I am still struggling to write a coherent post about the slaughter of Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged in Georgia; the death of British railway worker Belly Mujinga from COVID-19 after being spat at by someone who [claimed he] had the virus; and the sense of entitlement, fear, and intimidation that runs through the stories of their deaths, intersects with armed protesters in the Michigan statehouse, and is an essential part of systems of enslavement everywhere and at all times.
In the meantime I share this quotation from the current week’s Torah portion:
וּקְרָאתֶ֥ם דְּר֛וֹר בָּאָ֖רֶץ לְכָל־יֹשְׁבֶ֑יהָ Uk’ratem dror ba-arets l’khol yosh-veha
famously inscribed on the Pennsylvania State House bell (now known as the Liberty Bell) as “Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land Unto All the Inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10) In its original context it referred to the Jubilee (yovel) year, an every-fifty-year occurrence in which people who were indentured (usually translated as ‘enslaved,’ but it was a far different system than in pre-Civil-War US) were freed, and concurrently land was re-apportioned among families so the newly-emancipated people had a basis for livelihood.
“Your personal liberty to swing your arm ends where my nose begins.”
(A history of the usage and attribution of this quote may be found here.)
The following photo was posted on Reddit on May 13, 2020. I reposted it a couple of days later when it appeared on Facebook, with the comment:
If liberty (or freedom) is to be shared among all the inhabitants of the land, nobody’s liberty can be boundless. And yet…
While looking up details about the Liberty Bell, I learned that this sign is a paraphrase of words attributed to Ben Franklin:
“Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Apparently no one who commented on my post recognized the origins of the sign any more than I did. One can imagine this quote being a basic tenet in some circles with the best of intentions. It has been adopted by groups that oppose the growth of government surveillance. But the application in this photo is fringe, appalling, and utterly lacking compassion. Under *no* circumstances should anyone’s physical health and survival be called “a little temporary safety”! Especially when it’s someone else’s safety and survival that one is denigrating, not one’s own.
But if you look at the 18th-century letter in which the quotation appears, these words are neither original to Ben Franklin, nor do they mean anything remotely like the unfettered freedom this sign claims for its holders. Franklin was writing about an earlier letter in which the statement was quoted by the Pennsylvania Assembly, as it feuded with the governor over sufficient funds to properly provision the army, maintain roads, etc. The governor, apparently under pressure from wealthy landowners, blocked them at every turn.
The politics of fear is not new
Will we never learn?
But I can’t end on that note. Including a nechemta, a comfort, is a tradition of Jewish leaders going back 2,000 years or more. Franklin’s words are reassuring as well as disquieting: We’ve survived fear-mongering top leadership before.
And let’s finish with Ella’s Song, which has been playing in my mind for days: