“Dear Neighbor,” began Rabbi Donniel Hartman in an open letter to the Egyptian people, “first let me start with a hello.”
The letter, published by the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem on February 13th, 2011, has garnered significant media attention in Israel, and—to the surprise of its author—has sparked an exciting dialogue with young Egyptians.
“Who knows?” said Hartman in an interview with leading Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “Perhaps my letter will start a chain effect, ultimately leading to true peace between our peoples."
The Egyptian people, it seems, have not only cleared the path for political reform, but also for dialogue. As Rabbi Hartman put it, “We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.”
When protests broke out across Egypt, no one seemed more concerned about the outcome of an Egyptian revolution than Israel.
The Israeli media appeared to be whipped into a frenzy, devoting much of its coverage to events in Egypt, and rightfully so. Israel’s peace with Egypt, signed under Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin in 1979, is the bulwark of Israeli foreign policy in the region.
Despite its categorization as a “cold peace,” the 1979 treaty is one of Israel’s most important strategic assets. Not only has it saved Israel economically and militarily over the years, but it has also allowed Jerusalem to focus on the Palestinians, and neighboring Syria and Lebanon. Egypt has even tacitly cooperated with Israel’s highly controversial three-year siege of the Gaza Strip.
The fall of Mubarak, many Israeli columnists catastrophized, could mean an ascent to power by Islamic extremists and an end to the Egyptian-Israeli peace—neither of which has happened. The Muslim Brotherhood, which has in fact proven to be quite moderate, has vowed not to run in presidential elections, and will only contest 30% of parliamentary seats.
As for ordinary Egyptians, most seem quite unconcerned with Israel at the moment. Take Dr. Nehad Heliel’s response in her third interview with Tik Root and Otis Pitney:
“We want to tell them [the Israelis], we are not interested in having war with you. We have more important things to do. Leave us alone!” she said, letting out a chuckle.
“Really, we have so much to do.”
And it appears that, for the first time, they might actually hear her.
As the Egyptian revolution, like the Tunisian revolution before it, has shown, ordinary people are using the Internet to circumvent the government—and media—monopoly on power and information. Social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and organizations like Global Voices, are providing a podium for marginalized voices across the globe, and perhaps opening the door to meaningful dialogue--like the emotional and deeply personal dialogue sparked by Rabbi Hartman's letter.
"I was one of the young men in Tahrir Square," wrote Ramy Hussein in his response to Hartman.
"And I promise you to fight as much as I can against anyone who tries to turn this peaceful noble act into a private agenda leading to war. I have always acknowledged Israel as a wonderful state who would—one day in the future—be an essential element for development of the Middle East...I am sure that the future has more joy to both of our nations in more warm peace. Cold peace isn't enough for me anymore," said Hussein, closing his response with "Shalom from Egypt."
In his letter, Rabbi Hartman called on his neighbors to uphold the Egyptian-Israeli peace and, instead of reverting to “old and mutually destructive patterns,” to engage in a conversation about the future:
“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.”
In contrast to much of the Israeli and American media, Hartman acknowledged “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.”
In what seems almost like a direct response to Dr. Heliel, Hartman writes:
“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.”
If there’s anything we’ve learned from the Egyptian people, it’s that we all need to take a step back and listen.
Hartman recognizes that the road ahead won't be an easy one. "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," but he remains hopeful.
If Hartman's letter is any indication of the dialogue that is yet to come, it is with good reason.
Amanda Labora '12.5 is a History concentrator at Brown University who was studying at the C.V. Starr Middlebury School Abroad in Alexandria. She currently co-manages Mideast Reports.