Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt's Revolution: It is Not about Us

Posted on Facebook by an Israeli:
“Dear Egyptian rioters, please don't damage the pyramids. We will not rebuild. Thank you.”

This brief message went viral, at least in Israel and the Jewish world. I had a good laugh, but after a few days something gnawed at me. First, the reference to Egyptian rioters seemed way off base. The protests in Egypt have been markedly devoid of rioting and violence up to this point. The massive gatherings at Tahrir square have been unusual in the commitment to non violence by the protesters and in the clarity of their demands for democracy and the end of dictatorship.

Second, and noted by many reporters, Israel is not in the forefront of the protesters consciousness, far overshadowed by the demonstrators' concerns about the state of their own country. Yes, there will be implications for Israel down for the line if there is regime change, but it appears that these outpourings originate in the internal politics and social realities of Egyptians and their relationship to their government.

Third, the viral message is striking in its Jewish ethnocentrism. We are taught from childhood that the Jew will not go back down to Egypt to become a slave to Pharoah again. It is completely understandable why a Jew would say this because our central narrative is about gaining our freedom from Egyptian enslavement through God's liberating miracles. God brought us out of Egypt, the ancient embodiment of tyranny and cruelty, to become a free people serving only the God of Israel.

Every national culture has it's own narrative, its story of origin and uniqueness. It is so often the case that our national narratives do not mesh, This is a source of great misunderstanding between cultures. Egyptians have trouble understanding Americans, or Americans cannot 'get' Chinese and so forth.

I think the fascinating issue for Jews in light of the Egyptian revolution is that we have no place in our own narrative for Egyptians rising up for their own freedom in the face of their autocrats. This does not make sense given our own narrative of the passivity of the Egyptian people before Pharaoh. Our narrative is dependent on the memory of an Egyptian ruler, cruel and powerful, who is ultimately humiliated by God and who is forced to let the people of Israel go. Can you imagine Egyptians singing in Tahrir square, "Let my people go!"

My observations are not geopolitical, but cultural. But they are important for understanding the Israeli and widespread Jewish distrust of the popular uprising against Mubarak. We don't have in our narrative a place for an Egyptian lover of democracy and freedom. We assume that Egyptians are all Islamicists and seek an Islamic Republic. Or we would prefer for the sake of the peace treaty that the regime remain stable and in full control.

But what I think is necessary is some empathy for the huge crowds of peaceful protesters who come from every sector of Egyptian society. Today Mubarak stepped down as the new narrative of the Egyptian revolution continues to evolve right before the world's eye. A new narrative is being born, one we hope leads Egypt and its people to true freedom, democracy, tolerance, and rights.

Jews have valued freedom for over 3000 years and have through our narrative refined the gifts of freedom which are deeply embedded in our culture. We should take a moment to step out of our narrative and our understandable anxiety about the future to appreciate the momentous and hopefully lasting narrative of freedom emerging from the people of Egypt.

In the Torah we read the instructions of freedom .
You shalt not pervert the justice due to the stranger, or to the fatherless; nor take the widow's raiment to pledge. (Deut. 24:17

But the Torah then refers back to the narrative of the Jewish people
But you shall remember that you were a slave in Egypt, and the LORD your God redeemed you from there; therefore I command you to do this thing. (Deut 24:18)

May the new Egyptian narrative of freedom, just as our own narrative, serve as a touchstone for a more just, fair, and free society.

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