Monthly Archives: August 2011

Egypt on the Edge

By Adina Rosenthal

Tensions in the Middle East have sadly reached a familiar high.  Recently, Gaza militants ambushed Israeli vehicles in southern Israel near Eilat, killing eight people in the deadliest attack in three years. In addition to this premeditated act of terrorism, militants launched more than 150 rockets and mortars into Israel—despite a ceasefire—killing one, injuring scores of civilians and inciting panic throughout southern Israel.

While such hostilities at the hands of terrorists are a tragedy, unfortunately, they are not an anomaly. When news breaks concerning violence against Israelis, the word “Gaza” usually seems to follow closely behind. Despite the recent events being perpetrated by Gaza militants, the backdrop behind the atrocities should also raise some eyebrows.

Despite the difficulty in entering a heavily guarded Israel, the Gaza militants were able to travel through a lax Egyptian border to commit their atrocities. In 1979, Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin signed a peace treaty, thereby ending the war that had existed between the two nations since Israel’s inception in 1948. Though a cool peace, the treaty has kept tensions between Egypt and Israel relatively quiet for three decades.

But since Hosni Mubarak’s ouster from office last February, much has changed in the discourse between Egypt and Israel. Over the last six months, there have been five separate attacks on the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas pipeline compared to “zero successful attacks” since the pipeline opened in 2008. Such actions have deprived Israel of gas and Egypt of foreign currency. Last June, Egypt lifted its four-year blockade on Gaza, which arguably contributed to the terrorists’ ease in committing last Thursday’s attacks. Moreover, such a political move may even highlight a shift in Egyptian policy and power, according to Evelyn Gordon in the Jerusalem Post Magazine, as the “cross-border attack took place in broad daylight, right in front of an Egyptian army outpost, without the soldiers lifting a finger to stop it.” Such inaction is particularly surprising, as the violence also resulted in the deaths of Egyptian soldiers. As Gordon also points out, “The Egyptian border policemen on patrol whom Israeli troops allegedly killed in their effort to repulse the terrorists were also clearly at the scene; otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in the line of fire. Yet they, too, did nothing to stop it from happening.”

Although last week’s attacks were clearly initiated by Gaza terrorists, Egypt blamed Israel for the deaths of its border policemen and demanded an apology. According to Haaretz, the IDF stated that its soldiers had “returned fire ‘at the source of the gunfire’ that had been aimed at Israeli soldiers and civilians from the area of an Egyptian position on the border…and at least some of the Egyptian soldiers were killed by the [Popular Resistance Committee’s] terrorists’ gunfire and bombs.” Though Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak immediately apologized after the attacks, adding that they “demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai Peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there,” Egyptians were not satisfied and popular sentiment amongst Egyptian quickly became apparent. Angry Egyptians responded with protests outside of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, which included the “Egyptian Spiderman” scaling the 21-story building to take down the Israeli flag. The Egyptian government also threatened to recall their ambassador to Israel, though they later revoked their decision.

Clearly, tensions between Egypt and Israel are high, and a shaky relationship has become even more precarious. Such contention not only affects Israeli concerns with hostile Palestinian neighbors. Now, Israelis realize that their relationship with Egypt has changed in a post-Mubarak era, with popular sentiment growing more vocal and antagonistic against the Jewish state and, subsequently, a future Egyptian government reevaluating peace with Israel.

With tensions mounting daily and popular sentiment coming to a forefront, how can relations between the two states remain cordial?

According to Wafik Dawood, director of institutional sales at Cairo-based Mega Investments Securities, Egypt’s stocks fell to the lowest in two weeks as “The negative global backdrop and the killings on the Israeli border’ are driving shares lower…The main fear is the escalation.” Even more worrisome for Egyptians should be that there has been talk in Washington about cutting the $2 billion in their annual aid if the country backs out of its peace treaty with Israel. As Congresswoman Kay Granger, Chairwoman of the U.S. House Appropriations Foreign Operations subcommittee told the Jerusalem Post, “The United States aid to Egypt is predicated on the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, and so the relationship between Egypt and Israel is extremely important.”

If the mutual interest of keeping peace walks, the hope remains that money talks.

