Professor Gerald M. Steinberg

Why this year is different

Gerald M. Steinberg

Jerusalem Post

Apr. 18, 2003

As we were reminded just days ago, the story of Pessah is reenacted every year, as if each person was leaving Egypt and embarking on the dramatic march from slavery to freedom. The narrative begins with the descent into suffering and bondage, and ends (usually many hours later) with the triumphal pledge to rebuild Jerusalem "next year."

In the good years and the more comfortable and secure communities, the effort to identity with the feelings of slaves who are suddenly freed to run their own lives can be very challenging. And in the eras of persecution, hatred and terrorism from latter-day Pharaohs, the hope of freedom is hard to sustain when compared with the bitter realities of daily life.

This year, the celebration of freedom, not only for ourselves, but also for the Iraqi people, requires less imagination than usual. In the past 13 months (a leap year in the Jewish calendar), we have gone though the full cycle; from despair to the triumphal embrace of freedom. Last year's Pessah Seder was one of the most difficult since the creation of the State of Israel and the revival of Jewish sovereignty following the horrors of the Holocaust. With Palestinian terror attacks an almost daily occurrence, we kept our children off the buses and near home. Shopping trips were planned carefully, with a quick dash through the shelves to minimize the risk.

The Seder night massacre in Netanya, in which 29 people were murdered, and many more were badly injured, marked the lowest and deadliest point of Arafat's war, and it seemed that we were powerless to stop the killing. Whenever the government and IDF tried to move against the terror networks in Palestinian cities, the international community including the axis of evil Israel-bashing journalists, European and UN diplomats, pro-terrorist human rights guardians, and academics accused us of war crimes. Last year, as we repeated the traditional words "Now, we are slaves; but next year, we will be free people," the optimism was forced through the pain.

But Pessah one year ago also marked the first step of our liberation from Palestinian terror, beginning with Operation Defensive Shield. We are still not entirely free from this form of slavery, and the efforts of suicide bombers continue, but their capabilities are a fraction of what they were a year ago.

We mourn the hundreds of victims who lost their lives, but Israelis no longer live in constant dread of the next bomb, the ambulance sirens, and the horror of dead children.

Arafat is isolated and entirely irrelevant (except to some old European leaders, who continue to demonstrate how little they understand or care). Even with the periodic reminders that Palestinian terrorism has yet to be totally defeated, Israelis are riding the busses and going out for coffee with renewed self-confidence in our ability to survive and prosper as a free nation.

In addition, in this extraordinary year, Israelis are celebrating the fall of Saddam Hussein and the American-led destruction of this particularly evil regime. For 12 years, we lived with the constant threat from Iraqi chemical and biological weapons, while most of the world continued to buy his oil and help him buy more weapons.

In the past few months, as the buildup towards war proceeded, we had to face the prospect of mass murder from the threat of an Iraqi revenge attack against Israel. The gas masks came down from their storage places, the sealed rooms went back up, and Israelis hoped that this time the American, British and Australian forces in western Iraq would find and destroy the Scud missiles before they were launched. Just in case, emergency plans were drawn up to turn football fields and parks into mass burial areas.

These threats have been largely removed, and Saddam, who once threatened to use his weapons of mass destruction to burn "half of Israel" has disappeared. His tanks and artillery, as well as the thousands of suicide bombers from throughout the Middle East who flocked to join him, have been destroyed in the modern equivalent of the drowning of Pharaoh's army of chariots in the Red Sea. The Iraqi people are beginning to cope with the uncertainties and responsibilities of the transition from slavery to freedom, and some will no doubt repeat the cry of the Jews in the desert 4,000 years ago, who cried for the cucumbers and fish that they received as slaves.

The requirements of liberty will take some getting used to, but they finally have the opportunity to understand that the rewards are well worth the investment.

As for the Syrians, Palestinians, Egyptians, and Iranians, whose lives are caught in a cycle of political and economic slavery under tyrannical regimes, the potential to become free peoples controlling their own lives has also become more visible. To grasp the new opportunities, they must turn from decades of intense hostility and violence directed at Israel, the US and West, and convert these energies toward positive and productive directions. Hatred and terrorism are the hallmarks of slavery, and are incompatible with freedom.

Next year in Jerusalem, may we celebrate their liberation from tyranny, along with ours.