Interview With The Governor Of Maryland: Martin O’Malley

Originally published in The JHU Politik on February 16, 2014.

Martin O’Malley, who has served as the Governor of Maryland since 2007, sat down with the JHU Politik to share his thoughts on some of the most relevant issues pertaining to college students in Maryland, as well as his legislative plans for the future. O’Malley’s history with Johns Hopkins runs deep; he previously served as Mayor of Baltimore City from 1999 to 2007, and before that he worked as a Baltimore City Councilman from 1991 to 1999. While he has not yet confirmed or denied the speculation, Governor O’Malley is widely considered to be a serious contender for the 2016 presidential election.

Since your time as Mayor of Baltimore do you think the relationship between Hopkins and the city has changed?

I was elected Mayor in 1999, I think over the years the relationship between Johns Hopkins and the neighbors of East Baltimore has improved. I think you see some physical manifestations of that improved relationship in these new school buildings here, and the redevelopment of this East Baltimore area north of Johns Hopkins. There was a commitment by Johns Hopkins to make sure that we were not only creating more jobs adjacent to their campuses but that we were also rebuilding the fabric of the community that had been hit hard violence and by the abandonment that the open air drug markets had caused here.

To see the [Henderson Hopkins School] open shows that Johns Hopkins sees the future of the institution intertwined and very dependent upon the future of the neighborhoods that surround Johns Hopkins. And that’s a positive thing. None of us are so powerful and mighty that we can ever separate ourselves from the broader community in which we live and work and achieve.

My sophomore year I took a class called “Baltimore and The Wire.” It was taught by Peter Beilenson, who served as Baltimore City Health Commissioner from 1992-2005, during your time as Mayor. What is your take on the iconic show? Do you feel it is a fair depiction of the city?

I think The Wire accurately depicted the conditions that we had allowed to rise up in far too many of our neighborhoods. I mean for years we failed to push back on the proliferation of open air drug markets in our city and it robbed a lot of families of their legacy wealth, of their homes, of their neighborhoods and of their sons’ lives.

Hopefully there will be another show, provided we can get back on track here. From 2000-2009, Baltimore had achieved the largest Part 1 crime reductions any major city in America and we need to do that again, we need to do it every decade for the next several decades. And as we do, we’ll see the city growing in population, growing in opportunity, growing in prosperity.

As an undergrad you took a semester off from school to work on Gary Hart’s presidential campaign. What role do you think students play politically within Baltimore City and Maryland at large? Do you think students should be getting more involved in the political process?

Well I think the process always benefits when young people are more involved rather than less. One can see the direction of a state, a city or a country from the attitudes of its young people and the sooner those attitudes find their way into government, campaigns and party platforms, the better. It accelerates the curve of progress. I think young people were instrumental in President Obama’s election and reelection campaigns, and both my campaigns for Governor. Young people were a huge part of what propelled us into office.

Many of us will soon be graduating and entering into the ominous job market. What sorts of policies do you think would be most effective to help ensure employment and what sorts of things do you also hope to see in the absence of a robust hiring scene?

Here’s the good news and bad news for the people in the class of 2014.  The good news is that the financial markets and banking institutions were stabilized by the actions that President Obama took several years ago. Our industrial base was rescued by the actions that the President and Congress took with our auto industry and the good news is that we’ve now had 47 months straight of positive job growth.

Last year we moved more people from welfare to work than in any other single year since these numbers have been kept. That is why we have also increased the earned income tax credit to reward hard work and it is also why this year we are pushing for an increase in the minimum wage. These things are all steps we can take. And if you look at what is happening in Maryland in terms of upward economic mobility, it would appear that the balance of steps we are taking is actually working because the Pew Foundation ranked us as one of the top three states in America for upward economic mobility at a time when there has been a hollowing out of our middle class.

