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.