Saturday, October 08, 2011

6th of October in Jerusalem

Published first at BIKYAMASR
It is that day of the year – 6th of October – that glorious day in the Egyptian psyche that commemorates, or rather celebrates, so runs the story in the Egyptian media, the victory during the 1973 October War when the Egyptian army defeated the Israeli army and regained Sinai. Events planned to commemorate the Armed Forces Day included on Wednesday, among others, the visit and floral offering of Hussein Tantawi, chairman of the Superior Council of the Armed Forces, to the memorial of the Unknown Soldier in Nasr City; art and sport performances in schools, and a variety of events held or to be held on Thursday in different governorates all over Egypt. Another celebration planned in Alexandria will honor warriors of the 1973 October war and also the martyrs of the Egyptian January 25 Revolution.
The writing on the wall of what this national and military celebration represents for the Republic of Egypt nowadays, after the strange twist that the revolution has taken, is something about which one cannot express discontent as much as hesitation. There may be too many versions of the story; for some like the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and some of nascent nationalist movement perhaps it is business as usual; for others it might be reason to scorn, to laugh, to complain, to mourn – all this is still subject to intense debate. What does it mean, though, 6th of October in the capital of the Jewish State? How do they view Egypt then and now? Should we congratulate the new Egypt on this simultaneously cheerful and sorrowful day? Or should we express panic and fear about what the near future holds in store?
This year 2011, almost 40 years after the war and in the happy year of the Arab revolutions, the celebration falls almost on the same day of Yom Kippur, which infamously codenamed the war in the Israeli mind as Jews walk into the holiest and most solemn day in the liturgical calendar. It remains still difficult to speak about Egypt without falling prey to the politics of enmity. In the course of preparing for the Israeli matriculation exams for Zionist history and then later on in university, the topic is by no means avoided, nevertheless, it comes as a surprise to hear that Egyptians celebrate a victory while we were told and taught that Israelis were the victors. This proposition in itself would ignite the most violent reactions charged with intense emotions. There cannot be two victors in a war.
I would even dare say that for the average Israeli, looking at 6th of October as an Egyptian celebration would be more or less a taboo. There are some facts nonetheless that are very clear from a historical point of view: The Israelis were not prepared for the war and the blow on the morale of the Zionist institution was rather severe so that enquiries were launched to investigate possible culprits, the outcome of which is widely documented in Israel. The State of Israel remained nonetheless religiously committed to the idea of its military superiority and its position of power in the region. Never did I see this idea challenged until the year 2006 with the outcome of the Hezbollah-Israel war in Lebanon, when it became clear that the army had become a monolithic, all too heavy, all too undisciplined institution.
How could one address himself to the Egyptians to discuss the meaning of 6th of October if it is not yet possible to discuss it at home? It would be unfair to deny that one writes not without a certain degree of fear and guilt. Israeli society has been radically transformed in the course of these decades, younger generations have emerged, less connected to the tragic history of European Jewry, highly critical of or at least ambivalent about Zionism, less committed to the military institution and certainly less afraid of facing their Arab counterparts.
In theory and at home this comes easier said than done. I remember being lost once in the Old City of Jerusalem at the age of eighteen with a British friend and then coming out of Damascus Gate right into the center of East Jerusalem; I had never been so afraid before, it was this foreign language, Arabic, the curious faces of the pedestrians, the inspecting laughter of the young men and the climate of self-inflicted hostility. The same culture of fear that had driven us out of our native lands to seek shelter in the land of our ancestors, it was the same fear of the other what we experienced that day.
In retrospective it is possible for me to say nowadays, with the years and kilometers of distance that have elapsed, that many Israelis feel guilty about the injustice committed on the Palestinians and this guilt is easily transfigured into fear. No matter how hard we try to convince ourselves otherwise, no matter how much we rely on the military and on the leadership, it is impossible sometimes to escape that helpless feeling that what happened to our ancestors in Europe and elsewhere in the Arab world will also happen one day in the land believed to be promised.
The ruthless occupation and the terrifying instability led many people, in spite of the great prosperity, to live in a constant state of anxiety. At times I questioned myself about how really Jewish the state was; the internal paradoxes of Zionism often made manifest how right had been Hannah Arendt, writing a decade before the creation of the state, that Israel would become a semi-sovereign militaristic state, behind threatened borders from which Jewish culture would somehow vanish. On the other hand, there was always this optimism and this defiance, this willingness to make ourselves part of this great project in the make, called the State of Israel. The paradoxical existence of this irregular state in an ocean of hostility seemed to be yet one another paradox of Jewish life itself.