Remembering Samuel Menashe

The Jewish poet Samuel Menashe passed away on August 22; the New York native’s work, though beloved by fellow poets, did not receive widespread attention until he received the Poetry Foundation’s inaugural “Neglected Masters Award” in 2004. One of Menashe’s poems appeared in the September/October 2009 issue of Moment and appears below:

Adam means Earth*

I am the man
Whose name is mud
But what’s in a name
to shame one who knows
Mud does not stain
Clay he’s made of
Dust Adam became—
The dust he was—
Was he his name?

*Adam from adamah, “earth” in Hebrew.


The September/October Issue of Moment

It’s on its way!  Here’s a preview of our cover:

In or Out of the Jewish Clubhouse?

by Theodore Samets

“Of the roughly 17,000 guys who’ve played professional baseball, precious few are Jews.”

That was how Scott Barancik, editor of Jewish Baseball News, framed the debate in the New York Times over whether to welcome Ralph Branca to the rather small club of Jewish ballplayers.

Not everyone agrees with Barancik, who argues that the revelation that Branca’s mother converted from Judaism to Catholicism is evidence enough for Jewish sports fans (a group far larger than professional Jewish athletes, it would seem) to claim Branca, a pitcher most famous not for something he did right, but for something he did wrong.

On Oct. 3, 1951, Branca, pitching in relief for the Brooklyn Dodgers, gave up a game- and series-ending three-run home run to New York Giants outfielder Bobby Thompson. The moment became known as the “shot heard ‘round the world.” The Giants went on to the World Series, and the Dodgers went home for the winter.

It’s an iconic moment in baseball – most baseball fans know at least part of the story – and clips of the home run are replayed every October, alongside footage of Carlton Fisk waving for his home run to stay fair in game six of the 1975 World Series and Bill Mazeroski’s walk off home run in game seven of the 1960 World Series.

For fans on the winning side, these moments are relished for generations. They still hurt for many of the losing fans, and the players associated with these moments often never reclaim any pretense of greatness.

So why would Jews even want to claim Branca as one of their own?

Barancik certainly has an argument – we only have so many Jewish players; every addition counts.

But for a player who caused nightmares for so many Jews (the Brooklyn Dodgers had a disproportionately Jewish fan base), wouldn’t it be better to just forget that Branca has a Jewish past?

That seems to be what’s behind Alan Dershowitz’s conviction. The expert in everything Jewish, including – it seems – the 1950s Dodgers, Dershowitz’s strong opinions extend to Branca’s Jewishness:

“Ralph Branca is not a Jew,” said Alan Dershowitz, a Brooklyn-born Dodgers fan, lawyer and Harvard professor. “Whatever the definition, it doesn’t include someone who willingly accepted a different religion. He didn’t stay home on Yom Kippur like Koufax.” (Koufax, of course, knew he was a Jew.)

Dershowitz, in fact, theorized that Branca, to his eyes as a boy, did not pitch “Jewishly.”


“Koufax altered strength and guile and knew that you pitch for six days and you rest on the seventh,” he said. “Branca was straight-on; you could see there was nothing Jewish about Ralph Branca.”

All respect for Dershowitz aside, the second part of this argument barely makes any sense. Jews aren’t “straight-on” athletes? What about Mike Cammalleri, as straight a shooter as there is for the Montreal Canadiens, or Ken Holtzman, he of the killer fastball, who threw two no-hitters for the Cubs and played a major role on multiple A’s championship teams? As the esteemed lawyer would tell you, however, all that matters is that something sticks, and Dershowitz has one importantpoint: Branca never saw himself as Jewish, didn’t act like a Jew, and was never a Jewish idol like Sandy Koufax, Hank Greenberg, or in more modern days, Shawn Green, a (Los Angeles) Dodger himself who sat out a Giants-Dodgers game of his own when it fell on Yom Kippur.

What is it, after all, that inspires many Jews to assemble lists of their religious brothers and sisters who have succeeded in nearly every field? I’m as guilty as anyone else – I shep naches thinking about Natalie Portman’s success on the silver screen, and appreciate Marc Chagall’s art more than I probably ought to, solely because they’re Jewish. In sports, it’s no different. Given that Jews aren’t generally stereotyped as prodigious athletes, we may be even more likely to idolize those few who have broken through and achieved success. Yet two aspects of Branca’s case make it unique: his infamy and his indentification with a faith besides Judaism.

