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.

 

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.

Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and Jewish supremacists

This article first appeared in Haaretz 5/16/14

Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, stated during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. David Ben Gurion, picking up on this theme, said while in office as the first Israeli prime minister, “We will know we have become a normal country when Jewish thieves and Jewish prostitutes conduct their business in Hebrew.” We can now add to this list of prostitutes and thieves, Jewish racial supremacists.

The concept of “price tag” is very simple. When the Israeli government pursues a policy that members of the far-right do not like, they create a “cost” for the government of Israel by attacking the Arab community. Settler violence against Palestinians saw a 57 percent uptick in the first seven months of 2011, according to UN data, and since then it has continued despite condemnations from every political sector in Israel.

Over the past year, price tagging has metastasized from a phenomenon restricted to the Palestinian territories to infecting Israel within the Green Line. Car tires have been slashed while mosques and churches have been vandalized – each with a distinct political message.

“Close mosques not yeshivas,” said the graffiti in the northern Israeli-Arab town Fureidis. “Mohammed is a pig,” “mutual responsibility,” “Terror stones,” and “regards from Boaz and David Chai” were the statements left on the wall of mosque of Baqa al-Gharbiyye. Boaz and David are the names of two individuals whose movements were restricted by the Israel Defense Forces.

The Jewish supremacists who commit these acts are doing so much like the aristocracy of a previous time who would employ a whipping boy. Unwilling to strike their own child, they would hire a child from a lower class to whip when their own offspring misbehaved. These thugs have made the calculation not to attack Jewish institutions, but those of the Arab other, causing them harm to make political statements against their own government’s policies of which they disapprove.

If a Jewish police force can deal with Jewish prostitution and Jewish thieves within the Jewish state, then why do they seem so incapable of dealing with Jewish racism? After a spate of “price tag” attacks, two ministers said they would urge the cabinet to allow the full array of security measures to deal with the perpetrators of “price tag” attacks, including administrative detention, by classifying offenders as terrorists.

Whether they are defined as terrorists, neo-Nazis (as author Amos Oz put it) or racist thugs, they need to be stopped. How does one do this?

With communal tensions simmering and Pope Francis on his way to the holy land, the Israeli security apparatus believes that the best way of dealing with hate crimes is to see them as a security problem. When it comes to security the Jewish state is an expert in all manners of tactics to secure the safety of its people.

Yet the tactics of security do nothing to deal with the strategic threat that these racist crimes pose to society at large. You cannot lock up everyone who makes a racist statement. The cancer at the heart of “price-tagging” has been growing for years.

There are no short-term fixes to this problem. If the Jewish state is to be a normal state, it needs to learn off other normal states how to deal with racism.

The key is through education. While “price tag” attacks certainly pose a security problem, the heart of the matter lies in education. Efforts need to be made through the education system to demonstrate the unacceptability of racism. Zero tolerance needs to be adopted. From sportsmen to public officials, all must be held accountable for racist statements and acts.

The Jewish state would do well to consult the Jewish Diaspora, a leader in the anti-racism and anti-fascism coalitions around the world, on strategies concerning how to defeat racism through education. They could speak to the Anti-Defamation League on the anti-bulling and cyber bulling campaigns they run across the United States. They could consult the Community Security Trust on how to create a police force that is sensitive to the needs of all racial groups within society.

There are constant debates about whether racism in Israel is the cause of the conflict with the Palestinians or a symptom of the conflict. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, we can all agree that we can not allow hatred to foster lest it consume us all.

It’s time to make being Jewish affordable

Haaretz 8/27/13

The Religious Services Ministry has decided to raise the cost of all of its services for the first time since 2003. As of September, marriage, burial, kashrut and ritual immersion will become a lot more expensive.

At a time of belt tightening, price hikes across the board mean that many Israelis who were already not keen on the dominance of religious practice on their rites of passage will be even less pleased.

Meanwhile, as Jews throughout Israel suffer from these price hikes, we Jews in the United States continue facing our own financial problem: education.

In footnote four of his book “Halakhic Man,” Rav Soloveitchik z’l presents a two-page mini-essay on why being religious is hard. Spiritual greatness requires complexity and risks, he writes, not just a desire for solace and happiness. To students, this footnote holds a special meaning, for while the challenges the Rav was referring to were moral and intellectual, for students, they can also be financial.

The prohibitive cost of being religious is not a new concept. Lulavs, tefillin and kosher food are anything but cheap, but yet they are somewhat manageable. The amount of money one needs to allow their child a formal or informal religious education, on the other hand, is unsustainable.

