Friday, February 4, 2011

Liberating the Egyptians and Softening Our Hardened Hearts

Israelis, and Jews worldwide, have mixed feelings about the Egyptian revolution. From a tribal perspective – and, sadly, that's the dominant perspective among Jews with whom I associate – there is the fear of the impact of the revolution on Israel. Would the new Egyptian regime, assuming one comes into being, keep the peace with Israel? Would the Muslim Brotherhood gain the upper hand? Would the border with Gaza stay sealed? Is this good for Hamas? Is it good for Israel?

From a moral perspective, however – and, fortunately, that's the dominant perspective among the e-crowd, Jewish and non-Jewish, with whom I associate – supporting the Egyptian revolution is a no-brainer. On the one hand we have a regime that has only become more authoritarian in recent years, and, on the other, non-violent protesters from all walks of life who are struggling to be free. How can any decent human being not be thrilled by the prospect of this liberation? And how can Jews, who themselves came into being as nation in the furnace of Egyptian bondage, not identify with the Egyptian struggle for freedom?

In fact, I would argue that the ambivalence that some Jews are feeling can itself be turned into an argument against a Jewish state. For if the price to pay for a Jewish state is acquiescing in tyranny and injustice for reasons of realpolitik – as Israel did with apartheid South Africa – then arguably that price is too high, especially if you feel, as I do, that there are alternatives to a Jewish state for the survival and thriving of the Jewish people and its heritage.

Of course, I understand the counterargument – that the world is full of messy compromises and strange bedfellows, and that one's national security is paramount. I understand the necessity of the United States' alliance with Stalin during World War II. And it would be foolish not to support Israel's peace treaty with Egypt. But, to quote Avishai Margalit, there are compromises, and there are rotten compromises. An alliance in which Israel supplies nuclear knowledge and armaments to a rogue state that oppresses its people like South Africa is a rotten compromise. Not to support the Egyptian revolution for fear that it may turn out bad for Israel (and what that means is subject to debate) is shortsighted politically and unjustifiable morally. And both are cardinal sins for Jews.

Some Jews and Israelis who support the Egyptian revolution are still apprehensive. After all, there is that perennial bogeyman, Islamism, which may rear its head. Isn't it preferable for Israelis to have as neighbor an authoritarian regime that supports, or at least does not actively oppose its interests, then a regime where Islamic movements like Hizbollah and Hamas are represented? With monarchs and tyrants one can come to terms. But what if the Arab public is opposed to the existence of Israel? Why should Israelis support democratization of their enemies?

To which I reply: the Jews should have thought of that before they established the state of Israel. If they could not establish a state that would be able to live in peace with its Arab neighbors, but decided to press on with an "Iron Wall" mentality, then they are reaping what they sowed. But the premise itself is flawed. Were Israel to make peace with the Palestinian – within the framework of one state, two states, or a federation, in which the Palestinians had freedom and self-determination along with the Israelis, and the refugees would be given the choice to return or not, the vast majority of Arabs would be willing to accept that – not perhaps, as the most desirable outcome, but as something that could be tolerated for the foreseeable future. Just as I would not ban religious Jewish political parties in Israel from participating democratically, although they are territorial maximalists, so neither would I exclude religious Muslim parties, even though, as an orthodox Jew, I am personally unhappy with religious political parties and have never voted for one. (For insight into the intentions of the Muslim Brotherhood, see Helena Cobban's 2007 interview in Foreign Policy here.)

The revolution in Egypt is already a victory for that growing force in society, "civil society." The protesters have been called the generation of Facebook and Twitter. But let's not forget that they are primarily the generation of human rights discourse. Yizhak Laor is dead wrong when he writes that the Left in Egypt "has drowned in European subsidies to tens of separate NGOS for human rights, whose siginficance has not been one of change but rather of a disciplined preservation of the status quo." This may be the view of a Tel-Aviv armchair revolutionary, but someone who knows Egypt a lot better than Laor and me has told me that "the indigenous Egyptian human rights NGOs and the international HR NGO's have all made in invaluable contribution;" In particular, the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and the Cairo-based Arab Organization of Human Rights, have defended political prisoners and helped create a discourse of human rights that is at the center of the Egyptian revolution. Of course, that revolution is greater than any particular organization.

Indeed, Civil Society, rather than the Muslim Brotherhood or the opposition parties, is the motivating force behind the Egyptian revolution, at least for now. And that bodes ill for repressive governments, including the governments of Israel, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip. After all, Hamas and the PA tried to suppress protests in favor of the revolutionaries; Israel continues to harass human rights NGOs. It is the civil society movement that is shaking the ground on which authoritarian governments stand.


John Welch said...

Exactly right, Jerry.

Last Sunday, speakers from JVP, NIF, and Project David spoke with most of congregation B'nai Jeshurun, in New York.

Among the few areas of agreement: a statement from the "Israel can do no wrong" speaker from Project David: it is a mistake to view the movement in Egpyt, a country of 80 million people, only by whether it helps or harms Israel: "Egyptians deserve democracy". The audience agreed, and it was a packed house.

John Welch

Turtle_fan said...

A new regime in Egypt opposing the peace agreement is by no means a done deal.
In fact the Muslim Brotherhoob has been caught just as off-guard as the regime has.

