By Tamara Shavit
Aaron Meninberg is one of the 273 citizens working in the Israeli Civil Administration, an Israeli body operating in the Judea and Samaria region running all local civil matters for the wellbeing of the population. He is also one of the 71 non-Israeli Jews who make up the Government Fellows, a unique project in the variety of Masa Israel Journey programs (follow-up programs to Taglit-Birthright Israel
For 27 years, he was American in every respect – he graduated from college and began his career in the political world at Capitol Hill. But for the last three months, he has been living in Jerusalem and spending his days at the very heart of the region.
His story is not the classic Taglit-Birthright story of a Jew who visited Israel, fell in love with the country and decided to move. “First of all, I am American,” he says, and in seven months he’ll return to his homeland. For the moment, he is here to contribute to Israeli efforts, to get to know the situation on a deeper level and to have an extraordinary experience.
The Road to Politics
He spent his first 27 years of life going between the State of Washington and Washington DC. “It is a place with a small Jewish community, which doesn’t really identify with Israel,” he explains about the Washington of his childhood. “It is actually because this community is Jewish that it feels the need to relate to the Palestinian narrative and identify with it. To me this makes sense, but it is often taken to the extreme opposite. Ultimately, the atmosphere created, both in universities and synagogues, is largely anti-Israel.”
He got a bachelor’s degree in the social sciences without really knowing where he wanted to take it. During summer 2006, he began working as an intern at the Hudson Institute (a policy research organization). While he researched international accords and international law, the Second Lebanon War broke out. “With a last name like mine, people in Washington expect you to be very aware of and familiar with what is going on in Israel. They expect detailed arguments. I knew I was pro Israeli, I just couldn’t explain why.”
It was only the beginning. During the four following years, he left research and settled into the world of lobbying. He got a job at the giant IBM to promote military sales outside the US, through Congress. At a later stage, he even represented the US army for Congress. Of course, he cannot speak about the projects he worked on but when asked whether it was difficult to represent a fighting army, he answers, “The world is a complicated place. In my eyes, trying to make it black and white is naive. None of us loves planes, missiles and bombs but the fact is they have a stabilizing influence. When we are stronger, we are actually less destructive. We are more capable of keeping the quiet.”
In the summer of 2009, he decided that US foreign policy interested him, especially in the Middle East. For a short time he was an independent, pro-Israel lobbyist, going from place to place and developing ideas. Alongside his lobbying activities, he also studied independently. “I read thousands of pages on the topic of Israel and foreign policy,” he explains, “and the more I learned, the more confident I became.” When he decided to do a master’s degree in international relations and economics, he heard of the Masa Israel Journey programs.
Work in the Civil Administration
Masa is a joint project of the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, offering Jews from all over the world the chance to spend between five to ten intensive months in Israel, getting to know the country intimately. They travel, volunteer, learn Hebrew and take part in seminars, many also doing professional internships in fields ranging from medicine, to law and cooking. The program through which Aaron came, Government Fellows, is run by the Menachem Begin Heritage Center
and offers its members internships in the government.
“I wrote a short article, filled out a paper, was interviewed on Skype and I was accepted,” he recalls. “I didn’t know I would get a chance to work with Palestinians, I had no clue I would be in that region but I knew I would work in conjunction with the Israeli government and that was enough.”
Unlike the summer of the war in 2006, in the fall of 2010 he understood very well why the relations between America and Israel are so critical, “Today, Washington is debating the very complex question of whether Israel is still an asset or if its become a burden. To me, the answer is clear. From an ideological and political standpoint, Israel’s presence in the Middle East is vital to the US. It is a sagacious and stabilizing center of democracy and, in addition, it is an American ally in an area where the US is very much in need of a foothold. Economically, half of the activities going on in Silicon Valley would not be possible without Israel.”
As a result, despite the difficulties of moving to Israel, he is highly motivated in his job. “This is an excellent opportunity to learn and to work from the other side,” he says, “to contribute to the Israeli government today and simultaneously acquire a wealth of knowledge for my future in Washington.” He has been in the office for two months, under the officer in charge of agriculture in the Administration. His job consists of documenting and explaining to the international community the operations carried out in the Civil Administration. In practice, he does a lot of research.
“My job is to write documents about this activity and to attract as much as attention as possible. Gradually you learn that the information will not always be available to you and that you need to go out on the field to find it,” he explains. “You observe, you ask, you compare data, and you write accordingly. The intention, ultimately, is to change the way we are portrayed in foreign media and in foreign governments. To raise awareness about the extraordinary activity that is done here in the Civil Administration, which the foreign press doesn’t hear about.”
Israelis, Palestinians and one American
And what is this activity? Samir Mu’adi, head of the department, readily explains, “This is a department composed of 15 people, 3 Israelis and 12 Palestinians. Together we are in charge of protecting just below 42,000 acres of forests in the Judea and Samaria region, controlling all the agricultural products leaving the territories, and granting import permits to Palestinian farmers. Beyond that, we carry out tens of projects. Most of them are long-term projects that we take on with Palestinians for a few years at least. Strawberry growing in Qalqilia, peppers and cherry tomato growing in the valley, development of irrigation systems, funding of fertilizers, elimination of flies,” and the list goes on.
Aaron’s work plan is realistic: “I won’t change overnight the way foreign representatives vote, I know that. But I believe that many people would be happy to read and learn. My goal is not turn anyone pro Israel but rather to avoid decision making out of ignorance. We have a serious problem of lack of knowledge in the world, and all in all it makes sense. Nobody can be an expert in everything. Therefore we need to know to provide the right and relevant information. Just like a good lobbyist doesn’t try to push messages aggressively, he is just a reliable source of information. Someone whose advice you can trust.”