Depending on the city one lives in, Jewish day school can cost between $15,000-$40,000 a year per child. A month at Jewish summer camp can be between $4,000-$6,000 dollars all said and done.

I never knew how blessed I was in the United Kingdom with state-funded faith schools. It was only when I moved to the United States that I learned to appreciate it. The financial commitment of Jewish education here is a crippling cost to both American families and the communities that endow the schools themselves.

The U.S. Jewish community may be the richest Diaspora in the history of the Jewish people, but the high cost of education has created generations of Jews with only a cursory knowledge of their traditions. Jewish education here concentrates on the Orthodox, while the rest of the community does what it can without the state support that so many other Jewish Diasporas rely upon for their educational survival.

Peter Beinart, most famous for his views on Israeli policies in the West Bank, finished his book “The Crisis of Zionism” with a plea for the U.S. Jewish community to reverse its support of school vouchers in order to fix the educational crisis it currently faces. Yet, while the other arguments in Beinart’s book have spawned debates, roundtables and community soul searching, debate on school vouchers has yet to take place.

With the United States’ absolute commitment to a separation between church and state, there are no easy solutions to this problem. Yet, whether it is a reversal of the U.S. Jewish community’s long-held public policy position of embracing school vouchers (seen as mainly a standpoint of the Republican party) or perhaps taking advantage of the growth of online courses, the community needs to stop talking and start acting.

There is literally no greater Jewish value than providing one’s children with a Jewish education, and so our community must stop turning a blind eye to its failure to create an affordable system – be it formal or informal.

As we start to take account of our actions in the countdown to Rosh Hashanah, we also must take into account those whom we are pricing out of our tradition.

What do you do if your mum hates Mother’s Day?

Ha’aretz 5/9/13

I love my mum. She has always been a role model to me. Having retired from the National Health Service and made aliyah, she now spends her time volunteering as a doctor for the refugee clinics in Tel Aviv.

My mum, however, is an atypical Jewish mother. Despite the thousands of miles that separate my mother from her youngest (me), my mum gets freaked out if I call more than once a week. Mum has never been one for constant contact, nor involving herself in the everyday details of her children’s lives.

This background is important to understand as I recount my first experiences with Mother’s Day. Growing up in North West London, I did not pay very much attention to Mother’s Day. It felt like a weird fad. My family was never big on giving presents to one another; so having an extra day to do so never came naturally.

I first became really aware of Mother’s Day when I was attending university in Bristol. During my first year finals I wandered into the student union to find flowers on the desk of the receptionist with nondescript cards carefully placed across her desk. Seeing me looking at her flowers, the receptionist fixed me with a steely stare and demanded to know, “Have you sent your mother flowers for Mother’s Day or are you one of those children who could not care less?”

Being a little taken aback by this enquiry of my love for my mother, I mumbled something about being Jewish and that we don’t do Mother’s Day and quickly made an exit.

Having someone question my love for my mum was more than a little disconcerting so I picked up the phone and apologized to my mum for not sending her flowers. My mum’s response was classic: “What in G-ds name are you talking about?” I told her of my scolding and my sheepish defense and asked her if she felt that I appreciated her enough. After wondering if I was drunk, she told me to stop worrying, that I was a lovely son and to get back to work on my finals.

I did not really think about Mother’s Day again until I moved to the United States. Mother’s Day seemed to be a far bigger deal across the pond then it did back in the United Kingdom. The added benefit of Mother’s Day here, however, was brunch. I like brunch as much as the next guy, so, in my new found U.S. home, I became an avid fan of Mother’s Day.

Yet with my mother thousands of miles away, having brunch with my wife did not really feel like I was doing something nice for my mum. Knowing that sending her a card or flowers would make my mum believe that I had become a fully assimilated American (something that would upset her greatly), I struggled for inspiration to balance my love of Mother’s Day brunch and doing something nice for my mum.

After racking my brain for some inspiration, the idea of dedicating this blog to my mum felt like the perfect way to tell her how much I appreciate her. Mum, you’re a rock star – thanks for being you.

Why Purim is not Jewish Halloween

Ha’aretz 2/24/13

The commandment to get intoxicated on Purim and the tradition of fancy dress have led many Jews to treat the holiday as a “Jewish Halloween”, while glossing over its real message and relevance today. Purim, while it appears boorish from the outside, is actually a festival of great philosophical significance.

At its essence, Purim is about how Judaism views spirituality. Unlike many other religions, Judaism believes that true holiness is found by fusing normal earthly acts with holiness. It is not a religion that honors those who remove themselves from everyday life to concentrate on the holy: our rabbis are expected to be married, and we mark holy days with meat and wine rather then deny ourselves of such earthly pleasures.

