Playing the partisan

By  Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-23-08

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Clinton addresses the...

Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to attend the major rally called for Monday September 22 in New York against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance is outrageous – as is the organizers’ subsequent decision to disinvite Sarah Palin.

Back in August, Senator Clinton had agreed to attend. She abruptly pulled out this week because the Republican nominee Sarah Palin also agreed to appear. This move suggests that Senator Clinton hates Governor Palin and the Republicans more than she hates Iran’s Ahmadinejad, despite his sexism, homophobia and advocacy of genocide.

The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event “nonpartisan.”

But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.

Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes.

Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.

The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians.

The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.

The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art.

In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.

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The lessons of Oslo

By Gil Troy, THE JERUSALEM POST, Sep. 23, 2008

Wouldn’t it be great if we could greet Tzipi Livni’s ascension by applauding her honesty and being satisfied that integrity was enough? Wouldn’t it be reassuring if all we had to speculate about was her economic sophistication and her social vision for the country? Unfortunately, the major question Livni will face, should she become prime minister, is “How effectively will she protect Israel?” This question takes on particular prominence as her razor-thin Kadima victory coincided with the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo Accords and growing concerns about Iran’s nuclear threat.

Normally, a question like “why did the Oslo Accords fail” could be left to historians. But while historians can help clarify, providing evidence, context, insight, perspective, every Israeli leader – and voter – must come to grips with what occurred. The conclusions Israelis draw about what happened to Oslo yesterday is essential to figuring out what to do today and how to build toward a stable tomorrow with the Palestinians.

It is scandalous that Oslo’s architects, especially Shimon Peres and Yossi Beilin, have not accounted for why Oslo failed. The point is not to make them wallow or even apologize. Rather, the challenge is for them – and others – to draw the appropriate lessons and plot a realistic future course.

While the history of the Oslo Accords is as complex and subtle as the agreements themselves, there is one clear, crude, depressing explanation for why Oslo failed. Israel’s leaders – and the world – failed to appreciate most Arabs’ and specifically most Palestinians’ violent hostility to the Jewish state’s very existence.

THIS FAILURE is, in many ways, lovely and understandable. The Western mind is too rationalist – and, frankly, too self-absorbed – to appreciate the depth of the hatred. It was easier to condescend toward Yasser Arafat, assuming that when he advocated violence in Arabic he was just playing politics, than to take his words seriously and realize that when he smiled and negotiated with Westerners he was just toying with them.

Shimon Peres’s New Middle East pipe dream was rife with Marxist assumptions, supposing that an Israel-fueled materialism could dull the fires of maximalist Palestinian nationalism. The Oslo delusion was secular, underestimating Islamist radicalism’s intensity and popularity. The Oslo apparition was also a peculiarly quixotic Zionist miscalculation. Despite the anti-Zionist narrative claiming that early Zionists alternately ignored Palestinian Arabs or brutalized them, a strong Lawrence-of-Arabia streak in early Zionism also romanticized Arabs, dreaming of a Jewish state lovingly embraced by its neighbors.

Nevertheless, the failure of leaders to comprehend the intensity of Palestinian rejectionism was also inexcusable. A state’s first goal is to protect its citizens. The fact that Israeli policy resulted in a prolonged war against the peace process, with more than 1,000 Israelis murdered by weapons which Israel helped deliver to the terrorists, is a failure of historic proportions. Fifteen years later, viewing the anti-Israel maps and textbooks the Oslo-created Palestinian Authority spread, assessing the culture of enmity and martyrdom that festered in the territories, Arafat’s war seems utterly predictable.

THIRTY-FIVE YEARS after the Yom Kippur War, Israelis still wonder about and try to learn from that intelligence failure. It is equally essential to remember and learn from the inability – and outright refusal of some leaders – to anticipate the burst of Palestinian terror reignited in 2000.

