On Tuesday, October 30th, 2018, Dr. Tamara Cofman Wittes gave the annual Andrew H. Siegal Memorial Lecture at Georgetown University. The talk was entitled “Is Israel in Democratic Decline?” and explored the way populist politics is affecting the longstanding friendship between the United States and Israel. In particular, the rise of ethnonationalist populism in Israeli politics, alongside specific laws and proposals affecting civil liberties and democratic institutions in Israel, have triggered concerns that the country is falling prey to the same sort of intolerant illiberalism now evident in countries like Hungary, the Philippines, and Poland.
Dr. Wittes is a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institute and the Andrew H. Siegal professor at the Center for Jewish Civilization at Georgetown University. Dr. Wittes served as deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs from November 2009 to January 2012, coordinating U.S. policy on democracy and human rights in the Middle East during the Arab uprisings. Dr. Wittes also oversaw the Middle East Partnership Initiative and served as deputy special coordinator for Middle East transitions.
The following article, originally posted on ReformJudaism.Org, was written by recent Georgetown graduate and former CJC-er Madeline Budman. During the Summer of 2017, she was the programmer for the Tsofim unit at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Camp Coleman, where she designed the curriculum for over 150 campers with a focus on self-care and Jewish Identity.
To my dear campers at URJ Camp Coleman:
After 17 people were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on February 14th, including one of your fellow campers, I haven’t been able to think of what to say except for “I am so sorry.” I am. I am so, so sorry.
I’m sorry that you lost a friend, and that two of you lost a sister. I’m sorry that some of you were in the school when it happened, and that one of you had to watch. I’m sorry that you do not feel safe. I’m sorry for all of the horrible things that you are feeling. I’m sorry that I can’t get in my car right now and go on a road trip to Charleston, and Atlanta, and Athens, and Tampa, and Miami, and Parkland, so that I can hug each and every one of you and tell you that it will be okay.
I also thought to myself: I’m sorry that we failed you. I’m sorry that at camp, for one or two months of the summer, we were unable to prepare you. I wrote programs for you about self-care, but I talked to you about eating healthy and managing stress, not about remembering to eat when you’re overwhelmed by grief or managing earth-shattering trauma. I’m sorry that I didn’t talk to you about writing letters to your Senators, or talk to you more about tikkun olam, repairing the world.
But you are seventh graders. You spent the summer worrying about who would be color war captain, or who your buddy would be at the water park. During your free time, you traded gum and worked on your friendship bracelets, not organizing a march on Washington or writing poetry in memory of one of your bunkmates. I wrote programs for seventh graders: I wanted to educate you on body image, and Jewish identity as you prepared for your Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. I wanted you to learn how to meditate and see the natural world around you anew. I led all of you to a campfire in the woods so that you could write down your greatest insecurities on paper and then burn them to make them disappear. From the bottom of my heart, I prayed that your biggest fears could vanish as quickly and easily as paper burns in a campfire, providing kindling for s’mores.
I’m sorry, instead, for sending you back into this world. At camp, you are safe. You go to bed each night in a cabin surrounded by your closest friends, and you know that your counselors are sitting on the porch, helping you feel protected and loved and secure as you fall asleep. You get to try out new things in a supportive environment, whether it’s auditioning for the musical or playing roller hockey or hiking to a waterfall. I was starkly reminded this week that camp really is a bubble, an out-of-time reality that only exists for two months every summer. When we send you home, we don’t know what’s waiting for you when you get back, and it’s so hard to let you go. I could not have imagined this past August, though, that this is what we were returning you to. Your country has failed you. Adults have failed you. We have failed you. We didn’t make this world safe enough for you.
My hope for you is that your schools will feel as safe as your camp cabins. I want you to be able to run, laugh, play, learn, and grow as freely as you could at camp, where your biggest fear is falling and skinning your knee. I want you to not have to question whether or not the next time you talk to your friends will be the last time you’re able to. I want you to be active and engaged citizens, like we teach you to be at camp, but I want you to do this out of a desire for good, not out of trauma and necessity. Most importantly, I want you to just be kids. I want you to not have to worry. I want you to have a childhood that lasts as long as possible, free from fear, free from pain, and free to always be as happy as you are at 201 Camp Coleman Drive.
And I promise, that for the rest of my life, I will fight for your safety. I will fight for your freedom from fear. I will fight in memory of Alyssa Alhadeff, and in honor of all of you, her peers who are so precious, loving, and good. I will make make this world better for you.