Center Field: A pornographic approach to violence

A response to the criticism over the Montreal Gazette Op-Ed “A moment of moral clarity

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” I asked in a recent Montreal Gazette op-ed, responding to Israel’s hostage exchange with Hizbullah. I noted that “depending on the tone, this question becomes an attempt to clarify, or an expression of outrage. Stated calmly, ‘How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?’ can be a factual question – such as the one that faced Lebanese leaders this week as they proceeded to celebrate the freeing of Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, where he had been held since 1979 for murdering four-year-old Einat Haran, her father Danny Haran and a policeman. Stated angrily, ‘How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?’ is the question Israelis are asking – and the rest of the civilized world should be asking, too.”

The article was titled “A moment of moral clarity.” I lamented decades of relativistic and self-flagellating propagandizing blinding Westerners from distinguishing between civilized and barbaric behavior whenever Westerners were in the right. Nevertheless, I insisted, the prisoner exchange illuminated the differences between the Lebanese and Palestinians who celebrated a child killer and the many Israelis who mourned the deaths of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

I concluded: “We want to side with the country that moves heaven and Earth to bring its boys home, to protect its citizens; not with the country of bloodthirsty mobs deifying cowards who smashed the skull of a four-year-old girl with a rifle butt on a lovely Mediterranean beach. We learn about a people by observing whom they love and whom they hate. Joy is fleeting and often triggered by base instincts. Sometimes collective anguish is a sign of moral strength, not national weakness.”

INEVITABLY, THE gravitational physics of the Middle East conflict kicked in and the article triggered a backlash. Shortly after the article appeared, the leading headline in the Gazette‘s “Letters to the Editor” section proclaimed “Troy overlooked the deaths in Lebanon.” The letter-writer said I ignored the hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian children Israel killed since 2000 “in contrast to the 123 Israeli children who have died since 2000. Clearly, Israel does not celebrate life and certainly does not share Canadian values as Troy would have us believe.” Another letter, headlined “Israel is also unjust,” blasted Israel’s “illegal occupation of Palestinian and Lebanese territories.”

These reactions proved my point. Rushing to indict Israel, the critics ignored the obscene spectacle of the Kuntar homecoming. They missed the essential moral difference illustrated by Israel’s heartbreaking “hostage” exchange. Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were reluctant citizen-soldiers, compelled to defend their country. Whatever violence they unleashed while serving – or whatever violence Israel unleashed after they were ambushed – never triggered any street festivals. Treating violence as a necessary last resort is very different than celebrating violence as proof of national self-worth. It would be immoral if Israelis refused to defend themselves, considering the assaults they endure. It would also be immoral if Israelis delighted in the deaths of any innocents, be they children or adults.

Yes, dead is dead. An individual is no better off being killed by an errant shell than being slaughtered in a targeted terrorist attack. But the rules of war distinguish between the two incidents, emphasizing not just the killers’ intentions but their reactions to the deaths.

We can and should debate how much Western soldiers, including Israelis, ignore the consequences of their actions. But there remains a huge moral gap between the ethical imbroglios of the Israeli soldier forced to fight and the canonization of violence that has overwhelmed Palestinian culture.

HERE THEN is the Palestinians’ great moral blind spot – and the chief sin of their uncritical fans. The Palestinian approach to violence has become increasingly pornographic – meaning focused on arousal. Initiating violence for effect rather than to defend oneself or advance strategic goals, seeking carnage to stimulate national pride, is a particularly twisted and sterile form of warfare. We have become too used to terrorism, too inured to its nihilistic nature. We risk losing our capacity for outrage as we observe and rate the constant attempts to choreograph just the right dance of death that will destroy the most, generate maximum news coverage, strike the greatest terror in Israeli hearts. Terrorists turns cafes into targets, and bulldozers – vehicles for building – into weapons of destruction not realizing the destructive force such actions unleash in their own society, and their own souls.

Addicted to the drama, lazily sticking to the established plot lines, reporters focus on how much these “operations” succeed or fail – the greater the damage the greater the success. But these journalistic narratives overlook what this pornographic approach to violence does to a people’s collective soul. We are who we worship. A society that deifies child killers and rampaging bulldozer operators, a culture of martyrdom that venerates the violent, is a nation destined to fail, not to build.

