March 3, 2011

Unrest in the Arab world continues to escalate. In Libya, thousands may have been killed in recent weeks for challenging the reign of longtime dictator Muammar Gaddafi. In Tunisia, throngs of demonstrators are protesting political corruption and repression. In Syria, anti-government protesters gather in mobs throughout the country where — disturbingly — four nuclear sites have recently been discovered.

There are similar stories of rage, protest, and killing in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, and other areas throughout the Middle East. In the midst of this sea of turmoil stands the increasingly isolated democracy of Israel. These growing threats to the Holy Land come as rocket attacks on Israel from Hamas terrorists in Gaza continue — attacks like the recent firing of two Grad rockets into Be'er Sheva in Southern Israel.

In the wake of this ever widening circle of protest, the obvious question is: why? Why hasn't the Arab world boiled over until now, when many of these repressive regimes have ruled these countries for decades? What is at the heart of all this unrest?

I believe much of it comes from fear — years of pent-up fear of repressive regimes and their unthinkable human rights abuses. Eventually that fear gives way to an even greater fear that nothing will ever change — that the crushing poverty and hunger will remain a constant, that women in the region will continually be oppressed, that people will languish without jobs or a voice in key decisions that affect the future of their nations.

A Libyan man summed up the situation well in a recent CNN interview: "We can speak now," he told a reporter on a noisy street in the Libyan city of Benghazi. "The fear wall broke. Even after the killing, nobody is getting scared."

Fear is also how many of us respond when we observe this widespread rage and unrest. When we read accounts of bombings and slayings and watch angry protesters on the evening news, we may feel apprehensive and fearful. What will this mean for Israel? What will it mean for the region? What will it mean for the Western world?

Of course, we are counseled by God to avoid unwarranted fear. Throughout the Bible, God told His people not to fear. Many times God reassured the Israelites that, though their enemies were in hot pursuit on all sides, He would protect and defend them. And He did — from raging seas, from warring nations, from godless mockers. We stand in faith today knowing He is that same God.

In Isaiah 41:10 God tells Israel, "So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand." The Psalms, too, are full of words of human fear and godly reassurance. It is because of this reassurance that we can say, along with David, "The Lord is my light and my salvation — whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life — of whom shall I be afraid?" (Psalm 27:1).

When we turn our human fear into fear of God, holding His power in greater esteem than any of the forces here on earth, we find the ability to trust in Him. It is then, and only then, that we can look at the turmoil that is happening on the world stage — or perhaps in our own lives — and truly know peace in our hearts.

With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein