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.

Can Israel and Palestine learn anything from Tunisia

This article first appeared in Haaretz Oct 16th

The Middle East looks like a graveyard for hope. Throughout the region, violence is spinning out of control and the world’s leaders seem to lack any semblance of a strategy to contain it.

It is on this backdrop that the choice for the Nobel Peace Prize last week was so wonderful and surprising. While Nobel-watchers thought his holiness the pope or German Chancellor Angela Merkel were front runners, the committee decided to grant this honor to a quartet of civil society actors in Tunisia – the National Dialogue Quartet – who helped ensure that the birthplace of the Arab Spring would continue the path to democracy.

It is worthwhile reading the entire story behind the how the labor and trade unions, human rights activists, and a professional association of lawyers came together to form an unlikely quartet to save Tunisia’s nascent democracy after political assassinations and constitutional deadlock. Yet what is important is to understand that this unusual coalition was so diverse in its constituents, so unassailable in its credibility, and so masterful in mediation that it managed to get the budding democracy to pull back from the brink and fix the fractured political situation. Tunisia remains one of the few bright spots in a region so desperate for heroes.

It is always hard to apply the lessons from one country to another, but there is wisdom in how civil society played such a key role in Tunisia when the elected officials failed. Democracy is far more than the ballot box; it is a society that takes ownership of itself.

The leaderships of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have failed. Israelis certainly don’t feel safe, and Palestinians are no closer to ending the occupation. The political echelons seem incapable of delivering their populations a bright future. Is there a role for civil society to play in this conflict, outside the ballot box?

At different times, attempts have been made to get different civilians to play a productive role in working toward a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the Kerry initiative, business leaders from across both camps came together to try to “Break the Impasse.” Yet despite this group comprising business leaders from a vast array of their respective economies, they could not find the way to move the ball forward.

Israel’s trade union, the Hisdatraut  and the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions came together to express their hopes for peace and signed agreements to advance “fraternity and coexistence between the two peoples.”

And the human rights communities in both Israel and Palestine have long, established working relationships, trying to ensure international law is upheld both day-to-day and at times of conflict.

Yet before these branches can come together across the societies, they must first come together within each of their societies.

In Palestine, the divide between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem is creating a fractious identity. Finding a way for civic unity for a society separated by borders and circumstance is a daunting task. It was the street on March 15, 2011 that demanded unity and kicked off the unity talks between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. With the leaders’ failure to implement an agreement, it will fall on the street again to force the issue, and build the groundwork required to hold elections on the day after President Mahmoud Abbas.

Israel, as President Reuven Rivlin has diagnosed, is split into tribes – ultra-Orthodox, national religious and secular Jews, and Arabs – who are struggling to find a common identity.

With Arabs making up 20 percent of Israel’s citizens, we – Jews in Israel and the Diaspora – must collectively recognize that Arab citizens are not a tolerated few, but equal citizens. We need to put an end to the perception of Israeli Arabs as a demographic threat. For when we perceive them as a threat, two things happen. First, all of our relationships with “the other” inherently become threatening. Second, we bequeath this conflict to our children and our grandchildren.

At times of increased tension and violence, civil society – both Arab and Jewish – can calm the tensions, even as elected representatives fan the flames. They can do this by sharing access to public resources, creating common civic values and finding practical partnerships between different civic and municipal groups that offer public services.

A civil society that has found a collective identity, that has achieved wins for its communities and can credibly advocate on behalf of its communities, stands a chance at creating its own quartet – one that is just as effective as the Tunisians’ and more effective than the diplomatic Middle East Quartet that currently exists.

In a region full of violence and hate, I do thank the Nobel Prize committee for honoring the unsung heroes of Tunisia – the unionists and businessmen, lawyers and human rights activists – who showed that change is possible and hope still has a place in the Middle East.

Quick thoughts on the road about the horrific situation

I have a longer piece that is currently being edited about what Israel and Palestine can learn from the nobel prize to the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, but given the current uptick in violence across the societies I was asked by a few people why I had not put anything down in writing.

I’m currently traveling in Europe doing advocacy work, but like everyone else glued to twitter and Facebook as the violence is unfolding.

Violence is both very motivating for my work and very debilitating at the same time. I think both Jews and Arabs are missing context and in turn are screaming into the void. Arabs are sharing videos after an attack and are horrified by the response of a scared populace – Jews are refusing to acknowledge the context around the attacks themselves and thus are rightfully horrified by the violence but refuse to ask the question why is this happening. The international community have been warning, literally for years, that if the status quo continues it will fracture and lead to a mass outbreak of violence. You can’t do diplomacy under fire which is why folks were urging to do it before it broke out.

