I am currently in Israel leading a Birthright trip where the consumption of alcohol by the participants is largely discouraged. It’s a policy that Israel should perhaps enforce among its members of Parliament because whatever Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has been drinking lately, it’s got to be some powerful stuff. As the Arab world applauds the spectacle of Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak being tried for crimes against his people, including mowing down peaceful demonstrators, Ben-Eliezer seems to be shedding tears for his buddy Hosni.
In a bizarre interview with the Jerusalem Post, Ben-Eliezer said, “It really pained me to see him the way he was today. He was the leader of the Arab world. The Middle East after Mubarak is a different Middle East, a worse region. His people who he fought for showed him their back. He loves his people. I think he is a great Egyptian patriot. I hope he comes out of the trial alive. He is facing the pressure of the masses seeking revenge. But such a great leader deserves to be treated respectfully and not as the lowest criminal in a cage.”
Are we talking about the same guy who ruled Egypt with an iron fist and used secret police and the military to quash all democratic movements and stay in power for four decades? When Ben-Eliezer calls Mubarak a great patriot, is he perhaps conflating the term with despot?
We welcome Mr. Ben-Eliezer to pray explain how he, as an elected representative of a flourishing democracy committed to the highest ideals of human rights, can praise a man who brutalized his people and robbed them of their freedom – not to mention their money – for four decades.
A short history lesson for Mr. Ben Eliezer’s edification is in order.
It was George Washington who was the patriot and George III who was the tyrant. It was Martin Luther King, Jr. who was the patriot and Bull Connor who was the persecutor. It was Nelson Mandela who was the patriot and P. W. Botha, ‘the big crocodile,’ who was the oppressor.
What Mr. Ben-Eliezer and other misguided Israeli leaders who are currently lamenting the fall of Mr. Mubarak misunderstand is that the Egyptian leader loved power rather than his people. George Washington who in 1783 resigned his commission as the most powerful man in the newly formed United States – thus liberating his people from the possibility of yet another tyranny – was motivated by principle rather than ego. Mandela who refused to run for reelection as South Africa’s president and risk becoming another Robert Mugabe loved his people more than power. But Mubarak had contempt for Egyptians and took them to the cleaners to make himself and his children rich.
That a former deputy Prime Minister of Israel can praise an autocrat like Mubarak is embarrassing and points to the incredible error that Israel is currently making in these unprecedented Arab uprisings.
Israel’s voice has largely failed to blossom during the Arab spring. As Mubarak shot protestors, Kaddafi bombed cities, and Assad flattened his people with tanks, Israel’s protests have for the most part been missing. Like President Obama of the United States, who has a curious relationship with other people’s freedom, Israel has kept a low profile throughout the Arab protests. It’s no secret why. Israel is banking on the belief that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. And this fear that something worse is going to come after Mubarak or Assad, like the Muslim brotherhood, is causing Israel to violate all its most deeply cherished beliefs.
For decades Israel’s argument has been that it is the sole democracy in a sea of Arab tyranny. That the principle cause of Middle East war was that tyrants were scapegoating Israel in order to distract from their ongoing suppression of their citizens’ rights and that good times would come to Israel and the Arabs if these countries would finally democratize.
I heard Binyamin Netanyahu make this argument passionately and eloquently when he delivered a lecture that I organized at Oxford University in 1992 while he served as deputy Foreign Minister. Bibi argued that in the history of the world no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other and challenged his student audience to name a single instance. The Arabs had to taste the economic and political benefits of freedom if there was to be peace. Yet now, as Prime Minister, Netanyahu, Israel’s most persuasive spokesman, has seemingly chosen not to openly champion Arab freedom, partly out of fear of what comes next and partly out of trepidation that his voice will give credence to those Arab tyrants and enemies of Israel who argue that the Jewish state is the secret instigator behind the unrest.
But there is an equal fear that Israel, in its silence, or worse, in the case of the open encouragement given to Arab autocrats by people like Ben-Eliezer, will be seen as sympathizing with dictators who brutalized their people for decades.
Indeed, few of any of theses people were friends of Israel, especially Mubarak. It was Sadat who made peace with Israel, which Mubarak inherited, transforming it into an ice-cold peace. For many years the Egyptian Ambassador to Israel remained permanently recalled in Cairo while state-sponsored media organs under Mubarak became some of the foremost purveyors of anti-Semitic propaganda in the world, including an infamous TV miniseries promoting the validity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion which was broadcast throughout the Arab world. For those who argue that at least Mubarak kept the peace, what choice did he have, dependent as he was on $2.5 billion in annual American aid and risking losing the Sinai peninsula, with its considerable oil and natural gas fields, had he gone back to war.
But regardless, the unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement sprouting in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget.
The ancient Jewish toast of ‘L’Chaim,’ to life, connotes a universal Jewish commitment to every human life. And rather than elected officials like Ben-Eliezer getting drunk on their own pro-dictatorial rhetoric, Israel’s voice should be loud and clear that it denounces tyranny in every form.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, founder of This World: The Values Network, will be publishing his newest books, ‘Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself’ and ‘Kosher Jesus’ in October and December respectively. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.