Friday, February 25, 2011

In the Defense of Marriage

Like many of you, I’m sure, I was at first not at all sure what to make of the announcement President Obama and Attorney General Holder made yesterday to the effect that the federal government will no longer defend the Defense of Marriage act that Congress voted into law in 1996. That’s how it works? The president or his attorney general just decide to ignore an Act of Congress that they find personally unappealing or objectionable? Can I ignore laws that don’t appeal to me? (Don’t bother answering that one.) Or is something else afoot here, something that I didn’t fully understand when I read the article in the paper Wednesday on the plane home from our seventy-two fabulous hours in Key West? As I considered the matter more carefully, in fact, it struck me that that too could well be the case.

To understand what happened on Wednesday, you need to know about something called the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the Constitution, also known as Article IV, Section 1. Simply put, the clause requires each of the states to recognize the "public acts, records, and judicial proceedings" of any of the other states. This has not traditionally been a source of much controversy. A woman gets divorced in Idaho, then is still considered a divorced person when she moves to Alabama. How could that possibly be controversial? It never was, but then, as it became clear that some states in the union were going to permit same-sex couples to marry, the Full Faith and Credit Clause went from being a pareve administrative matter of interest only to students of constitutional law to being at the center of a huge brouhaha poised to evolve quickly into a major national debate. Were states that specifically did not permit same-sex marriage going to be obliged under the Full Faith and Credit Clause not only to recognize same-sex marriages performed legally in other states as valid but also to grant the parties to those marriages the same benefits for which they would qualify if they were in male-female marriages? It sounded that way to many, and so Congress voted into law the Defense of Marriage Act which decreed that no state needed to consider same-sex marriages in other states as legitimate or legally consequential. Equally meaningfully, the Defense of Marriage Act (sometimes called by the acronym DOMA) also forbids the federal government from acknowledging the legal reality of same-sex marriages by formally defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. Readers inclined to dismiss this as solely a philosophical or intellectual issue need to reconsider that approach: in 2003, the General Accounting Office counted over eleven hundred benefits, rights, and privileges that are either fully contingent on marital status or in which marital status is a factor, and that makes this into a very big deal for a large number of citizens eager to be treated equitably and fairly.

Clearly, it is no one’s best interests for it not to be clear whether or not a citizen is considered married in the state in which he or she lives. In its own way, the DOMA was supposed to speak to that issue by granting the same right to states to determine who is married that the federal government simultaneously arrogated to itself. So the real question is not whether it serves anyone’s interests for the marital status of citizens to be unclear, but whether DOMA solved the problem in a way that did not by its nature trample on the civil rights of gay citizens to be treated equally under the law, the single most basic civil right of any citizen in a democratic state.

In the United States, only Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, Hawaii, Vermont, New Hampshire, and the District of Columbia permit same-sex marriage. Some other states, like our own state, recognize same-sex marriages that take place in states where they are permitted just as they recognize all out-of-state marriages. Still other states recognize such marriages as civil unions or domestic partnerships without calling them marriages. On the other side of the ledger, thirteen states, not content merely with not allowing same-sex unions, have actually enacted statutory bans forbidding such marriages from taking place. And more than half the states in the Union have enacted constitutional amendments formally defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman, legislation presumably intended to guarantee that, whatever legal recognition same-sex unions eventually acquire, those unions will not be called “marriages.”

It was into this complicated situation that the attorney general and the president waded earlier this week. In a six-page letter to the speaker of the House of Representatives, the attorney general basically said that he and the president have concluded that the third section of the DOMA, the one defining marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, is unconstitutional and that the current administration, lacking the power to repeal an Act of Congress, would simply no longer defend the statute in court. More specifically, the attorney general’s letter justified this decision by noting the administration’s opinion that gay people meet the criteria requiring the government to scrutinize legislation passed in their regard to guarantee that they are not being discriminated against. (The four requirements are that the group in question have suffered discrimination in the past, that the members of the group exhibit immutable distinguishing characteristics, that the group be a minority, and that the characteristics that define membership in the group be unrelated to its members’ ability to contribute to society or to perform the duties of citizens.) This is the part I think most citizens like myself did not fully understand when the story first broke: that the job of the attorney general and the Department of Justice specifically is to take an “affirmative position on the matter of scrutiny,” when it appears that citizens rights are being unjustly or unreasonably curtailed by discriminatory practices or legislation.

