The View from Jerusalem

Greetings from Jerusalem where I have been studying since last Thursday (January 27th) at the Shalom Hartman Institute as part of my three-year participation in their wonderful Rabbinic Leadership Initiative program with 28 colleagues from across North America.  The overall theme for our study during this winter week of study is “The Ethics of the Jewish Calendar.”  By the end of our study tomorrow we will have covered nearly the entire annual cycle save for the High Holy Days.

Our morning study session yesterday was devoted to The Ethics of Pesach.  Our teacher, Professor Micah Goodman, noted that there is no small irony in our studying Y’tziat Mitzrayim, the Exodus from Egypt, as Egyptians themselves are seeking a way out of the tumultuous circumstances which have convulsed their country over the past week, and which have held the world’s attention. Here in Israel, attention is keenly focused on the events nearby as Israelis wrestle with their neighbors’ desire for freedom which is represented in the revolt.  With each passing day, Israelis also wrestle (as do others) the appropriate way in which to respond, if at all, as a neighbor and ally is faces troubled times.

Until yesterday, much had been made of the near-silence of the Israeli government which was not lost on the Israeli media as well as world media.  On the street, and in the cafes, people are talking, and wondering about what this will all mean in the days and weeks ahead.  As of last night, at least on the surface there was a tacit expectation that Egyptian President Mubarak will survive, but possibly only for the short term.  There is a clear sense that we are seeing the transition unfold.  Where it will lead, no one is certain. There is no small measure of nervousness about factions such as the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamicist movements which would add to the tensions in the broader Middle Eastern context and in regard to Israel in particular.  This morning’s paper reports that leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood are calling for the Egyptian people to prepare for war with Israel.

In our class yesterday Professor Micah Goodman explained the events of the past two weeks (in regard to Tunisia, Lebanon and now Egypt) in this way.  Micah wondered aloud, “How do Egyptians themselves understand the Y’tziat Mitrayim that is unfolding on a daily basis.”  He went on to explain that events in Lebanon and Egypt have clearly been inspired by the events in Tunisia.  It is clear that the success of the rebels who brought down the Tunisian government created an inspiring and successful story.  Said Micah,”We always try to imitate success. It used to take one hundred years to imitate success.  Now it takes one week.”

As part of his lesson on the Ethics of Pesach, he proceeded to suggest that there are two essential elements to any successful and inspiring story: (1) The story must present a success that is worthy of imitation; and (2) The story must involve demonstration of flaws or weaknesses.  If the actors are perfect, then no one can hope to imitate their success.

Will the current wave of revolutions convulsing the Middle East indeed successful?  In whose eyes?  Will they lead to outcomes worthy of imitation?  Who can say? To be sure, Tunisia inspired events in Lebanon, and no doubt the two together played a role in laying the groundwork for events in Egypt.  The daily newspapers also carry columns wondering about the fate of  other neighboring countries.  Will they too, soon be engulfed in their own upheaval led by rebels who will rise up against their own governments/regimes?  Will the Middle East, and in a broader sense, the world, be better for these events, or will the wave that has been unleashed begin a new phase of increased instability in this beleaguered region?

These are nervous days — certainly in Egypt — increasingly in Israel as the meaning of a thirty-year old peace treaty (cold but stable) potentially hangs in the balance.  The view from Israel, and very much on the minds of Israelis, is that history is unfolding. Will it unfold for the better or for further instability?  Clearly we will all be staying tuned.

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