Hope is not a strategy

This appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post on Oct 9th 2016 and is co-authored with Jeremy Saltan 

When asked about the future of an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal by the White House press pool, Former United States President Bill Clinton, who had just returned from the funeral of former Israeli President Shimon Peres, stated that an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will happen at some point because the young people in the region will demand it.

The assessment made by Clinton has been made by countless others in the past and is a mainstream position among policy makers –young Israelis will be our saviors. However, if one looks at the data, statistics, and polling of young people in Israel, it is quite clear that the next generation in Israel has a different view than many policy wonks.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2016, found among the 18-29 demographic only 35% supported the principle of ‘two states for two nations’ as a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared to 53% against it. The youngest voters were the least supportive of the two state solution. The poll results countered Clinton’s argument and found that the older the voter the more likely was voter support of a two state solution.

A Smith poll published by The Jerusalem Post on the August 31, 2016, found a majority (54%) among the 18-29 demographic considered Haredi control over religion and state issues acceptable compared to a minority (43%) among the 50+ demographic.

The latest Pew poll conducted in Israel, arguably the most comprehensive polling ever conducted in Israel, found the younger age bracket (in this case 18-49) was more religiously observant and less supportive of two states than their elders. The younger demographic is more inclined to be supportive of settlements, believe that Arabs should be expelled or transferred from Israel, believe that security is Israel’s biggest threat, believe that Israel was given to the Jews by G-d, favor gender segregation on public transportation, favor Halachah as a basis of law in Israel, and view the US as not supportive enough of Israel.

The policy positions of young Israelis trickle down to party affiliation and Prime Minister preference. A Midgam poll broadcast by Army Radio in 2015 found 18-29 year olds were the most likely to choose Netanyahu as Prime Minister (57%) and least likely to choose Herzog (19%). Midgam found the older the voter the more likely was support of Herzog over Netanyahu. A Teleseker poll published by Walla in 2013 found 67.6% of Bayit Yehudi voters were between the ages of 18-49, compared to 32.4% over the age of 50.

There is a clear trend that the younger generation is more religious and more right-wing than previous generations. While in most countries the younger population represents a more left wing and socially open constituency, in Israel the trend is actually the opposite.

It is our belief that this is due to at least two factors.

The changing demographics in Israel mean that the next generation is more religious. The official Israeli Social Survey of the Central Bureau of Statistics found the 18-29 demographic is more religious than the older demographics. The Haredi share of the 18-29 population is 12%. The national religious share is 13%, and the traditional share is 31%. Although secular Israelis make up a majority of the 50+ demographic (52%), they make up 44% of the 18-29 demographic. This trend is set to continue in the coming years as 28% of Haredim aged 40 or older have 7 or more children compared to less than 1% of secular Israelis.

These long term demographic changes adjust the make up of the younger generation and, given the separation within the Israeli education system, carries forward their communities’ belief systems in separate tracks.

While the demographics can help explain the religiosity of the younger cohort, their support for the right is not mere biological determinism. This is a generation that came of age during the second Intifada and its aftermath. The hope and promise of the 1990s means little to nothing to young Israelis. The political horizon of young Israelis has been one of stunted visions and conflict management. Given that reality, young Israelis’ skepticism of everything other than what they have experienced is understandable.

The purpose of this snapshot is to ground in reality the current situation of young people in Israel today. To believe young Israelis will demand a future that is different from their current experience, with all things being equal, does not bear out in the data. As time goes on the demographic realities of young Israelis manifest in overall poll numbers, such as a Panels poll in May that found 53% of Israelis in favor of applying Israeli law to at least some settlements in Judea and Samaria/West Bank.

Israeli youth differ from the progressive left wing wave of change that we see elsewhere in the world. The majority of young Israelis resemble and identify more with the governing right-wing religious coalition of Israel, not the left-wing secular opposition.

The hope of a rising youth that will demand the change President Clinton hopes to see coming from Israel is against all trends in the data. Rather than trusting gut feelings and being disappointed when the results don’t bare out, a realistic assessment of the current state of play should drive policy making and strategic considerations. Only with an eyes open approach can those who wish for a change in the status quo begin to build a strategy to achieve it.

