Every year at Passover, Jews recall the story of an ancient Egyptian ruler who oppressed his people and was overthrown by God, the People, and the Earth itself.
This story is not just an antiquarian tale. It is an archetypal vision of what happens, again and again, when top-down tyranny becomes addicted to its own power, at first unwilling and then unable to change.
We saw again these past weeks how profound the story is -- first in Tunisia and then in Egypt.
During the past week, we have seen hundreds of thousands of Egyptians face down their own modern Pharaoh -- dictatorial, repressive, and corrupt. We have seen crowds kiss the police and soldiers sent to control them, we have seen minimal violence and maximum resistance from the revolutionaries even when they are beaten, jailed, tortured, killed.
In Israel and Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, even in America, other governments are worrying or even quaking in their military boots.
Why? Because these other governments gambled that repression would work forever. Now they are frightened by the near-collapse of tyranny. An Israeli government that got addicted to military control of the Palestinian people made allies with an Egyptian government that did the same to its own people. And the U.S. government did the same with them both, funneling huge amounts of military aid to both governments and then even huger amounts of its own blood and treasure into military control of Iraq and Afghanistan.
The result: 18 wasted years. Since 1993, when the Oslo Agreement was signed on the White House lawn, Israeli governments have refused to face up to what would have made peace while the making was possible, refused to affirm and negotiate the emergence of an independent Palestine alongside Israel, refused even to discuss the proposal from the Arab League for a regional peace treaty on condition that a free Palestine join other Arab states in making peace with Israel and being made peace with by Israel.
Of course the Israeli government had Palestinian allies in their rejection. The best allies of hawks on one side of any barricade are hawks on the other side. Terrorist murders of Israeli civilians certainly plucked on the hypersensitive nerve of Jewish fear. Most Israeli governments during these years rejected the notion that the way to end terrorism was to negotiate a peace with Palestinian and Arab leaders. Instead, they boasted that "separation" -- the Fence/Wall that tracked not the 1967 borders but swallowed huge chunks of Palestinian land; the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza; the blockade against Gaza -- all this, they said, would end terrorism. But "separation" led not to peace but to the self-destructive wars against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2009.
"Separation" and military force were not the only conceivable response to terrorism. The bravest and wisest Israelis and Palestinians were those who joined in the "Circle of Bereaved Families" to insist that the killing of their own children by "the other side" made peace crucial, not impossible.
Nor was fear the only possible response. Yitzhak Rabin again and again insisted in every city, town, and kibbutz, that Israelis were no longer victims, no longer helpless, and could afford the practicality of making peace through the Oslo Agreement. But the Jewish terrorist who murdered Rabin left behind Israeli politicians too stupid or too cowardly to carry forward Rabin's late-blooming message or his policy.
Indeed, the "Palestine Papers" published by Al Jazeera show that for the last ten years, the Palestinian Authority was in fact ready to make deep concessions to win peace, and it was the Israeli government -- supported by the U.S. government -- that rejected them.
It is true that the Oslo agreement and the Arab League peace plan would have made a deal with top-down governments throughout the region. But by freeing Palestine, it would have taken that issue off the table. When uprisings came -- as they now have -- Israelis and their supporters would not have had to fear that the uprisings would create new governments much more hostile to Israelis who are still occupying the West Bank, blockading and bombing Gaza, and destroying Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem.
And the newly uprising societies would not see America as the arsenal of their tyrants if America had actually used its clout to insist on a regional peace settlement that included peace for both Israel and Palestine, had stayed out of Iraq, had decided against Predator bombings in Pakistan, had pressed Mubarak to end corruption and coercion. (Not just in words: with reductions in military aid, for example.)
We who enjoy many aspects of Israeli society and culture (try reading David Grossman, for example) and admired what used to be the vibrancy of Israeli democracy and is still a democracy-for-Jews, though a democracy wounded, coughing blood with every shout of protest -- we live in agony over the 18 wasted years.
There might still be time to redress the short-sightedness of those years. Maybe the Israeli and U.S. governments are not utterly addicted to the coercive use of military power. Maybe the Obama Administration can rescue the courageous words of its early days and turn them into courageous deeds for an overall Middle East regional peace.
But they are not likely to do so unless sizeable numbers of American Jews, Christians and Muslims can band together in strong support of the people of Egypt, strong support for an emergency regional peace conference insisting on peace among Israel, Palestine, all Arab governments, and Iran as well.
It is the end of the Exodus story that makes possible the living and telling of its beginnings. The biblical stories of Pharaoh, the plagues, the Exodus, the Red Sea -- those stories hang on how a disorderly band of runaway slaves began to shape a new kind of community at Sinai and in the Wilderness. Today we face the same imperative: Shape a new planetary community, or slave and die under new planetary Pharaohs imposing on us new planetary plagues.
Rabbi Phyllis Berman and I have just finished a book of searching examination of the wisdom of that story. Freedom Journeys: The Tale of Exodus and Wilderness Across Millennia, by Jewish Lights Publishing -- available February 25.
Our book applies the ancient wisdom to today, on a global scale. It goes way beyond the Middle East region to look at our planetary danger, in the light of the Exodus story where Pharaoh's stubborn arrogance and tyranny brought "plagues" -- eco-disasters like unprecedented hailstorms, undrinkable rivers, infestations of frogs -- upon his own coiuntry.
Today we face Pharaohs. Big Oil, Big Coal, the Military-Corporate Complex, and Big Banking are chief among those pharaohs, bringing plagues upon the Earth and all humanity. It is clear that after a certain point, these Pharaohs become so addicted to their own power that only their utter ruin -- and that of their society -- can undo it.
But it is also true that these "Pharaohs" have many opportunities to turn their path around. And that the people have many opportunities to make the turning happen.
It is up to us and the God Who is YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life Who breathes and speaks in every language, every culture, every life-form, every era, Who calls us to courage and compassion.
Our official political system is paralyzed. Creative direct action -- people power in the tradition of Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Gandhi, the Flint Michigan auto sit-down strikes of 1937, the sit-in movement of 1960, King, Mandela -- is not paralyzed. Indeed, Tunisia showed us that one spark can free the imagination into utterly unexpected action.
Time to light our nonviolent sparks. Which one will illuminate the world, we cannot know in advance. But we do know that if we refuse to light the sparks, we will be condemned to live -- and die -- in darkness.
Between now and mid-April, the coming of Passover and Palm Sunday (that brave Passover-time demonstration against the tyranny of the Roman Empire, led by a radical rabbi), we at The Shalom Center are planning to light several such sparks. Freedom Journeys is only one of them. Interfaith direct nonviolent action will be another. So will be a report on "Who are the Pharaohs, Caesars, and Abu-Jahls Today?" It will be a great help if you can support our work both with your own action and with (tax-deductible) donations. To make them, please click to our website at http://www.theshalomcenter.org
Many thanks -- and many blessings of shalom, salaam, peace, grounded in justice and freedom and truth.
-- Rabbi Arthur Waskow
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