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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

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McGill grad does 'the write thing'

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Irwin Cotler and Kortney Shapiro

DENVER — As I powered down my BlackBerry and plugged myself into the in-flight entertainment system (the fact that I can watch Modern Family en route to my destination still remains novel to me), I pinched myself. Was I really on my way to the annual Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly? It felt so surreal.

As a recent graduate of McGill University, I am currently, as they say, “finding myself”… that is, finding myself heading down a very exciting and challenging journey in which I have come to realize all opportunities must be seized, and with the utmost of conviction.  

There I was, an unapologetically outspoken Israel advocate standing in the midst of the largest gathering of thought leaders, politicians, lay people and students I have ever seen, waiting with bated breath to experience what I believe to be the Oscars of Jewish forums. 

It was truly bashert that I was chosen to be among the 3,000-plus members of the international Jewish community at the Jewish Federations of North America’s 80th General Assembly held this year in the state of Colorado’s “Mile High City” of Denver. 

Dubbed the “original Jewish social network,” the GA was literally abuzz with attendees soaking in informative sessions and workshops, all while plugged into a plethora of social media outlets. 

I had no idea what to expect, it being my first GA experience. A member of Do the Write Thing’s young professional contingent under the auspices of the World Zionist Organization and the American Zionist Movement, I was honoured to have been accepted to their program geared toward shaping young professionals and students into future journalists and reporters. 

As a freelance writer, I was more than excited to get my hands dirty and soak in everything I could from my three short days in Denver. 

New friends were made, and captivating conversations were held.  Throughout the conference, we typed furiously on our smartphones and laptops, posting links, photos and quotes, all in real time. 

My group was privileged to attend a private cocktail reception with Ha’aretz’s editor-in-chief Aluf Benn.

Many of the GA sessions dealt with how to combat the ever-present delegitimization of Israel. Given the frightening increase in anti-Israel rhetoric present on college campuses, in work spaces, and within public and governmental arenas, these sessions were imperative.

I chose to attend a session titled “The Assault on Israel’s Legitimacy,” which featured MP Irwin Cotler, former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada; British MP Denis MacShane, chair of the British Parliamentary Committee of Inquiry into Anti-Semitism, and MK Einat Wilf. 

The speakers delivered succinct and non-cliché messages, and we walked away with greater motivation to face the challenge of truly doing something about the increase in anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

Wilf argued for a shift away from victimhood toward a message of responsibility. 

“Israel and her story, and the Zionist movement still win hands down on the question of who has shown greater vision, responsibility, and the kind of state and life they want for their people rather than always playing the victim,” Wilf said.  

I left the session with her final statement resonating in my mind, “For the younger generation of Jews… to be a fully Jewish person and a fully moral person, you need to engage in Israel and with the problematics of its existence… by trying to answer those dilemmas and not by running away from them, you are a better Jew and you are a better person.”

As the ideological war continues with Israel and its legitimacy as a nation state at its epicentre, it is clear to me that the North American Jewish community understands the need not only to respond by discussing the challenge but also by implementing programs and forums.  

I also went to a session called “Combating Delegitimization: The North American Response.” The speakers included Shimon Fogel, CEO of the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, and D.J. Schneeweiss, director, civil society affairs and co-ordinator, Counter-BDS Campaigns, Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Schneeweiss will replace Amir Gissin as Israel’s consul general in Toronto next year.

When the moment came for questions, almost instinctively my hand shot up in the air. 

Little did I know that Cotler, a fellow McGill alumnus, was sitting directly in front of me as I urged the panellists to heed my plea of reaching out to the young, pre-college audience of vulnerable students who are heading into the intimidating world of hatred and biases that run rampant on today’s university campuses. If we allow future generations to rest on their laurels while we stand idly by, the situation will only intensify. 

Minutes later, I literally had to run to attend a lunch with Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, when I crossed paths with Cotler, who told me that my comment was poignant and relevant.

In between listening to American-Israeli comedian Benji Lovitt, attending an acoustic (yes, acoustic!) Matisyahu concert for GA participants, and staying up late with new friends while peer-editing and wandering the hallways in shlumpy sweatpants (a heavenly alternative to the power suits and heels we wore throughout the GA), my experience at this year’s GA was more than a life-changer; it was a game-changer. 

I now see how empowered my generation is, and although we have a ways to go, we have the ability to change the discourse of hate that we have, unfortunately, become nearly accustomed to.  

So with that, let us adopt the motto of “Yes, we can!” and get out there, implement two-way dialogue and foster relationships while establishing for ourselves an even greater social network; one that stands united regardless of whether we are one full mile above sea level on New York’s Wall Street or sipping espresso at a Dizengoff café in Tel Aviv. 

 

 

 

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