I recently enjoyed the opportunity to participate in a two-day conference of Jerusalem activists and found a lot to be hopeful about, and some points of concern.
Jerusalem’s population can be divided and classified along many different axes. A conventional approach of late views the most meaningful socio-political breakdown of Jerusalem’s population as follows: about 1/3, clustered in East Jerusalem, is Arab; about 1/3, clustered mostly in the north (but expanding), is ultra-Orthodox; and about 1/3, mostly clustered in the south and central parts of the city and some northwestern hubs, is everyone else. Over the last 5-7 years or so, this “everyone else” population has seen an interesting process of organization, collaboration, and, in some places, re-jiggering of traditional demarcations of affiliation; for many, secular/religious, for example, has been replaced by pluralist/non-pluralist or other imperfect ways of capturing the shared interests of this population. Dozens of new projects, organizations, and social movements have sprouted, changing the cultural and physical landscape of Jerusalem, and altering the political map, particularly 36-year old, religious feminist, Vice-Mayor Rachel Azaria’s Yerushalmim party and 30-year old, secular, Vice-Mayor Ofer Berkowitz’s Hitorerut party, both of which grew out of social change organizations that still thrive.
Against this backdrop, and with intent to harness and organize this energy for maximal effectiveness toward in an inclusive and attractive future of the city, some local organizers brought together about 70 local activists for the Mata-Maala conference, with the support of the Schusterman Foundation-ROI Community. I was there representing Yeshivat Talpiot, a nascent, Jerusalem egalitarian yeshiva (sort of like a younger cousin of Mechon Hadar), and its affiliate Takum social justice beit midrash.
The conference, chaired by Racheli Rembrandt, the Executive Director of the Tene Yerushalmi umbrella organization of grassroots communities in Jerusalem’s Kiryat HaYovel neighborhood, and Tomer Dror, Senior Advisor to Vice-Mayor Berkowitz, was, quite simply, one of the best-run events of its kind that I have been to, and certainly one of the best-run Israeli events. The responsiveness, professionalism, helpfulness, clarity, and schedule balance of this conference bode very well for the staying power of the new generation of Jerusalem activism and its ability to improve the culture and livability of the city. A few other notes:
*The conference incorporated some very American programming elements that usually don’t fly in Israel, yet were quite successful here, such as open space sessions and the conference organizers regularly reviewing the arc of what we had done that day and in the conference at large. Nevertheless, the conference felt comfortably Israeli — not stiff or shackled by the rules, but casual and relaxed. I’ve been waiting for years to see confirmation in Israel that heavily structured programming with strong buy-in from participants enables relaxation and trust, not the opposite, but usually people’s cynicism gets in the way from letting that happen. This conference was an affirmation of American conference planning wisdom, without the smarminess that often accompanies it in the U.S.
* Cynicism was nowhere to be found in the conference. This is unheard of in Israeli society. Participants were invested, came on time, wore their name tags, reached out to new people, and participated enthusiastically, respectfully, and curiously.
*The program was impressively humble even as it was bold in its reach. The organizers understood that the most important function was to enable collaboration and relationship-building between participants, so they did not over-program, even as the days were full, and limited the time devoted to frontal presentations. The organizers credibly invited critique and suggestions for future improvement from beginning to end.
* The organizers were thoughtful about who was and was not there. They stayed focused on the recognizable constituency where there is ripe ground for collaboration and growth in the “pluralistic” sector while recognizing that that limitation is problematic, in its exclusion of ⅔ of the city and, in the case of the ultra-Orthodox, its explicit interest, by and large, to limit the other group’s growth. (Such grassroots efforts are not necessary with regard to Arab East Jerusalemites; government policy contains them). The program scheduled two blocks of good sessions with guest activist presenters involved in the Haredi and Palestinian sectors, sharing their challenges. The organizers were also thoughtful about gender balance and physical disability inclusivity, insisting, for example, that even loud people use the microphone, in case someone in the conference is hearing impaired.
* Lynn Schusterman came and shared some brief remarks over lunch the second day. On the one hand, the participants showed her well-deserved respect for her ambitious and smart philanthropic efforts supporting young, social entrepreneurs working on progressive causes, without micromanaging them, as is so common in the Jewish philanthropic world. Schusterman’s foundation has engaged some of the most in-touch philanthropy in the Jewish world. On the other hand, there was a moment of awkwardness in reaction to two remarkably obtuse statements she made to illustrate her commitment to Israel and the work of these activists. First, she underlined her love for Israel by showing her t-shirt emblazoned with the picture of the late Israeli Prime Minister, Golda Meir, whom she called one of her heroes, and particularly a feminist hero, apparently oblivious to Golda’s disgraced reputation in the Israeli public, and especially among progressives and feminists. There probably wasn’t a single person in that room who holds Golda in high regard. Second, and more troubling, Schusterman emphasized her commitment to Israel by proudly telling us about the luxury home she built in Jerusalem and that she always tries to convince her other wealthy friends to skip a vacation home in Aspen or the Riviera or wherever else, and to build instead in Jerusalem. Many of the activists in the room spend a good deal of their personal and activist lives trying to combat the spreading phenomenon of luxury housing construction in the city, which squeezes out local commerce, spikes real estate prices, and drives young families, students, seniors, middle-class, working-class, and poor people out of the city. What communication breakdown led to Lynn Schusterman being in touch with the phenomenon of grassroots activism in Jerusalem, but to be so unaware that prominent in the concerns of most of these activists is the exodus of this very population from the city, largely due to the crippling cost of living, and that these same activists see in houses like Schusterman’s a main culprit of this problem?
* For a crowd of progressive activists, it was troubling to see how the occupation is just not on people’s minds, at least insofar as it plays out in Jerusalem. This is not a programming criticism: maps represented the Palestinian neighborhoods, anti-occupation organizations Ir Amim and Ta’ayush were included in the conference, and there were sessions about activist challenges in Palestinian East Jerusalem. But the hivemind of the participants, as far as I could tell, was just not troubling itself with the occupation, even among folks who support left-wing parties and would say that they oppose the occupation. Numerous activists from the Gilo settlement neighborhood in south-west, greater Jerusalem were there, and there was no indication that anyone found it problematic to support the nurturing of their community; my sense was that Gilo is fully within the consensus of this population, despite its encroachment on and isolation of Palestinian Beit Safafa and al-Walaje.
* Whenever there is limited space and an effort to be inclusive, someone falls through the cracks. I was disappointed that there was no representative from the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, though they were invited. Advocating and creating room for the LGBT community in Jerusalem life fits right in with the goals of the conference and its participants; it was a loss to the conference that they did not have a representative there. I also thought that older models of inclusive, spiritual community organizing should have been included, such as the flagship Reform congregation Kol HaNeshama and the liberal Orthodox congregation Yedidya, who both have social agendas well beyond their ritual services. It is important to note that the organizers explicitly asked for suggestions about other organizations who should be included next time; it is impossible to do this perfectly.