Privileged and Victimized, the Duality of the American Jewish Condition

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz September 26th 2016

Two weeks ago Joseph Michael Schreiber, a Jewish man from Florida, was arrested for setting fire to the mosque that the Orlando nightclub gunman Omar Mateen attended. A local rabbi stated that Schreiber had gone to his synagogue last spring to study Torah for about a month, but there was nothing particularly remarkable about him.

The story made a brief appearance in the 24-hour news cycle, and the Jewish press picked it up, but that was it. There were no talking heads, no media stakeout of the synagogue, and no harassment of the family. The presidential candidates did not weigh in and no one paid much attention.

If Schreiber had been Muslim and his target a synagogue, we could be sure of an entire different reaction. The muted response to the case shows a privilege that the U.S. Jewish community holds that the U.S. Islamic community does not.

It is important to recognize and acknowledge that the American Jewish community has achieved a sense of integration, and in many cases assimilation, that provides it with the same protection as other white American groups.

It is incidents like the above that have led many progressive groups to claim that Jews in American are basically white. Our current circumstances are closer to the WASPs of America then to minority groups.

Coming from the U.K. but living in the U.S., it has been a strange experience to be described as white. For me, it was pretty clear from the start that Jews were a minority group within the U.K. like any other ethnic minority – I would always tick ‘other’ when identifying my ethnicity. It was a shock when I first was told that Jews were basically white in America.

Looking at the cesspool that is the “alt-right” that has emerged this election cycle and plagued us all with horrendous anti-Semitism, it should be abundantly clear that Jews are not as “white” as the term Caucasian presumes. American Jewish “otherness” sadly goes beyond the current tumult of this election season.

Looking at the FBI hate crime statistics for 2015, only 9.6% of all hate crimes in the U.S. were perpetrated against Jews. By way of comparison, 30% were against African Americans and 2.7% were against Muslim-Americans.

Even as American Jews enjoy political and economic power, there is a constant fear of a dark horizon that could come crashing down, and remove us from a place that we have worked so hard to get to. It is this tension, the fear that we might be once against subject to be discriminated against as an ‘other,’ that has motivated so many Jews to get involved in social justice issues in the first place. We know how quickly the tide can turn and a society that is truly inclusive for everyone will be a society that will always be inclusive for us as well.

Given our presumed privilege, Jews have found themselves of late outside the ‘intersectional tent’ that is suppose to link every sectors oppression with each other. Intersectionality is today’s progressive glue. Jews it seems are becoming unstuck as a group from within the progressive worldview. Evidence of this can be seen from the campus wars that claimed that the Holocaust was a ‘white on white’ crime to the reductions of the targeting of Jews in acts of terror as mere symbols of the state.

The duality of the American Jewish experience is complex and jarring for many. It is hard to grasp how a community that can get a public pass that the Islamic community could only dream of could also face such a staggering number of hate crimes.

It is precisely this duality however that makes the Jewish community the perfect ally to other ethnic and religious minorities. We know what it is to be accepted; we have seen the fruits of real integration while having an ability to understand what it is to be seen as different.

Despite the challenges, the discomfort and sometimes offense that has been caused of late, American Jews are a core constituency within the progressive movement and the struggle to reclaim our legitimate place within it matters not just for the success for the progressive movement, but for our own well being as well.

Israel should not pay for American Jewish College Students

This article first appeared in the print edition of the Jerusalem Post 08/27/16

According to the latest data from the OECD, Israel gives 0.07 percent of its gross national income away in international aid. This is just under $200 million dollars. Israel ranks just above Russia (at 0.06%) and Thailand (0.02%) at third from bottom. In case you were wondering, the Slovak Republic is just above at 0.1%.

With so little taxpayer money going overseas to support needy causes, it is interesting to note that earlier this month, the government unveiled the recipients of what represents 11% of its total largesse – North American Jewish college students. $22m. will be given to Hillel International, Chabad and Olami to strengthen Jewish identity and deepen Jewish engagement on campus.

Mosaic United is the final incarnation of the “Government of Israel World Jewry Initiative” that became the “Israel-Diaspora Initiative,” three years in the making.

Is it that having the support of the government of Israel will help in campus outreach from a strategic level? If anything the reverse is true; any student will tell you that getting Israeli government support for your activities makes you a target for accusations of acting as a foreign government agent. It’s the same accusation that the government of Israel has made of the NGO community in Israel, namely that by receiving foreign government donations the non-profits are foreign agents.

