Monthly Archives: July 2011

Going for Gold at the Jewish Olympics

by Gabi P. Remz

Since 1932, when a 50,000-resident town called Tel Aviv hosted the first Jewish equivalent of the Olympics, the Maccabiah Games have drawn the finest Jewish athletes to participate in a wide array of events. This year’s JCC Games, which began on Sunday, include the staples of sport, such as basketball and soccer, as well as more niche competitions, such as chess, bridge and squash. The event has grown so big that it is now one of the five largest sports gatherings in the world, causing the International Olympic Committee to officially recognize it as “regional games.”

And while these games offer nearly everyone a chance to play (the games have youth, open, and senior divisions allowing for almost all ages to participate) in a variety of settings—in addition to the Maccabiah of Israel, there are the European, Pan-American and North American JCC Games— the goal of the event is more than to simply provide Jews a forum in which to exhibit their athletic prowess.

In some cases, as with the European Games that were held in Vienna just a few weeks ago, it can be to show the endurance of the Jewish spirit.

This years European games in Vienna were the first in a German-speaking country since 1945, and overcoming the Holocaust was a constant theme of the games.

The opening ceremony took place at Vienna’s City Hall, several hundred yards away from where Hitler announced Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. The opening ceremony included footage of Hitler’s speech as well as pictures of the destruction he would go on to cause. However, the video then moved on to the Jewish recovery effort, as images of Jews rebuilding their communities in Europe and Israel flashed across the screen.

Speaker of the Israeli Knesset Reuven Rivlin focused on the spirit of endurance, saying, “We can’t forget the Vienna that was the city of Theodor Herzl, nor can we forget the Vienna of the Nazis…It’s a festival of the victory of the Jewish spirit over Nazi extermination.”

Two members of the American delegation in Vienna were, in fact, Austrian-born Jews, both of whom fled the country in 1938.

“I’m doing a symbolic swim,” one of those men, John Benfield, told the JTA. “I need to show the Nazis I’m still around.”

And Benfield, like many others, is there for something more than just athletic achievement.

Maccabi USA’s slogan is “building Jewish pride through sports.” The Maccabiah website describes the “principal mission” of the games as being not only “to facilitate a worldwide gathering of young Jewish athletes in Israel,” but also “strengthening their connection to the State of Israel and the Jewish People.”

The various versions of the Maccabi games do this by engaging host communities as well as including as many people as possible in delegations. The Maccabiah Games in Israel draw nearly 5,000 athletes, but the organization looks to include the “majority of Israeli citizens” in some capacity, whether as athletes, volunteers, or even just as spectators.

The JCC Games allow players from all over North America to connect with host families in the event’s host city, and the Games also provide social programming so that participants can develop relationships with Jewish athletes from all over. This year’s event will be held in Philadelphia and Springfield, Mass. three weeks from now.

Jonah Weisel, who represented the Greater Washington delegation in basketball from 2005 through 2008, says the connections he made at the games were strong and have been maintained over the years.

“I definitely made connections with many other kids at the Maccabi Games, to the point that I saw kids in Israel this year that I recognized from years past,” Weisel said. “I had conversations with other kids that started with, ‘Hey did you happen to play basketball in the Orange County Maccabi Games?’ I also keep in touch with my teammates and the families that hosted me.”

One issue many athletes voice about the games is the wildly expensive costs of participating. This years Pan-Am Games will cost nearly $5,000 a player, quite a price for a little more than a week of competition. Of course, many teams work hard to fundraise so that any qualified player can get a shot.

In the end, though, the mass gatherings of Jews that just occurred in Vienna, are currently happening in Israel, and will happen in a few weeks in Philadelphia and Springfield, are considered by many to exceed any price. It is a chance to show the Jews are as strong and proud as ever.