This addiction to terrorism has derailed the Palestinian national movement, poisoning what it touches. The Palestinian soul has been curdled by repeatedly toasting the brutality of a Samir Kuntar, the thuggishness of the bulldozing maniacs Husam Taysir Dwayat and Ghassan Abu Tir. The evidence is obvious but obscured by political correctness. Watching Gaza fritter away the opportunity the disengagement offered, seeing it develop into a hellacious slum rather than develop; observing the West Bank’s stagnation; witnessing the violence Hamas and Fatah forces unleash against each other – all illustrate the perils of this kind of pornography.

Alas, the false prophets of false equivalence, the cheerleaders for the cheerless, the mass enablers of Palestinian violence, would rather overlook the evidence. Instead, they do what they do best – bash Israel – targeting those who dare defend Israel in print and, most important, in uniform.

The writer, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His most recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, has just been published by Basic Books.

Center Field: Diaspora-Israel relations as bad date

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

The results of the third annual Survey of Contemporary Israeli Attitudes toward World Jewry commissioned by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem are in, and once again we can proclaim: Israel-Diaspora relations remain less fraternal than we like to believe – and more like a bad date than we really acknowledge. Just as North American Jews are convinced that Israelis need us more than we need them, Israelis believe we need them more than they need us. In this survey, focusing on the Israeli side of the equation, most Israeli Jews – 76 percent – believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, while 43 percent believed the State of Israel rather than the local Jewish community was more responsible for fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks in the Diaspora.

These results reveal a condescending Israeli approach to Diaspora Jews as weak, embattled, incapable of self-defense, and dependent on Israeli super-heroes to save them. These attitudes would be more offensive if they were not matched by the too-prevalent Diaspora view of Israelis as weak, embattled, poor cousins needing Diaspora donations – and impassioned letters to the editor – to survive. In fact, both communities are far stronger, more independent, and in some ways more interdependent than most Jews on either side of the Atlantic realize.

Fortunately, the survey uncovered a strong shaft of light bursting forth from this gloom. Nearly half the Israelis surveyed approved of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent announcement, shifting Israel-Diaspora policy away from promoting mass Aliyah. Instead, Olmert’s welcome move sought to improve Jewish education in Jewish communities, emphasizing Hebrew, Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish values, and strengthening the links between world Jewry and the State of Israel. This is a marvelous mutual agenda. Aside from Hebrew, which in Israel is thriving, Israeli Jews would also benefit by learning more about their culture, heritage, ethics, and fellow Jews. The failures of the Israeli educational system in most of these areas are as dismaying as the failures of the Diaspora Jewish educational system in these realms.

Prime Minister Olmert was right to first emphasize Hebrew. Hebrew remains the key to Jewish learning, offering entrée to two of the most fundamental Jewish experiences: attending synagogue and visiting the State of Israel. Of course, one can do either without knowing Hebrew, but mastering the language allows Jews to approach prayer in a more knowledgeable fashion and to approach Israel as insiders not outsiders, as brothers and sisters coming home not tourists visiting an exotic locale. It is lamentable that so many of this generation of Diaspora Jews have distanced themselves from Hebrew. Even many of the finest Jewish day schools in North America no longer emphasize Ivrit, fearing that their students will not be able to appreciate Judaism’s relevance if filtered through a “foreign language.” The rest of the world is appreciating the value of knowing multiple language – yet our parents and educators are spurning a great mind-expanding opportunity, fearful that their “bubbelehs” (all of whom during their bar and bat mitzvahs are hailed as geniuses) somehow won’t be able to cope with the second language.

Although the Israeli school system does a good job teaching Hebrew, both the religious and secular schools are far less effective in teaching a love of Judaism. Too much of the religious education emphasizes dos and don’ts rather than whys; too much of the secular system approaches Jewish studies as a laborious requirement to be endured rather than a blessed opportunity to be enriched.

