By DONNIEL HARTMAN
As Jews our natural affinity group is the oppressed. Legally, this has been the moral imperative of the Jew since our Exodus from Egypt. Instead of serving solely as a narrative depicting God’s covenant with the Jewish people, our tradition positioned the Exodus story as the paradigm for God’s covenant with the powerless and downtrodden. As Jews who are commanded to emulate God, we are thus also bound to create a covenantal community not only with Jews but with all who are in need.
When people take to the streets and lay claim to their inalienable rights as free people, when they ask that their government be of the people and for the people, when they plead for an equitable and just distribution of their society’s goods, the natural response of the Jew is to stand at their side. "Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt." (Leviticus 19)
Here, however, we Jews and especially Jewish Israelis find ourselves particularly challenged. We yearn for a democratic Middle East. Deep down, we often suspect that only in a democratic Middle East will we achieve the peace for which we aspire. Only when peace is made between free peoples, ratified by their elected governments, will it have a viable and sustainable future.
In our experience, however, we have yet to meet such people. We have yet to hear the voice on the street, the voice which represents the will of the masses that are willing to recognize our inalienable rights to live as well, as a free people in our own land. Our experience has been the opposite.
My intent here is not to lay the blame on others, nor to exonerate Israel for the present impasse in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. I am merely pointing to the fact that we have yet to encounter a "Peace Now" movement which has sprung forth from amongst the citizenry of Arab states. Where peace has been achieved, it has only been with authoritarian or monarchic regimes.
It seems that it is only the ruling elite in most cases, against the expressed will of their populations, who foresee the political and economic dividends to be reaped by peace. It is they – and not the masses – who want a connection with the West.
So, whose side are we on – that of President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan? Both have negotiated and sustained a peace of sorts, which has included, at the very least, a cessation of war and hostilities, coupled with economic cooperation. They have both steadfastly withstood the pressures of, at the very least, large segments of their populations, who have called for them to break all ties with us. The truth is that they are and have been our friends and allies.
I would love it if our friends and allies were leaders of liberal democracies. We in the West seem to have grown accustomed to moral compromises in the areas of business and politics, whether it is importing illegal workers to provide "affordable" services, to trade with countries with underdeveloped labor laws, to the allies we have had to choose in order to sustain the well being of our citizens.
The meaning of Zionism is the decision of the Jewish people to enter into the domain of realpolitik. It is a domain of imperfection and much compromise. A powerless people is always a moral one, and with power one inevitably enters into "messy situations" where one must try to do one’s best and is often forced to pick the best of two imperfect and problematic solutions. We Israelis have chosen to relinquish the moral high ground of the powerless.
On whose side are we? First, with those leaders, as flawed and as imperfect as they may be, who have had the courage to reach out and offer us a hand of peace. I believe we must do so unapologetically. The moral obligations toward our life and survival demand this of us. At the same time, one must never allow one’s moral compromises to be transformed into a moral ideal.
We pray that one day we will meet another people who demand their own rights and advocate for ours as well, people for whom their success and ours is not a zero sum game, people who together with us will dream of and aspire to a new Middle East. Until such a day, we must do two things. The first is to support our friends. The second is to double our efforts to ensure that at least within our society, where we do not have to compromise, our policies reflect a commitment to the covenant of God with all those who are oppressed, and to the ideal of peace and equality for us all. The first will allow us to live in the Middle East. The second will ensure that we do not become a Middle East phenomenon, and remain true to the values which must define a Jewish State.