Motherhood in Hebrew, Apple Pie in Greek
There’s an old story about an archaeological team in Greece that discovered copper wire at a dig near Athens. The next day, the Greek government announced that the find proved their ancient forebears had invented the telegraph. Not to be outdone, the Israeli government announced that a dig in Jerusalem had uncovered no copper wire, proving that our distant ancestors had wireless communication.
If the rivalry of two old civilizations produces good-natured jokes, it is also built on great contributions so embedded in human consciousness that many people are unaware of their provenance. We tend, for example, to think of freedom and democracy as inseparable. It’s an easy conclusion to draw, since each is a base of support for the other. Perhaps a more nuanced explanation would be that they are twins from the same Mediterranean neighborhood, born about 800 years apart.
Freedom may be an inherently human impulse, but the inspiration for peoples and nations around the world can be traced to the Exodus from Egypt. Our slave ancestors yearned for freedom in their own land. The story we retell every year on Passover is not only the foundation of Jewish history but also of Christian civilization.
Ancient Israel was not democratic by today’s standards, but it contained several of the pillars of democracy, such as the rule of law and legal equality. Modern education, another pillar of democracy, can be likewise traced to the Torah and ancient Israel.
If Jewish civilization is one of the sources of democracy, the actual practice began in Athens around 500 BCE. You might say the Athenians took democracy to extremes: Ordinary citizens were randomly selected to fill government and judicial posts. All citizens belonged to the legislative assembly. Trial juries had anywhere from 200 to 6,000 members.
For much of human history, of course, freedom and democracy have been denied by dictators and despotic regimes. But as dysfunctional as the world may seem today, there’s no question that in the past two generations these highest impulses of human existence have been advancing.
Democracy in modern Israel has two important foundation stones. One was the First Zionist Congress—a prototype for the Jewish state—convened in parliamentary fashion by Theodor Herzl in 1897. Successive Zionist Congresses became steadily more inclusive. Whereas the British parliament took centuries to seat its first woman member, women began voting in Zionist congresses after just one year.
The second foundation of modern Israeli democracy was the influx of Jews from a variety of dictatorships and feudal monarchies. No one cherishes freedom and democracy more than those most recently oppressed. And it should surprise no one that the United States—another immigrant-built democracy—became the first nation to recognize Israel’s independence and its staunchest ally.
As I’ve noted, many beneficiaries today may be unaware of the sources of their freedom and democracy—as if they were artifacts that had to be dug up. But nations unmoored from history can get lost. Jewish tradition enjoins us to remember our story of going from slavery to freedom. No ritual is so central to our identity as a people, so crucial in teaching compassion for those denied their rights, or so rich a part of family tradition as reading the Haggadah at Passover.
Celebrating the origins of freedom and democracy is good for the world and especially good for the nations that gave them to the humanity. If you look around the Mediterranean today, much has changed in the last 2,500 years. But Israel and Greece, two nations that valued their history and succeeded in restoring sovereignty after centuries without independence, are still fixtures on the map.
Throughout the ages, many Seders were held in secret, with voices muffled, lights dim and windows shut. The openness and variety of Passover celebrations today are part of the Jewish renaissance that has accompanied the development of modern Israel and the advance of freedom in the world. “All who are hungry, let them come and eat,” we read—meaning the festivities are not only for Jews. Every year, we pay forward the birth of freedom by telling our story.
A happy, healthy and free Passover to us all.