This week, as Jews celebrate our freedom from slavery in Egypt, we should also raise a glass to salute the inspiring march to freedom of the Arab people.
Yet freedom one day does not mean emancipation the next. Passover is a cautionary tale of struggle and inspiration, with 40 years of wandering in the desert after the ecstasy of escape from the oppressive Pharaoh. Division and confusion amongst the Israelites reigned before they found their way. But what was clear throughout their march to freedom was that they had to truly free themselves not just physically, but also internally. Their struggle was ultimately about creating a true freedom both by themselves and for themselves.
This is the same for the people of the Arab world right now. As they struggle for freedom in fits and starts, sometimes with overwhelming success, such as in Egypt and Tunisia, and other times with mixed results, such as in Yemen, Libya, and Bahrain, we should take note and remember the struggles of the Israelites.
But we should not be confused — the Arabs today are victorious. They have chosen to change their societies for the better. On this score, the Arab people deserve our admiration and respect.
Their struggle is internal, about their own societies and futures. No American or Israeli flags have been burnt on the streets of Tunis or Cairo. And while we, Iran, Israel and even al-Qaida will have little direct control over what happens next in these countries, we should be mindful that how we behave now will have a deep influence over the nature of our relationship for years to come.
We have taken advantage of opportunities to build a strong relationship with the Arab world before. For instance, President Roosevelt presciently cemented an agreement with Saudi Arabian King Abdulaziz on Feb. 14, 1945 as World War II drew to a close, ensuring that the United States and Saudi Arabia would have a mutually beneficial relationship after the war. How we respond to today’s revolutionary changes will similarly have just as deep an influence over our relationship with the new Arab world for decades to come.
Now is our opportunity to repair our relationship with the Arab world, nurtured from decades of mistrust and misunderstanding. We should take it. And to do this, we should first applaud those making the changes happen.
For instance, there was the young Tunisian man, 26-year-old Muhammad Bouazizi, who set himself on fire on Dec. 17, 2010, to protest his being denied the right to sell food from a street cart because he didn’t have a permit. A college graduate who couldn’t find work, his cart was taken away by the Tunisian authorities and he harassed and humiliated. His self-immolation sparked the Tunisian revolt and led to the downfall of 23-year dictator Zine el-Abidin Ben Ali less than a month later.
Then there was Wael Ghonim, the young Egyptian Google executive who created a Facebook page that brought together hundreds of thousands of young protestors as never before. Egyptian authorities detained Ghonim on Jan. 27 during the protests, but released him on Feb. 7 following an international outcry. His release and subsequent calls for Egyptian unity against the Mubarak regime, including an extraordinarily emotional interview on Egyptian television, led to the final push against Mubarak, who stepped down only several days later.
And then there are the thousands of protestors in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain, risking their lives to change their societies. They are not calling for an end to America, but are instead calling for our support. As we navigate through this new Arab world, we must be always mindful of their calls, as they are the future.
We should also applaud the Obama administration for its deft handling of this momentous period. The administration has correctly been humble about its ability to shape events in the region, properly preferring to keep the focus on the demands of the people and to not make it about America. While the administration’s calls for democratic change will not always yield the perfect results, they are being advanced diligently, in a manner that respects the Arab people, supports their desire for political freedom and protects our security interests.
So let us applaud the Arabs this Spring. As former slaves in Egypt, we in the Jewish community understand the difficult path that today’s freedom marchers have chosen. We should not forget that our memory of those events is fixed in stone, as we have never forgotten — more than 3,200 years later — the names of our oppressors. Let this be both a warning and a reminder that our actions today will be remembered for years to come.
(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 firstname.lastname@example.org. His views are his own and not necessarily those of the National Security Network.)