Today is the first day of Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles, at the little synagogue in Chatham Center and at Jewish and certain so-called “Hebrew Roots” Christian houses of worship throughout the world. Sukkot, a harvest holiday, also commemorates the 40 years when Israelites wandered the desert after emancipation from slavery in Egypt. The Sukkah, a hastily made grass or straw hut, symbolizes the temporary structures that sheltered the Israelites during those four nomadic decades. It’s a sweet holiday, worthy of everyone’s respect, if not active participation, being a celebration of agriculture, freedom and an autumn thanksgiving as well.
Similarly worthy of universal respect is the still unfolding Arab Spring and like the Exodus, motivated by the demand to “Let My People Go.” Americans, regardless of party affiliation, believe in freedom and self-determination for all people. Indeed, the American Revolution and the bold and ongoing experiment of our “We the People” constitution is the grand example of democracy to the oppressed peoples of the world, more than anything that happened in Ancient Greece or at Runnymede, England in 1215 or in France contemporaneous with our own war of independence.
Most Americans, including The Weekender, were rooting for the people on Habib Bourguiba Avenue in Tunis and in Tahrir Square, Cairo, as well as the revolutionaries in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Syria. We also cheered on the protestors in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Oman and Saudi Arabia. We were saddened as nearly 40,000 lost their lives in the quest for liberty (so far) including 2,000 murdered by the Syrian government. Our president has gone beyond rooting and has skillfully led an effort that made the difference in the Libyan uprising. This time, at least, America was able to project its power and lead a multinational effort without spilling American blood. Obama showed similar restraint with regard to the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen and is attempting a similar but far more difficult balancing act in Syria, a heart of darkness.
The broad American support for the Arab Spring emanates from our love of freedom and from enlightened self-interest. We believe that if autocracies in the Arab world give way to democracies, these countries will become more reliable trading partners, they will renounce terrorism as a tool of their domestic and foreign policy and they will stop oppressing the Christians, Jews, Bahá’is and followers of faiths other than the Muslim sect dominant in each country.
These sectarian hatreds are tools of oppression used by Arab autocrats to keep their people down. Getting people to hate religious minorities distracts them from focusing on the truth, which is that they are being impoverished and exploited by their corrupt and wealthy rulers. Arab tyrants stoke and manipulate religious hatred much in the same way that race hatred was once used in America to exploit and keep poor white folks down.
With these truths self-evident, it is distressing during the Sukkot celebration to witness what is happening in Cairo, where the revolutionaries have quickly resorted to the old hatreds. Hundreds of Coptic Christians have been killed since the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, with some 26 falling this week after they peacefully protested the mob destruction of one of their churches. The hate for “minority” religions is so ingrained that it is perverting trade policy in post revolution Egypt. That country is the source of most of the world’s lulavs, a beautiful palm frond used by Jews and those funky Christian sects in their Sukkot celebrations. The two symbols of the week-long Sukkot holiday are the lulav and the etrog, a lemon-like citrus grown many places in the Middle East and in sufficient quantities to satisfy worldwide demand. But the lulav is grown mainly in Egypt, which annually exports nearly a million to Israel for use there and for re-export to the United States and other countries. But not this year.
In the wake of the September sacking of the Israeli embassy in Cairo, the new government has banned export of the lulav, causing distress in Jewish communities as far away as Flatbush, Brooklyn and Sullivan County. Sukkot celebrants will get by using one of the scarce and now atrociously expensive lulavs or by using some other palm-like plant resembling the real thing. And as we celebrate the holy days or just observe the tumult in the Middle East, we will continue to hope and pray that the Spring frees the Arab people from the oppression of their brutal and corrupt leaders and the equally destructive oppression of their own sectarian hatreds.