The Bronfman fellows and their counterparts in the Israeli Bronfman program spent today in Tel Aviv. In the morning we attended a dance class from a member of the Batsheva Dance Company, then had a conversation with Israeli author Etgar Karet. From there we walked to Rothschild Boulevard, where we had been two weeks ago. It has since been covered in a tent city of thousands, who were at the heart of a 20,000+ strong demonstration yesterday. The stated purpose of the demonstrators is to advocate for more affordable housing in city centers, though the tent city is also attracting and generating more generalized rage against the machine types. (And love–there was a giant teepee at the corner of Rothschild and Sheinkin with signs saying things like “the love tent” and the like. As the saying goes, it takes a village to make a protest.)

I had Jonah with me today. (I’d like to say it was intentional, but the truth is that he was really not looking forward to camp for some reason, and so I offered to have him come along, provided he didn’t whine. It worked–more or less.) I told him that this was an historic event: tens of thousands of Israelis gathered to demonstrate for issues of civil society–not for Israeli-Palestinian issues or for a political party demonstration, but coming together to respond to a social problem. (I did have to bribe him–30 minutes of talking to the protesters in exchange for a popsicle. He bargained me up to ice cream.)

Though the tent city was instructive on a Biblical level (“Jonah, do you think this is a little like what the camp of the Israelites in the desert was like?”), it was a letdown as far as history and politics were concerned. The protesters are disorganized. They don’t have a platform. Worse, they don’t seem to have the basics down: if you’re going to protest about expensive housing prices, then you need to have a political idea of how to solve the problem. Yet, after a 20,000-strong march yesterday, the best they could muster was that one of the organizers went to the Knesset this morning and threw plastic cups at the finance committee.

They have embraced the notion that they are “apolitical.” Asked by my colleague Andy Bachman if they had read Dror Etkes’s provocative and insightful piece in Haaretz that pointed out the obscene disparity between funding for housing within Israel proper and for Judea and Samaria, the same organizer clammed up and said, “We don’t talk about that here.” Well guys, good luck.

There’s an episode of the West Wing (okay, I happened to watch it last night; it’s not like I’ve got these things memorized) where Jed Bartlett is debating his challenger for re-election. Asked to sum up his economic philosophy, the Republican says, “I believe in lower taxes, because lower taxes will stimulate growth.” At this point Bartlett responds, “That’s a great ten-word soundbite. But we don’t govern in ten-word soundbites. So let me ask you, Governor, what are the next ten words? Where would you cut taxes? What programs would you eliminate? This is a complex world that demands complex responses, which are a lot more than ten words.” Or something to that effect.

I can’t help but think, as I watch this melange of the Israeli left up-close, and as I gaze at the American right from afar, and as I look around at the Arab Spring and the Tea Party and Greek protestors, that we are seeing versions of a pattern: individuals that become masses without any ability to do the real work of organizing and making decisions in a polity. The people who could and should be leading these movements–who have sharp minds and good organizing skills–are busy as social entrepreneurs, frequently for profit. Many of the best and brightest in Israel and the U.S. would never get into politics, because it’s a cesspool. Why do they need the aggravation?

Well folks–we need you. We need good people to step up and lead. We need people who can think in paragraphs, not sentences. And we need you in the public square, not in an office building. We need you to be willing to take personal, professional and financial risks. Because if this is the best we’ve got, my kids won’t even be interested in it for an ice cream cone.

Hooray that the Senate voted to start debate on the health care bill. But can someone please explain to me why it is a healthy thing in a democracy that we require a 60 percent supermajority for a procedural vote? The Constitution already provides for a bicameral legislature, for checks and balances and division of powers. And in allocating an equal number of senators to every state, the Constitution reduces the representation of those of us in populous states, such that a resident of Wyoming (pop. 532,668) have over 24 times more representation than I do as a resident of Illinois (pop. 12,901,563). Isn’t that enough? Why add on the need for 60 votes in the Senate?

