The message of Passover is as timely as it is eternal. For centuries it has highlighted both recurrent abuses of power and successive human efforts to escape its shackles. This year is no different: throughout the world — and especially in the Middle East — unspeakable crimes are being committed by despots bent on retaining power at the expense of their citizens, while chaos reigns where dictators have been challenged but no new order has come in their stead. In too many democratic countries, controls imposed to avert instability have unleashed latter-day forms of intolerance as well as individual and collective persecution laced with racism. At the same time, people persistently band together to combat oppression in its multiple manifestations: they give concrete expression to the human spirit. This constant struggle is particularly pronounced today.
The lesson of Passover in all its complexity is thus reenacted yet again: emancipation from fear and oppression does not alone ensure liberty — that requires the careful cultivation of norms and mechanisms to guarantee human freedom. The failure to do so generates further rounds of uncertainty and misery. Hence the annual challenge of this holiday season: the identification of injustices and the search for ways to assure their eradication. For Israelis today, this means grappling with growing power aberrations that enfeeble their democracy and question their humanity.
The threat to democratic life in Israel and the protections it confers is now palpable. This is a direct outcome of the common misconception that democratic debates and left-right divisions are synonymous. In recent years many citizens have imbibed the view — dominant in ruling circles — that the left and liberal democracy go together, while the political right and, at best, procedural democracy, are inextricable companions. Nothing can be more misleading and harmful to the capacity of Israelis to strengthen their own freedom.
Contrary to popular opinion, the alternatives to democracy are neither radicalism nor extremism on the far reaches of the political spectrum. Rather, they are either authoritarianism in one of its various forms on the one hand, or anarchy and continuous turmoil on the other. Oftentimes, signs of autocracy and chaos come together and are mutually reinforcing. In all instances they bring about the demise of democratic rule and the freedoms it entails.
The process of democratic recession in Israel has been in the making for several years. It has gathered steam with horrifying speed during the past year, as basic civil rights have been sacrificed to increasingly authoritarian propensities. Since last spring, more anti-democratic laws have been passed (including, but hardly limited to, the ill-conceived “Suspension Law,” the still-to-be implemented “Expropriation Law,” an amendment to the “Boycott Law” and the freshly-minted “V-15 Law”). The constraints placed on basic freedoms — and particularly on those of speech and association — have been compounded by systematic efforts to control the media, culminating in the disbanding of the now stillborn news section of the embryonic Israel Broadcasting Corporation.
The separation of powers and the checks and balances that go with it have been prey to the whims of an executive branch unhappy with the independence of the judiciary. An atmosphere antagonistic to criticism and open debate is being cultivated in lieu of a disappearing social solidarity. And emphasis is being placed on nurturing a mood of optimism to forestall grappling with the substance of complex realities and the frequent despondency it evokes.
These are all vivid signs of authoritarianism, often compounded by autocratic mannerisms. The protective cloak surrounding the prime minister and what has come to be known as Israel’s “royal family” is just one example of a growing demand for complete subservience from his allies and close political associates. These are the telltale symptoms of incipient democratic regression — buttressed in this case by appeals to nationalistic impulses.
Simultaneously, disorder seems everywhere apparent: growing violence on the streets, impatience in the public square, expressions of road rage amidst interminable traffic jams, untethered verbal exchanges on the airwaves. Efforts to contain exhibitions of anarchic behavior are few and far between — unless their purveyors are suspected of undermining Jewish hegemony in the public sphere. This extreme libertarianism without boundaries is the opposite of that essential restraint conducive to the nourishing of democratic freedom.
In the modern era, democracies have provided the critical balance between the concentration of political control in the hands of the few and its fragmentation and dispersion into utter turmoil. Current trends are upending this equilibrium. An African adage suggests ways to rectify the current imbalance. “Power is like an egg: if you hold it too tightly, it breaks; if you hold it too loosely, it falls.”
This Passover, Israel’s current leadership would do well to recall that power is a very fragile commodity indeed. If used too harshly and indiscriminately, it is bound to invite widespread resistance. If employed too haphazardly, it cannot safeguard fundamental liberties and bolster an environment of trust. The careful restoration of democratic guarantees is critical to averting the twin threats of dictatorship and chaos.
This goal, however, cannot be achieved if so many Israelis continue to ignore the right to liberty of those under its control. Jews who celebrate, in each generation, their emancipation from slavery and persecution cannot continue to excuse their continued control over the Palestinian people against their will. Almost 50 years since the beginning of the occupation in 1967, Israel must finally free the Palestinians from its constraints and itself from these morally enfeebling bonds. Only by remembering that it is incumbent on Jews to refrain from doing to others what they did not countenance being done to them since the times of the first Pharaoh, can they reassert their humanity and truly celebrate their own individual freedom and Israel’s political independence.
The combination of opposition to injustice, inequality, prejudice and subordination, together with the commitment to making freedom meaningful through the constant insistence on nurturing individual and group rights is what makes the Passover legacy so challenging and rewarding. Those who shun facing this challenge cannot hope to reap its rewards. This spring, let us all reflect upon the story of the Exodus and the ongoing quest for true freedom through honing our own sensitivity to the subjugated and disempowered and thereby recommitting ourselves to realizing our humanity.