Poll Shows Israelis Don’t Resent the Diaspora as Much as We Thought

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 

With 5,601 interviewees, and a report of more than 200 pages, the Pew Research Center survey on Israel that was released last week is a data mine of facts, tidbits and, in many cases, depressing realities. The internet has been awash with headlines describing the individual findings of this massive research project that quantifies Israel’s tribal reality into neat numbers.

Yet, buried in the report is a series of findings that can give someone who cares about Israel-Diaspora relations hope. On pages 160 to 166, it states:

– 69 percent of Israeli Jews say that a thriving Diaspora is necessary for the survival of the Jewish people;

– 68 percent of Israeli Jews say they have a lot or some things in common with Diaspora Jews;

– 75 percent of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews; and

– 59 percent of Israeli Jews feel that U.S. Jews have a good influence on Israel.

The data represent a remarkably positive view of the Diaspora among Israeli Jews. In particular, that most Israeli Jews say U.S. Jews have a “good influence” on their country is the capstone for the data that precede it. It is also contextualized by them.

The concept of shlilat ha’galut, negation of the Diaspora, has a long history in Zionist discourse and is one of the fault lines of the global Jewish conversation. A. B. Yehoshua has been the leading public Israeli intellectual in recent years to champion this cause, calling the authenticity of being a Jew in the Diaspora into question. With more than two thirds of Israeli Jews deeming a thriving Diaspora crucial for the survival of the Jewish people, A. B. Yehoshua’s logic is challenged; modern Israeli Jews would repudiate those looking to negate the Diaspora, for they see the fates of both communities as intrinsically linked.

Perhaps even more profound is that this finding challenges something that Matti Golan wrote in his seminal book, “With Friends Like You” (1992, Free Press). Golan describes what Israeli Jews really thought of their cousins in America: that their donations to Israel were immoral – Jews abroad were paying in cash while Israelis paid in blood. The data in the Pew poll suggests that Golan’s assertion is now outdated.

While most Israeli Jews feel they have a lot in common with American Jews, there is at least one area in which they differ: in their perceptions of the greatest challenges facing Israel today. Among Israeli Jews, an almost equal proportion see economic issues and security issues as the biggest long-term problems (39 percent and 38 percent, respectively), whereas among U.S. Jews cited in the same report (page 59), 66 percent see security issues as the biggest problem, with only 1 percent citing economic issues. The gulf between what Jews in each country sees as the most urgent issues facing Israel is unsurprising; domestic economic affairs don’t enter into the U.S. Jewish political discourse. Their worries are shaped by how Israel is portrayed in the media and how Israel treats American Jews.

The survey also shows that Jews in Israel and America share a sense of belonging to the same community. In the 2013 Pew survey of U.S. Jews (page 82), 69 percent said they feel attached to Israel and 87 percent said that caring about Israel is either essential or important to what being Jewish means to them personally. Now, we find that three quarters of Israeli Jews say they share a common destiny with American Jews, and almost two thirds say American Jews have a good influence on Israel. Clearly, these two communities feel deeply connected to one another.

How these communities utilize this connection to influence one another will continue to be a question that drives much of the passionate discourse in the Jewish world. Does the Diaspora have the power to influence Israelis to make compromises? Can Israeli Jews build programs to help U.S. Jewry fight assimilation? It’s unclear.

What is crystal clear, however, is that the two communities want to continue hugging and wrestling with one another. We are not sick of each other yet, and that, in its small way, is a source of hope for the future of the Jewish world.

What I learnt from a speech in Lakewood NJ

This article first appeared in Ha’aretz 2/6/16

On Monday, January 25, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz, one of the big philanthropists in the Jewish world, stood before the top rabbis in Lakewood, New Jersey at a fundraising dinner for the largest yeshiva in America, and delivered a speech that shook the ultra-Orthodox community to its core.

In a passionate and thoughtful way, he railed against the elitism in the community that, in his words, “bordered on bloodshed” toward its youth: Young children have been left without elementary schools to attend, more than five weeks into the term. Parents have gone begging, crying to administrators and donors to get their kids into any school so as to avoid facing the shame of being excluded. Yet the schools are caving to the pressure of certain parents who urge them not to accept the children of certain members of the community, lest it lower the quality of education for their own children.

