Opinion |

Passover Propaganda: What Putin’s Ukraine War Tells Us About Freedom and Slavery

Ukrainians are not just fighting Russia’s army, they’re fighting an entire worldview that really isn’t interested in freedom – not just for Ukraine, but for anyone. Not even themselves

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Residents look for belongings in the ruins of an apartment building destroyed by Russian bombardments in Borodyanka, Ukraine
Residents look for belongings in the ruins of an apartment building destroyed by Russian bombardments in Borodyanka, UkraineCredit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

"In Ukraine, we’ve eliminated Covid-19."

That was a remark I heard a lot last month while reporting there on the war. Of course, no one was seriously claiming that was the case, and I know a few people, Ukrainians and foreign journalists, who were laid low by the coronavirus even in recent weeks.

It was more a wry, semi-ironic expression of defiance by members of a nation who are now fighting a much greater and existential threat than the global pandemic and can’t be diverted from the war effort by masking and distancing. After all, everything is relative.

That’s what I thought on Sunday, too, when I woke up with a sore throat, did a home antigen test, and discovered that after two years, I’d succumbed and finally come out positive. My symptoms were about as mild as my amusement; after all, after so many lockdowns and quarantines, what were another five days of isolation?

Only on Wednesday evening when I did another test to exit home isolation, and that came up positive as well, was I really annoyed. I would have to do a full week of isolation. I’m home alone for Seder.

I’ve used this column in the past to express my struggles at finding a meaning in the one annual ritual shared by more Jews than any other. One that I have opted out of on occasion. But this year, I actually did have Seder plans I was looking forward to, and anyway, nothing gives meaning to an event more than being denied from taking part in it.

Ukrainian soldiers walk amid destroyed Russian tanks in Bucha, outside Kyiv, Ukraine, finding brutalized bodies and widespread destruction Credit: AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

But still, everything is relative. I’ll be isolated in my comfortable home in Jerusalem. An Israeli-Ukrainian rabbi I know will be spending his Seder night searching for Jewish soldiers on the frontlines with whom to share some matzos and four cups of wine. If he finds any, he has a whole Festival of Freedom sermon prepared – which I doubt they will have the patience to listen to, because by now they will have spent enough time fighting for Ukraine’s freedom anyway.

But then freedom, like Covid-19, can be relative too. You probably don’t have to explain the value of freedom right now to a Ukrainian soldier, or for that matter to any Ukrainian, after 50 days of war.

They’re not just fighting Russia’s army, they’re fighting an entire mindset, or philosophy, that really isn’t interested in freedom – not just for Ukraine, but for anyone. Not even themselves.

One of more than 100 Jewish refugee children evacuated from a foster care home in Odessa, Ukraine arrive at a hotel in Berlin, having made their way across Europe by busCredit: AP Photo/Steffi Loos

Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin propaganda channel Russia Today, said this week that “No great nation can exist without control over information” and that “They taught us for decades: No no no, society must be free. A developed economy can’t exist without a developed political system or a free political system. All of that is total bullshit. Just look at China. Do you like China’s economy? Do they have any freedom in the political life of their country? In the informational life of the country?”

If you think Ms Simonyan absurd, then at least we should give her the credit for saying clearly that she doesn’t want freedom. Some Israeli politicians won’t even do that. I heard her remarks on Russia state television on Thursday just as on local radio there was a report on the response of ultra-Orthodox politicians to communication minister Yoaz Hendel’s decision to give customers the freedom to transfer their “kosher” mobile phone numbers to “non-kosher” phones.

If you haven’t been following this fracas until now, here’s a very quick summary. “Kosher” phones are those which are approved by a shadowy “rabbinical committee” and have no access to the internet and many other cellular services. They are blocked from calling a long list of numbers that heaven only knows why have brought down the censure of the rabbis (they include helplines for victims of sexual abuse).

To make sure their followers only use kosher phones, the mobile-phone providers agreed to allocate only numbers from specific sequences to “kosher” phones and despite a law allowing all mobile phone users in Israel to “move” their number with them when they change provider, going into effect in 2007, those using “kosher” phones were not allowed to do so. Because the rabbis feared their flock would game the system, owning a “kosher” number while actually using a “non-kosher” phone.

A poster in Jerusalem warning ultra-Orthodox Jews that iPhones are 'impure' and those owning them should leave the communityCredit: Oliver Fitoussi

Hendel this week finally decided to put an end to this. “Kosher” phones, and numbers, will continue to exist, but if anyone decides to take their number and “move” it to a “non-kosher” phone, that will be their prerogative. That’s it, and no more quote-marks for words that are not actual quotes until the end of this column.

The ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their proxies are up in arms. United Torah Judaism chairman Moshe Gafni attacked Hendel calling him a “dictator” and accusing him of “forcing his will upon a large public.” His colleague, Knesset member Uri Maklev described the move as “a devilish and dictatorial attempt to force a different way of life and change the Haredi community.”

Of course, the Haredi community has been deprived of nothing. Everyone is still free to buy whatever phone the rabbis tell them and thus deny themselves of proscribed services and numbers. No-one is being forced to do anything.

Another Haredi lawmaker, in the spirit of the festival, said that if this is Hendel’s “gift to us for Pesach, then we will work to get rid of this evil together with the rest of the chametz.”

It’s interesting we call Pesach the Festival of Freedom, because from reading the Exodus story and the Children of Israel’s 40-year sojourn in the desert before entering the promised land, we are continuously reminded how reluctant they were to leave their bondage in Egypt and, at times, were even eager to return. And that hasn’t changed.

The great biblical scholar Nechama Leibowitz wrote that “Exodus is a continuous act. In every generation man must take himself out of his own Egypt.” We’re still all too content to be enslaved by all manner of dictators, to enslave our minds, and to be persuaded that Freedom Is Slavery.

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