The World Needs Young Leaders Now!

Wow. Would we have ever imagined that our world would encounter such a deep shared experience?  A sense of loss, the anxiety of impending potential hardship, and a fear of the unknown is palpable everywhere. So too, compassion and solidarity are on the rise.  While this moment was unimaginable even just a few short months ago, we now have a unique and unanticipated moment, which I would like to suggest that it is an opportunity for greatness. While our healthcare workers and other amazing folks tend to the physical needs that this pandemic may create, we each have an extended moment in time in which we can transform ourselves, our communities and our world.

Right now, we have, the biggest transformational energy opportunity in our lifetime. Hundreds of millions of people are having an equalizing experience, bringing us a deeper understanding of our interconnectedness as human beings. We have a chance to really dive into deeper questions. We may ask, who am I really, when the urgent droning on of my routines is halted? How can I live a fulfilling life while this is happening, and after the impact? What if my health or my livelihood, or the health or livelihood of my loved ones is compromised? How can I best be of service at this time?

The great news is this: the world especially needs young leaders now. We have had millions of young people who are yearning to meaningfully contribute, to empower themselves and our communities: this was true before the COVID-19 and it is an even stronger truth now.  We may be entering a period of massive grieving, yet we know that within and throughout every tragedy, there is an opportunity to transform! In my own life, it was engagement with social tragedy in my youth that completely changed my path and brought about self transformation. It was the voyage of self-discovery that led me to pursue the path of conflict resolution, social action, and ultimately, leadership development. The potential for structural transformation in our social and economical lives, with our eyes on the Sustainable Development Goals for the betterment of us all, has never been more clearer. We will overcome this, and as a result, rebuild stronger and more resilient communities, societies, and systems. We can heal our social fabric, led largely by amazing young people that are willing and wanting to engage. And you don’t need an invitation to the dinner: you’re already at the table!

What can we do? Let us cultivate and nourish young leaders starting now, through the challenges and opportunities in this present moment, in the short- term adaptation phase  dealing with the immediate impact of this pandemic, and in the long term recovery. Let’s make sure that our young leaders are involved. How do we do this? 

First, recognize the ones you already know, and support their ideas in any way you can. Young leaders can ask more seasoned leaders for insight and resources, and to tap into their broad networks. Older leaders can ask young leaders for insights and to tap into their newer networks. In 2019, I had the privilege to read about thousands of young leaders’ projects for the Columbia University Youth, Peace and Security Program, and about other initiatives which aimed to transform our communities and contribute to peace, economic equality, and the SDGs. For instance, I learned about Ousia from Togo, who is creating STEM experiences for young people throughout his country, and Maria from Columbia, who is reducing the suicide rate in her city by helping young people create dreams worth living for. These two had the great privilege of program participation, but everyone’s project deserved support.

Second, find a way to cultivate and amplify their work. In the last few years I  have seen and touched the powerful energy of young people. For instance, I had the privilege of working with the UNFPA Innovation Fellowship  for which more than 5000 young people applied, and nine were chosen. (Columbia’s program had more than 900 people apply, and the UN Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth’s leadership program had a whopping 8000 applicants: there is more desire to lead and there are more ideas to transform our world than there are spaces in the programs that enrich them!) There I witnessed deep investment in young leaders over a period of time – enough investment to make the magic happen. We shared the best of our own wisdom and experience with young leaders and we exposed them to the best practices of transformational leadership. Perhaps most importantly, we then provided months of coaching and mentoring, both a group call and individual calls, an invaluable support system for anyone as they looking to uplift our world. We need an inter- generational support system now more than ever. The older generation is kindly invited to come with an open heart and mind to share ideas and experiences, to coach and to uncover synergies that can move young people, and our world, forward.

If we truly invest our time, our energy, our support in young leaders, we can build cohorts of tens of thousands of compassionate, results-driven youth who lead us all in tackling the world’s problems. This pandemic clearly shows us that the current social, economical and political structures are not sufficient or efficient enough to withhold the pressure of the unknown: so what will happen when climate change brings us as much or more pressure in the coming years? I guarantee you there are young leaders who have solutions. And we need them, now. If governments, foundations, and local organizations tap into the wonderful energy of youth and nourish and cultivate their skills, abilities and selves, we can have that better world we all imagine. It is up to us. We can choose to transform ourselves, our communities and our world, and we can choose to thrive, if we choose to support, cultivate and amplify our youth. The choice is ours and the time is now.

“Do Something”

“Do Something”:

Between Elections and Marches, All the Other Days – The Space for Real Transformation

I wish marching was enough, but it will not bring the social transformation we need.  If we volunteer our time, money, or talent, we can impact thousands of people through social engagement, making real change.

I have had that deep feeling of needing to DO SOMETHING.

Once was when I was kind of new to NYC, and I was still traumatized by the violence back home. It was far from my first protest, but it was the first major one I participated in outside of my country of origin: it was local, but it was all over the world, people in the streets against a war that was changing our lives and the lives of Iraqis (and later Syrians) forever. I was hopeful for change: seeing so many people in so many cities standing up. I was so moved by own experience as part of the march that afterwards, I got a peace symbol tattooed inside my left wrist so I would always remember it.

But then, in the weeks that followed, the war still happened. Even though millions worldwide were against it, I realized how far we were from translating and channeling our energy toward a real change. That march was a very important day for so many of us, and I felt so passionate about it – but it also taught me that if it didn’t translate to my daily life, it wouldn’t work as a means for change.

I know that now, we’re feeling moved to help the children through protesting this brutal policy. It is one of those moments when we need to DO SOMETHING.

Let’s reflect for a moment on the space and time after Trump got elected. Like my own experience with Iraq, many people were moved to join the Women’s March or post on social media awareness of the issues of our time. This is important, this brings us together, this shares our common values. But it isn’t going to bring about the transformation that we need, that we were hoping for when we joined the march. We will, inevitably, get back to our work and our families and our lives, not translating this critical and massive energy into the projects and commitments we need to make change.

I fully supported the Women’s March. I likewise applaud today’s Family Belongs Together rally. However, if even 5-10% of those who march or rally will, afterwards, commit to creating new realities through building individual commitments, it will accumulate to a new social structure that is transparent, accountable, and grounded in values, creating results. The transformation is between us and the people we care about, it is about consistent change every day that starts with our repeated, individual actions, not waiting for marches.

Here is what this looked like in my experience, as only one of millions of examples: I talked to as many different people from as many different places, cultures and perspectives as possible. These talks changed and opened my mind. I decided to do a Masters degree in Conflict Resolution instead of becoming a doctor. I became part of organizing different movements around causes that moved me. I began leading workshops for how to make change. I had the privilege of working with hundreds of young leaders – activists, change makers, UN fellows, Columbia University students – and from these experiences, I began to work with others to build the fabric that supports ongoing change in our society in the long term, growing the support systems that allow leaders to have continual nourishment and ongoing impact.

I know this is possible – not as magic, but as the time and space behind the Election cycles and between the marches – where our life happens, where we cultivate who we are. It needs to becomes *ordinary.* We eat, we work, we spend time with our friends, we exercise: we do something for a cause in which we believe. Not maybe. An integral part of our days.

So, what can we do?

A short list:

  1. Capture your energy and that of your friends – have a collective commitment to action rather than intention. You have a workout buddy, right? Same spirit. Plan to support a social cause with your time, talent or money and keep accountable through someone who will hold you to it.
  2. Criticize by creating an alternative (be that alternative, or support someone else’s efforts). When you sit down to rant on social media, decide to take the energy elsewhere instead. Take a workshop on leading change (with me, or with any of the wonderful people who want to help you channel your energy into doing this important work), find a place to volunteer, or support someone doing this work in your community. Be a part of growing a cadre of changemakers.
  3. Mentor someone. Do you have a talent in this area? Show a young leader the way. Volunteer your time, money, or energy directly to investment in a young leader for their (and our collective) long term development. We need to create layers of support systems: education far beyond a two day workshop and funding far beyond a one time donation.

Change takes time, and needs a design. It starts with individuals, but ends with communities keeping it going. Think about the March for Our Lives: young people created this, cultivated this and communicated this – but they are also working diligently and daily to keep this issue present and prominent. We need the patience to institutionalize social cause leadership as part of the infrastructure of our lives. This support system happens when each of us gives our time, talent or money on a routine basis to cultivate the generations growing up with this polarization with the support they need to channel THEIR desire to do something into creating the realities we all want, and need.


Holidays, Handguns, Holy Lands

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In the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, when I was learning English, I had this amazing professor, Lola, who gave me the Letter from Birmingham Jail to read. I was so moved by this about a decade ago, when I didn’t even know much about the American Civil Rights movement, but the contents of this letter centered me at a crucial time in my evolution of self. It helped me to find courage toward the work of peace – the same courage it takes to share this piece with you, now. Sharing this may (and will likely) bring solace to some, and will elicit criticism from many others. However, inspired by the opening of this letter, where Dr. King shares that if he answered all criticism that came across his desk, he’d have “no time for constructive work”: in this time of massive intolerance and hatred, I believe that Dr. King would have wanted us all to find strength in our action, wherever we are, whatever we do. Because, as MLK so wisely said, “in a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.” In that spirit, I wish to share the story that follows.

Personal History

December 2016: Sterling, Illinois

I had the pleasure of spending Christmas 2016 in the beautiful Midwest: Illinois, to be exact, with its unique Holiday experience – its sweeping plains and kind-hearted folks who offered me no less than homes, their hands and their hearths as well as their “jello salad,” their promises that Trump isn’t a racist, and their partridge in a pear tree. As an ultra-Orthodox child of the Israeli Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish community, to be celebrating Christmas proper at all was already somewhat of a tiny miracle: as a now-secular New York Jew, I’m quite used to spending the day with ye olde traditional Chinese food and a movie. But more interesting was how this visit just so happened to dovetail with recent news regarding America’s policy on Israel, and how I was expected to feel about it. Perhaps you’ve seen it: John Kerry stating that America “supports Israel, but can’t defend Israel’s Right Wing Agenda,” or to hear Fox News tell it, Obama betraying Israel, a long-time American ally. Well, to be clear, while I came of age in the fundamentalist Kahane youth movement, where I assaulted innocent Palestinians, and danced in the street when peacemaking Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, I also moved to Tel Aviv, chose a non-religious lifestyle, and joined the Israeli Defense Forces as a paratrooper, witnessing acts of military violence in a time of frequent suicide bombing and shooting incidences in both communities. Losing dozens of friends and deciding there was another way through the violence, I moved to New York, becoming a social activist for peace, an Ivy League graduate, and a UN adviser, transforming the immense loss into a voyage of self-discovery that led me to pursue a path toward finding ways to end conflicts without aggression, including holding several deep friendships with Palestinians, and making visits to Palestinian cities, towns, and refugee camps. So, when my well meaning host addressed me with, “you know the West Bank: can you believe this shit Anti-Israel decision?” I wasn’t entirely sure how to respond, the answer being so complicated. Because I do, in fact, know the West Bank. I know the West Bank as a child, as a student at Yeshiva High School, as a soldier, as a driver for the head of the settlement council, as a Dual Narrative tour guide, and as a brother of two brothers who still live in the settlements. The question then becomes impossible to answer.