The question of whether same-sex marriages are a good or a bad thing for society is not really at the heart of the matter here and what the administration did on Wednesday should not be taken as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. The president himself has repeatedly spoken out in favor of establishing a kind of civil union that would grant same-sex couples the same advantages as male-female couples but without using the loaded term “marriage” to describe their union. Whether he will stick to that or not, who knows? He himself has referred to his opinions on the issue as “evolving,” but without describing the course of their ongoing evolution too clearly. So the last word on the matter is still a very long way from being written. But the attorney general’s letter of earlier this week addressed a different question entirely: whether gay citizens do or do not meet the four-fold set of criteria listed above that would require the attorney general to subject legislation in their regard to scrutiny with respect to the single question of whether any specific law is or is not discriminatory. The president thinks that gay people qualify. After reading the list of criteria myself, I don’t really see how anyone could argue otherwise.

As a rabbi, I am asked regularly how I feel about the issue of same-sex marriage itself. In my opinion, the heart of the problem rests in the concept of there being civil marriage in the first place. A religious institution at heart, marriage should be available to citizens who wish to embrace the concept as it exists in the context of their own religious traditions. In other words, Catholic citizens should be free to marry under canon law in Catholic churches. Muslims should be free to marry according to the laws of Islam in our country’s mosques. Jewish citizens should be free to marry in the synagogues with which they choose to affiliate and to be married in those synagogues by the rabbis who serve them as their spiritual leaders. Americans who are not inclined to affiliate with religious institutions should have the possibility of entering into civil unions with other citizens without respect for the criteria that would apply if the state government in question were a religious institution. In other words, as long as there are secular benefits to be had by living in legally-recognized pairs there should be a way for all citizens to acquire the status to acquire those benefits in a fully secular way that is not extended arbitrarily to some citizens and not to others. Using the religious term “marriage” to describe such unions is, I believe, counterproductive because it suggests that the secular government can formalize a bond that is traditionally and essentially a religious one. Religious matters, I believe, should be left in the hands of the nation’s spiritual leaders and secular governments should limit themselves to the pursuit of secular goals and the perfection of secular institutions.

I do not see any contradiction in feeling that Jews in synagogues should be married according to Jewish law, but that the federal and state laws that govern us as citizens of our country and states should be fully non-discriminatory in every way. I would take the greatest umbrage at receiving a letter from the attorney general informing me how I must conduct matters governed by religious law in the context of my own congregation. But I applaud the administration for taking a step earlier this week that I now understand was fully in keeping with their mandate to safeguard the civil rights of all citizens and to move aggressively against measures intended to erode those rights, let alone to trample on them.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Presuming Watson

I’m not a huge Jeopardy fan. I’ve still watched the show many times over the years, however, originally as part of some never-actually-developed-in-real-life fantasy of applying to be a contestant and then eventually merely as a play-along-at-home type. Sometimes I win. Sometimes I don’t win. I have the sense it’s dramatically easier to play from the couch than it would be actually to compete for real on the actual program. Still, when I do watch I usually enjoy the show. And I’ve had plenty of time to form an opinion, as have had we all; the show was first shown on television in 1964 in the version featuring Art Fleming as the host and is currently in the twenty-seventh consecutive season of its current incarnation with host Alex Trebek.

I watch. I don’t watch. Jeopardy is not a big part of my life. Up until this week, I don’t think I could have even said with any certainty when exactly the show is on or on what channel. But I’ve been watching all week this week, as I know many of you also have, as the IBM supercomputer named Watson was one of the featured contestants. The other two contestants, both human beings, were no slouches. (One is the person who has won the most money on the game; the other is the one who has won the most games. Together they’ve gone home with more than five million dollars between them. For its part, the computer not only hasn’t ever won a penny but also won’t go home, so to speak, with anything this week either because IBM has pledged to give all of Watson’s winnings to charity.)

