Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Building Democracy through Citizen Service

When Thomas Jefferson read the first draft of the United States constitution, he became alarmed. He wrote to the other Founding Fathers, “This constitution of yours worries me because it asks so little of its citizens. A democracy takes civic virtue and service above else to survive.” I think Jefferson had a point. He truly believed that without service, and without its goal of instilling civic virtue, social justice, and equity, we are at risk of losing everything that our founding fathers created and intended for generations to come.__Why is service the answer? Because service is the great equalizer--in the words of Dr. King, “anyone can be great because anyone can serve.” Service builds community among people, regardless of their race, gender, religion, or socio economic status. It allows us to participate in something bigger than ourselves and demonstrates that our commonalities as a people are greater than our individual differences. And those of us who have served know that in the act of transforming our communities for the better, we ended up transforming ourselves.__And now, more than ever, we need to expand opportunities for people to serve. Because we have serious issues to address: our education system is failing a significant percentage of our kids, hunger and homelessness run rampant in our communities, our parks, rivers, and open spaces need protection, and college has ceased to become affordable to most of us. Service can be a vehicle, to simultaneously address our most pressing unmet societal needs while providing money and access in a real way, to provide college education to the next generation.__National service, according to sociologist Charles Moskos is, “not a magic talisman, or a mystical means for transforming socially indifferent Americans into paragons of civic virtue.” No one would argue that it is the "magic bullet" that will solve all of our country's problems. But what service does do and can do when brought to scale, is set up long term and permanent structures in our society, which bring people together and instills the values of civics and service, while simultaneously addressing our unmet societal needs--and as an end result, truly rebuilding the democracy that our Founding Fathers envisioned.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Madness of Israelcentricity

“Jewcentricity: the idea, or the intimation, or the subconscious presumption—as the case may be—that Jews are somehow necessarily to be found at the very center of global-historical events… is not a fully universal phenomenon, at least not yet,” wrote Adam Garfinkle, editor of The American Interest, in his magazine a few years ago.

Garfinkle’s conspiratorial ambitions surfaced in the back of my mind as I leafed through the stack of periodicals that grew on my kitchen counter over the last month. Recently, the New York Times, Atlantic Monthly, and Economist all ran articles, some lengthier than others, about the preparations underway in Israel for the country’s upcoming sixtieth anniversary. And each, to some extent, suggested that the public in Israel today is somewhat unsure of whether to even celebrate.
This might be very true. After all, the political leadership is still railing from the devastating blows incurred from the fallout after the Second Lebanon war and its inability to stop the Qassam rockets. Hamas on Israel’s southern lip and Hizbullah on Israel’s northern border seem stronger and more determined than ever. Despite daily talks with the Palestinians in Ramallah, attacks from the Gaza Strip and even the West Bank continue with unwavering determination. Tensions are rising between Arab and Jew, and Jew and Jew, of course, as the social inequalities and sectarian ideologies threaten to embarrass the patience of Israeli democracy. Three months ago, the National Insurance Institute reported that one in every three Israeli children lives in poverty. Oh, and did I forget to mention the looming threat posed by Iran, as the international community has yet to find a solution to the regime’s nuclear ambitions or salient promises to wipe Israel off the map.
I am certainly not the first to point out the not-so-sunny position of Israel on the eve of its sixtieth birthday. Nor would I be the first to make all sorts of arguments as to why Israel is still in good shape and why we, even in the Diaspora, have plenty of reasons to celebrate. For both reasons, I won't try.
But what lingered in my mind was how so many prominent American publications – and surely others will follow suit – thought to make a big deal of Israel’s sixtieth. When India celebrated its sixtieth anniversary last year, where were all the existentially charged articles? To be fair, the challenges facing Israel and the challenges facing India are not the same. At the same time, India is a nation of 1.12 billion people; Israel, just over 7 million. Something inside me suspects that there is more to the story.
I am not a conspiracy theorist, so I won't go that way. Thankfully, Garfinkle had his own answer: “As Jews were for centuries at the epicenter of Christian theology in Europe, so today, in a largely post-Christian Europe, Israel is at the epicenter of the European political worldview. It is a secularized view, to be sure, but it is at the same time a vestige of a religious obsession so deeply rooted in the European psyche that it cannot be readily named.”
Substitute “European” for “global” or “Western” and you basically have an answer. This is not an argument about anti-Semitism; it is an argument at Jewcentricity. True it might not suffice everyone. In fact, most modern Jews I know are uncomfortable with the notion that there is something "special" or "different" about the Jewish people, let alone a sacred status of choseness. But, then again, you have to wonder how much of a "blessing" it really is to be a people forever at the center of history.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Some considerations about how to (re)think our relationship with the State of Israel

