Gerald M. Steinberg
Gerald M. Steinberg

Last Year (2003) We Were Slaves. This Year We Are Free

Original written in 2003 (lightly edited for 2021)

According to Jewish tradition, the story of Passover is reenacted every year, as if each person was leaving Egypt and embarking on the dramatic march from slavery to freedom. The narrative begins with the descent into suffering and bondage, and ends (usually many hours later) with the triumphal pledge to rebuild Jerusalem “next year”. In the good years and the more comfortable and secure communities, the effort to identify with the feelings of slaves who are suddenly freed to run their own lives can be very challenging. And in times of persecution, hatred and terrorism from latter-day Pharaohs, the hope of freedom is hard to sustain when compared with the bitter realities of daily life.

This year, the celebration of freedom requires less imagination than usual. In the past 13 months (a leap year in the Jewish calendar), we have gone through the full cycle; from despair to the triumphal embrace of freedom. Last year’s Passover seder was one of the most difficult since the creation of the State of Israel and the revival of Jewish sovereignty following the horrors of the Holocaust. With Palestinian terror attacks an almost daily occurrence, we kept our children off the buses and near home. Shopping trips were planned carefully, with a quick dash through the shelves to minimize the risk.

The seder night massacre in Netanya, in which 29 people were murdered, and many more were badly injured, marked the lowest and deadliest point of Arafat’s war, and it seemed that we were powerless to stop the killing. Whenever the government and IDF tried to move against the terror networks in Palestinian cities, the “international community”, including the other axis of evil – Israel- bashing journalists, European and UN diplomats, pro-terrorist “human rights” guardians, and academics – accused us of war crimes. Last year, as we repeated the traditional words “Now, we are slaves; but next year, we will be free people”, the optimism was forced through the pain.

But Passover one year ago also marked the first step of our liberation from Palestinian terror, beginning with Operation Defensive Shield. We are still not entirely free from this form of slavery, and the efforts of Palestinian suicide bombers continue, but their capabilities are a fraction of what they were a year ago. We mourn the hundreds of victims who lost their lives, but Israelis no longer live in constant dread of the next bomb, the ambulance sirens, and the horror on the faces of dead children and neighbors.

Arafat is isolated and entirely irrelevant (except to European leaders, who continue to demonstrate how little they understand or care). Even with the periodic reminders that Palestinian terrorism has yet to be totally defeated, Israelis are riding the busses and going out for coffee with renewed self-confidence in our ability to survive and prosper as a free nation.

In addition, in this extraordinary year, Israelis are celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein and the American-led destruction of this particularly evil regime. For twelve years, we lived with the threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, while most of the world continued to buy his oil and help him buy more weapons. In the past few months, as the buildup towards war proceeded, we had to face the prospect of mass murder from the threat of an Iraqi revenge attack against Israel. The gas masks came down from their storage places, the sealed rooms went back up, and Israelis hoped that this time, the American, British and Australian forces in western Iraq would find and destroy the Scud missiles before they were launched. Just in case, emergency plans were drawn up to turn football fields and parks into mass burial areas.

These threats have been largely removed, and Saddam, who once threatened to use his weapons of mass destruction to burn “half of Israel”, has disappeared. His tanks and artillery, as well as the thousands of suicide bombers from throughout the Middle East who flocked to join him, have been destroyed in the modern equivalent of the drowning of Pharaoh’s army of chariots in the Red Sea.

As for the Palestinians, Iranians, and Syrians, the potential to become free peoples controlling their own lives has also become more visible. To grasp the new opportunities, they must turn from decades of intense hostility and violence directed at Israel, the US and West, and convert these energies towards positive and productive directions. Hatred and terrorism are the hallmarks of slavery, and are incompatible with freedom. 

Next year in Jerusalem, may we celebrate their liberation from tyranny, along with ours.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)