I'm very torn about recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Jordan. On one hand, I'm thrilled that the Arab world is finally insisting on democracy. On the other hand, I am disheartened by the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment I see reported from these democracy seekers. Who are we, as Jews, supposed to "root" for? Seekers of fairness, or what is best "for the Jews"? (I feel awful even asking the question - there should be no difference in the two ideas.).
How do, or should, our time-honored Jewish values affect our politics? For whom should we root in the battle for democracy in the Arab countries?
We have seen that democracy and openness are not a panacea for prejudice, anti-Semitism or violence. Look at the former Soviet Union: when openness (Glasnost) came in, anti-Semitic and xenophobic parties became free to express their hatred openly. Why should we expect any different results from the Arab world?
On the other hand, we have experienced the sort of life that freedom and democracy have afforded Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere. We generally tend to fare better in an open society. Darkness and secrecy are breeding grounds for the nastier sides of human nature.
Our Jewish values teach us that all humans (pretty much) are made up of a mixture of two yetzarim (inclinations), a good one and a bad one (or selfless and selfish). The tractate Avot tells us to pray for the strength of the government / ruling authority, for without it’s controlling role, people would eat each other alive!
Looked at from another angle, we might well ask if politics, with its struggles over power, is – or can be - the ultimate guarantor of freedom and safety for anybody. I think not. Instead, we must work on a multi-pronged approach: work on systems (political, religious, nationalistic, etc) while concurrently working on the balance of the yetzarim in individuals, including ourselves. There is no guarantee of a successful outcome, but we certainly would be remiss if we allowed the state/political party/military to be the only arbiter of morality. At their best, systems of authority can do wonderfully moral actions, encouraging goodness and helpfulness among their constituents. At their worst, they can destroy worlds.
Perhaps if we all work at it, we can tip the balance a bit more towards the positive results. But even if the ruling party or class is currently benevolent, as Pirke Avot also teaches: the day is short, the task is manifold, the workers are lazy (exhausted? Unmotivated?), but the reward is great. Also, the master is waiting on us…
I think we should begin by affirming that it is natural, for many of us, to think about our world as composed of different groups. We each have families, nuclear and extended. Neighbors and fellow citizens of our city or town. Each state or province is in turn composed of citizens of towns, cities, and counties. We could go on, but the point is, we cannot help but identify with different groups.
The challenge to individuals of conscience in an ever-shrinking world, is to balance our local or personal needs with those of people we will never meet in places we will never visit.
The question we’ve all heard, “Is it good for the Jews?” sounds to some like an outmoded vestige of a narrow world view. To others it is as simple as asking, “How will this affect my mother?”
As a rabbi I am deeply challenged by this question. I am asking, is this a matter of Jewish law? Is this a matter, since it is about Jews, that is per force answered by Jewish philosophy? Or, is this a place where outside of strict guidelines of philosophy and law we must turn to our tradition and interpret it as we see fit?
Clearly ancient and medieval philosophers saw the world as strictly divided between “us” and “them.” The needs of the Jews, us, always outweighed the needs of the non-Jews, them. According to this calculus, the value of democracy would take a backseat to the overarching value of the preservation of Jewish life. To be sure this stream of thought remains in modern circles. In some places it has become a rallying cry against certain relationships and concessions. In others it has been used to justify murder.
There are some more modern thinkers in orthodox circles who have tried to reread the us-them dichotomy. An us-them worldview was appropriate at a time when idolatry and paganism where prevelant. The people who were non-Jews had practices and beliefs that were anathema to Jewish thought and any relationship with them could not be tolerated. But today, when much of the world has, in some way, embraced ethical monotheism, the us-them lines are much blurrier.
We can redraw the us-them lines to maintain the seperation: those who love Israel and those who hate Israel. Another way: those who have in the past committed to peace and those who have in the past committed to war. But, I believe, that this type of thinking doesn’t really get us anywhere.
So what’s a Jew to do? Support the value of human freedom at the risk of supporting the very people who would destroy Israel? Or should we root for a cold-peaceful-totalitarianism that maintains order at the cost of oppression?
One answer would be - trust in God. This is a major challenge to some. It opens a can of worms philosophical debate about the extent of God’s involvement in the practical unfolding of day to day events. Some orthodox scholars would say all minutiae are constantly unfolding under God’s will. Others would argue that there is a significant degree of humanity’s free will that comes into play. God is there; maybe as a safety net, a guarantor or a broad strokes director.
If we accept this answer then we can say: God will make it work out for the best. It lets us off the hook.
I find this answer dissatisfying on many levels. I think that humans have to make a moral choice - not sometimes but all the time. One must do their absolute best to make the most informed decision that takes into account - Jewish law (halakha), Jewish moral values, and overarching values of human worth and uniqueness. In that morality we will meet God.
As you said in your question there should be no difference between what is good for the Jews and the democratization of the Near and Middle East. In fact it is probably the case that in the long term this is true - that is a political science question and not a rabbinics question.
Personally I think that our answers have to be an amalgam of pieces of all that was mentioned above: I would have the Arab world treated just as I would my family, with dignity and respect. I would hope that in the near future and not the far future that this would translate into a broad sense of reciprocal respect for all peoples of the world. In the meantime we should certainly be on our guard and prepared for whatever may come.
We should pray for God’s help - not only for the Jews but especially for the people of the world who love freedom. We should say an extra prayer for the people of the world who do not yet understand that freedom is to be loved. They should, speedily, in our days, come around to understanding the true will of God and the unfolding of history on principles of equality and human freedom. Amen.
Yours is a very good and fair question. Certainly, as Jews, we are in favor of democracy and freedom. It is exciting to see countries like Tunisia and Egypt embrace these concepts. It is disheartening to see what is happening in Libya. One consequence of democracy is our inability to control the results. The United States and Israel have relied on dictators to enforce the peace agreements. While no one can predict the future, it seems unlikely to me that the new government in Egypt will reject the peace treaty. The rise of democracy in the Middle East makes a peace agreement between Israel and Palestinians even more urgent. Sadly domestic issues in the United States and the tragedy in Japan are distracting the U.S. government from trying to move the peace process forward. Israel's own domestic politics are also complicating the prospects for peace. Terrorist incidents like the one this weak add even more complications. When I speak to people in Israel they are largely on the side of the Arab street yet worry about some of anti-Israel voices that have emerged. As Jews we want what is best for all people democracy and freedom and as Jews we are deeply concerned about Israel's welfare. I am personally cheering for the Arab street and hoping that the revolutions will be good for peace and therefore, good fore Israel. If Israel and the Arab states share the concepts democracy and freedom perhaps is it will bring them together. Let's hope and pray for a good outcome.
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