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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

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A lone protester displays his forehead after taking off a cap to reveal ‘oppose the dictators’ in support of China’s dissident Liu Xiaobo on Dec. 9, 2009, in Beijing. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images)
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Alison Klayman went to China and found her big break. The documentary she made there, Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, premiered at Sundance.

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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George says:

I have no doubt the Chinese have a better grasp on how to balance individual rights and maintaining a strong ship-of-state than either America and Europe. Too much freedom with no parameters, either moral or civil,is a hallmark of America and much of Western Europe. The Chinese have seem first-hand the decline in the cohesiveness and economies of those nations where ‘if it feels good,do it’ has now become the official mantra of every special interest group. A recipe for disaster which is now boiling over throughout the US and Europe.

Floyd says:

Freedom Chinese style is not freedom.

The more people focus on Chinese oppression especially of Tibet, the less the world will focus on Israel. The Tibetan oppression is similar to the Palestinian story except that Palestinians are not any different from Jordanians and the West Bank was never officially Palestinian or I think even Jordanian. The Chinese are destroying a unique, beautiful culture of people who have not responded with violence or terrorism. There are more Han Chinese in Tibet now than Tibetans – not the case in the West Bank. Tibetans are being forced to study in Mandarin – Hebrew is not being taught in schools in the West Bank.

guest says:

Tibet is more similar to the Israeli story. Israel is the Jewish homeland. The imperialist Arabs are trying to push the Jews out of ancient Judea.

jacob arnon says:

“As Jews around the world recount Passover’s story of liberation, ongoing political repression in China casts a shadow over every Seder table.”

Is this the new way of telling ourselves, “eat, eat,” there are starving children in the world.

tantelaeh says:

The most tragic outcome of the plagues of the large Chinese cities will be the millions who will die of cancer and auto immune diseases due to overwork, bad air and water.
Cancer is a wily disease that mimics human’s own DNA.

jacob arnon says:

tantelaeh must be some kind of
prophet” in love with tragic predictions.

Fact Checker says:

China is not America’s largest trading partner. Canada is still #1 by a pretty wide margin.

Rusty says:

I’m calling partial bs – yes, we Jews can boycott China. not completely of course – indeed not even close to complete, but we can buy American and/or non-Chinese made goods where you can, and if enough people did it companies might locate their next factory in, say, Laos instead. We can also decline to take trips there (including Hong Kong). If it were Nazi Germany with ubiquitous products, would we throw up our hands and say “what can we do?” (and that’s not as far fetched of a comparison when you consider all China has done to support Sudan, a truly genocidal government).


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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

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