First, I am, as my passport will tell you, as my host expects me to be, an Israeli. And not just an Israeli, a former settler. No story illustrates how completely that experience is sewn into my heart than a pivotal experience in the settlements: my involvement in the Basketball Murders, and my reaction to my involvement in that horrific evening. (What follows is completely true, though names of everyone except the murdered have been changed.)

May 2002: Itamar, West Bank, The Basketball Murders

Despite the second Palestinian uprising, it was a pleasant late-May night. I was spending the evening with my friend Sarah in Itamar, a West Bank Jewish Settlement. At around 11:00 p.m., drinking a cup of tea in her caravan (a space of two kind-of trailers that accommodated her and her five children) at one of the outposts, our conversation was interrupted by the sound of rapid gunshots. Initially, we didn’t panic. This was a common occurrence in this conflict-torn area. “It’s the usual . . . probably the soldiers,” Sarah suggested. But the gunfire was too close for comfort. Shots continued to ring out closer to the house. Sarah agreed, saying, “I have never heard shots so close.”

I went to the guest room, grabbed Sarah’s handgun (a memento from her husband, who was killed by Palestinian gunmen a few months earlier) from under the pillow, loaded it, asked her to turn out the lights (so the attackers wouldn’t see the kids in case there was more gunfire), and ran outside to see what was going on. I met Moshe, the next-door neighbor there, who was standing with his M-16 and his combat vest ready to go. We briefly talked strategy—who would protect the kids, how to secure the houses—then another guard came and said the shooting was in the Yeshiva High School (my own former Yeshiva high school), about a half-mile away. After I heard this, I called Uri, who lived nearby. He answered the phone with “I killed him! I killed him!” his voice trembling on the line. “What happened?” I asked. Breathing hard, he said, “A terrorist came to the high school and opened fire at the students who were playing on the basketball court, and then went into the students’ rooms, but I shot him with my gun!” I had finished my advanced EMT and was specifically trained for such attacks. “Listen to me,” I said. “If there are students who are injured, give me a call right away.” I hung up. A moment later, he called back to tell me that one student had been injured. I told Moshe to protect the families there and I drove off in Sarah’s white family van full of baby strollers and my first-aid bag, hugging the single winding road to the familiar basketball court with my headlights strategically off, afraid that there might be other gunmen along the way.

As I approached the school, I saw a young teenager with multiple gunshot wounds lying in the road adjacent to the basketball court. An Israeli Defense Forces paramedic was over him, starting CPR. I jumped from the car with my supplies and joined in CPR with the paramedic while others tried to stop the bleeding. The teenager’s stomach was open. An official ambulance arrived and a paramedic put the defibrillator on him and declared him dead. We felt helpless, but there was no time to think. We got up and ran to the open area where the kindergarten is located to look for more students who might have run, could still be hiding, and might be injured. Suddenly, someone screamed, “We need a doctor, now!” I ran toward the voice behind the dining room, a place where I used to hide from the rabbis and smoke during my teenage years. I saw two students lying on the ground. I later learned that they had been playing on the basketball court. When they saw the gunman, they had run and tried to hide behind the dining room to no avail—the very dining room where I had managed the kitchen for years to help pay for my school tuition.

One student was lying motionless on the floor, his brain exposed from a gunshot wound to his skull. Realizing that I could do nothing to save him, I turned to the other student. I put my fingers to his jugular. He had no pulse, so I began mouth-to-mouth CPR and called to people around me for help. He had bullet injuries in his chest, so each time I exhaled, a rush of blood came out of his chest onto my eyes. I continued for about five minutes, but nothing changed. When the paramedics finally arrived and put the monitor on, they told me, “He’s already dead. I’m sorry, but you must stop now.” The victims were Netanel Riachi (17), Gilad Stiglitz (14), and Avraham Siton (17).

A night that had begun with a cup of tea ended back at Sarah’s with cans of Heineken.

It was the longest night of my life.

The next morning, I was driving from Itamar in the West bank to Jerusalem with my friend Roni. Staring ahead at Road 60, unable to escape the reality behind me, the blood from the night before still under my fingernails, I couldn’t break through the shell of sorrow. Each cell of my body seemed to feel a sense of loss and grief. As I drove, I felt certain that every Palestinian was happy about what had just happened. I approached Road 60 and Hawara Village. Palestinians near the checkpoint seemed to be laughing, delighted, and smiling at me. Two were crossing the road. I imagined that they were mocking me, proud about the dead teenage Israelis. Suddenly, believing their intention was malicious, I was blinded by rage. I had lost all control: my mind blacked out, and I just wanted to kill them. In a matter of seconds, I had pressed down on the gas pedal, intending to run them over with our car, the faces of the dead youth flashing over and over again in my mind. I wanted to make these Palestinians feel the same pain they had brought on Israeli youth the night before. Thankfully Roni, from the passenger seat, jerked the steering wheel to the right and screamed, “Kobi! What is wrong with you?” snapping me out of the daze during which I had almost run the men down. I could feel the previous night’s events still in my chest, where a deep scar ran through my heart. I had wanted to kill just to suppress my own feelings of impotence.