Mutual salvation is possible here. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews would benefit from a joint Jewish renaissance, a new commitment throughout the Jewish world to learning from each other about our past and our present to guarantee a more dynamic future. In this  — and so many other realms – birthright Israel has shown the way. The program offering free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews has a “Mifgash,” requirement, wherein young Israelis – and now, frequently Israeli soldiers – join the trips for a significant part. The initial motivation was to give Diaspora Jews a more authentic link to Israel; most of the Israelis who have participated have ended up experiencing their own reawakening. The Israeli Army Education branch has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the program, seeing how it makes most Israeli soldiers absorb a keen sense of peoplehood, a newfound love of Judaism, and a deeper understanding that they are not just defending their homes but the Jewish people’s homeland. These successes reinforce Olmert’s essential insight – by taking responsibility for teaching Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews will jumpstart their own process of becoming responsible and knowledgeable Jews.

Inevitably, much of the energy in developing this new chapter of Israel-Diaspora will focus on formal education – which certainly needs reforming. In the spirit of the Zionist youth movements that helped establish the state, informal education will also get attention. But in order for this renaissance to resonate most broadly, we need to think of a whole other dimension – that of popular culture, perhaps the most influential force in young Jewish lives today, be they in the Diaspora or in Israel.

Recently, I looked for some Hebrew books on Israeli history in a Jerusalem bookstore. “We don’t really have much of a selection,” the saleswoman said. “Really, in Barnes and Noble in New York there are shelves full of American history works for kids,” I replied. “We’re not just that patriotic,” the saleswoman replied with a world-weary sigh, despite being barely 25. This exchange illustrates the formidable challenge we face. We need to learn from American Girl, this extraordinary marketing colossus that has brilliantly fused inspiring stories from America’s past, the contemporary search for some “Girl Power” role models, and the crassest form of commercialism. We need to create a Hebrew-English Jewish Harry Potter, perhaps situated in Temple Times, plumbing the mysteries of Judaism in a delightful, compelling way. We need to mimic Disney, which so cleverly blurs shameless entertainment with education about science, history, geography.

This is not an endorsement of watered-down Judaism, whereby we create a pop Judaism as meaningless as the rest of modern popular culture. Rather, this is a call for an invigorated Jewish atmosphere, in Israel and the Diaspora, that harnesses the power of popular culture to redirect our youth, on both sides of the Atlantic toward meaningful interactions with our profoundly rich civilization. But just as Olmert’s strategy recognizes that we will only see a rise in Aliyah after we have seen a resurgence of education, we will not see that educational resurgence, until we get more young Jews to consider embracing their heritage, their people, their faith as their fundamental anchors in this tempest-tossed and trend-obsessed world.

Nearing toward foreign policy consensus

JPost, July 20, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy last week – or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates’ differences, proclaiming “McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge,” the two also agreed on many important fundamentals – as well as key policies.

Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are “anti-terror,” both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.

Appropriately, Israel was not a central thrust of either speech. But the fundamental equation remains operative – what is good for America in this election will be good for Israel. And if the winning candidate sticks to the vision articulated in either of the two speeches, America, and Israel, will be all right.

Characteristically – and in fairness, due to the setting – Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain’s response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.

Obama built his speech by remembering America’s Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall’s faith in “judgment,” mixing what we now call “hard” and “soft” power.

Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building – in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy – like domestic policy – as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world.

Less loftily, Obama proclaimed “five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president’s track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama’s speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address.

Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging, “I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars,” McCain told his Albuquerque audience. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that.”

Sharpening his elbows, McCain said: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”

And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability. “My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged,” McCain chuckled.

In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that – but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the “surge” while George W. Bush was still blindly defending “Rummy” – Donald Rumsfeld – and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad.

And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain’s. Obama still talks about giving the military “a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war” – an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it.

Still, analysts noted that Obama’s sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day – six months from now, and he spoke about a “residual” force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.

This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the “oh, boy, I might be president” flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed, “said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).”

By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.

Support for Israel remains a part of this consensus. Judging by this week’s exchange, as well as the more Israel-focused AIPAC speeches, the hysterical claims that Obama is going to abandon the Jewish State, or that McCain is going to so blindly support Israel there will be no constraints are both overstated.

