Human Rights Activism: The Next Generation

22 September 2016

At first, 24-year-old Josh Schwartz seems like one big contradiction.

In an era in which they seem like a vanishing breed, Josh is proud to call himself a progressive Zionist.

And he is a peace advocate with a passion for military history.

“I see the study of war as integral to the study of peace,” says Josh, one of four new NIF/Shatil Social Justice Fellows who recently began their year interning at social change NGOs in Israel.

A native of Melville, New York, Josh traces his initial tie to Israel to his grandfather, who fled Romania in 1944 and made it to Israel by 1948 before immigrating to the U.S. for a work opportunity. In his teen years at the Long Island Solomon Schechter day school, his passion was theater and watching two powerful TV series on World War II, which shaped his interest in military history.

“It wasn’t the gore that interested me but the characters and the high stakes and drama,” says Josh. He used his major in performance studies at Northwestern University to examine the way military histories are conveyed in popular discourse. During his junior year, he conducted an independent study on the way politicians and media sold the Iraq invasion to the public. And he wrote his senior thesis on American and British intelligence perceptions of Japanese military capabilities before World War II.

The 2014 war in Gaza was a turning point for Josh.

“It was the first time I closely followed a war here,” he says. Until then, I wasn’t sure whether I would pursue acting or politics…but by the end of that war, I knew I wanted to commit my life to Middle East work. My American peers’ bitter reaction to the war woke me up. I kept wondering if the war and its outcomes could have been prevented had the defense policies been different.”

As a result, Josh studied Arabic during his senior year and then enrolled in a six-month intensive Arabic language course at Givat Haviva, which he said was life-changing and which led him to apply for a Fulbright Fellowship to spend a year in Jordan next year studying the effects of integrated schooling on Syrian pupils’ identity and future aspirations.

His internship at NIF grantee Ir Amim — which works for a more equitable Jerusalem within a resolution of the conflict — is giving Josh the opportunity to pursue his interests in Arabic, the conflict, and the current security situation in Israel.

“One of NIF’s goals is reclaiming the national security discourse and that’s what I’m most interested in,” he says.

“I see Jerusalem as a microcosm of Israeli government policies toward the Palestinians and the security outcomes that emerge from those policies,” he says.

Josh wants to use his experience this year to bring more nuance to the discourse back home. “My work at Ir Amim will give me information and insight about how the realities of Palestinian life in Jerusalem are unsustainable and not living up to Israel’s values… I think NIF’s reach can be greater in the US and I’m hoping to help make that happen, especially among my cohort. I think supporting a democratic Israel will resonate with them. I am thrilled to be part of NIF/Shatil’s inspiring work.”