Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Saluting the courage of an Egyptian pacifist

I am writing this article to draw your attention to the amazing story of Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad.  Dr. Nabil is a veterinarian, an Egyptian blogger, pro-democracy activist, and pacifist who was sentenced on Sunday, April 10, 2011, to three years in prison on charges of “insulting the military” and “disturbing public security.”  He was subjected to a closed military trial in part as possible retaliation for his refusal to serve in the Egyptian military.  He was prevented from attending parts of his own trial and then sentenced alone in the absence of his lawyers and family. He was punished because he wrote an article criticizing the Egyptian military’s handling of the situation in Egypt even after the fall of the Mubarak regime.  Obviously I support the immediate release of Dr. Nabil. 

When I read his English-language blog at, I was amazed.   I can see why he is such a threat to the military regime in Egypt.  He is an atheist from a Coptic family.  But most importantly, he is the first conscientious objector in Egyptian history, and he is a confirmed pacifist who simply refuses to  fight.  In April, 2009, he formed a facebook group against conscription called “No to Obligatory Service”.  The group has the radical and difficult objective of abolishing obligatory conscription in Egypt.  As of October 2010, the group had 20-30 activists on the ground in Egypt and 3,000 members.

When I think of Egypt, I think of Gamal Abdel Nasser fighting Israel and promising to throw the Jews into the sea.  I think of the many wars of aggression which Egypt committed against Israel and the Jews in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973.  I think of the anti-Jewish hatred which is relentlessly broadcast on the Egyptian media under the Mubarak regime.  I think of the Muslim Brotherhood and its radical Islamist ideology.  I think of the military rule of Mubarak and his repression of dissidents. In short, I associate Egypt with political repression, militarism, and anti-Semitism.

So I was astonished to read the perspective of a young Egyptian pacifist.  He told the Israeli web site Ynet last year, "I am a pacifist, I am against bearing arms and participating in military and paramilitary organizations. Recruitment goes against my conscience. I don't want to act against my conscience, whatever the price. I also am not willing to be a pawn on the chessboard of an arms race, struggles and bloodbaths in the region. I don't want to point a weapon at a young Israeli, recruited into obligatory service, defending his state's right to exist. I think obligatory service is a form of slavery and I have worked for years for my freedom." 

I understand Mr. Nabil’s refusal to serve as cannon fodder for the Egyptian military regime’s war against Israel and the Jews.  I myself am not a pacifist as I think that Israel clearly needs an army in order to defend itself in a hostile neighborhood.  But I never imagined in a million years that I would be hearing words like this from an Egyptian young man.  Maikel Nabil is violating my stereotypical image of the heavily armed, militaristic Arab man who carries a gun everywhere and can’t wait to war jihad against the infidels.  Naturally the amazing images of the hundreds of thousands of young men and women who demonstrated peacefully for democracy, human rights, and regime change in Egypt’s Tahrir Square helped to break this stereotype and earn my admiration for their courage and dignity.

Perhaps even more amazing is Maikel Nabil’s admiration for Israel and the Jews. "I am pro-Israel," he says in an interview with "I don't want to take part in anti-Semitic operations or those that negate Israel's right to exist in the region. I see Israel as a liberal, modern state with a religious character. I have friends in Israel and I think Israelis have a right to defend themselves."  I am frankly astounded to hear a young Egyptian expressing such solidarity and empathy with Israel and the Jews.  He is quite a refreshing contrast to the usual diet of blood libels, Holocaust denial, and admiration for Hitler most frequently expressed in the Egyptian press in the past 60 years. 

At the same time, I also understand why Israel refuses to grant him a visa.  As a confirmed pacifist, he is also working with the Israeli pacifist movement.  His anti-militarist vision runs counter to the foundations of the Zionist ideology, which I support and which are based upon Jews taking up arms in self-defense against Arab and Muslim aggression.  In addition, Israel, like Egypt, has obligatory conscription, and thus national military service is an integral experience in Israeli society.  Israeli Jewish men not only serve three years in combat after high school; they also are available until age 49 for the military reserves and can be called up for combat at any time in the event of war. 

He has worked hard to try to counter Jewish fears about Egyptians and to reassure Israelis that not all Egyptians hate Israel and want to destroy the Jews.  He said,"the Israeli nation must know there are many Egyptians who support it, that we love Israel and support its right to exist. The picture painted by the media that all Egyptians hate Israel is false. This picture is not correct, and I want to make that clear to you."  I never imagined reading an Egyptian man saying that “we love Israel and support its right to exist.”  After all, during the PLO / PA terrorist war against Israel and the Jews of 2000-2005, the Egyptian press went into overdrive in its propaganda against Israel and the Jews.  In addition, after he published a book based on his visit to Israel, the Egyptian playwright Ali Salem was expelled from the Egyptian Writers Union. 

