Tahrir Square, Berlin Wall, Red Sea

Fallen Pharoahs & Creative Communities

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

Today I want not to focus on Pharaoh but to celebrate the people – those million or more who have gathered in Tahrir Square, both as a united, insistent, revolutionary body and as the individuals — professors and street bums and secretaries, bakers and housewives and lawyers, each one unique, each one fashioned in the Image of God, who have awakened from the stupor their modern pharaoh imposed upon them.

They stand in a great line of nonviolent revolutionaries, stretching back in the traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam to those who dared to smear blood on their doorposts and come forth from these wombs of rebirth to break the birthing waters of the Red Sea.  

More after the jump.
Suddenly, people who have seemed literally stupid, unable to chart their futures in the iron maze of “stability,” come alive, intelligent, able to debate and plan and create community when the Iron Guards of “order” defect and disappear —

  • as did the people of  East Germany and all Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989;
  • as did the students and workers of the nation-wide uprising in France in May 1968;
  • as did the Black communities and their white allies in America in the early 1960s;
  • as did the auto workers of Michigan in 1937 who took over the auto plants, refusing to be disemployed or dislodged and winning the right to organize;  
  • as did India in 1930 when Gandhi led an illegal campaign to make salt from the sea without paying the British tax on salt  —

There is a softer kind of stupor in America, these days:

We face with stupor the droughts that follow on the heating of our planet, droughts that burnt wheat crops in Russia last summer, sent wheat prices sharply higher, and took food from the mouths of Tunisian and Egyptian workers  — whose revolt is rooted in the global scorching that we American shrug off.  

We face with stupor the shoveling of a trillion dollars worth of human ingenuity and labor, the shoveling and shriveling of blood and limbs and genitals, of shattered minds and souls of Americans and Iraqis and Afghans, into the trash heaps of illegitimate and unwinnable wars.    

We face with stupor the despair of fifteen million Americans who are officially counted among the disemployed – and another five million who are not even counted because they have given up looking for jobs.

“Disemployed” – my computer software puts a red line under the letters, telling me that’s not even a word. But these people are not “unemployed,” as if they had accidentally stubbed a toe on the way to work. They have been disemployed by decisions of those who hold power in our society, who have used their power to grasp even more power by dumping hundreds of millions of dollars into election campaigns, who have used their power to win obscene tax cuts so as to put even more money into buying more power to keep the disemployed in their despair – and all of us in stupor.

We do not need to be stupid. Like the Egyptians in Tahrir Square – the word means “Liberation” – we can awaken.

In mid-April, Jews will celebrate the Passover when their stories teach that Pharaoh fell and Miriam led the people in songs of jubilation; Christians will celebrate Palm Sunday, Black Friday, Easter Sunday  when their stories tell them that a courageous few faced Caesar and that life renewed and resurrected transcended death and torture.

Can these celebrations leap off the pages of prayer books to become sparks of change?  Where, three months from now, could bands of the disemployed celebrate  by reentering their work places and demand to be paid for their work?  – laid-off firefighters reentering the fire houses, laid-off teachers creating Freedom Schools like those in Mississippi in 1964 to teach the truth and end the stupor of their students,  laid-off nurses  demanding that the wars end and the money be rechanneled so hospitals can serve the sick instead of warehousing the overflowing supply of brain-injured veterans.

Where, in the week before Palm Sunday and Passover, could multireligious folk  picket the banks that are funding Old King Coal, That Lethal Old Soul, and demand that the investment money be channeled to wind and solar power instead?

What spark of bold intelligence, like Rosa Parks’ refusal in Montgomery, will against all expectation light the fire of love against the flames of destruction and the darkness of despair?

Uprisings, whether in ancient or in modern Egypt, are not fulfilled by overthrowing pharaohs. There needs to be a “Sinai” and perhaps many years of troubled experiment and exploration in the Wilderness – a working out of new forms of community.

In our world, that community must be broader and deeper than we have ever known. It must take seriously that YHWH Echad, the Breath of Life is one: that a coal plant belching CO2 in Pennsylvania creates a drought and fires in Russia that create a dearth of wheat and bread in Egypt that fills Tahrir Square and scares a President in Washington.

Cast off the stupor, create community.

