The ramifications of freedom

When 4 Jews, 3 of them children, are gunned down in front of a French Jewish school, it begs the question: what is freedom?

Photo of Kiryat Gat (photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
Photo of Kiryat Gat
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post Archives)
When four Jews, three of them children, are gunned down in front of a Jewish school in the middle of Toulouse, France, it forces the question: what is freedom, and how is it obtained? When, on the very next day, the European Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton makes the skewed comparison of these children’s deaths to the unintended deaths of children in Gaza when Israel attempts to stop missile launchings and apprehend terrorists, again, one can only contemplate the very same question.
As a citizen of the Jewish homeland, years ago I would have responded that freedom means having one’s own country and government without the imminent threat of anti-Semitism. Yet this, too, is an unsatisfactory answer when one considers the threats we face to our existence here in Israel as well, most recently exhibited by the consistent barrage of rocket attacks in the Negev region, leaving us once again to ponder freedom and its ramifications.
During the Passover Seder which is swiftly approaching, this question remains the centerpiece of our attention and the focal topic of our discussions as we annually recite the ominous words, “In every generation people rise up against us to annihilate us.” Part of the fate of the Jewish nation is that it will always have enemies, be they in the form of a gangster, a Hamas terrorist, or a Catherine Ashton – a rather discouraging forecast.
Yet the Seder experience should help us understand that freedom is a state of mind which begins with understanding ourselves as individuals and our predicament as a nation, unfortunately a precedent which is misunderstood and mishandled by many of our governmental institutions and agencies. It is therefore incumbent upon us every year as we approach Passover, which undoubtedly conjures reflections of the past, to apply the same concerns of slavery and redemption as they affect the present.
Such application can help facilitate certain freedom.
The top students in the Yeshivat Hesder Derech Chaim in Kiryat Gat where I teach are of Ethiopian descent. Not only are these young men academically driven but they exhibit outstanding character; they are polite, soft spoken and well mannered. This may sound prejudiced, certainly not my intention, but considering that I live adjacent to a neighborhood of Ethiopian Jews which is plagued by crime and recklessness, quite frankly I am puzzled.
The youth of this particular neighborhood are left to roam the streets; juvenile delinquents with no parental supervision engaged in petty theft and alcohol abuse.
Consequently, I found myself struggling with the question: why is it that the Ethiopian youth in my yeshiva appear to be on the road to success, while the Ethiopian youth in my neighborhood appear to be on the road to disaster? When I posed this question to my students they replied unequivocally that they and their families had made a conscious decision to leave the ghettoized Ethiopian communities which they were originally situated in and move into heterogeneous Israeli communities.
In so doing their vision became both expansive and realistic and their aspirations grew in accordance with the broader Israeli society surrounding them; they freed themselves of a restrictive existence and adjusted to the societal norms around them.
I was reminded of an Ethiopian young man in our yeshiva who I had brought to Kiryat Gat over five years ago from the neighborhood mentioned above and who now, completing his fifth year at the yeshiva and having served in a combat unit in the IDF, was indeed the top student in our institution, presumably because he left the environs where he had grown up. I began to appreciate that what my students were suggesting, and what I was witnessing firsthand, was accurate; these young men were part of an ideological mission to contribute and affect the country and nation which they felt a part of. These young men were free.
When the Jewish Agency brought Ethiopian Jews to Israel from the late ‘70s to ‘90s, they were positioned by both the Agency and the government to live in large communities among themselves.
As a result, many of the Ethiopian Jews were never integrated, or encouraged to become a part of Israeli society. What emerged were large clusters of Ethiopian Jewish communities consisting of people who found themselves torn from their past without a capacity to deal with, let alone prepare their children for, a future.
These same children, now the emerging generation, lost respect for their disoriented parents, became resentful toward a system which reeked of exclusion, and sank into the depths of reckless desperation, the results of which we are now beginning to face. What is perhaps more disturbing is that the absorption of Ethiopian Jewry was not the first time the government was tested with such a state of affairs.
During the 1950s Moroccan Jews who had immigrated to Israel were also conveniently situated by the government in particular towns such as Beit Shemesh, Netivot, Dimona, Beit She’an and Ofakim. These towns were called “development towns,” presumably because they were meant to help the new immigrants “develop” and acclimate to their new surroundings and integrate into the Israeli society. They did anything but. The mistakes and failures which should have been obvious as a result of the Moroccan Aliya were never rectified or modified during the Ethiopian Aliya.
The month of Nissan begs us to recall our Exodus from having been slaves in Egypt. This begins with an understanding that slavery is the obstruction of one’s ability to progress and that freedom is an entity which may not easily reveal itself because it is concealed in the most unobvious of places, places which can only be revealed within ourselves and those around us.
The writer teaches at Yeshiva Hesder Kiryat Gat and serves under the Harel Division for the Rabbanut of the IDF. He is also an author and lecturer on Israel, Religious Zionism and Jewish education. More information