But while things that we are doing are working, we are part of a larger national and global economy. We need as a nation to invest in the fundamentals of a stronger economy. I’m talking about education, affordable college, the infrastructure, water, transportation, cyber and R&D. It’s what our parents and grandparents did. It’s what we’ve done at every generation but for some reason we became distracted for the better part of the last thirty years by this phony theory of trickle down economics that says that if you cram as much of the country’s wealth into the hands of the fewest people then that will somehow lead to a burst of opportunity and jobs. It doesn’t work that way. It never has.

What initiative are you most excited about for this legislative season?

The one I’m most excited about is actually raising the minimum wage because it allows for us to hold a larger conversation and gives us an opportunity to talk about a host of actions we’ve been taking as a state. There are so many people from across the political spectrum who all agree that nobody who works 16 hour days should have to raise their children in poverty. So it’s an opportunity to have a larger and more inclusive conversation rather than speaking past each other with ideologies and old formulas.

Jewish Fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi Marks 100 Years Amid Sweeping Culture Changes

Originally published in The Forward on September 1st, 2013. 

Many kegs have been tapped since the night of November 7, 1913, when 11 Jewish students gathered at New York University to found the first official chapter of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity. Over the next 100 years, the organization, most commonly known as AEPi, would grow — from a small sanctuary for ostracized Jews into an influential international fraternity encompassing 177 active chapters in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, France and Israel.

“The story of AEPi is the story of extreme upward mobility,” said Marianne Sanua, an American Jewish historian at Florida Atlantic University and the author of “Going Greek: Jewish College Fraternities in the United States, 1895–1945.”

“AEPi is absolutely unique. They are the only historically Jewish fraternity to still hold on to their Jewish identity. They don’t hesitate to call themselves a Jewish fraternity, and they don’t hesitate to say they prefer most of their members to be Jewish.”

AEPi reaches more than 9,000 undergraduates worldwide, and boasts an alumni network of more than 80,000 men. Their challenges reflect many of the same struggles of the larger Jewish Diaspora: its relationship to Israel, the increasingly pluralistic society in which it exists and the extent to which young people outwardly identify with Jewish institutional culture.

In August, more than 1,400 students, alumni and Jewish institutional leaders gathered at Manhattan’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel to commemorate AEPi’s centennial anniversary.

“The audience heard a very unequivocal message about what AEPi is and the values we uphold,” said Elan Carr, AEPi’s international president and supreme master. “And those values are Jewish continuity, tikkun olam, Jewish leadership and support for Israel.”

One attendee, Barry Magen, who owns a Jewish art company in Elkins Park, Pa., reflected: “The conference gave me hope. I really believe that their leadership development is unparalleled.”

AEPi’s rise to such prominence was always an unlikely story.

In the early 20th century, fraternities across the United States were powerful presences on college campuses — and they unabashedly shut their doors to Jewish students. This exclusion, according to Sanua, was accomplished through restrictive clauses in fraternity constitutions and gentlemen’s agreements. In response, Jews formed their own Greek organizations; by the 1920s, at least 17 national Jewish sororities and fraternities existed in the United States, including Alpha Epsilon Phi and Zeta Beta Tau.

“This was their peak,” Sanua said. “Many of them went out of business during the Depression, or merged with one another.”

Additional attrition ensued in the 1960s and ’70s. Prompted by new civil rights legislation, colleges cracked down on such discriminatory practices as restrictive clauses in the constitutions of both non-Jewish and Jewish fraternities. The Vietnam War also contributed to the shifting milieu; liberal college students rebelled against authority as a whole and the Greek system — which they perceived as a conservative, hidebound institution.

“In America there was a general mood that fraternities were undemocratic, socially exclusive and destructive,” Sanua said.

The 1980s, however, brought a return to tradition, as well as Greek life’s revival as a vaunted campus symbol. “AEPi reaffirmed their commitment to Jewish identity while other historically Jewish fraternities were heading in the opposite direction,” Sanua said. “They also recognized that they likely could not compete with historically gentile fraternities.”