To keep abreast of Tahrir Square, the  best coverage is by Al Jazeera in English —  the news network blackballed by almost all US channel TV. But you can watch it on-line here.

Reactions to Unrest in Egypt: Hope & Concern

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism

We are watching the developing situation in Egypt with concern, and with hope.

We agree with President Obama that it is essential that the Egyptian government use restraint when dealing with peaceful protests.  Our prayers go out to all those who have been injured and the families of those who have been killed in this conflict.

The people of Egypt should have the rights of all citizens of the earth to peacefully assemble, to express their opinion openly and without fear of oppression, and to express their political desires through a fair and legitimate election.

We, therefore, join with the governments of the United States and Canada in calling for President Mubarak to implement the political, social, and economic reforms that will move the country forward.

We urge, and pray, that these reforms be moved forward through a peaceful dialogue between the protestors and the government and not through the use of violence on either side.

We hope that whatever the outcome of these events, the Republic of Egypt continues to work for peace in the greater Middle East and continue its over thirty year peace agreement with the State of Israel

Congressman Steve Rothman (D-NJ), member of the House Appropriations Foreign Operations Subcommittee

The United States and our allies are all monitoring the situation on a minute by minute basis and encourage a peaceful and democratic resolution to the current Egyptian unrest. My heart goes out to all of those who have been killed or injured during the mass demonstrations in the Egyptian streets.

For the past 30 years, as the most populous of the Arab states, with the largest standing army in the region, Egypt has played a critically important role in protecting America’s interests in North Africa and the Middle East. This includes Egypt’s cooperation in military, intelligence, and economic matters with our country; and its continuing to preserve the peace with America’s most important friend and strategic ally in the region, the Jewish State of Israel. Egypt has also partnered with the U.S., Israel, and our other allies in fighting terrorism.

In the end, we seek an Egypt that remains a strong ally, working with the U.S. in our common fight against terrorism, living at peace with Israel, and creating an increasingly open society to meet the needs of its young and growing population.

— Alan Elsner, The Israel Project Senior Communications Director

The uprising in Egypt that looks like it may sweep away President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime threatens to deprive Israel of its most important strategic ally in the region.

Israeli leaders have been silent about the events in Egypt and are powerless to affect the outcome. But they and the entire Israeli population are gravely concerned that the turmoil will ultimately bring to power a new government hostile to the Jewish state.

At a time when Israel’s relations with Turkey, its other traditional regional ally, have deteriorated sharply, and when Hezbollah is strengthening its grip in Lebanon, the developments in Egypt will likely deepen a sense of vulnerability in the Israeli public and strengthen the government’s determination to keep security its number one priority.

There is also the danger of a domino effect.

More after the jump.

Challenges have been sparked to the monarchy in Jordan – the only other Arab country to have made peace with Israel – as well as governments throughout the Arabian Peninsula which control most of the world’s oil supplies.

Israel and Egypt fought four wars between 1948 and 1973 but signed a peace treaty in 1979. True, it was a “cold peace.” Mubarak refused to allow cultural or people-to-people relations to flourish and kept military ties between the Israel Defense Forces and the Egyptian military on a low level with no joint exercises. He also tolerated a media that has spewed offensive anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric for years, ensuring that Egyptian public opinion remained hostile to Israel and Jews in general.

Still, this “cold peace” has been a tremendous strategic asset for both countries and a bulwark of stability in the region. Israel no longer had to plan for a two or three-front war and was able to cut military spending, with a consequent boost to its economy. In the past year, the Egyptian military has made some efforts to disrupt weapons smuggling to Iranian-backed Hamas across its border with Gaza.

Of course, Israelis recognize that Mubarak has been running a corrupt, authoritarian regime that has held back progress in his country. On a strictly human level, Israelis understand that Egyptians should enjoy the same democratic rights as they do and deserve the chance to build a better future. But the danger exists that what comes next will be infinitely worse, not only for Israel but for the Egyptian people themselves.

The nightmare scenario, of course, is a repeat of the Iranian revolution of 1979 when the pro-western Shah, an Israeli ally and oil supplier, was replaced by an Islamic regime that openly calls for Israel’s destruction, denies the Holocaust and is engaged in an all-out attempt to build nuclear weapons.

