to celebrate it after three millennia is perhaps in itself a miracle. It symbolizes everything we are proud of: survival against the odds; national identity; and a return to the Promised Land. All the things for which we have been admired - and reviled - over thousands of years. Israel's 60th anniversary celebrations, hard on Pessah's heels, seem small-time compared to the annual weeklong festival marking our escape from Egyptian bondage and homecoming as a free people. At a time when it is more fashionable to deconstruct history than help build the state, there have been complaints that the country's birthday bash is too extravagant. We love to complain. Had the official events been any less grand, the media would be full of opeds moaning that not enough was being done to mark the event. True, the country is far from perfect. And it exists in a very far from ideal world. In the spirit of Pessah, however, there is still room for hope. After the salt water and bitter herbs comes a festive meal. Let's make this night truly different from all other nights and instead of focusing on the evils and plagues, let's count our blessings. They can be summed up in one word: freedom. Or in the words of Naphtali Herz Imber, whose verse was adopted as the national anthem, Hatikva: L'hiyot am hofshi b'artzenu, Eretz Zion vi'Yerushalayim - to be a free people in our land, the Land of Zion and Jerusalem. LET ME exercise my right of free speech and take the opportunity to recall some of the reasons why, despite everything, I'm proud to be celebrating Pessah in Jerusalem, where the Jewish holidays aren't added to the calendar as an afterthought but are part of the cycle of everyday life. Feel free to call me an idealist. Feel even freer to call me a Zionist. It's not a dirty word where I come from. And that symbolizes a true freedom. Before anti-Zionism - a modern plague - there was anti-Semitism, so ancient it actually predates the birth of the Jewish nation. My Polish-born grandmother hated the part of the Seder when the door is opened. The Poles among whom she grew up were prone to carry out pogroms. In Jerusalem, you open the door and a neighbor is quite likely to pop in to borrow something, not to loot and pillage. I love the freedom of being able to hold a Seder without worrying about what the neighbors will say. They're too busy arguing and chatting at their own meals. There are "Jewish neighborhoods" in the Diaspora, of course, but there's a reason residents quip about living in the "ghetto." Here, the whole country celebrates the holiday - with a long school vacation and crass commercials to prove it. On the eve of the holiday last year, misunderstanding where he was meant to wait for me as he ran ahead, my son - at the tender age of five - wandered off to the park on his own with the remains of the hametz to burn. By the time I found him, an adult had helped him add the bread and other leavened products to the bonfire and say the appropriate blessing. Having a spot in the local park where people gather to burn hametz is very Israeli. Not having to panic when a child goes there on his own is a freedom not to be taken lightly. Israelis can't understand the foreign need to keep children constantly in view. Here kids in the park run around and play, just returning now and again to eat or drink. It's such a basic freedom in Israel that we tend to forget that it's not common elsewhere. There is another freedom we tend to take for granted. Late at night, or even in the early hours of the morning, when the Seder is finished, the streets in my neighborhood are full of individuals and families walking home from the festive meal. Having been brought up in London, that a woman can walk alone in the capital is a freedom I revel in. The right to privacy, I admit, is sorely missing. Over-familiarity is an Israeli trait that comes with taking freedom of speaking one's mind to extremes. In Israel, friends (and even strangers) compare the size of their overdraft and mortgages like Diaspora Jews struggle to keep up with the Cohens on ever-more conspicuous consumption and ever-bigger houses. Rich might be better, but Israelis are free to be poor. Families who want a Jewish education for their kids need not look further than their local state-religious school. And for all its faults and bureaucracy, our health system works - regardless of whether you are working or where. We also love to complain about our politicians - and heaven knows they obligingly provide us plenty of excellent reasons. But for all its recessive tendencies, the Knesset is the only parliament in the world that has a Passover break, pagrat Pessah and has a menora as its year-round symbol. We are plagued by problems - but unfortunately the Chosen People are not unique in that. Freedom from fear should mean freedom from terrorism. There is no true liberty without security. If we're able to walk out at night without fear then we should be able to travel on a bus in daylight without looking around for anything suspicious. Sometimes it feels as if the War of Independence never ended, but simply changes form like the Mideastern version of the Hundred Years War. And children who are free to play outside ought to be safe at home. The terrible cases of domestic child abuse that have recently come to light should shock us into action. Neighbors should put their nosiness to good use and stop the cruelty as soon as they suspect it's taking place. Poking fun at the police might be as much a local practice as poking our noses into other people's business, but the bottom line is they are there to protect us. And spare a thought this Pessah for the cops and members of other emergency forces who rarely get holiday time off to spend with their friends and families. Freedom is a state of mind. Try it. Even before drinking four cups of wine at the Seder you might realize that the gift of freedom is the most precious Passover present we ever received, even if it did come with strings attached. As Moshe Dayan once said: "Freedom is the oxygen of the soul." May your Passover pass pleasantly wherever you might be and may all Israel's MIAs celebrate next year in Jerusalem.