Neither on their own is a deal breaker. Did we let Bob Dylan off when he temporarily found Christianity? Absolutely not. And infamous folks like Marc Rich? Still as Jewish as ever, helped in part by his support for Birthright.

But when both of these things happen? There’s precedent for the claim that we ought not to add Branca to our rolls. David Berkowitz, a.k.a. the Son of Sam, isn’t a name we see often in Jewish encyclopedias, especially after he was born again.

So when it comes to Branca, it’s a bit of a stretch to welcome him as a Jew, at least until he speaks up and says something about it. For that, we’ll just have to wait for his upcoming autobiography.

Adding a Little Color to Summer Camp

by Steven Philp

For centuries Jews have been the target of damaging stereotypes; yet in our effort to battle unfavorable myths, sometimes we overlook our own assumptions concerning the Jewish community. Perhaps this oversight is what makes Camp Be’chol Lashon so extraordinary. Located in the forested hills of Marin County—a short 35 miles north of San Francisco—the summer camp seeks to expand the borders of the Jewish community, to allow Jews of color to see themselves as an integral part of world Jewry. According to a New York Times article, Be’chol Lashon—which translates to “In Every Tongue”—has done in two short years what many Jewish communities have failed to accomplish: make the Jewishness of Jews of color a statement of fact, rather than a question. “If there’s Christians of all colors and all kinds, and Muslims of all colors and all kinds then why would Jewishness by any different?” explained Amalia Cymrot-Wu over a typical Shabbat lunch. The descendent of Brazilian and Chinese families, Amalia had helped lead the Torah service that morning. With help from her campmate Maya Campbell, who is half white and half black, she recited the b’rachah celebrating their place in the Jewish community: “Blessed are You, Adonai our G-d, Ruler of the Universe, who has made me a Jew.”

Although vibrant Jewish communities are scattered across the globe—from India to Ghana, Mexico to China—American Jewry has been dominated by its Eastern European majority since the early 20th century; it is their culture that has defined what it means to be Jewish in the United States, from the food we eat— latkes and gefilte fish—to the words we use—oy vey! Yet shortly after the turn of the century, demographers Gary and Diane Tobin determined that 10 percent of the six million American Jews are nonwhite; unlike many of their white peers, a large number of Jews of color have entered our community through conversion, adoption, and interracial parentage. The New York Times notes that other scholars have estimated the number of nonwhite Jews at approximately 450,000. Regardless, this is a significant numbers of Jews who do not see themselves in the self-generated archetypes of our community, even when being Jewish has nothing to do with skin color. Back at camp, Josh Rowen-Karen—born to black and Korean parents and adopted by an interracial Jewish couple in the Bay Area—emphasizes this fact. “Being Jewish isn’t looking a certain way,” he explains. “I could look at anyone and not know if they are or aren’t Jewish. You can’t know till you know the person.”

Camp Be’chol Lashon was born of the experience director Diane Tobin, who adopted her African-American son Jonah as an infant fourteen years prior. Raising Jonah in the Jewish community, she became concerned about how he would be accepted by his peers. “It was a sense of the Other, and we as a community are not great at dealing with the Other,” Tobin told the New York Times. “We had centuries of persecution making us wary. We have a tendency to be more suspicious than welcoming.” At the time of her husband’s death in 2009, the Tobin family had been hosting holy day gatherings and arranging retreats for multiracial Jewish families. This evolved in to Camp Be’chol Lashon, which kicked off last year with 18 children, ages 8 to 16. This year the number of campers has increased to 25, with children hailing from across the United States.

Perhaps the most surprising quality of Camp Be’chol Lashon is its sense of normalcy; the diversity of the campers is celebrated as an integral part of their Jewishness, rather than something that sets them apart. The kids attend services, make challah covers, play games, and spend a couple weeks in the woods, paralleling the summer activities of Jewish children across the country. Yet despite its common mission, Camp Be’chol Lashon helps remind us that Jewishness is not found in skin color, the curl in your hair, or the shape of your nose, but through community.

