Among the fundamental rights protected in a just society is the freedom of religion. Americans sense that this right was new when it was entrenched in the Bill of Rights. Numerous sources assert older universality of it. It was already prevalent in ancient times. Ancient Romans created Pax Romana. That empire’s approach to peace featured limited freedom for communities it absorbed, including freedom of religion. Sadly local procurators were not as devoted to the principal as the central administration in Rom. They did not follow the lead approved by the Senate. Even earlier, Macedonians worshipped the Greek pantheon with gods abundant. They lent limited respect to local beliefs. The Talmud reports that when Alexander the Great approached Jerusalem, the high priest dressed in the golden vestments normally reserved for Yom Kippur and successfully argued that the Jews should be allowed to observe their Jewish ways. Receiving the response he sought, in appreciation, all Jewish boys born in the following year were named Alexander. Earlier yet in biblical times, Persians supported the religious practices of the empire’s many nations. Nehemiah, cupbearer to the emperor, was sent to Jerusalem to take charge of local needs. Emperors Cyrus and Darius are remembered in Jewish history because they underwrote the building of the Second Temple.
Respect for religions signals respect for basic rights of citizens to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Even the former Soviet Union featured freedom of religion in its constitution. The presence of that article made little difference to the lives of people there. The law was observed in the breach. Personal freedoms were never a mainstay of Soviet life.
Today President Vladimir Putin, a former KGB colonel, seems to be behind efforts to conquer the Ukraine. In a news conference he protested that there were no Russian troops in Ukraine, although they could be seen there on our television screens, fully armed and uniformed. As he has expanded Russia into Georgia and Moldova in past years, he is now centering efforts on the Ukraine. Jews in south eastern Ukraine have already borne the brunt of Russian contempt for human rights. In the first days of the putsch, as reported in the Haaretz newspaper, a synagogue in Zaporizhia was desecrated with Molotov cocktails.
It is hard to know what the future will bear. The American administration makes empty demands that the Russians should stop their aggression. The threats are not backed with substance. The administration has done next to nothing since identifying the use of chemical weapons in Syria. It seems to be ignoring people’s protests ongoing in Venezuela. It is difficult to know what to expect of American foreign policy regarding the Ukraine. Cancelling a meeting to plan a G8 conference in Sochi, the only firm step already announced, hardly seems ample.
Be that as it may, and as critical as the days ahead may be for Europe, Ukraine, Russia and the United States rather than focus on international politics, it might be more prudent to concentrate on the impact of the Russian invasion on the people of the Ukraine, particularly its Jewish community.
Jews in high school during the sixties and seventies well remember the plethora of protests staged by the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry. They protested that Jews were not permitted to observe their Judaism openly and were denied the ability to leave Russia for freedom in Israel or the West. Putin is heir to leaders who denied Jews their freedom then, and he cannot be permitted to do it again in the Ukraine.
So let’s call on our government to act. Let’s be clear. As Americans we cherish the rights of all citizens of our planet. As Americans we stand for everyone’s right to live freely. Jews must demand that America work with other democracies to stop Putin’s belligerent advances. It is too often Jews who are the first ethnic group to suffer, and that is already happening again. It has to be stopped.
Freedom of religion is the most powerful symbol of personal rights. If it was good enough for the ancients, it certainly must be protected today.