The Shah’s government, no doubt, was a cruel human rights abuser – but the Islamic fundamentalism of the Ayatollahs which replaced him has been a thousand times worse and now threatens the peace of the world.

In Egypt, the best opposition organization is the Muslim Brotherhood which has close links to Hamas and is ideologically very hostile to Israel. Its leaders probably understand that abandoning the peace treaty with Israel would endanger the $2 billion in aid Egypt receives each year from the United States as well as critically damaging Egypt’s important tourist trade. But their rank-and-file supporters are not as sophisticated and would no doubt place immense pressure on the leadership to change the country’s pro-western orientation.

Still, Egypt is no Iran. Strategically and historically, the two are competitors and not allies. Iran is at the center of a growing “Shi’ite crescent” which is steadily bringing Lebanon into its orbit.

Probably the best solution for Egypt would be a peaceful and orderly transition to free and fair elections. But this too is no panacea. Local elections were held in Gaza in January 2005 which brought the Iranian-backed Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement to power.

That was six years ago, and Hamas seems determined never to hold another election ever again. In 2007, it brutally crushed the opposition Fatah organization and expelled its members. Last October, a poll by The Israel Project in Gaza found Hamas with only a 40 percent approval rating, trailing considerably behind Fatah – but of course Gazans have no opportunity to express their will at the ballot box.

Egyptians deserve a chance to build democracy and move their country forward. Israelis hope they get the chance to do so, knowing that peace and friendship works best between fellow democracies.


by Rabbi Murray Gordon Silberman

A cold wind is blowing across Israel from Araby and parts of the Muslim world causing a severe deterioration in its diplomatic position. Turkey and Egypt, the anchors of its diplomatic and military positions in the region, are now uncertain neighbors. Political developments in the two countries have placed both on an increasingly unfriendly course to the Jewish state. The Arab Spring, which is blossoming into an Islamic political revival, is raising questions whether Egypt will continue to retain its decades- old peace treaty with Israel. Turkey, an erstwhile ally of Israel, has become increasingly  
hostile and cut its diplomatic ties to the bare minimum. The underlying reason for this estrangement is the festering Palestinian question. Egyptians and Turkey hold Israel responsible for refusing to address Palestinian demands that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

When the youth in much of the Arab world rose up against their autocratic rulers, little if anything of this had to do with the Palestinians or Israel. Their demands were simple enough. Freedom, democratic rule, and respect for human rights were their clarion call. In the ten months since the uprising in the Arab world, the autocratic rulers in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen have been overthrown.

Consider Egypt

No image is more emblematic of this turn of events than former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak being tried in a civilian court as he lies on a cot inside a prison cage. Bashar al Assad in Syria is facing increasingly violent opposition from the people that he and his father have oppressed for more than forty years. And he finds himself isolated not only in most of the international world but among sister Arab states. The Arab League, long considered a toothless body, has imposed political and economic sanctions on the Syrian regime.

As this swirl of events continues to unfold, the Israeli government has been an increasingly concerned onlooker upon what is happening in Arab countries close to and not a far remove from its borders. The United States, Israelʼs closest ally, and which has long dominated Arab politics by its support of the Mubaraks of the region, has lost much of its clout to shape the radically new political reality that is mapping across the Arab world.

The Egyptian revolution is far from complete. The initial euphoria of the revolution that saw the downfall of the hated Mubarak has faded away. Huge crowds have come back to Tahrir Square to protest the continued dominance of the military in the government. Emergency rule remains in effect and thousands have been tried in military tribunals for resisting the security forces. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, or SCAF, has taken over control of the country, and its chairman Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who had been Mubarakʼs Defense Minister for twenty years, is now Egyptʼs de-facto ruler. While SCAF was flexing its muscles, Egyptians went to the polls in the first free parliamentary election in memory in which 62 per cent electorate cast ballots. The outcome in this first round of voting gave the Muslim Brotherhood 40 percent of the vote and the fundamentalist Salafist party Al Nour 23 percent. Liberals and secularists trailed far behind.

