How Free is Free? Reflections on Toulouse, Sanford and Israel


Next weekend the holiday of Passover begins. For Jews, it is a celebration of freedom from bondage, the acceptance of God’s law and the beginning of the reign of the nation of Israel. It is one of the happy holidays where wine and song mark the week-long festivities. Yet, set to the backdrop of the murders in Toulouse, France last week, and the barrage of bombs falling from Gaza into Israel, as the four cups are drunk and the passage, “We were slaves to Pharaoh, now we are free” (Avadim Hayinu), is read, Jews should stop and reflect about how free they really are.

Freedom from the bondage of servitude, but not so free that children can attend school feeling safe. When the Islamic radical Mohamed Merah shot those children and a rabbi at school, he not only snuffed out precious lives, but he instilled fear in every Jewish child that it could easily be them. Schools as far away from France as New York and California were holding seminars for parents to explain the measures they would take to keep their children safe from harm. Freedom?

Two days before the freedom is celebrated on Passover this year, on April 4 everyone in this country should take a moment to reflect on the anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King, Jr., killed in 1964 for believing in freedom, fighting for equality and challenging the fearful to embrace change. It is significant that these events fall out so close to one another, but almost fitting as we are all suffering the tragedy of the death of a young black man in Florida in what may have been a racially induced confrontation.

We cannot yet know what happened that day in Sanford, Florida, last February, but we can safely say that Treyvon Martin, the 17 year old boy, stirred an emotional reaction within George Zimmerman, his killer. Whether Mr. Martin did something to incite, or Mr. Zimmerman over reacted to the appearance of a black man in a hoodie, we may never really know, but it demonstrated how suspicion and fear drove events that day.

Approaching the day Dr. King was killed Americans should be unsettled at how far we still need to come, as the black community questions just how free they are as well. Just as the Jewish parents in Toulouse are nervous for their kids walking to school, black parents will wonder if their kids can get from a store back home without incident. The world has certainly come far, yet we still have a significant way to go.

The death of Treyvon Martin is certainly unsettling for so many reasons. The ostensibly poorly designed “Stand your Ground” legislation which may have made it too easy to kill someone who frightens you is certainly a place to start. How many of us feel scared by people we see on the streets from time to time? The Florida law may have helped Mr. Zimmerman yield reason to capriciousness. The incident began because Mr. Martin struck the neighborhood watchman as suspicious because of his skin color and choice of clothes – prompting the Reverend Al Sharpton to coin the catchy phrase, “Hoodies, Not Hoodlums.”

Jews relate to being viewed with suspicion and targeted for who they are; the murders in France are the most recent examples. The rockets in Gaza, the threats from Iran and the inability of the Palestinians to step up for peace with Israel all further drive the point that Jews recognize that there are people who see their presence as a threat or a nuisance.

There is yet another familiar tone to the death of Mr. Martin. It is one that Israelis know all too well, and that is the massive force building up against the man who pulled the trigger. If accounts of the events according to Mr. Zimmerman’s attorney are factual, than Mr. Zimmerman acted within the law. Following a brief investigation, the police chose not to charge him with a crime. That is not stopping those who feel an injustice occurred from building a nationwide movement devoted to seeing Mr. Zimmerman charged with a crime.

When the United Nations human rights committee accuse Israel of mistreatment of women and intentionally ignore the real abuse of women in the very Arab countries that voted against Israel, we see a steamroller flattening any chance of reasonable debate. Israelis know all too well the phenomenon of being accused of crimes not just absent fact, but purposely ignorant of such. When terrorists launch attacks from among crowds of women and children, Israelis are blamed for wantonly targeting innocents and liberal media and Israel’s opponent beat the drum for prejudiced justice, disregarding the undeniable facts.

It was not long ago that international rallies convened in condemnation of Israel for an invented massacre in Jenin. Then, media, activists, and world leaders all declared Israelis murderers, and used it as the pretext for Israeli concessions and punishment. Israelis felt helpless and alone, and nothing they said or did mattered. The narrative was spun, the hoards passed judgment anchored in emotion and bias, and when an investigation finally exposed the fraud, the story was buried in the papers and the rallying cries never turned to apology.

The incidents are not the same, and the facts will hopefully reveal the truth, yet the anger and frustrations will linger no matter what. The lessons from Florida, Toulouse and Israel for Jews and black communities have correlations of uneasy freedoms, anxious enemies and long roads still to travel. As Passover approaches, maybe Jews can appreciate that while they may be alone in their ageless battle for freedom from persecution; they are not alone in the quest for elusive freedom.

It remains a worthy challenge, and a noble fight.

Juda Engelmayer is an executive at the NY PR Agency, 5W Public Relations