Saturday, February 05, 2011


"It is vital to preserve the stability of the Egyptian regime at all costs; the public criticism of President Mubarak must be toned down." Israel Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman

We interrupt this story about Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes, I mean Aaron Rodgers at the Super Bowl, I mean Steven Tyler on the set of American Idol … to bring you back to the Middle East, where a wee uprising has been taking place on the streets of Cairo. Thankfully, truth be told, the American media has actually been covering this story. Egypt isn’t Tunisia. Or Sudan. It is a country that actually registers in the American consciousness. It’s the sight of one of our most evil symbols, that of the Pharaoh, a symbol of cold-hearted tyranny. And sure enough, that symbolism is being played out, night after night, on American television, in the form of a dictator of three decades who strangled his people’s prosperity and liberty until finally, miraculously, they rose up against him, calling out for human rights, democracy, and universal dignity … and all the world cheered.

Except for the people of Israel.

How’s that for irony.

As a participant in the peace movement, there are times when I feel out of place, a lone Zionist (not a blame-Israel-first Zionist, but a real Zionist) amidst a plethora of universalists who could care less if in 200 years, there is not a single majority-Jewish state in the world. Today, though, I am not feeling at all out of place in the peace movement. It’s when I reflect on the state of the Zionist movement that I feel a little queasy.

For those who care about Israel’s highest values, this should be a Shabbat of rejoicing. A Shabbat to reflect on how the people of Tunisia, Egypt and other nations throughout the Arab world are finally standing up to injustice and oppression. We’ve seen similar populist uprisings before, in places like Iran and China, but this time there are no armies getting in the way. This time, the people have the upper hand, and the dictators are figuring out that their days in power are numbered.

What we are witnessing is nothing less than human evolution -- the inevitable replacement of monarchal societies by democratic ones. What is not to celebrate? To be sure, the results of any given democratic election could foreseeably give rise to a regime that is worse than that of a so-called “benevolent dictator.” But in the long run, is there any doubt that the fruits of a democracy will improve upon that of a monarchy? Spinoza may have been a tad optimistic when he wrote that “it is almost impossible that the majority of the people, especially if it be a large one, should agree in an irrational design.” But given the choice between following the will of 83 million Egyptians and one power-drunk dictator, I’ll gladly take the former. And so will virtually every other individual I know who is involved in the peace movement.

The same, unfortunately, could not be said for all of the leaders of Israel, or many of her friends here in the US. Minister Lieberman’s above-quoted comments about the importance of preserving Mubarak’s power clearly resonates throughout the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, or, for that matter, Borough Park, Brooklyn. It’s not difficult to understand why – the hatred of Israel in much of the Arab street has been palpable, and Mubarak has been one of Israel’s only true Arab friends. If you ask the question, “Is he good for the Jews?” one can understand that the answer given would be an unqualified “yes.”

Yet that is but short-term reasoning. In the long-run, any Arab despot who has kept his people poor and ignorant is part of the problem, not the solution. In the long run, what is good for the Jews is an Arab street that is educated, prosperous, and filled more with hope than hatred, or pride more than victimization. That is the only way that Israel will ever see a “warm” peace, and not the cold peace that it has enjoyed with Egypt under Mubarak – a peace in which school children have been taught to dislike Zionism, even as they are prevented from taking up arms with the Zionist state. Israel can afford to have a cold peace with Egypt since a desert effectively separates the two countries. But any true peace with the Palestinians must necessarily be a warm one – like the peace between Belgium and the Netherlands. Without an educated, prosperous, and autonomous Palestine, such a peace will forever remain a pipe dream.

So, from the standpoint of Israel’s long-term peace and security, the events on the streets of Cairo have been wonderful indeed. Sadly, though, Netanyahu’s Israel, like all misguided regimes, is mired in short-term thinking. You might even call it paranoid thinking. Consider the following words of Netanyahu himself:

"We are in a situation of instability. In this situation we have to look around us with open and realistic eyes. We remember what it was like here before there was peace. How we fought at the [Suez] Canal, on the banks of the canal. On the Jordan. We fought. All of us. Since peace broke out, we have benefited from not needing to defend those borders, with all that this implies. Peace changed our strategic situation and the whole world. Now we must understand that the basis for every future settlement is the fortification of Israel's might. Security arrangements on the ground, in the event that agreements are violated or there is governmental change on the other side. Every peace settlement that will be achieved must be durable in the face of the upheavals that characterize this region."

Rather than seeing what is happening in Cairo as an opportunity for progress, he sees it as something to be feared. You can just tell that his minions are getting ready to circle the wagons, to prepare themselves for yet another of Israel’s Hobbesian “us against the world” episodes, like the ones in ’67 and ’73. Having failed at giving peace a chance, Netanyahu is readying himself for the possibility of entertaining yet another war. War comes easily for Israel’s right wing. It requires no efforts to trust “the other.” No efforts to concede anything to its “enemies.” And given that Israel has the superior firepower, what’s not to like when the time comes to take up arms?

The problem, of course, is that Israel is supposed to be a JEWISH state. And “Jewish” means more than just culturally or ethnically Hebrew – it also refers to a religion. Religiously, living in a state of perpetual war and hatred of one’s neighbors isn’t exactly the ideal. In fact, it’s absolutely unacceptable. Now that the Palestinian Authority is controlled by a leader who is actually prepared to make profound concessions to Israel in order to arrive at a just and secure peace, Netanyahu’s intransigence on issues like the West Bank settlements seems … well, it seems almost reminiscent of the Pharaoh.

So here we have a new dichotomy. Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and the Egyptian masses on one side of the line … and Netanyahu, Lieberman and their friend Mubarak on the other. I cannot tell you how much I hate that formulation. No less than Netanyahu and Lieberman, I too want a strong, secure and permanent Jewish State. What I don’t understand is why that State must disregard the basic human rights and freedoms of the Palestinians who live within its ambit. Mubarak similarly disregarded the rights and freedoms of his charges, and look where that got him.

Why oh why must history keep repeating itself? That is what I don’t get.

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