A Primer to Promote a New Era of Democracy and Socioeconomic Development in the Middle East and North Africa

It has been more than a month that the people of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are demanding improved rights, representation, and socioeconomic development. And yet, muffled in the calls for liberty, is a low murmur uttered by people around the world who are concerned, and rightfully so, that today’s freedom fighters may be opening a sociopolitical Pandora’s Box, out of which will come a militant takeover by anti-democratic forces. The fear is that today’s rebels and protestors who are disorganized and well-meaning when it comes to changing the region’s leaders will create an opening to be exploited tomorrow by those who are better organized, power-obsessed, and who have nefarious intentions for those who do not fit their world view. It is really no surprise this turmoil is occurring. The world economy is struggling. Food prices are up. And the Middle East already is ranked the lowest on the global human development index. The conditions are ripe for serious change, but in which direction will that change occur and is there anything we, in the west, could do about it without appearing imperialist?

Let’s take a quiz to help us focus.

What to do?

A) Wring our hands and do nothing;

B) Make a lot of proclamations and threats about sanctions and reductions in financial exchanges that take some time to begin having an impact, while in the short term do nothing;

C) Bomb and shoot the heck out of people and infrastructure, then fly away and leave the locals to their own devices;

D) Bomb and shoot the heck out of people and infrastructure, then get stuck in their country for an unforeseen number of decades to come;

E) Come up with a strategic plan that actually speaks directly to the needs of the people on the street far better than any militant, anti-democratic force ever could do, so they see we are prepared to engage them constructively, and on their terms, as soon as “the day after” arrives.

You should know, by the way, that A-D are the options recently offered and discussed in international power circles while innocent people in the Middle East are massacred, friendly governments are threatened, and adversarial eyes watch from the shadows with their own plans for the region’s future. Meanwhile, the only viable answer, E, remains ignored.

Below are recommendations based upon best practices in socioeconomic development to assist President Obama maneuver the United States, and subsequently the rest of the west, into the new and improved MENA regional ally:

1. Speak directly to the people on the ground, explaining that we offer them the hand of friendship and cooperation, rather than waste any more time making proclamations about their leaders;

2. Make it very clear that the intentions of the United States and western nations, from now on, are to promote self-sufficiency in the people of the MENA region, and that, to that extent, we are at their service through the following methods (Points 3-10):

3. Offer to widen access to the vast resources in socioeconomic development that are found throughout the United States and other western nations to the people of the Middle East — our capital, technology, and best practices in human development (healthcare, education, public safety, etc.) — through training programs and financial exchanges to assist them rebuild their economies under democratic governance;

4. Offer to make all non-oil exports to the USA and Europe from MENA countries duty free to help them diversity their economies;

5. Send in members of MENA Diaspora communities now living in the west who will offer assistance organizing governmental changes along the following lines:

  • That MENA leaders empower their parliaments with more authority to enact the will of the people in their districts;
  • Create neighborhood advisory councils that function independently of government, made up of civilians (e.g. tribal elders, academics, etc.) who discuss methods to improve services and attract business to their areas, and who provide their insights directly to local mayors and governors;
  • The elected leaders of the neighborhood councils, the mayors, and the governors from all over the country should meet annually to elect, from among their ranks, a “kitchen cabinet” of advisors that, in turn, meets directly with the executive branch of government; MENA leaders and their official cabinets should meet with these kitchen cabinets quarterly for official consultations;
  • Promote laws that maintain equitable treatment for all people irrespective of their ethnic, tribal, or religious affiliation;
  • Facilitate modern community policing methods so that the police no longer act as a militia, and the people develop a friendly, trust-based relationship with local law enforcement;
  • Thus, by providing more power to parliament, improving citizen participation in local government through neighborhood councils, creating kitchen cabinets made up of local representatives that meet directly with the executive branch of government on a routine basis, ensuring equitable treatment before the law, and promoting good ties between the locals and cops, MENA governments will facilitate much greater direct participation in government by the people themselves;

6. Offer assistance through training programs to develop government agencies that engage socially disadvantaged groups through best practices in services and empowerment programs that focus on full integration into mainstream society, e.g., minorities, women, people with disabilities, etc. so that these services are not left up to aspects of the civilian sector run by militant organizations that may be hostile to democracy;

7. Create cross-cultural programs between the people of the MENA and people from western countries that focus on mutual sustainable community development programs because nothing overcomes competition better than does cooperation to accomplish a humanitarian goal;

8. Create youth entrepreneurship opportunities through international trade and infrastructure development to facilitate equitable exchanges between youth and young adults that result in mutual stakeholders in poverty-reducing programs;

9. Promote stronger ties between technological research centers at western universities and MENA universities with dual focuses on urban and agricultural development;

10. Maintain a strong military presence in the region to deter any semblance that the west has gone weak while we begin engaging the local population socioeconomically to build their independence in a healthy partnership with the west.

In addition, the people of the MENA region should:

1. Create a Middle East and North African Youth Regional Parliament, made up of elected representatives specifically to this grouping who are under the age of 40; that provides recommendations on democratic governance and regional policy, and present their findings bi-annually to a regional group of official parliamentary heads that includes all nations in the region irrespective of their diplomatic ties with each other;

2. Create the Middle East and North African Youth Regional Games, which would function as a mini-Olympics for youth throughout the region irrespective of politics. These games should have a Special Olympics component for people with developmental disabilities, and a Paralympics component for people with physical disabilities to promote humanitarian interaction between the countries.

Any nation that refuses to allow its youth or parliamentary heads to participate in these programs should be expelled from its political regional grouping at the United Nations via direct petition of the MENA Youth Parliament, which would effectively interrupt its ability to participate on the United Nations Security Council. It is also incumbent upon the Youth Parliament and Regional Games not to exclude or marginalize Israel or any one nation, but rather, to focus on improving the region collectively.

Altogether through these policies, the west and MENA countries, and the people from both areas, would promote a combined micro- and macro-approach to MENA development in partnership with each other without exploitation.

If these policies are enacted comprehensively, the end result will be improved living conditions for the diverse peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, increased regional peace and cooperation, enhanced relations between Middle Eastern and North African countries with each other and with the west, and a significant reduction in global militancy. These policies speak directly to the needs of the people without appearing to be a fair weather friend to regional allies by promoting workable democratic reforms; and implement methods that will keep Pandora’s Box of Militancy shut tightly — the best of all worlds.

Freedom and democracy are not just discussion topics. They have real meaning. People are dying in the chaos. Yet, unfortunately, time is not on our side. We must move beyond rhetoric and focus on results-driven policies… now.


Natural Disasters: Opportunities for Peacemaking

Could natural disasters be opportunities for communities that are adversarial or unfamiliar with each other to cooperate rebuilding lives and renewing the environment?
After the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile became international news, and showed an outpouring of humanitarian concern and involvement, there has been little discussion about how to continue bringing nations together to cooperate during the redevelopment process. Countries around the world donated their time, energy, and money into rescuing victims and alleviating suffering in both Haiti and Chile when the disasters struck. But what about the months, and years to come? How will the international community engage demolished areas during the effort to rebuild?
Unfortunately, we can rely upon the status quo: the international community will not maximize the opportunity to bring groups of people together strategically to work hand-in-hand through the long term to redevelop areas ravaged by disaster. The reason for this is simple: lack of insight how natural disasters could become catalysts to cultivate coexistence. Yet, the opportunities clearly are there.
…cooperation between the international teams [in Haiti], which had arrived from 30 different states, was strengthened by the Sabbath prayer. “We sat with Jordanian security guards, an Israeli team, and people from Qatar and Egypt.
Working together to provide crucial services to people who are struggling, while sharing cultures with each other, is an excellent method in which rivals begin to re-evaluate each other as humane, compassionate, and friendly rather than as suspicious, destructive and untrustworthy. This is true not only in times of crisis, but during calm as well. The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile created fertile grounds to bring opponents together, to provide them with economic incentives (e.g. contracts) for rebuilding devastated areas in concert with each other, and to foster new belief in coexistence as they work together to improve the lives of disadvantaged people. Humanitarian response to large-scale emergency situations offers opportunities for adversaries to create tangible results of their cooperation, and gain first-hand insight that “the despised other” is capable of enormous goodness.
Nobody sane wishes tragic natural disasters to befall countries. Yet, when they inevitably do, they present new chances to promote peace by bringing adversarial or unfamiliar parties together to cooperate offering hope, healing the environment, and changing ravaged areas into places that thrive. What a great way to celebrate life… together. Thus, not only would rivals heal devastated areas, but they also would recognize each other’s humanity and begin to heal their own conflict too as they do so.
The next time natural disaster unfortunately strikes, just a little organization would prevent a lot of hate. 