Each night from 2001 to 2002, I went to sleep with a handgun in my hand, underneath my pillow. My cell phone was near my head, and my first-aid bag was always packed and ready, near my shoes. I was prepared for the worst, every single day. Living in the settlements did not provide the space to think about empathy, and the other side; war and peace or your Palestinian neighbor. Though you know that they are also getting killed, there you are with a gun under your own pillow. Both sides get trapped in a cycle, as if there is no other way. The palpable force that consumes you, knowing any second your life could be over: someone at the side of the road could shoot you while you’re walking or driving. Hey, you would think, I can be safe at home, but then you also go home and get killed there. You think instead, I will take the bus, or I will go to the coffee shop, but both buses and coffee shops have regular suicide bombings. A new day will start, and it’s difficult to see people from the community in the morning. You go to the store, and when you buy your bread and milk and say, “Hey, good morning,” knowing it could be the last “good morning” you would ever tell them. Sometimes you sit near people in the synagogue, and they look at you, and you exchange no words. You smile at them, they look into your eyes, and you respect them. Maybe the same thing that’s going through your head is going through their head. Someone will surely get killed. Maybe I will be the next one to get killed? Maybe they will be the next one? So the eye contact and that respect is deeper. The human connection becomes closer without words. Fear becomes integral to life, part of your day—bread, milk, and fear—but because of that, the interpersonal, non-verbal communication, your behavior is more open and intimate.

Since 2003, several more people have been murdered in Itamar and its surroundings, the most brutal and unspeakable attack being that in March 2011, when two Palestinians from the village of Awarta, Amjad Awad and Hakim Awad, stabbed Hadas, a three-month-old infant, to death, and also killed her parents and two other siblings in their beds. The violence continued then, and continues now, in the same places, just in different times. But this is only one story of my own reality – it took me years to understand that, but Palestinians are, half a mile away, going through continual violence in their own community through clashes with the settlers and with the IDF. How then can the discourse only be about Israel? These decisions also involve the basic human rights of the Palestinian people.

This, then, is the primary memory that floods my mind on Christmas, 2016, while I eat peanut brittle, finger a domino, and consider how to respond to my host’s question. I think of the countless hours I spent organizing protests against peace, against the Oslo Accords. I see why people didn’t want peace. How can we have peace with them? Everything we’ve been saying about them, they’re doing. We give them guns, they’re shooting at us with the guns—it’s a cycle. How can any side think about peace when so many people are dying in close proximity? The environment is so difficult, you can’t imagine peace when violence is repeatedly happening. When you grow up like that, with the same environment and beliefs reinforcing the cycle of violence, you think you are right and justified, and everything you’re told to believe about Palestinians is actually happening—a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This, then, is the second memory that surfaces in my mind: how I became a settler at all – my extremist teenagehood.

When the Oslo Accords took place, I was about 12 years old. My family lived in Chabad community in the Southern District of Israel in the development town of Kiryat Malakhi (City of Angels). Everyone in my ultra-Orthodox Jewish community was called to go against the peace process because our Rabbi, Menachem Mendel Schneerson of the Chabad-Lubavitch, said that it is a big sin to give back land to the enemy. His command was that the land of Israel belongs to the nation of Israel, that we cannot negotiate with the Palestinians, that the negotiations themselves bring the terror to Israel. Everyone came to the protests because the rabbi said it was right to do so. I was part of an average family of ten in the community, and I had plenty of time to fight a good cause. No television or non-Orthodox activities were allowed.

One day at the height of the Oslo Peace process, my friends and I attended a secret meeting at the main synagogue, where we watched a video by Moshe Feiglin, who was the founder of Zo-Artzeino (This Is Our Land) and years later became a member of Knesset, Israel’s parliament. In the video, Moshe explained the nature of the problem with giving back land and guns to the enemy of Israel, trusting them. He showed us how to use strategies and civil disobedience to stop the peace process. I was fully invested. Every day I spent hours creating signs, making phone calls, recruiting people to organize at a local Chabad chapter office, organizing protests at the Kastina Junction, the main intersection near our town between highways 40 and 3.

For a while, every afternoon we walked or drove with our megaphones, calling people to come to protest. At night we put posters on the walls all around the neighborhood centers. We went with a bucket full of flour-and-water paste and a large, square paintbrush, calling for protests with every picture we pasted up: pictures of the dead, naming Rabin as a traitor. We would go earlier and hide empty wheels and big stones so we could easily block one of the main roads, which connected the center and the south of Israel. The adults as well as children were holding signs that read, “Do not give them guns,” “These guns will kill us,” and “Rabin, the Traitor.” Because the leftists and the government were giving the Palestinians guns so that they would have autonomy in their own area, there was a sense of threat to our existence carried out by our Jewish brothers together with the enemy. It was the subject of most of our conversations: we felt that we were going to lose everything that had been built so far. We did not want to sit in silence while they were destroying our nation and our purpose, so we took to the streets.

I was arrested for the first time, for beating a police officer who jumped on my friend while we were blocking the main road. I hated them, the people from the left who wanted to give back the Holy Land. I hated all these leftists deeply, and the worst among them was Rabin, the prime minister who dared to talk with the dirty, murderous Arabs. I went to every major protest against the peace process in my area and in Jerusalem, often holding signs saying Rabin was a traitor. By then, I deeply hated Arabs, but now the same feeling of hatred spread to the Jews who turned their back to us, who disobeyed God and gave the enemy guns and land. Everyone around me hated them, too, including my family, neighbors—basically everyone I knew. In contrast to the majority of the Israeli society, who were shocked, devastated, and grieving, when I heard that peacemaking Prime Minister Yizthak Rabin had been assassinated, many members of the community were happy about this, and I was among them. I thought he deserved it—it was a joyful day. No one said that it was wrong to kill him. Instead, people said, “This what should happen to every Arab and Jewish person who wants to give the Holy Land to the enemy.”

