Show a Jew a silver lining, the old saying goes, and he looks for the cloud.
Or, more immediately, show Israelis scenes of Cairo, where tens of thousands are protesting each day for their freedom and human rights, and rather than exalt, Jerusalem worries that the result will be not be a new age of democracy next door but a takeover by radical Islamists determined to end Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state, and worse.
Is such thinking the result of an unhealthy, ingrained paranoia, honed over centuries of Jewish victimhood, or a sober assessment based on lessons learned from recent history in the region?
The chaotic changes taking place in the Mideast before our eyes each day have deep emotional as well as political resonance for those of us who seek to balance empathy for millions of oppressed Arabs striking out for their basic dignity with concern for the survival and security of Israel. And that tension between caring for and fearing “the other” has roots that go back to the Torah, where the same God who commands that we show compassion to the stranger in our midst also insists that the Israelites utterly destroy surrounding nations, including women, children and livestock.
How are we to know who deserves our outstretched hand of kindness and who our outstretched hand of might to ensure our survival?
For many centuries dilemmas of employing Jewish power were theoretical; we had none. Rather, our people were at the mercy of often-ruthless leaders in countries where we lived uneasily at best.
The creation of the modern state of Israel changed all that. Wielding Jewish authority was no longer an academic issue but a matter for a government, and army, surrounded by hostile Arab states, to determine on a daily basis, under the scrutiny of an increasingly hostile international community.
So many of us, as supporters of Israel, have long called for an end to autocratic rule in the modern Arab world, to be replaced by democratic values for all citizens, including women, minorities and gays. And now we are witnessing a most promising move in that direction, one that was unimaginable a few weeks ago.
But our enthusiasm is tempered by observing the results of dramatic change that has come to other countries in the region, tightening Iran’s grip on key states. In Lebanon, most recently, Hezbollah has replaced a moderate leadership, and continues to increase its arsenal of rockets aimed at Israel from the north.
Turkey was long seen as an example of a secular government that could prevail in an Islamic country. But after being rebuffed by the European Union, Turkey’s president has become increasingly close to Iran and hostile toward Israel.
In Gaza, the U.S. was supportive of free elections in 2006, but Washington failed to learn that voting should come at the end of the democratic process, not the beginning. The result was a Hamas victory over the PLO, and another launching pad for Iranian-sponsored terror on Israel’s border.
The strongest parallels to the situation in Egypt today comes from Iran. In 1979, a “people’s revolution,” featuring millions of protesters on the streets of Tehran, led to the fall of the Shah, the powerful monarch who was an ally of the U.S. but resented by his own people for his extravagant lifestyle and political repression.
A longtime secular opposition leader became prime minister, calling for a unity government. But under increasing pressure, he allowed the Islamic fundamentalist leader, Ayatollah Khomeini, to return from exile in France, and the Ayatollah soon called for and established a theocratic state that still rules Iran, one that is hostile to the U.S. and threatens to obliterate Israel.
In seeking to avoid a similar takeover in Egypt, it is important that the Muslim Brotherhood be recognized for the danger it represents not only to Israel but to regional stability and the democratic impulse of the Egyptian people. Particularly worrisome is the benign descriptions in much of the American media of late about the Brotherhood, which has been preaching violent jihad and vehement anti-Semitism since its founding in Egypt in 1928.
Welcoming the Brotherhood into the mix of opposition groups to form a new government in Cairo would be a highly risky business. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as ambassador to both Israel and Egypt during his distinguished State Department career, noted the other day that “The Muslim Brotherhood … has one single goal, and that is to transform Egypt into an Islamic state, and once that’s achieved its goal is to transform the Middle East into a pan-Arabist Islamic state.”
He warned that while the Brotherhood is “flexible in tactics” and “for large periods in its history it has eschewed violence … that doesn’t change their goals one iota.”
Kurtzer said the Egyptian military is sure to keep close tabs on the movement. So should the rest of the world. And within Egypt, any plans for allowing the Brotherhood into the new political process should require that it, and all parties, eschew violence, accept democratic principles and abide by the peace agreement with Israel.
In the meantime, we can continue to hope that the Egyptian people will succeed in creating a true democracy. But it will not happen overnight, or easily, and by its very nature — reflective of the cross-section of a population deeply antagonistic to Israel after decades of demonization in the media — it will be more critical of the Jewish state.
That is why Jerusalem sleeps less soundly these nights, preparing to fortify its border with Egypt, a border that has been quiet for more than three decades, and wondering what to pray for as the battle for Egypt’s soul plays on.