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As the Passover Story Shows, Freedom is a Choice. Europe and its Jews Face That Choice Again Today.

An account–and a warning–from a Polish Jew on the front lines of the struggle for Europe’s soul

Konstanty Gebert
April 04, 2018

In a midrash which has been over-quoted to tears, each Jew is said to have been present at Mount Sinai for the giving of the Torah. What is less remarked upon is that this is the only event of the entire extraordinary biblical story of the Israelites’ redemption about which this is said. Was the survival of Jewish children during the 10th plague any less momentous? Was the crossing of the Red Sea less awe-inspiring? Why, then, is it so crucial for Jewish tradition that all Jews have been present at Sinai?

The answer is that Sinai implies choice. Every individual at the foot of the mountain opted to accept God’s covenant. During the Exodus, by contrast, humans had no true agency in the events. God decreed that the Jewish first-born would not succumb, and that the waters would part. To be sure, on that latter occasion we did have the option of not entering the dry sea-bed. But given that availing one’s self of that option would entail getting slaughtered by the pursuing Egyptians, it was not much of a choice. Only at Sinai could we, or at least some of us, have turned away and refused. Instead, we said “na’ase ve-nishma”—“we will do and we will listen.”

And what was it we chose? The stone tablets of the Torah—which, as another over-cited rabbinic passage tells us, offered us “herut (freedom), not harut (dictates engraved in stone).” More than a linguistic pun, this midrash is intuitively convincing. Freedom, to be genuine and lasting, needs to be chosen; it cannot just be accepted when granted. It requires commitment to maintaining it in the face of adversity. And, as the Haggadah and Bible never tire of reminding us, we Jews soon repented of the choice to leave Egypt, dismayed by the price to be paid during our sojourn in the desert. As any other slave or victim of oppression will tell you, the worst thing about slavery is that you get used to it.

The Haggadah tells of our ultimately successful escape to freedom, both in the practical and spiritual sense. But as the social psychologist Erich Fromm observed in his Escape from Freedom, which chronicled the rise of fascism, it is always possible to go back, as the Israelites also understood. Which is why when we read the Haggadah this Passover, especially in Europe, we would do well to take a hard look around at what is transpiring.

We will see tens of thousands of people who, like us then, are fleeing oppression for safety and freedom, even if without a divine promise of success. What they count on is the human and fallible promise of rights under the law, and of basic solidarity. And yet, as we look at them, we often see not refugees, but invaders, threatening to bring with them intolerance and hatred. (I wonder what the Canaanites thought when they saw us coming.) Such fears are not necessarily illegitimate, when addressing specific persons and cases. Too often, however, they serve as an alibi for our refusal of solidarity.

This in itself would be bad enough, but the European mood is turning nastier. The glowing moment when thousands pressed to support refugees with drink, food, clothing, and shelter, has passed. No longer is there outrage when public figures say that border guards should shoot persons illegally crossing our borders. Frauke Petry, one German politician who has expressed that opinion—though qualified with an “I don’t want them to, but the law is the law”—is the leader of AfD, a new right-wing party which rose to prominence in the local elections this year, getting as much as a quarter of the vote in Saxony.

Petry finds some Jews who approve of her, either because of a general law-and-order fixation, or because of a fear of Islam, which AfD asserts is “unconstitutional.” Other Jews have supported different European hard-right parties, which desperately crave their stamp of kashrut. In Antwerp, for instance, Hasidim support the Vlaams Block, of distinctly neo-Nazi affiliation, because it credibly promises them physical safety from routine aggression by Muslim neighbors. All over Western Europe, Jews feel targeted, and understandably fear that with the coming of new Muslims this threat will increase. Many non-Jewish Europeans feel likewise, and have responded with a wave of Islamophobia, of which the platforms of AfD or VB are only examples among many.

Yet, however besieged Jews are, Europe’s crisis is not about us–even in France, where Jews are more often the victims of aggression than the ten times more numerous Muslim population. Rather, we Jews are collateral damage in the much larger struggle over European identity that is currently unfolding. That struggle will determine whether Europe will find a way to adapt to its wave of newcomers—changing some of their attitudes but also changing Europe—or whether Europe will opt to repulse them, ultimately through measures such as those proposed by Petry. Though the first option might not itself be entirely reassuring to Jews, I believe it is the second one we should truly fear.

This is not only because I find it hard to believe that the extreme right, for all its protestations, has genuinely decided to adopt Jews as honorary Aryans for the purpose of resisting Muslims. It is not only because I find the far-right’s image of Israel as a military outpost against alleged hordes to be unenticing. No, I fear the extremist ascendance in Europe because I consider it foolhardy to believe that a government which would use force to stop refugees from reaching our shores would stop its use of force just there. Political intimidation and violence is seldom contained: from the refugees it would spread to target those who give them assistance and succor, then to those who would oppose such policies, and eventually it could corrupt the very basis of the democratic society it set out to protect in the first place. And I find it hard to believe that Jews, of all people, would somehow be spared.

Fear of the consequences of freedom is one of the factors that make people flee freedom itself. In today’s Europe, I see people fleeing towards freedom in a quest for safety, and others ready to flee it in order to protect their own. If this latter group is successful, they can deny the former the freedom and security they crave—but only at the price of undermining their own.

As we observe our own Festival of Freedom, then, we Jews should not only recall how we chose freedom in the past, but commit to choosing it in the present.

This piece was originally published on April 21, 2016.

Konstanty Gebert is a journalist and Jewish activist, initially in the underground under Communism, in Warsaw, Poland.