Category Archives: Egypt

A Seder Supplement for Passover 5778: “The 10 Sacred Acts of Liberation”


Here’s the introduction to my new Passover seder supplement, designed to be used alongside or instead of the 10 Plagues section. Click here for the entire text to print out and read at your seder table this year. (Click here, here, here and here for supplements I’ve written in previous years.)

In the traditional seder, we are instructed to take one drop of wine for our cups to “reduce our joy” over the pain God inflicted upon the Egyptian people through the 10 plagues. Tonight, we choose to increase our joy by taking a sip of wine as we acknowledge 10 sacred acts of liberation we learn from the Exodus story. May we heed these lessons in every generation!

Eilat Attack Aftermath: Gazans Pay the Price Again

Since I wrote about last week’s Eilat/Gaza violence, I’ve read several news articles that report on increasing evidence that the Eilat attackers actually came from Egypt/Sinai and not Gaza.

From a +972 post by Yossi Gurvitz last week:

Yesterday evening the Egyptian newspaper Al Masry Al Youm reported that Egyptian security forces have identified three of the dead attackers. Egypt has a strong interest to claim the attackers were Gazans, since this would lessen its responsibility for the attacks; nevertheless, they say at least two of the attackers were known terrorists in the Sinai Peninsula. As far as I could find out, the rest of the bodies are in the hands of the IDF – which, again, does not reveal their identity.

This story has also been covered extensively by blogger Richard Silverstein at Tikun Olam, and more recently, by Amira Hass, writing for Ha’aretz. (Most of the mainstream media has, not surprisingly, long since moved on from this one.)

For an astute analysis of this whole tragic mess, I highly recommend Paul Woodward’s piece in War in Context:

As for those who have an interest in evidence, rather than taking comfort in deeply ingrained prejudice, the evidence suggests that the men who attacked Israelis yesterday and Egyptians today are in conflict with both states. More than likely, this has much less to do with Gaza or the Palestinian national cause than it has with the aspirations of radical groups based in the Sinai.

Those responsible for maintaining Israel’s security quickly claimed they knew exactly who was behind yesterday’s attacks in Eilat and duly dispatched the Israeli air force to rain down missiles on Gaza. No one explained why, if Israeli intelligence was so good, they had not prevented the attacks. Even so, the domestically perceived legitimacy of a security state depends less on its ability to thwart terrorism than its willingness to make a timely show of force. Indeed, the occasional tragedy has obvious political utility. The attacks in Eilat serve to remind Israelis that the state created as a safe haven for Jews can only remain safe so long as everyone remains afraid.

In the meantime, Israel’s assault against Gaza still continues. According to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights:

In the early morning of Thursday, 25 August 2011, two Palestinian civilians were killed and 25 others, including 11 children and 7 women, were wounded as Israeli warplanes bombarded a sports club in a densely-populated area in the northern Gaza Strip town of Beit Lahia. The attack resulted extensive damages to dozens of neighboring houses and facilities. On Wednesday, 24 August 2011, an elderly farmer and a worker were killed and four civilians were wounded, while three other persons are missing inside a tunnel at the Egyptian border due to an Israeli air strike against the tunnels.

It is looking increasingly likely that this latest violence has more to do with Israel-Egypt relations than Gaza. Is anyone asking why, then, is it largely Gazans who are paying the price?

Libya and the “Never Again” Doctrine

I’ve always believed that in the wake of the Holocaust, the popular Jewish imperative “Never Again” shouldn’t just apply exclusively to Jews, but to all peoples everywhere.  While it might come out of our particular experience, it must be considered a universal imperative. Since we Jews know first hand about such things, never again can we remain silent when any people’s existence is threatened by murderous regimes.

To be completely fair, however, it’s easy enough to determine to not stand idly by in the face of government-sponsored brutality – but it’s quite another to determine what in fact should be done.  Our current military operations in Libya provide the perfect case in point.

Among the many pieces I’ve read on these horrible developments, I was interested to learn that Ban Ki-Moon had in fact invoked “Never Again” while discussing Libya during a recent tour of the US Holocaust Museum. And it was extremely significant to me to learn that National Security Advisor Samantha Powers – an eloquent voice of conscience on the subject of genocide – was among those who urged Obama to support military action against the Kadaffi regime.