For Israel this outcome could be a harbinger of a falling out with post-Mubarak Egypt. Mubarak maintained the peace treaty with Israel as a pillar of his foreign policy. To the extent that an elected government reflects popular opinion towards the Jewish state, the treaty could be repudiated or seriously modified. Many Egyptians view Israel with extreme disfavor, as was evident two months ago when a mob attacked the Israeli embassy in Cairo forcing the ambassador and his staff to flee the country. So far the Muslim Brotherhood, the more moderate of the two Islamist factions, has remained quiet in regard to the treaty. It couches Shariah in moderate and ambiguous terms marking a sharp divide with the fundamentalist Al Nour Islamic party. Past Al Nour rhetoric towards Israell has been extremely hostile. So far, there is no indication how SCAF would decide on the treaty, though under the Mubarak regime, the military showed no sign of seeking confrontation with Israel.

Now Consider Turkey

Jerusalemʼs other main ally, Turkey, has turned its back on Israel and has become a sharp critic of its handling the Palestine issue. Until roughly two years ago the two countries were strategic partners in a wide range of military, economic, and political matters. All that has ended. Ostensibly the rupture was brought about by an attempt by a Turkish non- governmental organization with close ties to Ankara to run a flotilla of vessels to breach Israelʼs blockade of Hamas-ruled Gaza. The Netanyahu government did not take kindly to this action. Israeli marines boarded the lead vessel and in the ensuing struggle, nine Turkish citizens lost their lives. Prime Minister Recip Erdogan, undoubtedly the most popular Turkish leader since Ataturk, demanded an apology for the killing of its citizens. Netanyahu countered by stating the Israeli marines were justified in using force and refused to apologize. An apology, he and his hardline foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman argued, was a strategic asset that had to be preserved. Ironically, Israelʼs military establishment and intelligence community did not view an apology as a prized commodity and urged Netanyahu to offer an apology as a way to soften Turkeyʼs growing enmity; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quietly called on him to bite the bullet and apologize but he refused. Meantime, Erdogan has dug in his heels and in a tour of Arab and African countries, spared no effort to demonize Israel and champion the Palestinian cause.

It would be fanciful to believe that the Turkish prime minister severed his countryʼs strategic ties with Israel over the flotilla affair. Erdogan, an observant Muslim, had long maneuvered to become a leader in the Arab/Muslim world. Keeping the strategic relationship with Jerusalem would doom his ambitions. Under his leadership friendly relations were developed with Iran and close economic and military ties were forged with Syria. On a visit to Cairo, he held his country up as an example of the compatibility between Islamic values and democratic practices. As the Arab Spring brought little comfort to the Palestinian cause, Turkey picked up the cudgels for the Palestinians in the United Nations when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestine Authority, sought membership in the world organization.

The strategy of forming close ties with Arab/Muslim world has suffered setbacks. Relations with Syria have soured as a result of the popular uprising and Assadʼs brutal crackdown on his own people, which according to the U.N., has led to the killing of 5,000 people. Turkey has granted refuge to many Syrians seeking to escape the murderous security forces and has called on Assad to step down. Despite friendship with Iran, the Turks have incurred the ire of the mullahs in Teheran for allowing the United States to set up a radar system on their soil that would detect Iranian missiles fired at Western Europe and Israel. Turkeyʼs system of combining democratic rule with Islamic values has not escaped criticism in Egypt from the conservative elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and fundamentalist Salafists who call for the imposition of shariah law.

Despite these setbacks, Erdogan remains wildly popular at home. There is a growing feeling that his policies of turning to the East and not the West are basically correct, particularly given European Unionʼs repeated rejections of Turkish membership. And unlike the E.U. which is lurching from one banking and Euro crisis to another and whose economy is mired in recession, Turkey is enjoying robust economic growth and low unemployment. With economic winds to his back, Erdogan remains committed to his political agenda of courting Arab countries and proclaiming his support for the Palestinian cause. Quiet efforts by the Obama administration to nudge Turkey to reconcile with Israel have come acropper; Erdogan has frozen ties with Jerusalem although much of the overtly harsh criticism of the recent past has been muted.

In this sea change in the Turkish/Arab world, Israelʼs right-wing government has lost some of its political footing. It has little or any control over the changes wrought by the Arab Spring. Whatever influence it might have had with Turkey over the flotilla incident it lost because of its refusal to apologize for its action in the flotilla incident. Even if such an apology were forthcoming, it is doubtful that the main lines of Turkish Middle Eastern policy would change. Although is still too early to predict the outcome of the political situation in Egypt in regard to the treaty although it is clear that the two Islamist parties, which have captured 65 per cents of the seats in the first round of parliamentary voting presents an unnerving scenario for Israel.

