My American Journey: Civil Society Goes West

Following our visit to Des Moines, our journey continued to Utah.

Given that Utah has the largest Mormon population in the United States, this portion of our trip focused on understanding the relationship between this religious community and various state actors. While once a majority, Mormons have become a minority in Utah’s capital city, Salt Lake City.

Our first meeting was with Katherine A. Smith, Deputy Director of the Housing and Community Development Division of the State of Utah’s Department of Workforce Services. In the US, there is separation of church and state and, therefore, faith based organizations are unable to receive government funding. The office was established to overcome this obstacle, and to coordinate government, NGO, and faith based organizations’ humanitarian activity.

Smith discussed the challenges of creating coalitions with faith-based NGOs. Unlike some of the discriminatory strategies we see being used by organizations active in the Arab-Israeli conflict, many of the minority and religious groups in Utah are able to cooperate non-politically in their work. She further explained that the government views civil society as being an important partner in improving various humanitarian issues, and she highlighted the example of housing initiatives for Native Americans. This reminded me of the challenges the Israeli government faces in working with NGOs on issues related to the Bedouin community in Israel – instead of finding common ground, in most cases, the organizations politicize the issue and reject any compromise proposed by the Israeli government.

From there we continued to the office of the Utah Attorney General. The office primarily deals with with the prosecution of those guilty of human trafficking, selling illegal weapons, distributing child pornography, and more. The individuals we met with stressed that since Utah is considered a conservative state, the relations with civil society are more complex and that there is a very delicate balance between the various actors.

The Attorney General explained that they invite members of civil society, especially representatives of different minorities, to watch their security forces training simulator, in an effort to have activists understand the complexities and difficult scenarios they experience. We were also invited to participate in the high-end virtual reality shooting simulator, meant to resemble the complex scenarios that the security forces experience daily on the streets. Any Israeli combat soldier has most likely experienced similar simulations – this version was simply more advanced from a technological perspective.

I found the idea of inviting NGO activists to participate in the simulation to be intriguing. Many organizations are critical of the police, and while their intentions might be just, they often do not understand the complexities experienced by security forces. The simulation is thus an excellent educational tool that helps bring together these two groups in Utah.

Our next meeting was with an organization called Utah Health and Human Rights. Dr. Mara Rabin, the NGO’s medical director, reviewed their work with refugees, survivors of torture, victims of human trafficking, and asylum seekers. The organization receives funding from the United Nations and the US government. Further, although ideologically unrelated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), they do cooperate on various issues. Dr. Rabin highlighted the difficulty in securing funds, specifically for projects related to the issue of torture. I suggested that her organization apply for grants provided by the EU and other European countries, since these countries spend huge sums on the issue in Israel. However, unlike in Israel, American NGOs are heavily restricted in their abilities to receive foreign government funding.

The next day we visited Brigham Young University, located outside of Salt Lake City. There, we heard from Associate International Vice President of the University Jeffrey F. Ringer, who spoke about the history of the institution, its connection to the Church of LDS, and how the university manages its international academic and missionary programs.

At the University, we met with Professor G. Scharffs and Professor W. Cole Durham Jr. for a discussion at the International Center of Law and Religion – an academic institute focusing on comparative research about the relationship between the state and religion.

The discussion began with a presentation about their international activity, which primarily consists of conferences that examine the relationships of states and religion in different parts of the world. Their talk focused on two key points: 1) There is no clear answer to the separation of church and state; and 2) Every society should deal with the challenges related to majority and minority populations using its own tools and best practices, in an effort to ensure that all members of society are given equal rights.

Some of my colleagues raised their concerns that Israel is becoming more Jewish than democratic and that the Israeli discourse about the conflict is becoming more religious. I countered their views, stating that in my opinion, Israeli society is not divided in this way. I further stated that despite popular belief, not everything in Israel revolves around the conflict or around religion. The majority of religious rhetoric used in the region has been by the Iranian regime since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, Hezbollah’s leadership, the Hamas Charter, the Muslim Brotherhood, and also the Palestinian leadership.

As an Israeli, Sunday in Salt Lake City reminded me of Shabbat in Israel (only with public transportation). We were honored to attend the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as VIPs, and were greeted in front of the crowed as visitors from Israel on a State Department program.

One of the issues that came up over and over again was the comparison between the Mormons and the Jewish people. Historically, both minorities have been persecuted, both settled in what was once a wasteland, both struggle with issues of church and state, and both communities’ self-determination is composed within a religious and national narrative. However, the Jewish history of continuous persecution, attempted destruction, and geopolitical challenges are, in my opinion, quite unique.

Our last day in Utah consisted of meetings with individuals advocating for a more liberal agenda. In the morning, we met Professor David S. Derezotes, Director of Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Utah. He argued that when conducting research, one needs to understand “violence” and not “peace” in order to understand how to stop or control it. As Israelis, we shared our perspectives on how peace, conflict, and the use of violence is perceived in our region.

We then met with the Office of the Mayor of Salt Lake City and her staff. We heard from Yolanda Francisco-Nez, Director of the Office of Diversity and Human Rights, and Fatima Dirie, the Refugee Community Liaison. David Litvack, Deputy Chief of Staff, stressed the importance of human rights in the municipality, and noted the diversity of individuals working in his department (Litvack is Jewish, Francisco-Nez is Native American, and Dirie is a Somalian refugee).

Dirie shared her work on the different refugee communities in the city, and also told us her own story of being a Somalian refugee and arriving in Salt Lake City at age nine. The Mayor herself, Jackie Biskupski, joined as for part of the meeting and said that her job is to provide residents with a place to study, live, and work in equality. She stressed that Salt Lake City is a liberal city in a very conservative and Republican state, and that she is able to achieve her goal due to the excellent cooperation between the Church of LDS, the Catholic community, the Jewish community, and others. She and her staff also noted the importance in working with civil society in a top-down approach. This sort of cooperation is something we often lack in Israel.

Our last meeting with the Senior Staff of the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper was especially interesting. We met with Pulitzer Prize Winners Rachel Piper and Christopher Smart, who shared their investigative journalism work on sexual harassment cover-ups at BYU with us.

I decided to use the opportunity of meeting such esteemed journalists to ask questions regarding issues I see in the media today. I asked them about the apparent erosion of professional journalism, and the rise of many alternative news sources. I further challenged them on four main critiques of the media today, not unique to the US alone:

  1. The political and commercial agendas of media outlets, which leads them to pick and choose which stories they report.
  2. Lack of diversity in both the news being reported and those writing it.
  3. Lack of responsibility and accountability when false information (or half-truths) are reported.
  4. Misuse of power.

Their answers were truly insightful. They argued that after the elections, there was a demand to rebuild the trust between the media and the public (similar to what happened with the Israeli media following the 2015 elections) and that they are indeed trying to deal with the issues of proper fact-finding in this complex world filled with so much misinformation.

Overall, my experience meeting with local politicians, religious leaders, and members of civil society was very enriching. Despite the fact that we only met the community’s elites, it was nevertheless amazing to note the level of cooperation between different civil society actors and the municipality. It was especially interesting to note the role of the church in various areas.

To be continued…

About the Author
Itai Reuveni is the Director of Communications in NGO Monitor, a Jerusalem based non-profit research institute. Previously, he was the director of the Israel Research Desk in the institute for more than 7 years. Alumnus of the International Visitor Leadership Program, a prestigious program run by the United States State Department that deals with issues relating to the promotion of human rights. His areas of expertise are Social Movements and Civil Society, NGOs role in conflict, Foreign funding and Antisemitism.