Inside the Middle East with an expert
Counterterrorism guru Avi Melamed to preview docuseries in Tenafly
Many of the insights about the Middle East that community leaders might glean from Avi Melamed’s invitation-only briefing on May 16 at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly will be news to them.
“My job is not to tell people what they can read in the media,” Mr. Melamed said.
He will answer questions some may never thought to have ask, such as: What is the connection between Gaza, the Sunni-Shiite power struggle, and the Iranian quest for hegemony over the Arab world? How does this relate to questions of identity and direction in the Arab world? What’s the Iranian master plan, why is Syria so significant in that context, and why has Israel attacked Syria?
Raised in Jerusalem and fluent in Arabic, Mr. Melamed became an expert on gathering and analyzing operational counterterrorism intelligence. His most recent book is “Inside the Middle East: Entering a New Era.”
At the age of 29, he became a municipal adviser on Arab affairs, ultimately serving Jerusalem mayors Teddy Kollek and Ehud Olmert during two intifada Arab terror campaigns starting in the late 1980s.
“In 2012, I was asked to head the Middle East program of the Eisenhower Institute in Washington,” he said. “I designed the ‘Inside the Middle East Intelligence Perspective,’ which I gave at Gettysburg College for five years. In 2018, I took that program and turned it into a 501c3 nonprofit based in the United States as an educational institution.”
Through his nonpartisan think tank, Inside the Middle East, Mr. Melamed has shared his intel with audiences ranging from high school students to global policymakers, diplomats, and journalists.
The seminar at the JCC is part of a series ITME is offering at five East Coast Jewish community centers this month, in partnership with the JCC Association of North America, to help emerging leaders address Middle East current events in their communities.
“My apolitical education about the Middle East is significant for anyone who wants to understand the region at large and especially Israel, because if you want to understand Israel you have to understand the whole story of very complex Middle East region and how it impacts the horizon,” Mr. Melamed said.
Separating facts from politics is a difficult task; some would say it’s impossible. Mr. Melamed claimed he can talk about “the most political issues in the most apolitical way” because he is neither a spokesperson nor a politician.
“I have given hundreds of briefings and I have never once come across a situation where people say I am coming from a political perspective because I bring professional, nuanced, contextualized proof, data, and details,” he said.
“We have learned that people don’t want to hear political narratives. They want a real education — and that’s my job. I’m not telling people what to think but how to think.”
Doron Krakow, the president and CEO of the JCC Association of North America, said that JCCs serve as “a town square for open dialogue about the most pressing issues confronting the North American Jewish community. As we endure these times of uncertainty in Israel’s political trajectory, it has never been more important for our community to engage in constructive conversations that will strengthen ties across the ideological spectrum and safeguard the legacy we will leave for future generations.
“We are grateful to partner with Avi Melamed and ITME to help make this possible.”
In addition to the invitation-only evening briefing for community leaders on May 16, at 10 in the morning the Kaplen JCC will host a public preview of Mr. Melamed’s upcoming docuseries, “The Seam Line.”
This series takes viewers on a tour of the multicultural forces at play in the struggle over Israel’s ancient capital city. The five-part program is set to premiere on the streaming platform IZZY on May 18. It’s online at www.streamisrael.tv.
“This is the story of Jerusalem and the ins and outs of the conflict through my eyes, when I was deputy and then senior adviser to two mayors of Jerusalem,” Mr. Melamed said.
“The five chapters offer different angles to understand how Jerusalem is structured politically. Each episode provides aspects of the struggle over the city and in the city, mostly based on my personal experiences, insights, observations, lessons, and strategies, which can be applicable also to other places in the world experiencing conflict.”
A frequent newspaper guest columnist, Mr. Melamed has a long record of accurate predictions. He foresaw, among other events, the so-called Arab spring as well as the Abraham Accords and the crisis within the Muslim Brotherhood.
How does he predict the judicial reform protests currently rocking Israel will play out?
“This crisis reflects the points of difference in Israeli society and also the common denominator of Israeli society,” he said. “My analysis, from being part of this society, is that most Israelis are pragmatic and looking for ways to live life as best as they can in a very complex reality. They have realized there are no magic wands.”
Many anti-judicial reform demonstrators frame the issue in terms of saving democracy. Mr. Melamed points out that although the word “democracy” does not appear in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, the document nevertheless is suffused with democratic principles.
“This charter is part of the DNA of most Israelis,” Mr. Melamed said. “Hundreds of thousands of people born decades after that charter was written are on the streets chanting those values.”
He believes the judicial reform will not take place the way it is now envisioned, but that there might be a new process designed through negotiations and discussions.
“One interesting outcome may be that the state of Israel will be a different place in a way, but perhaps an even better place, because the process may force us to discuss very sensitive issues that we have been avoiding – such as divisions between charedi and secular, Israelis and Palestinians, the land of Israel and the state of Israel,” Mr. Melamed said. “It could be a rejuvenating process.”
Mr. Melamed also expects turbulence in the ruling Likud Party and the possible emergence of “a new political body that will reflect the mainstream Zionist camp.
“I’m optimistic,” he said. “I believe in the vibrant forces of the state of Israel and our miraculous achievements. No human society is totally free of challenges, disputes, and conflicts. I deeply believe in our ability to find mechanisms and ways to bridge gaps — not solve them, but create a frame we can live together in because we have no other home.”
The ultimate message he wants audiences to gain from his presentations is that no one can hope to understand the complex Middle East through the lenses of narratives, echo chambers, soundbites, or theories, compelling as they may be.
“To navigate more successfully in that complex realty, you need a richness of nuanced, contextualized knowledge,” he said.
“Unfortunately, discussions have become narrow and shallow. People need something more profound. So if they walk away from my seminar saying, ‘I understand now it’s complex,’ then as far as I’m concerned I did my job.”
And why should American Jews care to put in the time and effort to understand something so complex and so far away?
“Because Israel is part of their identity,” Mr. Melamed asserted.
“In Western society, the need for identity can be challenging. And for American Jewry, the state of Israel is a treasure that provides a real, profound, everlasting source of identity in many different aspects.
No matter what part of the Jewish world you come from — charedi, Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, secular, or just Jewish — “Everyone can find a component they can connect with,” Mr. Melamed said.
Who: Counterterrorism expert Avi Melamed
What: Presents a preview of his upcoming docuseries, “The Seam Line.”
Where: Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, Tenafly
When: May 16, 10 am to noon