When my father was detained in communist Poland after World War II, our family’s only channel of communication with him for well over four years was a telephone on a coffee table in Florence.
And when he ultimately arrived, transfigured, thin, at the train station in Florence, bringing gifts of dried mushrooms and wooden dolls, nothing was ever the same again. Our lives, that had changed so enormously with his absence, were again altered by his return, illuminated by the freedom to go, move and be where one wants, in the company of whomever one desires.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights talks about this in Article 13, which states that “Everyone has the right to freedom of movement and residence within the borders of each state,” and “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Today, the war against the coronavirus pandemic has led us to strip ourselves of this fundamental right.
We here in Israel face harsh restrictions, including school closures and a ban on public gatherings of more than 10 people, and tens of thousands under self-quarantine—but with a relatively low number of people infected and no deaths, thanks to the timeliness of the measures taken by the government. In Italy, my loved ones and dear friends are confined to their homes, in segregation, with the numbers of infected and the dead on every TV screen.
Between us lie the empty airports, transformed into marble monuments to a new and unfamiliar era. I can no longer return via a less-than-three-hour flight to my landscapes, language and loved ones. I follow the debates in the Italian media, I listen to my journalist friends trying to squeeze wisdom and ideas from an impractical situation, I sweat with them, I see Nicola Porro sick on TV and I get scared, I contact my people via WhatsApp and on Skype.
Unlike the telephone on the Florence coffee table through which we exchanged expensive words of love with my father, the Internet now allows me to stay close to those I care about, to see and speak to them. Every minute, my cell phone chirps and jokes arrive in Italian. Separated by the Mediterranean, we’re together. Yet this restriction to virtual space exacerbates nostalgia—without the freedom to traverse them physically, every kilometer weighs heavily.
When I covered the fall of the Berlin Wall, I saw children enter department stores in the West en masse; they came running and then stopped, wide-eyed, in front of chocolates and toys seen for the first time. Those few blocks of freedom ushered in an emotional and cognitive world. Movement, as the refuseniks that fought for decades to leave the Soviet Union knew well, is freedom itself.
We need to remember the words of French luminary Alexis de Tocqueville: “Freedom draws citizens from isolation […] it warms them and unites them every day with the need to understand each other, to persuade one another, and to mutually favor each other.” Both here in Israel and there in Italy, we are fighting not only an illness, but also a great battle for freedom, a common purpose that unites us across the sea.
Journalist Fiamma Nirenstein was a member of the Italian Parliament (2008-13), where she served as vice president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs in the Chamber of Deputies. She served in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and established and chaired the Committee for the Inquiry Into Anti-Semitism. A founding member of the international Friends of Israel Initiative, she has written 13 books, including “Israel Is Us” (2009). Currently, she is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.