Israel, Life, Peace, Politics

We both have truths, are yours the same as mine?

Yesterday, I responded to B’nai Brith Canada’s claim that they were in possession of “The truth” vis a vis the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East peace process, and that an anonymous “They” was trying to subvert access to this “truth.”

So let’s talk about “The Truth.”

In 2005, I was invited to speak at the URJ Biennial in Houston as a member of a panel on Israel Engagement. I was representing the university age group, and I was supposed to talk about Israel advocacy, Reform Zionism, and combating anti-Israel sentiments on campus.

Coming out of the Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East climate at York University heavily affected my perspective. The topic was a particularly divisive one at York, and I had grown tired of the vitriol from both “sides” of the debate.

So the thesis of my panel presentation went something like this:

“If you’re going to talk about Israel on campus, you need to root yourself solidly and almost exclusively in factual truths. You need to avoid the emotionalization of the debate, and stay away from the impassioned yelling fits.”

Because that’s what the debate had become – a perpetual round of who-can-scream-louder-than-the-other-“side”.

Having just returned from Israel where I had some unique opportunities to engage with the Israeli Arab community, I find more than ever that the truth might actually be at the root of the problem – both in the Middle East and abroad.

Keeping your debate to truths is all fine and good, and may indeed circumvent some of the yelling and screaming and red faces and holier-than-thou shouting, but there’s just one problem…

Both “sides” have equally valid truths.

I’ll pause for a moment and explain the copious use of quotation marks around “sides”.

There really aren’t two sides to this issue, each with their own opposing history… it’s one large story, with intertwined narratives, facts, and truths. This is not Jew vs. Muslim, Arab vs. Non-Arab, Israeli vs. Palestinian, or any other false dichotomy. The longer we continue to view this as a polarized issue, the longer it will remain that way – polarized and unsolved. Certainly, at this point in world history, it’s clear that if you want to talk about Israel/Palestine/Jewish/Muslim/Arab/Middle-East, you should understand that it’s one vastly complex narrative, not two separate storybooks.

Back to the Truth… in this one, complex story, there are a number of equally valid truths. For example:

– It’s true that years of terrorism have led to Israel needing to take strong security measures.
– It’s true that the State of Israel has a long and valid connection to the Land of Israel.
– It’s true that many Palestinians were displaced because of the forming of the State of Israel.
– It’s true that life for non-Jewish Israelis is often much harder than life for Jewish Israelis.
– It’s true that Israel needs to defend itself against internal and external threats.
– It’s true that Israel bears responsibility for the actions it takes in the West Bank.
And so on…

It’s very convenient and easy for much of the pro-Israel community to just focus on the truths from the Israeli “side” of the narrative, because it makes it look like Israel is justified in all of its actions. Unfortunately, that leaves out half of the story.

The pro-Israel community as a whole needs to work on being less myopic, and start looking at the bigger picture, not just Israel’s “side” of it. This is why I’m so fond of J Street. Not because they’re “liberal,” “progressive,” or “pro-peace,” but because they engage in a holistic viewing of the situation Israel faces.

Compare their perspective with B’nai Brith Canada’s. When B’nai Brith claims to be in possession of the “Truth,” what they’re essentially doing is delegitimizing anyone whom they deem as being opposed to their view of the “Truth.” So the reality of daily life for non-Jewish Israelis is irrelevant, the reality of daily life for Palestinians is irrelevant, the future demographic realities Israel will face are irrelevant, and the realities that President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu are willing to confront are irrelevant because they are not “the Truth.”

The “truth” is all fine and good, but only if you’re open to other people’s truths as well.

Israel, Politics

President Obama wants to…

a) Do his job
b) Eat a cookie
c) Give you a hug
d) Ignore the truth, forget history, and destroy Jerusalem

(the answer is D…)

At least it is, according to B’nai Brith Canada (yes… Canada), who has taken the time to inform us that President Obama (whose President? Oh right… a different country’s) has “plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel.”

Here we go again with B’nai Brith. They always seem to pop up at the most interesting times to add an element of confusion to whatever is going on.

Just in time for Tisha b’Av, this ominous email, titled “President Obama wants to…” arrived in my inbox yesterday morning:

In response to U.S. President Obama’s plans to divide the Jewish capital of Israel, B’nai Brith Canada launched a national ad campaign that reveals the truth about Jerusalem.

