Washington — With Egypt’s first democratic elections ending in a landslide win for the Muslim Brotherhood, the United States has decided to open formal discussions with the Islamist group. Israel has also relaxed its years-long resistance to engaging with the political movement.
American Jewish organizations, however, remain reluctant to reach out to the Brotherhood because of its harsh anti-Israel rhetoric and its threat to end Egypt’s peaceful relations with Israel.
Some scholars believe that the Jewish community is missing out on a historic opportunity to improve relations with the party that seems poised to shape the Middle East’s largest Arab country for years to come.
“This is very important for the Jewish community in order to better understand them,” said Marshall Breger, who has been at the forefront of Jewish interfaith dialogue efforts. Breger, a law professor at the Catholic University of America, added that American Jews should “approach the Brotherhood cautiously, but begin a dialogue on the basis of Judaism and Islam.”
With the political situation in Egypt still in flux, some experts believe that American Jewish groups should reach out to the Brotherhood as soon as possible.
“It would make sense,” said Nathan Brown, a George Washington University expert on Middle East politics who has maintained contacts with Brotherhood activists throughout the years.
According to Brown, the Ikhwan, as the Brotherhood is called in Arabic, is being torn between its wish to show a pragmatic approach toward global politics in order to prove it is suitable for governing the country and a fear of being viewed as a puppet of Western governments.
Outreach to Jewish groups, even informal ones, could prove valuable to the Brotherhood as it seeks to burnish its image as a mature political force. It also could help enhance its diplomatic status as it prepares to enter the world stage.
Contact with Jewish communal leaders could prove an ideal forum for the Brotherhood to engage the West because it would not carry the stigma of official diplomatic interaction with governments.
“Jewish groups are unofficial players, and the Egyptians can say they are religious American leaders, not representatives of the government,” Brown explained, adding that Jewish groups could serve as a back channel for discussions on relations between Israel and the Brotherhood, since such an unofficial track could provide “complete deniability.”
According to this school of thought, Jewish groups could serve as the ideal counterpart for the Ikhwan, since both sides are able to discuss current political issues from a religious standpoint.
The Brotherhood, through its political affiliate, the Freedom and Justice Party, dominated Egypt’s first parliamentary elections after the Arab Spring revolution that toppled Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It is emerging as the largest political group in the country. Many in the West view the Brotherhood as extremist. It has historic ties with the Hamas movement in Gaza and rejects Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel.