Sundown Friday marks the beginning of Passover, the commemoration of the Jews’ emancipation from enslavement in ancient Egypt.
This year Passover falls on a day of enormous significance in the struggle for freedom in modern Egypt — April 6. That date is synonymous with the April 6 Youth Movement — formed in 2008 and named for the date of a planned strike to support Egyptian workers — that became the backbone of last year’s Tahrir revolution that toppled Egypt’s most recent pharaoh, Hosni Mubarak.
As Jews sit down for Passover Seder, the coincidence of these dates should remind us that — on this night and all others — the struggle for freedom in Egypt is one deeply linked to our own as Jews. And that even as Egypt’s political transition remains murky, Jews — and indeed all Americans — have a moral stake in its outcome.
This connection with Egypt’s struggle for freedom might seem to contradict the role of Egypt in biblical history. In many respects, the Bible sets up Egypt as the consummate “other.” Egypt is not only the place of Jewish enslavement; it is the site of the first attempt at genocide in Jewish history (the pharaoh’s decree to kill all newborn Jewish boys). The Hebrew word for Egypt, “Mitzrayim,” signifies oppression, as its root connotes a “confining” or “narrow” place. Even today, Jews are taught to remember that “we were all slaves in Egypt once.”
Yet Egypt has also played a positive role in Jewish history. In the Bible, Egypt was often a place of refuge and growth. Abraham fled to Egypt during famine in Canaan. Joseph prospered in Egypt after falling into favor with the pharaoh. Similarly, Moses was rescued from the Nile by an Egyptian princess, then raised in the house of the pharaoh.
In modern times, Egypt was home to a thriving Jewish community numbering nearly 80,000 in 1945. But after the establishment of Israel in 1948, Egypt expelled its Jews and went on to fight four wars against the Jewish state. Yet Egypt was also the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel. Even as Egypt has at times exhibited strong currents of anti-Semitism, it was also a refuge for some fleeing persecution in Europe. My grandmother escaped from her native Romania during the Holocaust with the aid of Egyptian and Turkish diplomats.
For Christians, these paradoxes should also resonate during Easter. Christians, of course, believe the same stories from the Hebrew Bible. Egypt is also where Jesus fled from Herod, and it has one of the world’s oldest Christian communities, even as the Copts today suffer persecution. And Easter is historically rooted in Passover: The Last Supper was a Passover Seder.
America’s relationship with Egypt is likewise defined by contradictions. Egypt was a one-time Cold War foe turned strategic partner, a dictatorship with which we did business, even as we sought to forge ties directly with its people. America has given considerable military aid to Egypt, but it has also spent more than $28 billion in non-military aid in Egypt since 1975, including critical investments in healthcare, education, infrastructure and democracy promotion. These contradictions have continued since the Tahrir revolution, as the Obama administration both unreservedly supports Egypt’s democratization, yet must also engage with Egypt’s current non-democratic government.
More than a year after the Tahrir revolution, the situation in Egypt remains of deep concern. The country continues to languish under military rule, its government often engaging in self-defeating behavior such as its recent crackdown on nongovernmental organizations. The economy remains in a state of near free-fall.
Yet there are many signs of hope. Egyptians across all parts of society, including liberals, women, youth, moderate Islamists, and even the seemingly non-political (the “Party of the Couch”), continue to try to build a democracy.
As this struggle unfolds, there is a temptation to shrink from Egypt’s contradictions and just defend America’s “core interests,” such as the Camp David accords and the freedom of the Suez Canal.
But important as these interests are, any policy based on them alone does not measure up to the richness of our history with Egypt or the magnitude of this moment.
Ultimately, the battle for freedom in Egypt can only be led, as it has been, by Egyptians. But we should not be satisfied until — in the words of America’s own Moses, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., himself quoting the Jewish prophet Amos — “justice flows down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
This Passover, this April 6 and this Easter, let us all remember that there is no mightier stream than the Nile.