Tragically, Arab hatred continues. We cannot become inured to the pornography of Palestinian violence, the lurid addiction to shooting yeshiva students, bulldozing commuters, blowing up boulevardiers, for effect. Nor should we become blasé about the broader epidemic of Islamist hatred. The world should be outraged by the report, just days before Livni’s election, that a leading Muslim cleric in England, Omar Bakri, threatened Paul McCartney’s life if he performed in Israel. “If he values his life, Mr. McCartney must not come to Israel. He will not be safe there,” London’s Sunday Express quoted Bakri as saying. “The sacrifice operatives will be waiting for him.”

McCartney heroically refused to be cowed. Judging by the news coverage, however, neither Bakri’s threat nor McCartney’s steadfastness triggered much commentary, when the papers should have been filled with editorials furiously condemning the cleric and celebrating the singer.

The tricky question, then, is not whether this hatred exists, rather how to respond to this unfortunate reality. Acknowledging the hatred does not necessarily preclude withdrawing from territory; it should, however, avoid withdrawing with unrealistic expectations. In fact, the Oslo wake-up call spawned the West Bank security fence, which buried the delusions of the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right.

BOTH EXTREMES underestimated Palestinian nationalism. Leftists assumed Palestinians were as willing as they were to jettison core identities. Rightists assumed the Palestinians were pushovers willing to accommodate Jewish territorial ambitions. In building the barrier, the Israeli left abandoned its illusion that fences were unnecessary in a world where Arab and Jew would soon embrace. The Israeli right abandoned its illusion that territories housing millions of Palestinians could be integrated easily into the Jewish state. The security fence – which Livni should complete quickly – provides necessary security to Israelis while reminding them that Palestinian nationalism is real, hostile and not disappearing.

In fact, Oslo teaches that the two-state solution is the only viable path for Israelis and Palestinians. Talk of a one-state solution is really advocating a no-Jewish-state-solution. And Jewish nationalists who demanded their own state should respect Palestinian nationalists’ desire for their own state. But Zionists should not expect to see the characteristic Zionist pragmatism in the rival movement. Oslo teaches that whatever agreement Israel makes should come without romantic expectations of warm relations and from cold-hearted calculations aiming for stability.

Oslo’s paradox is that this tougher, more pragmatic, but not soulless approach may be the way to break the logjam and reorient Palestinians toward building their state rather than dreaming of destroying ours.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Our Exotic Grandparents

By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, September 4, 2008

Some of us belong to a secret society in North America . Although we look like everybody else and pass for normal, we share an unspoken bond, a hidden birthmark, which imparts an enduring sense of otherness. In the Jewish community, our numbers are dwindling, although they are replenished regularly. We are the League of People with Exotic Grandparents.

Not so long ago, almost every North American Jew had one — an immigrant parent or grandparent with a thick accent and foreign manners, comically clueless about the American way of life. Today, as the heroic generation of Eastern European immigrants that built the American Jewish community dies out, our third and fourth generation Americanized children lack this living link to the past. Moreover, many with exotic parents or grandparents are embarrassed by them.

To be fair, being ashamed of “greenhorn” elders is a longstanding North American – and Jewish – tradition. It is a staple of the American dream literature of yesteryear wherein the plucky hero rises up from impoverished surroundings and displaced, overworked and impotent parents. But, today, watching a thoroughly assimilated, frequently privileged “Millennial” squirm at the foreignness of his or her forbears, it is the youngster who appears impoverished.

I feel blessed by my intimate association with my late Polish-born maternal grandfather who lived to be 100 years old, and by my Romanian-born in-laws. My wife and I, and, now, our children, are lucky to have that visceral connection with European Jewry’s lost world. In fact, this connection only makes us more American, more Canadian, for what could be more all-American than the immigrant experience of building a life in the New World ?

Living in Montreal has connected me far more intensely – and intimately – to this immigrant generation. Growing up in New York , most of my friends’ parents were American-born, products of the Eastern European migration that began in the 1880s and ended with the immigration restrictions of the 1920s. Most of my Jewish peers had parents who spoke a flawless – if New-York-inflected — English. In Montreal – where the Jewish community grew substantially after the Holocaust, I met more peers with immigrant parents, meaning our children can join the League of People with Exotic Grandparents. Of course, many of the immigrants are Sephardic and, yes, grandparents like my parents – and parents like my wife and me – can pass on Jewish identity just fine, thank you very much. Still, those heavily-accented European refugees add a delicious spice, a deeper sense of ethnic connection, and often a more tragic but dramatic and inspiring history.

