Columns

Jeremy Feigenbaum ’11: The Passover story

By
Opinions Columnist
Wednesday, April 15, 2009

For most Jews, Passover provides an opportunity to spend time with friends and family — and to grumble about how much they miss eating bread. But Passover also provides important lessons for modern Jews and non-Jews alike about the freedoms they enjoy.
Jews are not just required to remember that their ancestors were slaves in Egypt, they must also see themselves as if they were those slaves. In doing so this year, I’ve been thinking about the freedoms that Brown students hold dear. Passover helped me realize that I rarely take the time to appreciate the choices I am offered each day, both the superficial and the truly essential.

Although I could survive without it, I have the freedom to chart my own academic path. A prospective student visited this week and asked me why I loved the New Curriculum. Answering helped me to realize that, in addition to the trust Brown places in me, I love that everyone in my classes wants to learn about the subject. And I was able to explore a new interest, environmental studies, which I might not have done if I had been forced to take a math class, for example, as a core requirement.

The chance to take courses Satisfactory/No Credit is an essential part of this freedom. When I hear students claim that the option is silly, and that graduate schools do not want prospective students to take a class S/NC, I shake my head. Just as I had the freedom to take ECON0110: Principles of Economics S/NC, because I was nervous about taking five classes for the first time, they had the freedom not to.

Brown students, hailing primarily from the United States, also enjoy important political freedoms. Most clearly, students actively participated in the 2008 elections by voting and making calls to voters across the nation. By contrast, in some authoritarian states student political organizations are virtually non-existent. Students don’t even have the chance to affiliate with the opposition. I am a Democrat, but I think this campus is more vibrant for having groups like the Brown Republicans and journals like the Brown Spectator.
For anyone reading this article right now, freedom of the press should be obvious. I am allowed to write this op-ed, and others about recycling, gay rights and female leaders, without having to fear that Joe Biden will show up in Caswell and whisk me away in the middle of the night.

And many at Brown live a life free from real need. Students sometimes complain about gaining weight because food is always available. I am no exception. Yet we are not forced to eat Ratty food — we can refill our plates to our hearts’ content, but we don’t have to. Many across this city, state, nation and globe would envy that choice.

I am not writing this column to make students feel guilty about the freedoms that they enjoy. But this community must recognize that these are freedoms that many do not share. Since Brown students are so blessed, it is our responsibility to bring freedom to others.

Hu Jia, a Chinese human rights activist, has protested environmental degradation in China along with attempts to cover up the AIDS crisis there. In December 2007, the Chinese government detained him for “incitement to subvert state power.” His wife was placed under surveillance.

Try to imagine the FBI storming into Wilson on a Sunday night, interrupting the weekly emPOWER meeting and arresting the attendees. We take freedom for granted, so we forget to help others fight for theirs. While human rights should not be our only foreign policy concern, we should insist that our leaders fight for activists like Hu, who simply want to attain our everyday freedoms.

The story of Shauna Newell might hit closer to home. She was kidnapped in Florida, raped and, although she was saved, was about to be sold to a man in Texas. She was a victim of a human trafficking network. During the past few elections, this issue has been neglected, and few are aware of its prevalence. Brown students should fight for these women and inform others that slavery, specifically sex slavery, is alive and well in this home of the free and the brave.

It is not enough to simply recognize that these events occur. As Jews do during the first two nights of Passover, everybody must see themselves as slaves — a difficult but necessary task given the freedoms and comforts we enjoy. Without putting ourselves in the shoes of those who live in authoritarian countries or who are enslaved in the United States, we can never truly dedicate ourselves to helping them.

Jeremy Feigenbaum ’11 is a political science concentrator from Teaneck, New Jersey. He can be reached at Jeremy_Feigenbaum@brown.edu.