We Can’t Just Wish It Away, So Let’s Get Busy!

It’s obvious that hate is an ever-present reality in our lives. There are moments when it is profoundly all around us; at other times, it seems to recede like the tide. But, it never simply disappears.

So, since we can’t just wish it away, what can we do to minimize its presence and its reduce its influence on the society in which we live?

Here are but some of my responses to that question:

1. Whenever and where ever spewers of hate attempt to take center stage, they need to be rationally challenged; inasmuch as they depend on spreading falsehoods, each of their lies must be cooly refuted.

2. Knowing that hate springs forth in the midst of despair, always working in concert with others whom we trust, ours is a responsibility to improve economic and social conditions so that the hatemonger’s base of operations and power to control events are as limited as possible.

3. Children and adults can be prepared to confront hate; ours is the obligation to sensitize them to reality and to provide them with the skills and mind-set which will allow them to be minimally damaged when and if they become targets of those who would degrade and dehumanize them.

4. If we find ourselves falling prey to stereotypical thinking, not paying attention to an individual’s attributes, and lumping that person into some imagined “whole” via thinking in terms of generalities,  it’s necessary that we be aware of such short-sightedness on our part and disallow it in every aspect of our thoughts and actions.

The person who spreads hate in our society wishes to drive us apart from one another, to plant poisonous seeds of mistrust amongst us, to wrest control from those whom we have placed in authority, to use misinformation to gain the upper hand, and to win an ultimate victory over everything we hold dear.

We have all the means necessary to deny them that success; we can ill-afford to wait for sometime else and/or someone else to take up this task, because there’s too much at stake for us to be unconcerned and uninvolved!

By the way, as we take all of this into account, I believe that it’s absolutely essential that we also not permit hate to make us hysterical; we can only become victimized by it when and if we permit that to happen – not by the hands of others but all by ourselves…

This is the first post by Rabbi Allen I. Freehling

He served for three decades as the Senior Rabbi of University Synagogue here in Los Angeles before serving for seven years as the Executive Director of the now defunct City of Los Angeles Human Relations Commission;  his current assignment is Deputy Chief of Staff for Field Operations in the Sixth City Council District.

Make Music Not Hate

By now, just about everybody who has ever heard of MTV knows about what happened last Sunday 9/13 at the Video Music Awards — better known as the VMAs — when Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift’s speech to give a shout-out to Beyonce. There is a lot of blog talk about whether Kanye did what he did because he is prejudiced against white people. Many people are asking whether Kanye was motivated by racial differences since Taylor is white and Beyonce and Kanye are both black. But, what about how this incident suggests that sexism, which is too often prevalent in parts of the music industry and society-at-large, may have played a role? Since women are generally physically weaker than men, and their needs socially accepted as less important, the end result is that they often get pushed around. Although it is difficult to draw definite conclusions, one cannot help but wonder if this is what what we saw happen at Sunday’s VMAs.

Is there also a racial element to Kanye’s motives? Based upon some of his past comments, I think he could use some healing in that area; and since that is doable, let’s not give up on him. Let’s not hate Kanye.