This period of my life was also the first time I saw a gun being fired, and it too was in service of these beliefs. October 18, 1994: Hebron City – without warning, the person to my left, a man who I would later learn was an American Jew nicknamed “Rambo,” raised his mini-uzi and fired into the dark at the Palestinian house in front of him. Standing beside him, I was in shock as lightning flashed from the gun. When I realized what was going on, my inner voice enthusiastically shouted, “This is great, yes, shoot, yes! Kill them all! They are stinking animals. They stole our Holy Land and they killed so many of God’s children. Show them the power of the Jewish people!” But the shots paralyzed me. I was about 13 years old. This was on a Friday, the beginning of Shabbat, years ago, on the outskirts of the city of Hebron. Prayers had just ended.

Earlier that Friday, we had visited Kahane Park in Kiryat Arba, where the tomb of Dr. Baruch Goldstein (a resident of Kiryat Arba, who murdered 29 and wounded 125 Muslim worshippers at the Cave of the Patriarchs) was located. The community I was part of at the time respected the act, and people talked about his bravery. For me and my friends, he was a righteous hero. At his tomb, we said psalms and prayers and we walked from there to the center of the city, actively pushing Arabs along the way, throwing stones at them, and considering ourselves powerful young Jews, as Rabbi Meir Kahane wanted us to be.

I was inspired by Kahane’s books: they encouraged the use of force in order to achieve the goals of a greater Israel. The books talked about the right of the Jewish people to go back to the old days, when Jewish people controlled a large portion of the Middle East. The answer, in his opinion, was to use force in order to achieve the objective “two eyes for an eye.” Because of this, I affiliated with the Israeli organization Kach. I proudly wore the yellow shirt (which in the center had a fist, above the words “Long Live Kahane”) to school almost every day and cultivated relationships with friends who liked and wore them as well. Although I idolized him, Kahane was an outlaw to Israel, and many considered Kach to be a terrorist organization. Eventually, it was illegal even to wear the yellow shirt.

We participated in attacks on Palestinians. We threw stones at passing cars in my town. When I was 13, I had a toy tear-gas can and would knock on the windows of cars belonging to Palestinians, pretending that I was going to gas them in the face, to show them the Jewish power. My friends and I broke their car windows, and once, I even set a car on fire. With each of these acts, we felt that we were contributing to the goal of removing the Palestinians from the Holy Land. I found any use of aggression strongly desirable. It fulfilled my sense of identity. It also was not just me: I was part of something much bigger. I was a messenger of God and the Jewish people. At that time, when I looked at Palestinian people, I did not think of any of them as human. I considered them as animals, and enemies that must be destroyed.

Remembering this, it’s likely hard to imagine, but my third and final memory is of the time I spent visiting the Jenin refugee camps, the impact of which was an incredibly powerful counterweight to the beliefs and actions that had guided my previous life.

Jenin, 2010

By now, I lived in New York. I returned to the West Bank frequently because I had become a guide for Dual Narrative tours: having met several Palestinians during my time in the army and in NYC and having had deep conversations about their perspective on the conflict, I had now, through these tours, visited every major Palestinian city and each of the refugee camps a few times. I had yet to visit, however, Jenin city and the Jenin refugee camps, as they had a reputation from the stories of the killings of many Israeli soldiers. Even being there, the Battle of Jenin (April 2001) was circulating in my mind. In-between the archway and the FedEx, on beautiful antique city walls, were large public posters depicting Palestinians who were killed, and who killed others. All were young men, all were holding M-16s and AK-47s. Seeing the posters, I wondered if some of the people in the photos, themselves now dead from violence, had murdered people I knew and loved. Likewise, I imagined if I were them: if I were growing up in this refugee camp, what would I have done? Would I be dead after killing Israelis, or would I be working for peace? Although I was, in this place, afraid of being outed as an Israeli, I held the contradiction: I understand now some of their life stories, why they chose this violent and ruthless way of being, and I saw part of me in them. I had wanted to kill Palestinians just because they were Palestinians: I understood now how this conclusion, risking their own lives while killing my friends, Israelis, came to pass.

I knew that being here was risky, but the fear was drowned out by how much I wanted to understand. Walking through the streets of Jenin was terrifying, but I trusted my Palestinian colleagues, I trusted the group I was with, and I was pushing one of our group members who was in a wheelchair, under my cover of an American hat, a cigarette in my hand as if the cloud of smoke masked my Israeliness, even just for a moment. I did ask them not to call my Hebrew name as we were walking through the streets of Jenin toward the refugee camp—one of the women kept speaking to me in Hebrew, and I tried to silence her as I kept thinking about how easy it would be for me to be killed here. As we walked through the market, I saw someone making fresh pita bread and I was struck by how similar this was to the familiar smell and experience of buying bread in West Jerusalem at Shuk Mahane Yehuda, where Yosi, my grandmother’s brother, had a vegetable stand for decades.

