Meet the reformer: Uriel Epshtein, combating American authoritarian impulses
Uriel Epshtein is executive director of the Renew Democracy Initiative, created three years ago by former world chess champion Garry Kasparov to combat populism, promote core constitutional values and offer a home to political centrists. He came to the job after stints at the Boston Consulting Group, DoorDash and Uber. As a Yale undergraduate, he founded and continues to chair the Peace & Dialogue Leadership Initiative, which promotes campus college dialogues on policy in the Middle East. That experience had a profound influence on him, he says, as he began to see increasing similarity between polarized partisan U.S. politics and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.
What's the tweet-length description of your organization?
RDI produces content with the goal of empowering the American public to understand and prioritize core constitutional principles.
Describe your very first civic engagement.
In high school I founded the Pascack Hills Political Club and eventually ended up chairing the New Jersey Teenage Republicans. Politics was my version of a team sport. I was confident my team was right and all we had to do was "defeat" the other guys. It's incredible to think how much has changed since then. I keep wondering what percentage of that change is external and what has come from shifts in my own perspective.
What was your biggest professional triumph?
Transitioning RDI from a one-man team to a more established start-up with a recognizable voice on democratic issues. Now we have published a book, put on two significant conferences and started multiple creative projects — all with the goal of empowering the public to prioritize core American values.
And your most disappointing setback?
We are in a moment of profound national uncertainty, and sometimes I allow myself to get caught up in that when I should simply focus on the task at hand.
How does your identity influence the way you go about your work?
My parents were raised in the former Soviet Union. My dad was an anti-communist, Zionist dissident born under Joseph Stalin in 1936 and my mom was born at a time of overwhelming anti-Semitism in Kiev. Their experiences living in a totalitarian society, dominated by group-think and without freedom to so much as utter a dissenting thought, has made me forever skeptical of ideologies that allow for no disagreement or debate. Today, as each American political side becomes increasingly inflexible, branding anybody willing to compromise as a traitor, I'm beginning to hear echoes of parts of my family's experience. This is what our work at RDI seeks to address. I understand the appeal of sticking with one's own tribe, but I fear that if we're unwilling to experience the discomfort of engaging those with whom we disagree, we may become increasingly willing to sacrifice the principles underpinning our republic to avoid doing so.
What's the best advice you've ever been given?
Something my rabbi said to me in college, which I really started to understand only in the last few years: We should not necessarily identify with our emotions. We never know when a crisis might turn out to be a blessing in disguise or, if we find ourselves at a low point, we have no way of knowing what's waiting around the corner. We just have to keep pushing through.
Create a new flavor for Ben & Jerry's.
Fondue Democracy: Red, white and blue sprinkles swirled together with chocolate fondant.
What's your favorite political movie or TV show?
"The Americans" on FX was a terrific and nuanced show. I was particularly impressed that they hired actual Russian speakers to play the Russian characters.
What's the last thing you do on your phone at night?
Check the news — although I'm trying to break the habit.
What is your deepest, darkest secret?
I have a pretty debilitating fear of spiders. At one point, I was with friends wandering through a children's section at the zoo. We sat down for a few minutes and, while flipping through a National Geographic magazine, I stumbled across a full-page image of a tarantula. I fell out of my seat.
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