Five Questions with Tamara Cofman Wittes
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Even though she grew up in East Lansing, Michigan – “enemy territory” as she calls it – Tamara Cofman Wittes headed south to Northeast Ohio to get her undergrad at Oberlin College. Her senior year, she wrote her thesis on the history of Jewish Cleveland, which sparked a successful career researching Jewish and Middle Eastern culture. Today, she serves as a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization in Washington, D.C.
We uncover some common questions of foreign policy and national security issues in the Middle East as we get Five Questions with…Tamara Cofman Wittes:
What has Jewish Cleveland meant to you and how did it help you in your career?
There were two periods of my college career when I spent a lot of time in Cleveland. The first was the summer after my freshman year when I was part of the handful of staff on Mike White’s campaign for Mayor of Cleveland in 1989. I got to know the people of Cleveland and fell in love with a city that was struggling but really trying to come back. The second time was my senior year when I decided to write an honors thesis on Zionism and its role in the Cleveland Jewish community. I spent hours inside the Western Reserve Historical Society reading through sermons by Abba Hillel Silver, old copies of the Cleveland Jewish News – trying to understand the ways in which Zionism and Israel help this community grow and organize. I wanted to see how that was working in a different community from the one I grew up in. It was my first time doing deep research and helped me fall in love with research. It also helped me foster a love of Israel, Zionism, and my own connection to something in the Jewish community. Because the Cleveland Jewish community is so successful, but also historic and multifaceted – it was a great experience.
What led to you working with the Brookings Institution?
Sometimes people say to me, ‘What’s a nice Jewish girl like you working all over the Middle East?’ But I have to say I come to it honestly because my dad was a Foreign Service officer, who spent most of his career in and around the Middle East. I was born in Turkey while my dad served in Saudi Arabia, Israel, as well as other cities throughout the region. While I began my career working in the Jewish community in Washington, D.C. working for the American Jewish Congress (AJC), I realized very quickly I was interested in foreign policy and what the U.S. government is doing around the world. And so I decided to get my PhD and become a policy scholar. That led me to Brookings. What I love about Brookings is it’s very well respected for the integrity and independence of its research. No matter where I go in the Arab world – in Israel, in Europe, or around the United States – people know Brookings and that gives me a great platform.
How have your own personal experiences helped you to dive deep in your research?
I’m trained to look at certain things – the decisions of government, procedures of the government, and the relationship between government and society. But if I only did that in a strict way, there’s a lot that I would miss. I was working on a book in the early 2000’s on whether authoritarian Arab republics – like Egypt under [Hosni El Sayed] Mubarak – would last. If I would have only looked at that from a formal institutional level, I would have said, ‘The Egyptian state is very strong, it has a large military and security services, it’s having macro-economic growth at four to six percent – that’s pretty good. I think it’s pretty stable.’ But when you visit and you meet with people beyond the halls of power, when you’re not intimidated by the tall government buildings, or the official rituals you see when you’re a diplomat, you’re able to see more to the story. The more time you spend with people outside of government or young people at the universities, and you hear from them – not just their frustrations – but the way in which their state is failing them. That’s when you get a different sense of what is stable. And I think that it was that ability to get outside to see and listen that let me understand that things in the Arab world were not as stable as they seemed. What’s troubled me over the last couple of years is the amount of violence and chaos surrounding the Middle East. However, the entire region is not in flames. I was recently in Iraq for an international conference on a university campus. It was livestreamed; there was Wi-Fi; and there were coffee shops. There is a rising generation of Arabs who want a better life for themselves, for their communities, for their countries. There are so many groups of young leaders who are developing apps and digital technology. And so it’s hard sometimes for people to see that.
Is there one memorable experience you’ve had in your career that stands out?
One moment will always stay with me. I was accompanying then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at a conference in Qatar in 2011. We had flown in from another meeting in the region late the night before and we were all exhausted. Early the next morning, she met with a small group of civil society activists from all over the Arab world. As she sits down and listens to each of these individuals talk about what’s happening in their countries, it was like a battery charging. Secretary Clinton knew this meeting mattered and was important to them. As they spoke about the struggles they're facing and the work they’re trying to do, energy flowed throughout the room. That was a moment where I was really struck by the power the United States has as a source of encouragement and hope. We were about to bolster the spirits of these people, who are trying to lift up their own societies so that they can enjoy the things we enjoy. For me, I believe government has the power to do good, both at home and abroad, and that’s what I try and do in my work – show how we can do that better.
Is there an area of study you’re looking to jump into next?
I am at the beginning stages of a new book project that is taking me a little beyond the Middle East, and in some ways it will more so be a story about the United States. It’s a book about the relationship the U.S. has with our autocratic allies. Throughout its history as a world power, the United States has always had relationships with dictators or kings, who have been major partners with us in terms of security – from Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines or Mubarak in Egypt. Those relationships have always been complicated and challenging for the United States. In this book I wanted to understand why.
For more information on Tamara Cofman Wittes or our work in Israel, contact Ilanit Gerblich Kalir at email@example.com or 216-593-2815.