Not the First (or Last) Jew in Spain

by Hilary Weissman

While studying abroad in Spain this spring. I found myself unintentionally making numerous trips to the southern town of Córdoba– it served as a stop along the way in order to make the most of my EuroRail pass at the end of the semester. Córdoba’s storied Jewish heritage manifested itself when my sister and I were lucky enough to find the Mazal Sephardic restaurant (pun very intended) during my second visit. We sampled pumpkin flan and raisin roasted chicken with rice before the start of Passover, which we later celebrated with a congregation from Madrid. Other than the saffron-spiced yellow gefilte fish, the seder experience felt very familiar, as I was lucky to have my sister there with me to celebrate, daiyenu. We were transported between two different worlds as the Rabbi delivered a sermon and led us through the Spanish haggadah, and then brought us right back to our hometown synagogue, it would seem, as soon as he began to sing in Hebrew. Even his inherent Jewish kibitzing couldn’t be lost in translation.

Learning from my guidebook to Jewish Spain that there are merely 5,000 practicing Jews in Barcelona and Madrid each, along with pockets of communities sprinkled along the Costa del Sol (the southern border of Spain) surprised me much more than finding what was left intact of their ancestors after the original Diaspora. Spanish Jewry left their mark through the Sephardic flavor that enriches Spanish history.

Among the many eye-opening experiences I had while studying in the Madrid province–language immersion, living on my own with seven girls from three different countries, trying exotic and native food, and crossing borders on my own–nothing was quite as charming as my interview and guided tour of the barrio, Alcalá de Henares’ ghost of a Jewish quarter.

You would only know you had entered the Madrid suburb’s Jewish quarter if you happened to catch the small plaques on top of the entryways, marking where the two synagogues were supposed to have been, pointed out to me by the owner of a small souvenir shop on Calle Mayor (Main Street). He said he would show me around the 15th- and 16th-century Jewish homes, lofted apartments over their storefronts, set apart by holes in the floors for the residents to see who was knocking at their front door below. If they knew the caller, they would throw their keys down to let their guests up. My tour guide shared some of his favorite Ladino music with me and, after I told him that our family had traced our lineage back to pre-Inquisition Spain, even let me in on the fact that my grandmother’s maiden name, Mirels, was probably Catalán (from the now-autonomous regions of Cataluña).

Though he claimed not to know much about the Jewish quarter, I spent the next two hours with him discussing the barrio, the architecture, religion, politics and current events. He told me about speaking with the Spanish ambassador to Croatia, who happens to be Jewish, and discussed the symbolism of the proximity of the old Jewish and Muslim quarters of Alcalá. The minor synagogue and the mosque were once across the street. Still, he said, “It became difficult to maintain the Hebrew religion and culture; the same happened with the Muslims—another 300,000 were expelled, and we never speak of this. In Alcalá de Henares alone the expulsion of the Muslims lost 10 percent of the population…but it’s not in the collective Spanish conscience like the expulsion of the Jews.”

After this conversation, I made sure to find the Jewish quarters that remain in several Spanish cities, like Toledo, Córdoba, and Seville. They are kept in various states—some only have rumored ties to Jewish communities and others are left in anthropological disarray, while a few have retained thriving historical proof of our ancestral fingerprints. Toledo, the most well known keeper of Sephardic heritage in Spain, boasts two of Spain’s three remaining pre-Inquisition synagogues, while Córdoba has the third. According to the Casa Sefarad in Córdoba, a colorful museum detailing the Inquisition and the journey of Cordoba’s native son, Maimonides, the 14th-century synagogue in Córdoba is Spain’s best-preserved synagogue, though it has fallen into disuse.

These interviews and trips were perfect supplements to the readings on the Jewish and Moorish coexistence and ultimate expulsion we studied in my Spanish culture and civilization class, in the form of history textbooks and historical fiction excerpts like “The Inquisitor” by Francisco Ayala, a story about a converted Jew who became a priest, confronted by his family and hidden past when they are presented before him to be interrogated. After all the nagging from my mother, grandmother, and every Judaica storeowner in Spain, I finally tackled The Last Jew on my commutes into the city with my newfound understanding of the context, and I think it is better this way, rather than drudging through it before my education abroad.