Watson is a big machine both physically and in terms of what it can do. It can perform eighty trillion operations per second. To put things more clearly, the machine has the equivalent of two million pages of information in its memory and can scan them all in about three seconds. (Computer savvy readers will be interested in knowing that Watson operates with fifteen terabytes of RAM. By comparison, the machine I am using to write this has four gigabytes of RAM, which means that Watson operates three-thousand-seven-hundred-and-fifty times faster than my computer. And this is actually a pretty zippy laptop I write on!) Watson is not linked to the internet, which would obviously have given it an unfair advantage on the show. Whatever answers it gave, it had therefore to find somewhere within the facts it already “knew,” just as the human contestants were obliged to do. So the contest was fair, assuming you don’t think one contestant having a brain the size of ten refrigerators lined up next to each other made the playing field sufficiently unlevel to make meaningless the results.

On the first night, the human beings and the machine appeared more or less evenly matched. At the end of the first round of play, in fact, the machine was actually tied with one of the human beings for first place. (Each had won $5000 and the third player had won a measly $2000. But these were only make-believe sums used to keep score; the real prize was $1,000,000.) By the second night, however, Watson roared dramatically into first place with a score of almost $36,000, while the human contestants ended up with less than half of that between the two of them. It was, I have to admit, a very exciting game. By the third game, played Wednesday evening, it was a rout and, in the end, the win went to the machine and the million went to charity. (Watson ended up with more than $77,000, while neither of the human competitors ended up with more than $25,000.)

What was of interest to me, though, was not so much that the computer answered a lot of questions correctly. After all, isn’t that what computers do, process information and produce it on demand? Okay, it’s incredibly impressive that the machine understands human speech, that it can deal with the nuance and wordplay that characterize a fair number of the clues on Jeopardy, and that it has the capacity to bet wisely when called upon to do so by analyzing the chances that it has the right answer and then placing its wager accordingly. But what was even more interesting to me were the things the computer messed up.

On the second evening of play, the machine made an astounding error. The category was “U.S. Cities.” The answer was “It has two airports, one named after a World War II hero and the other named after a World War II battle.” The correct answer, which both human beings knew, was Chicago. (O’Hare is named Lieutenant Commander Edward O’Hare, a World War II flying ace; Midway Airport was named in honor of the American servicemen and women who fought in the Battle of Midway, one of the most decisive naval encounters of the war.) But the computer answered, insanely, “What is Toronto?”, apparently unaware that Toronto is not a U.S. city at all. The IBM people had some instant answers of their own to explain the slip-up. There are, they noted, cities named Toronto in the U.S. (So what? None of them has two airports.) The Canadian Toronto, they further noted, has a baseball team that is part of the American League. (So what? Doesn’t the machine know that not all baseball teams in the American League are located in the U.S.? And what did the question have to do with baseball?) And it is also so that the real Toronto actually does have an airport named for a war hero, Billy Bishop, who was Canada’s most celebrated World War I pilot. (So what? The question referenced World War II, not World War I. And the other airport is named for Lester Pearson, a former Canadian Prime Minister, not a battle.) But they took comfort, which I do have to say is more than fully justified, in the fact that the machine was able to realize that it was giving a poor answer that was probably wrong and so wagered less than a thousand dollars, thus retaining its great lead even after having given a wrong answer.

The first night, Watson also gave a crazy response. The “answer” was “This word denotes both stylish elegance and students who graduate in the same year.” The correct question was obviously “What is class?” For what it’s worth, I got it right. The computer, however, came up with the meaningless “What is chic?” (The IBM people no doubt had an explanation for that as well, although I couldn’t find one published on the web anywhere.) On the other hand, in a practice round the machine was able to respond to the confusing clue “A Green Acres star goes existential (and French) as the author of The Fall” correctly. (The answer, obviously, is Eddie Albert Camus. The topic was “All Eddie-Before and After,” which barely means anything at all out of context. Now that is impressive. Maybe I would have gotten it. Maybe not. Okay, probably not. Of course, now that I know the answer, I will definitely get it right if anyone ever asks.)

