Torah from Around the World #152

by Rabbi Mark L. Winer, Ph.D., D.D.

The Arab Spring arouses both hope and fear. Within the last couple of years, upheaval in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and most of all Syria has seized the world’s attention.  Emerging Arab leaders espouse Western democratic values. But democratic elections following the collapse of dictatorships sometimes produce extremist Islamist Arab leadership. Indeed, the same leader may express both the most promising and the most hateful positions.  Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi in Iran criticized Iranian political repression and skillfully negotiated a truce in recent armed conflict between Gaza and Israel. Speaking in English, Morsi voices balanced prescriptions for emerging Egyptian democracy. But the same President Morsi, speaking in Arabic in a 2010 video as a leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, ranted a viciously anti-Semitic diatribe against Israel, dehumanizing Jews and assaulting Israel’s right to exist.

In the aftermath of last week’s Israeli elections, how will the new government construct its policies toward its Arab neighbors and the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians? How should Israel respond to the Arab Spring? Is the Arab Spring a threat or an opportunity for Israel, or both?

Last week’s Torah portion ends with the story of Amalek, the brutal band of barbarians who attack the Israelites as they travel through the wilderness. This week’s sedra opens with the story of Jethro, the non-Jew who taught Moses how to govern. The Medieval commentator Don Isaac Abravanel explains the juxtaposition of Amalek and Jethro. If one reads only the story of Amalek, a Jew might believe that all non-Jews are enemies.  To teach Jews not to generalize, to teach Jews not to give in to paranoid feelings that all non-Jews are out to get us, according to Abravanel, the Torah places the story of the good non-Jew Jethro immediately after the story of the bad non-Jew Amalek. Abravanel’s insight is a key to an intelligent Jewish understanding of the Arab Spring, and offers possibilities for constructive Jewish responses to it.

For 12 ½ years, I lived and worked among Arabs trying to become a part of the modern world. As the Senior Rabbi of the West London Synagogue of British Jews, located in the heart of Arab London, I participated daily in the eye of the Arab maelstrom. What is going on in the Arab Spring parallels earlier historic upheaval within Christianity. Christians fought hundreds of years of wars among themselves to resolve the issues of modernization which underlie the Arab Spring.

As Jews we have been part of modernity from its beginning, struggling with the balance between Jewish traditions and participation in the multi-religious, multi-ethnic, secularist culture around us. Some historians have suggested that we Jews invented modernity. Although we may not have created modernity by ourselves, we have been integral to its development. And we have both benefitted and also suffered tragically in the best and worst facets of the modern world. More than one scholar has noted that Jews have become comfortable in the modern world, because in the modern world, everyone has “become Jewish.” That is, even non-Jews in the modern world experience the alienation which once characterized Medieval Jewish identity.

The Arabs and all of their neighbors, including Israel, are in for many years of upheaval in this revolutionary period which many call the “Arab Spring.” As in every revolution, there will be many deviations and setbacks on the road to modern democracy. Those who live in what are regarded as fully developed democracies will agree that none are perfect. All struggle and make progress only spasmodically. We cannot expect too much too soon from the Arab Spring. What started in despotic Mubarak-style dictatorship will not overnight transform into Jeffersonian democracy.

In my experience with Arabs and other Muslims, I found them as diverse as Jews and Christians are diverse. Although many Londoners derisively call the neighborhood around West London Synagogue “Londonistan,” I found most of my Arab neighbors friendly, openly interested in Jews and Judaism. Mosques and their imams in the neighborhood interacted with us at West London Synagogue in constructive partnerships and friendly interfaith encounters and projects. Not every encounter was pleasant, and not every project succeeded without difficulty. Similarly, not all statements of Muhammed in the Quran are friendly to Jews. But then, we Jews have more than a few verses in the Bible and in the rabbinic literature that make us uncomfortable in their xenophobia. In my years at West London Synagogue, I learned on a daily basis the wisdom which Sanhedrin 37a teaches, that one who makes peace in one’s neighborhood, should be viewed as having made peace in the entire world.

A few years ago, a delegation of West London Synagogue members went to the Central Mosque in Regents’ Park to break the fast after Yom Kippur, as the Muslims broke their Ramadan fast with the Iftar. Saudi Arabian Wahhabi Dr. Ahmad Al-Dubayan welcomed us as the Director General of the mosque. He cited the Quran’s recollection of the Prophet Muhammed’s entry into Medina. Noting that his contemporary Jews of 7th Century Medina were fasting for Yom Kippur on what was for Muslims the tenth day of their  month of Muharram, Muhammed declared the day “Ashura,” a sacred day for Muslims, as a symbol of Muslim solidarity with Jews. Over the years, my wife Suellen participated in a regular dialogue group between Jewish and Muslim women. We also experienced some less salutary encounters with Muslims over the years. More than a few times, I heard blatant anti-Jewish bigotry from the mouths of Arab friends. In one memorable encounter I discovered that the Central Mosque bookstore was selling in Arabic translation The Protocols of the Elders of Zion – the czarist anti-Semitic screed alleging Jewish control of the world’s finances. My friend Dr. Ahmad disclaimed responsibility because the bookstore was a concession, not under control of the mosque. Within our friendship, I could insist that he order its removal from the bookstore’s shelves. But I was never sure what he actually did, nor what he and the mosque might do next.

Wherever Jews go to synagogue, wherever we live, we participate in the Arab Spring, which should be properly understood as the Arab and Muslim entry into the modern world. Although not all Muslims will welcome our friendly encouragement, our Progressive synagogues and institutions throughout the world can partner with neighboring Muslim institutions and mosques. As individuals we can reach out personally to Muslims we meet at work or in our communities. What we do in London, Boca Raton, Sao Paulo, Tel Aviv, Sydney, and Capetown will impact the peace of the world and the possibility of friendlier relations between Muslims and Jews everywhere. Just as

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh B’Zeh

– “

All Israelites are intertwined with each other

,” Muslims feel such kinship with their fellow Muslims wherever they live. Local harmonious relations become world relations in magical ways. Local peace percolates world peace.

When we stood at Sinai, the Children of Israel did not instantaneously accept the Covenant with God. One of my favorite midrashim suggests that God picked up Mt. Sinai, threatening all of us with destruction if we did not affirm the Covenant. Given this opportunity we could not refuse, we made our commitment. The Jewish tradition understands that human beings only rarely do the right thing voluntarily. Sometimes it takes a threat, or the perception of threat, to impel us to action. Islamic fundamentalism threatens Muslims most of all, but also the entire world, including Jews.

The Arab Spring possesses possibilities for enhancing peace. As Jews, wherever we may live, we can become friendly, neighborly midwives to the Muslim entry into modernity. It won’t always be easy, but, as part of our sacred Mission commanded by our Covenant with God, that is who we are, and that is what we do.


Mark Winer chairs the International Interfaith Task Force of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, and is President of FAITH: the Foundation to Advance Interfaith Trust and Harmony, and Senior Scholar of the West London Synagogue of British Jews.

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