My American journey: last stop – Orlando

Our last destination on the IVLP’s “Promoting Human Rights” exchange program was Orlando, Florida.

It is significant to note that the horrible terror attack/hate crime at The Pulse nightclub has left a scar on the community, and has shaped the way in which human rights NGOs operate at the local and state levels.

Our visit to Orlando included meetings with NGOs working on issues of civil rights, freedom of religion, and access to education. The meetings were co-organized by the World Affairs Council of Central Florida, a non-profit organization whose mission is to promote global understanding and connecting citizens of Central Florida to the global community.

Our first meeting was with the Jewish Federation of Greater Orlando, where we met with Executive Director Olga Yorish, Director of Community Relations and Leadership Development Marli Porth, and Executive Council Member Interfaith Council of Central Florida Rabbi David Kay.

During our meeting, I asked the leaders about antisemitism in the community, how they handle any threats, and if there is any cooperation between the Federation and local authorities to ensure the protection of the Jewish community. They argued that the level of antisemitism in Florida is not comparable to what we see in Europe, and that the local authorities have been responsive to threats.

This led us to a discussion on the relationship between the Jewish community and Israel. The Federation leaders explained that they face challenges when discussing Israel. They acknowledged that the younger generation is more critical to Israel, but that when there is a crisis in Israel the entire community is able to put their differences aside and come together to support the Jewish State. We also discussed anti-Israel groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) – while I argued that JVP attempts to drive a wedge in the Jewish community (to use their own language), many of my peers argued that they are an important voice.

Ms. Porth also mentioned that they have attempted to create an inter-faith dialogue between the Jewish and Muslim communities, but they have faced some challenges. She mentioned that the Federation has succeeded in cooperating with the LGBT, Hispanic, and African American communities. Additionally, Ms. Porth admitted that despite the pluralism within her own community, the Federation was unfamiliar with the spectrum of issues in Israeli society represented by my peers and me (such as Israeli-Arabs, African immigrants, and criticism of foreign-funded NGOs).

We then met with Roxy Santiago, a member of the Human Rights Campaign and a local LGBT group “Volunteer.” Volunteer is one of the oldest LGBT community centers in the US and provides various services to members of the community. She noted that in Florida there is no law protecting the LGBT minority from workplace discrimination, but, that in Orlando there is a warrant ensuring their protection.

Santiago discussed cooperation and coordination with the FBI, State Department, and Defense Department in the aftermath of the nightclub shooting. This was another example of how a local grassroots group was able to create coalitions and work with various levels of government to achieve its goals.

Our next visit was at the University of Central Florida, where we met with the Student Accessibility Services – a department dedicated to assisting students with any type of disability. They stressed that they do not focus on the disability of the individual but instead focus on the disability of the environment, and how they can solve this issue. One especially interesting point was our discussion on the challenges a student faces in recognizing his or her own learning disability, especially when it often costs huge sums of money to diagnose and how this can lead to discrimination in terms of who is able to afford such a diagnosis.

The following day, we met Chardo Richardson and Cynthia O’Donnell of ACLU Central Florida. ACLU Central Florida raises awareness of issues such as refugees, prisoner rights, and civil rights, as well as all issues that they view as being unconstitutional. They discussed the cooperation they have with the police and state level courts, and shared with us a case study about their work on the right of prisoners to vote. They explained that in Florida, if someone is convicted of a crime, they lose their right to vote in prison and for life. ACLU argues, however, that the right to vote is a constitutional right and if the individual has served their time in prison, then upon release they should be able to vote. They argued that the inability to vote affects other aspects of former convicts’ lives, and limits their decision making for their future.

The NGO explained that they work both top down and bottom up, and the organization as a whole appeared to me to be very professional and not simply a group of political activists. I mentioned that in Israel we face two issues – 1) that many NGOs that receive foreign government funding are considered to be “foreign agents” in the eyes of the government and other elite actors, and 2) that due to the politicization of NGOs, civil society is largely disconnected from grassroots activity and from cooperating with the government. Instead, they  attempt to influence the international community to further their goals. Richardson answered that for ACLU, they try to focus both on their public image and in staying true to the Constitution. The issue for us in Israel, however, is that we do not have this same legal document to hold ourselves accountable to.

We then met with John Kemper, an ACLU Board Member from the A. Philip Randolph Institute (APRI). APRI was established in 1965 in the name of racial equality and economic justice, based on the spirit of Philip Randolph – a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. APRI is especially active in encouraging civic participation and works with broad coalitions in order to do this. Like ACLU, APRI is also concerned with the issue of prisoners’ voting rights. APRI notes that the issue of low voter turnout in minority communities is growing in Florida. This model reminded me of the issue of the group “V15” in Israel, which appeared just before the last Israeli election, claiming that they were a nonpartisan group trying to improve voter turnout. They, however, turned out to be very partisan. I mentioned this incident, and that V15 allegedly received US government funding, which was again perceived as foreign governments interfering in the internal affairs of the State. Mr. Randolph responded, stating that although APRI is a more liberal group, that they never attempt to influence the way individuals vote.

Our penultimate meeting was with Bassem Chaaban, Director of the Center for Peace, and Imam Muhammad Musri, President of the Islamic Society of Central Florida. We began with a tour of the Islamic Center, which consists of a mosque, schools, and a convention center and then sat down to talk. The first thing that I noticed in the autoriorium was a banner featuring the logos of all the NGOs that they cooperate with, which includes Jewish organizations such as Hillel and the Holocaust Museum. The Center for Peace, which is part of the Islamic Society, aims to promote dialogue and interfaith work in Central Florida. As we heard when we were in Washington, they explained that 9/11 was a turning point for Muslims living in the US. They argued how there was a perception that all Muslims are Arabs, all Arabs are Palestinians, and all Palestinians are men and students. Their work has thus focused on demonstrating that Muslims are Americans too. They further explained that in recent years, due to the narrative that Islam is equal to terror, that there is a large effort from Muslim civil society organizations to educate Americans about Islam.

I asked the two leaders how they deal with the issue of radicalization, to which they answered that they use religious sources to show that there is no justification for violence in Islam and that they also work with the local law enforcement to de-radicalize individuals. We also discussed the issue of women’s rights in the Muslim world, honor killings, and Muslim soldiers serving in the American military.

Our final meeting was with the staff of the Florida Abolitionist, part of the Greater Orlando Human Trafficking Task Force. We discussed issues of human trafficking in Florida and how they address this issue in terms of prevention, identification, and law enforcement.

The trip to Orlando marked the final leg of our month-long journey. I am still processing the numerous meetings, experiences, and conversations I had. I will share these reflections with you in my final upcoming blog.

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.
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