Michal Cotler-Wunsh

The neverending walk to freedom

Spring has sprung; buds are in bloom, dust is in the air (in some parts of the world), while snow is melting (yet in others). These are but harbingers, announcing the approaching culmination of one of the most significant moments in the history of a people. Year after year, throughout the world, for centuries, the tale of the plight of the Jewish slaves from Pharaoh and the people of Egypt who took part in that enslavement is retold. Families and friends gather to mark the exodus of a people that were held captive by power and fear, reluctant to challenge reality until it became unbearable, until hope presented itself, signaling that change is possible.

The pinnacle of the reenactment is a notion that we are told was as relevant to our ancestors as it is to ourselves, as relevant to Jews as it is to all others, transcending time and place. We read that “not just one alone has arisen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us” (V’hee she’amda lavoteinu velanu, shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu). These words, repeated every year, are explained, discussed and sung, their meanings abundant and implications tremendous.

A possible explanation of the Hebrew verse suggests that when we are not one, when we stand fragmented and divided, then we can be destroyed. If this is the case, it follows that rallying around a unifying message, finding the common thread that binds us together, is the way to secure our continued existence. This proposed reading offers empowering insights into the development and evolution of historical processes. Assuming that each individual has a role to play in the unraveling story, there is meaning to everyday moments, to life altering choices and to everything in between.

Hindsight is 20/20 as the saying goes, but what of foresight? What of the personal responsibility and accountability to genuinely assess current events based on lessons learnt from the past? Assuming that history repeats itself, what of the personal and collective responsibility and accountability informing present decisions that impact the future?

If the current USA election campaign has illustrated anything, it is that political correctness for the sake of political correctness cannot replace acquisition of knowledge, opportunities for observation and open conversation. The current state of affairs in a global reality has clarified that ‘rosy colored glasses’ do not in fact alter reality, only its’ perception. Candid assessments assert that anti-Semitism has morphed into anti-Zionism. In a post-politically correct era, it seems probable that one cannot hope to make progress with leaders who have genocidal aspirations, openly and regularly declaring their intent to annihilate another State, Israel. All of the political correctness in the world cannot alter the implications of such intentions. One cannot hope to truly collaborate with leaders who deny and distort history, be it the holocaust, the migration of hundreds of thousands of post-war refugees or any other historical fact and figure, in an aim to amend the narrative. No amount of political correctness can remedy the potential and actual damage caused by the enabling of narratives to be altered, appropriated or hijacked.

Words do in fact have meaning. I often quote my most important teacher, my father, Prof. Irwin Cotler, who time and again taught us that the holocaust did not begin with gas chambers; it began with words. Whether words relate to the past, the present or the future, their implications and ramifications reverberate long into the future. The comprehension that only by gathering around one – or The One (there is ample room for personal choice and belief) – notion, concept, set of values and beliefs, can we traverse the stormy seas and emerge safely on the opposite shore, is critical. It is a timely reminder both for those exploiting current challenges to encourage racist views and for those manipulating reality to rewrite history. It is a significant reminder for why each and every individual can and must strive to make a difference, following the brave examples of individuals such as Raoul Wallenberg; the Bishop Chrysostomos and Mayor Loukas Karrer; and officer Wilm Hosenfeld.

In standing up to, or ignoring, Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, who once again, (in an interview with ‘The Electronic Intifada’) accused Israel of being an “apartheid regime”, individuals like Scarlett Johansson, Bon Jovi and Kevin Kostner, are an explicit current reminder of the role that each and every individual can play in the never-ending walk to freedom. Time and again along the journey, there are moments in which we are reminded of the importance of identifying and rallying around shared values, transcending real or perceived differences.

