Major events in the Middle East inevitably become woven into the social fabric of the region’s peoples in ways that make the past feel like the present. With each new explosion, issues accumulate rather than dissipate, and the region’s people are never quite the same.
Now is one of those times. And unlike the explosions of the past half-century, this one isn’t creating war, but is actually creating democracy. We are witnessing history in the making, where the people of the Middle East are rising up to change their world.
We as American Jews need to be on the right side of this history.
Let’s start with a refresher about the violent history of the Middle East. In the 1930s and ’40s, the Middle East exploded from a civil war between Jews and Arabs over control of Palestine. In the 1950s, the region exploded from an Egyptian revolution and the rise of Pan-Arab nationalism. In the 1960s and 1970s, it exploded from major wars between Israel and her neighbors over Israel’s survival. In the 1980s, it exploded from sectarian battles (Lebanon) and border wars (Iran-Iraq), as well as popular uprisings (Palestinian Intifada). And in the 1990s and 2000s it exploded from external invasion and occupation.
Each of these violent experiences is still simmering, living in the reptile memory banks of the people of the region. Israelis are still fighting for legitimacy as if it’s 1948; Lebanese are still fighting each other for supremacy; nationalism and sectarianism still plague Iran and Iraq; and the Palestinians are caught amongst each of these currents. As the violent conflicts persist in the minds of the people of the region, they are prevented from moving forward with their lives.
Yet now, instead of violent conflict, the region has instead exploded in a people’s revolt, caused by frustration against the region’s governments. Can this be the moment that the Middle East shifts course and actually turns in a direction that helps resolve some of the region’s core problems, including poverty, failing educational systems, women’s inequality, and political repression?
With this question on the table, it’s now crucial that we in the American Jewish community assess our next moves. How we react is important, as our views about the Middle East matter in Washington.
In the past, when the Middle East exploded in violent conflict, American Jews would react by racing to support Israel. These reactions included sending financial and moral support to Israel, as well as working the corridors of power in Washington to ensure that Israeli security needs were met.
Yet when relations between Israel and the Arab world were broached, the baseline assumption was that the Arab world was run by either autocrats or mullahs, and that one should cast a skeptical eye on these governments. Democratic change was viewed with suspicion, largely out of fear of what lay underneath.
Well, I have news: Middle Easterners control their countries and they are now rising up, challenging the status quo and calling for real change in their governments. “Stability” is giving way to something new. We should not sentimentalize this stability, as it is grounded in an authoritarianism that has bred the extremism we detest.
So while what happens in these countries is not up to us to determine, how American Jews react to these changes will drive how we are perceived by the people of the region. American Jews cannot miss this unique opportunity to be on the right side of history.
Let’s remember that the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt are about the people of these countries. In each instance, political repression was (and is) the norm, with elite cliques running both the governments and economies. The Arab Middle East is the world’s least democratic region, and despite its great oil wealth, the population sits near the bottom of the global economy. There is a reason why the people are rebelling. Change is long overdue.
So while the Arab world undergoes its own internal reckoning, American strategic alliances with the authoritarian governments of the region are coming under deep strain. These governments have oftentimes been our friends, but are buckling, searching for ways to keep the calm.
As these governments change, the United States must respond in the affirmative, not clinging to the past, but instead building bridges to the new powers — powers that may likely be driven by the democratic voices of these countries. As American Jews, we must call on our government to press the governments of the region to release the pressure and meet the aspirations of their people.
So now is not the time for the American Jewish community to, as Margaret Thatcher once said to George Bush, “go wobbly.” The new Middle East is arriving and it’s time to make sure that we in the Jewish community are on the right side of this change, supporting it vociferously so that the people of the Middle East can finally create a positive chapter in their lives.
Also, check out these links:
Muslim Brotherhood at Forward.com
But will the U.S. engage with a group that calls for the annulment of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? “We cannot cherry pick,” said Joel Rubin, deputy director of National Security Network, a progressive foreign policy think tank, and a former State Department Egypt desk officer. According to Rubin, the U.S. currently engages with Islamist parties in Iraq and should not set conditions for the Egyptian people. “The administration should make clear that peace between Egypt and Israel is an American interest,” he added.
Backers of Israel worried that Islamists may take control in Egypt
Knee-jerk fear of a radical Islamic takeover is misplaced, said Joel Rubin, a columnist for the Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle and deputy director of the National Security Network, a Washington think tank. He spent four years working on Middle Eastern issues for the State Department. “The faces of the protesters are not Islamic fundamentalists," he said. "They are not calling for an Islamic government." Egypt does need to avoid a "snap election," Rubin said. "The idea is to get a system in place, a process, that is consensus-based and helps get political parties set up," he said. "What people want to know is, OK, fine, they are going . . . for democracy, but what does this do for the peace treaty with Israel, and what about the Muslim Brotherhood?"
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)