With the complex challenges we face in an inter-connected world, the need for joined up thinking and action could not be clearer. This was the resounding message that I took from a week of dialogue with emerging and established leaders at the Brussels Forum over the last week.
A little over a month ago, the World Jewish Congress honoured me with the Ralph Goldman Award. The prize was a week-long training and networking opportunity at the prestigious Brussels Forum of the German Marshall Funds of the US. The Brussels Forum is like a mini-Davos, whose participants are luminaries from both sides of the Atlantic including the King of Belgium, George Soros and former Libyan Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril.
My week was divided into roughly three parts: 1) The Brussels Forum itself; 2) A special programme for selected young professionals; and 3) A 3-day training programme for emerging ethnic minority, LGBTQI and disability leaders.
The ethnic and other minority leaders were a selection of some of the most impressive and inspiring people that I have ever met. From Kansas’ first female Native American state legislator, to charismatic young leaders of Eastern Europe’s oft-mistreated Roma minority; from New York City’s first gay Mexican-American councillor, to the first Somali Muslim councillor in Stavanger, Norway. This was a group that was both smashing glass ceilings for their own communities and offering new vision and leadership for their wider societies too.
Above all, this part of the programme was an opportunity to share and compare the challenges our communities faced and to build coalitions to tackle them. We were not uniform in our views – there were powerful debates on immigration, extremism and quotas – but we were unified in our vision for a more equal and connected world.
Sadly, all the people in the room had experienced prejudice, hate – and some even violence – because of who they were. But this led to a powerful, common sense of resolve to tackle racism and hate in all their forms. The Jewish experience of antisemitism was a matter for immense empathy and I found the expressions of solidarity and support from Muslim participants especially hopeful. A number of them had already been involved in initiatives to support their local Jewish communities over the summer – from peace rings around synagogues in Norway to joint social action in the USA – and were all keen to continue the conversation in the future about what more they could do.
For my part, I was keen to explore ways that our community could help to confront Islamophobia, homophobia, Romaphobia and other forms of prejudice. We came up with a series of ideas which I hope to put in to practice over the coming months and years, including sharing best-practice with Muslim communities on fighting xenophobia; coordinating action on protecting religious freedoms like kosher and halal slaughter; and connecting with Roma leaders to gain concrete examples of prejudice they are facing to raise when the Board of Deputies meets with different embassies on Jewish issues.
It would be fair to say that few people at either the main programme or the young leaders’ programmes were optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East following the Israeli elections (which took place during the training) and particularly following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s apparent comments about the two-state solution and Arab voters. American Democratic Party members had been very annoyed by Netanyahu’s Congress visit and the way that it undermined President Obama, and my questions to those running the USA’s Iran sanctions programme got shorter shrift than I might have hoped (their European counterparts were more constructive).
However, with ISIS, Russia, climate change, gender inequality and so much else on the agenda, it would also be fair to say that Israel was fairly low down the priority lists for most people, and quite a number sought out a ‘Middle East 101’ course with me. This reminded me that, as a community, we should not overestimate the understanding of even elites of the Middle East situation, and that many are genuinely open to our perspectives. I even met quite a number of senior leadership figures in the Arab world who had a surprisingly candid and hopeful attitude to a possible future peace between Israel, the Palestinians and their own countries. However, there is no doubt that a lack of progress towards a Palestinian state, settlement expansion and threats to the equality of Israel’s Arab minority will continue to undermine and erode support.
Alongside the exciting array of contacts I made for the future – including both senior existing and emerging leaders – I very much enjoyed the exchanges I had with my fellow Ralph Goldman honoree, Igor Ujhazi from Serbia. Igor is doing tremendous work in trying to bring Jewish communities together across the Balkans, looking at how to empower those communities to be more sustainable and to have a louder collective voice, both to the wider societies in their region and in the international Jewish scene. He is deserving of support and I look forward to continuing our dialogue as he powers forward with his plans.
I would like to express my profound gratitude to the World Jewish Congress and the German Marshall Funds for the US for this tremendous opportunity and opening exciting future possibilities. I leave with a great many new friends, mentors and allies – some who are in high places already and some who will be there shortly – and I look forward to our work together that will serve Jewish communities and our wider global society. The Jewish voice is important and powerful, but for many of the challenges we face, we need to work across faith and national lines to get the results we need. We are definitely better together.
Phil Rosenberg is the Public Affairs Director of the Board of Deputies of British Jews and an elected local councillor in the London Borough of Camden.