Rechnitz condemned the Lakewood community, stating: “No other out-of-town community would ever allow a child to be left without a school. In Los Angeles, if a child wouldn’t have a school the first day, the whole community would be all over it. The same thing would happen in Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto or anywhere else.”

As his speech goes on, Rechnitz moves from the theme of schools to the paralyzing nature of judgment within the community. Here, Rechnitz accused the ultra-Orthodox in Lakewood of twisting religiosity and the minutia of religious practice into an idol, forgetting that there is value in every single Jew.

I find it hard to concentrate on any online video that is over 4 minutes (the destruction of my attention span – and that of my young adult peers – is particularly worrying), but I was so riveted by Rechnitz’s speech that I sat through all 52 minutes of it.

As someone who works in and around the field of philanthropy, I have never seen such truth being told to such power. In popular thought, it is those with the money who are the powerful, and the grantees who must follow their lead. Yet, in American ultra-Orthodox communities, while the donor is honored, it is the rabbinical authorities that are the centers of power. Yet here was a donor respectfully challenging a dais full of the leaders of the most prominent ultra-Orthodox community in America about the detriment they have caused to their community.

Watching the speech again, I am still stunned.

In Jewish and Israeli newspapers, mega-philanthropists are often accused of twisting Jewish communal discourse to their political world view; whether it’s the right pointing to George Soros or the left pointing to Sheldon Adelson. Rechnitz’s speech shows the best of what a committed, dedicated and brave philanthropist can do when motivated. Indeed, he did not just moan, but committed another $1.5 million to building inclusive schools.

Rachnitz’s speech sent shockwaves through the ultra-Orthodox community in Lakewood, but that did not deter him. He sent a letter apologizing for the harsh nature of his speech, yet emphasizing the theme of elitism, saying that those who hold themselves and their children above others and push communal institutions to exclude those who they perceive as less “frum” (religious) are destroying a beautiful community.

The passion, commitment and urgency of Rechnitz’s intervention are something that the rest of the Jewish community would do well to remember, and emulate, as we look at the crisis of the affordability of Jewish day schools.

As Jewish Americans continue to struggle with the issues surrounding philanthropists’ role within our structures, Shlomo Yehuda Rechnitz stands as an example of Jewish giving at its best.

 

Jews and France

This article first appeared at Harry’s Place Feb 2nd 2016

The New York Times opens its story of anti-Semitism in France last week with a terrifying paragraph:

“It was the heavy leather-bound volume of the Torah he was carrying that shielded Benjamin Amsellem from the machete blows.”

The barbarism and brutality of the attack by an ISIS inspired youth on a Jew brings a feeling of insecurity that public kippa wearing campaigns cannot erase. This is the latest incident of local Jewish communities being a prime target of terrorists attacking nations.

Whether organized attacks like MumbaiIstanbul and Paris or seemingly the lone wolf attacks in Toulouse and now Marseille, Jews and their community institutions are always on the list for terrorists trying to make a point.

For your average citizen, terrorism has sadly become like any other impersonal disaster. The victim of a mass terrorist incident is not targeted for anything other then the misfortune at the wrong place at the wrong time. Yet this obsession of attacking Jews, and there definitely is a trend, makes these incidents against the community far more personal.

I have criticized Tariq Ramadan and others for air-brushing anti-Semitism out of some of these attacks. Ramadan and others have claimed that Jews have just become the symbols of the state, and are not attacked because they are Jews, but a good target of a critic of the state and its policies.

The dehumanizing nature of this analysis shows a remarkable turn around in the genesis of anti-Semitism. Where as in the 20th century Jews were mainly victims of the State, now they are victims because of it. An expression of aggression towards liberal democracy is apparently the cause for running towards the nearest Jewish school or kippa wearing teacher to express a murderous rage against the West. The Jews have moved from being the outsiders in society to being the ultimate protected insider, thus a great target for attack.

This excuse has also been used to try and state that the anti-Semitic comic Dieudonne M’bala M’bala has nothing against Jews per say but against sacred cows. Thus any attack against the Jews in society is excused as a generalist objection to the state itself and thus justified in the name of grievance.

