Watching unrest in Egypt, US Jews voice many concerns, some hopes

American Jews' concerns center on the fear that a new regime in Egypt would not honor the peace with Israel. But other voices call for the community to embrace the cause of Egyptian freedom.

By , Staff writers

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    Days into the standoff in Cairo, protesters still fill Tahrir Square to demonstrate against the government, Tuesday. Meanwhile, Jews in the US are becoming concerned about what government comes next and what relationship it will have with Israel.
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The dramatic events in Egypt have elicited an outpouring of concerned commentary from the American Jewish community amid fears that successors to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak could be more sympathetic to Islamic fundamentalism and may not honor the 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

But although many of the six million American Jews are burning up the phone lines to relatives and government officials in the region – and some key Jewish groups have urged their members to push the White House and Congress to be more vocal in preempting the inclusion of Muslim fundamentalists in Egypt’s political dialogue – there is no formal, unified response, say leading Jewish academics and rabbis.

“It’s always a bit dicey to talk about a monolithic, Jewish American response,” says Robert Wexler, president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. “Like most Americans we are taking a wait-and-see response while voicing concern about any kind of Islamic assertion of power in the region.”

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The American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful pro-Israel lobby, sounded a similar theme.

“Like all Americans, AIPAC is concerned about how Egypt’s future will affect American interests in the region,” says Jennifer Cannata, AIPAC press secretary, via email. “AIPAC hopes that any political transition in Egypt will lead to a pro-American, pro-Western and democratic government that is committed to maintaining Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.”

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), one of the oldest pro-Israel organization in the US says American Jews and Israeli leaders are strongly expressing the same fears, both publicly and privately, about the possible rise of Islamists to power in Egypt and what instability in the region would mean for Israel.

“I’ve never seen so many Israeli leaders and others express such deep fears and concerns that extremists will move into power,” Mr. Klein says, adding that his group is urging its members to lobby both House and Senate members to do whatever possible to stop any Islamic group from taking over in Egypt.

“We’re deeply concerned that [President] Obama and Hillary Clinton have not done or said enough to denounce the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology and platform,” he says. He notes that the group’s August 2007 platform says women and non-Muslims should not hold important political posts in Egyptian government, calls for jihad (holy war), and states that the clergy must approve all government decisions. He is expressly wary of what democracy could mean in Egypt.

“We don’t feel they should be rushing into elections because it’s likely they would get the same results that Hamas got in Gaza,” Klein says. “They won fair and square but is that good for the world and the region? We must say, no.”

A 'missed opportunity'

That’s why the ZOA has not been in solidarity with comments from author and television personality Rabbi Shmuley Boteach that the Egyptian crisis has been a “missed opportunity” for American Jews to be more vocal about the spread of democracy in the region.

“We should take this moment to stand in brotherhood with our Arab brothers in their desire for freedom,” Boteach says.

Some US Jewish groups are going out of their way to promote inter-religious dialogue and tolerance and see this as an historic moment to achieve progress on that front.

“We are very happy because we know that Mubarak has been awfully repressive in torturing people who disagree,” says management consultant Simma Lieberman, member of Kehilla community synagogue, a progressive synagogue in Piedmont, California. Her congregation sponsors dinners once a year between Christian churches and a mosque in Oakland. “We see this as an even better chance for peace in the Middle East,” she says.

But Rachel Ehrenfeld, founder of the right-leaning American Center for Democracy and author of “Funding Evil: How Terrorism is Financed,” says Americans need to be very careful.

“Americans are too easily fooled by their love of loaded words,” she says. “The Muslim Brotherhood does not mean the same thing when they use the word democracy. There is no such thing as a fundamentalist, Islamic democracy. It’s an oxymoron.”

Need to 'overcome our fears'

There is a growing sense among many Jewish Americans, however, that the current movement in Egypt is different, says Rob Eshman, editor-in-chief of jewishjournal.com, the largest Jewish news web site outside Israel.

“I don’t think that freedom is the ‘f’ word. We have to overcome our fears and embrace this,” he says.

Contrary to what many experts are saying, he says this is a different situation than either Gaza or Iran. Egypt is different, he says.

“When you know how strong Egyptians are and how oppressed they have been, you can’t help but feel this is moment for hope and that we should embrace this.”

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