Fighting Pharaohs in Beijing
As Jews around the world recount Passover’s story of liberation, ongoing political repression in China casts a shadow over every Seder table
Despite the darkness, however, there is hope. Just as Moses rose up and led his people to freedom, so have activists in China risen up to battle their government’s injustices. I’ve seen Moses in the faces of men and women whose fight for justice echoes his cry of “Let my people go.” What distinguishes them from Moses is that they’ve challenged tyranny without any fiery deity to back them up. Passover gives us the chance to honor their courage.
Two weeks before Passover last year, activist artist Ai Weiwei was taken away by police at the Beijing airport. The winds of change raging through the Middle East had rolled into China, and dissidents were being “disappeared” en masse. Ai’s provocations—publicizing government corruption and abuse—had reached a tipping point. His fate hung over our Seder, as it would for two and a half more months until he was released. While in detention, Ai was under 24-hour watch: Pairs of guards silently hovered over him as he slept and stood next to him as he showered. Now charged with tax evasion, he is forbidden to leave Beijing. Bondage, it seems, requires no bricks or mortar.
Ai is not the only one who challenged Pharaoh because he could no longer abide the chafing of China’s political shackles. Nobel Peace Prize-winner Liu Xiaobo was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion” in 2010. His crime? Signing his name to Charter 08, an open letter demanding freedom and democracy. Blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng is under years-long house-arrest for defending women whose babies were forcibly aborted. When we filled a cup for Elijah last Passover and opened the door to an empty threshold, my thoughts were of these jailed men. This year, the doorway will again be empty, a symbol of their quest for justice still unfulfilled.
It’s easier for most Chinese to avert their eyes and find contentment in the fact that life is not as bleak as it once was. Few would sacrifice the bounty of China’s progress for a Western concept of freedom they have been taught to fear. Theirs is a cynical, if, realistic, take on the Seder song “Dayenu”: We’ve survived decades of famine and political violence, and now we have washing machines and graduate degrees. Though we don’t have democracy, it is enough.
A Jewish friend who had brought his Chinese wife to my Seder reported later that she was disappointed with the evening. “All they did was spend an hour talking about suffering and making everyone feel guilty,” she’d told him after they had departed. Chinese holidays, in contrast, are giddy celebrations of conspicuous consumption. Earlier this week, China observed Tomb Sweeping Day, an ancient festival when people pray to their ancestors for wealth and fortune with burnt offerings of paper money and paper Louis Vuitton handbags for use in the afterlife. These two springtime rituals reveal a stark difference between how Chinese and Jews see their place in the world. In their tradition, generosity is a family affair and redemption is transactional. For us, salvation is communal and based on action. Only by confronting our shared history do we transform our lives in the present. Spiritual bribery doesn’t work.
For me, that is the essence of Passover. These eight days are a catharsis, a cleansing of house and mind. We sing of slavery to revel in freedom. In China where these rituals are foreign and even subversive, this holiday gives me the opportunity to take stock of what we have accomplished as a people and what we still have yet to achieve as human beings. “Next year in Jerusalem,” we say, symbolizing a place where our best selves dwell. Hopefully one day we will be able to say, “Next year in Beijing.”
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Gluten-free matzo seems to offer deliverance for people with celiac disease and similar ailments. But this unleavened bread isn’t kosher for Seders.