Jews are not being targeted by terrorists because they are angry about general grievances, they are targeting Jews as the Jew and/or Zionist is seen have long been seen as the hidden hand behind the conspiracy theories that are integral to the world view of these extremists. Free Masons, Zionists and Jews stand behind everything. They are the reason for the state of the world as it stands, the hidden shadow conspiracy keeping themselves in power while the rest suffer. They infect nations, the media and global capitalism, controlling it all.

These conspiracy theories are classic anti-Semitism and are prevalent not just in the Middle East and South East Asia, but broadcast on satellite stations that reach diaspora communities throughout the western world. The targeting of the Jewish communities is after a long diet of conspiracy theory. Throw in the question of Palestine (which ISIS has been preaching as of late) and you have the perfect mix to get loan wolves to turn against and target Jews.

When terrorism becomes personal, when every one of the Jewish schools and community centers need bomb proof glass, armed guards and 24/7 police protection, kippa rallies is not going to cut it. Despite the best efforts of the State, Jews are leaving France in record numbers to Israel. One of the biggest ironies of ISIS picking up the issue of Palestine is that it is causing Jewish immigration to Israel.  If you feel that at any moment your shul could blow up, why not move to Israel where at least the fear is collective and you can once again be an anonymous victim rather then a special target of global terrorism.

As a society there is much to be said about our universal values, our traditions and our traumas. Despite our differences, the universalist tradition says much about our ability to overcome our differences and recognize our shared humanity. Yet we should not fall into the trap of not recognizing the particular targeting of a community amongst us, even as we all fear the potential for terrorism. To do so takes away the reason why the victim was targeted and worse, prevents us from working on long term solutions to the entrenched conspiracy theories that lay behind the targets of some of the attacks.

Why we need to put our chips behind people-to-people work

This article first appeared on Times of Israel Jan 29th 2016

When looking at the Israeli Palestinian conflict there is an exasperation and irritation at the utter inability to progress forward on any meaningful peace process. Despite billions spent, the international community is stuck with limited policy options and a deteriorating political reality.

In this complex picture, when one mentions people-to-people work the response is a sigh. For many serious policy makers, people-to-people stands for kids, kittens and camps. The community is the poster child of the failed Oslo process and something that is, at best, nice but never necessary.

This mischaracterization of this community and the old stereotype of eating hummus together and going home pays no attention to the evolution of the field and the real work and impacts that this community has, and continues to have accomplished.

The best way of understanding people-to-people today is as a community that works on finding ways to integrate Arabs and Jews, Israelis and Palestinians, with equality. Their work is so necessary in a system that pushes for segregation along ethnic lines. This system has complex origins, from the overarching reality of today’s Middle East, to the threat of violence, to the way that Israel’s educational system was set up to the current governments of each community. The net effect is an entire system that pushes to segregate and separate unequally.

It is no wonder therefore that when asked “how worried are you on a daily basis that a Jew will hurt you or a member of your family”, 79% of Palestinians say they are worried or very worried. Before the latest wave of violence, 56% of Israeli Jews were worried or very worried, and it does not take Nostradamus to predict that the statistic has likely worsened.

The fact remains that with this level of fear and mistrust of the other on a personal level, we have no ability to move forward on any potential peace process. There is simply a profound lack of the trust or humanization of the other that is needed to change the current dynamics.

The groups that are working within the system to effectively move the system over time are those within the people-to-people community. From advocacy groups working on Israeli governmental funding mechanisms, to farmers creating cross border trade relationships, to the after school program bringing West and East Jerusalem children together, these are the tools necessary to bridge the divide.

This community is doing their work in an ever-increasingly hostile environment. In order to be successful, these programs need to ensure that those participating see a benefit from getting involved, they need to ensure that as well as working across communities, the participants are working within their own communities, and finally, they need to ensure that they are integrating alumni from their programs into their ongoing programming. By following these principles of best practice, groups pushing integration can be effective at driving change in the system.

Sadly, this best practice is also a recipe for exponentially rising costs of the programs. As one increases the amount of participants each year, the program gets more costly despite the fact that the funding pool is staying the same.

We estimate that there is roughly $45 million dollars spent per annum on what is broadly seen as peace and reconciliation work between Jews and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians. With 12 million people, we are spending just under $4 per capita per year as an international community.