If Steve M. Cohen and Ari Y. Kelman´s study took place in Argentina, I am sure the result would not have been very different. The new generations do not feel the same attachment that the last generations felt for Israel. But perhaps the central point at the time of evaluating this change lays not in assesing the intensity of this feeling, but understanding what this generation thinks, what´s their precise feeling towards Israel. Or perhaps, more importantly, to ask how they define their place within Judaism and Jewish peoplehood, and then yes, the place Israel holds.
To focus on the degree of affective proximity or distance towards Israel, is to lose the idea that Israel has sense in relational terms. Jewish identity, Jewish peopledhood, diaspora, Zionism and Israel, are terms which are structurally related one to another. The change in one of them pushes a reconsideration of the rest. And each one of these notions is deeply rooted in the experience of each Jew.
If we accept this, we must face questions such as: whether or not the situation of Jews in the western countries today is equal to that which they experienced at the end of the XIX century, or during the 1930's and 1940's?, in what terms are the ways the new generations live and feel the experience of the Shoah similar to the previous one, when the contact with survivors is more and more difficult?, is it possible to think, perhaps, that the social and economic situation of Israel today is the same today as it was in the 1960´s, or 1970´s?, that its internal political problems and external challenges are the same? All the references of the Jewish world have changed, and a lot, even for those who cling to a past they pretend has not moved since ancient times. If the diaspora has seized to be the place of pure negativity in the terms zionism used to indicate; if the contact with some Jewish languages, the Shoah and the migratory experience, now must be transmitted through education and no longer by a direct enconunter with the carriers of those worlds; if the borders of the State of Israel, in spite of the multiple challenges, are safer than in 1948 or 1973; if the civilized world has accepted to recognize and to defend its existence; then, we must ask ourselves whether the feeling of a young person –third generation of Jews born in Argentina-, towards the State of Israel ,can, or, better still, must, be the same as that of his or her parents or grandparents?
To expect the same linkage, just because the young person is Jewish, is to ignore the dynamics of history and politics. But to recognize this means to give up to the logic of change and to wait for a new transformation that may take place in one or more of the terms than conform the Jewish universe so that our relationship with Israel gains sense once again? No way, to aknoweldge these historical transformations is no more than the basis for taking an active role in Jewish life, for recreating it, and, within this frame, for reinterpreting our relationship with Israel. The Jewish past is filled with chapters of men and women who, understanding the pulse of their time, decided to act in a deliberate form to alter in a radical way the course of history: how not to see, for example, in the renaissance of the Hebrew as daily language, national language, political language, one of the most fantastic conscious actions of the modern Jewish world.
Claiming the knowledge of the answer to such a challenge would not only be pretentious, but, basically, erroneous. I am convinced, on the contrary, that we must return to a state of constant debate, of discussion in the best Talmudic style, that we have lost. There are Jewish thinkers that wait to be reappropriated. The world in which Pinsker, Ajad Haam, Moses Hess or Martin Buber wrote has disappeared, but not thus their ideas. We must go for them, interrogate them, review them, discuss them. And behind these thinkers, are many others that still have fundamental things to say to us about what it is to be a modern, or, why not, a posmodern Jew, about how the existence of a Jewish State can be thought.__Although the political defense of Israel must be made heard in each local or international forum that demands it, the political action cannot and must not become pure praxis. In an action that doesn´t interrogate itself, that doesn´t reflect about the values and the spirit that guide it. The always urgent circumstances that force us to be alert and to act with pressure and celerity, can, at the same time, make us lose our north and even weaken the convictions of many. This is what must not happen. Politics cannot give off nor deny the vitality of the ideas. Let us recover the sources, let us recover the debate.