In this never-ending walk, there are bound to be detours, challenges and obstacles. It is both overwhelming and empowering to understand that it is not a long walk that will ultimately get us ‘there’, but rather a never-ending one. Among the current challenges encountered along the way, a recent trip to Romania confirmed the thesis that the BDS campaign is just that — a campaign. Allowing it to advance its’ goals by confusing us to mount a ‘counter campaign’, expending valuable resources of every kind, actually misses the real imperative of the time — the exposure of this hurdle’s true goal. BDS is a very real manifestation of the mutated anti-Semitism into anti-Zionism, gathering sympathizers by manipulating the narrative and abusing the true meaning of human rights to serve the ultimate goal of delegitimizing the State of Israel. Incredibly, considering the attention it has received, it turns out that none of the University students in Romania, and quite possibly in much of Eastern Europe, ever heard of BDS. In fact, other than a few professors who travel abroad from time to time, it seemed that no one in Romania had heard of this rampant, malicious campaign.

There are many possible explanations, among them the possibility that human rights did not emerge as the ‘new religion’ in those countries. Regardless, this highlights the importance of avoiding the distraction of this pornographic and viral campaign and reinforces the imperative to expose what it is a symptom of if we are to continue on the never-ending journey. It amplifies the significance of addressing the root causes that have resulted in this campaign, by speaking in a loud and clear collective voice about the majority of issues that we can agree upon. On the never-ending walk to freedom, it seems that the spiritual connection to our personal and collective narrative cannot be disconnected from the physical one.

As we recount the tale of this journey by reading the Haggadah, deepening our understanding from year to year, there is profound hope for change. Ebbing just below the surface, in an Israeli reality fraught with violence, challenges and chutzpah, if you listen carefully there is a sense that the common narrative, loosely bound together by values, is forming and strengthening. Whereas the founding fathers of Zionism had to leave behind the divine, wherever they emigrated from, in order to create, build, pave and secure earthly needs, it seems the time has come to gather the spiritual baggage that was left behind. Whether in Ethiopia, Iraq, Egypt, Poland or Lithuania, the time has come to collect the valuables which belong to us all. Though it may be difficult to discern under the loud cacophony of all that is Israel, a deeper look reveals a beautiful process of immigration of the spirit and a return home of the Jewish soul to the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people.

In the aboriginal language spoken by our forefathers 3,000 years ago, Hebrew; in our ancestral land, Israel; reading and singing from the same text, the Bible; it can be heard. If you listen closely, it can be heard in concert halls and in the music playing on the radio; it can be witnessed in lecture halls and makeshift rooms buzzing with diverse participants, women and men of every age, ethnicity and religious affiliation on the spectrum, or no affiliation at all; it can be spotted in human daily interactions transcending external differences and perceptions. If you listen carefully, it can be heard, actively reclaiming and modifying the long-lost treasures of an indigenous people that returned to its’ ancestral land, language and book.

Understandably, it is not an easy transition, in particular for those that cast the transcendent aside in order to create and secure basic survival and viability. The pushback is to be expected. However, careful listening and keen observation indicate that the next generations of builders are taking the lead in writing the next chapter of the never-ending walk to freedom. They are doing so in song, study and communication, in the construction of a colorful, united (as opposed to uniform) sense of identity. It is the coming to life of the suggested relevant and timely definition that can be attributed to the age-old adage, which kept our mothers and fathers and keeps us surviving, for only if we are not united, can we be destroyed in every generation (V’hee she’amda lavoteinu velanu, shelo echad bilvad amad aleinu lechaloteinu).

A final thought. We live in an era in which science posits that a spiritual foundation is essential for the survival of the individual. So too, it seems, spirituality is vital for the endurance of the collective. This requires a constant striving to transcend real and perceived differences, committed to shared values and morals, dedicated to their continued existence. The never-ending walk to freedom is just that, a journey that fills with a renewed sense of purpose for each and every individual in each and every generation. Complete freedom is never attained, as that would render life devoid of meaning. Assuming this is so, we each have a significant role to play. As you read the words “Next year in Jerusalem, the rebuilt,” commit to ensuring that you and your children can take part in the journey by learning Hebrew; consider coming to Israel to sense the reality ebbing just below the surface, in concert and study halls or prime time radio; plan a visit that includes walking, hiking, biking or running on the land that our ancestors traversed on the never-ending walk to freedom.

About the Author
The writer is a lawyer, research fellow, and policy and strategy advisor. She served as an MK in Israel’s 23rd Knesset, co-founding the International Bi-Partisan Task Force to Combat Online Antisemitism.