“We’re very proud that we stood our ground [in the ’80s] as a Jewish fraternity,” Carr said. He believes that committing to AEPi’s core values and history was the right decision not only “with regards to assimilation and loss of connection to Israel,” but also because staying true to what he calls “their brand” helped to ensure long-term success.

Today, AEPi’s challenges look very different.

“While our students don’t have to deal with anti-Semitism in nearly the same way as our founders did, they do face threats in terms of delegitimization of Israel — a place that is very special to our organization,” said Adam Maslia, AEPi’s Howard M. Lorber Director of Jewish and Philanthropy Programming.

It was after the second intifada that AEPi really began to tackle Israel advocacy from an institutional level. “We knew then that if being the last remaining Jewish fraternity means anything at all, it must mean that we are going to stand and support the Jewish people, which is the Jewish state,” Carr said.

But while AEPi’s leaders frame Israel activism as a fraternal mission, the extent to which individual chapters see themselves as pro-Israel advocates varies considerably.

“AEPi at Berkeley is pretty much the hub of the mainstream pro-Israel community,” said recent college grad Isaiah Kirshner-Breen, who now lives in Washington. “They’ve been always very active at organizing people against [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions], both in 2010 and this past spring.”

“Israel programming isn’t a huge thing for us, although every AEPi brother did show up for Israel Day,” said Jacob Plitman, an AEPi brother at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “We’re rather culturally Jewish. We do a Seder, we all end up going to services. We’re Yom Kippur Jews.”

“Our school doesn’t really have an active Jewish community. We don’t do much with Israel,” said Michael Zysman, an AEPi brother at Bentley University, Mass. “We have a lot of non-Jews in our chapter.”

Certainly, non-Jews still pose a challenge for AEPi. While the group’s mission statement defines it as a nondiscriminatory fraternity, it also calls for efforts to “develop leadership for the North American Jewish community.”

Several students who asked for anonymity said that the recruitment goals of AEPi national versus those of local chapters are often divided.

“Nationals doesn’t really encourage you to recruit non-Jewish members, but we will actively recruit them if we think they will fit in with us,” said one student from a university on the East Coast.

Another college student in the Northeast admitted, “I think we tell Nationals we’re 75% to 80% Jewish but we’re probably more like 60%.”

Virgil Doyle, a non-Jewish student who served as president of Johns Hopkins’s AEPi chapter, embodies how much the fraternity has evolved over the years.

“I came to college with a pretty good idea I wanted to join a fraternity as a social thing, and AEPi just happened to be the group of guys I most identified with. There are enough people in the fraternity who are very involved in Jewish life around campus that me not being a part of that directly wasn’t something that I really worried about.”

The rise of AEPi has also begotten the rise of what is known as “APES,” an off-campus and unofficial AEPi spinoff. “When AEPi gets kicked off campus [for violating rules], they automatically [lose AEPi status] and have to become APES,” explained Ryan Erfer, an AEPi brother at Emory.

For some, the APES designation is seen as a punishment, since they are no longer recognized as an official chapter. Yet other chapters opt for APES status voluntarily. Two years ago, when the AEPi chapter at the University of Pennsylvania faced a two-year probation for violating pledging rules or disaffiliating altogether, they chose to “go APES.” Some argued it carried a “cooler” appeal, particularly since the Interfraternity Council is powerless to regulate them.

“APES tends to have a reputation for throwing parties that don’t adhere to the rules,” Erfer said, referring to the fraternity’s national reputation.

“‘Jewish bros’ is a real thing, those people exist,” Plitman said, referring to a contemporary pop-culture category of young men. “APES are the Jewish bros.”

Despite all this, AEPi continues to grow. Although it’s impossible to predict the future contours of the American Jewish community, the men of Alpha Epsilon Pi will quite likely play a role in shaping them. As Doyle sees it, “We probably have more discussions about the Middle East and Israel than the average Hopkins Greek male.”