So-Called Enemies

By Gabi P. Remz

In the wake of the second intifada, anger, fear and pessimism dominated society in Israeli and Palestinian communities. Yet, despite the difficulties of achieving some type of peace for the two sides in one of the world’s most prominent conflicts, there were, and still are, those who search for alternative roads to peace. They strive for something beyond a political maneuver, whether that is a Palestinian declaration of state or direct negotiation between Israeli and Palestinian diplomats.

In My So-Called Enemy, an award-winning 2010 documentary currently making its rounds through film festivals and screenings across the country, director Lisa Gossels looks to shed light on these alternative, grass-roots peace efforts by focusing on six participants in a program called “Building Bridges for Peace,” which at the time of filming in July 2002 was a women’s leadership program for Palestinian and Israeli students that convenes in New Jersey (the program has since become co-ed). The film then follows the women for the next seven years, showing their efforts to maintain the relationships made at the program and the evolution of their thinking about the conflict.

And while the film seems to at first present itself as an optimistic vision of peace dependent on the people, specifically women, and not the government, (Gossels said as much following a recent screening at the Roxbury Film Festival in Brookline, Mass.) perhaps the greatest success of the film is its ability to remain grounded and balanced.

The film does not necessarily leave the viewer with a grand vision of hope for peace in the future. When Gossels asked the crowd in Brookline who was left with a feeling of pessimism, perhaps half the crowd raised their hands, leaving Gossels with a look of shock on her face. But that surprise was the key achievement of the film.

While Gossels may have gone into filming assuming she would come out with groundbreaking and realistic solutions, what she came out with was a confirmation of the frustrating complexities and the fact that even driven youngsters cannot seem to make any major strides in developing a peace.

Gossles did a wonderful job focusing on a wide range of thinkers, and not limiting herself to one perspective. She devoted much of the film to  both more moderate and hawkish thinkers, who, especially now, appear to represent the majority. One of the six participants she focused on, and perhaps the most compelling, was a student who voiced her support for the 9/11 attacks during the “Building Bridges” program and said she had considered acting as a suicide bomber. It seemed she actually grew more religious and extreme as the film went on. It was no surprise, then, that she struggled greatly to connect in a positive way with the Israeli students.

Two other, more moderate students, one an Israeli and the other a Palestinian however, were able to maintain a close but occasionally contentious relationship, which provided fascinating footage for the seven years after the program. One key and touching moment is when the Israeli participant, on leave from the IDF, visits a Palestinian participant at the Security Fence. There, the two carve messages of peace into the wall while easily brushing off and laughing at some of the extremist statements already written on the wall.

To be fair, the focus of the program itself was simply to provide a safe space for dialogue, not to create any specific solutions or make tangible progress in achieving peace. Nonetheless, the dialogue was often dramatic and harsh between participants.

A final blow at the end was during the final testimonies of the participants. One student said in clear terms that she was far from hopeful that any type of substantial progress would be made in achieving peace. This, after the program and seven long years of follow-up.

It was exactly that type of footage—of frustration and doubt—that served as the sobering theme, and also as the triumph, of the film. There was certainly the occasional fluff—team building activities like trust falls and building actual miniature bridges took up several of the film’s 89 minutes—but in the end the viewer was able to come away with a hard taste of reality, which may not be the most satisfactory or reassuring feeling, but such is the truth of the conflict.

My So-Called Enemy is a piece of work that is certainly interesting and valuable, but is far from providing any key revelations or important developments.

Yizkor Education

By Adina Rosenthal

British historian Sir Ian Kershaw famously wrote: “The road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference,” a sentiment that provides much rationale for solid Holocaust education today.

However, despite its clear importance, Holocaust education is not always the norm in schools. In 2007, a controversy erupted over Britain dropping required subjects such as the Holocaust and the Crusades from History curriculums due to fear of Muslim discontent. But the study citing Muslim opposition was debunked—only a small number of teachers at two schools involved in the study reported incidents—and the British have rebounded since the incident.

