Eyewitness to Slavery and Freedom

Tale of Passover Relived at This Year's Seder Table

By Leonard Fein

Published April 14, 2012, issue of April 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

At our Seder, before we tackle the Haggadah itself, there are words — they change each year — that are intended to frame the proceedings. Here were some of this year’s introductory words:

Any serious consideration of the freedom we celebrate at the Seder table is inherently political (as, obviously, was our rebellion against Pharaoh). Specifically, what does it mean to celebrate freedom when millions of our neighbors are unemployed, when millions of them have been jobless for more than six months, when millions more are working part time either because they’ve not been able to find a full-time job or because their hours have been cut back — when, in summary, some 25 million of us (note, please, of us, not of them) are either unemployed or underemployed?

There are so very many ways to underscore the ongoing assaults on human dignity around the world and here at home. (We could note even the most recent assault by the U.S. Supreme Court when it decided by a 5 to 4 vote that anyone arrested for an alleged crime, no matter how trivial, may legally be subjected to a strip search.) We could hear from several of those around this table whose work, day-in, day-out, is the work of human rights. Or we could describe the ongoing carnage in Syria or in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the drug-related murders in Mexico or the continuing indifference to human rights in a score of other places around our world. If we chose to call attention to only the most blatant of these, our Seder would last well past midnight, comprise a heartbreaking and morale busting litany of insult and injury, of terror and torture.

But tonight, we have here one person whose own personal story is intertwined with the story of human suffering, of a world turned upside down. So we’ve asked Dr. Mohammed Ahmed Eisa, now employed by Physicians for Human Rights, to tell us about his own experiences in Sudan, where, after 15 years of work as a professor of medicine and a treating physician, the advent of the war in 2000 led him to devote himself to victims of torture and sexual violence. In 2004, he helped create the Amel Center for Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture in Nyala, serving as its medical director until 2009.

Mohammed — for that, by evening’s end, was what all 32 of us called him — spoke for less than 10 minutes; rarely have I witnessed such rapt attention. For what we heard was not only the story of his clinic and its work, but more of his own background: of what it was like to attend an elementary school a three-day walk from home; to attend a high school a five-day walk away; to be not only the first in his family to graduate from high school but also the first in his region to attend university and then to become a physician. In 2007, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights recognized his work at the Amel Center with its RFK Human Rights Award; in 2009, while he was in the United States for an RFK Center event, the International Criminal Court issued a warrant for the arrest of Sudan’s president and the Sudanese government disbanded the Amel Center. Eisa chose to remain in the United States, where he sought and was granted asylum.

He works now in Cambridge, Mass., separated these past three years from his wife and his eight children, who remain in Sudan. He documents, advocates and champions an end to criminal violence, and especially to torture and to sexual violence. In early April, the journal PLoS Medicine featured a peer-review study, led by PHR and coauthored by Eisa, providing detailed forensic evidence of widespread torture and other human rights violations by the government of Sudan and the notorious Janjaweed.

Mostly, though, Eisa spoke of his faith in God and of the inspiration he drew and draws from the story of the Exodus, a story he knows thoroughly, a story that has enabled him, despite the misery he has witnessed, to remain a man of hope.

Much of Seder time is devoted to making slavery real, to ensuring that all of us see ourselves, our very selves, as having passed from slavery to freedom. This we accomplish, when we do, through a fierce act of imagination. Yet even when we seek not only to go back in time but to bring slavery in all its forms forward, to our own time, we deal mostly in abstractions. It helps to be able, as this Pesach we were, to break matzo with a flesh and blood eyewitness to both slavery and freedom. It enlarges us.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • Why does ultra-Orthodox group Agudath Israel of America receive its largest donation from the majority owners of Walmart? Find out here: http://jd.fo/q4XfI
  • Woody Allen on the situation in #Gaza: It's “a terrible, tragic thing. Innocent lives are lost left and right, and it’s a horrible situation that eventually has to right itself.”
  • "Mark your calendars: It was on Sunday, July 20, that the momentum turned against Israel." J.J. Goldberg's latest analysis on Israel's ground operation in Gaza:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.