B’nai Brith Canada, a self-funded advocacy organization, requires your help in the fight for truth.

Written in the tone of a conspiracy theorist, the email suggests that there are secret machinations afoot to subvert the so-called “truths about Jerusalem,” in an attempt to cut off Jews from the city. You can see the full advertisement here. I’m not even sure where to start on this one, so how about the following simple points:

1. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has proposed the notion that there are neighbourhoods in Jerusalem that will not be part of Israel as part of a final border agreement. Most Israelis accept this, and talk about it openly as if it is just a matter of time until the details are ironed out. So why is B’nai Brith making it look like this is an evil, liberal American agenda? The conservative government of Israel is on the same page…

2. Why is a self-proclaimed Canadian “Jewish human rights organization” running a national campaign in Canada to oppose the American president’s viewpoint which happens to be relatively in line with the Israeli government’s viewpoint? I’m having trouble connecting the dots here…

3. Take a look at the full ad. B’nai Brith has framed this all within the context of Tisha b’Av, as if to suggest that President Obama is bringing calamity upon the Jewish people on par with the destruction of the Temples. This is a misappropriation of our religious tradition to further one organization’s own political agenda, and is wholly inappropriate.

4. The ad argues that “only under Israel’s jurisdiction, did all faiths regain the right to worship” in Jerusalem. B’nai Brith seems to forget that even under Israeli jurisdiction, not everyone has the right to worship in Jerusalem. Perhaps as a Jewish human rights organization, they should spend some time focusing on the rights of Jews to pray in Jerusalem…

While the historical facts B’nai Brith uses in their ad are indeed true, there’s just one problem: they’re just that… historical. B’nai Brith conveniently ignores present facts and present truths. This ad is divorced from current realities. It doesn’t recognize the widely accepted reality that any viable two-state solution will include negotiations regarding Jerusalem (again – something that Netanyahu himself speaks of).

As a human rights organization that is supposedly concerned with Jerusalem, perhaps B’nai Brith should focus on some real human rights issues, and confront some of the current truths and realities about Jerusalem instead of trying to advance a weak political agenda. Here are two simple suggestions:

1. Poverty in Jerusalem. Most of Jerusalem’s non-Jewish children live below the poverty line, and the city’s poverty rate is twice the national average.

2. Religious Pluralism. As the New Israel Fund eloquently notes, “one would think that, having finally achieved a Jewish homeland in Israel, Jews could practice their religion – or not – untroubled by government interference.” Of course, anyone with their eye on Israeli news knows this isn’t the case.

So what’s up, B’nai Brith? Will you continue to languish in the ashes of the destroyed Temples, or will you rise up and acknowledge the realities of 21st century Israel?

Israel, Journalism

Is this really necessary?

MYTH: ‘The Palestinians are descendants of the Canaanites and were in Palestine long before the Jews

That’s the headline on a recent Jewish Tribune feature, which goes on to “prove” that the Palestinians have no ancestral heritage via the Canaanites. Whew! Glad we were finally able to get this myth out of the way. I’ve been worrying about it for so long, I’ve been thinking of sending it to the Mythbusters.

With slightly less sarcasm and incredulity… what can including this feature in a “news”paper possibly accomplish? There’s no academic legitimacy here, and whether it’s true or false is ultimately irrelevant at this point in history. All it does is serve to “other” the Palestinians and paint them en masse as an opposing group. It’s part of the “me first, ME first, ME FIRST!” line of arguing.

It’s simplistic, reductionist, xenophobic, and dumb.

Moreover, it appears that a regular “Myth” feature isn’t even a part of the Tribune. What on earth is this doing here?

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General

Canadian Judaism on Page One: Antisemitism, blood libels, fear & hatred

If you wanted to take the pulse of the Canadian Jewish community and all you had to rely on was the Jewish Tribune, the “largest Jewish weekly in Canada,” you might assume that Canadian Jewry was in a constant state of existential panic and anxiety.

A quick glance at the cover stories from the Tribune over the past few months reveals the following headlines:

“Antisemitism is no longer in the closet and Jewish students…don’t know how to deal with it”
“Growing anti-semitism has Jews fleeing Sweden”
“Jews flee Malmö as antisemitism grows”
“Antisemitic blood libel aimed at IDF in Haiti”
“Israel Olympic flag stickers vandalized”
“B’nai Brith audit to include national poll on antisemitism”
“Obama Antisemitism ‘czar’ slammed for criticizing Israel’s Oren”
BLOOD LIBEL CIRCULATING IN CANADA(All caps, bold, and unusually large font courtesy of original publication)
“Passenger shouts ‘Kill Jews’ on Miami plane”
“Leaders discuss ways to combat antisemitism”
“BLEAK FUTURE FOR DANISH JEWS?”
“Third Global Forum on Antisemitism set for next week”
“Antisemitic incidents in Australia hit record high”
“Digital hate: ‘No guarantees good guys are going to win’”
“Canada, UK ‘pioneers’ of campus antisemitism, expert says”

I’m sensing a trend here. To be sure, nearly every edition of the paper from the past three months leads with front page stories on Canadian or worldwide antisemitism. Blood libels. Czars. Death. Hate. Fleeing Jews. Vandalized stickers. How depressing. These headlines smack of Yellow Journalism, and are more fitting of rag tabloids than a supposedly substantial Jewish paper.

Out of 33 front-page stories from the past three months, 16 are related to antisemitism. That’s nearly 50%. And that doesn’t include the weekly “If you are the victim of antisemitism, call the anti-hate hotline…” banner appearing at the top of every edition. One also notices that most of these are stories taking place outside of Canada. Interesting.

Is this truly the story of Canadian Judaism week-to-week? When telling the story of what it means to be Jewish in Canada, is half of it about hatred and antisemitism? I don’t believe so.

Now obviously the newspaper includes more than just the headlines on page one. And obviously the story of Canadian Judaism reaches deep beyond what’s printed on the first page of one newspaper. But I’m judging the Jewish Tribune on the grounds that the most crucial, newsworthy, ground-breaking, pulse-feeling stories are those printed on the first page. Ask any journalist and they’ll tell you the same thing. Perhaps someone from the Tribune should google “How do newspapers decide which stories to put on the first page” and see what turns up.

Page one is what people see when they pass newspaper boxes on the street and it’s the first thing they see when they open the paper at breakfast. Page one sets the tone for the entire paper. Truly, it is where the pulse is taken. It seems to me that the writers and editors at the Tribune might be taking Canadian Jewry’s pulse on the wrong part of the body.

At best, this trend amounts to poor journalistic standards. Surely there are stories taking place around Canada that are more deserving of front page status. Surely there are innovative, exciting, and newsworthy events worthy of highlighting on the front page of the largest weekly Canadian Jewish newspaper. Surely a story about a single deranged American passenger on an American flight to Miami does not qualify for front-page status. According to the Tribune, it does.

At its worst, this trend amounts to dangerous fear-mongering. Focusing on antisemitism to this extent creates an atmosphere of fear and hatred. It grossly misrepresents what it means to be Jewish in Canada. As Canadian journalist and political analyst Gerald Caplan recently noted in a Globe and Mail article:

“By any conceivable standard, we Canadian Jews are surely among the most privileged, most secure, most successful, most influential minorities in Canada and indeed in the entire world. We don’t have a powerful Christian right-wing that is openly prejudiced, as in the United States, and the anti-Semitic incidents that do occasionally happen, while deplorable, are almost invariably caused by kids, crackpot white supremacists or marginalized thugs.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned with growing antisemitism. Of course we should. And should we not be concerned with events beyond our own borders? Most certainly we should. But how about a diversified portfolio? How about journalistic integrity? How about an expanded viewpoint? How about a balanced mix of interesting, local, Canadian Jewish news stories? Lately, that’s not what you’ll find in the Jewish Tribune.

One final, important point regarding the Tribune’s and B’nai Brith’s (the Tribune is a subsidiary of B’nai Brith) perception of antisemitism and its relationship to the actual state of Canadian Jewry. While cases of antisemitism are likely of concern to Canadian Jews, they are not indicative of and should not be conflated with an existential danger to Canadian Jews. As Caplan notes in his article:

The B’nai Brith annually publishes the number of anti-Semitic incidents that are reported to it, but these reports are never checked out or confirmed. And whatever those numbers, the vast majority of Canadians Jews know perfectly well that they now live their entire lives completely untouched by anti-Semitism.

In its journalistic choices, the Tribune is failing to accurately portray the state of Canadian Jewry today. As the self-proclaimed “largest Jewish weekly,” they should rise to the challenge of delving deep into stories that highlight the unique flavour of Canadian Judaism, and in doing so ask themselves what kind of newspaper they want to be. They should strive to place stories on the cover of their newspaper that are truly newsworthy, not only stories that are eye-catching in their alarmism. And when stories of antisemitism merit deep attention, they should report on them from the context of Canadian Jewry in 2010, not from the paradigm of 1930s Germany.

Perhaps the ultimate question to pose to the Tribune isn’t ‘who do you want to be?’ rather, ‘who do you think we Canadian Jews really are?’ Are we a vibrant and safe people, or are we cowering in the corner in fear of persecution at the hands of people waving “Der Sturmer-type propaganda”?

Canada, Judaism - General, Politics

Altruism or Astroturfing?

I’m always amazed and humbled by how quickly the international Jewish community responds to crises around the world. In the past few hours, I’ve been flooded with information on relief funds setup by various Jewish organizations, including my own, to respond to the disastrous earthquake in Haiti – a place with the tiniest of Jewish communities. This is a true demonstration of altruism.

And isn’t email is great? What we take for granted each day really is a technological marvel that allows unprecedented amounts of aid dollars flow to areas of need in a matter of minutes, courtesy of the organizations that are empowered to do so.

To ensure that these organizations’ aid initiatives are seen as being truly altruistic, and not just a way to keep up with the pack, careful attention needs to be paid to the press releases announcing them. Graphics can’t be too graphic, text can’t be over the top, and the message needs to be carefully crafted to encourage people to donate. There’s a fine line between creating a powerful message and sensationalism. Any good marketing professional knows this.

It appears, though, that B’nai Brith Canada still doesn’t quite understand the basic elements of word choice. Joe Bogoroch, President of B’nai Brith Canada, should have opened up a dictionary (or how about wikipedia?) before sending out their press release email today. In their call for people to send in funds, he used the following text:

“We call on members of the community to once again show their generosity and donate as much as they can afford to the victims of the quake. We hope that our grassroots (my emphasis added) effort will provide some measure of comfort, dignity and normalcy to the victims whose lives have been torn apart.”

This is not the first time B’nai Brith has abused the concept of grassroots efforts. See here for more on that. Yup, that was astroturfing again!

To be sure, their effort in getting out a message for people to donate is supremely important and commendable. But make no mistake, this is not a grassroots effort. This is a top-down organized initiative from a well entrenched member of the Jewish establishment in Canada. Why add a highly political element to an initiative that should be apolitical? Why call it grassroots at all?

My guess is that Bogoroch and B’nai Brith hope that this singular word will make their organization appear more attractive, more attuned to the lives of younger Jews, and more folksy. Perhaps for those that don’t understand the concept, it does. But for most, it’s clear that this a fallacy. In essence, by using this word, B’nai Brith subtly puts their organization’s image ahead of the aid efforts.

UJA Federation, on the other hand – the supreme example of the Jewish establishment, crafted a powerful and well worded press release. And they got it out forty minutes before B’nai Brith did. It includes about five quick sentences that succinctly let us know what’s up. An excerpt:

“As the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti is simply not prepared to handle such a catastrophe and the Caribbean nation is appealing for international aid.

United Jewish Appeal of Greater Toronto has established the Haiti Disaster Relief Fund to assist victims who, suddenly, find their lives turned upside down and in jeopardy.”

Their webpage also thanks people for their “ongoing commitment to tikun olam, ‘Repairing the World’.” Nicely done, UJA. In just three sentences, we know why this is important, what UJA wants us to do, and how it’s a Jewish concept. It doesn’t sound like they’re trying to get us to join up with them. They just want to donate some money.

Ok folks, let’s just get it out there: Jewish organizations like B’nai Brith and Federation, while becoming increasingly out of touch with the zeitgeist of this generation, are still uniquely positioned to do some real good when crises like the Haitian earthquake arise. They have a vast, connected membership, with the funds and mechanisms to reach out to them. Why not get it right? Why not take the (brief) time to craft your message properly to maximize its ability to connect to people? Sadly, this is an endemic problem in the Jewish community.

If the legacy organizations want to remain relevant over the next twenty years, perhaps a quick and easy step in that direction would be to step back and look at the framework from which they speak…

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…