Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Rise of the Meta-

As the internet started proliferating, a number of sites developed to try to make sense of the chaos.  Yahoo gained pre-eminence by warehousing links to all sorts of sites, and starting to group them together.  Webcrawler and other early search engines allowed you to go beyond browsing links and start finding specific content.  Google introduced advanced algorithms to refine those search results and help you find what you wanted faster and more precisely.  None of these technologies actually created content, they merely provided tools to help the average user to make sense and navigate the vast information already available.

This rise of the meta-, that is, not providing the direct content but cataloging it, reorganizing it, and synthesizing it, has bled over into many other facets of society.  And it has real consequences. Take media for example.  With the proliferation of share-able news via twitter, facebook, and other platforms, people are far less interested in the original source of the content, and are likely instead to find the content through an intermediary, either a friend or account they follow, or a news aggregator like Google News.  Sites like the Huffington Post, which creates only a fraction of the content it lists, have found popularity in instead curating the content that is most visible. Because each news site has its own webpage, facebook, and twitter accounts, the information is easily accessible, but the channel is increasingly saturated.  As such, the power has moved away from those who actually create the content to those who aggregate it and curate it, in other words, those functioning at the meta level.

In the Jewish organizational world, we seem to be seeing this trend as well.  As organizations like Moishe House proliferate, and as philanthropists and communities continue to put more resources behind young adult engagement, the amount of content (in this case, programming or events), has generally risen.  Many communities now have professionals working exclusively on engaging young adults, fully outside of a development context.  That is to say that communities are starting to try to connect to young adults without the immediate goal of asking them for money.  In major markets like Chicago, where the organizational landscape is quite robust, there are often several nights a week in which more than one young adult group is hosting something.  But even in Chicago, there are large numbers of young adults, even those who express interest in community involvement, who know little about the actual events and opportunities taking place.  This discovery gap creates a market opportunity for an organization to play the meta role, amassing the information and categorizing and curating it in a useful and share-able manner.

At a time with more and more consultants, and fewer and fewer people actually doing the work, those in the meta role are crucial for the discovery process, but also risk diverting resources from the work that must actually be done on the ground.

The danger in playing in the meta field is relatively simple:  If you rely totally on others to create the information you re-purpose, you have to be sure that there is sufficient high quality content to pull from.  As more Jewish organizations seek to play at the meta level, it is crucial that the landscape not become top heavy.  In other words, if we imagine the relationship between content (or program) providers and aggregators to be such that there must be many providers to one aggregator, we should be wary that there aren't more aggregators to the detriment of fewer providers.

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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Can you love Israel and still criticize it?

A central challenge has emerged in the American Jewish community's relationship to and support of Israel: How can we as American Jews, embodying an often secular and universalist worldview, support Israel without compromising our ethics or ignoring a complicated reality?

Many American Jews, particularly under 30, have solved this by simply ceasing their support.  Some have taken it upon themselves to prove their ideological credentials by actively working against the State of Israel through the BDS movement.  A middle ground, of sorts, holds that one can be 'Pro-Israel' without being Zionist, that is, that one can simultaneously support Israel and work for peace.  The recent move to the right by the Israeli government has challenged this view.

Jews have always had a sense of connection to the land and the people of Israel, but only in the past 63 years have we had a state as well. Recently, I came across a piece by a friend that recasts the issue in an interesting way.

Zoe Jick, who works with the World Zionist Organiztion and MASA, wrote an article in which she reframes the conversation by suggesting that Zionist means believing in the Utopian ideal of a Jewish homeland that is a light unto the nations.  Pro-Israel, she argues, is a measure of support for the government of Israel's policies.

AIPAC, the largest Pro-Israel lobby, claims that they support the relationship between the US and Israel and don't take political stances.  However, as the Israeli government's policies reflect an increasingly particularist view, and continue to empower the ultra-orthodox and settler minorities, it could be argued that an apolitical stance is still a nod in favor of the very political status quo.

Given this context, Jick suggests that we should reclaim the idea of Zionism, and use it as a base from which to criticize the policies and practices that are moving the very real State of Israel away from the ideals of the People of Israel.

Obviously, not everyone feels the way Jick does, and she was singled out in a recent opinion piece by Evelyn Gordon.  What you'll notice is that the author of this piece doesn't actually respond to Jick's ideas, merely takes quotes out of context to lament how terrible it is that even Jewish communal professionals can't be counted on to support Israel.  In doing so Gordon lays bare the rift between those who believe that there are legitimate areas for criticism, and that dissent is in fact the duty of those who truly love Israel, and those who believe that absolute support and defense of Israel is a responsibility of all Jews.

As the space for true dialogue contracts, ill-informed zealots from both sides of the isle are allowed to spin distortions, misinformation, and outright lies to an increasingly polarized consumer base.  Given this situation, is it a surprise that so many of us are simply tuning out?

Why don't we create spaces for REAL dialogue on these issues; safe spaces, with intellectual standards, in which we can discuss our feelings, our challenges, and our ideas without fear of recrimination?

In a Jewish world in which people have to take sides on issues of depth and subtlety, everyone loses.  We are too small of a people and the issues are too important to be co-opted by media trends of sound bytes and ad hominem attacks.  This Hanukkah, bring a little light into the world by studying the issues more deeply, withholding judgement in conversations, and engaging in real conversation. Read More......

Monday, December 5, 2011

Iran's nuclear program has been a cause of concern for Israel, who views its Persian neighbor as an existential threat, based on the the views expressed by the ruling regime. Iran's regime feels Israel is a threat, generally based on comments the Israeli's have made regarding the need to keep military options on the table to prevent a nuclear Iran. Sure, there have been a whole lot of cold war type actions going on recently, but the threat of all out war is such that Defense Secretary Panetta recently made explicit statements telling the Israelis not to bomb Iran. No matter how you feel about the saber-rattling between Israel and Iran, which has grown steadily over the past few years, you should know that most people think that all our military options are a bad idea. But don't take my word for it, the Oxford Research group has published a pretty comprehensive study of the potential effects of an Israeli campaign to derail Iran's nuclear program and concluded that it won't have the long-term positive outcomes to outweigh the costs.  You should read it. Read More......