Looking back at 6th of October, there is not only the dread about a certain weakness perceived only silently but also the seed of that very fragile and often imaginary peace between Israel and Egypt which was indirectly the consequence of the war, but the Arab Spring and the end of Mubarak’s rule put an end to this illusion in dramatic ways. Just like the United States, Israel was not quick enough in sensing the true reach of the protest movement and the old leadership expressed much concern about how a new Egypt without the artificial long-established peace would challenge the status quo of the region for the Jewish state. The delusions of realpolitik showed their true colors when the Israeli leadership made it clear that it was preferable to remain at peace with a regime than at war with a free country. People in the Israeli public understood this and that is how the protests in the country demanding equality began with the slogan ‘Walk like an Egyptian’.
No doubt the Israeli leadership belongs to the generation of Mubarak and Bin Ali; they lack the vision to imagine a new Middle East and anchor themselves on each and every failure of the Arab revolution, in order to bring their point across over and over. Egyptians are in the right to challenge the legitimacy of the peace agreements that were never such; otherwise not only the economic but the cultural ties between the two countries would have been strengthened rather than let alone to cool and die.
The Arab revolutions must become for the State of Israel not a panic alarm but a well awaited opportunity to fix the injustices committed against the Palestinians and to provide the space for the type of self-reflections necessary, if we want to live one day without this unbearable guilt and fear that nobody speaks about. It is clear to me of course that while I am defending Israel’s right to exist and the possibility of a peaceful coexistence with Palestine, some of my personal friends consider my position that of a traitor and resent the welcoming approach to the revolution which after all, is not in Israel’s best interest.
Truth being said, they’re not completely mistaken and not for political reasons. Many dormant chimeras of the last hundred years have arisen from the dead since January and it has become clear that not only a political solution between our countries seems far fetches but also that the hostility toward Jews in the Arab world is as alarming as we had always thought or perhaps more. Several incidents in the last couple of months have made it clear not only that the Egyptian revolution is far from complete, but also that there seems to be no place for Jews outside the threatened borders of Israel.
Zionism has become not an allusion to the dreadful combination of European nationalist politics of history and the plight of a homeless people, but also a cliché of the Arab world applied to anything that falls out of favor; whether it is King Hamad of Bahrain, the Syrian regime, Mubarak, the liberals, the religious, the leftists; in short, anyone who is an object of distaste or disagreement is immediately labeled a Zionist and not only that, there is no differentiation whatsoever between Jews and Zionists.
I would be the first to agree that normalization with Israel, not between governments but between peoples, will come by as an impossible task unless Israel meets for once its commitment to peace, to stop the settlements and to treat the Palestinians fairly – this is beyond question. Where I become worried is when Egyptians fail to recognize that the State of Israel is not going to go anywhere, perhaps it will be possible to change the demographic and geographic landscape, but this state in itself is not going to go up in smoke, sloppily as it is maintained. In order to question the legitimacy of Israel a certain measure of political decency is necessary in which Egypt will have to assess its own relationship to the Jewish people historically and how the 1973 war in itself wouldn’t have been possible, hadn’t it been one another power game of the Cold War.
6th of October is a celebration that the Egyptians have owned up to and they are in their right, as it represents their struggles past and present and a way into the future, whatever this future holds in store. However, circumscribing it entirely to a military parade under the present conditions signals perhaps a deliberate avoidance to tackle the impossible political situation they are living in under a more or less established military rule. Jerusalem will remain cool and cold on what this celebration represents but what Jerusalem might think is irrelevant to the unexpected course that Egyptian history took.
Defining politics as friendship or enmity with a foreign country is a rotten left over from European politics of the past centuries, from the vicious complacency of nation states and from what threatens democracy the most: The yoke of tribal and ethnic politics. There is no better way for the nascent free Arab states to support the Palestinian plight than stressing their own commitments to democracy and plurality, rather than replicating the blind circles of hatred and fear that we were taught in. A war, always a silly thing, can be the leitmotif of greatness as the Greeks knew so well, but greatness is not self-serving, it is a responsibility without which no freedom can last longer than the hour of liberation.
As a Jew, I want to see a free Egypt, a free Palestine and a democratic Israel; none of that will be possible while thousands of people are put on trial in military courts, while people chant death to the Jews, while authoritarianism slowly erodes democratic promises. Let’s celebrate 6th of October, not for what it stood in a past that a nation wants to be free thereof, but on the basis of what can be built thereupon.

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