The explosion at the end of January 2011 in Egypt is raising huge identity crises for Jews. And it should be.
It is not news to say that Jews are divided. (There is an old joke that if there were only two Jews left in the world, one would attend one synagogue and the other would attend the other one.) But that is funny. This is not.
There is a huge group of Jews who instinctively support the Egyptian opposition to the Mubarak regime. And instinctively is the operative word. They start emailing each other to support it, attend protest demonstrations, listen to NPR News Report, and Democracy Now, KPFA etc.
There is a huge (maybe even a greater) group who immediately fear the uprising as portending the unleashing of the forces of radical Muslim jihad, religious zealots and an enormous cloud of threat to Israel. Everything about the uprising of hundreds of thousands of repressed, oppressed and suppressed Egyptians is seen by these Jews through a prism of “So, Nu shoen, is it good for the Jews?”
Then of course, there is the probably sizable group of Jews who say “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn”. Busy with what seems to them to more directly impact their lives. Children, jobs, manicures.
And there is another group of Jews who feel no questions or conflicts at all and just exclaim as one did to me yesterday, “Good, I hope they all kill each other”. I will discount them merely as failed people.
For many of us there is a lot of conflict–all different I imagine. So I’ll just talk about mine or how I understand the larger conflict.
Of course I care about Israel. Her existence. Her continued existence. Her safety. But I am not a Zionist. I never was.
As a kid in the 40's and 50's I thought it a ridiculous idea that Jewishness was to be embodied in or by a country. I thought that Jews who went to Israel were merely fleeing the question and the difficulty of what it means to be a Jew.
A Jew is a person in a wider society. A Jew’s identity is made of his or her relation to that society. From the basic question of being allowed to exist to, once that is secure, granted or tolerated, to the much larger question, the one that is basic to being a Jew: “What does it mean to be a Jew?”
The Egyptian people’s uprising brings me right to that point. What it means to be a Jew is to be totally engaged by a people’s, a large body of people’s, revolt; resistance, bravery, uprising, protest; demonstration for freedom and democracy and a life.
That is Jewish. No matter who is doing it. (I admit, like everybody, I have my prejudices. So I can get more personally moved by one country’s such action than another. But while that may be a fault, it is not relevant to the present huge uprising that is taking place in Egypt and across the Arab world, and therefore not the point.)
I don’t have prejudices against Egypt. Well, if I think of their attitudes toward women I would be crazy to say that. Maybe some day millions of Egyptian and other Arab women will rise up against Egyptian and Arab men. Enshallah.
But, that’s a different story. Maybe not. Maybe this is the time Arabs learn that they can’t gain a life of dignity without women having dignity and equality too.
What is upsetting me now is the polarity of the Jews I know and the pain it is causing me.
Some I can dismiss as thoughtless idiots who can dismiss a whole continent’s struggle for a dignified life as degraded, impossible, unmeritorious, pathetic and trivial. They say things like:
“They never had any democracy and they never will.” “They are uneducated and therefore can never have it or use it.” They don’t say, but they do mean, that the Egyptians or the Arabs don’t deserve it: “They are fanatics and religious zealots and therefore can’t be trusted and are dangerous.”
But I ask what are they dangerous to from the point of view of these Jewish friends?
1–That they threaten Israel’s survival. (Maybe true).
2– That they threaten the balance of power in the Middle East. (True).
The consequence thereof being:
a. They threaten Israel’s survival; and
b. They threaten the unleashing of a reign of jihadist terrorism, a specter of 911 to the 911th power (not so true—if Arabs can have a revolution they don’t need terrorism—and if we help them gain dignity they have no reason to harm us);
c. The rise of crazy Iran in the region (which, for these Jews, once again means only threatening Israel’s survival) and the larger threat of unleashing physical threats by Iran to America, and of less importance to them, to the wider Western world. This one has implications greater than realized by them or the rest of us in that China and Russia will abet Iran in trouble making in a power grab during any vacuum. I am informed that China has already encouraged Mubarak to hang in there because they will cover his back (Brookings Institute Panel Discussion aired February 3, 2011).
Now I am not in denial. These threats are real threats. At least some of them some of the time. But I am more concerned about the threat to the Egyptians and the Arab world. They have been treated as less than human (by their own regimes and by us who just don’t care) and thus, not deserving of livelihoods, futures, decent living conditions, education and opportunity, political voice, democracy, freedom, or most of all, dignity.
As a Jew I cannot justify or countenance the existence or safety of Israel on the backs of a hundred million disenfranchised, deprived, needy, hungry, imprisoned, tortured, silenced, Egyptians or Arabs. I don’t see the Jews survival or prosperity as being obtained or maintained by keeping a hundred million Egyptians imprisoned in a police state. If I did that what would be the point of being a Jew?
Now let me digress with a little honesty. The problem gets harder if the discussion goes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Why? Because Israel already exists and I don’t support a solution that ends her existence. A tough place to be in. But I also abhor Israel’s expanded settlements making homes for Jews, fanatics at that, by building them on other people’s homes and land.
There have always been names for people who did that and it disgusts and pains me that Jews do that and earn those names. And I resent those Jews because they are giving me a bad name. They pretend to do those awful things in my name. That hurts.
If Israel could trade all those settlements for an agreement with Arabs that Israel has the right to exist, Israel should do it in a flash. (Put the settlers in Queens, NY where they’ll be just one more of those fanatic ethnic groups which are tolerated well in NewYork. Notice I didn’t say Manhattan.)
I am no saint. I don’t know that I would want to see a two state solution because I still think Israel has the right to exist and as a Jewish state. I know I am not winning any friends here, but that’s too bad.
But Egypt is not Palestine. And it is not Iran. It is neither a small country nor a new country. It is thousands of years old with a powerful history and culture. Egyptians are not ignorant. If they could teach us mathematics, perhaps they might teach us much about being human as they struggle to make a new society with more freedom, (democracy???), political participation and dignity.
Everything in me as a Jew wants them to have this opportunity to try and do this. Everything in me as a Jew wants to reject the position of my Jewish friends who say:
“They can have democracy when they can choose a good, stable government and not now”;
“Mubarak should remain in power until the Egyptians come up with acceptable (to whom?) leaders;” “No Arab country has ever had democracy and they never will”; “We can’t risk the threat to Israel”; “We can’t risk another Iran”; and on and on.
I say I am willing to risk it. (I could regret this when I am blown up by a suicide bomber. Especially as, unlike him, I have no use for virgins in the afterlife).
I am much less afraid of that risk than I am of the risk that Egyptians would fail. That would make me cry.
I am willing to risk some of my, or Israel’s, safety, freedom and democracy to give a hundred million people their chance to have some of it too. If for no other reason than the fact that I wouldn’t like myself if I did not.
I am no hero. I probably could not live without having good, fresh food available to me. Or great coffee (no fear of losing that with Egyptians). And I probably would give up the movement just to keep a good, hot, daily shower and such basic dependable things in my life. But I am not yet threatened with such dire consequences. (Lesser ones, yes: The rise of gas prices, yes, etc. I am willing to pay for that for democracy). But until I am so threatened by dire consequences and have to make that choice (and I hope thereafter) I choose to risk the uncertainty of how this will play out and support Egypt’s right to pursue a political voice, with the safety to have it, a meaningful and dignified life. That’s what it means to be Jewish.