For the record, I made this argument back when the Republicans controlled the Senate and wanted to “go nuclear” and approve judges with a simple majority. I was of the opinion then, as I am now, that if you want to influence the political process, you need to win elections. The Democrats won the last election. They are doing the work they were sent to do. Why the will of the people should be thwarted, by the invocation of supposed safeguards beyond what the Constitution already provides, is incomprehensible to me. Unless, of course, you want to say we don’t live in a democracy. Which we evidently don’t.

From this a.m.’s NYT:

Roosevelt understood that governing involved choice and that choice engendered dissent. He accepted opposition as part of the process. It is time for the Obama administration to step up to the plate and make some hard choices.

Health care reform enacted by a Democratic majority is still meaningful reform. Even if it is passed without Republican support, it would still be the law of the land.


As I believed when Obama was elected, real change is not possible given the existence of the United States Senate and its rules. The Senate is designed to be an anti-democratic institution–that’s the essence of having two senators for every state, as opposed to representation based on population, by which the House is organized. So all this talk about change, and all the talk about post-partisanship, has been and remains hooey.

A majority of the elected officials of the United States support Obama’s program. They should be able to vote in favor of that program; otherwise, what did we elect them for?

I spent yesterday in downtown Chicago at a Federation-sponsored training seminar on professional-volunteer relations (morning) and e-philanthropy (afternoon). I was one of the only people there who does not have a “standard” Federation job (and I don’t technically work for Federation, either–my paycheck comes from Hillel–but since Hillel in Illinois is an agency of Federation, I was eligible to attend). So I was a bit unprepared for what set off the chain of thoughts that led to this post.

The presenting issue was a discussion in the lay-pro session on “how much you script your volunteers.” In the Federation world, and I’m sure in other volunteer organizations, the professional staff writes the scripts for big speeches by volunteer leaders. The staff in the room yesterday were talking about how they will often script even the running of meetings (not all staff do this, by any means; it depends on the federation’s culture and the people involved).

To me, this was a pretty foreign concept. I don’t staff our “grownup” board, so I’m not intimately involved in the preparation for board meetings. My experience is with students, who would chafe at the idea of being scripted–and who I wouldn’t want to script. Unless, of course, it were something really important. So, for instance, we script student callers during phonathons (“Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling from Fiedler Hillel…”).

The basic theory here is that you script someone when you want to have complete alignment with the organization’s language. This leads to efficiency (meetings don’t go off on useless tangents) and common words and ideas (everyone is talking about the same stuff in the same language).

Okay, so that was round 1. Round 2 came from the afternoon presentation on e-philanthropy, courtesy of BlueState Digital, the people who brought you Barack Obama’s web presence last year. The conversation was about how to raise supporters and money online, as the Obama team did so well last year ($550 million). The major ideas: Invite your supporters to contribute their stories, their words, their pictures–more than just their money. And segment, segment, segment: Make sure you speak to your supporters the way they want to be spoken to. (The Obama campaign had 300 different market segments that they sent different emails to. Unbelievable.)

The message here: Communication has to be two-way, not one-way. Sound a little different than the morning session?

So all this is swimming in my head as I listen to a story on NPR this morning about a guy making a video game about the battle of Falluja. (more…)

Samuel Freedman’s piece in the Jerusalem Post is important to read. The main nugget:

Obama… is seeking American Jewish cover for his very public dispute with the Israeli government. The one way in which he can get it is if American Jews, like their Israeli brethren, decide to make the settlement enterprise their defining issue. Counting on that internal argument is a big gamble…

But, Freedman continues,

You can feel the ground shifting. Yes, it’s predictable that J Street, the well-funded left-wing lobby, would back Obama on the settlement issue. What strikes me as far more revealing is that Ed Koch and Jeffrey Goldberg, a politician and journalist respectively who are centrist or even center-right on the American Jewish spectrum, have become so publicly critical of the settlement movement as an obstacle to peace.

Goldberg glosses on this, with this money paragraph:

Malcolm Hoenlein and the other grandees of the organized American Jewish leadership believe that masses of Jews will rise up against Obama if he forces Israel out of its settlements. They won’t. I believe the majority of American Jews want two things: A secure Israel, and a moral Israel that is a light unto the nations. Settlements make Israel insecure, and they make it seem immoral in the eyes of the world.

There’s a storm a-brewin, and we will likely see a big denominational divide if Freedman and Goldberg are right, with the Orthodox supporting the settlers and the non-Orthodox supporting Obama. Those of us who straddle the lines between these worlds will need to stand in the breach.

1. Gary Rosenblatt’s column on Roger Cohen.

The first 95% of the article is fantastic–balanced, fair, giving Cohen a reasonable hearing but also citing his critics and raising important questions. It’s a model of journalism. And then, somehow, Gary pivots in the last 30 seconds to this:

Cohen called his book about the Balkan war experience “Hearts Grown Brutal.”

It would seem from his writings and conversation that he believes that when it comes to the Mideast conflict, it is Israeli hearts that have hardened and that the government in Jerusalem is trying to ignore terrible things. He is welcome to his beliefs, of course, but Roger Cohen should be wary of conflating one tragedy with another.

Call it lack of balance or fairness, but to cite only one party to blame for the Israeli-Arab conflict is to deny history and reality, and to weaken one’s credibility beyond logic or truth.

Reading Cohen lately — the anger, blame and one-sidedness of his argument — one wonders whose heart, indeed, has grown brutal.

As readers of this blog well know, I have been among Roger Cohen’s critics. But I think that Gary undermines his own case with this move at the end. I don’t think that Cohen’s “heart has grown brutal,” and to make this kind of argument simply misses the point. Yes, Cohen should be more up-front about the lack of fairness in the Iranian elections (see Friedman’s piece yesterday, which compared Lebanon and Iran), but Cohen is also operating in the prophetic tradition, calling Israelis–and diaspora Jews–to take responsiblity for the things for which we should take responsibility, namely whether to attack Iran (which from what I can tell would be a strategic blunder of epic proportions) and how to use the force we have built up in a manner that befits our national aspirations.

2. Ari Shavit on Bibi and the “Seven Word Solution”

The heart of Shavit’s piece is this: “A demilitarized Palestine alongside a Jewish Israel.” Worth reading, and sums up pretty much what seems necessary.

3. I haven’t written anything about Obama’s speech last week. It was, in general, remarkable and amazing. My two bones to pick:

1) I don’t actually care about equating suffering; I think we need to get over that one. But I do care about ignoring history and making it seem as though Israel would not have happened without the Shoah, which is misleading and plays into the basest elements of Holocaust-denying anti-Semitism. Zionism happened before the Shoah for two or three generations, and the Jewish people have 3,000 years of history in Eretz Yisrael.

2) As Andre Aciman points out (his memoir is well worth the read), and as here quoted by Jeffrey Goldberg, the displacement of Jews in Arab and Muslim countries in 1948 needs to be remembered as part of the narrative.

I read Roger Cohen’s columns on Iran’s Jews last week and this with interest, and fully expecting what evidently followed: A barrage of condemnation. I have liked Cohen for a long time. Like David Brooks, my other favorite NYT columnist, Cohen defies easy caricature. While one could write a Bob Herbert or Tom Friedman column with something of a Mad Lib, Cohen both espouses unconventional opinions and writes beautifully.

Yet whenever it comes to Israel (and now, by extension, Iran), many of my Jewish friends get the heebie jeebies about our fellow-MOT. Cohen argued that Iran’s Jews actually enjoy a good deal of freedom, that most of them don’t want to leave, that they were against the Israeli operation in Gaza. Yes, he admits, they face occasional trumped-up charges of conspiracy with the Zionist Entity. But, as he argues this morning in his rebuttal, this is within the context of something that is not a totalitarian state. Not a free state, but no Fourth Reich either.

I’m not ready to take sides here (I like Jeffrey Goldberg a lot too), and I am surely risking the opprobium of some of my friends and colleagues. But many of us strongly supported the election of Barack Obama, on the basis that he was smart and sophisticated, that he would not be the reductivist thinker that George Bush was. (Of course, many of my friends did so feeling that Bush had been the best friend Israel ever had. I demur.) Why do we want someone with supple thinking when it comes to health care, education, the environment, and foreign policy challenges in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but not the Middle East? Let’s at least have a fully fleshed-out and informed coversation. Cohen has given one side. I’d like to hear the other.