The next morning, I woke up on a mattress on the floor with two other men near me on other floor-mattresses, and I forgot for a moment where I was. I slept on the floor after evenings filled with meetings with local leaders and dinner with the host family. We gathered in the dining area, where the family placed comfortable mattresses and orange pillows to support our backs so we could sit in a circle around the newspaper they had spread on a rug, atop of which was food. We had avocado, chips, halloumi cheese, fried potatoes, tomatoes, hummus, two kinds of fresh pita bread, different kinds of homegrown olives, zatar. As we began to eat, more extended family came. When the female head of the house heard that some of us were Jews, it took her a second to say, “Oh, we don’t hate Jews. You are welcome here. Ahlan Wa Sahlan.” For the most part, no one in the house knew that I am Israeli—my friend didn’t want them to know for safety reasons—but they knew that I’m Jewish, and from Brooklyn, and while they were surprised, they didn’t have a problem with that. The night before, the man who was the head of the family, who smoked nonstop, grew tobacco in his backyard, and every few minutes handed me another hand-rolled cigarette, said, “It is okay, here. We don’t care. You speak Hebrew? You speak Hebrew? We respect everyone, and I miss my boss from Israel, who cared for me for years. My family and I are against violence and I worked in Israel. When the second uprising started, my boss would come to the checkpoint and give me money, because he knew I needed to feed my family.” I thought, I wish other people would hear stories like these, because for many Israelis, a Palestinian is someone who would kill them if he had the chance. For many Palestinians, a Jewish-Israeli is either a settler with a gun or a soldier at a checkpoint.

So, sitting here at this Midwestern kitchen table, I am at a loss for how to answer. I do not have just one angle on this conflict, nor one answer to this question.  I’m the totality of my experiences. A former Hasidic Jew, a former settler, someone who visited Palestinian refugee camps and now a New Yorker. I have difficulty distinguishing between the self that was shaped by social norms and who I would be if they didn’t exist. I glance up at Fox News glaring over this dinnertime dominoes game, and remember that we are socialized into simple identity politics when the reality is much more diverse. Most of us stay in the same circles, and from that vantage point, we cannot break the boundaries of those circles. In relation to my own experience, for example, I now understand that, in Israel, there is societal tension between religious messianic visions, ultra-nationalistic lenses, and simple liberal democracy—the usual political structures can’t handle this complexity. I hope we can recognize the complexity in our conflicts.

I have spent more than a decade learning everything I can possibly learn about conflicts, about the history of my country and others. I have attended countless classes, received two degrees, studied the world, cultures, religion, psychology, biology, conflict resolution—trying to understand what I went through, what others went through, why we choose different paths. I have read hundreds of books, met thousands of people from across the globe, attended dozens of workshops and retreats about building relationships with people from the other side—part of my heart remaining with them, their with their experiences; part of my heart still there on the ground all those years ago, the blood all over me, trying to bring life to a dead body. None of this has provided me with an answer to my host’s simple and direct question, I suppose because my answer would be neither simple nor direct. Whatever the mainstream tells you about this conflict, there is more to the story. For me, because I know that violence is complex, because I know that millions of different, related stories converge here, because I work now for the advancement of youth, peace and security – there is no doubt in my mind that everyone has the same rights. I could just as easily have been born a Palestinian or an Israeli. This is the power of empathy, that we begin to see and to respect the complexity of life and of everyone living it.

I manage a meager smile and offer to refill his empty Midwestern coffee cup, just to have a chance to leave the table, breathe, and realize that I am homesick for Brooklyn, where the ten thousand things that I am, that we all are, blessed New York allows us, even invites us to be.



What Do We Do Now: Begin Moving Forward


What is happening now is already one of the great events that will shape History. I know some of you took to the streets or pulled the covers over your head: both perfectly legitimate initial responses. Now, let’s think systematically about a way forward.

History is made by people’s choices. It’s not some mystical force that advances or recedes. This means that every one of us has the power to choose, too: we either react or respond to it, or we transform it.

First, remember you are not alone. As History and Human Rights professor Paul Gordon Lauren noted, thoughtful people for centuries have chosen freedom, dignity and justice. They envisioned a world without prejudice or persecution, though they dealt with leaders who claimed immunity from being held accountable for any abuses. He says, “this explains why John Locke was imprisoned, why Thomas Paine was burned in effigy, why Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, why Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, why the Dalai Lama is exiled, or why Aung San Suu Kyi was being held in house arrest.”

Powerful women in our distant and not-so-distant past also chose to pioneer: Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton; Claudette Colvin and Rosa Parks; people lined up at Susan B. Anthony’s grave on Tuesday to say thank you. We may not (yet) have a woman for president, but having a female major party candidate advanced women’s rights arguably as much as her opponent may have challenged them (and please remember, 50% of us wanted a woman for president, here and now).

In recent history too, we have encountered ideology to which we were opposed, and we have organized. I have been part of several social movements in my lifetime – anti-peace in my youth, anti-war in my early twenties, Occupy in my late twenties –and, although my religious upbringing would tell me it was a sin, I went and literally tattooed “peace” on myself—inside my left wrist—as a promise to do everything I could to learn about, manifest, and create change. Because of that promise, I spent hundreds of nights in bed thinking about what will happen, and hundreds of days in discussion and in protest of the challenges before us, and then, despite efforts to create peaceful, democratic societies, watched the left and right debate who is correct this time and ignore the inner dynamics of social conflict. It made me feel helpless, like I know so many of us feel in this moment, but it also reminded me of the reasons that the work is worthwhile, the desire to work in solidarity with social change agents and peacebuilders to get the support they need, and to join them.

