Egypt: reactions within the American Jewish community
By Mitchell Plitnick, JNews Blog, 14 February 2011
Mitchell Plitnick is the former Director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories and was previously the Director of Education and Policy for Jewish Voice for Peace. He is a widely published policy analyst.
American congressional leaders have already issued a wide variety of statements in the wake of the resignation of Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak. They range from a supportive statement by the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry, to a clear statement that the US must forbid any participation of the Muslim Brotherhood in a new Egyptian government from the Chair of House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Ileana Rose-Lehtinen.
As much as the Egyptian revolution has been acknowledged as an Egyptian event, no one, in or out of the Arab world doubts that how the United States might respond to the events in Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria, and throughout the Middle East is an important question. And a microcosm of the American debate is the one occurring within the American Jewish community.
As President Barack Obama tries to regroup for his campaign for a second term in the wake of a serious setback in mid-term congressional elections last November, he has been confronted with massive changes in the Middle East and will want to make sure whatever response he makes will not jeopardize desperately needed campaign funds from the pro-Israel community.
Part of the challenge the US faces is the fact that business as usual, or as close to it as possible (which is what will be advocated by Israel’s so-called “friends”) in the Middle East, is much more likely now than ever to seriously compromise US interests in the region. As the Arab world moves closer to democracy, the US will find it much more difficult to ignore the popular will of the Arab people.
But this is also a time of change in American discourse about Israel and the Middle East. That discourse has always, for better or worse, grown out of the Jewish-American discourse on the issue, either being based on the perceived dominant Jewish view or rising up in reaction to it.
That Jewish conversation is undergoing a major shift. And it is particularly visible in the reactions to the Egyptian revolution.
The radical right-wing Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) represents an extreme poll of the Jewish community and echoed Ros-Lehtinen’s call for the US to ensure that the new Egyptian government meets our standards for who may participate in it.
Slightly less extreme, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) played what has become an all too common refrain when they willfully distorted expressions among the Tahrir Square protesters which depict the people’s anger at Mubarak’s collaboration with Israel as anti-Semitism.
The more politically astute among the “status quo” Jewish lobby group, like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) applauded Egyptian independence while expressing concerns about the Muslim Brotherhood potentially participating in a new Egyptian government (it should be noted that the possibility of a MB takeover in Egypt is pretty much nil).
AIPAC’s spokesperson said, “AIPAC hopes that any political transition in Egypt will lead to a pro-American, pro-Western and democratic government that is committed to maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.” We can rest assured that they will do much more than hope, although, like a MB takeover, a new Egypt simply abrogating the treaty with Israel is extremely unlikely, though their cooperation with things like the siege of Gaza is likely to end quickly.
The myopia of these organizations in seeing the Egyptian uprising only through the lens of Israeli interests stands in stark contrast to newer Jewish groups which shared most people’s unbridled enthusiasm for Egypt’s march toward freedom.
J Street, the centrist-liberal “pro-Israel, pro-Peace” group did express their “hope” that the Israel-Egypt peace treaty stands, but expressed no desire to dictate in any way who could or should participate in Egypt’s new government. Instead, their statement virtually gushed with the same excitement most of us were feeling.
Rather than assume the same patronizing tone that characterizes the American and Israeli regional attitude and led to their support of brutal dictators who are now falling, J Street directed their recommendations to the US and Israel, saying that “It is now even more imperative to seriously pursue a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Jewish Voice for Peace was even more clear-cut. They put out their statement before Mubarak resigned and expressed solidarity with the Egyptian people. They — alone among large and influential American Jewish groups — pointed out that it was American military aid that kept Mubarak in power, and called for a shift in policy away from supporting cruel regimes, including Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and siege of Gaza.
They said, “As Americans, we are with you in your struggle for real democracy. We call on our government to end its unconditional financial and diplomatic support for the Egyptian and other similar dictatorships. Instead, we want our government to live up to our own democratic tradition by unequivocally supporting you in your struggle for dignity and freedom.”
No one would contend that J Street and JVP have anything like the influence on Capitol Hill that AIPAC does. But J Street’s influence is growing and JVP is by now well-established as far and away the biggest and most effective grassroots Jewish political group in the country. These groups may not be able to mount the political muscle, but they do provide a cushion for a courageous president who works to marshal political forces behind a new policy approach that is so obviously more suited to American (and, for that matter, Israeli) interests in an increasingly democratic Middle East.
That new approach has to be based on a model of cooperation and not on a fearful attitude that leads to hiding behind military strength. No one expects a sharp u-turn in American policy, certainly not with a president who has shown real reluctance to take on political challenges. But there is now support for such a change in very significant portions of the Jewish community and it is being acknowledged much more widely in policy circles here in Washington.
It’s a time for hope and overcoming dictatorship. And there are now much more powerful forces in the Jewish community working to ensure that the Jewish diaspora and the US are not on the wrong side of history again.
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