This week, millions of Jews around the world will celebrate the holiday of Passover, commemorating the Jewish exodus from ancient Egypt. At the start of the holiday, we will gather together with family and friends in homes, synagogues and community centers big and small to hold seders (special Passover meals). And as part of this tradition, we are instructed to tell the story of Passover, of the long march from slavery to freedom, not as something that happened to somebody else more than three millennia ago, but as something that is happening to all of us, right now.
Despite this instruction, though, all the stories I remember being told at the seders I attended as a child were all stuck firmly in the past tense. Yet even a cursory look through the latest news headlines today will tell us that the themes of Passover remain incredibly relevant to people living all across the world. With minimal effort, it is possible to tell the stories of Passover as though we are witnessing them today, because we are witnessing them today.
Let's start with the primary theme of the Passover holiday: the escape from bondage. It has been exactly 150 years since Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in the United States, and 65 years since the UN General Assembly unanimously adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 4 of which bans slavery in all its forms.(1) Yet, the UN's International Labour Organization (ILO) estimates that nearly 21 million people are subject to slavery or forced labor today, including 11.4 million women and girls and 9.5 million men and boys.(2) Nearly a quarter of those held in slavery today, or 4.5 million people, are victims of forced sexual exploitation.(3) The ILO, through its End Slavery Now! Campaign, along with a wide range of other actors (including governments, non-government organizations, and actual Hollywood actors), continues to work to raise awareness about the global slave trade, putting pressure on the governments and private entities that continue to tolerate or profit from it.
In its broadest sense, though Passover is also about more than just escape from bondage; it is about freedom, in all its many forms. Certainly, this includes the political freedoms embodied in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, such as freedom of religion (Article 18), freedom of speech (Article 19), and the right to vote (Article 21), basic rights for which millions of people across the world continue to fight and die, including, most recently, in modern-day Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and Syria, among many other countries.(4) Even in the United States, the last of these freedoms was on trial as recently as a few weeks ago, as the U.S. Supreme Court debated whether to continue to uphold the Voting Rights Act, adopted in 1965 to protect the right of minorities to vote in areas with a history of racial discrimination. And this very week, the right to marriage, a freedom enshrined in Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will also be on trial at the U.S. Supreme Court, as the nine justices consider whether the United States should join over a dozen other national governments from all four corners of the globe (including Argentina, Canada, Norway and South Africa), in recognizing the right of same-sex couples to marry.(5)
In addition, as Franklin Roosevelt made clear in his 1941 State of the Union speech, freedom is about more than just civil and political rights -- it is also about freedom from want and freedom from fear. And across the world today, there is certainly a lot of want and a lot of fear. There is want of food (the UN Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that 850 million people, or 15.5 percent of the world's population, are undernourished), and want of toilets (2.5 billion people, one-third of the human population, lack access to adequate sanitation facilities).(6) Yet, there has also been tremendous progress in expanding the rights to food, health, and education enshrined in Articles 25 and 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.(7) In the past two decades, the proportion of people worldwide living in extreme poverty, the proportion without access to clean water, the proportion of children out of school, and the number of children dying before their fifth birthday have all fallen by almost half.(8) We still have much farther to go, however, on achieving freedom from fear. More than 42 million people worldwide remain displaced by armed conflict and violence, with the numbers holding steady for much of the last decade.(9)
Since beginning to post these blogs, I have gotten several comments from people wondering how they can contribute or make a difference in the world of global health, given the enormous scope of the problems today and their own limited resources. There are clearly myriad of different ways to help, but one of the simplest and most powerful remains talking about these issues -- to our friends, our colleagues and our families. Clearly, there are clearly plenty of highly current, highly relevant stories about the struggles for freedoms of all kind to tell (or tweet, as the case may be). If you will be celebrating Passover this year, consider spending a few minutes during your seder telling a modern-day story of the struggle to free people from slavery, or oppression, or hunger, or poverty. And even if you are not Jewish, consider incorporating these stories into your own family and community celebrations -- from Easter to Eid to your own national independence day, there are a host of occasions where it could be both appropriate and right to share a freedom story. Luckily, as difficult as these topics can be to discuss, many of them appear to be having relatively happy endings. While we are still a long way from reaching the Promised Land (with even the Promised Land still a long way from being free of want and fear), continuing to tell these stories is one of the best ways to ensure that we continue marching, as a planet, in the right direction.
Adam Levine is an Assistant Professor of Emergency Medicine at Brown Medical School. He currently serves as the Clinical Advisor for Emergency and Trauma Care for Partners In Health-Rwanda and as a member of the Emergency Response Team for International Medical Corps. His research focuses on improving the delivery of emergency care in low-income countries and during humanitarian emergencies. The views expressed in this blog are his alone and do not necessarily represent the views of any of the organizations mentioned above.
1. United Nations. "Declaration of Human Rights," 1948. Accessed at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a4 on March 22, 2013.
2. International Labour Organization. "Forced Labour: Facts and Figures," 2013. Accessed at http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf on March 22, 2013.
3. International Labour Organization. "Forced Labour: Facts and Figures," 2013. Accessed at http://www.ilo.org/wcmsp5/groups/public/---ed_norm/---declaration/documents/publication/wcms_182004.pdf on March 22, 2013..
4. United Nations. "Declaration of Human Rights," 1948. Accessed at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a4 on March 22, 2013.
5. International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (IGLA). "Marriage and Substitutes to Marriage Map," 2013. Accessed at http://ilga.org/ilga/en/index.html on March 22, 2013.
6. United Nations. "The Millennium Development Goals Report," 2012. Accessed at http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2012/English2012.pdf on March 22, 2013.
7. United Nations. "Declaration of Human Rights," 1948. Accessed at http://www.un.org/en/documents/udhr/index.shtml#a4 on March 22, 2013.
8. United Nations. "The Millennium Development Goals Report," 2012. Accessed at http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2012/English2012.pdf on March 22, 2013.
9. United Nations. "The Millennium Development Goals Report," 2012. Accessed at http://mdgs.un.org/unsd/mdg/Resources/Static/Products/Progress2012/English2012.pdf on March 22, 2013.