Alejandro Dujovne, Buenos Aires

Thursday, April 24, 2008


An op-ed I wrote in the JPost last week describes a scary incident that occurred recently which raises the question of Israel’s place in the world in a more negative light. I would love to open the forum and discuss the world of digital media and how it can help Israel’s place in the world… __THE PERILS OF INTERNET APATHY_Jerusalem Post, April 15, 2008_There has much discussion lately about anti-Israel expression in digital space. Yet, even after I read articles about anti-Semitism on the web and heard lectures on the topic, I was not moved to action. I am not a member of Facebook and I am not a particularly avid user of YouTube. So, though the proliferation of anti-Israel sentiments on Google, YouTube, facebook etc. is troubling, I took it less seriously than I would a debate in “grown up” media. An incident last week shattered this complacency.__In the last few months, in a project catering to its younger constituency, the American Jewish Committee created a YouTube style video contest under the title “MyIsrael” for Israel’s 60th Birthday. Several organizations partnered with AJC for this initiative, including the Inter Disciplinary Center in Herzliya; the IDC then created a short video to promote the site.__The video received great attention; in 24 hours, the video got almost 800,000 hits – in the last hours it tipped 1 million and garnered over 1,500 comments. These comments were mostly spiteful and venomous anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slurs. Additionally, videos with pornographic or anti-Semitic titles were created and then posted on YouTube, including, for example, a video showing a pile of excretion with a Jewish star on it.__The hate was not limited to the YouTube site; shortly after the YouTube postings began, someone broke into the site itself and changed the names of some of the clips so that its original videos, videos of children and teens expressing love for Israel, were now labeled with new and distasteful titles.__Though I scoffed at the notion that serious political debate was now taking place in teenage internet forums, I was wrong. YouTube has become a primary vehicle for the exchange of ideas and the formation of public opinion. In this instance, however, its power – with a tentacle-like reach and an astounding speed of dissemination – was wielded to spread hateful anti-Israel messages.__Forums like YouTube are a fantastic opportunity for lay people to independently define public opinion; we in the pro-Israel community must begin viewing these forums as opportunities. We can either use these media outlets to combat misinformation about Israel and halt the spread of hateful messages, or we can sit on the sidelines.__Before this incident, I believed that the debate on YouTube was secondary; we could turn a blind eye to anti-Israel expressions on the internet, but make sure to step in when it came to the Academy or the New York Times. What I learned last week was that sitting out the debate in this case will mean that those who hate Israel will define the debate for anyone who types “Israel” into a search. If we are too slow in recognizing this new front, we will lose the chance to impact these discussions and ultimately turn the tide.__Avigail Sugarman is a Legacy Heritage Fellow working at the American Jewish Committee.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Two Jews ... One Opinion

As a community, Jews are not known to agree. Indeed, we're all familiar with the general rule: "Two Jews, Three opinions." Yet, when it comes to the Jewish community position on climate change we speak with one voice. Indeed, the organized Jewish community almost universally supports policies that would reduce US carbon emissions – and therefore reduce the incidence of climate change. Each of the four denominations of Judaism and many of our national organizations – including the American Jewish Committee – have bold policy statements supporting strong US action.
Of course, there are different things that bring members of our community to the table. Some focus on US energy security. Others are motivated by more traditional environmental concerns. Yet, regardless of what brings us to the table, we all essentially come to the same place: reducing our dependence on foreign oil will simultaneously enhance US energy security and lower harmful greenhouse gas emissions.
Access 20-20 challenges each of us to think about the future of Jewish activism. It challenges us to think about the fate of US energy policy in twenty years. Last week, President Bush announced his "global warming initiative" and attempted to answer that question. I commend the President for recognizing the importance of responding to global climate change. However, his proposal fell far short of the mark. The President proposed to stabilize US carbon emissions in roughly twenty years (by 2025). This proposal is contrary to the goals of the Jewish community and flies in the face of scientific reality. Indeed, last year, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change declared that emissions from industrialized nations must peak by 2015 – and decline by 20% by 2025. They won a Nobel Prize for this pronouncement.
As I wrote on the COEJL blog and in the Jewish Week, the Jewish community's commitment to Tikkun Olam, literally repairing the world, demands stronger action. More than two thousand years ago, Rabbi Hillel challenged, "If not now, when?" Last week, the President declared that we would begin to answer that question in 2025. But that answer is inadequate. Climate change is real. And the time for action is now.

