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Naftali Rothenberg

‘Remember this day that you went out of Egypt’: Freedom, human rights and civil rights

Passover, “the time of our freedom” as it is called in the prayers. The meaning of the term ‘freedom’ has gained added value during the challenging time we are going through in Israel. Our society is divided between those who fear a retreat in the democratic structure of the government and the courts, and those who feel that the centers of power do not express the decision of the majority, which makes them “second-class citizens.”

I have no magic solution to the ongoing social crisis that has reached new heights. I listen to the concerns, the deep pain and the disappointment, which are the lot of many people, in different groups in the population, from all parts of the political map.

I can only share with you, my thoughts on the essential factor, which will ensure that there will be no second-class citizens here, and that democracy, in the Jewish nation-state, will be preserved:  Adherence to human rights and civil rights for all!

People understand democracy in different ways. Some treat democracy and human rights in a complex way. It’s fine. Diverse and complex consideration is the essence of democracy. But some also show a reserved attitude towards both democracy and human rights. Some want to prevent them from certain populations. Others condition the granting of rights on the fulfillment of duties. Some disapprove and even fear the impact of the implementation of human rights and civil rights on their family and community lifestyle.

In meetings with those who feel a problem with human and civil rights, I usually show them the list of main rights and ask: which right are you, personally, willing to give up?

Human rights (citizens and non-citizens): The right to life (includes the right to personal security); The right to dignity (includes the right to privacy and individual modesty and the right to a good name); The right to equality; The right to freedom; The right to property; The right to a fair legal process; The right to freedom of religion and conscience; The right to freedom of movement.

Citizen rights (granted to a person by virtue of being a citizen of the country): The right to freedom of opinion and expression; The right to vote and be elected; The right to freedom of association.

There are other additional rights that overlap with human rights but are enhanced and strengthened by the right of citizenship. Human and civil rights define the relationship between the individual and the state.

Social rights are the third group of rights that relate to the living conditions of the citizens and residents of the country.

Among the hundreds of respondents who, during the discussion stage, revealed various reservations about democracy and human rights, not one was found who was willing to personally give up one of the human and civil rights!

“In every generation a person must see himself as though he [personally] had gone out of Egypt, as it is stated, “And you shall tell your son on that day, saying (Exodus 13:8): ‘It is because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt’” (Mishna Psachim 10:5)

When the lack of human and civil rights touches someone personally, he immediately sees himself as a victim. If we want to live in a political framework that will protect every one of us, especially in a state of weakness, if we want to instill this protection for our children and future generations, we must see ourselves as if we have come out of slavery, from a situation where everything is denied to us, and show our children that we do not give up any of our rights. Human rights are granted to every human being, by virtue of being a human, and a situation in which they are deprived of them must not be allowed. Civil rights are granted to every citizen, without distinction. A right must not be conditioned on the fulfillment of a duty. The role of the state, through all government authorities, is to protect the rights of every person. The state does not “do a favor” to the citizen and it does not “grant” him rights. In Egypt we were slaves to Pharaoh. For generations upon generations in terrible exiles, we were excluded and our lives were in danger. But the Torah commands us to remember precisely the exit from slavery, not the slavery itself:

According to a Torah positive command, we must tell on the night preceding the fifteenth day of Nisan all about the miracles and wonders that were performed for our forefathers in Egypt. As it is stated (Exodus 13:3), “Remember this day that you went out of Egypt“.

The reservations of human and civil rights for all stem from fear, from an inability to free oneself from feeling like slaves, from a misunderstanding of the virtue of freedom that we have been granted. Now we are free. Freedom is one of human rights. A right that imposes on us the responsibility to turn Israel into a democratic beacon of human and civil rights.

About the Author
Rabbi Naftali Rothenberg is the rabbi of Har Adar township, Israel, and a senior research fellow at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute
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