Should Jews Play Wagner?

by Theodore Samets

Richard Wagner, the lauded 19th-century German composer of operas such asTristan und Isolde and Parsifal, had an anti-Semitic streak.

It was more than just a streak. He discussed Jews throughout his writings, most notably in an essay, “Judaism in Music,” which derided Felix Mendelssohn and other Jewish composers, as well as the Jewish people in general, for corrupting German culture.

“Judaism and Music” is troubling to read, with its claims that “Jewish music is bereft of all expression, characterized by coldness and indifference, triviality and nonsense,” and at the “harmful influence of Jewry on the morality of the nation.”

Long after his death, Wagner’s anti-Semitism continues to cause many to chafe at his music. This is particularly true in Israel, where for decades no group publicly played any of his music, as part of an unofficial ban.

Yet in recent years, some Israelis have tried to change this. In 2001, Daniel Barenboim, the renownd Argentinian-Israeli conductor, asked an audience if his Berlin Statskapelle orchestra could play the overture of Tristan und Isolde as a second encore – he had originally intended to perform a different Wanger piece before the organziers of the Israel Festival, at whose invitation the orchestra was performing, made clear that “Wagner should not be played.”

The audience debated Barenboim’s request; most in attendance made clear that they wanted the orchestra to perform Wagner. A few audience members left, but many more stayed and gave the orchestra and maestro a standing ovation. Yet even among those who stayed, not everyone agreed whether Barenboim was in the right: Haaretz wrote at the time that some “spoke about the ‘trick’ that Barenboim had executed, about ‘exploiting the festival stage and the auditorium for his own private obsession,’ and also about the breach of the understanding between him and the festival.”

Since then, no orchestra has performed Wagner again in Israel.

On Tuesday, however, the Israeli Chamber Orchestra performed one of Wagner’s compositions at the Bayreuth Festival, which the composer founded, in Berlin. The festival, where a veriety of Wagner’s operas are performed, is an annual occurrence, organized in part by Wagner’s descendants, many of whom have played an important role in addressing Wagner’s anti-Semitic beliefs. According to Fox News:

The piece, the “Siegfried Idyll,” is a symphonic poem lasting just 20 minutes that Wagner composed for his second wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried in 1869. But the fact that it was played at all has scandalized many Jews, The (London) Times reported Wednesday.

Wagner was a hero of the Fuhrer, who admired and drew inspiration from the composer’s anti-Jewish essays, which raged against the “corruption” of the “German spirit” by Jews.

Playing Wagner is obviously a sensitive subject for many Jews, and increased acceptance of the composer’s music may be a sign of younger generations’ increased distance from the Holocaust.

Yet while Wagner’s views on Jews were unquestionably abhorrent, the opposition to performing his compositions only began after Hitler embraced his work. In the 1930s, the Palestine Orchestra (now the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra) performed works by Wagner, including during its first concerts.

The Philharmonic has intended to play Wagner since 1991, when member musicians voted to perform concert of his music in December, only to see Philharmonic officials cancel their plans.

Playing Wagner in Israel is an issue that arises complex emotions. Some claim that Jews and Israelis should be able to appreciate Wagner’s music, irrespective of his anti-Semitic beliefs, and others argue that Israelis should play Wagner as a way to show the strength of the Jewish people, who thrive around the world more than 65 years since the end of National Socialism in Germany. And many believe that Wagner’s operas, no matter how impressive they might be musically, should not be performed in a Jewish state.

Hopefully the Chamber Orchestra’s decision will reignite a debate that has lain dormant in recent years, which may someday allow more Israelis to realize that Wagner is much more than an idol of Hitler’s; he is a composer of great historical import who fundamentally altered the course of music. If Israel truly wants to consider its classical music scene among the best in the world, Wagner’s compositions ought to be a part of that scene.