I think there is something else we should talk about, which is a lack of appreciation for country music by many followers of hip hop — something we all know also occurs robustly in the reverse. This is a two-way street. Yet, where hip hop and country music are concerned, they are not just a combination of melody and harmony, but reflective of culture. Both are uniquely American, and yet, seem so disparate from each other. But who ever said somebody cannot like both hip hop and country music? Somehow it became a self-perpetuating part of how some people do things without even thinking about it. It feels natural to them to like only one or the other, but not both. To me, that makes as much sense as having to choose between Chinese food and Italian food. I love both. I don’t want to limit my choices, so why not do the same with music?

Music should bring people together, not divide them.

Kanye’s behavior at the VMAs presents us with an interesting opportunity. Rather than bemoan his behavior, scold him, and then go back to business as usual (and I do mean business), which is how things are usually done, let’s get proactive. Let’s prevent hate already. What we need is to bring lovers of hip hop and country music together in a way where they stop and say to each other, “You know what? I changed my mind about you. You’re cool!” We can do this. It’s not hard. It just takes leadership, creativity, and the will to do so.

It is no secret that social tensions in this country have increased this past year. People are polarizing more and more. Fear is high in a bad economy, which often manifests itself among racial lines. Tensions are up, and therefore, so too is domestic violence because when some men are upset, who do they take their problems out on? Family.

See how this works? The economy goes down, social tensions go up, people blame “the other” for their problems, and the result is that women get pushed around … and worse. Furthermore, when tensions go up, Americans take their problems out on each other. It’s comprehensive familial abuse. So, rather than blame the people who get caught up in tension and frustration, let’s actually do something that brings tangible results by using music as a tool for goodness. Let’s use Kanye’s behavior as a catalyst for a more cooperative future.

Think of what happened at the VMAs as manure, from which we could grow an amazing garden. The VMAs gave us an opportunity to encourage … persuade … insist that the hip hop and country music industries bring those who love their music together to bridge the gaps that divide too many of them. This work is crucial because of how these divisions play out in mainstream society.

If music is anything, it’s creative. It’s the ability to make something memorable out of nothing. We don’t need to despair because the music industry has the power to change people’s minds and hearts. Now that it is Woodstock’s fortieth anniversary, the time has come for us to make beautiful music together. The time is now to prevent hate.

Reverend Phelps Targets Fairfax H.S.

Reverend Phelps’ “family” picketed Fairfax H.S. recently to protest our gay prom queen, the Gay Straight Alliance and the school’s gay friendly policy. Happy to say community supporters counter protested and outnumbered the crazies.

We had been notified 5 days before the protest that they were going to target our school.  Apparently they post their protest schedules on their website.   

On the day of the protest, LAPD had a huge presence on the perimeter of campus, teachers and aides were posted around the school and students were told to exit school away from the area of the protest.  The administration and teachers advised students to stay clear of the Phelps group.

My first instinct was to support students in the GSA who wanted to stage a counter protest.  However, the first priority is always to keep the students safe.  So, not knowing what to expect from Phelps’ group, I advised all students to stay as far away as possible.  The students in the GSA had spent a fantastic year working on projects and events that helped increase awareness and inclusion on the Fairfax campus.  I didn’t want their proactive works to be overshadowed by reacting to Phelps’ message.   I also know how hateful, homophobic and anti-Semitic their protests are, so by staying away, the students could help marginalize their message. 

After signing out for the day, I went to the front of the school to see the extent of the Phelps protest.  There were about eight protesters along with their hateful signs, restricted to the corner of Fairfax and Melrose.  To my surprise, a large contingent of local citizens had heard of the planned event and staged their own protest in support of Fairfax.  I joined the counter protesters to find a number of students from the GSA among the group.  I couldn’t have been prouder.  When interviewed by a local paper, the students responded to the message of hate with a positive, intelligent call for love and inclusion.  They were fantastic.

Click on the link to read about the day in the Park La Brea News

Fairfax anti-hate 2


Fairfax anti-hate 1