Issue: 12.04 4/18/2011
by: Rabbi Michael Lerner
Egyptian Democracy

Solidarity with Contemporary Egyptians Seeking Democracy

Ever since the victory over the dictator of Tunisia and the subsequent uprising in Egypt, Tikkun’s email has been flooded with messages from Jews around the world hoping and praying for the victory of the Egyptian people over their cruel Mubarak regime. And when he was actually toppled, liberal and progressive Jews joined in welcoming the possibility of a democratic and human rights-respecting regime to replace the repression of the past.

A small segment of Jews have responded to right-wing voices from Israel that lament the change and fear that a democratic government would bring to power fundamentalist extremists who wish to destroy Israel; this small segment fears that Egypt’s new leaders could abrogate the hard-earned treaty that has kept the peace between Egypt and Israel for the last thirty years. The majority of Jews, however, are more excited and hopeful than worried.

Of course, the worriers have a point. Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and has used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza remain closed while Israel attempts to economically deprive the Hamas regime by denying Palestinians the food and equipment needed to rebuild after Israel’s devastating attack in December 2008 and January 2009. If the Egyptian people take over, they are far more likely to side with Hamas than with the Israeli blockade of Gaza.

Yet it is impossible for Jews to forget our heritage as victims of another Egyptian tyrant -- the Pharaoh whose reliance on brute force was overthrown when the Israelite slaves managed to escape from Egypt some 3,000 years ago. That story of freedom retold each year at our Passover “Seder” celebration, and read in synagogues in the past month, has often predisposed the majority of Jews to side with those struggling for freedom around the world. To watch hundreds of thousands of Egyptians able to throw off the chains of oppression -- and the legacy of a totalitarian regime that consistently jailed, tortured, or murdered its opponents so overtly that most people were cowed into silence -- is to remember that the spark of God continues to flourish, no matter how long oppressive regimes manage to keep themselves in power, and that ultimately the yearning for freedom and democracy cannot be totally stamped out, no matter how cruel and sophisticated the military and financial elites may be.

Many Jews have warned Israel that it is a mistake to ally with these kinds of regimes, just as we’ve warned the United States to learn the lesson from its failed alliance with the Shah of Iran. We’ve urged Israel to free the Palestinian people by ending the Occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza. Israel’s long-term security will not be secured through military or economic domination, but rather by acting in a generous and caring way first toward the Palestinian people, and then toward all of its Arab neighbors. Similarly, America’s homeland security will best be achieved through a strategy of generosity and caring, manifested through a new Global Marshall Plan such as has been introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Keith Ellison.

In normal times, when the forces of repression seem to be winning, this kind of thinking is dismissed as “utopian” by the “realists” who shape public political discourse. But when events like the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt occur, for a moment the politicians and media are stunned enough to allow a different kind of thinking to emerge, the kind of thinking that acknowledged that underneath all the “business as usual” behavior of the world’s peoples, the yearning for a world based on solidarity, caring for each other, freedom, self-determination, justice, non-violence, and even love and generosity remains a potent and unquenchable thirst that may be temporarily repressed but never fully extinguished.

It is this recognition that leads many Jews to join with the rest of the world’s peoples in celebrating the uprising, in praying that it does not become manipulated by the old regime into paths that too quickly divert the hopes for a brand new kind of order into politics and economics as usual, or into extremist attempts to switch the anger from domestic elites who have been the source of Egyptian oppression onto Jews or Israel which have not been responsible for the suffering of the Egyptian people. Such extremists could easily be marginalized if Israel were to take definitive action to accept the peace terms offered by the Palestinians in 2007-8 (terms known to the world through the release of relevant documents by Al-Jazeera) and if the United States in conjunction with Israel were to announce a Global Marshall Plan applied first to the Middle East. Such a plan has been developed in some detail by the Network of Spiritual Progressives.

We hope that Egyptians will hear the news that they have strong support from many in the Jewish world. And when we celebrate the end of our own slavery in Egypt, we will continue to pray for the freedom of the contemporary Egyptian people, all Arab peoples, all Muslims, all Jews, all Christians, all Buddhists, all Hindus, all secular humanists, and all the rest of us on this planet! The struggle has many dimensions, and any way you are willing to contribute to it will carry forward the message of Passover!

Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun (, author of the 2006 NY Times best-seller The Left Hand of God (Harper San Francisco), and national chair of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (
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