Blame Canada (for Anti-Zionism)

By Adina Rosenthal

Canadian bacon isn’t the only thing that’s unkosher. Earlier this month, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), released its report concluding that anti-Semitism is on the rise in Canada, especially on university campuses. Since its inception in March 2009, the CPCCA, composed of 22 Parliamentarians from all parties in the House of Commons, has conducted investigations and hearings with the purported purpose “of confronting and combating antisemitism [sic] in Canada today.” Based on its findings, the committee made several recommendations to its government, such as training Canadian police forces on how to better handle anti-Semitic incidents, sponsoring conferences at universities to combat anti-Semitic events and establishing a clear definition for anti-Semitism. According to Former Liberal MP Mario Silva, Chair of the CPCCA Inquiry Panel that published the report, “We are calling on the Government of Canada to take our recommendations under serious consideration to combat the wave of antisemitism we are witnessing in our nation. Canada is founded on a set of shared values and antisemitism is an affront to all we stand for in this country.”

In their report, the CPCCA identified a “new anti-Semitism” prominent in Canadian discourse, that is “increasingly focused on the role of Israel in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East.” The report further adds, “Jews are seen as supporters of Israel and are seen by some, who do not distinguish between Israelis and Jews, as a legitimate target in the fight to establish a Palestinian state or to eliminate the State of Israel.” Moreover, “anti-Semitism is being manifested in a manner which has never been dealt with before…Jewish students are ridiculed and intimidated for any deemed support for the ‘Nazi’ and ‘apartheid’ State of Israel, which is claimed to have no right to exist.” In short, anti-Zionist rhetoric has simply becomes a guise for anti-Semitic sentiment.

But not everyone is sold on the CPCCA’s report, with some critics arguing that the committee’s findings are being used to prevent legitimate criticism of Israel.  According to Alia Hogben, executive director of the Canadian Council of Muslim Women, “By referring to Israel as a ‘Jewish collectivity’ in the anti-Semitism definition, it means the state can’t be criticized…But Israel should be allowed to be criticized by the same standards of any state.” Last March, Bloc Québécois members dropped out of the committee, claiming the coalition had a pro-Israel bias. As Michel Guimond, the Bloc Whip, told a Quebec newspaper at that time: “We consider the coalition is tainted, partisan and presents a single side of the coin” in reference to the coalition’s alleged refusal to hear from pro-Arab and pro-Palestinian groups like Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East and the Canadian Arab Federation.

In direct response to those who felt ill-represented during the CPCCA’s investigation, Silva argued that such groups “weren’t prepared at all, in fact, to even have any positive contribution, even state the fact that anti-Semitism is a problem…They’d rather just focus on attacking the work we were doing.”

The question of where anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism reaches beyond Canada’s borders. In Iceland, Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson announced he would support the Palestinians’ initiative to petition for state recognition at the United Nations this fall, a measure that would undermine the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The foreign minister made this announcement after a trip to Gaza in which he concurrently called for an end to the Gaza blockade and avoided any contact with Israel. In response to criticism of the Foreign Minster’s slighting of Israel, writer Katharina Hauptmann of the Iceland Review insisted, “The fact that the Icelandic government may have issues with Israel’s treatment of Palestine has nothing at all to do with anti-Semitism.” In regards to Yale closing its initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Antisemitism, a recent Jerusalem Post article pointed out, “Given the widespread acceptability of anti-Zionism, some anti-Semites have insisted that they’re ‘only’ anti-Zionists, and that Israel and the Jews have become the new Nazis, perpetrating a Holocaust of their own.”

Essentially, it seems that whether anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are being melded is not the issue. Both sides agree that they are, and a new definition of anti-Semitism is now commonly accepted. Rather, the point of contention is whether such a conflation is legitimate. If you are anti-Semitic, you are probably anti-Zionist, but does the converse also hold true?  If you are anti-Zionist, are you also anti-Semitic? The answer is “not necessarily”; political discourse isn’t usually so black and white.

