Values clash – Jews hypocritical on democracy in Middle East?

Published in Washington Jewish Week on February 23, 2011

by Adam Kredo Staff Writer

As Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s regime collapsed earlier this month, many Jewish groups were quick to release statements awash in optimism and hope. But simmering beneath these rosy outlooks was a trepidation that true democracy might turn a region already unfriendly to Israel all the more hostile.

American Jewish groups, typically among the staunchest defenders of liberty and human rights across the globe, find themselves in a sensitive position, experts say.

“Sometimes the values you support are in contradiction to each other and you have to decide which are more important,” said Yoram Peri, director of the University of Maryland’s Joseph and Alma Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies. “It’s not that you pretend to be a democrat and are not one in your heart. It’s a real genuine conflict between different aims, values and beliefs.”

For a long time in the Arab world, where religion undergirds almost everything, there’s been a convenient trade-off: Jewish organizations largely remained mum as secular despots such as Mubarak oppressed their citizens, while maintaining a cold peace with Israel. As these dictators begin to topple, the fear is that new governments might arise in the region and seek to do Israel harm. “There’s a lack of belief that the Arab world is really ripe for democratic procedures and institutions,” explained Peri, a former political adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “For so many years, there was no democracy in this part of the world, so you see that unlike in many other places in the world, authoritarian regimes were accepted by the majority of the people.”

Still, critics argue, it’s wrong for American Jewish groups to remain passive as democracy sprouts across the Middle East. They should stand firmly with the Arab dissidents in spite of their fears about what the future might hold, some say.

“Egyptians are as entitled to human rights as we are,” said Andrew Apostolou, senior program manager at Freedom House, an organization that engages in international human rights advocacy. “We cannot call for Egyptians to live under despotism because we deem it to be strategically convenient.”

Apostolou noted that as revolutions continue to flare in the region – most notably in Libya – some Jewish groups have taken their cue from the Israeli government, publicly expressing hope while privately worrying.

“It is embarrassing to make a song and dance about Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East and then oppose the emergence of other prospective democracies,” said Apostolou, who is also a Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington board member.

Jewish leaders, however, remain nervous, and have already carried their anxieties to Capitol Hill, according to congressional insiders.

“People are in a tough spot because you have our basic principles and values and, on the other hand, you have pragmatic and real concerns about whether moving too quickly in a society that has not known democracy can create a vacuum,” said a GOP Senate aide who works with the Jewish community but was not authorized to speak on the record. “People are nervous right now,” and rightfully so, because “our hearts say one thing, our minds say another and our policy needs to triangulate the two.”

Jewish officials realize that their moves are being monitored across the Arab world, and a single misstep could make matters worse.

“There is a fear” that if American Jewish groups overzealously push for democracy and reform, “those values will be tainted by being seen as Zionistic or some sort of Jewish conspiracy,” said William Daroff, the Jewish Federations of North America’s vice president of public policy and head of its Washington office. “It will thwart the ability of these values to be promoted organically.” Groups such as his, Daroff said, are stuck in a potentially dangerous spot. “We don’t want to enable or empower those who seek to hijack these democratic revolutions. We support freedom and democracy … [but] our engagement may in fact help the bad guys and hurt the good guys.”

Democratic revolutions in the Arab world have historically paved the way for corrupt, Israel-defaming regimes, such as in Iran, noted Eric Fusfield, director of legislative affairs for B’nai B’rith International. “Will the Arab world go the way of Central and Eastern Europe, or will they follow the path Iran did 32 years ago?” Experts across the political spectrum agree that Jews feel a clear tension between being pro-Israel and supporting democracy in the Middle East. “People who care about both Israel’s security and the spread of freedom in the world face a bit of a dilemma,” said Noah Pollak, executive director of the Emergency Committee for Israel. “When there is democratic political expression in the Middle East, it tends to be hostile to Israel.”

On the other side of the policy spectrum, Ori Nir of Americans for Peace Now said that while there is a “great deal of justification” for concern, Jewish groups have failed to live up to their liberal mantras.

“There was quite a bit of hypocrisy on this issue,” said Nir, APN’s spokesperson. “It [Jewish groups’ rhetoric] was a means to divert attention from the peace process and the occupation.” The dilemma, he added, is that democracy sounds great, but “it was undemocratic regimes that for years maintained a stable status quo which serviced Israel’s interests. If undemocratic regimes serve stability, why rock the boat?”

This line of thought, however, is flawed, noted Nir. Jewish groups would best serve Israel’s interests by using this opportunity in the Middle East to push for a final peace agreement with the Palestinians. Moves such as that would foster trust in the region.

Some portions of the organized Jewish community have, in fact, been waging campaigns to sway public opinion in the Arab world. Groups such as The Israel Project, for instance, launched a Twitter and Facebook campaign about 18 months ago, when the first signs of revolt were beginning to emerge. Others, such as JFNA, have long pushed for funding to foreign aid programs that, among other things, promote diplomacy and civil society building in Arab countries. “Human rights and democratic standards should be universal, but there is no one-size-fits-all solution for how we promote those values,” noted BBI’s Fusfield.

Most Jewish groups, however, just haven’t been that active in the region. “We shouldn’t have been so flat-footed, we need to work toward the future,” one that is shaping up to be much more democratic, said TIP’s founder, Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi.

Others are giving Jews the benefit of the doubt, blaming the U.S. foreign policy apparatus for failing to anticipate and prepare for Middle East uprisings.

“I don’t think Jewish groups have done a great deal, but I don’t think it’s their job,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and deputy national security adviser under President George W. Bush. It’s the responsibility of the White House to set the tone on such issues, and the Obama administration has dithered on this front, Abrams said. “It isn’t fair to blame Jewish groups as if they’re especially guilty.”