Censorship Plagues Passover Freedom: Being Censored by my Fellow Jews Doesn’t Make Me Free This Passover

Being censored by my fellow Jews makes Passover hard to celebrate this year
Being censored by my fellow Jews makes Passover hard to celebrate this year

Being Jewish, I look forward to Passover every year. It’s a time to celebrate our most cherished values and connect with family and community. However, this year, it’s hard to connect because I’ve been feeling disheartened by the lack of free speech within the Jewish community. It’s frustrating to be censored while trying to have important discussions, especially when our foundational history we are celebrating now is supposed to honor our freedom.

Passover is a time to commemorate the liberation of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. It’s a time to reflect on the value of freedom and the importance of speaking out against injustice. Yet, it seems that many Jewish leaders today are not interested in upholding these values when it comes to discussing certain topics.

Recently, when I was solicited for a donation by the Jewish Federation of Omaha, I tried to bring up some controversial issues. The Federation was launching a “Clean Speech” campaign, and I questioned whether Jews should admonish others on how to use “Clean Speech” when Judaism calls for free speech. The Federation’s videos asserted that the prohibition on L’ashon Hara should act as self-imposed censorship.

But ignoring Judaism’s most important principles, especially given the history of censorship at the Jewish Federation of Omaha, I was concerned that it was likely that these videos would  mislead people on what Judaism actually teaches. Further, it just looks condescending for Jews to be seen instructing non-Jews on how to speak. People with traditions other than Judaism already know how to speak kindly to others. 

Moreso, Judaism’s primary tenets are the respectful treatment of opposing viewpoints as espoused by the House of Hillel, not “Clean Speech.” I questioned to what extent these “lessons” were consistent with Jewish doctrine. I raised my concerns in private with Federation leaders and was told that the Clean Speech campaign was not about advocating censorship. But for raising concerns about censorship, I was censored.

In discussing whether the videos accurately represented Jewish values, instead of engaging in a productive conversation, I was ignored and met with hostility. Chad Polikov, another former Federation volunteer, and I, were banned from all of the social media pages of the Federation. My requests for a freedom of speech policy and a fairness appeal process have been ignored. If the Federation is willing to censor rabbis, lawyers, and former volunteers, who won’t they censor? Apparently our views are simply unwanted, permanently. We are truly persona non grata. 

This was very disturbing that a Jewish organization would censor former volunteers having a legitimate discussion. Debating how to represent Jewish values to the larger community is an important discussion that will still take place even if the conversation isn’t welcome within the Omaha Federation. I don’t fully understand the desire to censor others, especially fellow Jews. Do censors believe that they can stop a conversation from happening altogether, or do they recognize that the conversation will just continue elsewhere?

We must work towards a day where community organizations like the Federation that are supposed  to be open to the entire community will value the opinions of all Jews and denounce censorship.

Unfortunately, the trend is going in the wrong direction. About a year ago, Rabbi Richard Green and my father, Gary Javitch, were arbitrarily prohibited from speaking at the Omaha JCC by Federation “leaders.” I started speaking out against censorship and have suffered the consequences. Now, two more names can be added to the list of Jewish people that the Federation believes have “illegitimate” viewpoints.

If my ideas are unwanted, it is only fair to stop soliciting me. After being censored, I asked not to be solicited again by the Omaha Federation (I moved away from Omaha 11 years ago). In response, I was personally attacked, told that I was being divisive, and that I should just support the Federation even if they didn’t listen to my ideas. But how can we truly celebrate freedom as Jews if we are not free to speak our minds and engage in important discussions? Isn’t the whole point of Passover to remember our liberation from oppression and to ensure that we never become oppressors ourselves?

The act of censoring someone’s speech goes against the very principles of Judaism. The Talmud teaches us to listen to opposing viewpoints and to engage in debate with others. The school of Hillel prevailed over Shammai because they were modest and respected opposing viewpoints. They allowed Shammai to make their arguments first. The school of Hillel believed in argument for the sake of truth. It’s only through dialogue and disagreement that we can arrive at a greater understanding of the world around us.

This Passover, I feel that my freedom to speak my mind and engage in important discussions has been compromised. It’s a disheartening feeling to be censored by my fellow Jews, especially during a holiday that is meant to celebrate freedom. I hope that in the future, we can work to create a more open and accepting Jewish community, one that values free speech and the exchange of ideas.

Mark L. Javitch, Esq. is a former volunteer for the Jewish Federation of Omaha and is now a Class Action Attorney in San Mateo, California, where he litigates against illegal robocalling and HP’s updates that disable competing printer cartridges. He writes about freedom of speech in the Jewish Community and the fight against Antisemitism. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.

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