Wednesday, March 28, 2012

In conversation with Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad

In the past week, I have had the incredible privilege of speaking on the phone three times for extended periods of time and once for a short time with Maikel.  In every single conversation, Maikel managed to amaze me even more with his courage, compassion, and intellect. 

He talked in one conversation about how he is not a conventional, European-style pacifist.  He explained that he understand the Jewish case is different from the United States and Europe.  In particular, he recognizes that Israel has the right to defend itself from terrorism.  In other words, he is sensitive to the strategic realities facing the Jews.  Frankly this was a surprise to me because he came across in his writings as a more conventional pacifist who didn’t take account of the specific differences of the Jewish situation.  I was very calmed and re-assured when Maikel explained this to me.

In one brief conversation,  he told me that he had explained about anti-Semitism in the Egyptian army to some people who were indifferent or ignorant about the subject.  He said his goal was to raise awareness about the realities of how the Egyptian army promotes anti-Jewish stereotypes in order to stay in power.  I was once again amazed at his immense sensitivity to our Jewish cause.

In another discussion, he told me why he was learning Hebrew.  He explained that in order to really connect on an emotional level with other people and to understand them and their culture, you need to speak to them in their own language.  I agreed with him immediately on this point, noting how my fluency in Spanish dissolves the barriers to my relationships with Hispanics here in Miami and allows me to speak freely with Hispanics.  I am so happy and moved he is learning Hebrew and that he cares enough about us Jews to want to learn our language and speak to us in our own language. 

In our final conversation, he grilled me in astonishing detail about my opinions on complicated issues of internal Israeli politics.  I was frankly astonished and thrilled to see an Arab politician who knew more about certain aspects of internal Israeli politics than I, a religious Zionist, did.  In fact, I didn’t know until he told me that Israel is having elections early next year.  Why? Because basically I dropped out of the international relations profession in September, and since then I don’t read any global news except for the Syrian uprising. 

He asked me what do I think about the influence of the religious parties in Israel.  I said that basically I haven’t given the issue much thought because most of the time my focus related to Israel is concerned with security issues and the Palestinian Arabs.  He greatly fears that the religious parties will regain power in a coalition alliance with Likud and blames Likud for its policy of seeking a coalition with the religious parties.

I would say that first of all I understand why Maikel is alarmed by the rise of the religious parties in Israel.  He feels that Israel is moving away from the secular democratic ideals of freedom and equality for which he so greatly admires Israel and the Jews.  He thinks that Israel as it stands now is a model of democracy for the Middle Eastern region.  That’s why he is so profoundly sad to see Israel moving away from its democratic ideals. He mentioned being particularly upset about the anti-gay policies of the religious parties in Israel.

He says that most Arabs have no problem with a  secular Jewish state – but that as an atheist he cannot support a Jewish theocracy.  He compared the Jewish theocracy he fears with the Islamist regime in Iran.  I find this comparison a bit extreme and inaccurate because I don't think the religious parties are planning to stone women for adultery. But I understand why Maikel is making it.

I think most Arabs object to Israel simply because it is a Jewish state, not because they object to the possibility of a Jewish religious theocracy.  In other words, most Arabs reject the idea of the Jews being in a position of power, regardless of the internal content of the Jewish state involved. 

The second point in response is that the Likud is not the only party in Israel which has formed a coalition with the religious parties in the past.  Historically both Likud and Labor have formed alliances with the religious parties in order to create governments.  The reason that the major parties want to form coalitions with the religious parties is that the religious parties generally do not interfere with the policies of the major parties on security issues and economic issues.  The religious parties ask in exchange for a sort of devil’s bargain of total control on issues related to women’s rights and Jewish law generally.  

So I don’t think its historically accurate to say that only Likud is willing to do business with the religious parties.  But he does point out correctly that the religious parties would lose their power in Israel if the major parties refused to include them in a coalition. 

As a Jewish Zionist, generally I have focused more on external security problems than on issues of internal Israeli democracy.  However, Maikel has strongly encouraged me to begin thinking about these latter issues more seriously, and I thank him for raising them with me and expressing his concerns about them to me.  I was thinking about why the religious parties in Israel are so powerful, and I think there are a few basic reasons.    