 

A moment of moral clarity

As Lebanese leaders cheer return of a child-murderer, Israel mourns its two soldiers

Montreal Gazette, July 18, 2008
 
GIL TROY
Getty Images

 

Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.
CREDIT: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.

How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?

Depending on the tone, this question becomes an attempt to clarify, or an expression of outrage. Stated calmly, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” can be a factual question – such as the one that faced Lebanese leaders this week as they proceeded to celebrate the freeing of Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, where he had been held since 1979 for murdering 4-year-old Einat Haran, her father Danny Haran, and a policeman.

Stated angrily, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” is the question Israelis are asking – and the rest of the civilized world should be asking, too.

On the night of April 22, 1979, Kuntar, working with three other terrorists, took Danny and Einat hostage, marching them to the Mediterranean beach after seizing them in their home in the coastal city of Nahariya. After shooting Danny in front of his daughter, then drowning him to make sure he was dead, Kuntar turned on Einat. Swinging his rifle butt, he smashed the 4-year-old’s head against the rocks, until she too died.

Adding to the horror, Einat’s mother, Smadar, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally smothered 2-year-old Yael Haran while trying to stifle her whimpering.

Any civilized court of law would hold the attackers responsible for the toddler’s death, too. Judging by the euphoria in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories this week, by the terrorists’ barbaric, topsy-turvy immoral logic, the additional carnage enhances Kuntar’s heroic status.

Of course, this kind of language is terribly impolite. We Westerners are not supposed to call ourselves “civilized” and deem others “barbaric.” For decades now we have been told that such terms are too judgmental, too culturally-determined, too imperialistic, too arrogant.

We have been so sensitized and issues have become so relativized many of us have lost our moral bearings. We have to call Kuntar a “militant,” a “fighter” but not a “terrorist.” We are supposed to explore Kuntar’s motivations.

And besides, whatever his motives, we are expected to excuse his crimes by pointing to equally heinous Western sins, or the religious-cultural-nationalist foundations for his actions.

And yet, occasionally, illuminating moments of moral clarity shine through the haze of amoral theorizing that emanates from our finest campuses, that is disseminated by our most technologically sophisticated media. We all witnessed such a moment this week with Israel’s heart-breaking prisoner exchange.

As the two coffins bearing the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser arrived in Israel from Lebanon, the nation of Israel plunged into mourning. These two young men became the entire country’s collective children. Strangers who had never met either of them wept bitterly, sharing the pain of the family and the friends, remembering other losses, fearing more tragedies in the future.

By contrast, the massive celebrations in Lebanon for Kuntar and four other terrorists revealed not only the thuggery of Hezbollah but the descent of Lebanon itself. Rolling out the red carpet for a murderer, dispatching the country’s top leaders to greet someone who crushed a 4-year-old’s skull, declaring a national day of celebration, revealed just how thoroughly the Lebanese leadership had succumbed to the brutal sensibilities of Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah terrorists.

At first glance, it is easy to conclude that the country that is mourning lost this week and the country celebrating won. In fact, Israel won a great moral victory. Israel showed why Westerners should and will support the Jewish state, empathize with the Jewish state, identify with the Jewish state.

We want to side with the country that moves heaven and Earth to bring its boys home, to protect its citizens; not with the country of bloodthirsty mobs deifying cowards who smashed the skull of a 4-year-old girl with a rifle butt on a lovely Mediterranean beach. We learn about a people by observing whom they love and whom they hate. Joy is fleeting and often triggered by base instincts. Sometimes collective anguish is a sign of moral strength, not national weakness.

“I’m proud to belong to those who love and not to those who hate,” Ofer Regev said while eulogizing his brother Eldad. Israelis should be proud of this moment of moral clarity – and wary of enemies with such distorted value systems. Israel’s – and the West’s – enemies are wrong.

A nation that risks so much even just to bring two corpses home, a country that celebrates life not death, is not only a worthy ally – but a dangerous adversary when provoked.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.

