Jews, Cry Freedom!


As turmoil and conflict continue to sweep across the Arab world, the Jewish world has stayed relatively mum. Given that the scope of the Arab Spring first began showing its hand with the overthrow of a relatively trustworthy Israeli ally in Mubarak and Egypt, apprehension and silent worry have been relatively understandable responses from the Jewish community.

But what is done in Egypt is done. What will happen there, as well as in Tunisia, Lebanon, Algeria, Oman, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Libya, Gaza and the West Bank, and across the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the time is now for the Jewish people to raise our collective voice louder than anyone else to Cry Freedom for the Arab world — not just for their sake, but for our own. A Jewish Cry for Arab Freedom makes all the selfish sense in the world. 

Crying Freedom makes sense politically. The cause of Israel and the cause of peace depend on it because the fact is, peace can no longer be made between Israel and autocrats. When the uprisings in Egypt were only a week old, Thomas Friedman wrote an op-ed that argued the time was now for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to strike a peace deal with the Palestinian leadership.  The argument, at its core, was that because Israel’s two closest Arab allies, Egypt and Jordan, were changing internally in ways that would affect their foreign policy, Israel would have to remove the primary reason for its own demonization in the Arab world — namely, the Palestinian occupation — in order to maintain its current relations with its two peaceful neighbors. Otherwise, Israel’s relationships with an increasingly democratic Egypt and Jordan would sour given the relatively anti-Israel population in each state.

Yet Friedman’s argument was oxymoronic. Israel will no longer desire peace with an autocrat such as Abu Mazen, or any unpopular autocrat in the Arab world, as long as protests rage. As the governments in Egypt and Jordan fundamentally transform, the Egyptian-Israeli and Jordanian-Israeli peace treaties are in danger of being abrogated, true. But this will make Israel even more reluctant to offer peace deals to dictatorial or illegitimate regimes in any part of the Arab-Muslim world — particularly if they will be viewed in an unpopular lens by the populations in whose name an Arab leader would sign.  

The lesson here is clear: As long as dictators continue to reign, we can expect the conflict between Israel and Arab states to continue. But in a freer Palestine, or Syria, or Lebanon, where the people are placated and rule is considered legitimate, all options can go back on the table. Only with increased democracy, and increased freedom, can a peace treaty gain the legitimacy that Israel now believes it will need in order to last. By Crying Freedom, the Jewish community can be a driving force behind creating the context in the Arab world in which peace might be possible with Israel in the future.

Yet it is not enough for the Jewish people to simply Cry Freedom; we must cry out louder than anyone else in the world. But even the revolutionaries hate us, you say. So the argument goes, the revolutionaries, were they successful, would be just as dedicated as the autocrats to wiping Israel off the map. I would counter that the real question is no longer whether or not this statement is based in fact today, but whether there is any role the Jewish community can play to change whether this will be true tomorrow.

Make no mistake: We do not know whether any democratic government will make war or peace with Israel on its own. What is becoming crystal clear is that as democratic institutions and increasing populism take hold in Arab nations, any future peace deal between Israel and an Arab state will need a stamp of legitimacy from the people. That can only happen when the given Arab nation’s people themselves want peace with Israel. If it were the Jewish people — the Jewish people! — who were the most forceful backers of the Arab Spring, who pushed their efforts for freedom and dignity more than any other outside force, might the Arab world remember it? We cannot know that their feelings toward Israel would change even Jewish support for their self-determination; what we can see clearly, however, is that those feelings certainly cannot change without it.

Let me be clear: I do not allow that it is permissible for anyone to expect the Jewish people to act according to a higher standard of conduct than others (though the Jewish community may be wise to call on itself to do so); nor am I claiming that it is the moral obligation for the Jewish community to come to the aid of their Arab brethren (though there can be no doubt that this is a worthy moral calling). I am simply making the case that, marvelously, doing the right thing coincides with doing that which is in the best interest of the Jewish People today. By Crying Freedom, and doing so louder than any other voice, the Jewish people will act in their best interest, in the name of Israel and of peace.

As the holiday of Passover draws near, the Jewish mind wanders to God’s moral calling to remember our own narrative. We are reminded each year at this time that each and every generation of Jewish people should recall our history as if it was we ourselves who were released from bondage in the land of Egypt and delivered to freedom and self-determination.

Our spiritual act of empathy is only relevant as it translates to action. We, too, were slaves in the Middle East, and we cried freedom. Today there is bondage in the land of Egypt, though it may be waning. The fight goes on everywhere else in the region. The time has come, once again, for us to cry out with one voice for freedom. Even as we cry out for them, we cry out for ourselves.

Photo Credit: Jake Horowitz