If it’s not a funding gap and there is no strategic value to having the government of Israel stamp on your program, is it that the government does not trust that the US Jewish community is capable of providing the correct Jewish content to their community?

Israel as a country, and certainly as a coalition government has enough of its own problems in working out what being Jewish means to preach it to its biggest Diaspora. The egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall, usage of mikvaot for non-orthodox streams of Judaism, and the issue of conversion are at the forefront of a never-ending laundry list of issues that create tension between the different segments of Jewish practice.

Looking at who the grantees are of this first round of funding, the concern of the Reform and Conservative community in the US is that Israel is trying to create a more Orthodox America. Chabad and Olami are Orthodox outreach movements. It is very easy to paint Mosaic United as Israel’s way to create a more Orthodox Jewish Diaspora who, on average, are more likely to support the policies of the current government of Israel.

Given the tensions that will exist in every Knesset about the issues of Judaism, the government is perhaps the least capable entity to fund a real conversation about Jewish identity today.

If one of the dozen Israeli billionaires or thousand or so millionaires want to fund alongside the North American Jewish philanthropic community programs for American 13-35-year-olds, that would be wonderful.

Until then, Israeli taxpayers’ international aid should support the poor, needy and sick, doubling down on the remarkable programs that help victims of the Syrian civil war, support victims of natural disasters and gift Israeli water technology to help deal with climate change around the world.

MJC Conference

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz Aug 22nd 2016

I first met Ilja Sichrovsky, an Austrian Jew, at an AJC conference in 2009 as he was starting the first Muslim Jewish Conference. He had a vision of bringing young Jews and Muslims, specifically those younger than 35, from around the world together for their own conference. The format would be committees producing their own domestic projects, eventually leading to a network of Muslims and Jews spanning the globe.

I thought Ilja was well intentioned but nuts, but I owed it to him as a friend to come, so it was with some trepidation that I accepted an invitation to speak at the 7th annual MJC, held in Berlin this past week.

This year’s conference brought together more than one hundred participants from 33 countries. America, Israel and Pakistan seemed to have the most representatives, with a good sprinkling of Jews and Muslims from Europe, the Balkans and Turkey. The conference appeared to be evenly split between gender and religious lines, with a dozen of so participants wearing headscarves or kippot.

The week-long conference mainly focused on dividing participants into committees, where the conference split into seven working grounds with the hope of getting a deep understanding on big issues of identity, culture and rights. The conference’s final product was a projects committee that would come up with practical initiatives to be deployed in one’s home community, ranging from educational curriculums for schools to action think tanks aimed at dealing with common social issues in their respective local communities.

The main criticisms of gatherings like this are that they reach those who are already primed to meet, they avoid difficult issues and they don’t have a sustainable mechanism to ensure the conversation continues after the event. The MJC, however, did bring together Israelis and Pakistanis who otherwise could never meet and there was indeed some diversity in the room. The conference did try to offer ways for the members to get to grips with Israel and Palestine and speak about the real fear of the other in a group sense. Finally, on the core issue of being more then a conference, the vision of the MJC is to be a Muslim-Jewish global agency, establishing projects and programs across a world dealing with mass migration.

Having been around the block at different peace/cross cultural/interreligious conferences, the Muslim Jewish Conference has done one thing very well: It has managed to get a committed group of young activists from a range of countries that otherwise would never have come together to speak about important topics. I have been to dozens of conferences where I am the youngest person by a decade. MJC has cracked the code at getting younger community leaders engaged and others should look to them as an example for recruitment.

There is something cosmically discombobulating about doing a Muslim-Jewish conference in Berlin. I get a queasy feeling when I go to the German capital. I was there last year on a work trip and had an emotional response that has no rational explanation. A feeling of impending doom mixed with anger. I asked a friend who, like me, is a grandchild of survivors and they had also found it very hard to enjoy the city.

The executioner of Jewish Europe, the home of an Israeli Diaspora and a growing Turkish-Muslim population, Germany has now hosted a gathering of over a hundred passionate Muslims and Jews who want to help their civilizations come to terms with one another.

Like any civic initiative, the MJC alone cannot alone fix the stereotypes in their own countries of the other, but they are the pioneers in draining the swamps of hate that fuel the conspiracies and mistrust that make true Muslim-Jewish relationships all but impossible.


While Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Push Diaspora Jews Away, Israel’s Arab Citizens Bring Them Back

First published in Ha’aretz July 14th 2016

The relationship between Israel and the majority of the American Jewish Diaspora hit a new low this past week. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the heads of the American Conservative and Reform movements warned of the potential for bloodshed between their members and the ultra-Orthodox given the incitement around the planned egalitarian prayer space at the Western Wall.

Despite Netanyahu’s image as a political magician domestically, he has not been able to deliver the compromise that he repeatedly promised to Diaspora Jewry regarding their rights to pray in a fashion they see fit.

This crisis is not limited to U.S. Conservative and Reform Jews. The issue lends to continued angst for modern Orthodox Jews in America, as the Israeli rabbinical courts have refused to recognize the conversions performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, a highly regarded Orthodox rabbi in New York.

More so than the inability to move forward on the peace process, the real strategic threat to Israel-Diaspora Jewry relations comes from the Ultra-Orthodox’s disrespect, denigration and outright rejection of the majority of American Jewry’s practices. For all the time, attention and money spent on the strategic threat of BDS, Israel risks losing mainstream Federation donors and synagogues if this continues.

The Ultra-Orthodox political parties of Shas and United Torah Judaism are the glue that sticks the religious right coalition together. They care about few things: money for their constituents, a protection of their way or life — away from the demands of a secular state — and the supremacy of their religious practice when it comes to matters of religious law.

For the ultra-Orthodox, there is no wiggle room on these issues. There is no compromise position. These are issues that, if push came to shove, would force the coalition to collapse. Bibi knows this and thus is powerless to fulfill his promises to the Jewish Diaspora who are treated like second-class Jews in the Jewish state.

As the politically powerful Ultra-Orthodox are pushing Diaspora Jewry further away from Israel, it is Israel’s most politically weak group, the Arab citizens of Israel, that is finding a way to bring them back in.

According to the Pew polling done in 2013, over 60% of American Jews think that coexistence and peace is possible. When asked about the greatest problem facing the Jewish state, the second highest response was “Peace and Coexistence.”

Given their traditional pro-Israel stance and suspicions of the Palestinian Authority as a partner for peace, the Jewish community, both as individuals and institutions, is not turning outward to the Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. Federation dollars and attention, however, are being paid toward the internal issues of the status of Israel’s Arab minority.

This year marks the 10th year of the Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, a coalition of Jewish Organizations learning and raising awareness about Israel’s Arab citizens. The coalition is one of the few places where the New Israel Fund, the Council of Jewish Presidents, ADL and the Federation movement sit together.

During my travels as part as my role at the Alliance for Middle East Peace, Federations and Jewish Community Relations Councils are constantly looking for “shared society” programming and ideas that they can get behind.

The Jews who are being alienated by the ultra-Orthodox, the Reform and the Conservative, are the individuals who are the most identified by polls as having liberal and Democratic politics. The Conservative and Reform movements see their heroes as Rabbi Stephen Wise, Justice Louis Brandeis and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, scions of the formulation of liberal values that form the core of much of their political and moral identity. The call for equality for all of Israel’s citizens in matters of public funding, legal treatment and place in society reflects Rabbi Heschel’s leadership in the civil rights movement that still inspires American Jews today.

While the current Israeli government coalition is pushing the majority of American Diaspora Jews away, the desire to help build an Israel that reflects the values of a shared society is pulling Diaspora Jews back in.

This inverse power dynamic is in its early stages, but it will be interesting to see how it adapts as the push from the ultra-Orthodox worsens.

The situation on the ground definitely needs more support. Given the heightened tensions this year, there has been a push to remove Arab citizens from the public space and even a case where passengers demanded an Israeli Arab removed from an airplanes. Bolstering support for Israel’s minority could help begin to deal with the deep societal gaps that enable the Ultra-Orthodox to be the only kingmakers in the coalition.

The unfolding crisis of Reform and Conservative rights has led to the need of a new intellectual framework concerning Jewish connection to Israel. The call to create a shared society offers a unique opportunity for connecting the Reform and Conservative moment to their values of social justice, in conjunction with their love of Israel as well.