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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.