Maikel also created a YouTube video on February 4, 2011, where he made an English-language appeal to the Israeli people to support the Egyptian revolution against Mubarak.  In this video he explained how the Mubarak regime has conducted a relentless propaganda campaign against Israel and the Jews.  He also said that the claim that the whole revolution is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood is simply a ploy by the Mubarak regime to retain Israeli and Western support.  He said that Egyptians were simply seeking the same democratic freedoms that Israel has had throughout its existence, such as religious freedom and women’s rights. 

He asked Israelis to make a major leap of faith and support the Egyptian freedom uprising on several grounds.  First, he said that democracies do not fight other democracies and thus an Egyptian democracy would be a genuine partner for peace with Israel and the Jews rather than pursuing a cold peace based on anti-Jewish hatred.  He said that if Israel supported the Egyptian freedom uprising now, then a future Egyptian democracy would be more likely to accept Israel and the Jews.  He said that by supporting the Egyptian freedom uprising today, Israel could start the process of reconstituting a new relationship between Egyptians and Israelis based on mutual respect and democratic freedoms.  His appeal to Israelis to support the Egyptian freedom revolution reflects both his deep admiration for Israel’s democracy and his visionary belief that a democratic Egypt can be a friend to Israel and the Jew.

Unfortunately, I don’t think that his compassion for the Jews changes the overall geo-political and strategic realities of Israel’s position as a vulnerable Jewish democracy in a hostile neighborhood.  However, his obvious expressions of affection and empathy for Israel and the Jews do give me profound moral and emotional comfort.  He comments on Israel’s internal affairs with love, calling on Israel to open the Kotel, the Western Wall, to mixed-gender worship in accordance with his own feminist belief in gender equality.  Even when I disagree with him, as when he says that the reason for terrorism is Israel’s failure to restart the peace process with the PLO and Hamas, I know that he is speaking from the heart with a deep love for Israel and the Jews.

I am greatly moved by this young man’s courage in standing up to tyranny and by his attempt to connect with Israel and the Jews on an intellectual and personal level.  He is learning Hebrew and seeking help from Hebrew-speakers to develop the Hebrew portion of his web site.  He writes constantly about how Egypt’s democratic revolution will affect its relationship with Israel and the Jews and seeks to address Jewish concerns all the time.  He describes his unsuccessful attempt to visit the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt.  On April 10, 2010, he saluted Israel’s independence day, writing “Happy Yom Ha'atzmaut ( Independance Day ) for all my Israeli Friends”.  I saw that one of the last YouTube sites that he added right before his arrest was the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial site.  Quite frankly, I never expected to see this level and depth of compassion for Israel and the Jews from any Arab.

One of his stated reasons for his refusal to serve in the Egyptian army is its preaching of Jew-hatred.  He wrote on his blog. “Someone told me that in the Egyptian army, they force recruits to say “There is no god except Allah, Muhammed is the prophet of Allah, and The Jews are the enemies of Allah “.... What the fuck??? .... Is the army converting Egyptians to Islam? And How I'll be forced to participate in such anti-Semitic activities?”  He simply cannot even imagine participating in anti-Semitism. 

He wrote an article on the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Arabic language web site in December, 2010, entitled “Why I am a Pro-Israel.”  I wish I could find an Arabic-speaker to translate this extraordinarily moving article properly from Arabic to English.  After sending it into Google Translate, I was amazed that this material was written in Arabic.  He explained that he admires and supports Israel because of its democratic political system, its respect for human rights, its compassion for African refugees, its superior educational system, and its technological marvels.  He traced the history of modern Israel in detail and included even information that I, as a knowledgeable Zionist Jew, did not know.  I learned from his article that Israel has had 18 governments and 9 presidents during its 62 year history. 

I was telling my closest friend, a passionate animal lover, that Maikel is a veterinarian by profession.  My best friend told me she wasn’t surprised that a veterinarian would be so compassionate – because she has found that every vet she ever took her cat to was an extraordinarily kind person.  I find myself thinking of Maikel whenever I do research on war – as when I study the Russian war in Chechnya.   And I found another great argument against militarism from my Russian history professor.  He sent me a YouTube clip of a video that was made by the Georgian Defense Ministry for new military recruits in 2008.  The clip ended with a chilling quote from Adolf Hitler, “Once and for all we must understand that we will never be able to regain the lost territory with prayers, which have become a formality, nor with hopes in the League of Nations, but with the strength of our weapons.”  Reading this material, I realized this is exactly the kind of poisonous militarist ideology that Dr. Maikel Nabil Sanad is so bravely resisting at such a high personal cost. 


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