College Organizing and the BDS Controversy

Originally published in The Daily Beast on February 6, 2013.

In thinking through the most recent BDS controversy now unfolding at Brooklyn College—where the political science department is co-sponsoring a panel in support of a controversial movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel over its policies—it is helpful to keep in mind some of the basic rules of college organizing. Students understand these intuitively, but adults often confuse them. The most important one, obviously, is that free food is the best recruiting tool there is to bring students to events.

But beyond food, students know that co-sponsorship does not equal endorsement. It has to be that way. If a student group contacts your organization saying they have a speaker they want to bring to campus and would like your co-sponsorship, how can you be sure their speaker will say 100 percent things your organization agrees with? You can’t. Thus it’s implicitly understood that you will co-sponsor on principle, because you believe this is the type of discussion or event that should be happening at your school. After the event, you have the prerogative of holding whatever debrief or critical analysis your group sees fit. You might also make a point to open the event with the acknowledgement that there are multiple perspectives on an issue. But you all agree that sharing views, whether or not they are your own, is a worthy thing to do in an academic setting. And you understand that working collaboratively on events is often the only way to afford any programming at all.

Last semester, a student group at Johns Hopkins (where I’m currently an undergraduate) organized an event called “Living Under Drones at JHU,” which was created to raise awareness about drone warfare and to start a public discussion about the role the Hopkins Applied Physics Lab plays in drone development. At the event, a petition was circulated to demand Hopkins halt drone research until more information is brought into the public forum. The Johns Hopkins Political Science department proudly co-sponsored this event because they support students organizing events like these. Everyone understood that that does not mean the Political Science department endorses anti-drone activity, or the petition itself, and that even if they did, they would not be able to go on record about it. I thought it was great that the school provided institutional support to student efforts, legitimizing the students’ drive to have conversation, while not endorsing any specific views.

A third rule of college organizing is that controversy sells. If BDS opponents think that a public uproar against it will make students uninterested in the material, then they should probably consider enrolling in Intro to Psychology. When the University President and Political Science professors support the event and government officials and activists oppose it, who do they think students will trust more? To be sure, the Brooklyn College Political Science department should make clear that there are multiple views on this issue and that they fully support events that present alternative perspectives.

I am against BDS, but I’ve reached this position through many long, difficult conversations trying to wrap my head around what it is about it that I agree and disagree with. I’m grateful that J Street U, the student wing of the liberal pro-Israel group, gave me the opportunities to hold those discussions, and even exposed me to speakers who do support it in order to challenge me. The BDS movement exists, it is influential, and it is growing. Trying to shove the issue under the rug does not make the ideas disappear. The only reason that I feel comfortable opposing BDS is that I’ve been given the honest chance to research, discuss and figure out what I really think about it.

Many of us grew up in American public schools where boycotts are taught as quintessential, proud staples of our country’s history. We’re raised to venerate the bus boycotts of the Civil Rights movement. We applaud labor boycotts as a non-violent means for workers to protest fairer conditions. We understand that the international boycott played a major role in helping to end the apartheid regime in South Africa.

My point is, if Jewish community leaders think it is self-evident that boycotts are a poor tactic for opposing occupation, they’re unfortunately mistaken. For many students, that question is confusing. So when Hillels across the country say they refuse to associate with BDS speakers or to even hold discussions about BDS because they’re “drawing a red line,” who do you then think will ultimately be left to influence students’ perspectives on BDS? Chances are it won’t be the pro-Israel students who didn’t come to the table. And that’s a real missed opportunity on the pro-Israel community’s part.

The real way to battle bad ideas is with better ideas. Hillels should feel confident in the merits of their arguments against BDS. Especially at college, when students are continually confronted with perspectives of the world that challenge, confuse and contradict what we think, we really need individuals who support us in making sense of it all, not those who dismiss or reject ideas from the outset.