Never Going Back Again
Rabbi Avi Shafran
American politicians tainted by scandal and forced to resign their positions usually explain that they want “to spend more time with their families.” Issam al-Aryan, a top advisor to Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi, who recently tendered his own resignation said he is overly “occupied with my work as head of the Freedom and Justice Party bloc in the Shura Council.” He must not lack for family time.
The scandal that attached itself to Mr. al-Aryan was that he had publicly invited Israeli Jews of Egyptian descent to return to their erstwhile home. “Egypt,” he told Jews who had fled Egypt over the years, “is worthier of you than Israel,” which, he explained, is a “racist, occupying entity.”
There was no rush of Egypt-born Israelis to take up Mr. al-Aryan’s offer, or for that matter any evidence of even a single Jewish individual who was enticed by the prospect of leaving a modern, prosperous country, not to mention his ancestral homeland, for a Muslim Brotherhood-dominated pit of poverty and political upheaval. What did come quickly, though, was the backlash against the Egyptian politician for his impudent invitation.
Muslim Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan, for example, lambasted Mr. al-Aryan, insisting that “Egyptian Jews are criminals who must be punished for what they did to Egypt and the Palestinians.” An associate of Mr. Morsi informed an Egyptian newspaper that Mr. al-Aryan does not represent the presidency’s stance and is not an official presidential spokesman.
In the wake of the criticism, Mr. al-Aryan hastened to clarify his message, explaining that his wish for Jews to return to Egypt had only been “in order to make room [in Israel] for the Palestinians,” and that, in any event, “there will be no such thing as Israel” within a decade.
Alas, it was too late for clarifications. Mr. al-Aryan came to be convinced that he needed more time if not for his family then for his Freedom and Justice Party duties. Pronouncements in Egypt about Israel these days, he now realizes, are better left to people like Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood cleric Mahmoud al-Masri, who recently told his audience on Egyptian television that “Allah willing, Israel will be annihilated because the prophet Muhammad said so,” adding for good measure that “ultimately, not a single Jew will be left on the face of the earth.” No Oliver Cromwell, he; the Hitlerian model is clearly his preference.
(Interestingly, comments about Jews made by Mr. Morsi himself recently came to light. In 2010, he referred to the “descendants of apes and pigs,” who “have been fanning the flames of civil strife wherever they were throughout their history” and who are “hostile by nature.” And he told a rally that year that “We must never forget to nurse our children and our grandchildren on hatred for… Zionists, for Jews.” The White House and State Department called the comments “deeply offensive” and “unacceptable.” Even The New York Times editorialized that Mr. Morsi’s words were “repulsive,” “scurrilous” and “pure bigotry.”)
Melodiously chanted in the Jewish background as Mr. al-Aryan’s travails transpired were the Torah portions read in synagogues around the world, about the original Jewish sojourn in Egypt, the one that came to a famous end with the ten plagues and the exodus.
That first emigration from Egypt, of course, also begat some – how shall we put it? – negativity on the part of the Egyptian leadership of the time. Whether Pharaoh, in leading his army to pursue the Jews he had earlier begged to leave wanted to return them to Egypt (presaging Mr. al-Aryan’s ill-fated approach) or to wipe out the Jewish people entirely (providing Mr. al-Masri with yet another historical model), he made his move and met his fate.
Interestingly, despite that determined pursuit and the fact that Egypt enslaved our ancestors for hundreds of years, we Jews are charged by the Torah to “not hate an Egyptian, for you were a stranger in his land” (Devarim 23:8). We must actually feel a degree of gratitude for Egypt’s having hosted our forebears for so long.
And yet, in no less than three places, the Torah forbids Jews from returning to live in Egypt (e.g. Devarim 17:16). There’s something about the place, it seems, that contraindicates a Jewish presence.
So Mr. al-Masri needn’t fret – at least not about any large-scale return of Hebrews from their ancestral land. He might though, along with Mr. Ghozlan and Morsi, give some cautious thought to the synagogue Torah readings these weeks.
© 2013 Rabbi Avi Shafran
“It’s All in the Angle” (Torah Temimah Publications), a collection of selected essays by Rabbi Shafran, is now available from Judaica Press.
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