Make no mistake – what our forefathers and mothers knew and what they consistently chose is this – that the cure for helplessness is movement forward. It is not one system that you are working with or against – there are many small systems to impact and advance. I understand if you’re heavily discouraged by what has just happened: but might this be the trigger for a transformational change that we all need? To our activists, to my colleagues who work for change – you are ready, you have been ready, let’s do this. This is for the 50 million Americans with a desire to move forward and a discouraged heart. People of color, women, LGBTQI and concerned citizens: remember that you are part of a centuries-long movement for peace, dignity, human rights and social justice. Any battles we lose, know that we will win the war. There’s a way out.

Here’s how to begin:

1)     Actively listen to, and empathize with, “others.”

We can’t examine the fruits of racism and misogyny without understanding the root causes. I’m not trying to sugarcoat it – this is not to dismiss the racist and misogynistic underlying force: that is real, that is intolerable, and that should be actively resisted. But mass change (like ending Apartheid) and individual change (like Pope John Paul sitting down to talk with the man who tried to assassinate him) all start from this place of empathy for those we feel are “other” from us, those who champion values we deem unthinkable, those to whom we think we can never relate. Actively, empathetically listening to someone who you believe to be the “other” can be, and often is, profoundly transformational for both people. Toward empathy, then, there is a good deal of data supporting why Trump may have been, in some folks’ minds, appealing “change” to the current status quo (as we know, some women, some people of color, and some of our own friends and family members –indeed, half our country saw something in this man). But aside from having a conversation with a Trump supporter (which I also highly recommend) to more deeply understand why or how half of our country would choose Trump despite (or perhaps because) of this, some examination of recent data may help. There have been 200 school shootings since 2013. Rural educational statistics are as horrifying as urban educational statistics, and we don’t have the flocks of young teachers moving to intervene in small town Tennessee or Iowa. There were more than 41,000 suicides in the US in 2013 – 113 a day, or one every 13 minutes. The heroin epidemic is now so rampant in our rural and suburban communities it is leaving families with shame, and leaving more children than ever in foster care. Add to this the family circles and friends and you get millions of people feeling hopeless and deeply in need of change – apparently, approximately 50 million, to be exact. We need to hear these stories and we need to love the people who are telling them. This is part of the path forward.

  1. Teach and Re-Learn the tools of Critical Thinking.

Once we better understand why 50 million people may have chosen what they earnestly believe will bring about a better country, it is time to engage our critical thinking. Our circles and our media consumption reinforce our worldview. It’s important to challenge those assumptions, and to share the tools with which to do that with our youth. Critical thinking means basing your beliefs on actual evidence as opposed to wishful thinking. It means thinking through the implications of a belief. In my own experience, if I had not started thinking critically, I would surely be more extremist. Once we develop our critical thinking skills and begin to examine our beliefs systematically, it becomes a means by which we can mentally counter everything that is trying to deceive us – ideology, politics, marketing – we remove ourselves from false beliefs. We choose truth.

  1. Create Transformational Spaces in our lives.

We need a deep level of self-reflection on white privilege, heterosexism, race, class, gender equality. Societal reflection starts with critical, individual self-reflection. How can we create love in our lives? How can we counter societal forces before us? If we don’t clarify our own values and our own processes of meaning making, we can’t conquer a society. We have to own that our worldview comes from our own constructs about the lessons learned from our past experiences. We can infuse purpose and meaning on a daily basis with each choice we make. Do the internal work: there is no other way. We must repair our inner lives. The late philosopher, Maxine Greene, said that it is easy for people to be lost in the crowd, to lose the opportunity to think independently. She urged us to remain “wide awake.” Greene says that being aware, conscious, and reflective of one’s own and others’ ways of thinking and being, is, in and of itself, a powerful way forward: that “we are who we are, not yet” as we are “always becoming.” We need to be proactive, awake, centered. From here, we can transform.

  1. Act. Remember that our Diversity is our Strength.

The last step is to put our listening, thinking, and reflecting into action. In my leadership program, we discuss the difference between commitment in intention and commitment in action. One of the major missing parts in moments such as these is not taking the energy of the moment and using it to make achievable goals for the change we want to see. Create a space in your life, in your schedule, for the next year, with your friends, to dedicate time to an issue of importance to you. Democracy is not only voting: it is active civic engagement. We must educate ourselves on the real issues and where the need intersects with our particular strengths. There is an opportunity to create new patterns for our planet and humanity and to achieve systemic-level changes as the foundation of new realities. That can start with you.

Change sometimes results from quiet reflection, sometimes from a movement so profound we can’t help but act. Human rights are for all of us. If we believe that, it forces us to look at our world, at our lives, at human behavior, indeed, at our choices. If we can put forth into the world the key steps above: listening with empathy to each other, thinking critically, reflecting deeply, and committing to action on issues until we achieve systematic results – we can be a real democracy. Remember: the election is only part of that. Just as Hillary wouldn’t have absolved us from local, regional work neither can Donald take it from us. Let us commit in action to our values, beyond democrat or republican. What resonates with you? Act on that. A new civic engagement – we wake up, we nourish our bodies, we meditate, we go to the movies: we routinely engage with a cause of importance to us. When it’s *that* regular, our world will change.

An Open Letter to Donald Trump

Dear Donald,

Tonight, I write because I can’t sleep, and indeed, haven’t slept – like so many Americans who wait with bated breath to see if your angry visage really will follow that of our eloquent, articulate first black president. If we will see less support for immigrants (in our nation so proudly built by, so thoroughly filled with immigrants), less respect for women (women, who give us life and who deserve respect, at minimum), less empowerment for our brothers and sisters of color (when finally it seemed as if maybe, just maybe, we were beginning a path forward toward social justice in our country). Yet, I write to say how grateful I am for you – for making the mainstream aware, for showing us the work before us, for making plain for whom we absolutely cannot vote come Tuesday.

