Michael Lipkin

A Response to Avi Liberman: Freedom vs. Safety

On December 15th, Avi Liberman, of whom I’m a huge fan, wrote a blog post about an experience he had at a Shabbat meal discussing COVID restrictions and Jews going to Uman for Rosh Hashanah. Below is my response…

Hey Avi! So glad you’re doing better. Can’t wait to see Comedy for Koby finally back here in Israel in January.

While I understand your sentiment and agree to a large extent, there are some flaws as well.

It seems that the crux of the discussion is that of freedom vs. safety. You appear to be of the opinion that freedom nearly always trumps safety. After all, as you correctly point out, people have given their lives for freedom since at least the days of the Jews in Egypt and certainly as part of the founding of America and the spread of democracy. Except it’s not that simple. Neither freedom nor safety are absolutes. On the one hand, society does not function on a risk-free basis. We allow for the fact that people will die for things far less sacrosanct than freedom. On the other hand, freedom has limits we all accept. And certainly when it comes up against safety, freedom often has to bow. A classic example is that freedom of speech is limited by public safety. This is highlighted by the well known concept that you can’t yell “fire” in a crowded movie theatre.

The Uman example that derailed your Shabbat meal is a uniquely Israeli issue. Israel is not the US. Israel has no constitution and lacks similar guarantees of freedom. There are some freedoms in the basic laws, but they are not nearly as robust. Also, being a country at war for its entire existence, the freedoms Israel does have are often curtailed in the name of national security (i.e., safety).

In an attempt to prove your point, you used the example of young people in Israel being drafted and the risk involved (relative to the risk of COVID). But that literally makes the opposite point! In the name of “safety,” i.e., protecting the country from harm, Israel drafts most of its youth. The army, next to jail, is among the least free places in any country. Soldiers are forced to give up nearly all of their freedoms while serving. Here again, safety trumps freedom.

Pinning the low risk of COVID at a 99.8% survival rate is a bit specious. The risk of COVID varies with age and also includes illness, long-term complications, and secondary effects like overloading hospitals, which can defer critical treatments. Also, percentages are not always appropriate indicators of how societies should respond to threats. If someone told you two years ago that there was going to be a plague that would kill 800,000 Americans, that mere 0.2% you referenced, in the next two years, I’m sure, being a reasonable person, you’d have gladly given up some freedoms to help save them. (And it’s very possible that without the various interventions taken, many more would have died. Something called “historical fallacy.”) Here in Israel, 8,000 people have died from COVID. That’s far more than any of the most catastrophic and deadly events in Israeli history.

While I agree that people have gotten really bad at doing risk assessment, you can’t really compare car accidents to COVID. (Although the state very much controls one’s freedom to drive.) One stupid driver doesn’t put nearly as many others at risk as a stupid COVID carrier. However, and maybe the comparison isn’t so bad after all, if a driver forges his license, his freedom to drive will be taken away. And, while I don’t know the details of your accident, don’t you agree it’s good to limit the freedom of drivers to use smartphones or drive while drunk in order to minimize the risk of accidents like yours?

As far as your specific case is concerned, it’s exactly the opposite. People WERE given the freedom to go to Uman. All they had to do was the same thing everyone else who travels is doing… get tested. That “jerk move” of getting fake negatives you mentioned at the beginning was the real problem. Your hosts and the other guests seemed to have exhibited disproportionate rage and prejudice, as Israelis were also traveling other places at the same time, but there’s a basis to their sentiment.

Both in Israel and in the US, too many people who look like them and who share their ideology have disproportionately, institutionally, and volitionally snubbed their noses at many of the most basic precautions these societies have enacted for public safety. The reaction to that has, in some cases, been overwrought and bigoted (as I think you witnessed), but it’s not baseless.

And there’s this important irony. Haredism, as a nexus of religious ideologies, does not value our Western concepts of freedom. If anything, they view it as a foreign and “goyish” threat to their carefully curated and insular domains. Of course, that doesn’t mean that, as freedom-loving people we don’t still have an obligation to protect their freedoms in spite of themselves, but it’s still an important perspective in the conversation.

I think that at the extremes, people have gone overboard, both those those who rail against governments who are mainly trying to protect their citizens and those who demonize people who are reasonably pushing back.

I certainly agree with you that Israel has overreacted in response to Omicron. The variant is already in the country and it spreads at a rate multiple times faster than Delta. (But is also starting to look much less harmful.) Closing the airport is a classic case of shutting the barn door after the horses have bolted. And if it prevents you from bringing in comedians for Comedy for Koby in January, Bennett will have to answer directly to me! 🙂

I hope you don’t take any of this personally. I have great admiration and respect for you and thank you so much for all the laughter over the years. Please continue to have a Refuah Shelayma!

About the Author
Michael Lipkin made Aliyah in 2004 from Edison, NJ to Beit Shemesh with his wife and four children. Since moving to Israel, Michael and his wife have been blessed with two new sons-in-law, one daughter-in-law, eleven grandchildren and a sabra of their own! Michael currently works as a tech liaison for a financial web site.
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