Friday, July 05, 2013

Jon Stewart and Other Activist Jews in the Egyptian Uprising

As we Americans celebrated our nation's 237th year of independence and freedom yesterday on the 4th of July, we also kept a close eye on the precarious situation in Egypt. As the final hours of Mohammed Morsi's presidency wound down, we continued to monitor the volatile situation there, constantly thinking of how the tense events in Egypt would affect Israel, its close neighbor to the North.

Although many were concerned that the Egypt-Israel peace treaty would be broken under Morsi's regime, that didn't happen. However, now that the military is in charge of the country the peace treaty seems at risk and there could be a lapse in the protection of the Sinai from terror cells.

Unfortunately, I think we'll have to wait a while longer to get a good sense of how the Egyptian uprising and protests will affect Israel and her relations with neighboring Egypt. One interesting story that I've been following during the continued unrest in Egypt has been the role of Jewish people in the situation.



The most tragic part of this story has certainly been the death of a Jewish college student at a violent protest in Alexandria on June 28. Andrew Driscoll Pochter was brought up in a Jewish home in Chevy Chase, Maryland and we active in his campus Hillel at Kenyon College. He is the first American victim of the uprising against Morsi’s government and has led the Jewish community to look further into how many other Jewish young people could potentially be in harm's way in Egypt right now.

In addition to the few Jewish 20-somethings who were recently featured in the Jewish Daily Forward, I was also thinking about the role that Jon Stewart is currently playing in the Egyptian uprising. Born Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz, the 50-year-old political satirist and talk-show host is on a summer hiatus from Comedy Central's The Daily Show with Jon Stewart while he films a movie called "Rosewater" in the Middle East about Iran (Stewart is the Producer/Director and it's based on the memoir by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was falsely accused of being a spy and imprisoned after his participation in a segment on The Daily Show in 2009). Last week, Stewart was a guest on Egypt’s top satirical TV show, which is modeled after The Daily Show.

Stewart came onto the set of Bassem Youssef's show as if he was a captured American spy in Egypt. He was wearing a black hood and escorted by two of Youssef's assistants. The scruffy grey bearded Stewart kept repeating the same Arabic phrases he had memorized as the studio audience applauded the godfather of their own political satire show.

Youssef has appeared in the past as a guest on the Daily Show and it was clear that the two are good friends. Jon Stewart praised Youssef, who previously has been accused of blasphemy and insulting President Morsi. On Youssef's show, which is taped in Cairo, Stewart explained, “Satire is a settled law. If your regime is not strong enough to handle a joke, then you have no regime."

Here is a segment from Stewart's appearance on the show:


While Jon Stewart is able to appear on TV shows and protest the Egyptian government in front of a large audience, many other Jewish activists are involved in democratic initiatives in Egypt on a much smaller scale. Following Pochter's death the Forward reached out to some Jewish families to ask them about their children who are involved in the protests in Egypt.

Pochter became an instant symbol of the many students who choose to live and work in the Middle East to improve their Arabic skills and further their understanding of the region. But there is an inherent dilemma faced by Jewish students fascinated by the Middle East and its culture and language: they must grapple with their Jewish identity, often keeping it hidden once they arrive in their host countries. For their parents, the desire to see their children take the lead in understanding the countries in Israel’s neighborhood clashes with the ultimate realization that they aren’t completely comfortable with it. Interviews with several Jewish families reveal that, for both generations, Pochter’s sudden and brutal death hit a little too close to home.

One of the young Jewish activists the Forward reported on is Monica Kamen of Philadelphia. Kamen grew up in a Conservative Jewish family and attended Jewish day school followed by a semester in Israel during high school. In 2009 she spent a summer in Egypt and then returned the following year. When the uprising began, on January 24, 2011, she found herself smack in the middle of revolutionary protests in Alexandria. Her father, initially supportive of her decision to study in Egypt, was frantic. Kamen  remains overwhelmingly positive about her stay in the country.

While the activism that young people like the late Pochter and Kamen have done in Egypt is praiseworthy and their motivations are certainly in the hope of bringing democracy to the country, it is also extremely dangerous. As the death of Pochter demonstrates, these young people are putting their lives on the line for the sake of Egyptian freedom. It will be interesting to see how things shake out in Egypt and in the rest of the Middle East region two-and-a-half years after the beginning of the Arab Spring. I'm hopeful that Jon Stewart's satire will have a stinging result on the process and that there will not anymore tragic stories like that of Andrew Driscoll Pochter.

May peace come to the region soon so that Israel and her neighbors will live in freedom and peace. 

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