If it is indeed true that, as the old Arab proverb goes, the enemy of my enemy is my friend, it leaves me no closer to understanding exactly how I am to feel about what is going on in Egypt right now.
The Mubarak government has been, as Arab governments go, a friend to Israel, or at least a non-belligerent since the peace treaty between the two countries was signed in 1979. It has been an important player in the peace process But, of course, it is also corrupt, authoritarian at best, and notoriously resistant to any forward progress on fundamental issues of human rights. The so-called democracy protesters present as being on the side of the angels, ostensibly wanting only more freedom and a more responsive and responsible government. To be sure, these longings are consonant with the deep-seated American instinct for democracy, and it has been hard to watch the protesters flood Tahrir Square without some degree of empathy. But, as someone said to me this week, it is highly unlikely that any of them are more favorably disposed towards Israel simply because they are seeking greater personal freedoms. The Muslim Brotherhood surely isn’t. And then, of course, there are the pro-government forces, essentially goons who have been organized to protect the Mubarak government (Israel’s "friend"). Who are the enemies, and who are the friends?
Well- as best as I can tell, it’s one large mess, and a scary mess at that. One can play out an eclectic variety of scenarios, but none of them turn out well for Israel. And the worst case scenario- with lawlessness and mob rule spreading to Jordan, and to Saudi Arabia, is the most terrifying of all. It doesn’t take all that much imagination to see this current unrest evolving into a much larger-scale conflict that could extend far beyond the Persian Gulf.
These past few months have been a time of heightened tensions between Israel and Diaspora Jewry. The struggle over the proposed Rotem bill that would centralize ultimate control over conversions in Israel’s Chief Rabbinate has mobilized large swaths of American Jewry against the Israeli government in a way that Israel has rarely seen. It took a long time, but the sleeping giant that is Diaspora Jewry finally seemed to find its voice, realizing that inaction would inevitably lead to irrelevance. In a real sense, the struggle over that bill was a leading indicator of the emerging maturation of the Jewish community of North America. Love doesn’t have to mean silence.
The Rotem bill, and the issue it addresses, are not going away. I can only imagine that there are those in Israel- MK Rotem and the Chief Rabbis among them- who would not mind at all if the attention of Diaspora Jewry was somehow to be deflected from its single-minded focus on fairness in the conversion process. But no one- no one- can be happy about the current turn of events. And once again, as it so often does, the larger question of Israel’s existential security threatens to overwhelm all other considerations.
For all the right reasons, I hope that doesn’t happen. Going back to the bad old days of Israel being literally surrounded by belligerent Arab states is a nightmare that we all allowed ourselves to believe was over- Israel included. For better or for worse, all of the West’s major economies will go down the tank quickly if the free flow of oil from the Persian Gulf is halted. The recession of the past two years will look mild in comparison to what could yet happen. It is painful to say this, but Israel’s security is only one of the things we need to be worried about.
The real test of American Jewry will be measured by whether or not it is able to juggle all of these issues simultaneously. Israel’s internal issues will not resolve themselves because the nature of the external threat has become more grievous. We must, and we will, do what is necessary to support Israel as she confronts this new and uncertain future. Our history demands no less, and Israel has every right to expect that we stand with her, shoulder to shoulder.
But I hope, also, that we will not allow the imperative of existential and material support for Israel to push aside all other concerns. In the ultimate, Israel’s security will depend not only on external threats, but on internal cohesiveness. We have a role to play in both.