The X factor in the American election

JPost, July 13, 2008

Throughout much of George W. Bush’s reign, the newspapers and blogosphere have been filled with dire warnings about the state of America. Much of it was so hysterical, it was easy to dismiss it as “Bushophobia,” a reflection of the irrational, intense hatred this president provokes, especially among elites.

In fact, for much of the Bush years, America’s economy did well. Quarter after quarter, experts would warn about sobering outcomes, and yet the numbers kept on illustrating a much rosier picture. As long as the economy was strong, Bush’s popularity ratings could plummet, New Orleans could sink, Iraq could become a quagmire, but the overall tone in the United States remained surprisingly upbeat.

All that has changed. The talk in the United States has turned, people frequently admit their economic distress, focusing on limited finances now or worries about limitations to come. The most visible symbol of this new economic reality is that gasoline is now consistently over $4 a gallon.

People are cutting back, redirecting resources they once piddled away on luxuries toward keeping up with their necessities. As a mark of this shift, Starbucks, one of the great symbols of early 21st century indulgence with its $4 cups of coffee, just closed 600 stores. It seems that the Bush daydream has become the Bush nightmare.

This energy and economic trauma on top of all the other traumas should make it a simple election for the Democrats. No matter who wins the White House, everyone is expecting a Democratic sweep of Congress. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are bracing for a bloodbath, Democrats are already squabbling over the spoils. With Barack Obama leading in the polls, with John McCain retooling his campaign team, this election should be a slam dunk win for the Democrats.

But the dynamics of the presidential campaign are not that easy. Remember President Michael kis? He was crowned the presumptive successor to Ronald Reagan in 1988 as he enjoyed a double digit lead in the polls over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. But Bush was able to come back and defeat him.

The office of the president is so personal, the campaign is so long and grueling, that anything could happen. It really is too early to say Kaddish for McCain or pick out the new colors for Obama’s Oval Office re-design. And on top of all these personality and political factors in the mix, the economy is going to weigh ever more heavily – if current indicators continue to play out as they have been.

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, who once enjoyed approval ratings close to 90 percent. Clinton’s slogan was “It’s The Economy, Stupid.”

This year, barring a major terrorist attack or international blow up – it seems clear that the election will hinge yet again on that stupid economy.

If McCain cannot figure out how to respond to Americans’ distress on this issue, he is finished. But if Americans lose confidence in Obama’s ability to be a steady steward of the economy, he, too, is doomed.

Another Obama speech, another hologram

 JPost, July 6, 2008 

Barack Obama gave another eloquent, thoughtful, thought-provoking speech this week, this time Obama and his wife Michelle,...about patriotism in Independence, Missouri. Obama knew that the July 4th holiday gave him an opportunity to undo some of the damage that Hillary Clinton’s primary campaign had done to him.

But rather than being defensive, trying to prove his loyalty to America or refuting the claim that he was not-unpatriotic, Obama did what he did best. He spoke powerfully about patriotism – love of country – in a broad expansive way.

He insisted that “no party or political philosophy has a monopoly on patriotism” – a sharp elbow aimed at critics – and then explained that patriots sometimes have a duty to dissent.

But while using the words “patriotism” and “nation” repeatedly, Obama avoided using the word “nationalism.” Nationalism is a word that sophisticates hate, as they idealize the European Union’s “post-nationalism” – forgetting how potent nationalism remains in Europe. Nationalism in popular culture is too frequently connected to fanatics who love their country so much they hate fellow citizens who disagree with them.

But both Zionists and American patriots know that nationalism, like religion, can be a force for good – or for ill. Nationalism distorted and perverted ended up degenerating into Nazism. Nationalism constructively channeled created the United States of America 232 years ago, and the State of Israel more recently.

By avoiding the term, was Obama revealing his identity as part of the University of Chicago-Harvard elite who look down their noses at the little people who love their country? Or was he simply being a smart politician and using the popular term “patriotism” rather than the more complicated term “nationalism”?

To those who see Obama as an Ivy League elitist who will be too Jimmy Carteresque, this speech can become one more link in their chain of evidence. But the speech also confirmed the impressions of those who see Obama as a smart, savvy, and eloquent visionary. This is the Obama enigma – and we hope that the campaign, with its many tests, will prove clarifying.