The CPCCA report evinces a global increase in anti-Semitism. According to the British Community Security Trust, the United Kingdom had 924 anti-Semitic incidents in 2009, finding that the main reason for this record spike was the “unprecedented number” of such incidents recorded in January and February of 2009, during and after the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The CPCCA report draws parallels with this data for Canada, noting 1,306 anti-Semitic incidents in 2010, up from 1,264 the year before. According to the CPCCA report, “As in other jurisdictions [of Canada], antisemitic incidents…tend to be tied to the situation in the Middle East.” Though the report doesn’t provide concrete numbers of anti-Zionism resulting in anti-Semitic acts, the qualitative evidence, particularly on Canadian campuses, should raise some eyebrows. Math might not provide a definitive answer here.  But if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck…well, you be the judge.

Prussian Blue Sings a New Tune

By Steven Philp

It has been five quiet years since Lamb and Lynx Gaede stepped out of the national spotlight—ending a short and controversial career as the neo-Nazi pop duo Prussian Blue—yet this month they came out of their self-imposed solitude to give an interview with The Daily, singing a different tune. “I’m not a white nationalist anymore,” Lamb explained. “My sister and I are pretty liberal now.” Lynx confirmed their change of heart. “Personally, I love diversity,” she added.

Delivered with such earnestness, it is difficult to believe that these opinions come from the same young women who had spent several years singing at small venues in North America and Europe, spreading messages of white supremacy and Nazi ideology. Prussian Blue was formed under the guidance of their mother April Gaede after the twins were well received at white nationalist events between 2001 and 2003. In 2004 the duo recorded and released their first album Fragment of the Future under Resistance Records, a label closely tied to the National Alliance; this white supremacist organization was founded in 1974 by William Pierce, an outspoken Nazi-sympathizer and—among other forms of bigotry—anti-Semite. Although not widely distributed, Fragment of the Future brought national media attention to the twins for its white nationalist content—including the song “Hate for Hate: Lamb Near the Lane,” penned by Lamb and David Eden Lane. Lane—who passed away in 2007—was a member of The Order, a terrorist organization that precipitated the murder of Jewish talk show host Alan Berg in June 1984.

When interviewed by ABC Primetime in October 2005, the twins eagerly parroted the ideology of their mentors. “We’re proud of being white, we want to keep being white,” explained the thirteen-year-old Lynx. “We want our people to stay white…we don’t want to just be, you know, a big muddle. We just want to preserve our race.” In the same interview their mother April admitted to adding white nationalist themes to the twins’ home education curriculum. “They need to have the background to understand why certain things are happening,” she explained. It was the need to make white nationalism more appealing to a younger audience that drove Eric Gliebe, operator of Resistance Records, to sponsor the twins. Their saccharine melodies provided a pop alternative to the harder genres of his other acts, and allowed his label to access a new market. “Eleven and 12 years old,” he explained of his decision. “I think that’s the perfect age to start grooming kids and instill in them a strong racial identity.” And it was this combination of innocence and hate that made the twins a gross fascination for such a large number of people. Even the name of the band embodies this uncomfortable juxtaposition. According to a 2004 interview with Vice Magazine, Prussian Blue refers both to their German heritage, the color of their eyes—a “really pretty color”—and Zyklon B, the preferred toxin used in WWII concentration camps. Blue discoloration is caused by Zyklon B residue; according to the twins, the lack of substantial “Prussian blue” patches in the remains of Nazi gas chambers “might make people question some of the inaccuracies of the ‘Holocaust’ myth.”

Now 19 years old, the twins claim they have moved away from their white nationalist roots. Lynx attributes their prior ideology to a sheltered childhood, specifically their home-based education. “We were these country bumpkins,” she explained. “We spent most of our days up on the hill playing with our goats.” Lamb concurred with her sister, explaining that in their songs and interviews they emulated the adults around them rather than expressed their own opinions. “I was just spouting a lot of knowledge that I had no idea what I was saying,” she said. The initial change occurred during their 2006 European tour with the Swedish white supremacist act Saga, when the twins decided to add the song “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” to their set; the audience reacted negatively, given that Bob Dylan—born Robert Zimmerman—is Jewish. Still Lynx and Lamb persisted, singing the song at all subsequent concerts. When they returned to the States, they decided that the gig was up. The girls have passed the last five years attempting to lay low and avoid further controversy; recurrent health issues—Lynx underwent treatment for cancer and Lamb suffers from chronic back pain and scoliosis—also prompted them to seek a semblance of normalcy in their lives. Once lauded as the new face of white nationalism, their change in heart has garnered a fair share of criticism within the movement. According to Lynx, they have been labeled as “race traitors.”