I don’t know if there is a way to put this particular hateful genie back into the bottle and it might burn it self out. This stuff really is being led by Facebook et al and there are no easy fixes. Without vision or a hope for a better future it’s very fertile ground for violence.

I think as this violent spasm continues we have to redouble our efforts within shared society and push forward for a vision (any vision!) that is not managing the status quo – given the fact that it is unmanageable.

The Saddest Thing About Israel’s New UN Envoy: U.S. Jews Will Get Used to Him

This article appeared in the print edition of Ha’aretz on August 30th 2015

My Twitter timeline was awash with sad and exasperated tweets last week when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decided in his wisdom to pick Danny “Deportation Now” Danon as the new face of Israel to the world, by appointing him Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations. His rejection of the two-state solution and his want to deport all refugees make him the poster boy for the far-right members of Likud. His close relationship with Glenn Beck and his friendly on-camera appearance with Mike Huckabee suggest he could soon become Israel’s own representative to the Tea Party. And if that weren’t enough, despite being fired as deputy defense minister for not being able to have the self-restraint to withhold attacking the government during a time of war, Bibi apparently felt that this was the best person to build global partnerships and prevent diplomatic upsets.

Analysts rushed in to show the internal political reasons for the Danon pick: Bibi’s wish to remove him from the Likud Central Committee, to free up a cabinet seat and the like. Some, like veteran Israeli journalist David Horovitz, despaired, writing that this move showed Bibi’s true face and that of Israel.

Personally, I think this appointment demonstrates the utter disregard that Bibi has for diplomacy and his desire to control everything from the Prime Minister’s Office. Let the diplomats do public relations, anything of importance comes directly to him.
Ignoring the “why” of the appointment, the sad reality of this move is that the firestorm will calm down and the U.S. Jewish community will get used to having Israel’s own version of Ted Cruz in their backyard, and will invite him to the normal functions and honors.

When Avigdor Lieberman was first appointed foreign minister in 2009, there was an equal cry of anguish from the global Diaspora community. For his first term, it was then-Defense Minister Ehud Barak, not Lieberman, who handled the U.S. relationship. Yet, when Lieberman was reappointed as Foreign Minister in the following Knesset, he was often seen as the grown up in the U.S.-Israel relationship, particularly during the peace negotiations led by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. His obnoxious policy positions toward Israel’s Arab minority, which he had always held, did not change, though, and on the eve of the most recent election, while still foreign minister, Lieberman threatened some 20 percent of Israel’s population, on live television, saying that they were citizens “for now.” We just got used to having a brutal pragmatist who saw a fifth of Israel’s population as disposable.

So too will be the case with Danny Danon: We will get used to him. There will be some awkward moments for sure, maybe the Anti-Defamation League will issue a condemnation or too, but nothing serious. Danon will get the same invites to the same receptions as his predecessor did. Jewish Americans have set their expectations so low for him that if he manages to get through a speech without a racial slur, it will be seen as a diplomatic masterpiece.

All the while his appointment makes an utter mockery of the work that the Jewish community – led by the American Jewish Committee – has been doing in the United Nations. The AJC, nicknamed the “State Department of the Jewish People,” sees its role as being the representatives of mainstream Jewish opinion to the diplomatic community in the United States and to foreign governments around the world.

The AJC took on preventing the United Nations from recognizing Palestinian statehood when the General Assembly voted on it in November 2011, as one of its major calls for action. Its rubric was: support peace and oppose the UN “gambit.” It feels odd, then, that the AJC lobbied the world to vote against recognizing Palestine as a state on the grounds that doing so would go against a viable two-state solution, but went silent when the Israel announced its new ambassador to the United Nations is a decisive opponent to the two-state solution and supports annexation in the West Bank.

I wonder what the atmosphere was like within the AJC when Danon’s appointment was announced. How does appointing a man who spent the past few years embarrassing Bibi – including in the pages of the New York Times – in his desire to destroy any hopes of two states for two peoples play with the AJC policy position and advocacy for a two-state solution?

By tolerating the appointment and adding Danon into the fold of the U.S. Jewish communal architecture, the American Jewish community will show once again that there is no right-wing flap in the communal tent: While we brutally and viciously police the lines on the left regarding who is in and who is out, we are starting to understand that one can say whatever he wants on the right and still be welcomed with open arms.

Israeli commentators worry about what Danon’s appointment says about Israel. I worry about what his reception in America will say about us.