What is worth noticing is that even with its unimaginably powerful memory, the machine didn’t know everything. It was incredibly good at answering questions. It was even good at figuring out puns and jokey plays on words to arrive at the right answer. But, in the end, it made errors that its human programmers had apparently failed to anticipate it would. Now, of course, they will fix things so that it will take those pesky categories more into account and avoid giving answers that correspond to only x or y in an “x and y” clue. But then more things will crop up. And then more things too after that.

After watching two nights of Jeopardy, I am awe-struck by IBM’s achievement of having created Watson, but I believe that what has been attained is far more the ability to teach a machine to mimic the human reasoning process incredibly well than the actual investiture in a machine of the actual human ability to reason. Does it come to the same thing? I am precisely the right age, as I know also are many of my readers, to have been extremely taken as a teenager with Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey when it came out in 1968 and to have assumed almost casually that HAL, the super computer in the “Jupiter Mission” part of the movie, was eventually going to exist once human beings learned how to create such a thing. HAL, you may recall, had the full measure of intelligence of the brightest human being but was also able to develop emotions such as love, hate, envy, and fear. And, as a result, it eventually also became susceptible to mental illness and, indeed, suffered a nervous breakdown that was terrifyingly depicted in the movie. So what I would really like to see is not a Jeopardy match featuring two really smart human beings and Watson, but a triple-machine show featuring HAL, Watson, and possibly Deep Blue, the supercomputer that defeated Gary Kasparov at chess in 1997. Now that would be a great contest. Deep Blue was a very smart machine. Watson, by all accounts is even smarter. But my own money would be on HAL (or rather would be on HAL if there really was such a thing in the world) even if advancing each letter in his—I mean, its—name forward by one spot in the alphabet does somehow turn HAL into IBM.

Clearly, 2001 has come and gone without HAL existing. Now it’s ten years later, and Watson still thinks that kids who graduate high school together are called a chic, not a class. Artificial intelligence clearly still has a long way to go before the word “artificial” in that phrase becomes meaningless.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Another Kind of Hero

A few weeks ago I wrote to you about the concept of heroism and invited you to consider what it means to be a hero. In that letter, I focused on the story of Cornelius Dupree, Jr., the man who chose to remain incarcerated in a Texas jail even after he was eligible for parole simply because he would have had falsely to admit his guilt and express remorse for criminal acts he never committed in order actually to be paroled and sent back into the world of free men and women. At that time, I asked you to wonder along with me what kind of moral strength it would take to pay that kind of price for the right to think of oneself as an honest person, and inevitably thus also to wonder what we ourselves would do if we somehow found ourselves obliged to make a such a ghastly choice with respect to our own lives and our own freedom. I submitted to you in my letter that the ultimate definition of a hero was someone whose commitment to his own values and his own virtues was not mostly unshakeable, but totally so.

Now that I think about it, though, it strikes me that there are other definitions of heroism as well. One, for example, would be the ability to look past the misery of one’s own situation to do good in the world not despite all the reasons not to do so but because of them. Perhaps that’s not the clearest way to put it, but the example I have in mind, the one I would like to write to you about this week, will clarify my point in the telling. I am thinking of an Israeli hero this week, a man named Yuval Roth whose life exemplifies a different aspect of the heroic character. I was very moved reading about his story and I think you all will be as well.

Yuval Roth’s brother Udi was murdered by Hamas terrorists in 1993. The story of his death was reported in the media and I think perhaps even that I remember reading about it at the time—several terrorists had the idea of dressing up as religious Jews and then going out to pick up an IDF soldier hitchhiking to or from his base and then to murder him. Yuval’s brother, on his way to his annual reserve duty, was their victim. Most of us would respond to an outrage like that with unbridled rage, with hatred, and with a barely containable desire for revenge. But Yuval Roth’s path forward from his family’s tragedy led him in a different, and entirely unexpected, direction. Uncertain where to turn for comfort, Yuval eventually found his way to an organization called “Israeli and Palestinian Bereaved Families for Peace,” a remarkable organization that gets far too little press in the West. (You can visit their website at to learn more.) The concept is that the foundation for peace in Israel can perhaps best be laid by those families who have paid the highest price for there not being peace, those who have lost their own children to violence. And by coming together, the Palestinian and Israelis who meet under the auspices of the organization have somehow managed to put their politics away and to share their stories, to resolve to live in peace, to work for the violence-free resolution of conflict, and to stand up for the values they find, probably at least slightly to their own amazement, they have in common. The stories you can read on the organization’s website at are remarkable moving; some are so painful that it leaves you in awe of the fact that the people you are reading about somehow found it in them to rise up over their own emotions to channel their grief in a positive direction. I recommend you find some time to visit the site; I think you will be as impressed as I was. In fact, I know you will be.

