Jonathan Schanzer discussed terrorism at Green Valley Country Club’s Jewish Community Day June 9 in Lafayette Hill, just days before the Orlando shooting.
What happened in Orlando this past weekend was all-too-familiar to Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, D.C.
Schanzer discussed terrorism at Green Valley Country Club’s Jewish Community Day June 9 in Lafayette Hill, just days before the Orlando shooting. The event was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
While the locations and names change, he said, the incidents aren’t stopping.
It wasn’t that long ago he remembers heading to a graduate school class at Hebrew University in Jerusalem when he heard a loud noise — a bomb blowing up a bus stop only blocks away. Another time, he was stuck in traffic there during a different terrorist attack.
And his experiences aren’t limited to Israel.
As a student at Emory University, he’ll never forget his friend being badly injured by the bomb that went off inside Atlanta’s Olympic Park in 1996.
But Schanzer doesn’t have to go that far back to have chills running down his spine thinking how close he was to potential danger. Less than two weeks ago, after meeting with Israeli defense officials, they walked across the street to grab something to eat in the Sarona Market — where terrorists killed four people a week later.
“I was in that mall last week,” Schanzer said. “That attack was significant, because it’s a very upscale mall the Israelis are very proud of.
“It’s also right across the street from their equivalent of the Pentagon, so it’s shocking to hear about this. When we were back in grad school, we’d call our friends and make sure everything was OK and then do what Israelis do — go on with our lives.”
Being that close to death and destruction gives you a kind of perspective most people don’t have and has made Schanzer a leading expert in his field.
It’s a field he never seriously considered pursuing while growing up in Lower Merion. He attended Solomon Schechter Day School and Beth Am Israel Congregation through his formative years, then Lower Merion High School.
“The funny thing is I studied this at Emory — and graduated with a degree in international studies focused on the Middle East — but had no idea what I was going to do,” admitted Schanzer, who would go on to receive his masters at Hebrew University and his doctorate at King’s College London. “Eventually, I went into journalism and advertising, but it wasn’t for me.”
So, he went to Israel and immersed himself in the culture, as well as the painful history. Schanzer studied Hebrew and Arabic and read all sorts of books to get a thorough understanding of terrorism. He returned home in early September 2001 — right before the 9/11 attacks.
“I was here in Philadelphia that day,” said Schanzer, who has written three books on aspects of terrorism and assisted with other written publications. “I remember taking it all in, watching the world react to it.
“I realized at that moment I had been preparing for this whether I had known it or not. That’s when everything began to change. I started writing opinion pieces and going on TV, because there was a dearth of people who could talk about it. Things haven’t changed since.”
Fast forward 15 years and Schanzer finds himself busier than ever, as terrorist events are now commonplace. Between his personal blog Pundicity, which is linked to the FDD website, regular appearances on networks such as Fox News and CNN and numerous speaking engagements, he’s constantly on the move.
But getting back home to speak at Green Valley was different — and special.
“It’s important to touch base on this stuff outside the Beltway,” said Schanzer, the father of 7-year-old triplets — two boys and a girl — “because it’s important to hear what people outside the Beltway think about foreign policy.
“There’s usually a different line of questioning. People tend to get bogged down in the minutiae in Washington. When you step outside the Beltway, they want to see big the picture.”
He wasn’t disappointed about the response Thursday.
“What was interesting to see was the amount of concern on BDS [the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement] and the broader issue of Israel’s fight for survival,” he said. “That concern is strong, but a lot of it hasn’t trickled down to Washington. That’s why [Jewish] Federation events like this, which bring the community together, are so important.”
Speaking of BDS, he recently shared with Congress his concerns that the movement is being bankrolled by an American nonprofit with pro-Palestinian ties.
But even before the Orlando tragedy, Schanzer, who’s been at his post with FDD since 2010, said he’s at a loss to understand why the fight against terror has been so unsuccessful.
“The world has gotten even crazier since 9/11, and the problem of Islamic radicalism has not abated,” Schanzer said. “It’s frustrating to me the U.S. government, the American public and the world has yet to figure out how to tackle this.
“Unfortunately, my career has flourished as a result of some really terrible things that have gone on in the world. I say at work all the time I would love nothing more than for the problem to end, so I could find a job not so depressing. Because every day you’re reading about death and destruction.”
So what happens in November when a new president is elected to replace Barack Obama?
“Having a new president will wipe the slate clean,” he predicted. “It won’t change everything overnight, but there’s a sense that so much of this has been a personality conflict [between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu].
“With the personalities no longer in conflict, there’s an opportunity to start over. How that fresh start takes form remains to be seen, but I don’t think it has much to do with Democrats and Republicans. It’s who gets along. … It’s been a very rocky road the last seven years.”
Until then Jon Schanzer will keep at it, be it writing, being a talking head on TV or speaking at public and private forums. The kid from Lower Merion may never has seen this as his path through life, but he’s gone on to flourish in the role.
After all, each time he hears of a bomb going off or innocent people being murdered, it can’t help but hit close to home.
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