[Click here and here to read more about climate change legislation being considered by the US Senate.]

[Click here to read more about the need for the Jewish community to advocate on climate and energy legislation.]


Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain

The issuing of the Balfour Declaration, on November 2, 1917, was a pivotal moment in the story of the Jewish people’s return to the Land of Israel. The British government set out a model for a Jewish state living in peace alongside its neighbours. For me, it encapsulates how we in Britain look at Zionism today. It points the way to how people in Europe feel about Israel and understanding that helps us promote Israel's cause better in Britain.__But the decision "to view with favour the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people" had two important components that are sometimes overlooked. Alongside a promise that those Jews who chose to remain outside of the national home were not to suffer discrimination, was a pledge that the rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine were to be protected. For the British, this was an indivisible part of their commitment to a Jewish state. Yes, the Jews must have their home, but not at the expense of anyone else._And so it remains in Britain today. Our polling tells a disturbing story for Israel and her supporters. Non-Jewish Brits still support the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland. But this sympathy for Jewish national self-determination has become conditional on how Israel deals with the Palestinians. How can we confidently support a Jewish homeland, many Brits now ask themselves, given the tragedy of daily life for Palestinians? From the garbage-collector to the prime minister, people judge Israel according to their perception of what it does, not what it says.__It's the consequence of a process that has taken place over many years, starting in the wake of the Six-Day War, and picking up pace after Lebanon in 1982. Now, when Britons look at Israel on their TV screens and in their newspapers, all they see is the Palestinian story. Checkpoints, the security barrier and civilian deaths dominate. News reporters cast the Palestinians as victims and Israelis as aggressors. Our story - the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland - is lost. It's uncomfortably easy to blame Israel.__In October 2006 some said I should have my head examined after I agreed to become the chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre. But people said the same when I joined the Labour Party in the mid-80s. I have always been a practical idealist, a non-Jew who has always believed in a two-state solution. But I have never been more concerned about the false reality many people are constructing around Israel and the Middle East, here in Britain and abroad.__We live in dangerous times when, in parts of the left especially, you can't be a friend to Islam or to Muslims unless you are anti-Israel. Events in my local constituency, Rochdale, during the 2005 parliamentary elections represented a microcosm of what we are sleepwalking into globally. The Islamists and the left argued that, because I supported Israel and its right to exist, all my work for my Muslim constituents was a lie. They suggested that I was an opportunistic, neo-con, aiming to dupe them.__These kinds of smear campaigns need to be countered right now. The best way of doing so is to point out that the current situation - wherein the Jews have a state and the Palestinians don't - is not one those of us who care about Israel are happy with. We need to re-embrace the spirit of Balfour and United Nations Resolution 242 and tell people that Israel wants peace more than it does land, and that we believe Palestinians should have their state, too. Israel has a responsibility to deliver its side of the bargain. However, Israel it cannot do it alone. If the Palestinians fall short of meeting their responsibilities, we are weakened. And none of this lessens the right of the Jewish people to their own homeland.__Israel's willingness to compromise for peace has never been enough, because Israel cannot achieve it alone. The Palestinians and others in the region also have to want peace. Israel needs a serious interlocutor so that peace can stand a chance. So my question to the left is this: why not concentrate your attention there, rather than on the one player in the region who has always been serious about peace?___Lorna Fitzsimons is chief executive of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the former Labour MP for Rochdale.