The Mishnah records the ancient sage Ben Azai’s observation that each mitzvah we perform has the ability to bring others along in its wake. And that was exactly what happened here. One day in 2006 a Palestinian member of the group expressed frustration over the fact that, although he was eligible for treatment in a hospital in Haifa and had in fact already been accepted as a patient there, it was nonetheless almost impossible for him actually to get there. And so was born a different organization called Derekh Hachlamah, the Hebrew words for “A Path to Healing.” The organization, founded by Yuval Roth, does only one thing. It isn’t well funded. It isn’t famous. But it’s two hundred members, all volunteers, have resolved to help the sick become well, in this particular case by personally arranging for the transportation of sick Palestinians from West Bank villages underserved, or not served at all, by public transportation to the hospitals in which they are to be treated in Israel. In wartime, only traitors aid or abet the enemy. But by looking at elderly, infirm Palestinians as human beings rather than as enemy soldiers, and by treating them compassionately and kindly, Derekh Hachlamah is, I believe, laying the groundwork for lasting peace by proving that, when properly motivated by common goals, Israelis and Palestinians can be good neighbors and look past their own history into a future based on mutual respect.

It is not only the elderly who benefit, however. CNN had a story about Derekh Hachlamah just this week about a three-year old Palestinian child named Aya whose kidneys and liver have failed and who requires dialysis to survive. Could she have survived this long without help? Probably not. Palestinians cannot drive into Israel proper. There are no busses. Aya needs to go to the hospital five times a week, but the only way to get to Haifa would be in two different taxi cabs costing a total of about $90 each way, a sum far out of the realm of possibility for Aya’s parents. Her life would surely by now have become forfeit in the un-unravelable mess that is the separate yet also endlessly intertwined lives of Palestinians and Jews on the West Bank and in Israel, but Yuval and his volunteers stepped in to help and have by now driven Aya from her West Bank village to the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa over five hundred times. Her situation is not great, but her chances to survive to adulthood, previously more or less nil, are now real. And her parents are grateful. She too is not a soldier or a terrorist, just a little girl with health problems most adults would find overwhelming. But somehow her parents’ hope in her future has not only not been extinguished by the cruelty of circumstance, but has been enhanced by the kindness of a stranger, a man to whom they previously had no connection at all who saw an opportunity to do good in the world and who seized it. You can see a short clip of Aya’s story at The clip is narrated by Yuval Roth.

Cornelius Dupree Jr. is a hero in my book. But Yuval Roth is also a hero. Neither man went to hero school. But both recognized the moral imperative facing them when the far simpler, and far more expected, path would simply have been to tell the lie, to look away, to enjoy thinking of themselves respectively as honest and kind but without actually doing what it was going to take actually to be those things when doing so involved more than just talk. To me, the basis of heroism is the willingness to live up not to other people’s ideals but to our own, thus not to live the lives other people think we should lead but to become the men and women we ourselves feel we can and should be. Does it take real bravery to embrace one’s own values? When put that way, it sounds as though it shouldn’t. But which of us who lives in the real world would argue that it does not take the courage of a true hero to live up to one’s own ideals not occasionally or when the world is looking, but always and without regard for what others might think?

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Signs and Wonders in Egypt

So my latest obsession (they should all be this harmless) is visiting the Al-Masry Al-Youm (“Egypt Today”) website at several times a day to see the latest news from Egypt not as NPR or the New York Times interprets it but as the actual Egyptians on the ground in Cairo perceive what is going on all around them. I recommend the trip. The view, it turns out, is actually far better from the ground than from the cloud! And Al-Masry Al-Youm really does seem to be a quality newspaper filled with intelligent, thoughtful essays and reasonable analyses of what is going on.

