Siren Song

The last two weeks have been a shining moment for the Egyptian people. For us Jews, not so much.

In the fight for freedom they have been bold; we have been cautious.

They have acted without fear; we have withheld our applause. They have sacrificed; we have remained suspicious. They have stood before tank turrets and raised the Egyptian flag. We have logged into chat rooms and raised red flags.

When I wrote last week that too many Jews and mainstream Jewish organizations were treating freedom in Egypt like it’s the “F” word, my inbox filled up with reproving “reality” checks.

“As usual, Eshman is clueless,” a fairly representative one began. “The Mubarak regime was repressive and brutal, but what is coming will be a hundred times worse. The Muslim Brotherhood has bided its time and has now decided to act. Expect a period of disorder during which the MB will consolidate its position, giving us another Iran, this one right on Israel’s border.”

Or here’s another, echoing a point made by columnist Caroline Glick: “The glue that binds Arab societies is hatred of Jews. A Pew Research Center opinion survey of Arab attitudes toward Jews [June, 2009] makes this clear. Ninety-five percent of Egyptians, 97 percent of Jordanians and Palestinians, and 98 percent of Lebanese expressed unfavorable opinions of Jews. Three-quarters of Turks, Pakistanis and Indonesians expressed hostile views of Jews.”

Everywhere across the Internet and in Israel, Jewish voices rang out with full-throated pessimism. The images from Tahrir Square did not inspire much beyond fear. This was the Egyptian moment, a popular uprising hoping to shake off oppression and restore dignity, but instead of cheering it on, embracing it and urging our leaders to support it, we greeted it with dire warnings and anxious silence.

In this instance, that reflexive fear didn’t much matter. There wasn’t much we could do, as individuals, to change the course of events in Cairo.

But on a deeper level, I worry that fear and pessimism have become our go-to reaction, the birthright of every self-proclaimed Jewish “realist.” I’ve seen it in debates over the Palestinian question, when any advance in negotiations is met with dire warnings of the Palestinian “true” nature, the impossibility of any settlement.

It’s wise to look at threats and obstacles, but for too many of us our intellect and vision seem to have been overtaken by them. We speed from issue to issue like empty ambulances, our sirens constantly wailing but useless to help, to fix, to heal once we’re at the scene. We are all diagnosis and no prescription.

Yes, Islamic extremism, represented by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, is a danger. Yes, a Pew survey showed 49 percent of Egyptians support Hamas. Yes, the Quran has many nasty bits about Jews. We get it. We hear your siren. But look at the faces at Tahrir Square and tell me: Now what?  

“What one hears while strolling around are all the pent-up hopes, aspirations and frustrations of Egyptians for the last 50 years,” New York Times columnist Tom Friedman wrote from Tahrir Square. “I know the ‘realist’ experts believe this will all be shut down soon. Maybe it will. But for one brief shining moment, forget the experts and just listen. You have not heard this before. It is the sound of a people so long kept voiceless, finally finding, testing and celebrating their own voices.”

Nice try, Tom. But too many of us are so busy sounding the alarms, we can’t celebrate, we can’t see, and, because of that, we can’t take those actions that might influence a dicey situation to have a positive outcome, even if that means sending some supportive Tweets to someone interviewed on CNN.

Why are we like this? Part of it is our inability to think about Arabs as anything other than Other. Let’s be honest: We don’t really know them, and the ones we see on TV we don’t really like. Even those American Jews who visit Israel regularly don’t get to know a single one of the 20 percent of the Israeli population that is Arab. (Sorry, tourist tea in a Bedouin tent or Druze village doesn’t count.)

They don’t know us either. Those negative Pew Global Attitudes surveys reveal attitudes formed in the absence of free information and person-to-person exposure. Egypt may have had stability for 30 years, but it hasn’t had a free press or truly open borders. We humans are hard-wired to fear the Other. Really — an almond-shaped node deep in our brain, the amygdala, lights up like a TSA warning when we see a foreign face, and we feel anger, fear, suspicion. But the more experience we have with people of different races, the less excited our amygdala gets. The more we can think of people as individuals, the clearer we can think.

We Jews have three other good reasons for our fearful reaction: The Holocaust, the Holocaust, the Holocaust. 

Up until the Holocaust we survived amidprejudice by playing a game of negotiation, accommodation and keeping a low profile. Then, none of that worked, and no matter what we did, who we paid off, how well we hid, we were slaughtered. The lesson of the Holocaust is that it doesn’t really matter what you do after the sirens go off — they’re going to kill you anyway.

So, I get it. Other people have carry-ons, we Jews have baggage. But still, there are times in history and in life when we have to rise above our nature, and our past, and our biography, and make the best of a good situation.

Last Shabbat, Rabbi David Wolpe posted on his Facebook page a small teaching that didn’t explicitly say anything about the Egyptian uprising, but that I’m going to believe was at least a veiled reference.

“We can forgive a child who is afraid of the dark,” the rabbi quoted Plato, “the real tragedy is when men are afraid of the light.”