Emily Kirschenbaum

It’s Not About Civil Liberties, it’s About Communal Responsibility

One could argue that at this very moment, I have had some basic civil liberties taken from me. I am writing this from lockdown, unable to go more than 1 kilometer from my home. And, if I do venture to the supermarket, I must have a mask over my mouth and nose. The rules say that I cannot get on a plane if I want to go see my family, we cannot go to the beach or to a museum, no weddings or bar mitzvahs or events. Our house has never been so empty of guests for so long, yet I no longer have the right to invite guests into my home. 

Despite all of the above, I don’t feel that my civil liberties have been attacked. In fact, when I first heard people making that argument I was shocked. To me a lack of civil liberties means no freedom of speech, no right to vote, and basically living under tyrannical rule. I just couldn’t (and still can’t) understand how such a harsh statement could be applied to the current situation. 

Maybe it’s because I grew up in white upper-middle-class suburban America where I was taught that I could be anyone I wanted and achieve anything I set out to do. And then I moved to Israel where – despite some language and cultural barriers – I also have had the freedom to create and live the life that I want. 

Maybe it’s because I’ve never had to worry about being arrested for saying or writing something that could be perceived as anti-government. I’ve never been told I can’t drive or vote because I’m a woman. No one has ever told me I can’t observe my religion the way I want to. 

Maybe it’s because I’ve always been lucky enough to take civil liberties for granted and have never had to stop and think about them. Whatever the reason behind my thinking, in no way would I describe the current situation as encroaching on my civil liberties. I mean, let’s be real… there’s a pandemic, the world has gone insane and no one quite knows what to do. Quarantine, lock-down, homeschool, masks, corona tests. New words have become part of our daily vernacular and new rules have had to come into effect, meaning that sacrifices must be made.

Sure, the rules are inconvenient and some feel more political than based on actual health-related needs. No, I’m not perfect and yes I have broken some of the rules and I’m sure will make more mistakes both deliberately and accidentally (and I’m willing to bet that so has every single person reading this). But, never at any point have I felt that my civil liberties have been taken away from me. We are not living in North Korea. 

Again, there’s a pandemic. Over 1 million people have died. Here in Israel we have the highest rate in the world of infections per capita. We can still say, write and tweet whatever we want. We can still vote. We can still pray to whatever God we choose. All those civil liberties are still intact. And all we are actually being asked to do is wear a mask, stay home, and avoid big gatherings of people.

And somehow we, as a people, are just not able to do it. And somehow we justify our behavior by saying we won’t allow our civil liberties to be taken away. Why, though, is protesting a corrupt leader and praying in a minyan more important than taking responsibility for the collective community and doing what it takes to actually end the pandemic?  Is it because we are selfish enough to believe that rules don’t apply to us and our individual rights are more important than the collective whole? 

Giving human nature the benefit of the doubt, I’d like to think that’s not the case. Rather, I think it is because we don’t have leadership showing us the right way forward, making us feel secure that they are here to protect us and get us out of this mess. 

Don’t get me wrong, I strongly support the right to protest – it’s an extremely important part of democracy. I also understand and support the need for communal prayers – both to observe religious laws and as a place for being together as a community. Maybe it’s because I’m not such a political activist so I’m ok with not going to a protest now. And maybe it’s because I’m not the most observant of Jews so I’m ok with not going to shul now. 

It’s simply that I am willing to part with some freedoms temporarily in order to fulfill the communal responsibility of surviving a pandemic. Why are some rabbis calling for people to pray alone at home while others are insisting on running minyanim as usual? Do they not all believe in the same God and follow the same Torah? I cannot understand how someone who claims to be religious can think that the right thing to do is to gather in large (or even small) groups and pray and sing together!! Why are some protestors arranging online protests while thousands of people are still crowding Balfour? Are they not all dedicated to the same cause?  Does showing up in-person and potentially getting infected or infecting others make you a better protestor? Why can’t we all just agree that there will be no mass gatherings of any kind?? 

I have proudly watched Israel overcome hardships. And I want to say that we will prevail against Corona too. But it’s hard to imagine how it can happen without leadership that is strong enough and brave enough and LEADER enough both to set clear rules and to inspire citizens to actually want to follow them. Without that leadership, civil liberties will be the least of our problems and I am so very afraid for our future.

About the Author
Emily Kirschenbaum planned to spend one year in Israel 16 years ago...She now resides happily in Ra'anana with her husband, 3 Israeli-American kids and the cutest dog in the world. In her professional life, she runs a content marketing business ( with an awesome partner!
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