It should come as no surprise that Tikkun and other progressive Jewish voices welcomed the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings for democracy as they unfolded in late January and early February: the Jewish people have roots in the Bible’s story of the Israelite rebellion against Pharaoh and his oppressive regime — a story repeated each year at Passover celebration and in weekly readings of the Torah — so it is understandable that many of us are naturally inclined to oppose every system of oppression. Our own story inspires us to oppose overt oppression by dictatorial or fundamentalist regimes like those in China, Tibet, Syria, Myanmar, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan; oppression by regimes such as the United States, Iraq, Afghanistan, Mexico, and dozens of other countries that use torture and perpetrate the systematic denial of human rights; and more subtle forms of institutional oppression such as the ever-expanding U.S. prison system and the operations of global capitalism (just as we once challenged the oppression of Soviet-style communism).
As this issue of the magazine goes to press (in early February, at a moment when it is still unclear whether the actual outcome of the struggle will be a genuine transformation or a perpetuation of the existing order under some other set of repressive replacements for Mubarak from the same human-rights and democracy-denying group of elites that has ruled Egypt for the past fifty years), we want to acknowledge the legitimacy of worries that, even if the current uprising turns into a successful revolution, the Egyptian regime could be replaced by another system of Islamic fundamentalist oppression. But we also want to point out that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt long ago abandoned its most vicious, violent, anti-Semitic, and anti-democratic terrorist extremists and for the past several decades has been operating as a pro-democracy and anti-torture voice in the Islamic world.
Still, there is certainly no guarantee that the new regime that emerges to replace Mubarak will not tilt in ways that are oppressive, anti-Semitic, or anti-Israel. This option for reactionary politics is always a big risk with democracy.
We support democracy even when its outcomes may be offensive to our values (e.g., the re-election of George W. Bush, the recent victory of right-wing extremists in the 2010 U.S. congressional elections, or the quite possible right-wing victories in 2012), because we believe that so long as free speech, free press and media, freedom of assembly, jury trials, and free elections are in place, even in their money-drenched forms in the United States today, it will always be possible for people to learn from their mistakes and use these democratic processes to rectify those mistakes.
Part of what people fear might happen in Egypt is the plausible consequence of the United States and Israel’s approach to the Muslim world, an approach that can best be summed up as a strategy of domination. The United States imposed the Shah on Iran, tried to support him when popular forces challenged him, and then found that all the repression in the world was not sufficient to silence the outrage of the Iranian people after decades of Western-backed torture and violence by U.S.-trained and -equipped “security forces.” The wide-ranging anger at Israel in Islamic lands is in good part an outcome of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people for the past sixty-two years. The anger in the streets of Cairo at being shot at and gassed by weapons made in the United States and supplied to the Mubarak regime was predictable. And if some Egyptians would like to see the peace treaty with Israel abrogated, it is not because they actually seek a war with Israel but because that treaty symbolized the corrupt deal with the United States in which the Mubarak regime received tens of billions of dollars in U.S. aid (thanks to the influence of the Christian Zionists and AIPAC) in exchange for doing Israel’s dirty work in containing Hamas in Gaza. Ordinary Egyptians watched all that money go to the military and to graft for the Egyptian elites.
It’s an ethically corrupt and pragmatically stupid strategy to support repressive regimes in the hopes of keeping the lid on popular discontent — it simply never works for any length of time. Israel could be safe if it switched from a strategy of domination to a new spirit of generosity toward the Palestinian people, and the United States could be safe from Islamic extremists if it announced a new approach to foreign policy based on a Global Marshall Plan such as the one advocated by the Network of Spiritual Progressives (spiritualprogressives.org/GMP). Our task as Americans is to help our fellow Americans feel safe to switch from domination to generosity, and then push for these changes in our governmental policies.
Yet we can see in the current uprising a danger that keeps on repeating itself in country after country around the world. We want the democratic forces to win. But when they do (and, at the moment of this writing, that is far from assured in Egypt, which might continue as a repressive regime even without Mubarak as the figurehead), there will remain a tension between two major forces that have led to the revolution: the secular and human rights–oriented tendencies manifested in many of the middle-class youth who believe that the freedom they seek can be achieved by making their country in the image of the United States and its global capitalist empire, and those poorer and more downtrodden masses who are unlikely to benefit from an Egypt more fully integrated into the global capitalist system. It is members of the latter group who may feel the tug of spiritual yearnings and a desire for meaning in life unconnected to material success, and then be drawn to various forms of fundamentalist religion that provide meaning at the expense of individual freedom (particularly for women) and by labeling those outside the religious community as “enemies.” The tension between these two tendencies will play out in Egypt, as they are currently playing out in the United States and other advanced industrial societies in slightly different ways (the “enemy” of choice here in the United States being Muslims, immigrants, GLBTQ people, and African Americans; and the fundamentalism here being Christian, while Israel contends with some variants of Jewish fundamentalism or what I’ve called “settler Judaism”).
Until we can provide a viable spiritual progressive vision such as the Spiritual Covenant for America (please read it at spiritualprogressives.org) — a vision that affirms the need for meaning and spiritual fulfillment but disconnects it from repressive religions, demeaning of others, and the various philosophies of domination and control of others, we in Egypt, Israel, the United States, and other countries around the world will face this alternation between spiritually and emotionally stunted forms of an individualist and materialist-based Left and a repressive and angry religious Right. That’s why we say it is time to embrace an ethos of love, kindness, generosity, caring for others and for the planet, and awe and wonder at the grandeur and mystery of the universe. It is for that alternative that we hope — for Egypt, for Israel, for the United States, and for the rest of the world.
These ideas, which have been dismissed by many as too utopian, are actually the only practical and “realistic” approach.