What to make of it all, however, is another question entirely. At first I supposed that we were probably looking at some sort of highly localized reaction to the events in Tunisia, one that brought Egyptians into the streets possessed of the vague conviction that this could somehow be their moment as well. But it clearly turned into something else very quickly as the numbers of demonstrators grew dramatically and as it slowly seemed to become clear that the army was, if not de jure than surely de facto, on the side of the people. Whether that turns out really to be the case or not remains to be seen, especially in light of the events of Wednesday in Cairo, but there were more than sheer numbers to consider in watching the clips of Tuesday’s immense demonstration in Tahrir Square on the Al-Masry Al-Youm website. Watching that footage, I was struck not only by the number of people defying the government but even more so by the specific kinds of people that appeared to be filling the ranks—young people, families with children, middle-class types holding what appeared to be Blackberries and cell phones in their hands, workers in overalls and work uniforms, elderly people walking with canes and some even with walkers. Apparently also present were a serious sampling of the nation’s intellectual elite, including novelists, film producers, and even movie stars themselves. These did not look to me like a mob of crazed radicals or fanatic Islamicists but far more like a cross-section of a nation yearning to overthrow what by all accounts is a brutal regime with no respect for the human rights of its own citizenry. But there is also something you can’t see when you look at images like this. And that part can be just as important as the part that is fully visible.

By most counts, there are just shy of eighty million Egyptian citizens. About ninety percent are Muslims. About seventy percent can read and write. Most live on about 15,000 square miles of land near the Nile River. (All of Egypt covers about 390,000 square miles, most of it inarable desert.)When considered against these numbers, the people in Tahrir Square turn not into a surging majority of Egyptians but a small minority of the citizenry. So the question becomes not whether the people on the video clips we can all watch on the Al-Masry website are sincere, but whether they truly represent the people who will be called upon to choose a new path for their country in the event that the demonstrators have their way and Mubarak goes, and then free elections are both scheduled and actually carried out. It could happen! But there is also the possibility that the openly proclaimed goals of the demonstrators—an end to the Emergency Law that has been in effect since 1967 except for one single eighteen-month break in the 1980s and which severely curtails human rights and freedoms in Egypt, an end to Mubarak’s political career, and an end to the detainment of political prisoners of whom some estimate there may be as many as 30,000—are not the first things on the agenda of the huge majority of Egyptians who have yet to check in at all. Will those people—constituting tens of millions of voters in their own right—understand the implementation of free elections as means to create a truly free Egypt or as an opportunity to vote for candidates who espouse political philosophies that are not even remotely democratic? Although the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest organized opposition group, was prohibited by law from running candidates in the 2005 parliamentary elections, candidates who openly identified themselves as members of the organization still managed to win twenty percent of the seats in the People’s Assembly, the lower house of the Egyptian Parliament, even though they were obliged to run as independents. Surely, they would do even better if elections truly were free and if the National Democratic Party, Mubarak’s party, is forced to campaign on its own record. And although it is also true that Egyptians have not traditionally put much faith in elections—in 2005, fewer than a quarter of the country’s thirty-two million registered voters turned out actually to cast a ballot—it is surely also the case that the chance to vote for real change would draw out many millions who have chosen to sit out previous elections either as an act of silent protest or simply out of the conviction that nothing would or could change based on that election’s results.

Americans are thus in a strange quandary as we attempt to make sense of the new Egyptian reality. On the one hand is our natural inclination as Americans to support the democratic right of any nation to choose the officials to whom it wishes to entrust the reins of government. In our national conception of how democracy should work, candidates put forward their views and the electorate chooses between them fairly and openly. But how should we respond, both as a nation and as individuals, when we see that the democratic process is likely to lead—or at possibly could lead—not to a nation of free citizens governing itself wisely and in accordance with the will of the majority but to a state in which an anti-democratic organization becomes positioned legally to seize power by winning that free election? The Nazis, as we never seem to grow tired of observing, came to real power in Germany in 1933 as the result of winning 43.9% of the popular vote, not by seizing it violently or illegally. The same could be said of Iran, which became an Islamic Republic in 1979 after the “yes” side won a landslide victory in a national referendum. (How many of those people who voted “yes” would have changed their vote if they fully understood the level of repression that was soon to come is, of course, an entirely different question.) Is Egypt now to join the ranks of countries that have democratically voted in governments fanatically opposed to real democracy? That too, of course, remains to be seen.