In a recent article, the Jerusalem Post reported that British teachers have been brought to Israel as part of a three-week course on making the Holocaust more accessible to students. Funded by the Holocaust Education Trust, a UK-based organization that aims “to educate young people from every background about the Holocaust and the important lessons to be learned for today,” twenty teachers from across the UK participated in this ten-day course at Yad Vashem that include seminars and workshops on anti-Semitism in Europe, Jewish life between the World Wars, and the Final Solution. Speaking on the importance of Holocaust education, one participant stated, “Historical truth has to be the foundation of what we do and facing up to the truth is the best defense against those who would deny it or passively accept that it happened without learning anything from it.”

Not all countries require Holocaust education as part of the curriculum. In the United States, the states, not the federal government, determine what is taught in public schools. According to a 2004 Holocaust Task Force report, while most states have created social studies standards for the classroom and about half the states have explicitly mentioned the Holocaust in these standards, only ten percent of states have a legislative mandate to teach the Holocaust in the classroom.  Though there have been some improvements, including Virginia calling for teacher manuals on the Holocaust and Maryland establishing “a Task Force to Implement Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance Education in the state,” few states have updated their legislation since the report was issued. Even if imperfect, in the West, education on the Holocaust, genocide in places like Rwanda and Darfur, and other worrisome situations evolving around the world, has been largely admirable.  Not so in the Middle East.

According to Hannah Rosenthal, the United States’ Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, “One of my primary goals this year is to address the issue of intolerance in textbooks and in the media in the Middle East,” which included meeting with Saudi religious and education scholars about the importance of teaching the Holocaust. Most Middle Eastern countries do not teach the Holocaust, and, according to one article, “Some even include verses from the Quran that they use to justify intolerance and violence against non-Muslims, primarily Jews and Christians.”

In Gaza, the tension concerning Holocaust education has also been mounting. According to an Associated Press article, the United Nations is launching a plan to teach Holocaust education in Gazan schools this September, despite promises by Hamas to block such an initiative and the West Bank and PLO’s disapproval. According to the article, many Palestinians are loath to recognize the Jewish tragedy because they fear it will minimize their own suffering. “Views range from outright denial to challenging the scope of the Holocaust.” Schoolteachers also expressed hostility toward teaching about the Holocaust, with one teacher warning, “The [United Nations] will open the gates of hell with this step. This will not work.”

But proponents of such an initiative see the lessons from the Holocaust as an especially important educational experience for the Arab world. “Instead of pre-emptive accusations, it is important for Palestinians…to fully understand the tragedies and suffering that happened to all people through generations, without divvying up facts and taking things out of context.” Moreover, in a recent New York Times piece, the authors write, “If Arabs knew more about the Holocaust in particular and genocide in general, perhaps Arab voices would be more forceful in trying to stop similar atrocities.”

As Holocaust survivor Estelle Laughlin best stated, “Memory is what shapes us. Memory is what teaches us. We must understand that’s where our redemption is.”

The AJC, the Supreme Court and Jennifer Rubin

by Theodore Samets

Jennifer Rubin is angry.

Really, really angry.

What’s got Rubin, one of the loudest right-wing voices on Israel in the United States, with her perch at The Washington Post’s blog “Right Turn,” so upset? The American Jewish Committee’s refusal to join eleven other Jewish organizations in an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of M.B.Z. v. Clinton.

M.B.Z. v. Clinton is the case that the Supreme Court will hear this fall brought by Naomi and Ari Zivotofsky, American citizens who wants their young son’s U.S. passport to list his place of birth as “Jerusalem, Israel,” instead of simply “Jerusalem.” This doesn’t merely refer to East Jerusalem, annexed by Israel but considered by the U.S. government to be “occupied territory.” This is West Jerusalem, Israeli territory since the 1948 War of Independence.

Per Rubin:

Not surprising, virtually every Jewish pro-Israel group signed an amicus brief (the Anti-Defamation League, the Zionist Organization of America, and the American Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists plan to submit “friend of the court” briefs due this week. Other groups including the Union of Orthodox Congregations and the National Council of Young Israel are signing on to at least one of those briefs). In the U.S. Senate more than 25 senators signed onto a brief in support of Menachem Zivotofsky. When you get Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on the same page, you know this is a no-brainer for friends of Israel.

Except, Rubin points out, the American Jewish Committee. The AJC believes that “unilateral declarations,” whether this passport dispute or the Palestinians’ planned September push for independence at the United Nations, are not the path to Middle East peace; instead, the AJC encourages these issues to be part of negotiations between the parties. As such, the AJC is staying out of the case; they’re not siding with the government, but they’re not joining any Jewish organizations’ amicus briefs.