And if all those gov'ts supporting the revolution in the name of democracy then they have the moral obligation to stand by that pledge and put paid to any aspirations (which are not evodent anyway) of re-think the Egypt Israel relations.

In the end, it's not like the current regime is that much into Israel's pockets.

Maybe they'll be less accommodating or less enthusiastic about their neighbours, but if more fundamental concerns are met (like jobs, food, prosperity, rule of law), the Egyptians will have way more important things to busy themselves with.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to let you know the link to Helena Cobban's article is broken. There were two interviews of her with MB people in 2007, one with Dr. Abdel Monem Abul-Futouh and one with Dr. Issam el-Arian. Now she has a new article at where she refers to those interviews.

Jerry Haber said...

I fixed the link. Thanks.

pabelmont said...

Love the idea of "tribalism" as if it made sense. [1] The tribe of the Jews. [2] The tribe of the Israelis. [3] The tribe of the Jews who tie their wagon to today's Israel. [4] The tribe of Jews who tie themselves to a fantastic (or, more gently, to an ideal) Israel which never was and may never be, one which bases itself on the elevating words of the Declaration of Independence (promulgated, of course, even as "transfer" by force was under way). And each tribe's "interest" or "good" is different, calling to mind a perplexity set forth in G&S's Mikado.

Jerry Haber said...


"See how the Fates their gifts allot...

For A is happy, B is not

Yet B is worthy, I daresay,

Of more prosperity than A..."

ADDeRabbi said...

So Israeli's shouldn't be nervous, and shouldn't have mixed feelings? Doing the right thing never has a price, or never has mixed feelings? Of course Israelis support it from a moral perspective; we're simply nervous. There's a big question mark to our southwest right now, and that's anxiety inducing.
As for Israel's "support" for the now-defunct authoritarian regime, that regime pre-existed peace with Israel by several decades. There was no peace with Nasser. There was no peace for most of Sadat's tenure. The protesters may say that Mubarak repressed them at the Zionists' bidding, but you ought to know better.

John Welch said...

Most of the pro-democracy protesters talk about Mubarak's regime of despotic torture; watching and reading Al Jazeera, I see very little mention of Israel.

Of course it makes sense for Israel to sign peace treaties with neighbopring countries, but it is immoral, impractical, and stupid for Israeli governments to fall deeply in love with a torturing despotism.

When the despotism falls, and this one might, where does that leave the Israeli government? Praising torture one week, and saying, "oops, lets make friends" the next week with the next Egyptian government?

Yes, the Israeli government might feel anxious about the Egyptian border, but I see no evidence that the mkass of Egyptian people deperately want to pick a fight with Israel. Egyptians sound and look angry with the Mubarak system.

Of course, I am an American, and worry more about my kids in our army in Iraq and Afganistan. However, it looks as if none of Israel's neighbors want to do more harm than to scream angrily toward Netanyahu, in the same way that Netanyahu and friends puff and shout at Iran.

We know that Israel will not bomb Iran. The Joint Chiefs of Staff told President Bush II that this would be silly even for the US, which has far more planes, bombs, and cruise missles. The Chiefs reminded George that the US would have to send grunts into Iran to clean up whatever is left after a "shock and awe" campaign.

No honest investigators report that the pro-democracy movement is anything like an Islamic fundamentalist terror organization.

So...while I can understand an Israeli being nervous about Egypt, but it looks, at least from here, that Israel is threatened far more by the Israeli political direction.

Yes, I've read Buber's "A Land of Two Peoples", and just begun eading one of the rare collections of essays by Judah Magnes. They and their friends seem to have had more reasonable ideas than the givernments that have led Israel for the last 63 years. I've spent time in Jaffa, and quite like Jaffa and Tel Aviv, but I have also visited Beit Sahour.

Israeli political society needs to decide not to strangle the Palestinians. That seems far more important to Israel than the democracy movement in Cairo.

Anonymous said...

"To which I reply: the Jews should have thought of that before they established the state of Israel. "

This reasoning is an impossibility. I am 56, old and in the way, and the state of Israel was declared 6 years before I was born.

And, at then the settlement effort in the late 40's was comprised of desparate refugees.

Democracy and human rights are constructed in the present is the point.

It is an idiocy that the Netanyahu government, and Kadima before them, did not renounce settlement expansion and complete a negotiation for sweeter than 67 borders with the PA (sweeter for Palestine).

That leaves the logic that the nakba continues, rather than over, next chapter.

The reason that Israelis are concerned is that in an environment of animosity, they are surrounded, surrounded by states and even if not by states by angry Arabs.

I described the Egyptian revolution as post-anti-Zionist, for its emphasis on internal struggle, moreso than convenient scapegoats for street cred.

That is one of my main criticisms of Hamas, my analysis of political corruption, that they used to use their violence and rhetoric as primarily in their internal political fight for street cred to dominate Palestine.

The only path to humane conditions for Palestinians is through Jerusalem, meaning confidence for Israelis that their person and state of self-governance are preserved.

Its an irony, but the absence of animosity conveys confidence that persecution of Palestinians is unnecessary for their safety, or even lends to confidence in a single state.

The presence of animosity, confirms the need for a definitive state.

The two-state path succeeded at, can later realize an EU like federation.

There is no shortcut right to a single state.