The current largest donor is USAID through its Conflict Management and Mitigation grant program, something that we at ALLMEP are very proud to have helped start and sustain through our advocacy work on Capitol Hill. Though not in the federal budget, it has for the past eight years given $10 million annually for people-to-people work between Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs and has remained level funded despite cuts to many other items within the foreign affairs budget. The entire community is deeply indebted to the key appropriators.

Yet despite this program, the programs are not reaching the scale they need to given the challenging circumstances and rising costs. If we are going to unlock greater resources we must look to other models that leverage public and private resources. In the Northern Irish conflict, the International Fund for Ireland distributed over a billion dollars over 24 years to Catholics and Protestants. Created by Congress, this fund distributed an average of $33 per capita from 1986 to 2010.

Learning from this model, ALLMEP has been advocating for the creation of an International Fund for Israeli Palestinian Peace, a $200 million annual fund with contributions from Congress, EU member states, the international community and the private sector, to scale the most successful programs that exist today. In this Congress, Congressman Crowley (D-NY) and Congressman Fortenberry (R-NE) introduced HR1489 to authorize the creation and appropriations of such a fund.

As we look to what can be achieved today, building a vehicle to support civil society, something not dependent on a particular peace process or on the ups and downs of the current moment, can create the long-term support necessary to push the system and start changing the fear dynamics.

Civil society is not alone sufficient to get us to the finish line, but without it, we have no hope at all.

Becoming a Celebrity for the Wrong Reasons

This article first appeared in Ha’artez

Two weeks ago, on October 29, I became a celebrity for seven hours. I fielded interview requests from around the world, major news networks posted my name and Twitter handle on their global broadcasts, and I received excited texts and calls from friends and family.

The fame was not due to my day job – where I am the head of a network of over 90 groups that work to build peace between Jews and Arabs – but thanks to a quirk of fate.

The story begins just before noon EST. My friend Jared is sitting in an airplane on the runway in Florida, waiting to fly back to Chicago, where we have plans for a fun evening before his return to the Gulf for work. While on the runway, Jared spots a plane on fire, films it and texts the video to me – as proof for why he’s going to be late.

Getting a video of a plane on fire is quite something, so I post it to Twitter with the hashtag #FLL (the code for Fort Lauderdale airport, where he was at).

Within 30 seconds, my Twitter feed explodes. Fox, CNN, CBS, Telemundo and AFP, to name a few, are getting in touch to ask permission to use the footage and to interview Jared.

Over the course of seven hours I fielded dozens of calls and tweets of people trying to get in touch with Jared, who had the bizarre experience of seeing his name on CNN breaking news while he was in the air on his way to Chicago.

Jared and I have a combined 15 years of professional experience working in Middle East peace work. Yet, neither of us has ever garnered such attention – not for us or our work – as when we happened to be able to show footage of a plane in flames.

This is normally where one could go on a rant about the media only reporting disaster news and that if it bleeds – or in this case, burns – it leads. Yet in the ad-driven, social media-shareable environment, it’s the consumers who are driving the content; not the journalists. Our obsession for news porn – fire, death and destruction – and our capacity to digest only bite-sized chunks of information push complex topics all the way to the back of the line.

Sure, there is some market for uplifting and positive stories. But we news consumers largely live on a media diet that describes the world as simple and dire.

Donors and stakeholders often ask me why my peace-building network doesn’t try to get more media attention for the positive news that emerges from our member organization’s initiatives. The problem, I explain, is there is no narrative to link the stories to; each is an independent good action that seemingly exists in a vacuum.

Instead, I focus on increasing the type of attention that our membership gets. We will never compete with the 30-second sound bite. A key aspect of what I do is getting journalists and opinion-shapers to recognize that the work of peace building is not nice, or cute, or just a human-interest story. This work is necessary. It’s as necessary as the physical security dynamics that dominate the headlines and it’s as necessary as the economic trade that fills up business sections.

Sadly, the work that Jared and I have dedicated our lives to will never make the headlines. Our work is packed with too much of a complex reality to fit into the Twitter wars that dominate the public sphere. Maybe we can get opinion shapers to take it seriously now and again. And perhaps we can find the key segment of the population that appreciates that complexity is not something to be terrified of, but embraced. Failing that we can always just film more disasters.