It’s this decision that has Rubin and every anonymous left- or right-leaning professional Jew in Washington so enraged. (As a side note, JTA’s Ron Kampeas took a look at Rubin’s propensity for hyperbole in her blog post. It’s funny. You should read it.)

Rubin makes an interesting argument. When so many Jewish organizations stand together on an issue such as this, it is very noticeable that one organization remains on the sidelines. Yet this is more of a tactical mistake on the AJC’s part than an opportunity to question their motives. In fact, the AJC makes it very clear where they stand on the Jerusalem issue in general. Rubin quotes what she calls a “form letter” response from AJC’s director of media relations, Kenneth Bandler. (She’s upset that David Harris, the AJC’s executive director, who was outside of the country, didn’t return her inquires himself.) Bandler says:

The American Jewish Committee (AJC) wholeheartedly supports the indisputable principle that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and has long advocated for international recognition of that fact. The United States Supreme Court, however, is not the proper venue to resolve foreign policy issues, and that is why AJC did not join in the Zivotofsky lawsuit. AJC strongly supports congressional legislation that mandates citing Jerusalem as an Israeli city in U.S. passports.

Sounds pretty clear to me: The AJC believes that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, it’s something they fight for, they support the legislation in question, but they don’t think the Supreme Court is the right place for the debate. But to Rubin, it was “entirely unintelligible.”

When it comes to the case itself, Rubin and the many Jewish organizations that have filed amicus briefs are right: Americans born in Jerusalem should have the choice to list Israel as their birthplace. The law is pretty clear on that. But the AJC brings up a reasonable point: Do advocates for Israel really want the unelected Supreme Court making these decisions? Even if they decide in favor of Menachem Zivotofsky, the young boy whose passport is in question, what’s to say that in twenty years a new Supreme Court won’t make a decision that could threaten Israel?

The AJC is too worried about this potential occurrence – recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is an important issue for the American Jewish community, however it is achieved – and it’s disappointing that they didn’t join the Anti-Defamation League’s brief on the case. The AJC’s mistake is a tactical one, which they ought to right. Yet is it deserving of Rubin’s anger, and should their decision result in the “damage” Rubin implies the AJC deserves to their reputation? No.

From the Archives: My House Shall Be a House Of Prayer For All

By Lynne Schreiber
From Moment Magazine, December 2005

One day last summer, as my friend Katie and I sat beneath an umbrella at a sidewalk café sipping coffee, I mentioned that I needed a quote for a talk I was to give on spirituality in America at my Orthodox shul. Katie, whom I’d met at a poetry seminar in college before I became observant, lit up. “Rabbi Levy said something once about God being in the silence,” she said. “You should ask him for the source.”

It took me a moment to remember why Katie, a member of an Episcopalian parish in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was quoting a rabbi. Her church, St. Clare of Assisi, shares a sanctuary with a Reform synagogue, Temple Beth Emeth. Once a year, Beth Emeth’s rabbi, Robert Levy, delivers a sermon to St. Clare’s parishioners, and Katie, who is as drawn to the spiritual as I am, absorbs nearly every word.

I called Levy, and he knew exactly what Katie was talking about: a reference in Kings to Eliyahu experiencing God’s presence on the mountain as “a still small voice.” I wove the quote into my speech, which I gave before a pin-drop crowd, delighted that my non-Jewish friend had helped me to better understand my heritage—simply because she attended a congregation whose building, like our friendship, transcended religion.

Continue reading

Israel Takes on Wikimania

by Charles Kopel

“Education is a human right,” declared Wikimedia Foundation Executive Director Sue Gardner to an applauding crowd of six hundred last week in the Haifa Auditorium.

The audience was gathered for Wikimania 2011, an annual event to celebrate the Foundation’s mission and accomplishments, and to plan its strategy for the coming year. Delegates from every corner of the globe proudly refer to themselves as “Wikimedians,” and unite in a common passion for free information sharing. This year, their supervisors were young tech-savvy Israelis, nervous in their first, and possibly only, opportunity to manage and address a large international crowd. A large percentage of them were wearing skullcaps. It was the sort of sight that one needs to see in order to believe.