However, while I do indeed believe in “Never Again,” and while it has been increasingly agonizing to read the tragic reports coming out of Libya, I must reluctantly admit I do not support our military operations there.

First, and probably foremost, whatever is happening in Libya, it is not close to the scale of a genocide. If that sounds overly crass, it is worth asking why we are eager to engage militarily with Libya yet have chosen not to act on behalf of Cote D’Ivoire, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, or any number of other countries whose governments are committing atrocities that are no less brutal than Kadaffi’s (and in some cases more so.)

On this point, Israeli journalist Yael Lavie comes to a fairly blunt conclusion:

Call me a cynic, call me a product of the Middle East or better yet a citizen of this region who witnessed the outcome of western intervention over the course of the last 20 years – but the war that has just begun is not just. It is not being waged to stop the Libyan people from being killed. If that were the case we can name many ongoing genocides around the world, such as the decade long holocaust in the Sudan, where no western UN resolution motivated military action has ever been taken and ask why now?

As it stands right now we may be facing another attempt by the west for enforcing regime change in the Middle East with the usual western personal agenda – the agenda of oil. There is one thing recent history has proven to us time and time again – Where there is no oil, there is no intervention.

Even if one doesn’t share Lavie’s level of cynicism, we’d do well to ask whether or not it’s our place to engage militarily with every oppressive regime around the world.  Especially given our recent history of military regime change with Muslim nations, our operations in Libya might at least give us cause for concern.

As for me, I believe it is profoundly ill-advised for our country to pursue yet another war against an Arab country. While it is true that the Arab League voted to back a no-fly zone, that support is already waning now that air strikes are killing Libyan civilians.  Make no mistake: we are now waging war in Libya.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, as usual, hit this point right on the head on the eve of the UN Security Council vote:

While the action is billed as protecting the civilians of Libya, a no-fly-zone begins with an attack on the air defenses of Libya and Qaddafi forces. It is an act of war. The president made statements which attempt to minimize U.S. action, but U.S. planes may drop U.S. bombs and U.S. missiles may be involved in striking another sovereign nation. War from the air is still war…

The last thing we need is to be embroiled in yet another intervention in another Muslim country. The American people have had enough. First it was Afghanistan, then Iraq. Then bombs began to fall in Pakistan, then Yemen, and soon it seems bombs could be falling in Libya. Our nation simply cannot afford another war, economically, diplomatically or spiritually.

None of this is meant to diminish the sacrosanct imperative of “Never Again.” But beyond the moral absolutes there are difficult and painful questions we must face when confronted with human rights abusing nations: when should we deem it necessary to authorize the use of military force? Why are we compelled to act in some cases but not others? To what extent are our decisions motivated less by need than by national self-interest?

I’ll give the final word to a recent Nation editorial:

(There) is a worrying dimension to this intervention, in that it reflects a mindset that associates US foreign policy, whether alone or as part of an allied force, with heroic crusades to bring down the bad guys. But it is exactly that mindset that has done so much damage in the Middle East over the years and that has saddled us with the costly burdens of two ongoing wars in Muslim lands. And Washington’s support for military action in Libya, on avowedly humanitarian grounds, should call into question ever more sharply the cynical American acquiescence in brutal suppression of peaceful demonstrations in Bahrain.

The democratic awakening in the Arab world presents the United States with an opportunity to put that past behind us. It offers us a chance to align our interests with democratic change and economic progress. It would be a tragedy if we allowed the intervention in Libya to distract us from these difficult and important challenges. We need to deal with longstanding allies like Jordan, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia—which continue to resist democratic reforms—and to help the Egyptian people consolidate democracy and create jobs and economic opportunity. The most productive role for America in the Middle East today is diplomatic and economic, not military.

What Does the New Egypt Mean for Gaza?

What effect will the Egyptian revolution have on the dire situation in Gaza? The events of this past Sunday might offer some indication:

Hundreds of Egyptians on Sunday marched to the country’s border with the Gaza Strip to demand that the border be opened, Press TV reported…

The campaign was the brainchild of the Tahrir4Gaza campaign, whose organisers said they wanted to see to which extent Egypt has changed since the ouster of president Hosni Mubarak Feb 11, the media report said…

(One) Tahrir4Gaza campaign member said: ‘If we are refused entry to Gaza, we are thinking about setting up a permanent camp at the border. This is a test of whether this really is the new Egypt, or whether the old Egypt remains.’