Jewish observers will find it even harder to formulate a cogent opinion regarding this and last week’s events in Egypt. The peace treaty with Egypt has brought enormous benefits to Israel. The portion of Israel’s GNP spent on defense, for example, was about 30% before the treaty was signed, but is now about 9%. If Egypt repudiates that treaty and Israel has seriously to worry about Egypt reverting to its former status as vitriolic enemy rather than (at least begrudging) friend and if the increase in military spending that follows that repudiation approaches the 30% level again, the results for the Israeli economy will be dire. And open Egyptian support for terrorist Islamicist groups like Hamas will make the possibility of a real peace treaty between the Israelis and the Palestinians, even more unlikely than it already is and could possibly scuttle all by itself any real possibility of such a treaty being signed any time soon. In short, Mubarak has been a horror for the people of Egypt, but he has kept faith with the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty signed by his predecessor, Anwar El Sadat, for his almost three decades in power and he has proven to be a reliable, staunch friend of the United States. And that is the crux of the problem for us as Americans and as Jews: the man who has to go is also a man who was good for us as Americans and good for us as Jews whose hearts beat with Israel. Does that oblige us to support him as he tries his best to hold on to some semblance of power until the end of his fifth term of office this September? Not exactly! Does it make it perverse, or at least counterproductive, for us to support the effort to depose him without any clear sense of who or what will fill the vacuum of power he will leave behind? A little bit it does! And in that paradox lies the issue the events in Egypt over these last days oblige us to think through carefully and intelligently.

It hardly seems possible that our interests, or even Israel’s interests, can be served by the Egyptian population being held captive in their own country and forced to live lives absent the basic human rights and privileges we Americans take for granted. And, for better or for worse, Hosni Mubarak has come to symbolize that unsavory aspect of Egyptian life as scores of millions have known it not for years but for decades. (It is also worth noting that something like three-quarters of the Egyptian population were eight born after the Emergency Law first came into effect or were young children when it did.) Clearly, his time to go has come. Our best interests will not be served, therefore, by attempting to prop up his government or impose him on a nation that has clearly had enough. Perhaps the best we can do is to attempt to buttress, including financially, candidates for office who understand clearly that no people can be free if they are denied the most basic human rights and that embracing Islamic fundamentalism, with all that entails regarding most basic of human freedoms to live as one personally sees fit without hindrance or persecution, cannot possibly be the right direction for a country that wishes to live free and not merely to trade in one dictator for another as they did in Iran. Democracy is always a crapshoot. Entrusting governance to the people unfortunately entails governance between entrusted to the people. Dictatorship, when not totally self-serving, is generally justified as a drastic way of saving a benighted populace from its own bad decisions, but we as a nation have rejected the kind of paternalistic thinking that makes that sound almost reasonable. We therefore have no choice but to stick to our guns, to affirm our national ideals, to encourage the Egyptians to choose wisely (and thus to make the Muslim Brotherhood run on its record just as Mubarak’s party will have to run on its), and otherwise to comport ourselves as friends of the Egyptian people and not as people out solely to further our own interests.

We actually have a president in place, I believe, uniquely able to reach out to the Egyptians and who already has a kind of a track record in Egypt. (I am thinking of the very well received speech the president gave in Cairo in June of 2009 and which, by all accounts, truly captivated the Egyptian people with its hopefulness about the future and its firm commitment to human rights and non-violence.) We should all encourage our president to speak out now forcefully and eloquently about the future, painting it as bright and filled with promise if Egypt can take the process its people have now set in motion and use it to fashion a country truly committed to democracy and human rights, and to peace.