On the Egyptian Uprising

(This piece appeared in the Woodstock Jewish Congregation newsletter last month. It is therefore dated, but still relevant. -JK)

Dear Friends,

As I write these words in early February there is one story dominating the airwaves around the world. The people of Egypt have risen up against their authoritarian government. The situation changes every day, and I am certain that by the time you read these words many more dramatic changes will have taken place in Egypt and around North Africa and the Middle East. I am amazed by the power of the Internet and satellite television and cell phones to circumvent centralized control of information and to galvanize popular uprisings against authoritarian regimes. In certain ways the “information age” in which we live is truly revolutionary, and it is still only in its infancy.

From the Jewish perspective, there are two subjects, one political and one religious, which I wish to raise in relation to the current tumult in Egypt. The political issue, of course, is what impact these sweeping changes in the Arab world will have on Israel. Israel has maintained a peace agreement, however lukewarm that agreement might be, with Egypt since the Camp David Accords of 1978.That means that for the past 30 years Israel has done business with Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s de facto dictator. Mubarak has maintained control of Egypt by running a police state and by brutally suppressing dissent, and Egyptians cannot wait to see him go. Now that Mubarak is or will soon be gone, who will emerge as the new leadership in Egypt and what form of government will they espouse? Will this new leadership choose to continue the current relationship with Israel? As part of the backlash in Egypt against Mubarak, Israel may very likely find itself demonized even further in Egypt than it is today. And how might this wave of popular uprisings across the Arab world affect international recognition for Palestinian national aspirations? I wonder if we will see a continuing acceleration of nations recognizing Palestine as a sovereign nation. Is their any way for Israel to be diplomatically nimble enough to ride this tidal wave of change in the region, or should Israel only brace itself as it waits for the worst? I wish I knew. (And if I did know, I wish everyone would listen to me!)

The Jewish religious perspective directs us toward Passover, coming soon, and to the story of Pharaoh’s unwillingness to free his slaves. As Rabbi Arthur Waskow writes: “This story is not just an antiquarian tale. It is an archetypal vision of what happens, again and again, when top-down tyranny becomes addicted to its own power, at first unwilling and then unable to change.” Our archetypal liberation struggle is set in ancient Egypt, but its actual setting is wherever power is abused.Ironically, the President of modern-day Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, is now in the spotlight as the Pharaoh of the moment. Rabbi Waskow continues, “We have seen hundreds of thousands of Egyptians face down their own modern Pharaoh – dictatorial, repressive, and corrupt.” At Passover each year we reaffirm our ancient faith that tyranny will ultimately crumble, and that repression of the human spirit will always ultimately be overturned.

Israel is also party to repression, as it seeks to control the Palestinian population under Israeli occupation. Israel is also guilty of Pharaoh-like behavior. Of course, Israel has real and dangerous enemies, and, as they say, lives in a very bad neighborhood. But as Passover approaches, we Jews are asked to wrestle with the moral implications of the abuse of power, including our own complicity.As Jews, politics is both a strategic and a moral enterprise, and we must never lose sight of those twin goals. Otherwise, if the story of Passover is correct, and I believe it is, we may find ourselves one day staring as uncomprehendingly as Pharaoh at the ruins of our once great endeavors. I pray for the individual and collective wisdom to balance strategic security and moral purpose, so that we can ultimately always side with the cause of human dignity and freedom.