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Thursday, September 18, 2014

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Advocate fights for Israel despite ‘tough environment’

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Joshua Goodman, right, with Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird at the American Jewish Committee Global Forum in Washington, D.C., in May.

For the past three years, Joshua Goodman has called Brussels his home, but he’s hardly ever there for long. His love of Israel advocacy has him hopping all over Europe.

“Right now, I have two suitcases, small and large, that permanently stay at the foot of my bed,” says Goodman, who is always ready for an impromptu trip.

The 31-year-old Toronto native is the communications director for the American Jewish Committee. His job is to advocate for Jewish issues all over the continent. One day, he might be in England, the next in Austria and then in France.

“From the looks of it, I will only be in Brussels maybe one or two weekends until the end of August,” he says. “Not that I’m complaining.”

Goodman started out at York University’s Schulich School of Business, but decided after a few weeks that he wanted a more worldly education. He moved to the history department, which he calls the best decision he’s ever made.

His interest in the Middle East grew during his undergraduate studies, leading him to a master’s degree in Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University.

“It was a wonderful experience to live in Israel,” he says, describing it as an eye-opener into the issues Israelis face on a daily basis. “Whenever you heard a loud bang, your first thought was always negative.”

He recalls sitting with his friends, catching up on the latest news.

“Too often the news was terrible,” he says. “It was a sobering reality, whatever your opinions were. This was average life in Israel.”

Inspired by his experiences, he began a career in Israel advocacy that brought him first to Washington, D.C., and then to Brussels.

Although he loves living in Brussels, he says life there can be difficult because of the widespread anti-Israel attitude.

“There’s so much focus on the mistakes Israel is making in the peace process and not so much on the Palestinian role,” he says. “A lot of the legitimately good friends of Israel are critical.”

The AJC Brussels office is one of five in Europe. As part of its advocacy, it also runs a radio show about international politics on the local Radio Judaica.

A large portion of Goodman’s work involves meeting with people who are anti-Israel and building bridges with those who have opposing views, such as foreign ministers from the Arab world, he says.

His trick in discussions with people who disagree with him is to focus on portions of the arguments that can be won.

“You’re not going to win the argument that settlements are legal, but you can perhaps persuade them that settlements are not the core issue and are not the reason there isn’t peace right now.”

Usually, his Judaism isn’t an issue, he says, but he has noticed some fear among other Jewish people living in Belgium.

He recalls one surprising situation when he was visiting a Jewish school. The weather was stunning and he could hear birds chirping happily, when suddenly he was approached by armed police officers questioning his reason for visiting to the school, trying to ensure the safety of the children.

“It’s almost like this enclave of happiness was surrounded by fear,” he says.

Israel advocacy runs in Goodman’s family. Both his parents, Sheldon and Lindy Goodman, are involved in the Jewish community, holding positions with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA) and the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, among other organizations.

“They can’t blame me for choosing the career path I did,” he says, adding that it can be quite difficult to live so far away from his family, but he loves his new home.

“In a way, I was returning back to where my family came from,” he says, referring to his mother’s roots in Antwerp, Belgium.

“It’s where my family left partly because of negative circumstances,” he says. “It’s nice to come back and rebuild Jewish life here.”

Despite the challenges that come with working in sometimes hostile situations, he says he loves fighting to promote Israel and Jewish issues, and has no immediate plans to return home.

Ultimately, he says the work is worthwhile and important to Jewish communities all over the world.

“You always have to be up to date and on your toes to find out how you can influence the decision-making process,” he says.

“It’s a tough environment to work in, but that’s what drives me.”

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