This is Passover, a holiday that comes straight out of the Bible, the Almighty commanding us to tell the story of the Exodus to each new generation as well as reminding ourselves. The Exodus, of course, is a story of freedom from slavery. The Biblical story is about the Hebrew exodus from slavery in Egypt. But we are very explicit about relating that story to the freedom of others.
In truth, whoever our ancestors, some were probably slaves. Some were serfs in Europe. Women and African-Americans have been bought and sold in much of the world. African-Americans and Native Americans have been enslaved in this country. The Haggadah, essentially the prayer-book for Passover, has been repeatedly rewritten in part to take account of new struggles for freedom. As we remind ourselves every year, “Not for ourselves alone do we pray, not for ourselves alone, but for all Your children.”
Sometimes it is also necessary to remind ourselves that freedom is indivisible – we all have a stake in each other’s freedom. The slavery of some makes the freedom of the rest of us less secure. I met my wife in 1966 because it was not safe for her to go to the Tehran bazaar without a male escort. White working men before the Civil War understood that their freedom was undermined by Black slavery – the terms and conditions of their employment undermined by what masters could get from their slaves, even as today the conditions of American workers are undermined by the abuse of workers all over the world, and the conditions of the middle class are affected by the abuse of less fortunate workers.
Freedom is not license and it implies caring about each other, not the freedom to ignore the plight of others.
We all grew up telling each other “It’s a free country.” But many of us don’t stop to figure out what that means. Free of taxes? Impossible; that was never true. Indeed the absence of government would reduce us all to slavery, naked and defenseless against every form of force, fraud, scam and abuse. Free to do anything you want without regard to other people? All of us used to call that idea license and distinguished it from freedom. License is uncivilized, the law of the jungle, that allowed and still allows some to enslave others.
Much of American history is about that fight for freedom and we celebrate it. Americans fought for significant freedoms. We fought for political freedom, the right to govern ourselves, the right to representation in the legislatures, the right to vote, the right to a fair trial and all the essential elements so that we would not convict and imprison the guiltless. We fought for civil freedoms – the right to buy and sell, to testify in courts, and the right to marry. Those freedoms are in our Constitution but it was only a few decades ago, in the context of the Civil Rights Movement, that the U.S. Supreme Court actually started enforcing them – another example of the indivisibility of freedom.
Freedom is the gift we share and it is the gift for which we work together.
Jews try to celebrate it with family but we also celebrate it as a multi-cultural holiday. Freedom is indivisible.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
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