And We Must Not Overlook Syria

Syriaʼs Arab Spring just might yield some benefits for Israel. It has, for now removed the threat of hostilities with Syriaʼs powerful army which has been preoccupied with putting down the revolt against Assadʼs rule. Perhaps more significantly, it has forced the Hamas political leadership to move its Damascus-based headquarters to Cairo and Doha, the capital of Qatar. This shift to Egypt could moderate Hamasʼs behavior while reducing Teheranʼ ability to threaten clashes with Israel, according to Meir Javedanafar, an Iran expert based in Israel who called the move “a major strategic setback” for Iran. Leaders of the revolt have turned their ire against Hezbollah, Iranʼs proxy in Lebanon, for backing Assad and supporting his goal of crushing the popular uprising.

Regarding the Palestinians

It is indisputable that resolution of the Palestinian question is the sin qua non in achieving for Israel a modicum of reconciliation with Arab countries and Turkey. As of now, negotiations between the Palestine Authority headed by Mahmoud Abbas and the Netanyahu government are at an impasse. Netanyahu has insisted he is prepared to return to the negotiating table without conditions while Abbas has refused to do so as long as Israel continues to promote settlements in the West Bank and build new housing in East Jerusalem. The Israeli Prime Minister is also at odds with President Obama who called for negotiations based on the 1967 borders, a position Netanyahu publicly rejected in his address before the U.S. Congress. While Netanyahu is committed to a two-state solution of the conflict with the Palestinians, his goal is redraw the map of the proposed Palestinian state in a way that is unacceptable to Abbas. In the matter of Jerusalem, he is unalterably committed to the position of a unified Jerusalem under Israeli control. Calls by Hillary Clinton and, in more colorful language by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, to return to the negotiating table have gone unanswered.

Role of the US presidential elections

It is highly unlikely that the two sides will return to the negotiating table any time soon. U.S presidential elections have already dimmed the prospects of such an event from happening. The Obama administration has for now forsaken any thought of bringing the two sides together lest he be accused by the Republicans of pressuring Israel to make concessions to the Palestinians. The departure of Dennis Ross, Obamaʼs chief Middle East negotiator, is a clear indication of the administrationʼs quiescent position. Both Democrats and Republicans are positioning themselves on the Israel-Palestine issue to win over Jewish voters and Jewish campaign contributions.

The Republican candidates for president have accused Obama of abandoning Israel, or as Mitt Romney has said, “he threw Israel under a bus.” Newt Gingrich has referred to Palestinians as “an invented people.” Netanyahu himself shows no effort to resume negotiations with Abbas. Whenever Abbas takes a political initiative that the prime minister considers anti-Israel such as seeking membership in the U.N. or agreeing to unity talks with Hamas, Netanyahu announces the building of new housing in East Jerusalem which is sure to harden Palestinian attitudes towards a resumption of negotiations. Netanyahu knows that meaningful concessions to Abbas will threaten his grip on power; the hardline nationalists and religious and Haredi parties that are the bedrock of his coalition would almost certainly resign and lead to the collapse of the government.

In the face of this situation, Abbas decided to abandon the negotiating track and turn to the United Nations in the hope of gaining membership in the world organization. He also agreed to meet with Hamas in a bid to unify the Palestinian people. The Obama administration firmly opposed both moves. Direct negotiations between the two sides, Washington insisted, was the only way to resolve the conflict. It also opposed negotiations with Hamas, which the U.S. has branded a terrorist organization. Although Abbas succeeded in gaining full membership in the UNESCO, the Security Council, because of U.S. pressure on several council members, failed to support his bid for U.N. membership status. His attempt to achieve reconciliation with Hamas has so far gone nowhere. Lately, negotiations with Hamas have been renewed but, so far, there are no signs of a breakthrough. Furious at these attempts for U.N. membership and talks with Hamas, Israel responded by announcing the construction of new housing in East Jerusalem and withholding customs and tax revenues in the amount of $100 million it is legally obligated to hand over to the Palestine Authority. After a month watching the P.A. cut back salaries to its employees, Israel, under pressure from Washington and the European Union agreed to restore the money. If the renewed talks succeed and Fatah and Hamas form a unity government, Israel has ruled out the possibility of future negotiations on peace talks.

