Editorial: Let All Peoples Go

In addition to Passover’s ususal powerful meaning, the year 5771 edition holds special meaning for not only Jews and Israel, but for a broader region as well.

The Middle East and North Africa  are experiencing what is being called the “Arab Spring.” The furor began in Tunisia with demonstrations leading to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and continued with similar protests ending the over 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. From these initial stirrings rose a virtual tsunami of protests that has threatened regimes from Libya to Syria, Bahrain to Yemen, Morocco to Jordan.

The world has been caught largely by surprise by the staying power and extent of the myriad revolutions against long-established regimes in the Arab world. As these events unfold in “real time,” it has been impossible even for longtime observers of the Middle East to predict how it will all play out:

• Will longtime Libyan dictator and terrorist-supporter Muammar Qaddafi be able to hold onto power despite the NATO-led measures aimed at aiding the poorly-trained and equipped rebels who seek his ouster?

• Will the Muslim Brotherhood, which is strongly anti-Israel, become a key player in the new Egyptian government?  Will Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel, which has prevented a war between the largest Arab state and the Jewish State, continue to be honored, or will it be abrogated?

• If the autocratic president Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen is overthrown, will Al Qaeda in Southern Arabia gain even more power in the chaos that might follow? Will Saudi Arabia continue to intervene with military force to prevent a Shiite-led overthrow of the Sunni monarchy in Bahrain, where the U.S. Fifth Fleet is based?

At this season of Passover, the above issues are far from settled, but a few initial observations can be offered:

• On the positive side, it appears that hundreds of thousands of everyday citizens throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds in the Mideast and North Africa are demanding their own freedom from bondage-from totalitarian regimes like those in Libya and Syria, from the longtime corruption within the Egyptian government and in many Arab states, from the stifling suppression of intellectual freedom and access to real opportunities for young people.

• On the more worrisome side, there is no way of knowing whether the new regimes that may replace those that are overthrown will be better or worse than the old order. For instance, while Hosni Mubarak was indeed a corrupt autocrat, he was also a force for stability in Egypt, maintaining the peace treaty with Israel for 30+ years and serving as a dependable ally of the United States in the global war on terrorism. Our Bible refers to the period when “There arose a Pharoah who knew not Joseph.”  Richard Engel, chief foreign affairs correspondent for NBC News, recently warned that the “Arab street” which has been leading the protests contains many elements who are, in his words, “ferociously anti-Israel.”  Will the Egypt-Israel Peace Treatyfall victim to that “ferocious anger”?

• Also unknown is whether the totalitarian regime of Bashar Assad will be overthrown in Syria, and if so what will take its place? Syria is closely allied with Iran and both nations support and finance the terrorist group Hezbollah in Lebanon. Will Iran, Syria and Hezbollah, the latter of which has been supplied with 40,000 medium-ranged rockets by Damascus and Tehran, be tempted to start a war with Israel?  Iran recently sent two war ships through the Suez Canal to dock at a Syrian port. And Hamas, which is a strong ally of these three, has begun lobbing rockets into southern Israel again.

The good news is that Israel remains strong both militarily and economically. The former strength provides defensive comfort against attacks, while the latter enables Israel to serve as a beacon of financial development for budding democracies. Israel Defense Forces, with American support, will protect the Jewish State at the same time as new, younger forces in adjacent countries are looking for trading opportunities.

In our Passover Haggadahs, we recall that the Almighty brought us out of Egyptian bondage, on dry land across the Red Sea with a “mighty hand and an outstretched arm.” The same opportunity exists now for Israel’s neighbors in the Middle East, and the challenged but empowered youth movement will have to choose between true emancipation, in the form of democratic resolve, or faux steps that result in yet another round of Pharaoh-like persecution. As we celebrate the ancient Festival of Passover this week, let Jews and Arabs together draw strength from our ancient escape from slavery and return to the Promised Land, and let us reaffirm our ancient prayer that peace and liberty will be proclaimed throughout ALL of the lands of the Middle East and to all the inhabitants thereof.

Sign up for Your Morning Light