‘In Egypt it was the moral force of nonviolence, not terrorism, not mindless killing...that bent the arc of history toward justice once more.’ Whoever writes Obama ‘s speeches is a maestro. Maybe Obama writes his own speeches, but whoever composes them, I find it remarkable that he so often manages to find a language that resonates in the imagination, that one wants to savour and reflect on. And how often do politicians manage to do that?
The notion of bending ‘the arc of history toward justice’ is of course part of a Judaic vision too. Perhaps that’s why it resonated so strongly with me when I heard the phrase. I imagine that few of us can have been following these last few weeks’ events in Egypt without at some point being moved by the sight of a people finding its voice to protest against decades of dictatorship, corruption, brutality and repression. Protests that were remarkably peaceful given the suppressed fury that must reside in the hearts of so many at the conditions they have had to endure.
As we know, Mubarak’s 30 year grip on his people was sponsored (financially and militarily) by the United States, who’ve been guided – as they so often are, as is the British government – by President Roosevelt’s famous comment in 1939 about the Nicaraguan dictator Somoza, that ‘he may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch.’ So I’ve been stirred and heartened, as I was in 1989, by the tide of history that seems to be moving another part of our world away from brutality and impoverishment towards something more life-enhancing. And yet I’ve been disheartened - dispirited hugely, if truth be told – by so much of the response I’ve heard and read from the Jewish community, here and in Israel.
Because this response has been dictated - loaded word, I know – not by a recognition of the power of the human spirit to overcome oppression. It’s been dictated by fear. This fear has focused on the Muslim Brotherhood, who’ve been keeping a low profile over these last weeks, and the fear of a fundamentalist form of Islamism taking over in the region. As if Egypt is another Iran. Which for many reasons – historical and cultural and demographic and geographic – it isn’t. But the spectre of Israel once again surrounded by implacable annihilatory enemies haunts the Jewish imagination. It’s as if fear is soldered to our soul. And I find that hugely saddening, and actually rather ugly.
For our response to these events to be dictated by our fears rather than our hopefulness about the human spirit is a betrayal, I would suggest, of the religious vision of our Judaic tradition. In secular terms, it puts us as Jews on the wrong side of history – it puts us on the side of repression and brutality. It puts us on the side of Pharaoh rather than Moses.
In religious terms, it fails to understand that the phrase from Exodus we return to and cherish each year “Let my people go...” is the voice of the divine, of God, of the sacred principle that freedom from oppression is the right of every people. That’s the vision at the heart of Judaism: freedom from oppression, each person to have the opportunity to sit under their vine and their fig-tree where no-one shall make them afraid. Isn’t that what the people of Egypt want too?
In his response to Mubarak’s departure, Obama also quoted Martin Luther King: 'There's something in the soul that cries out for freedom.' Fear is a great dictator – when will we be able to overthrow its tyranny within us? When will we be able to rejoice – beyond our fears –wherever we see the ‘arc of history’ bending towards justice? Yes, Egypt has a long way to go – the transition from military to civilian rule will no doubt be bumpy. But as a Jew I celebrate, as Obama was celebrating, the movement of the human spirit towards freedom. All that those crowds possessed was, as the Egyptian novelist Ahdaf Soueif put it, ‘words and music and legitimacy and hope’. We see what powerful weapons these can be when wielded with determination, courage and vision.