Exodus versus Revolution, Exodus as Revolution

by Gedalyah Reback

Reporters, analysts and even some progressive Rabbis have made literary-styled allusions to the Pharoahs of Egypt and the Hebrews’ Exodus in light of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. I’ve personally found the comparisons either to be token or hollow. It is not necessarily because of the invokation of religious heritage on the revolutionary tidal wave hitting the Arab World. However, there is an importance distinction between the two events worth describing here. By defining that contrast, we can understand what comparisons are right to make.

THIS REVOLUTION BELONGS TO EGYPTIANS. The Exodus does not. From a national or an ethnic perspective, the Hebrews were able to leave the dominion of a foreign power. Even from a religious perspective, which arguably can be said to be in the merit of Muslim Egyptians, the demands Moses made of Pharoah were explicitly for the freedom of worship for the Children of Israel in the Sinai Desert. That is to say, the “Revolution” of the Hebrews projected a freedom of worship for the Hebrews through which Moses never directly stated to Pharoah the Hebrews would permanently abandon their enslavement in Egypt. Moses, Aaron and anyone else privy to the statements of God as written in scripture, knew that the statements to Pharoah were merely a front and that the liberation the Hebrews would experience was a freedom to worship in their own country.

While the implications of the above paragraph allude to greater issues of freedom of worship and even the freedom to be obligated to that worship, they constitute a completely different topic. For Egyptians, the oppression they face may only be akin to the economic depravity of the authoritarian Mubarak government. However, Egypt is their country, while Egypt was not the possession ofthe Hebrews. Economically, Egyptians (as well as Tunisians and other Arab peoples) live under the remnants of Arab nationalist socialism. Socialist policies, in this case as defined by Egypt’s 40-year-old constitution and reaffirmed by the country’s Supreme Constitutional Council (supreme court) on several occasions, limits and deprives economic rights. In this respect, with the constant adherence to arbitrary policies about business licenses, Arabs could be “enslaved” to their governments.

An Al-Jazeera-published editorial by Tikkun’s Michael Lerner makes the comparison. He expressed a Jewish identification plugged into Jewish experience with slavery in Egypt. But I have to say those words were not meant for the Jewish public, but the Arab public. They were not the wrong thing to say, but they were words of diplomacy and not words of ideology and assuredly not theology. Our Jewish theology takes pains to sever the connection with Egypt, despite the fact Jewish communities have periodically redeveloped there: the alternative temple in Alexandria, the centering of Rabbinical greats such as Maimonides or the Radvaz, and the extant community that fled in the 1940s. Maimonides himself identified himself as a sinner for “going back there” to Egypt, in contravention of the Biblical directive.

BUT THERE ARE diplomatic words worth reaffirming among ourselves. The words of the aforementioned editorial were window dressing, a facade and surface structure. The proverbial deep structure gives us Biblical versus to respect Egyptians (after a gap of several generations removed from the Exodus) precisely for their initial kindness to allow or ancestors to dwell in Egypt to escape regional famine (decades before being enslaved). Egyptians are not relegated to the category of “those whose welfare you shall not pursue:” the Moabites and Ammonites. They are permitted, in a liberal reading even invited, to join the “congregation” of God conceived in the Sinai Desert and implanted in our own country in Israel.

EGYPT’S REVOLUTION IS SIGNIFICANT FOR THEM. The significance to us of their revolution is very different; it is strategic, implicative and political. Their liberation is constituted by economic, democratic and expressive freedoms. It contrasts with our Exodus in that our freedom was religious, the right to own property and dwell freely on our own land. The socialism they will presumably roll back envests all financial power in the state and will consequently disseminate to individuals in Egypt. For us, as the Biblical verses state, the freedom to reclaim our own landed property was given to us as a matter of law forever, turning over from its renters to the original owners on a 50-year-cycle. Our freedoms were dictated by God and provided in the context of his religious worship. Egypt will have to decide how much of a role God will play as they redraw their consitution and reapply the mixed interests of liberal democrats and Islamists.

If we are going to identify with Egyptians in their revolution, it is yet to be defined beyond a possible Biblical permit to seek their welfare. We could come to define a list of mutual interests. They might constitute democracy, the balance of religious obligation with personal freedom, and the balance of communal interests with the desires of an individual (another priority for Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Council).

MODERN ISRAEL AND MODERN EGYPT (and for that matter modern Iran) may be seen in a wider, even if schitzophrenic, attempt to implement democratic principles in religious governance and religious principles in democratic governance. Israel has obviously taken a very different approach than Iran, whereas Israelis only see civil religious rule and on a limited scale, while Iranians experience a harshly interpreted version of religious law applied across their legal spectrum.

Egyptians face choices in jetisoning Western priorities in law and following the direction of Iran. Or they could follow the Israeli arrangement that allows civil theocratic intervention. Or finally, they could conceive a newer advanced concept of Islamic or religious constitutionalism (which could have consequences for how Religious Zionists conceive the possibility of expanding religious influence on Israeli law).

BUT THESE ARE CONSEQUENCES OF THE MODERN AGE and do not at all come out ofphantom parallels between the Exodus on the 2011 Egyptian Revolution. There are a lot of interests that come up for both countries from this intellectual exercise, though it should be obvious the ancient liberation of the Hebrews was something apart from the recent liberation of Egyptians. But the message to Arabs in Al-Jazeera was right to be sent, not for its content but for the fact it shows valuable support for their endeavors. Its statements about contemporary politics (and specifically about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict) cannot truly speak for all Jews, but it is much better than nothing. there is an opportunity here to create a true dialog between Israelis and Egyptians not present during the rule of Mubarak. May a free press flourish there that lets us communicate with the Egyptian street once impossible, and let our identification with Egypt become real and also mutual.

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