I read recently about two movements that have been especially active in Tel Aviv and on social media since the Shabbat work stoppage debacle. Both “Hofesh B’Shabbat” and “Be Free Israel” have called for massive protests against any attempts to close businesses and leisure activities in the Tel Aviv area on Shabbat. One group is organizing a street party to be held in Bnei Brak this Saturday morning. Both groups have made strong statements calling for their members to fight the religious extremist minority trying to rule over them. One of the Facebook posts states: “We will be free or we will fight until we are.” Wow! Such passion. Such unwavering commitment to freedom.
I’m a firm believer in the separation of religion and state. No state should have the power to dictate to its citizens whom they should marry or in what type of ceremony or under whose auspices. A state should not have the power to tell people how to spend their free time, or to force businesses to close on Shabbat or any other religious holiday. As long as labour laws are adhered to and workers paid what they are entitled to for working on weekends, as long as no one is forced to work on days of religious observance, let the individual govern her own leisure time and business practices.
However, I can’t help wondering about the all too human tendency to see to one’s own rights while being far less concerned about the rights of others. Why is it that threats to our own freedoms manage to arouse such intense engagement, yet the withholding of basic liberties from others is met with at best complacency and at worst tacit support?
We live in a state of perpetual conflict with the Palestinians that has now become permanent. When attempts were being made to resolve it, we would tell ourselves that the abuses and indignities that are committed in the name of our security, of our sovereignty, of the preservation of our Jewish and democratic state, were temporary. One day it would come to an end and all human beings living between the river and the sea would live in dignity.
Yet now what can we say? How do we go on – even those of us who do believe that others deserve as many rights, as much dignity as Jews do – living with the dissonance of the daily humiliations and violations? We as citizens with full rights do not and cannot know what it is to have every aspect of one’s life controlled by the military of another. Where we can go, who we can meet, whether we will be permitted to get to where we need to go – the hospital, the wedding or funeral of a relative, our jobs. The 4 a.m. wake-up for the long slog to get through the checkpoint, to labour all day only to endure it all again tomorrow. Will the night be broken by a raid? Will our olive trees be destroyed before the harvest? Will our houses be demolished after the endless permit seeking has ended in denial? Will our child be arrested without charge, indefinitely detained for ill-defined crimes?
I know what you’re going to say. They are not a partner for peace. Bitter experience has shown we cannot trust them. But what about the stranger among us? Those that have trekked through the desert fleeing unspeakable cruelty, rape, torture, grinding poverty and despair? Do we perhaps have more compassion for them? Do their rights concern us? They’re not our enemy, they have not vowed to kill us, to throw us into the sea, to deny us our own homeland after thousands of years of exile. Do we, after having in our collective memories from birth the pain of persecution, of genocide, of exile, of having nowhere to go and no one to care for us, open our arms, our doors our hearts to those suffering a similar fate? When the wretched are locked up in the middle of the desert for no crime other than being a refugee, do we protest, do we vow to fight for their freedom the way that we have vowed to fight for our own? Or does our tendency to self-centredness, often disguised as survival, dictate another excuse? What happens to our ardent strivings then?
Nelson Mandela, arguably the greatest freedom fighter of all, famously said that to be truly free is to “not merely cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.” Even if we achieve all of the freedoms so dear to us. The freedom to marry who we choose, to spend Shabbat and other religious days doing exactly what we choose in the location of our choice, to cast off all the chains of religious strong-arming, to express our sexuality in accordance with our desires and not societal norms or archaic laws; the freedom to work where we want, to live in a decent place free of pollution violence or crime, to educate our children according to our principles free from propaganda and ideological compulsion; if we succeed in wresting the control of natural gas from the clutches of the monopolies, and cottage cheese costs less here than in Berlin; even if we achieve all of that, can we be truly free while others are negated, dehumanized, demonized and their basic rights violated? In order to win freedom for ourselves we have no choice but to vow to fight for all freedoms for all people, especially those whose lives we hold in our hands.
I don’t want to hear anymore about how we have to make peace because it’s in our interests, it clearly isn’t or it would have happened by now. I don’t want to hear about how much military occupation costs, we can obviously afford it because if we couldn’t we would have ended it. We must work day and night to end the situation as it is today for one reason and one reason only. Because it is wrong, because it is immoral, because immense suffering is taking place in our name. Complacency and indifference are evil. We do not allow it to thrive where our own direct self interest is at stake. We detect it as easily as fear and hate-mongering when we are on its receiving end because it is just as pernicious.
Regardless of what we have been told by countless “leaders” and teachers, spin doctors and rabbis, the ending of it is in our hands. We have all the power. We are no longer the victims. We have the powerful army, the thriving OECD member economy, the friends in the highest of places. We are Jews – once the hunted, persecuted, discriminated against, the raped, expelled and annihilated. That is reason enough. We do not need any other.