Yet despite the evolution of opinion that the twins have demonstrated, it is still possible to identify elements of their white nationalist education within their worldview. The Daily points to their continued denial of the Holocaust; when asked if genocide has occurred, Lynx responded, “I think certain things happened. I think a lot of the stories got misconstrued. I mean—yeah—Hitler wasn’t the best, but Stalin wasn’t, Churchill wasn’t. I disagree with everybody at that time.” Lamb agreed with her sister, expressing frustration with what she perceives as a societal obsession with the events of WWII. “I just think everyone needs to frickin’ get over it,” she argued. “That’s what I think.”

Where Does This J Street Go?

by Theodore Samets

Summer is a time for sales. It’s a time for vacations. It’s a time to escape work in the afternoon to get to the beach or the golf course.

It’s not usually a time for negotiating the final parameters of an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The folks at J Street are trying to change that.

For just over a month, J Street has been pushing a campaign they call “Two-State Summer,” which they describe as “a push to support President Obama’s vision for a real and final resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

If you don’t follow J Street on Twitter or like the organization on Facebook, you may not have heard of the campaign, but – get excited – you may soon, because J Street is planning an “August Day (sic) of action to publicly demonstrate broad support for the President’s vision.”

Since the organization’s birth, J Street has tried to claim that they were one of the only Jewish organizations that strongly supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ignoring widespread support for the idea across party lines and throughout the Jewish community, they’ve worked to label those who oppose their efforts as opposed to peace.

It hasn’t worked. Instead, they’ve been mired by accusations – among others – that the organization isn’t actually pro-Israel and concerns over J Street founder Jeremy Ben-Ami’s lies about George Soros’s support for the organization.

Yet their newest plan seems ill conceived, even for J Street. Instead of focusing on the upcoming U.N. vote on a unilateral Palestinian declaration of a state, which is a great threat to the peace process J Street claims to support, they’ve continued their selfish, go it alone attitude with their “two-state summer.” (The organization itself does not take a stand on the vote, instead encouraging “diplomatic efforts” that would make such a vote “unnecessary.”)

This is all despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, refuses to sit down with the Israeli government and negotiate. How does J Street propose reaching the two-state solution they claim to so actively desire if they can’t get Abbas to agree to negotiations?

By hosting strategy sessions in the States.

J Street openly claims to be President Obama’s “blocking back” on Israel policy. So far, they haven’t had more success than President Obama or anyone else in bringing the two-state solution to fruition.Maybe this is because they are more focused on claiming support for two states as their cause and theirs alone instead of recognizing that a passion for such an agreement is at the heart of most American Jewish organizations and most American Jews.

The two-state summer campaign is showing that J Street may just be the Jon Huntsman of Israel organizations. (Or is Jon Huntsman the J Street of the Republican primaries?) Despite protestations that they have widespread support, the organization seems to be at risk of losing the only folks who really do follow their efforts: the media. There’s been little coverage, if any, of the “two-state summer,” which is J Street’s current focus. Perhaps the media has realized the minority of American Jews on whose behalf J Street speaks.

For those who care about Israel and the US-Israel relationship and who genuinely desire a peace that keeps the Jewish state safe and secure while creating an independent Palestinian state, it is becoming clearer every day that J Street is not the answer. Instead, the organization helps to elevate anti-Israel voices (like the J Street-endorsed Rep. Lynn Woolsey) and works against the efforts of the democratically-elected Israeli government.

But if J Street proves me wrong and shows that YouTube videos and strategy sessions in Manhattan are the way to peace before the autumnal equinox, more power to them. I’ll tip my cap and write them a check.

