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.

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.

Building Peace from the Ground Up

This is a transcript of a talk I gave to the Fathom Fourm in London 

On 30 June 2015, Joel Braunold, US Director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) spoke to a Fathom Forum on the importance of people-to-people movements to any eventual resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When the Palestine Survey and Research Group published their quarterly research on levels of support for the two-state solution, everyone concentrated on the top line point, which is that support for the two-state solution has dropped to 51 per cent support in Israel and has stayed steady on 51 per cent support among Palestinians. But the really worrying statistics were below the fold. As many as 56 per cent of Israelis are worried or very worried on a daily basis that they will be murdered by Arabs and 79 per cent of Palestinians are worried or very worried on a daily basis that they will be murdered or have their land confiscated by Jews. It gets worse. 56 per cent of Palestinians believe that the Israeli objective is to expel them from the land, 25 per cent that the objective is annexation, whilst 43 per cent of Israelis believe that all Arabs are out to kill them and 18 per cent believe their aim is the conquest of Israel and the removal of their citizenship. Aggregated, between 60 and 80 per cent percent of the two populations believe that the intent of the other is the removal of their rights or their actual destruction. The Pew opinion surveys demonstrate that the youth of Israel and Palestine are even more pessimistic than their elders about the future, so any hopes that change may come with the new generation are likely misplaced.

The international community has been very good at focusing on doing civics, economics, or politics at any one time, but never all three simultaneously. When diplomatic efforts seemed to be succeeding during the Oslo years, governments placed a heavy emphasis on ‘people-to-people’ programmes designed to bring Jews and Arabs together, but post-Intifada there was a move towards a more economic approach with state building that saw $3 billion of US loans being poured into the construction of a Palestinian state. When this failed to lead to the creation of Palestinian state, the economic approach was abandoned in favour of a renewed focus on diplomacy, exemplified in John Kerry’s belief that if you managed to get the right people in the room and push hard enough a solution could be found. In short, the three components for Palestinian statehood and the end of occupation – which are all necessary but insufficient in themselves – have been segmented, resulting in repeated failure.

Underlying these failures has been a huge gulf in trust. It is that gulf which the ‘people-to-people’ community has been trying to close. Both within the Green Line and beyond it, there are a number of civil society groups that seek to bring Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Arabs together, in agriculture, education, industry, high-tech work, and advocacy programmes. The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) was established in 2003 in Washington DC by Avi Meyerstein in response to the tendency of such ‘people-to-people’ movements to travel to Washington, meet with a member of the administration, and then leave empty-handed. ALLMEP is a coalition of 91 organisations which seeks to persuade lawmakers that the work of grassroots programmes is not only nice, but also necessary. At the moment, ALLMEP secures $10 million a year for grassroots programmes, 23 per cent of the global total, but this is not enough. The $1.5 billion fund that the International Fund for Ireland (IFI) had at its disposal over a 25 year period ensured that $33 per capita was spent on reconciliation programmes there, as opposed to $3.75 in Israel-Palestine. ALLMEP’s calculations suggest a $200 million Israeli-Palestinian Fund for International Peace is required to properly finance the vital work of peace and reconciliation organisations.

ALLMEP’s work extends beyond the financial dimension. On the human capital front, our regional director Huda Abuarquob seeks to build a sense of community amongst these extremely diverse groups, covering everything from Kids4Peace to Center for Religious Tolerance, and to help them co-operate, learn from each other, and leverage each other’s successes. We seek attention not to simply generate positive news stories but to ensure such stories are both noticed and seen as important. This is vital as Jewish philanthropists are prepared to channel vast sums of money into efforts to combat the movement for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions (BDS), but are more reluctant to give to efforts to build peace between Israelis and Palestinians. The Joint Social Venture Fund, the collective giving fund of the Jewish Federations of North America with a combined income of $3 billion per annum, gives only $800,000 towards efforts to build bridges between Jews and Arabs. There are some federations that sponsor this work such as in San Francisco and New York, but this lack of collective giving is a serious problem. So a greater focus on this work, whilst not a panacea, will go a long way to correct this problem of under-resourcing.

There are some, especially within the BDS movement who say our work is pointless, that it will never lead anywhere, and that it has no endgame. All I ask is that they hold their own community to the same standard to which they hold ours. The concept that the arc of history will suddenly bend and all will be well when you apply enough pressure is an absurdity today, when you have an armed and secure Israel that will under no circumstances give up that status. The best the BDS movement can hope for is an impoverished pariah state with unconfirmed nuclear weapons. The BDS movement has won the spotlight, but it needs to mature and decide how it wants to use it. At the moment, it promises full equality to Palestinians who live in Israel, the end of occupation to those who live in Gaza and the West Bank, and the full right of return to refugees. Everyone wins. The reality is that not everyone will win because there is another population there. The challenge the BDS movement faces is how they come to terms with that fact and engage with it.

More worrying still is the anti-normalisation movement, which seeks to police interactions between Israelis and Palestinians, cutting off all links that the BDS activists deem not to contribute to the right of return, the end of occupation, or full equality. Ultimately, these attempts to enforce separation are futile. But they make life especially difficult for those in the ‘people-to-people’ community, whose work is premised on bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. The philosophy of the anti-normalisation movement, built as it is on a refusal to believe in the power of conflict resolution or in the value of anything that does not directly support Palestinian struggle or protest, is intellectually coherent, but ultimately self-defeating. The average Israeli is not going to join Anarchists Against The Wall, yet almost everyone in the anti-normalisation movement is from the constituency of people who would. This ideological dogmatism chokes these movements, as they will achieve none of their goals by refusing to engage with the very Israeli Jews who disagree with them and that they need to persuade.

The unhelpful attitude prevails on both sides of the conflict. Anti-normalisation should be set alongside the proposed Israeli NGO laws to tax donations from foreign governments, brand NGOs that receive such donations as ‘foreign agents’, and limit government co-operation with such potential. Government restriction of funding to control the debate is the parallel of the anti-normalisation community. Just as the anti-normalisation community seeks to shut down anything that does not directly advance their specific agenda, such legislation attempts to shut down anything that disrupt the image that Israel puts out to the world.

‘People-to-people’ work has brought thousands together and has the potential to do so much more. A sceptical parent’s outlook might be changed by sending their children to a Hand In Hand School, a farmer’s through cross-border agricultural work with Olive Oil Without Borders, and someone with limited access to water can be reached by a cross-border water programme with EcoPeace. The best people to convince Israelis that Palestinians are not monsters, and to show the Palestinians that Israelis are not monsters, are the respective populations. It is only through affecting this kind of change by building trust that Arab-Jewish relations will be normalised. Yes, Jewish-Arab alliances must be built on the political level: Israeli governments routinely exclude 20 per cent of the population and a fundamental shift in political culture is needed there. But they must also exist on the local level. Until trust is built through practical action on the ground, every solution will ultimately be swallowed up by its absence.