Photo: Obama and his wife Michelle, left, cheer as they watch an Independence Day parade in Butte, Mont., Friday. AP

Obama gets Zionism – why don’t our youth?

Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, 03 July 2008 

True, at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., the most powerful American politicians tell some of the most powerful American Jews exactly what they want to hear.

True, at the meeting in June, Barack Obama overstated his commitment to a united Jerusalem, and then backtracked, causing great controversy. True, during the heat of a presidential campaign, anything one says that is positive about one candidate is perceived to be an endorsement of him, regardless of the writer’s intent. Still, it’s worth focusing on Obama’s remarkable riff about Zionism – and challenging Jews in the United States and Canada to learn at least this from America’s Democratic presidential nominee.

Early on in his address, Obama recalled the influence of a Jewish counsellor of his at a summer camp the young Barack attended in the early 1970s. Obama said:  “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story.”

There are three powerful ideas embedded in this short paragraph. Obama offers a compelling “holy trinity” if you will, explaining some of the ways Jews have maintained our identity for thousands of years, despite adversity. Obama talks about “faith, family and culture.” He speaks about one’s “spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity.” I could add history, the land, and tradition as well. I talk about national and historical identity, too. But what’s important is that Obama recognizes Judaism’s multi-dimensionality. Judaism is not “just” a religion. Jews are a people sharing a common past, certain cultural traits, enduring family values, a binding faith, an interconnected fate in the present, and, we hope, an inspiring and glorious future.

Second, in this speech and elsewhere, Obama talks about the common modern quest for roots, for an identity. He understands that there’s more to life than making money and spending money. True success, true fulfilment, comes from knowing who you are – having a deep, enduring, historical identity.

Both the United States and Canada are remarkable countries, welcoming immigrants throughout the world. But both countries, particularly with today’s modern consumerist popular culture, encourage a kind of historical amnesia, a disconnect from our Old World past. True, Canada is officially multicultural and more sensitive to those concerns than the United States, but the lure of the “I,” of the here-and-now of modern culture, overrides those rhetorical and ideological differences, enticing all of us to jettison our historical identities.

Finally, Obama appreciates the value of having a homeland as an anchor, as a repository of our past, our values, our story – and our future. We need to imagine sometimes what it must have been like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were cut off from that homeland. We need to imagine sometimes what it must be like for kids like the young Obama, who, while welcomed into the American heartland, know that they are different, know that they have another identity and wish to reconcile it all.

We need to ask, “Do we always remember to keep our homeland – the homeland of Israel – ‘at the centre of our story’ as modern Jews?” Have too many of us, in the comforts of North America, forgotten how lucky we are to have Israel as an identity anchor? How many of our well-educated, sophisticated 40-year-olds speak as eloquently as Obama did about the power of the Zionist idea historically – and to us personally? And if Obama is willing to say “Yes we can” to our Zionism, how come so many of our youth are not?

Center Field: Group pride guarantees individual freedom

By Gil Troy, JPost, June 30, 2008

In one of the summer’s first blockbuster comedies, You Don’t Mess With the Zohan, Adam Sandler plays an Israeli commando who finds love and leisure in New York. A kind of Munich meets West Side Story, spiced with more than a touch of madcap Mel Brooks, the movie has a clear, all-American message behind the entertaining mixture of mayhem and mirth: A happy ending comes when our hero abandons his country and his identity, joining the all-American intermarried mélange.

This message of redemption through renunciation echoes throughout modern North American popular culture. Michael Chabon’s best-selling novel, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union has been criticized by some for being post-Zionist, with the “frozen Chosen” shivering in Alaska rather than sweating in the Middle East. Actually, I found it quite Zionist, as Chabon’s imagined post-World War II refuge of Sitka, Alaska fails to give the Jews the permanent home they so clearly need. Yet as creative and alluring as it is, the novel in Jewish terms is depressing. Jewish identity in Chabon’s Sitka is an historical burden groaning with the misery of 2000 years, a pair of inherited ethnic handcuffs shackling Jews to provincialism, and – all too frequently – providing a mask of public piety shielding rank criminality.

