The Egyptian Movement for Democracy and Jewish Communal Ambivalence

A Melbourne resident demonstrates in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising. Creative Commons/Takver.

The rising movements for democracy in Egypt and throughout the Middle East have caught many Jews off guard. For many years, Israel proclaimed with great pride that it was the only democracy in the Middle East. U.S. Jews also prided themselves as being strong advocates for pluralism and democratic values, certainly within the United States. Now Arab countries are fighting for increased democracy. What can be said about the current events in Egypt and the conflicting responses of many Jews to those events?

  1. Israel, bolstered by the United States, has always been in a precarious position due to its policies, which have been anathema to large parts of the Arab world.
  2. In the past, many of the autocratic rulers in Arab countries used anti-Israel rhetoric to mobilize their own peoples against Israel, thereby maintaining their regimes by diverting their people’s attention away from challenging their own oppressive conditions.
  3. The United States and Israel have supported autocratic governments in many Middle Eastern countries, turning a blind eye to the repression of these rulers against their own people, as long as those countries were friendly to U.S. and Israeli interests.
  4. Israel has often ended up being a buffer between U.S. interests in the region (i.e., keeping the Suez Canal open and oil flowing) and Arab autocracies.
  5. Most importantly, decades of unhealed terror from the Holocaust, the Pogroms, and a history of betrayal at the hands of others have left many Jews unable to seize new opportunities for alliance-building, instead reverting back to old fear-based responses that keep Israel isolated.

What is actually needed now will be challenging given how entrenched many of these responses are. What if Jews, and Israeli Jews in particular, could take the lead in celebrating the momentous changes taking place in Egypt and elsewhere? What if Jews, and Israeli Jews in particular, could seize on this new moment, unencumbered by the fears of the past, and seize this key time to reach out to the young Arab leaders in these pro-democracy movements? What if the Israeli peace movement would lead the way in reaching out to Arab protest leaders?

There is always a possibility that these new people’s movements could once again use anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) rhetoric, as did the autocratic rulers they seek to topple, to help fuel their movements. It is most noteworthy that to date, there has been relatively little anti-Israel rhetoric on the ground in Egypt. This should help to contradict Jewish fears and interrupt the historic tendency to view popular uprisings in Arab countries through a prism of fear and trepidation. The Arab autocratic rulers used anti-Israel rhetoric whenever it served their needs. The new youth leaders are focused much more on achieving democratic reforms than calling on the old anti-Israel rhetoric as an organizing tool.

In the end, however difficult it may be to achieve, Israel’s full flourishing in the Middle East will require strong relationships with its Arab neighbors. The momentous changes taking place now in the Middle East provide Israel with a new moment to leave behind its historical fear responses and instead lead the way in welcoming the leaders of these new Arab protest movements.

Cherie Brown is the executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute, an anti-oppression leadership training organization with headquarters in Washington, D.C. She has been a frequent writer for Tikkun magazine and has been active in U.S. Jewish Middle East peace organizations for over forty years.
 
tags: Democracy, Egypt, Israel/Palestine, Vision for Israel/Palestine   
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4 Responses to The Egyptian Movement for Democracy and Jewish Communal Ambivalence

  1. Stephen Macht March 7, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    Dear Cherie Brown,

    Did you not see the same images I saw during the so called Egyptian revolution: a little boy running through the crowd with a picture of Mubarak painted on his forehead with a RED STAR OF DAVID framing Mubarak and a knife planted right in the middle of his eye? Did you not hear countless “street people” all testifying on CNN to the fact that the reason Egypt was in trouble was because of Israel? Did you not read countless stories from journalists remarking how they were beaten and thought to be Israelis or Jews, eschewed and driven out of the crowd?

    Allow me to provide some of the research you neglect to site or even to reference. Please read the following:

    http://israelmatzav.blogspot.com/2011/02/egyptian-revolutions-anti-semitism.html

    http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/hamas-chief-egypt-revolution-brought-us-back-to-life-1.347462

    http://www.presstv.ir/detail/164174.html
    Former Arab League Chief Clovis Maksoud says the Egyptian revolution against President Hosni Mubarak’s regime is also an uprising against Israel.

    “The Egypt revolution is against Israel too,” Maksoud said in an interview with Press TV on Tuesday.

    He further pointed out that this rebellion is also against Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.

