Freedom and Democracy Aren’t Only for Jews

This piece is cross-posted from Eretz Acheret where it was published today.

The implications of the uprising in Egypt, especially if it ends with the ousting of the Mubarak regime, will be felt far and wide. Israel in particular has much to consider and reconsider. But for Jews everywhere, the fallout from a successful popular revolution, coming after the collapse of the Ben Ali dictatorship in Tunisia and occurring in parallel with the unrest and political changes in Syria and Jordan, could be deeply significant. And it all throws up vital questions about relations between Israeli Jews and Jews around the world.

This may sound odd to Israelis who will understandably see themselves as at the eye of the storm and will find it hard to imagine that Mubarak’s fall has any significance to the day-to-day life of a Jew living comfortably in North London. Certainly, the fear that whoever comes to power after a democratic election might wish to tear up the Egypt-Israel peace treaty, especially if it’s the Muslim Brotherhood, should not be lightly dismissed. It has been a cold peace but it has held. And you could almost say that it is the rock upon which Israeli governments have been able to build policies that have led to the entrenchment of the occupation of the West Bank and the split between Hamas and Fatah. The US-Israel-Egypt triangle has proved to be a rigid structure which, despite occasional wars and more limited military incursions, has ensured the perpetuation of an uneasy stability, however deeply dubious the consequences have been for the Palestinians.

I am sure that many Jews here in the UK and in Europe more generally share the anxieties being expressed by Israeli leaders past and present. The cynicism about the uprising and the propensity to see it as just another opportunity for Arabs to express their hatred of Jews, as articulated by some of the more outspoken Jewish bloggers and commentators, is plain for all to see. So you could argue that Egypt’s upheavals have led to a renewed sense of common concern between Israel and the Jewish Diaspora. And some Jewish leaders will find this comforting.

But this is a shallow and short-sighted view of the possible consequences of the mass demand for change in Egypt. More than that, I very much doubt that the cynicism of right-wing, ultra-nationalist bloggers and columnists reflects the thoughts and feelings of most of the Jews of Europe. Democracy may not be perfect, but I would guess that for most European Jews it represents the very bedrock of a good society. Democracy and the freedom to practice and benefit from it were key impulses driving the Western allies in the Second World War. They were the same impulses that drove the revolutions in Eastern Europe and the USSR in 1989, which led to the release from cultural oppression of more than 2 million Jews. Young and old alike, Jews will, in common with the rest of the population, be looking at the rainbow of protestors in Tahrir Square and their hearts will go out to the Egyptians as they yearn for the dignity, human rights and freedom that are taken for granted in this country, for all its faults.

And whether Jews realise this or not, it makes good sense and shows vision and foresight to take a favourable view of the current popular ferment in the Arab world. Because what is happening has the potential to bring about a decisive and positive change in relations between Jews and Arabs, Jews and Muslims. For Arab populations to suddenly find that they can bring down seemingly unmoveable dictators, after decades of living with their own cynicism and hopelessness, the result must be a restoration of self-esteem and self-respect. The regimes under which so many of them live have crushed those fundamental human attributes; for all their high-flown rhetoric about the ummah, the nation, Arab rulers have treated the people with contempt and disdain. To hold your destiny in your hands and not to feel that it’s in the hands of a brutal regime or a neo-imperialist West is likely to lead to an undermining of one of the key factors feeding enmity towards Jews in the Arab and Muslim worlds. And this will undoubtedly have an impact on Arab and Muslim communities, opening up the possibility of a reduction in tensions between them and Jewish communities.

I wish I was wrong, but I don’t see much appreciation of this opportunity on the part of Israeli commentators, many of whom would rather see US-backed Arab strongmen remain in power. And so rather than providing a new sense of common worry and even fear, the upheavals in the Middle East seem set to aggravate differences between Israeli and Diaspora Jews. While there is nothing positive in the former, at least in the latter, some part of the Jewish people is showing itself ready to embrace the new reality, albeit aware that it is not without its dangers and uncertainties. It’s true that there is hostility to Israel among the activists and that diplomatic relations between a new authority in Egypt and Israel may change. But to assume that change means abrogating a peace treaty and preparing for war is to ignore the tone, tenor and spirit of virtually everything we have seen and read about the uprising so far.

What is most dispiriting about this situation is the woeful lack of intelligent thinking among some prominent Israeli and Jewish leaders and opinion-formers. They don’t seem to see that when others express a heartfelt yearning to be able to live by the same values as they profess to adhere to, this offers hope for true peace. It’s only when there are grounds for sharing a common future, when people not only aspire to live by common values but have the opportunity to do so, that lasting reconciliation becomes possible. This is why the real common interest of Israeli and Diaspora Jews is to reach out and extend the hand of encouragement, respect and hope to the broad mass of people in the Arab world who are struggling for change. If Israel and its die-hard Diaspora supporters continue to judge such developments on the grounds of narrow self-interest; if they have the arrogance to think that somehow Israel is powerful enough to play a decisive part in propping up neighbouring authoritarian regimes, so as to preserve its position as an exceptional little island, forever separated from the peoples in the region—I believe the future for Jews everywhere will be bleak.

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