Our universities and so many leading intellectuals reinforce this message. Birthright, MASA, and all the identity-building programs for Jewish 20-somethings are valiant attempts to counter the overwhelming lesson most North American kids absorb for decades culminating with university life – the American ideal is to transcend identity, to jettison your particular past, to become a cosmopolitan world citizen. Ten days or ten months can only do so much to counter the mass seduction of Jews with a warm embrace that ultimately entails losing our memory, and thus our identity.

Even in Israel, the Jewish people’s headquarters, the 24/7 center of rich, multi-dimensional Jewish living, the alluring modern voices promising deliverance by detachment grow louder. The lure of Americanism, the characteristic Sabra cynicism, and the sophisticate’s post-Zionism promise salvation by separation from the tribe, the clan, the nation, the religion, our people. All too often, believers – in Judaism or Zionism – find themselves mocked as old-fashioned, as freiers (suckers), as chauvinists.

FORTUNATELY, ONE of the greatest Jewish heroes alive today has jumped into this battle, armed with his usual weapons – wit, iconoclasm, erudition and courage. Having survived Soviet prisons, having survived years in Israeli politics with his reputation for independence and integrity intact, Natan Sharansky is now ready to lead the charge against those who are deluding themselves by denuding themselves. In his new manifesto, Defending Identity: Its Indispensable Role in Protecting Democracy, Sharansky confronts the modern, all-consuming message of universalism as fiercely as he battled the contagion of Communism. In fact, Sharansky – with his co-author Shira Wolosky Weiss – suggests that this religion of nothing is an unhappy vestige of the ill-conceived Marxist universalism that misled so many and ruined so many lives.

Sharansky begins his book by recounting the Soviet Chamber of Horrors he endured – and explaining how he survived. Sharansky attributes the internal grit so many Jews and Pentacostalists displayed in resisting Soviet secret police interrogation, to their external ties. By having a strong identity, by being part of something greater than themselves, a people, a religion, a tribe, individuals felt responsibility for ideas greater than themselves. In fact, Sharansky noted, the prisoners who stood up most heroically for universal human rights were the ones who, like him, tended to be anchored in a particular group, with a particular narrative that their resistance helped advance.

Sharansky then goes beyond the Soviet example to argue that democracy in America, Europe, Israel and elsewhere cannot survive without a similar rootedness in identity. He uses “identity” broadly, meaning membership in an ethnic group, a religion, a nation. Noting the weakness of Europe, the cowardice of the professoriate, the hypocrisy of the human rights crowd in the face of the Islamist scourge, Sharansky insists that the future of democracy hinges on free people ready to defend themselves because they are rooted in strong, secure identities. Group pride guarantees individual freedom.

THIS TWIST makes Sharansky’s argument fresh, powerful, compelling, and yes, subversive. Rather than joining the Jewish woe-is-me crowd lamenting that particularist Judaism cannot survive America’s universalizing embrace, Sharansky fears that America, Europe and the West cannot survive modernity’s universalizing embrace. Sharansky endorses a strong Jewish identity, a vital American identity, a vigorous Israeli identity, a proud Western identity, to preserve democracy. The Gulag’s lessons apply to the Google generation. Even when Thomas Friedman claims the “world is flat,” even amid globalization’s vast sweep, individuals need to belong to a collective, to share the anchors of the past, the challenges of the present, and the hopes of the future.

Sharansky’s book should make us appreciate how lucky we are as Jews to be a part of such an inspiring story. We are the heirs to a rich civilization, with a faith, a homeland, a culture, and a collective commitment to one another. These are blessings not burdens, ways into the rich human experience not obstacles to deeper human connections. We can engage in tikun olam, repairing the world, as Jews, through our affiliations not despite our affiliations. And we can fight for our rights and freedoms by knowing who we are and why we deserve a homeland after nearly two thousand years of exile.

Those of us in Israel and those of us in democratic countries abroad are doubly blessed, lucky to have our Jewish and Western identities. As Sharansky shows, and as so many of us know, these are not dueling identities, but complementary ones, no matter what Hollywood or Harvard types might tell us.

The writer, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His most recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, has just been published by Basic Books.