Commentator Geoffrey Aronson addressed the new/old tension in Egypt in a piece for Foreign Policy posted today:

(To) many in Egypt today, Israel’s retreat from Gaza is viewed as an opportunity — as a means to distinguish the new Egypt from its predecessor by ending the siege and answering Arab expectations of Egyptian leadership on an issue that arouses widespread anger in the Arab world.  There is virtually no support in Egyptian civil society for maintaining Egypt’s ban on formal, legal trade with Gaza.

An open border between Gaza and Egypt is viewed as unremarkable by the Egyptian public, particularly one in which the Muslim Brotherhood operates freely, but it continues to be viewed by Egypt’s security establishment as a security disaster. Gaza may be the first of Egypt’s strategic security concepts that will be challenged by the new political order unfolding in Egypt today, but it is certainly not the only one where the interests of the old order and the new one can be expected to clash.

And finally, a very smart piece in The Arabist blog by journalist/commentator Issandr El Amrani:

After the recent cabinet change, Egypt now has a Prime Minister and a Minister of Foreign Affairs who argue against Egypt’s role in the Gaza blockade. Nabil al-Arabi, the new FM, in particular is on record has criticizing that policy on the grounds of international humanitarian law. Will we see a change in the policy anytime soon?

…There are no easy solutions here, and perhaps the answer lays more in a dramatic escalation in Egypt-Israel relations over this issue (which I’m not sure would necessarily work to improve the conditions for Gazans.)

But perhaps a first start is to make an announcement that would make it clear that Egypt finds the current Gaza set up unacceptable, breaks with the ridiculous Quartet positions, and calls for the abandonment of the international community’s current approach to Israel-Palestine. It might not achieve much, but at least it would send a clear message that Cairo won’t back business as usual with the Israelis.

Some J St. Conference Highlights

Though I wasn’t able to attend the J Street conference last week, I’ve been happy so many video clips of conference sessions have been made available through the internet. The most posted and retweeted by far: Mona Eltahawy’s show-stopping remarks from the February 27 Plenary Session.

I’d also recommend this panel from the Feb. 28 session, “The Continued Quest for Statehood: A Palestinian View” (above) which featured PLO Ambassador Maen Areikat, Amjad Atallah, of the Middle East Task Force, New America Foundation, Khaled Elgindy, (Brookings Institution) and Nadia Bilbassy-Charters (Middle East Broadcasting Center).

Here’s an excerpt from Atallah’s remarks:

What the Palestinians seek is freedom. Statehood is only the outcome of freedom. Statehood is only a way of delivering that freedom. Delivering a state that doesn’t have that freedom, which is part of the political discourse in Washington these days, is a sure way of ensuring that statehood ends up being rejected. Palestinians don’t want to end up with a state that looks exactly like what they have right now. The don’t want a state that looks 10% bigger than what they have right now…

The surest way to know what Palestinians will accept or what they will reject is simply to ask yourself, would you accept the terms that are being offered to Palestinians? If you would accept it, then Palestinians should be fair enough to accept it. But if you think it’s insulting or if you think you would never accept such a thing, then you can bet your last dollar that the Palestinians aren’t going to accept it either. And despite all the criticism of the PLO, it has refused to accept anything less than freedom from the beginning of the negotiations process until now.

The Egyptian Revolution: Odds and Ends

A few Egypt-related odds and ends that have caught my eye of late:

– Check out a reliably sane analysis of the situation by my friend Aziz Abu Sarah from an interview broadcast yesterday on Washington’s Fox 5 News (above).

– Below: a picture from Nevine Zaki’s Twitter feed: Egyptian Christians protecting Muslims during their prayers amidst the demonstration. (It appears they’re returning the favor – see my blog post from 1/8).