I recently addressed a leadership conference for Jewish leaders 45 and younger. Some participants bemoaned what they called the today’s “non-Jewish Jews.” I usually avoid this phrase, as being too judgmental, too final, too heavy-handed. But I knew exactly what these young leaders meant.

The lures of America and Canada are so great, it is easy to “pass” as “normal,” to become North American pagans. Whereas previous generations of Jews struggle to join the social mainstream, our peers – and certainly our juniors – join effortlessly. In fact, it often takes a lot more work, a lot more gumption, to “do Jewish.” It is hard to follow tradition in a world of the here and now. It is hard to believe in God in a society that mocks believers. It is hard to embrace abstractions in a culture of consumerism and materialism.

Yet, who are if we have no memory, no links to the past, no guidance from our heritage? What kind of people are we if we abandon core beliefs because they are not fashionable? And what will become of us if we lack deeper values, transcendent visions, soaring ideals?

Our exotic grandparents help remind us of another world, of a rich past, of our tribal connection. They happily left that world because of its rampant anti-Semitism and epidemic poverty. And even in their hamhanded way, they embraced the American and Canadian way of life. As their heirs – whether or not we ever met that generation – we need to honor their sacrifices, appreciate their achievements, and champion their legacies, even as we delight in the broad acceptance we feel in this most welcoming corner of the world.

9/11 and the race for the White House

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

September 11 - 7 years on

September 11 – 7 years on
Photo: AP [file]

While much of the presidential campaign excitement this week stems from John McCain’s Sarah Palin-assisted post-convention surge in popularity, it is worth remembering the seventh anniversary of 9/11 which fell this Thursday.

American politics remains defined by that trauma, for better and worse. For better, because underestimating the danger Islamist terrorists pose endangers all Westerners. The only way to ensure that the nearly three thousand victims of Osama Bin Laden in 2001 did not die in vain, is to remain vigilant, working to prevent future attacks. For worse, because a politics solely defined by 9/11 neglects today’s economic, social, cultural, diplomatic and political challenges. As with all traumas, America’s candidates should remember past horrors without being imprisoned by them.

On this score, the two candidates – and their parties – pose an interesting contrast. Barack Obama and the Democrats seem to risk forgetting the lessons of 9/11. Democrats barely mentioned terrorism or 9/11 during their convention. Moreover, their disgust with George W. Bush’s policy has soured too many on the entire War against Terror while misleading them that Bush somehow triggered the troubles. Democrats must remember that al Qaida declared war on America during Bill Clinton’s enlightened reign, when America was actively seeking peace in the Middle East.

Republicans, on the other hand, cannot use the continuing threat of terrorism as an excuse to justify ignoring America’s economic, energy, and health crises. It is frustrating to watch as Republicans fail to encourage serious alternatives to oil, considering the estimated $700 billion America pumps annually into many oil-saturated, terrorist-friendly regimes. Welcome steps toward energy independence would change the geopolitical conditions that have financed terrorists.

Underlying this division is a tactical debate between Democrats who tend to favor deploying “soft power” and Republicans who favor “hard power.” This clash plays right into the ongoing debate about which candidate is a better friend to Israel. Obama Democrats tend to trust that soft power — diplomacy — will help Israel survive in the longrun. McCain Republicans tend to reverse Winston Churchill’s famous maxim, believing that for the hard-bitten Islamist radicals of al Qaida, Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran, “war-war” not “Jaw-jaw” is the only alternative. Of course, the best response to terrorism, the best way to support Israel, is with a deft mix of soft and hard power, demonstrating a shrewd diplomatic touch backed up by a willingness and readiness to be tough when necessary.

More broadly, this anniversary should compel both candidates to remember what unites them as Americans – in opposing terror, supporting Israel, and facing other challenges as well. Political campaigns emphasize the differences between candidates, creating a series of false contrasts. Just because John McCain is passionately anti-terror, Barack Obama is not pro-terror. Just because Barack Obama is in favor of preserving civil liberties even amid the terrorist threat, John McCain is not against civil liberties.