Mr. Trump, the words you say undervalue the way immigrants have transformed our nation. Mr. Trump, the words you say further oppression of women, setting us back, not moving us forward. Most of all, Mr. Trump: I need you to know this: the words you say can spill blood.

I write because I have been someone with hate in my heart. I see in you a “leader” who stirs just the enthusiasm for violence that I have experienced in my own past. I grew up in an ultra-religious Israeli community, and as I searched for meaning and identity in my adolescence, I found it as a youth activist in an extremist group. I hated Arabs, Muslims
and Palestinians. I spent my days plotting activities against them – beating up some people I had never met just for what they represented. I knew people who were so filled with hate, they took a stone, and cracked the skull of a 70 year old Palestinian farmer. Your rhetoric reminds me of this all the time. I have evolved: I have been working for decades on how we can see all perspectives in conflict, and I work now for youth and for peace with amazing colleagues at the UN, at Columbia University, in our communities. As such, I am not speaking of your base, but of a few people on the fringe, like I used to be: those who don’t have a deep understanding of reality or a broader context. Your words, “rigged” election, “crooked” leader, and some of your supporters publicly calling Hillary a “traitor” – these words can and do incite violence. I remember the chants in my youth – “Rabin is a traitor” – that precipitated his assassination – it is 21 years to the day that Rabin was killed – a day that was met by my young friends and I with rejoicing and much dancing. Would you rejoice if Secretary Clinton was killed? Would your supporters rejoice? If your answer is no, know that your words suggest a different story. Your words can spill blood.

I write because I have been someone who was taught to view women as provocation to sin. Women were so “dangerous” that we were not allowed to look at them: I was made to believe that looking at women would cause me to lust, putting a wall between me and God (as if women were only sexual objects).  Years later, after I had liberated from this ultra-Orthodox mindset and experience, I had the privilege of participating in diversity training where the group faced stories of women of all ages, races and ethnicities through the simple question, “how is it to be female in society?” the depth of which reduced us all to tears. After, I took a course in graduate school called Gender Mainstreaming in Global Affairs, where, to my surprise, I was the only male in the class. Thank you for making male ignorance of the female experience, and male furthering, exploitation of, or oppression of women a mainstream topic of discussion.  I learned then, as I re-learn, even more deeply via your intensely misogynistic comments now, that we have huge continued work to do here, societally. And I hope the fact that you have made it a dinner table topic means that the next generation will see as many men as women in their Gender Studies classes.

I write because I am essentially an immigrant. Although I’m lucky enough to have citizenship because my father grew up in the Bronx and Washington Heights and then immigrated to Israel in the 70s, I grew up in Israel. After moving to NYC because the violence at home had escalated to the point where I was losing dear friends, nothing prepared me for a life where I knew no English, where I struggled for a full year, moving from a basement with 5 roommates, to staying weeks in house full of mice, to “making it” – paying $500 for a room in the East Village only big enough to house a bed – I worked for $7 per hour 60 hours a week and took ESL classes 30 hours a week. I struggled mentally, physically, but was surrounded by community: in my ESL class, there were people from at least 15-20 different nationalities. Everyone worked full time to make it here, everyone did the jobs that most Americans don’t want to do. So, when you talk about immigrants, for so many of us, we picture amazing people – our own families, our own friends. For me, I especially remember members of the Mexican community, who invited me to dinner when I had no food, who offered me their family’s couch when I couldn’t make rent – when you even remotely imply that Mexicans are rapists, when you allude to the wall you would build to keep them out, I see only my incredible friends who struggled to survive, who took care of me like I was a member of their blood family. I am outraged that you refuse to see the beauty in our immigrant communities, how America is great because of our contributions, but I do thank you for empowering our immigrant families to bring out their mothers, their grandmothers, their great-grandmothers to own their rights, and to unify their communities to vote in record numbers.

Donald, you need to know that your rhetoric nourishes the dangerous fringe. For instance, I was so deeply filled with hate for those who were different from me, it took me years to overcome it, but it taught me what hate could do to you. From an early age, I had been indoctrinated into ideologies of violence and direct threat. I was not only advocating for violent political solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I also took an active part in violence. I also was a recipient of violence – from stones, to shots, to Molotov cocktails – I have a lot of real life violent memories lodged in my mind. I have different images now, since I have had rich, peaceful experiences since then, but I can still touch and feel the roots of hatred. I can understand why people go there. Yet, I learned to see from multiple perspectives, and I am now a person who worked tirelessly with so many others to pass a UN Security Council Resolution 2250, which is about youth, security, and peace, who strive to find another, better way forward. I write in gratitude for your unearthing these powerfully important truths about our world: we do not live in a post-racial society, even after having eight years of leadership from a black president. We do not live in a world of gender equality, even though we have a woman running for president. We do not champion our conglomeration-of-immigration nation, even though incredibly few of us are Native American, and therefore, we are, all of us, immigrants. Thank you for making plain the work that is before us, and for revealing the work that our communities need to do. You have loudly, angrily reminded us that we are so far from post-racial, post-gender, post-hatred: but you have also sounded a cry, far and wide, that we need to gather together to heal the wounds of our nation, to work to be everything that our forefathers (and mothers) fought for us to become.

Thank you for helping me revisit meaningful cognitive and emotional transformations.


Kobi Skolnick