Monday, April 7, 2008

hateful, scary things

The fear of self-deception is part of the human condition, or at least the modern one. Maybe everything is not as it seems. Maybe it is much darker, more threatening.
This went through my mind when I tried to figure out why a run-in this week with some comments on the website “YouTube” has made me feel markedly less secure.
The story starts with a video competition that the American Jewish Committee spearheaded in order to get young people, 18-26, to submit their creative depiction of “My Israel,” leading up to the state’s 60th anniversary.
In spite of partnerships with some of the leading organizations that work with Jewish students, attractive marketing, and some fun prototypes on the site, the submissions were coming in slow.
This was revealing in and of itself, suggesting either 1) that young Jews are not part of the YouTube, digital video-making trend, 2) that open questions spark less creativity than more narrow frameworks, or 3) that the relationship between most young Jews and Israel remains very tentative and that few people have found “their authentic” connection.
We decided to move in a fourth, easier area: doing better at getting the word out.
Interested in replicating the competition, the Asper Institute at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya had made a short video promoting “the many stories of Israel,” intended to drive interest in the competition.
And the final ingredient: a colleague of mine had read about a group that helped videos “go viral” (i.e. get tremendously popular) and we were interested in testing it out.
So the short spot was sent out to see if it could attract some notice.
Less than 24 hours later, “Inspired by Israel” had some 700,000 hits on YouTube ( and 1,500 comments, making it a “favorite” according to the site’s lingo. That was what we had hoped for.
What we hadn’t anticipated was the hate. The vast majority of the comments, well over 1,000, were as anti-Israel as they come, and more filthy and anti-Semitic than anything I had seen before. This was not political polemic or passion, it was pure, unadulterated hate – and its purveyors were proud of the display.
“Kill all the Jews,” “Israel is a cancer” – those were the “nice” entries that can be repeated.
To increase the sense of having been invaded, our video competition website was hacked. Suddenly the titles were switched – from “My Israel Journey” to obscene hate-filled language about Israel and Jews. The first entry, my first shock when looking at the site, read “your security sucks and so does Israel.”
And finally, back on YouTube, videos with similar titles started popping up next to the original Asper Institute one. “Re: How Does Israel Inspire You?” had a masked man asking in a low, slow, threatening voice whether you have ever had – as he presumably has – your mouth filled with blood. Another, which I didn’t watch, showed a pile of excrement with a blue Jewish star superimposed.
Various actors brought each situation under control. The comments about the video were edited and new ones are now being moderated. Our site was restored. And the most anti-Semitic of the similarly titled YouTube videos disappeared, presumably censored by YouTube itself.
A believer in fighting bad speech with better speech, I was nevertheless relieved when all the hatefulness was out of sight.
With them out of the way, there is also a tendency to rationalize: who writes comments on YouTube anyway? Isn’t it the perfect, depersonalized outlet for people who cannot share their frustrations in any other way? And perhaps the video, which is a little sexy, a little sure of itself, could possibly be perceived as callous to the difficult and painful daily situation in Israel and the territories. And certainly, hopefully, most of the respondents were from places where we know already that they are besieged by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic propaganda.
But the experience is immediate enough that there is still something breath-taking about it. Something that has made me hug my family tighter in recent days and keep them closer in sight.
And I go back to those thoughts about the human condition, about the ultimate of those fears – a fear that is political because it has to do with groups and not individuals, and a fear that is too at home in the Jewish psyche, still wounded by the experience of centuries of hate: that our neighbors actually hate us, that our comfort is actually an illusion.
As the head of AJC’s young leadership division, I’ve spent the last years preaching about the importance of taking proactive action, whether it be in promoting energy conservation or in pressing for peace in Israel, and moving away from the defensive. I believe strongly that we need to take risks because not taking them is the biggest risk of all.
I stand by all of that. But this week has opened my eyes, and in a very personal way, to the backdrop of this work. And it has added to its urgency.