    “A part of this revolution is going to project a new foreign policy whereby Egypt retrieves its historical role of being a deterrent function against (the) Israelis’ expansions, aggressions, settlements and racism,” he went on to say.

    “That is why the foreign policy of the United States on the strategic power in the region is attacked by the revolution,” he noted.

    According to Maksoud, what Washington wants is that “this revolution will not reverse many of the factors that have served the strategic influence of the United States and Israel.”

    Commenting on some recent leaks revealing that Israel prefers Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman as Mubarak’s successor, Maksoud said, “Israel cannot decide who should come after Mubarak.”

    Stressing the importance of holding a free presidential election in troubled Egypt, he argued that Suleiman will definitely not be considered as a viable candidate in a free election.

    Suleiman was appointed as second-in-command on January 29 amid a revolution in crisis-hit Egypt and mounting popular calls for the ouster of pro-Western Mubarak.

    Anti-US sentiments among Egyptian protesters have been on the rise, with Washington seen responsible for Mubarak’s three-decade grip on power.

    More than 300 people are estimated to have been killed and thousands injured since the revolution began in the North African country two weeks ago.

    Please, Ms. Brown, quote real, specific sources to back up your admiration for the Egyptian people! Tell me in which Egyptian newspaper, magazine or journal you have read anything to support your thesis that:
    “It is most noteworthy that to date, there has been relatively little anti-Israel rhetoric on the ground in Egypt. This should help to contradict Jewish fears and interrupt the historic tendency to view popular uprisings in Arab countries through a prism of fear and trepidation.”

    Yours truly,

    Stephen Macht

  2. Anthony Perry March 8, 2011 at 3:23 am

    Dont snub Cherie Brown. She is right. At least start hopefully and welcome the changes in Egypt. Offer help. You may be wasting your time but why start off hostile?

  3. Elad Reznik March 27, 2011 at 12:40 am

    Mr. Brown
    Your celebration of the Egyptian democracy came too soon as this NYT article shows.
    http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/25/world/middleeast/25egypt.html?_r=2&sq=&st=nyt&%2334;=&%2334;muslim%20brotherhood=&scp=1&pagewanted=all

    About time a Rabbi will deal with halach – a subject he may know something about and not with middle east politics, a subject he knows nothing about.

  4. Edward Gantt November 24, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    There has been lots of anti-Israel rhetoric on the ground, and its about time. If anyone spoke about Israel before, or spoke out for the Palestinians, they were suppressed. I think everyone knows that the US propped up Mubarak for Israel’s interest. Care must be taken though, when understanding this rhetoric. People are not asking for the destruction of Israel, or for any harm to befall Jews, just that Israel’s government with its illegal actions, stops. Wouldn’t any sane human being want a state to comply with international law? Wouldn’t they want a state to stop murdering innocent children?

    Zionism and Judaism must be distinguished. My Jewish friend even tells me everything the Israel government does contravenes Judaism, so when people criticize Israel, Jews must not take it personally. The world must understand and empathize with the torment and suffering the Palestinians have been going through for 60+ years, just like everyone empathizes with what Jews have been through in the past.

    It is dangerous to put anti-Israel and anti-Semitic so close together in your article. These two things are in no way similar. Of course when anti-Semiticism is used it must be condemned outright, but it is too often coming up when discussing Israel. Maybe this is what you mean about the unhealed terror. This I can fully understand, and maybe pro-Palestinians should make a bit more of an effort to say that they don’t blame Jews for the suffering, just rogue governments who have systematically persecuted these people.

    I’m anti-Israel, in its current form. If Jews feel upset with this, and they think I’m being anti-Semitic, then they should know we are not. We who support Palestinians are the same people who support the Afghanis the Iraqis, all people around the world under brutal regimes from Asia to the Middle-East.

    If people really want peace, then they know the Israeli government needs to stop its actions, comply with international law and stop brutalizing people. If Egypt gets a true democracy, then Israel will be further isolated, just like Apartheid South Africa, and this is what will lead to long-term peace. Not constantly sticking up for and supporting a rogue state. Supporting Israel in its current form is a disservice to Jews. It is not sustainable and will just lead to more conflict. Everyone deserves peace, Arabs and Jews will not find it with Israel in its current form.

    If you want peace, support the movement in Egypt.

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