Western Government Influences

Israelʼs deepening isolation in the region has been the subject of attention in Western government circles. Recently, four European countries members of the United Nations Security Council called on Israel to reverse its settlement building plans, saying they were illegal, sent a “devastating message” and threatened the prospects of a two-state solution. The criticism of Israel has come from Britain, France, Germany and Portugal that it has long counted among its closest European allies, pointing up Israelʼs growing diplomatic isolation over the Palestine issue.

The settlement policy and housing construction and growing violence against Palestinians in the West Bank have prompted left-leaning Israeli non-governmental organizations to escalate their attacks against the government. These organizations have also called for a boycott of goods produced in the settlements raising the hackles of the nationalist and religious parties. Many of these NGOs receive part of their funding from Western European and American sources. In response to NGO criticisms, the Netanyahu government is considering legislation to limit the amount of foreign financial assistance these organizations may receive. No less insidious is the recently adopted controversial Anti-Boycott law which would make it a civil offence for any individual or group advocating an economic, cultural or academic boycott of Israel or the West Bank settlements. An individual or group advocating such a boycott would be subject to fines and other penalties. Speaking at a closed forum in Washington, D.C., Hillary Clinton warned that such restrictions posed a threat to Israeli democracy. Civil rights activists in Israel as well as international human rights organizations have warned of the baleful effects they could have on the country. Reacting defensively, government ministers have rejected these assertions.

Of mounting concern is legislation working its way through the Knesset that would restrict freedom of the press. One of Israelʼs proudest claims is that it boasts the only free press in the Middle East. But journalists and civil rights activists warn this would no longer be true should the proposed media legislation be adopted. On November 20, approximately 500 journalists from different media outlets attended what was billed as an “emergency conference” in Tel Aviv to discuss what they consider unprecedented threats to freedom of the press. The conference protested the lawʼs libel provisions that the journalists say could tie their hands and stymie investigative reporting. The Knesset bill passed its first reading by a vote 42 to 31 the day after the conference. Also of great concern is the growing likelihood that channel 10, famed for its investigative journalism, will be forced to close down at the end of January because a parliamentary committee, at the behest of the prime minister, refused to extend a debt of $11 million to an offical regulatory body. Channel 10 reported on the numerous trips Netanyahu had taken as an elected official to Paris, London and New York before becoming prome minister in 2009. He and his wife flew first class, stayed in baronial hotel suites and, during this travel, lived beyond their means. The bills for this luxury travel were paid for by Netanyahuʼs wealthy friends. The widely viewed report did not make Netanyahu look good in the eyes of the public. Netanyahuʼs refusal to extend Channel 10ʼs debt is seen by observers as his way at getting back at the station.

No less a person than Shimon Peres, president of Israel, and a member of Kadima, has weighed in, saying that Channel 10ʼs efforts to survive, is “a struggle for Israelʼs democratic character”. Addressing other controversial actions by the government, he also stated he was “ashamed” of several bills being considered by the Knesset, believing they would infringe on democracy.

Concerns about a “Putinization of Israel”

Ben Caspit, a senior columnist with the daily newspaper Maariv said he sees a “Putinization of Israel”. “I never dreamed that I would see such things”, he said. Bloggers having also been expressing their fury at libel provisions in proposed Israeli law. The law would allow successful libel plaintiffs to win maximum awards of $80,000 even if they cannot prove they suffered actual harm. The sum represents a six-fold increase in the current maximum. In the event the media outlet in question did not offer the plaintiff the opportunity “to add his full response to the publication” the awards can rise to $400,000. The law, if finally adopted, would begin an era of self-censorship and paralyze investigative reporting, according to former Supreme Court justice Dalia Dorner, who is president of the Israel Press Council, the mediaʼs ethical body. Should that happen, the information space in Israel would shrink.

Israel has long boasted it is the only democracy in the Middle East. These laws, as they now stand, and the stepped up attacks against the Supreme Court, long a bulwark against legislative encroachments on Israeli society, could make such a boast ring hollow. Israel, to be sure, remains a robust democracy, but these turn of events have already cast a shadow over this bedrock of Israeli society.


