By DONNIEL HARTMAN
We, your neighbors, have been speaking a lot about you these last few weeks. As the status quo in your country to which we have become accustomed has changed, some of us expressed concern, others hope, and still others, admiration. Each view has its pundits, whose reading of the “facts” (your reality) seemed somehow to always fit into their pre-existing worldview.
The truth is that we don’t know. We don’t know, first and foremost, who you are. You see, for the last 30 years it seems, we never got a chance to talk. We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.
We got used to and comfortable with the existing state of affairs and learned how to adapt and work with it in ways that would fit our own national interests and aspirations. We all must now come to terms with the fact that it is not only about us, but about you. We must begin a new conversation with you, a partner that has declared loud and clear that your voice – the voice of the people – must and will be heard.
First, let me start then with a hello. As neighbors, we have had a long relationship, filled with many different memories. I remember as a young teenager the feelings of fear that you aroused when in 1973 your armies crossed the Suez Canal and my country’s very existence was in doubt. I remember the awesome beauty of the Sinai desert as a soldier in the tank corps when it was still under Israel’s control and the strategic comfort it provided. I remember falling head over heels in love with your President Anwar Sadat, when he came to Israel. I remember the hope that he brought to our country, a hope which inspired us to recognize that our future security could not and should not be based solely on the strength of our army and the impenetrability of our borders, but on the stability of our peaceful relations with our neighbors.
For nearly 35 years now, we have lived in peace with each other. Our children have not died at each other’s hands. It hasn’t been the warmest peace, but as we say in the Jewish tradition, “dayenu.” It was enough. We Israelis, while always aspiring for more, deeply valued it nonetheless. Where do we go from here?
One of the old adages posits that democracies rarely go to war with each other. This is so, it is argued, because when the people who actually have to pay the price of war get to choose, they will invariably choose resolution over conflict. They will choose their children’s lives over national pride and ideology.
It is here that the Middle East has often proven this wrong. It seems that in our neighborhood at times, our children are our least valued commodity. The two of us, however, who have enjoyed the fruits that peace has given to our children are also a Middle Eastern phenomenon, and must become the rule instead of the exception.
Democracies rarely go to war, however, for yet another reason. A democracy is not simply the rule of the majority, but rather the rule of the majority that preserves the inalienable rights of its minorities. It is a system of government which believes that all humans are endowed with certain basic rights and freedoms which both empower them to govern themselves and which frees them from the potential tyranny of that same government. Democracies rarely go to war not simply because they want to preserve the lives of their citizens but because they respect the inherent freedoms of all humans, citizen and non-citizen alike. When one respects one’s own rights to be free, it often leads one to respect one’s neighbor’s rights to the same freedoms as well.
I pray that this will be one of the outcomes of your democratic revolution. I hope that our two peoples living in vibrant democracies will find new ways to reach out to each other and respect each other. That does not mean that we always have to agree. It is possible and even likely that there are policies which each one of us is pursuing, either externally or internally, that may differ from the other’s national interest or even moral sensibilities.
We have a critical choice ahead of us. The change in the status quo can cause us to revert to the old and mutually destructive patterns. I hope we do not need to relive the experiences of our grandparents and parents in order to learn yet again that war is not a solution. I pray that we will use the change in the status quo as a catalyst to move us forward. Status quos are comfortable, but they can also lead to stagnation. Our neighborhood is one in which there is still much pain and hatred. We, the two of us, have a unique opportunity to change the rules of the game, to speak, engage, challenge, and even push each other to find a new and vibrant status quo.
I know you are going to be busy over the next number of months and we are not your primary concern. I am nevertheless writing to you to again say, hello, and that we look forward to speaking with you soon. Until then, we wish that your transition to freedom be a peaceful and beneficial one to all your citizens and that your freedom be a blessing to you, and to the whole world. Amen.
Note: This article has struck a nerve both in Egypt and in Israel. [At the link] below you can find dozens of comments from Egyptians, a first for the Institute. Also, an Israeli newspaper [Haaretz] has featured this virtual dialogue in a special feature article.