– For a change, some non-fear-based background on the Muslim Brotherhood:

To be blunt and colloquial, this is not your grandmother’s Muslim Brotherhood. And this isn’t their revolution. What we talking about is a group with has evolved over the years into a middle-class, conservative organization. They made a bet against radical change and instead became a systemic player. Their goals are limited. And there is not a shred of evidence that they would become radical in an open democracy because it is a sure way to reduce themselves to fringe players. They are very shrewd about. And that’s why they’re not going to upset the apple cart. (Samer Shehata, Assistant Professor of Arab politics at Georgetown University)

– And one more tweet for good measure:

Mitchell Plitnick
MitchellPlit Mitchell Plitnick
Oy. Stop calling them “Mubarak supporters.” They are Mubarak’s goons, and we know that many of them are on the Mubarak payroll.

Another Israeli Voice for Egyptian Democracy

Photo by Matthew Cassel

I ended my previous post with the words of an Israeli columnist who dared to believe that the Egyptian people are ready for democracy. Now check out the words another Israeli journalist who dares to dig even deeper:

According to Haaretz, the Israeli government sent a message to world governments urging them to enhance their support of Mubarak’s regime in Egypt. The message urged that the stability of Egypt’s regime is beneficial to the stability of the entire Middle East and thus must be preserved.

What is the value of our so called democracy if it can only flourish when its neighbors aren’t democracies? We have been told for years that occupation techniques such as the construction of the separation barrier are necessary to ensure the survival of “the Middle East’s only democracy.” We learned to accept that our democracy is dependent on human rights infringements. Now we learn that the scale of these infringements must be fantastically greater.

For 30 years Israel enjoyed the status quo with Egypt, while Egyptians suffered from tyranny, lacked freedom of speech and could not affect their own destiny. What message is Israel sending now? Does it truly imply that only a dictatorial Middle East will permit it to survive as a Jewish state?

Is this Jewish state such a fragile fantasy, that an entire region of the world must be kept imprisoned in order for it to thrive? How many children are in the basement? Four million Palestinians? Eighty million Egyptians? How many more? How many people must be deprived of liberty so we can have ours? Can we only have our liberty by maintaining absolute dictators as allies? Are we really that scared?

Liberation in Egypt – Toward a New Definition of “Stability”

As I watch these astonishing events transpiring in Egypt, I have nothing but awe for the courageous people of Egypt, young and old, religious and secular, rich and poor, who are rising up nonviolently to take their country back…

… at the same time, I confess no small amount cynicism for my own country, whose leaders are utterly flabbergasted by the Egyptian revolution and can do little but sit by helplessly and watch circumstances unfold.

This is nothing new, of course. It’s what happens when we purport to promote freedom and democracy while openly supporting tyrants. It’s what happens when we claim our Mideast foreign policy promotes “stability” when what we really seek to promote is our own national interests. Do we really, actually believe that citizens of the Arab world cannot tell the difference?

On this point, I am with utter agreement with analyst Robert Grenier of Al-Jazeera English, who bemoans

the extent to which successive US administrations have consistently betrayed a lack of faith in the efficacy of America’s democratic creed, the extent to which the US government has denied the essentially moderating influence of democratic accountability to the people, whether in Algeria in 1992 or in Palestine in 2006.

The failure of the US to uphold its stated commitment to democratic values therefore goes beyond a simple surface hypocrisy, beyond the exigencies of great-power interests, to suggest a fundamental lack of belief in democracy as a means of promoting enlightened, long-term US interests in peace and stability.

It’s sobering to consider: at the end of the day does our nation ultimately have true faith in democracy, or does our ultimate faith only lie in the expansion of our power and influence?

Think I’m a blind optimist? Think I don’t understand how the real world works? Think it’s naive to suggest that the Arab world could actually be ready for democracy? Before you answer yes, just ask yourself how far arming dictatorial regimes has gotten us.

And don’t just take my word for it. Here’s a healthy dose of optimism from an Israeli newspaper columnist:

(There) is no room for early pessimism. Thus far, the Egyptian protest did not address Israel or the peace treaty with it. We want normal lives, protestors told the microphones…

The Egyptian people are ready for democracy. The past two decades clearly proved that there are no nations that are not ripe for democracy. There are no peoples and no geographical regions whose culture, character and history is incommensurate with liberal, social democracy.

President Barack Obama said so openly in his famous Cairo speech. His predecessor, George W. Bush, also encouraged democratization of the Arab world. Back then, few people lauded him, and even fewer understood his message. Now, after so much blood had already been spilled on Egypt’s streets, they already understand.