I grew up in Pittsburgh as a member of the third generation of a Squirrel Hill family. My world was imbued with pride in Judaism and a willingness to question everything. It was also a world that advocated for the active practice of tikkun olam and had a strong commitment to the welfare of our community.
This commitment was never better expressed than during the Israel Day Parade, which wound along Forbes and Murray avenues in my Squirrel Hill neighborhood. I recall waving Israeli flags and singing Hebrew songs proudly while marching past the throngs of cheering parade watchers, including sometimes the mayor. Music was in the air. These were my stomping grounds — a stone’s throw from my synagogue, Beth Shalom.
Like clockwork, my teenage years were filled with after school Hebrew lessons at the School for Advanced Jewish Studies. And then there were the summers at Camp Ramah in Canada and the Jewish adolescent’s rite of passage — the six-week summer teen tour to Israel. What a thrill! Being Jewish was truly my identity, my pride, and my purpose.
This strong Jewish foundation shaped my world outlook and motivated me to spend my career working in international affairs in order to help heal the world. Unfortunately, there are plenty of problems in the world to heal.
It goes without saying that the Middle East and the broader Muslim world is one of these places. American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the seemingly endless Israeli-Arab conflict, oil politics, the challenge from Iran, terrorism, a lack of democracy and human rights, and stunted economic development are but only a few of the issues that nightly cloud our airwaves about that troubled region.
As the Obama administration attempts to renew our relationship with both the Arab and Muslim worlds after years of damaging policies, the Jewish community, which is politically engaged, inclined toward activism, and has a real personal stake in the region, will play a significant role in shaping both the national debate and the policies that our government takes to address these historic challenges.
Given the potentially dire consequences of these challenges, and because of the Jewish community’s significant role in shaping America’s response to them, it is essential that we have an open and robust debate within our community about the best way to protect America’s national security and advance our country’s interests while also ensuring that Israel is safe.
Such a discussion is in the interests of our community, the United States, Israel, the Middle East and the world. This is because our country’s policymakers directly benefit from a public debate — free from taboo — when it is held about even the most controversial of topics.
For instance, one topic that should be openly discussed is how one can be a dear friend of Israel while also supporting the creation of the state of Palestine. Another topic should be about how one should be able to express one’s own grave concerns about Iran’s links to terrorism and its nuclear ambitions while also backing extensive diplomatic outreach to resolve these issues. In addition, it also makes perfect sense for one to be able to strongly express a belief in the fight against terrorism while also actively supporting direct links between Americans and the peoples and governments of the entire Middle East.
I am writing this column because I have dedicated my professional and personal life to addressing these types of issues.
Interestingly, Pittsburgh is about to take center stage on issues such as these at the upcoming G-20 summit. The summit will be part of a major set of international political events later this month, including the United Nations General Assembly meetings in New York. Participants at these events will debate, among other issues, how to deal with Iran and the global economy.
This is a moment of consequence for the Middle East. The Jewish community, Americans, and the world will be watching the Pittsburgh summit closely. To paraphrase the legendary Pittsburgher Andy Warhol, Pittsburgh will soon have its 15 minutes of fame, showing itself off to the world and demonstrating that there is sunshine after the storm, renewal after decay. Congratulations, Pittsburgh. Now is your time.
I look forward to sharing thoughts about these and other issues with you in future columns. Finally, Shana Tova and I hope that you have a meaningful Yom Kippur.
(Joel Rubin, deputy director and chief operating officer of the National Security Network in Washington, D.C., and a Pittsburgh native, can be reached at email@example.com.)