By Sharon Rapoport
It was a cold November night and the Publisher for L’CHAIM and I met with Dr. Nir Boms at The French Gourmet in Pacific Beach. It had been a little under a month since the French terror attacks, and the after the non-stop media coverage the world seemed to have turned sour. Newscasters recommended that people watch out for stray packages in malls on Black Friday. Nations were reconsidering allowing entry of countless Syrian refugees, and social media was abuzz with satirical memes depicting every Muslim as a potential suicide bomber.
Yet here was this man, whom we knew little about, referencing metaphorical bridges building toward our Middle Eastern brothers and sisters. About tolerance, and assisting Syrian refugees … ideas which usually make sense, but in the wake of another radical Islamic terror attack, seemed awkward at best.
To better understand how we arrived at this moment, sipping coffee at a café in PB discussing the Middle East, we should rewind the story a bit. Yaron Lief, a friend of L’CHAIM, had requested we set up this interview. With full transparency, we knew little about Boms, truly not many people did. Lief had gone on to state that there might be a lot of information that Boms just couldn’t or wouldn’t share due to confidentiality and possibly even national security. Honestly there was something exciting and hush-hush about this interview, reminding me of a good James Bond movie. After assuring all parties that we just pursued the truth and whatever information could be given to us in these turbulent times, Boms gracefully accepted our invitation, even though he was clearly not a fan of the media.
Upon sitting with Boms I knew immediately he was a compelling speaker who had given conferences around the world, to be honest I was impressed yet a tad intimidated. In the hour we shared, drinking coffee at the busy restaurant, he kept us enthralled. The Israeli-born Boms went to school at the University of Maryland. During that time, he worked at the Israeli embassy in Washington, where he met many people from the Middle East.
“I had some experiences where many a person from Syria wouldn’t shake my hand [knowing I was from Israel],” he said.
But other Syrians did, and were interested in hearing his perspective and finding out mutual ground. Eventually, some of those Syrian, Iranian and Egyptian expatriates became his friends, and shared dramatic stories from their home countries. Boms collected and wrote around 150 testimonies of people whose voices were silenced for being dissidents, who were forced to flee, imprisoned or killed for wanting change, democracy and freedom.
A short time after September 11, Boms helped create the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a Washington think-tank that addressed two urgent questions: What are we fighting against and what are we fighting for?
L’CHAIM Magazine: So, what are we fighting against?
Nir Boms: Well, that’s something that has been—unfortunately—on our psyche since 9/11 and now again, and that is the challenge of Terrorism and radical Islam.
L’CHAIM: And, what are we fighting for?
NB: Democracy, freedom, of human rights and the long-term antidote for radicalization, which should create a more tolerant world.
LCHAIM: What is the role of the expatriates in all of this?
NB: When I was writing their stories, I realized they were a part of something larger. So I made it my task to study the influence of expatriate communities in politics, and to understand how those moderate voices could foster change in the Middle East. The influence of expatriate lobbies has certainly helped bring change in other places. But of course, in the Middle East things get complicated fast, and the Arab Spring quickly turned into an Iranian Winter. I discovered that dissidents could not bring freedom overnight across the ocean, just as the Internet by itself is not magic. It can serve the dissidents just as much as it can serve ISIS or Al Qaeda.
L’CHAIM: Why do you do this?
N.B. Well, number one, I do it because it is interesting. And also, because of the realization, once you meet some of these people, that perhaps there is a way to build a bridge. Broadly speaking, the Middle East is a lot of insanity, but this insanity has to do with the perceptions we have of others. We see people through the prism of ideological convention, of religious convention, of education. Those ideas have become a part of the DNA of a large chunk of the Middle East population. But when you are able to break through those, you can start doing something more constructive”.
L’CHAIM: Can you be optimistic, with the changes occurring in the Middle East, and the rise of ISIS?
N.B.: I am Israeli: my national anthem is hope. If we were not able to have hope, then what are we left with? Hope is a state of mind. I´m not arguing things are getting better, but there are some points of light.
The millions who marched in the Arab Spring, people from Egypt, Lebanon and Syria are not dead. Lots of them are refugees, but that spirit is alive. Our challenge is to figure out how to help these moderate groups. There are no magic bullets.
L’CHAIM: Is that the official position of Israel?
N.B.: No, this is my position as an academic. Official positions have to do with safety. Israel cannot allow this war to be a cover for Hezbola to get weapons, and we don´t want to get the war to get close to our borders. It´s a tough balance: protecting our security while keeping up the humanitarian aid. But we have to help Syrian refugees. First and foremost, because it´s the right thing to do.
L’CHAIM: Do you believe currently things in the Middle East may be moving backwards instead of forward?
N.B.: If you ask Muslims in the Middle East what are they most afraid of, the vast majority will say: the radicalization of the Islamic State. One guy from ISIS can destroy a hundred bridges. It´s like when the fool of the village throws a stone into a lake, and a thousand wise men cannot get it out. You can´t blame Europe for now saying: We have to think differently now; we have to consider our security.
L’CHAIM: Should European countries should change their policies towards Syrian refugees?
N.B.: The main challenge here is not about absorbing more or no. Europeans will soon have more than a million new refugees in their midst. The big issue is what kind of communities are they going to create, who is going to influence them, and will each country be able to empower the right leaders? Are those leaders going seek integration? Or are they raising another generation prone to hate and terror?
Time had flown by and soon we had realized we had been sitting at our table for hours. Our server, Christian, came up to us, signaling our empty coffee mugs and said: “Guys, are you having anything else? We need to pay the rent,” a lighthearted joke regarding our long stay at the busy restaurant.
After our meeting with Dr. Boms, I left with the feeling of having achieved, during that hour, a new understanding, however frail that understanding could be. I learned that bridges could be built, perceptions could be altered…the world, after all, was not all sour as the media had drawn it to be post-Paris.
A couple of weeks later, the ISIS inspired shootings at San Bernardino happened, then the attack on Brussels…proving once again how frail the world truly is.
Dr. Boms is a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University and at the International Center for Counter Terrorism in Hertzliya. He is a member of the board of the Institute for Monitoring Peace and Cultural Tolerance in Schools and the Co-Founder of CyberDissidents.org, a network of bloggers from the Middle East that focuses on freedom of expression and the promotion of dialogue in the region. Prior to his return to Israel in 2004, he served as the Vice President of the Washington based Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD).
Prior to his tenure at FDD, Dr. Boms was the Academic Affairs Officer at Israel’s Embassy in Washington, DC.