A Season for Freedom


Published April 13, 2011, issue of April 22, 2011.
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One of the most remarkable features of the celebration of Passover is how decentralized it is. The Seder takes place in the home, away from the watchful eyes of rabbis or other religious authorities; it can be personal and fluid, quick or lengthy, in whatever language suits the leaders and guests. The Haggadah’s requirements are basic enough for a child to fulfill, its central theme open to so many interpretations and characterizations that no two Seders — even with the same participants — are ever precisely the same.

We are free to say, sing, argue, pray for what we want.

Freedom of expression is commonly thought of as a First Amendment right, but this year, we would do well to think of it as an important component of the freedom we celebrate and emulate during Passover. We need to guard against infringement of that freedom within our own community, particularly regarding discussion of Israel and its current government. And we need to speak out when the rights of others are smothered or ignored.

Sadly, that is happening all too often. Even as the “Arab spring” sweeps away the vestiges of oppression in many countries, reports of unwarranted arrests, detentions and beatings are sullying that hopeful trend. One example: Maikel Nabil, a 25-year-old Egyptian blogger, was sentenced April 11 to three years in jail for “insulting” the military that has ruled his nation since Hosni Mubarak was deposed. Nabil’s crime? Publishing details of what he claimed was the military’s torture of protesters. Clearly, Egyptians still are not free.

A week earlier, the brilliant, outlandish Chinese artist Ai Weiwei disappeared into police custody in Beijing after he was detained while trying to board a flight for Hong Kong. His creative talents, global following and instinct for publicity have sustained Ai through years of harassment, government-sponsored beatings and the destruction of his studio, while he persistently and courageously critiqued the Chinese government and demanded accountability on behalf of his fellow citizens. But now, even his supporters do not know what has happened to him. Clearly, the Chinese are not free.

The list goes on. In just the last month, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, a blogger in Bahrain died in state custody, Belarus jailed a prominent journalist for a Polish newspaper and journalists in Iraq, Mexico, Libya and Yemen were killed. Meantime, Human Rights Watch issued a report April 6 that accused the Palestinian Authority and Hamas of severely harrassing journalists in the West Bank and Gaza and creating a “pronounced chilling effect on freedom of expression.”

In these and so many other instances, it is the artists, journalists and bloggers who are the ones to challenge authority and expose abuses, to say what needs to be said, to speak for the voiceless — to, in Ai Weiwei’s words, “let the truth out.” Both the theme of Passover and the way it is celebrated implore us to make common cause with these dissidents and truth tellers, and to recognize the extraordinary blessing of our own ability to speak and believe freely.

Moving Forward

We are pleased to announce that Gabrielle Birkner, the Forward’s Web editor for the past two years, has been promoted to the newly created position of director of digital media. In this expanded role, Gabi will oversee the continuing growth of www.forward.com, and the development of new ways to deliver Forward content. Her promotion signals our intention to make the Forward, in print and online, the central and most exciting destination for news, arts coverage, opinion and storytelling in the Jewish world.

And we’ve just learned that the Forward has three finalists in the Deadline Club awards given by the New York City chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Josh Nathan-Kazis is a finalist in news reporting for newspapers under 100,000 circulation for his series “The Cost of Belonging.” Joshua Furst, one of our regular freelancers, is a finalist in arts reporting for his essay on “The Merchant of Venice.” And Jane Eisner is a finalist in opinion writing for her editorials on the proposed mosque near Ground Zero.

The awards will be announced May 16.

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