We, the (Arab) People

By Aarian Marshall

Like many people my age, I watched the Arab Spring on CNN, from my university’s Student Campus Center. Sometimes, someone would change the channel—March Madness was on, and basketball involves a crowd of people screaming plus the satisfaction of a conclusion in 90 minutes. And Egypt felt so far away, its people so different and its struggles so foreign. Though historic, it was difficult to identify with what was happening in a world so far removed from my own.

Underneath all the talking heads’ discussion and analyses, one consistent allusion stood out: “the people” of the region. “The people” of Tunisia and Egypt need to take change into their own hands; “the people” of Egypt and Tunisia need a little bit of help; the wants and needs of the Egyptian military don’t necessarily dovetail with what “the people” want.  New York Times writer Thomas Friedman entitled a recent column “It Has to Start With Them”, arguing that when “the people” of the Middle East own an initiative, they will be push themselves forward.  But who’s “them,” Thomas Friedman? Who’s “they”?

In the United States, “the people” is a clear signifier, something that used to demarcate this country from the rest of the world. Even if you don’t know a word of the Constitution, you’ll know “We the people.” It is no wonder, then, that in an Arab Spring discourse dominated by notions of democracy, “the people”—these shadowy, non-specific people—show up everywhere.

In a lovely column by film director Mohammad Ali Atassi, the former Syrian president’s son writes: “Now this other Syria is appearing before our eyes to remind us that it cannot be forever set aside, that its people did not spend the decades of the Assads’ rule asleep, and that they aspire, like all people, to live with freedom and dignity.” Those words are stirring, and they touch upon those golden keywords—freedom, aspire—that our American souls are drawn to. And yet, without the detail, the preciseness, it’s difficult to conceive of “the people” of the Middle East as actual human beings.

Perhaps my discomfort is synthesized best by author Azar Nafisi (Reading Lolita in Tehran) in an article for The New Republic entitled “They the People.” The piece is outdated, published in March of 2003, before the invasion of Iraq. But it seems as if Nafisi’s words, written to another America in another time, apply today. The problem with America’s attitude towards the people of the Middle East, she writes, is that we

…seldom differentiate between the people of the ‘Muslim world’ and their self-proclaimed representatives. So crimes committed against these people are repeated three times: once when they are forced into submission, once when they are represented through the very forces that oppress them, and once when the world talks about them in the same language and through the same images as their oppressors.

In Tunisia and Egypt, we hope that those oppressors are gone. Still, the problem of orientalism, of believing in the (often false) assumptions that gird the West’s ideas about the East, has not entirely gone away. There is “cultural baggage,” American historian Douglas Little writes, “that Americans carry with them,” even in a post-Arab Spring world. In other words, we insist upon boiling those who live in a Middle East down to a common denominator, albeit a bit differently from the way we boiled them down in the past. The issue, in Nafisi’s words, is differentiation, and I don’t hear that happening in policy discussions nearly as often as I would like.

I recently had the opportunity to watch the debate played out by three experts, who gathered in Washington, DC’s Academy for Educational Development to discuss the post-Arab Spring Middle East.  Helen Clark, the Administrator for the United Nations Development Programme, argued that economic reform is an essential companion to the social change that has already begun in Egypt and Tunisia, and warned that the work needed to become a democracy is “difficult and detailed.” The people of those countries, she argued, need to be ready for the long road ahead. Robert D. Hormats, the Undersecretary of State for Economic, Energy, and Agricultural Affairs at the Department of State, made similar economically based claims. Free markets and free societies, he told the audience, are inextricably linked. But it was Edward Walker, former Ambassador to Israel, the UAE and Egypt, who struck the most foreboding note. He argued that the U.S. is “limited in what [it] can do to shape the Arab summer”—an effective impetus, he said, can only come from the people of the region themselves. And most depressingly, he pointed out that things might not have changed that much in Egypt and Tunisia—perhaps the revolution is not so revolutionary after all.

As Clark pointed out during her talk, if the Arab Spring has confirmed anything, it’s that “the people of the Middle East are as interested in human rights and freedom as anyone else in the world.” We are one step closer, then, to understanding that those in that region are perhaps more similar to us than we ever could have thought.