Wednesday, June 27, 2012

10 Tips for Zionist Activists

Dear Zionist activists everywhere,

For the last four years I was an active member and leader of Tikvah: Students for Israel. We worked to teach about and advocate for Israel and Zionism on the UC Berkeley campus. That experience helped me grown and learn a lot, and contributed to my decision to make aliya and serve in the IDF.

Since I'm stepping out of the advocacy world, I wanted to take a moment here to write a letter to my colleagues in Tikvah, and to my fellow activists around the globe.

First, and most importantly, thank you for what you do. I know it's hard, whether you're facing hostile anti-Israel activists, a Jewish establishment that doesn't support you, apathy or ignorance about Israel, or financial and practical obstacles to your work. But stay strong, and remember in the moments of difficulty that what you are doing is important, just, meaningful, and worthwhile. Israel, the Jewish people, and the world at large are better off because of your hard work and dedication.

I'd like to leave a few pieces of advice, in the hope that others can learn from my experience and my mistakes:
  1. Know the difference between being Zionist and pro-Israel. Israel is a state, with all the realities and complexities that come with it. Zionism is an idea: pure, simple, and beautiful. Zionism is a movement of national liberation and national renaissance, the idea that the Jewish people should live as a sovereign nation in their homeland. Zionism is the real message; supporting the state of Israel is a natural conclusion of Zionism.
  2. Stay focused on the message of Zionism. The peace process, territorial compromise, democracy, cell phones, and terrorism all have their place in the discussion, but without the foundation of Zionism, none of it will make sense. Explain why Israel is important in the first place, and only then explain the situation and threats it faces. Sometimes the best message is the simple line of Hatikvah: "to be a free people in our land."
  3. Educate yourselves, and educate your peers. Read books, read the Israeli news, discuss and debate issues among yourselves. Know when to use the sound bites, but understand that they are not enough. You will be respected by your audience for your erudition.
  4. Being intellectually honest requires constantly questioning your own beliefs. This is a strength, not a weakness, because the truth is on our side. If you are diligent, educated, and intellectually honest, you will find truth and you will find confidence in your conclusions.
  5. Know when to make compromises and when to stand fast to your beliefs: there is a time for war and a time for peace. Sometimes a compromise is worthwhile to maintain an ally, but if the compromise requested is too great, that alliance is probably not worthwhile anyway.
  6. Remember that most importantly of all, Jews are your target audience. This is true for its own sake, and also because where there is a strong Jewish pro-Israel community, others will hear your message louder.
  7. Sometimes the Jewish establishment makes mistakes. When it does, you must not follow it blindly but you must not give up on it. It is better at fundraising than fighting, and shies away from controversy; don't expect it ever to be good at activism.
  8. Know what works for you. The atmosphere, interests, and values of each campus or community are different. Break out of the mold of middle aged white Jewish men lecturing about the danger from Israel's enemies. Be creative, try new things, and learn from experience.
  9. For those of you on college campuses, four years is a short period of time, and allows for little institutional memory. Discuss what works and what doesn't, and write down the lessons learned. Educate, inspire, and equip younger activists to take your place when you leave.
  10. Remember that what you do is about your personal growth and the growth of your community as much or more as it is about convincing the outside world.
Good luck and success in all of your endeavors.

לחרות ציון
For the freedom of Zion,
Brian Maissy

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Complaint, Apology, Thanks, and Farewell

Dear Berkeley,

You are quite a place. You have shaped me significantly during my time here. You have given me happiness, frustration, and much to ponder. This is a letter of complaint, apology, thanks, and farewell.

Protests, frat parties, tree sitters, midterms, and street people on Telegraph. At least I can say it was never dull. There's so much that's messed up about this city and this university. Your values, your ideals, your style - they don't appeal to me. It's hard to sum up everything 'Berkeley' represents, but the label isn't a complement. You have a warped cynicism wrapped in a veneer of idealism. You have a shallow tolerance and open-mindedness, which only extend to the fashionable few. Your fervor to change more frequently destroys than it creates. Berkeley is intelligence and emotion and energy without guiding force or direction. Often we have not gotten along, and part of me is happy to leave.

But maybe I am too quick to criticize. (That is, after all, one of the things I learned from you.) So here's my apology:  I am sorry for my high expectations, which you couldn't have possibly met. I am sorry for passing judgement on you when you were being foolish. I am sorry for not loving your unloving ways. I am sorry for my hubris, which did not allow me to tolerate your abuse. I am sorry for dismissing the cynics, critics, idiots, and conspiracy theorists, without a fair hearing. And I am sorry for not giving up on trying to change you, even though I should have known it was futile.

All jokes aside, I really must thank you, because I have grown a lot here. This university is a place of profound learning and knowledge. My professors, mentors, and colleagues have given me a tremendous body of knowledge and understanding. The myriad opportunities here, to learn, research, explore, lead, and build - are unparalleled. For all of this I will be eternally thankful. And even in the ways that one would least expect it - you have encouraged my growth. Who would have thought that in a place hostile to Judiasm I would have grown in my faith, or that in a place hostile to Israel I would have discovered my Zionism. Maybe all the pressure gave me the push I needed to look within myself. Maybe that's how you intended it all along.

And so I take my leave of this perfectly preposterous kingdom of crazies, glad to have come and glad to be going. If you remember me, remember me fondly, for so I will be remembering you.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Letter to My Friends

Dear friends,

I hope this letter finds you well. As you might know by now, I am making aliya (immigrating to Israel) and joining the IDF (Israel Defence Forces) at the end of the summer, with a program called Garin Tzabar. The purpose of Garin Tzabar is to help people like me (without immediate family in Israel, called lone soldiers) undertake the transition and process of making aliya and doing army service. I will be living on Kibbutz Beerot Yitzhak (in the center of Israel) with a group of fellow lone soldiers (the garin), and serving in the military for approximately two years. I don't yet know in what capacity I will be serving.

A little bit of background for those friends of mine who I haven't been able to keep in touch with over the last few years: I just graduated from UC Berkeley with a degree in computer science. During college, I developed certain parts of my identity which had previously been lying dormant. I was born and raised in a Jewish household, but only in the past four years have I seriously explored my Judaism and started learning and practicing the precepts of my religion. I have found in Judaism a wealth of wisdom and truth, which I have chosen to make a large part of my life.

Also in college I became interested in Israel. My dad is Israeli, I have extended family there, and I have visited every few years since my childhood, but I always took Israel for granted, both as an idea and as a reality. Israel as an idea is Zionism: the national liberation movement of the Jewish people for self-determination in our homeland. Israel as a reality is a fascinating, complex, and beloved place where the Jews as a people have the brightest future and each Jew individually feels at home. Interestingly, it was the virulently anti-Israel activists at Berkeley who caught my attention, sparked my interest, and made me start thinking and questioning about Israel. In addition to my personal learning and reading, I became involved in and eventually served as co-president of Tikvah: Students for Israel, a Zionist activist student group at Berkeley. I also spent each of the last three summers in Israel, learning, traveling, and exploring.

For those of you who don't know, in Israel there is a mandatory draft to the military. While I was choosing where to go to college, the typical Israeli 18-year-old was preparing for his enlistment. Unfortunately, the homeland of the Jews happens to be located in a tough neighborhood, and maintaining a strong defense force is a necessity for Israel's safety. This burden falls squarely on the shoulders of the Israeli citizen, who puts on the uniform of the IDF to represent and protect not just the borders of Israel, but the Jewish people as a whole. The IDF is truly a people's military: the army experience is an Israeli rite of passage, an aid in assimilating immigrants, and the intersection between otherwise largely distinct segments of Israeli society.

For the last couple years, it has been clear to me that after graduating from Berkeley I wanted to go to Israel, at least to spend an extended period of time, if not to live permanently. In the last few months I made the official decision to gain Israeli citizenship and serve in the IDF. I want to experience what it is like to live in the one place where a Jew can feel that he belongs, to truly be home. I want to be in a country which shares my language, my calendar, my values, my history, and my identity. I want to be near my extended family - my aunts, uncles, and cousins, and the millions of Jews who are all my brothers and sisters. I want to be in the center of the Jewish world, to be a part of my people's history. I want to partake of the miracle which is Israel, a state built in a few decades out of ruins, swamps, and sand dunes into a thriving first-world country. A state which transformed its inhabitants from martyrs and refugees into pioneers, fighters, and leaders. A state which has revived the ancient Hebrew language as a vernacular, become the world center of Jewish learning, and restored pride and hope to the Jewish people. I want to be a part of all of that, to be uplifted by it, and to do my small part in helping with the upbuilding of the state of Israel and the Jewish people.

I see my service in the IDF in a few different ways. First, as my duty to Israel to participate in the defense of the nation. Second, as a way to acculturate into Israeli society. And third, as an experience of personal growth. The guidance and assistance that the Garin Tzabar program, the kibbutz, and my garin will give me throughout the entire experience will be invaluable towards achieving these goals.

For the next two months I will be living in Berkley. I am working full time as a software engineer at an exciting HTML5 startup, which I will be sad to leave. On the side I am working on my Hebrew, tying up loose ends in Berkeley, and preparing for Israel.

This is not a goodbye letter, but it will likely be a while until I see most of you again in person. So I feel that it would be amiss to conclude this letter without saying thank you to everyone who has been a friend to me, during my time at Berkeley and before. Your companionship and support have meant the world to me, for which I am very grateful, and I'll miss you tremendously when I am in Israel. All the best, and please stay in touch.



In two months from today, on August 13, 2012, my life will change radically. I will step onto a Nefesh B'Nefesh aliya charter flight, and begin a new chapter of my life: as a college graduate, as an Israeli citizen, and as an IDF solider. The question of how to prepare for that chapter is compounded in difficulty by the fact that I must simultaneously finish the current chapter: my last four years in Berkeley have given me plenty to contemplate.

I have been asked many times to explain my thoughts, hopes, and motivations about this endeavor, most frequently by myself. So I hereby present this series of letters, this epilogue and prologue, in which I will reflect on this period of transition. I hope the process of writing will catalyze my own thoughts, and if my account is interesting or useful to anyone else out there, I'll consider it an unexpected bonus.