Jews recount at Passover their own history with the Pharaoh of Egypt – so sympathies to the current Egyptian struggle run deep.
Ever since the victory over the dictator of Tunisia and the subsequent uprising in Egypt, my email has been flooded with messages from Jews around the world hoping and praying for the victory of the Egyptian people over their cruel Mubarak regime. True, right-wing Jews who control the major Jewish organizations in the US (which operate on the principle of one dollar one vote, not one person one vote) and the right wing government of Israel have confined their reactions to “Is is good for the Jew?”, many other Jews react differently—realizing that it is good for the world, and so respond to a fundamental point made by Tikkun: what is good for the world is good for the Jews.
Though a small segment of Jews have responded to right-wing voices from Israel that lament the change and fear that a democratic government would bring to power fundamentalist extremists who wish to destroy Israel and who would abrogate the hard-earned treaty that has kept the peace between Egypt and Israel for the last 30 years, the majority of Jews are more excited and hopeful than worried.
Of course, the worriers have a point. Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza would remain closed while Israel attempted to economically deprive the Hamas regime there by denying needed food supplies and equipment to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attack in December 2008 and January 2009. If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza. But the fundamentalists in Egypt are Sunni, unlike the Shi’ite fundamentalists in Iran, and many have publicly stated that they would not want war with Israel nor do they seek to impose Sharia law in the way it is imposed in Afghanistan or Iran, but rather they would accept a mixed society. Unlike the Shi’ites, the Sunni do not believe as a matter of doctrine that the society must be ruled by clergy. Of course, within the ranks of fundamentalists there will be an inevitable struggle between those who are more anti-Israel and anti-West and those who are more open to Israel and the West. At the current moment the Muslim Brotherhood is led by the more moderate elements. Will these moderates win out? Well what we do during the transition, both as Americans and as Jews, and what Israel does, could have an impact on the outcome. If we are perceived as continuing to support the oppressive regime of the past that will tend to help the most reactionary elements, and if we are perceived as trying to help the Egyptian people achieve genuine freedom and democracy, that is likely to help the most moderate elements.
It is impossible for most Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant – the Pharaoh whose reliance on brute force was overthrown when the Israelite slaves managed to escape from Egypt some 3,000 years ago. That story of freedom retold each year at our Passover “Seder” celebration, and read in synagogues in the past month, has often predisposed the majority of Jews to side with those struggling for freedom around the world (except for the most right-wing Jews who have placed Jewish survival as their sole concern and do not understand that our well being depends on the well being of everyone else on the planet, because we are all one).
To watch hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to throw off the chains of oppression and the legacy of a totalitarian regime that consistently jailed, tortured or murdered its opponents so overtly that most people were cowed into silence, is to remember that the spark of God continues to flourish no matter how long oppressive regimes manage to keep themselves in power, and that ultimately the yearning for freedom and democracy cannot be totally stamped out no matter how cruel and sophisticated the elites of wealth, power and military might appear to be.
Many Jews have warned Israel that it is a mistake to ally with these kinds of regimes, just as we’ve warned the US to learn the lesson from its failed alliance with the Shah of Iran. We’ve urged Israel to free the Palestinian people by ending the Occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s long-term security will not be secured through military or economic domination, but only by acting in a generous and caring way toward the Palestinian people first, and then toward all of its Arab neighbours.
Similarly, America’s homeland security will best be achieved through a strategy of generosity and caring, manifested through a new Global Marshall Plan such as has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Keith Ellison.
In normal times, when the forces of repression seem to be winning, this kind of thinking is dismissed as “utopian” by the “realists” who shape public political discourse. But when events like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occur, for a moment the politicians and media are stunned enough to allow a different kind of thinking to emerge, the kind of thinking that acknowledged that underneath all the “business as usual” behaviour of the world’s peoples, the yearning for a world based on solidarity, caring for each other, freedom, self-determination, justice, non-violence and yes, even love and generosity, remains a potent and unquenchable thirst that may be temporarily repressed but never fully extinguished.
It is this recognition that leads many Jews to join with the rest of the world’s peoples in celebrating the uprising, in praying that it does not become manipulated by the old regime into paths that too quickly divert the hopes for a brand new kind of order into politics and economics as usual, or into extremist attempts to switch the anger from domestic elites who have been the source of Egyptian oppression onto Jews or Israel which have not been responsible for the suffering of the Egyptian people.
We hope that Egyptians will hear the news that they have strong support from many in the Jewish world. We are not waffling like Obama – we want the overthrow of Mubarak, the freeing of all political prisoners, the redistribution of wealth in a fair way, trials for those who perpetrated torture and other forms of injustice, and the democratisation of all aspects of Egyptian life.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun, chair of the interfaith Network of Spiritual Progressives, and rabbi of Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in Berkeley, California. You can read more about the Global Marshall Plan here. You can contact the author directly: [email protected] Please register for Tikkun Magazine’s 25th Anniversary celebration: info at www.tikkun.org/celebrate