The Four Freedoms: A Report Card 70 Years Later

Everyone (not just Americans) ought to read President Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. Pearl Harbor was almost a year away, but foreseeing the eventual need to confront tyranny, Roosevelt virtually predicted why we would go to war: to preserve our essential four freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. These he called America’s true arsenal.

It’s 2011, the 70th anniversary year of Roosevelt’s address. How are the four freedoms faring — for Americans and for Jews?

Americans would have to say that the two freedom’s “of” are doing well. Both freedom of speech and freedom of worship remain sacrosanct. The press remains free, and (so far anyway) we have steadfastly retained separation of church and state. Give them both an A on America’s Freedom Report Card.

The “freedoms from,” however, have suffered. Freedom from fear took a blow on 9/11, not just because we were attacked from without, but because the government sanctioned secret arrest and torture within. We deserved an F for that, but are working our way back to an A again.

Freedom from want is another matter. At the moment, the top 1% of the population owns as much as the lowest 90%. Minorities suffer particularly. According to the July 26 Pew Study, “The median wealth of white households is 20 times that of black households and 18 times that of Hispanic households…. the largest since the government began publishing such data a quarter century ago and roughly twice the size of the ratios that had prevailed between these three groups for the two decades prior to the Great Recession that ended in 2009.”

Not that most Americans think that recession has ended! Our current quarterly growth rate is only 1.3%! Yet Congress steadfastly thinks the problem is we spend too much (!) on the elderly and the poor. Fiscally speaking, I am a moderate, but even I find it hard to believe that our leaders care very much about very many. The economic revival gets a B-; the national ethos of increasing greed and mean-spiritedness gives us an F.

I say this not to carp. America remains a magnificent country. We are privileged to live in it. As a Jew (especially), I am grateful beyond words. I just wish everyone had enough to eat.

Roosevelt’s four freedoms apply universally–they are minimum demands of a free society.  American Jews, therefore, have our own report card to consider. Our pattern is just the opposite of America’s. The “Freedom froms” get passing grades, but we fail the “freedom tos.”

Thanks largely to Federation, to which we are accustomed to giving generously, the Jewish poor have freedom from want; and because American anti-Semitism is minimal, we have freedom from fear as well. But we deserve no A for freedom of speech and freedom of worship.

As to freedom of speech, critique of Jewish sacred cows is not easily tolerated among us.  The ultra right wing has a stranglehold on Israeli politics; we are constantly defending ourselves from having our rights cut off by governmental fiat. We should be headlining our opposition to proposed bills in the Knesset that deprive women of their rights and make second-class citizens out of Jews who are not Orthodox enough for the extremists. Yet we barely utter a word. Rampant anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Israel sentiment makes us wary of speaking out in public, perhaps. But how ironic! We finally live in a country that guarantees freedom of speech and then restrict our own free speech when it comes to Jewish matters!

Freedom of Jewish worship doesn’t do much better, but for different reasons. Here, we suffer from idolatry of authenticity. Enamored of some imagined sacred ideal of the past, we have forgotten how to experiment with Jewish worship in ways that restore its spiritual vigor. Each movement has its own challenges here, but except for the minority of people who have mastered the prayer book and the accepted ways to get through it, Jewish worship can be baffling and forbidding at best, exclusive and irrelevant at worst. We need to give ourselves the freedom to become revolutionary in our insistence that prayer can matter once again.

American security, Roosevelt insisted, in his 1941 address, would come only if “those who build our defenses” enjoy “an unshakable belief in the manner of life which they are defending.” That goes for Americans and for Jews. Standing firmly, openly, and vociferously for what is right is the best way to guarantee Jewish continuity. Within America as a whole, we should be at the forefront of demanding a better score on freedom from want; within our own ranks, we should be vigilant about freedom of speech and freedom of religion.



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