Martha Cohen

Wanting To Be Free

Spartacus: All men lose when they die and all men die. But a slave and a free man lose different things.                                              Tigranes Levantus: They both lose life.                                  Spartacus: When a free man dies, he loses the pleasure of life. A slave loses his pain. Death is the only freedom a slave knows. That’s why he’s not afraid of it. That’s why we’ll win.”                        —“Spartacus” (1960)

Viewers who have seen “Spartacus,” the movie produced by and starring Kirk Douglas, know that the slaves fought hard but ultimately lost the battle against the Roman Republic. Thousands of slaves were crucified along the road, according to the movie. The battles and carnage were not manufactured in Hollywood but instead based on the real Spartacus, who led an unsuccessful slave rebellion in the Third Servile War (73-71 BCE).

The premiere of “Spartacus” led to renewed freedom for its writer, the immensely talented Dalton Trumbo, who had worked under a pseudonym since being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Trumbo finally would see his own name listed in a film’s opening credits again. Kirk Douglas was told that his career would be over if he used a blacklisted writer openly. He did it anyway. That same year, Otto Preminger also would credit Trumbo for the film “Exodus.” The blacklist was broken.

Not only Trumbo but many other artists as well now would be free to work and live their lives as they wished.

It is interesting that both Preminger and Douglas were Jews. Could the paramount importance of freedom imparted in the Exodus have had some part in their willingness to risk their own careers?

How many people are blessed to be free, to live as they want, and to be able to speak out as they wish? Sounds pretty simple, right? Unfortunately, we live in a time in which so many are not free, whether because they are ruled by a tyrannical government or because they are held captive.

Thus, on this holiday I am especially grateful for being born an American Jew, as both of these identities are steeped in the love of freedom and the primal need for liberty. However, I am ever cognizant of the fact that freedom usually involves conflict because too many people want to oppress others. Perhaps Passover is the time for us to look beyond our own story and begin to take action to help those that are being silenced through imprisonment, torture or other forms of repression.

Yes, Syria is a focal point, but painfully, there are countless other people who also need our support.

Why don’t we begin with an American, Robert Levinson? In February 2016, the Senate passed a resolution that recognized him as the longest-held American hostage and demanded that Iran release him. Levinson disappeared in March 2007, after traveling to Kish Island in Iran. He is believed to be in Iranian hands, but the country’s leaders deny knowledge of his very existence. That is an interesting assertion, because we now know that Iran has tried to use his possible release for concessions from the United States. Many people believe that Levinson’s release should have been part of the negotiations over the Iran deal, negotiations that led to other American hostages being freed — but not Bob.

The FBI now has a reward for Levinson’s rescue — it’s set at $5 million — and his family recently filed suit against Iran under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. To keep updated, add @Help Bob Levinson to your twitter account and call your representatives regularly to ask what they are doing to bring Bob home. Stand up against any American money being sent to Iran, and against U.S. businesses making deals like the one being reviewed now with Boeing. Bob’s life should be worth more than filling any company’s coffers.

And what about Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the peaceful Patriotic Union of Cuba? Jose spent years in Castro’s prisons just for speaking out about the Castros’ repressive government. Recently, he was detained for more than 24 hours. According to 14ymedio, Cuba’s first independent digital media outlet, Ferrer said, “I spent more than six hours in an office with a guard. Then they put me in a cell where you could have filmed a horror movie for the amount of blood on the walls of someone who had been cut.” Ferrer was just one person who was arrested that night. In fact, he said that “from November 2015 to date, there have been more than 140” raids of the homes of members of the organization. The confiscation of personal belongings ranged from aspirin to computers and hard drives. According to many dissidents, the repression has only increased since the softening of Cuba’s relations with the United States.

And too many times arrests have been fatal. This past February, Afro-Cuban Hamell Santiago Mas Hernandez, a healthy 45-year-old member of the Patriotic Union, died less than a year after he was sent to one of the most brutal Cuban prisons. According to the Wall Street Journal’s Mary Anastasia O’Grady, “His real crime was advocating for a free Cuba while black. There are few more lethal combinations. The black Cuban is supposed to show gratitude to the revolution to sustain the myth that he has been elevated by communism. The grim reality is the opposite, but heaven help those who dare to say so.”

Tragically, there are too many stories to tell about the violence against Cubans to report here — but Google our own Senator Menendez’s speeches on the state of human rights in the island paradise, especially since the warming of relations between our two nations. Or listen to Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen talk about reversing President Obama’s post November election termination of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy that enabled Cubans who touched U.S. soil to stay here. With oppression only increasing since our upgrade of relations with Cuba, shouldn’t we consider changing course before too many businesses become part of the Raul Castro social suppression machine?

And there are too many others, from Venezuela to China, who are imprisoned, impoverished, and murdered for the sin of wanting liberty. The famous, erudite writer Lillian Hellman, who also was blacklisted during the McCarthy era, said, “For every man who lives without freedom, the rest of us must face the guilt.” I don’t think we need to be guilty, but we must be aware of both the individuals and the nature of the governments they live under. Fake news to the contrary, not all governments are the same, and if we believe in the sanctity of each human life and their right to be free, then we must demand that news covers these stories regularly. Making sure that our government leaders always demand a visit with dissidents during official visits to those nations that incarcerate political prisoners should be standard procedure. There’s more to be done, but this would be a good start.

Moses was talking about the Jewish people when he said, “Let my people go.” In recent years, we and our fellow Americans, with leaders like Senators Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, and Representative Charles Vanik, internalized this battle cry when we fought to open the gates so Russian Jews could leave the Soviet Union. Wouldn’t it be something if we repeated this by fighting relentlessly for all those who are suffering, because they just want to be free? Somehow, I think Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger would agree.

About the Author
Martha Cohen is an award winning producer and creative executive. She is a Berrie Fellow and currently sits on the JFNNJ JCRC and StandWithUs East Coast Boards. She chaired the JFNNJ Partnership2Gether when the Young Leadership program was developed and executed; and, continues to be closely involved. Martha and her husband David live in Fort Lee with their son, Harry.
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