We all know and use Wikipedia, the Foundation’s flagship project, which attracts 500 million visits a month, and whose tenth birthday on January 15 was marked by celebrations in six continents. But this free encyclopedia and its eleven sister projects are not just public online services–they are the front lines of a growing international movement. Wikimedians contribute time, talents, and energy to the creation and maintenance of an online network “to create a world in which every single human being can freely share in the sum of all knowledge.”

Haifa, Israel was chosen as the location of Wikimania 2011 with much fanfare and much controversy. Tomer Ashur, chairman of Wikimedia Israel, related that his team reacted with disbelief last year to their successful bid to host the conference. In his address to the gathered Wiki faithful in Haifa on Thursday, tinged with a tone of apprehensive relief, Ashur explained that Wikimedia Israel had to hit the ground running after the decision in order to identify a host city and prepare a venue.

Haifa was a natural choice, for three reasons: First, it is a university town, home to the Technion and the University of Haifa, two of Israel’s most prestigious institutions of higher education, and therefore conducive to the educational nature of the conference’s mission. Second, the city features an impressive high-tech industry center, aligning it with the technological savvy of Wikimania’s participants. Finally, Ashur announced to resounding audience approval, the northern coastal city is the greatest Israeli symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence, with 26,000 Arab residents, 10% of the total population.

Wikimania 2011 featured 125 presentations, and was possibly the best-attended in seven years of the conference’s history. The talks included plenaries by Harvard professors Yochai Benkler and Joseph Reagle on the research surrounding Wikipedia’s success, a Q&A with the ten-person Wikimedia board and a closing ceremony with Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. The majority of the talks were smaller-scale meetings with groups of Wikimedians about strategic uses of Wiki material in business, education, conflict resolution, local cultural heritage projects, and the like. The sentiment at the events was one of optimism and success. Wikimedia sites and networks have grown tremendously in the last several years, academics and journalists are beginning to see its resources as authoritative. At one point, Gardner recounted a conversation she had with a French journalist in New York last January at a celebration for Wikipedia’s tenth anniversary, in which the journalist said to her, “Making fun of Wikipedia is so 2007!”

I had the opportunity to meet and speak with enthusiastic Wikimedians from around the world. Marek Blahus of the Czech Republic writes Wiki pages in Esperanto, and, along with fellow activists at the conference, maintains that Wikimedia should encourage the usage of Esperanto as a universal language, rather than settling on the English standard. All Wikimania 2011 events were conducted in English or Hebrew, with translation services offered. Ming-li of Shanghai, the only Chinese representative, expressed dismay about his government’s strict control over the exchange of online information.  I also encountered groups of students from India and the Philippines, who expressed excitement at the opportunity to visit and experience Israel, albeit for a short time.

Their sentiments are not shared by all Wikimedians, however. A significant movement emerged to boycott the event and Wikimedia in protest over Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. A Facebook page titled “No for holding Wikimania Conference in Israel” has approximately 500 likes, and the absence of these potential participants was felt by those in attendance.

The Israeli government nonetheless made good use of the opportunity. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, one of the conference’s primary sponsors, distributed a free book called “Facts About Israel” to all Wikimedia participants. Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav also included a letter to participants, along with supplementary literature from the Haifa municipality. Even more strikingly, Meir Sheetrit, a member of the Knesset for Kadima, addressed the crowd, declaring his intentions to fight for expanded broadband access across Israel, and for the release of more government information over the internet into the public domain. The Wikimedias responded tot this second announcement with enthusiastic approval, though, contrary to common misconception, the Foundation has no relationship with Wikileaks.

The conference participants were also treated to a unique taste of Israeli society, as they unexpectedly found themselves sharing a city block with a full tent village of protesters in downtown Haifa. These protesters, part of a growing movement for social change in Israel, had no official interaction with Wikimania, although their proximity was strongly felt by all, and even received mention in several of the talks. In one of the more poignant moments of the events, Harvard professor Yochai Benkler expressed his view that the protesters outside, the conference participants inside, and the brave rebels just 90 miles northeast in Damascus are all part of the same struggle for freedom and social progressiveness.