Purim is the zenith of this concept. In the Book of Ester, G-d’s name is famously absent. Yet the entire story is seen as G-d acting through these mundane events and lays out how we should expect to experience G-d in the modern era.

Through festive meals, drinking, charity and telling the story of Purim, the Megillat Esther, we mark how Jewish holiness comes from the way we inject spirituality into our surroundings, rather than removing ourselves from that physical reality – via asceticism – in order to reach a high level of spirituality.

This of course is not an excuse for drunken brawls or tomfoolery, as one of my rabbis used to say. The message of Purim that he preached was that one should work on himself for the 364 days leading up to Purim so that the person he presents to the world on Purim is one who can celebrate excess as a mensch.

Today, Purim is often overused as a festival in political circles. With Megillat Esther’s Persian setting, it has been used as a frame of reference for those who wish to highlight the seriousness of Israel’s concerns about the intentions of the current Iranian regime. So many of us have been fixated on updating the story of Purim to today’s geopolitics that its spiritual message on our own understanding of religious practice has been neglected.

For far too many of us, Jewish practice is restricted to acts of worship that take place in the synagogue alone. We abscond from infusing our normal life with Jewish meaning, seeing that as the domain of the ultra-Orthodox alone.

Fundamentally, this is not the case. Judaism belongs to every aspect of our lives and by celebrating it we demonstrate our ownership of it. This was exemplified recently by MK Ruth Calderon (Yesh Atid), whose maiden speech to the Knesset went viral through its thoughtful Talmudic reasoning and message of unity.

For me, the most important part of Purim is its end. The majority of Jewish holy days – be it Shabbat or a festival – end with Havdalah, a religious service that marks the separation between the end of the holy day and the start of the week. For Purim, there is no Havdalah; Purim never ends. Its message is supposed to stick with us all year round.

The British Chief Rabbi – Right choice began at home

The Jewish Chronicle 3/1/13 

After months of leaks, rumours, deadlock and a search that spanned the globe, the committee to find the next chief rabbi picked Ephraim Mirvis of Kinloss. He is a wonderful rabbi with one of Britain’s most prominent pulpits and he is someone that most in the Orthodox community knew all along was the correct candidate for the job. With the support of the community, the right credentials and the relevant experience, why the song and dance before the decision was made?

The office of the chief rabbi has grown in stature over the years to the point that its incumbent serves as one of the leading representatives of the Jewish people globally. The longevity of the terms, accompanied by the official title of “Chief” give the holder the ability to impact the national debate in the UK and help shape long-term communal planning. And the strategic location of London as a global media hub means that the chief rabbi has the ability to cross borders in a way that few other rabbinical figures can.

Yet while Lord Sacks has global appeal, this is not his primary function, and it was misplaced of the committee to seek a Jewish ambassador to the world rather than a designated head of the UK’s Orthodox establishment. While the personalities of previous occupants have allowed it to go beyond our borders, the office is and must stay fundamentally a local one. Anglo-Jewry has its own problems, ones which can only be solved by someone who understands the community. Parachuting in an American or Israeli candidate, as was apparently mooted, would not merely have appeared odd – imagine the accent on Thought for the Day – but would have meant someone with no local credibility trying to solve local challenges.

The UK is suffering from a major Jewish brain drain. Our returning yeshiva students go to Yeshiva University or to Israel for training, while our greatest export, Limmud, continues to befuddle the United Synagogue. Someone with establishment credentials is needed to tune the rabbinical leadership to the future of mass Jewish popular education.

So why did the selection committee spend so much time looking abroad? As a Brit based in the US, I am often struck by the rock star status that Lord Sacks enjoys on this side of the pond. In communities far more traditional and strict than the ones he is directly responsible for, there is no talk of the controversies of The Dignity of Difference, only effusive praise for how his weekly sermons mix secular learning with rabbinical tradition.

The selection committee sought like for like. They attempted to pull in a leader from American modern Orthodoxy, giving the international Jewish press a titillating rumour to play with and leaving most British Jews bemused. The community, by and large, knew who it wanted and needed to answer the challenges. Republican American rabbis with royal rabbinical names carry less weight with a community that does not like its pulpits used for political purposes.

In the end common sense triumphed and the right man won. The proof of this can be seen in the muted global response to Rabbi Mirvis’s selection. It was a British appointment for a British position.

Rabbi Mirvis may well build himself into a global figure in the same manner as his predecessor. Meanwhile, he inherits a community he knows intimately, one facing major questions he is more than familiar with. His shul has been a leader in Jewish learning, and recently hired the US’s first female halachic advisor. Innovative on the local level, his task will be to nurture the same ideas nationally.