As many of us prepare for this Sunday’s Super Bowl between the Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, which is projected to be the most watched television show in United States history, our eyes already seem glued to our TV sets with the news coming from the Middle East. The rapidly changing events taking place in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen have captivated our attention. But what does all of this mean for each of these countries? The faces may be changing, yet what are the implications of the potential policy changes? What could this mean for Israel?
Without getting too detailed, some could say the events in Tunisia helped to “spark” the Arab world. The uprising in Tunisia ended the rule of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, and a new government is being created. This has caused worry within the 1,500 person Jewish community living there. The former Tunisian leadership protected the Jewish community and its institutions. Unfortunately, during the uprising, the El Hama Synagogue in the town of Gabes on the southern Tunisian coastline was burned down this past Tuesday and the Torah scrolls were burned. There are conflicting reports whether this was done by vandals or a more serious arson attack. Either way, this is a terrible loss for the Jewish community in Tunisia.
Emboldened by the change in Tunisia, protests began to occur in Egypt, which have only grown larger and more violent over the course of a few days. President Hosni Mubarak replaced his government and has vowed not to run for re-election in the fall. This morning’s news reports show growing demands for President Mubarak to step down immediately. Even President Obama has come out publicly and stated that President Mubarak should leave office prior to the fall. What this means for the future leadership of the country is unclear and something we must monitor.
In the middle of all of this, King Abdullah II of Jordan decided to replace his cabinet and appoint a new prime minister to perhaps quell any potential large-scale protests. And President Ali Abdullah Saleh, President of Yemen, announced that he will not seek re-election when his term ends in 2013, thus abruptly ending his bid to change the country’s constitution to erase all term limits on the position.
It is truly incredible the speed at which the world can change and the potential monumental shifts that could come from these current events.
On Tuesday, the Jewish Federations of North America participated in a conference call with Daniel Kurtzer, former United States Ambassador to Egypt and Israel. Ambassador Kurtzer said there was little the United States or Israel could do to steer the direction of the political transition in Egypt, amid concerns that the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas and is allied with Hezbollah and Iran, might be tied to the next government. “This is very much an internal Egyptian conversation that is going on,” he said. However, Ambassador Kurtzer (and published news reports today) added that no Arab government wants to see a further rise of Islamic fundamentalism, especially as anti-government unrest continues to rock Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia and Yemen.
The recent mass protests in Egypt have caused the Israeli government to reassess its security needs as Egypt could fall to Islamic extremists opposed to the existence of the Jewish state or even secular groups opposed to the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. "In a state of chaos, an organized Islamic group can take over a country. It has happened. It happened in Iran," said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The protest efforts today are outwardly about removing the long-standing regimes with a push for policy changes. In addition, there are demands for elections. We must recognize, however, that while freedom brings democracy -- does democracy bring freedom?
We will all be watching.
PS – We have an incredible Jewish cultural arts scene here in Portland. Two quick shows I want to bring to your attention.
First, last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening of Jewish Theater Collaborative’s (JTC) premier of Charlotte Salomon’s Life? Or Theater? The Jewish Federation, through its Innovation Impact Grants, helped JTC to grow and prosper. Performances run through February 20 at Disjecta (8371 N Interstate - 97217) – go to www.jewishtheatercollaborative.org to learn more and to get your tickets. You will not be disappointed.
In addition, visit Federation’s partner agency, the Oregon Jewish Museum, and see their wonderful new exhibit, Ernest Bloch – Framing a Vision of the World. More details can be found at www.ojm.org.