With the deterioration of relations with Turkey and the uncertainties over the future course of the revolution in Egypt, Israelʼs diplomatic position in the Middle East has dramatically declined. Under the deposed Hosni Mubarak, Egypt had maintained a “cold peace” with the Jewish state and scrupulously adhered to the peace treaty that had been in force between the two countries for the past thirty years. Although the Islamists who won two-thirds of the seats in the newly elected parliament have issued statements promising not to tamper with the treaty, Israel has reason to be concerned that these promises are not commitments. Relations with Turkey, the other anchor of Israelʼs Middle East diplomacy have also suffered as this powerful Muslim state is seeking to become a prime leader in the Arab/Muslim world. In both these countries, the festering Palestine issue remains at the heart of their growing estrangement from Israel.

Given the intransigence of the Netanyahu government on the Palestine issue and its refusal to make the kind of concessions that could draw P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, there is little hope that any meaningful progress will made in the near future in cutting this Gordian knot. Britain, France, and Germany, Israelʼs closest European friends, have recently sharpened their criticism of Israeli intransigence, thereby deepening its political isolation. Deterioration in its diplomatic situation has prompted the Netanyahu government to curb speech and press criticism of the settlements The anti-Boycott law would make it a civil offence to advocate an economic, cultural, or academic boycott of the settlements. Proposed legislation regarding the media would raise fines to ruinous heights for newspapers or other media that are convicted of libeling an individual or organization. This legislation now making its way through the Knesset is likely would almost certainly lead to an infringement of the freedom of the press. In an effort to protect the settlements, viewed by most of the world as illegal, the Netanyahu government, is restricting time-honored freedoms within Israel proper. The restrictions have drawn criticism from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, warning they pose a threat to Israeli democracy.

Murray Gordon Silberman served nearly twenty-five years as a senior official in the United Nations Secretariat. Ten years of this time he spent in Vienna. While in the Austrian capital, he served five years as the Vienna correspondent of the Jerusalem Post. After retiring from the United Nations, he worked as a consultant to the American Jewish Committee and was the author of numerous monographs on foreign policy issues. He was also a contributor to the American Jewish Year Book, writing the chapter on Austrian Jewry. Murray Silberman became an ordained rabbi in 2000 after graduating from the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He has written numerous articles on the Middle East, Africa and India and is the author of the book Slavery in the Arab World. All his writings appear under the pen name Murray Gordon. Rabbi Silberman currently serves as the Jewish chaplain to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and two nursing homes.

Lessons From Our Family Bar Mitzvah Trip to Israel & Egypt

My extended family and I just returned from a family trip to Israel and Egypt to celebrate our younger son’s Bar Mitzvah. We are grateful and blessed that our dream trip was realized. We marked Noah’s becoming a man in the Jewish tradition at the Kotel (the western wall in the Old City of Jerusalem) with 14 members of our family, including all four grandparents, an uncle, cousins, and friends. It was a simcha (happy occasion) beyond words: magical; spiritual; exceeding our every anticipation and expectation. We traveled throughout Israel for 11 days, and then spent four days in Egypt.

Observations? Lessons learned?  I have many, but here are just a few:

More after the jump

  • How incredibly fortunate we were, at this rare moment in Jewish history, that we could celebrate this special mitzvah in our ancient homeland at our holiest site, in freedom and security; a mere 62 years after Israel’s re-establishment founding, 43 years after Jerusalem’s liberation, and nearly more than 2,000 years since the destruction of the Second Temple;
  • We were in awe that during the Bar Mitzvah Shacharit (morning) services at the southern section of the Kotel (in the Masorti (Conservative Movement)-sanctioned section of the southern Wall by the Robinson Arch that there was no doubt the direction we bowed and our reader’s table faced — the Wall was right there; we were touching it. Yet, perched directly above us was the Al Asqa Mosque, sitting atop the Temple Mount there is also the  reminder that we are in the shadows of our enemies and detractors;
  • The excitement for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony was palpable. There were four other families close by celebrating their simchas just like us: loud, incessant drumbeating accompanying Bar Mitzvah boys to their celebrations created an atmosphere of even more awe for the occasion;
  • Kabbalat Shabbat (Friday evening services) at the Kotel: a magnet drawing all – haredim (ultra-orthodox), soldiers, and secular– but all there to bring in the Sabbath spirit. Words  do not do justice here;
  • Israel is vibrant, green, gleaming, thriving, a marvel and miracle of history, a true oasis,  given the volatile and hostile neighborhood in which it lives;
  • Religious diversity is celebrated and protected for all faiths in dignity throughout the country, and is especially evident in Jerusalem;
  • It is amazing how much Israel has accomplished, with so little resources, in such a short time and under constant existential threat; from Shoah (Holocaust) to tkumah (rebirth); and amazing how just how small Israel is in size yet feels so big in spirit;
  • Food is plentiful, bountiful, clean and healthy; yet smoking is prevalent;
  • Appreciation of even the otherwise mundane: trucks, signs, roads, stores, products, media, TV: all bear Hebrew names and titles-Israel totally has built its own culture, which we should not take for granted;
  • Patriotism runs high, with flags prominently displayed;
  • Faces of the people, old, young, ultra-Orthodox and secular-brave;  proud; living their lives;
  • We were part of record crowds of tourists; inspiring to see tours of Birthright, college kids, teens, missions, Asians, Christian groups from around the world;
  • Co-existence: Our visit to Hadassah Hospital where all are treated equally regardless of ethnicity, religion or faith, the triumph of biology over ideology; our Egyptian tour guide knew to go to Israel to get the best medical care for his operation;
  • Israelis are generally far more tolerant of their Arab or Muslim citizens than is portrayed by Western media, and opportunities abound for those Arabs who want to participate in the economy;
  • Democracy is thriving, business is booming; construction projects in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are visible everywhere;
  • The markets and streets — Ben Yehuda Street, Machane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem, Camel Market in Tel Aviv — are packed with shoppers;
  • The countryside is beautiful: Rosh Hanikra, the Jezreel Vally, Safed, the Hula Valley, Gallilee, the Golan. It is evident that the there is not the same enthusiasm, know-how, or attitude toward growth, agriculture, sustainability in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan — visible just beyond Israel’s borders;
  • Israel must keep the Golan and a demilitarized Jordan River Valley for strategic and security purposes– go there and you see why it is imperative;
  • Without Israel, the raison d’être natural safe haven for the Jewish people, our vibrancy power in the Diaspora is diminished considerably; ie the Holocaust;
  • Go on an archeological dig: feel, explore, sift through and touch direct proof of Israel’s past;
  • We planted trees in JNF forest; Israel is the only country in the world that has more trees in it since its founding, or over the last 100 years; get your hands dirty, plant and bring life to the land;
  • Contrast to Egypt is staggering and instructive. It is clear why you “go down” to Egypt: You are in an autocratic police state and third-world country. Cairo has 25 million residents (itself over three times more people than all of Israel) and is bustling; polluted; dense; poor; scattered animals, donkeys, horses, goats, chickens roam in the streets. Security is everywhere, yet it is tolerant to tourists, who are treated well- far better than the local population. Museums are in poor shape to house their priceless treasures; the Pyramids our Jewish ancestors built, tombs of the Pharoahs in Luxor, and the Nile where Moses was drawn from are still there to see. Food is not as nourishing or attractive as in Israel — especially fruits and vegetables – and lack of hygiene is a big issue (We had to brush our teeth with bottled water even in five-star hotels and tried to avoid any foods washed in water). The vast majority of Egyptians are concerned not with bashing Israel and Jews but making a living and simply getting by;
  • The Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo, one of oldest in world, is protected by the state, but it needs work and tender, loving care;
  • We were happy that our exodus was easy without needing Pharoah’s permission;

We Jews need to be strong and proud and mindful – reminded that our strength depends on the security of Israel, the miracle in the Middle East. We should be awefully proud of the  morally-centric nation that Israel is– the nation of the Jews which we have helped build. Stand up for Israel; do not yield to the “political correctness,” and moral relativists. The invitation to all its neighbors to join it in peace and prosperity has been there since its founding; however, its neighbor’s goals are anathema, hostile, backwards.

Go visit Israel.

Be there with our people and celebrate and be proud.  

Am Yisrael Chai!