Teaching a class on midrash!

On Egypt, protest, and liberation

It's been amazing to watch from afar as recent events have unfolded in Egypt. (For more on that subject, check out the Global Voices "Egypt Protests 2011" page; Marc Lynch is always worth reading; Ethan wrote an interesting post a few days ago; and I also enjoyed The poetry of revolt, about the poetry of the slogans and signs and about what changes when words are spoken in verse. What -- I'm a poet; how could I not find that compelling?)

When I was fourteen, I visited Egypt with my parents and sister. I remember the stunning spectacle of the temples at Karnak and Luxor, the story of the temple moved on account of the Aswan Dam (and my amazement at the precision with which it was originally built, which allowed sun and stars to shine in particular ways at particular moments on the liturgical calendar), a madcap horseback ride in the stony desert not far from the pyramids, the glorious bustle of my first souq (marketplace.) In more recent years my familiarity with Egypt has largely been through the lens of story -- Naguib Mahfouz's Cairo Trilogy, Jo Graham's fabulous "Numinous World" books Hand of Isis and Stealing Fire.

But what's awe-inspiring about the protests in Egypt goes well beyond my own familiarity (or lack thereof) with Egypt or Egyptian history. Egypt has been under a state of emergency since 1967, and in that state of emergency "police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship is legalized." (That's according to Wikipedia.) I can't imagine life under that kind of regime. It's inspiring to watch the Egyptian people taking to the streets -- largely peacefully -- and demanding change.

Via Rabbi Brant Rosen comes a link to Who's Afraid of Democracy?, an op-ed by Israeli columnist Sever Plocker, who writes:

We, Israelis, have been overtaken by fear: The fear of democracy. Not here, in neighboring countries. It’s as though we never prayed for our Arab neighbors to become liberal democracies. As though we never hoped to see free elections, multiparty systems, freedom of expression, and civil rights. Yet now that we see the flames of democracy engulfing the streets of Cairo, we are overcome by deep anxiety.

This fear stems from the perception that only oppressive regimes premised on a brutal secret police, dark apparatuses and the trampling of democracy can afford to make peace with Israel...

What Israelis fear, he writes, is "democracy as a transition period to a new dictatorship premised on radical Islam." And that's an understandable fear. Were the new Egyptian regime to take an anti-Israel stance, the situation in the Middle East would change drastically in ways which could be very dangerous to Israel. I can understand why that fear exists. Nevertheless, Plocker writes, "there is no room for early pessimism." There is no evidence that the vast crowds protesting in the streets are interested in changing Egypt's relationship with Israel per se; they are interested in food, jobs, freedom.

Rabbi Michael Lerner of Tikkun acknowledges the anxiety about how a new Egyptian regime might relate to Israel. In an email he sent recently to supporters of the Network of Spiritual Progressives (ETA: which was published as the essay Jewish Prayers for Egypt's Uprising) Rabbi Lerner writes:

Israel has allied itself with repressive regimes in Egypt and used that alliance to ensure that the borders with Gaza would remain closed while Israel attempted to economically deprive the Hamas regime there by denying needed food supplies and equipment 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 Pharoah 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 elites of wealth, power and military might appear to be.

Not surprisingly, Rabbi Arthur Waskow of The Shalom Center is thinking along similar lines. In his post Egypt's Pharaohs - Ancient & Today: Mubarak's Military Mindset & His Allies Here & Elsewhere, Rabbi Waskow writes:

Every year at Passover, we recall the story of an ancient Egyptian ruler who oppressed his people and was overthrown by God, the People, and the Earth itself.

This story is not just an antiquarian tale. It is an archetypal vision of what happens, again and again, when top-down tyranny becomes addicted to its own power, at first unwilling and then unable to change.

We saw again these past weeks how profound the story is -- first in Tunisia and then in Egypt...

For my own part, I understand the anxiety that some Jews and Israelis are feeling at the prospect of a shake-up in the region. And I recognize that it's easy for all of us out here in the Diaspora to opine about Middle East politics, with the safety and comfort of distance between ourselves and that part of the world.

But my religious tradition's central narrative of peoplehood is about breaking the shackles of slavery and constriction and moving forward into the responsibilities of freedom. I see this uprising through the lens of that story. I pray that with God's help, the people of Egypt may be able to take that same journey. They are in my prayers this week.