First of all, as Maikel probably knows, the secular Jewish founders of the State of Israel made a certain agreement with the religious parties.  The religious parties agreed to support a secular Jewish state in exchange for being given absolute power over marriage and divorce and Jewish law issues generally. 

This arrangement of course is highly problematic in many respects.  First of all, it essentially deprives Jewish women of equality under the law by placing marriage and divorce in the hands of the strictest Orthodox Jews.  Second of all, it has allowed the creation of an Orthodox Jewish subculture in which far too many religious men are exempt from military service and are paid by the state to engage in traditional Jewish study. This system deprives religious Jewish men of the incentive to work for a living, which creates a strain on the Israeli economy.

But much more fundamentally, there is no separation of religion and state in Israel.  I was thinking about how Orthodox Jewish groups operate so incredibly differently in the United States than they do in Israel.  First of all, the U.S. has separation of religion and state, and so no religious group has a national monopoly on power.  Second of all, as a religious minority, obviously Orthodox Judaism cannot impose itself and its ideology upon the Christian majority in America.

For this reason, American women are free to wear whatever clothes they want (or practically no clothes at all if they wish).  When I moved into an Orthodox Jewish community in Miami Beach, I made the personal decision to adopt the Orthodox Jewish dress code for women.  This means in practice that I stopped wearing pants and shorts.  I chose to wear long sleeved shirts that cover my arms –and to wear skirts that cover my knees.  I find it spiritually more satisfying to adopt traditional Jewish dress for women than to wear sexier clothes.  I am also choosing to observe the Jewish laws of tzinut, or modesty in English, which apply in reality mostly to women.

However, this decision to change my dress was a purely personal choice.    No one pressured or coerced me to adopt this dress: not the local Orthodox Jewish community, and certainly not the government.  As a Jewish woman who grew up in the U.S. and is accustomed to separation of religion and state, I have absolutely no desire to impose my personal dress code upon other women, whether they are my fellow Jews or they are non-Jews. As I walk the streets and the sands of Miami Beach, I see women dressed in all forms of mini-skirts, bikinis, and sexy shirts which expose breast cleavage.  I feel it is not my business or my right to tell other women what they should wear, although I do find it a bit offensive when some women walk around the beach in bikinis which intentionally reveal their private areas. 

The difference between me and the religious fanatics in Israel is that I recognize the concept of separation of religion and state, and they don’t.  I don’t support in an Israeli context a complete separation of religion and state.  But I clearly do recognize the danger of religious extremist men who spat upon and verbally abused an 8 year old girl because her clothing did not meet their standards.  Ironically her clothing was considered perfectly appropriate for Modern Orthodox Jews.  But even if she had been wearing a mini-skirt or shorts, they have no right to attack her in this fashion.

The good news is that some of my fellow Orthodox Jews agree with me, and this case has raised their awareness of the danger of religious fanaticism. The case seems to have sparked an internal debate within the Orthodox Jewish community about the necessity and role of tolerance within Jewish society.  Many Orthodox Jews like me are appalled to see religious extremists assaulting a young Jewish girl in a misguided attempt to impose their ideology upon the broader Israeli society.                

I would say in closing that unlike Maikel, I would still support Israel even if it became a religious theocracy because it would still be a Jewish state.  But I also understand that democracy and modernity are incompatible with a religious theocracy in Israel.  Israel continually struggles between the poles of reconciling traditional Judaism with both modernity and democracy.  Balancing traditional Judaism against modernity and democracy is a high-wire act at times.  I would not want Israel to give up entirely its attachment to traditional Judaism or the Torah.  At the same time, I hope that Israel does not forget the importance of maintaining its democratic ideals.   

 I also wish to thank Maikel once again for his bold and brave defense of Israel and the Jews under impossibly difficult conditions in Egypt.  I greatly appreciate all he has done to support Israel and the Jews so explicitly in the face of such incredible danger to his life and safety.  I stand with him in his struggle to defeat radical Islam in Egypt and to ensure the triumph of democratic ideals in his country.  

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