How Jews can put their liberalism to good use
“It was a terrible mistake for Obama to make democratization seem like an ‘imposition,’ with its imperialist implications, and to conflate it with military invasion. The promotion of democracy is a policy of support for indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim democrats who are just as authentic as indigenous Egyptian, or Arab, or Muslim autocrats and theocrats, and certainly more deserving of American respect.”
— Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic and like the majority of American Jews, a liberal.
It would do a lot of good if President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American Jews heeded Wieseltier’s words.
President Obama ought to heed the message that democracy promotion must be part of American foreign policy because rejecting democracy promotion has now hurt its potential blossoming. There is little guarantee and even smaller probability that the current upheaval in Egypt will result in a free and democratic republic where individual freedoms and the rule of law are respected and upheld. But if post-Mubarak Egypt does not emerge from the protests as a secular, representative democracy it will certainly be true that the Obama administration did nothing to promote such an outcome.
A skilled administration would have spent some part of the last year considering its options regarding Egypt’s future given Mubarak’s ill health and the reality that he was going to be exiting the stage at some point in the near future. The movement for his ouster (which may have succeeded by the time this is published), has occurred quicker than the Obama administration could have predicted, but there has been a Working Group on Egypt meeting for more than a year now, and the experts who make up the group, both conservative and liberal, couldn’t get anyone at the State Department or the White House to take their calls.
Equally troubling is the analysis by Washington Post reporter Glenn Kessler, who after closely examining the Obama administration’s statements regarding Egypt found a complete “failure” to emphasize — and in some instances even mention — the need for political reform there. Working toward an open and free Egypt — or an open and free Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Tunisia, for that matter — has not been part of the Obama administration’s policy, period.
Israel too needs to see the forest for the trees. Officially, Prime Minister Netanyahu worries about a post-Mubarak Egypt and how that country might not be the ally it once was. But such concerns cut both ways. It isn’t true that the only outcome from these protests will be an Islamist state on the Nile. And just because Egypt was a stable ally does not mean it could not have been or could not become a better one. If a free, democratic and liberal state were to border Israel along the Sinai, rather than a repressive dictatorship, there would be no reason to worry about Egypt cancelling its peace agreement with the Jewish state. There could be trade, development, tourism and cultural exchanges, and Israel would not have to spend money and resources securing their border. As Wieseltier points out, Egyptians, Muslims and Arabs are no less capable of democracy than Jews or Americans. Sadly it doesn’t seem as if the Israeli government has even considered this possibility.
Israel and the American Jews who support her have similarly ignored the question of democracy and freedom among the Palestinians and how such a change might be in Israel’s self-interest. How much stronger and lasting would the long hoped for peace be if the agreement was signed between two free democracies? Also, it is clear now that the protests in Egypt have exerted some pressure on the Palestinian leadership as it has called for new elections (finally).
But let’s be clear, elections don’t take place in a vacuum, they happen within a particular context, and for a generation of Palestinians that context has been about denying Israel’s legitimacy. Weather maps on Palestinian television do not include Israel and neither do Palestinian schoolbooks.
A recent study by the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in School Education suggests that the content taught in school can have a real impact on the growth of democracy. According to the study, for example, Tunisia’s textbooks “preach the importance of negotiating, and of peace and respect for others” whereas in Egypt “school textbooks … urge tolerance towards Copts and call for religious moderation and peace,” but “they deny the existence of the State of Israel and contain anti-Jewish material … The Egyptian curriculum emphasizes self-sacrifice for the sake of the homeland and war narratives, rather than peace.”
Instead of trying to silence Glenn Beck, couldn’t Jews spend a little more time trying to promote free speech among Egyptians, Jordanians and Palestinians? Such a change in emphasis would put Jewish liberalism to work in a constructive and meaningful way.
(Abby Wisse Schachter, a Pittsburgh-based columnist, edits the New York Post’s Capitol Punishment blog, nypost.com/blogs/capitol, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)