Even amid the presidential campaign tensions, both candidates should make sure to affirm their and their country’s consensus against terror and for civil liberties. Barack Obama should give a speech detailing where he agrees with George W. Bush’s anti-terror strategy – before highlighting the disagreements. John McCain should identify what constitutional limitations he accepts when fighting terrorism – before justifying the emergency measures he feels the war warrants. Such statements would shrink the partisan battlefield, emphasizing the consensus Americans share with their two presumptive nominees in abhorring terror and cherishing the Constitution.

Seven years ago, on a beautiful September Tuesday, Osama bin Laden’s terrorists did not distinguish between Democrats and Republicans, blacks and whites, Muslims or non-Muslims, or even Americans and non-Americans. They killed indiscriminately, brutally. Living as we all do in a post 9/11 world, those who aspire to lead Western countries responsibly must reaffirm a common commitment to combating Islamist terrorism – and ensure that the nightmare of 9/11 never recurs.

From the center: Why are Republicans guilty of tokenism – while Democrats produce historic breakthroughs?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, many Americans cheered his historic breakthrough. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man for president. Even many Obama opponents transcended partisanship to celebrate this extraordinary – and hopefully healing – achievement.

Republican vice presidential...

Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Photo: AP

Yet the next day, when John McCain designated Alaska’s young governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, Democrats cried: “tokenism.” Democrats said McCain’s was manipulating the many American women mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a setback in their quest to break the ultimate “glass ceiling” of the White House. Even many Republicans squirmed at McCain’s crassness.

Yet there seems to be a contradiction. Why are Republicans deemed guilty of tokenism when they promote women or blacks, while Democratic “diversity” promotions are hailed as historic breakthroughs? Obamaniacs have a simple answer. They claim that Barack Obama – and Hillary Clinton – are both qualified to be president and Sarah Palin is not. Moreover, Democrats say that Obama did not run on his race, and Clinton did not run on her gender, but that Palin was picked solely because she is female.

BOTH SIDES of the story are more complicated. The 44-year-old Palin, indeed, is a first-term governor of a marginal state, but the 47-year-old Obama is a first-term US senator, so he lacks any serious executive experience. And while Obama did not run on his race alone, he would not have won the primaries without African-Americans’ nearly-unanimous support.

Similarly, Palin’s gender factored into McCain’s equation in choosing her, but so far she has been more useful in solidifying his right-wing evangelical base. Moreover, the older Democratic women who disdain Palin rejoiced in 1984 when Walter Mondale nominated the inexperienced Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Partisanship and ideology feed this hypocrisy. Just as Democrats charged tokenism when President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an anti-affirmative action African-American to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious that Palin is pro-life. She is so pro-life she did not abort her fifth child, even though she knew he would be born with Down syndrome. Now Palin seems to be encouraging her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to get married and keep the love child. These anti-abortion bona fides thrilled the Christian right, and have already improved the Republican Convention dynamics for McCain.

Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. Whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. Republicans are usually quicker to disdain tokenism, yet they frequently make strategic choices based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Democrats worship “diversity” as a core ideal, but too frequently that means a rainbow of men and women representing different races, religions, ethnicities, all marching in ideological lockstep, never tolerating diversity of thought too. How supporting abortion became so central to the women’s movement is an interesting historical question for another time, but to many women, a female pro-life vice president is as unacceptable as an anti-Zionist Jewish president would be to Jews.

AMERICAN JEWS are as inconsistent on this score as any other group. Jews crave acceptance as “normal” Americans while taking particular naches in every Jewish political appointee, in every American Jewish success. American Jews want non-Jews to accept them as Americans, without noticing that American Jews vote for their own kind disproportionately and often help each other out generously.

A popular if possibly apocryphal story about America’s first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when president Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the president, saying that when president Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.

In Israel, too, the politics of ethnicity and gender can get intense – and inconsistent. Moshe Katsav delighted in his role as a successful Sephardi role model, then immediately – and falsely – played the racism card when his despicable behavior created a scandal. And Tzipi Livni’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the legacy of Golda Meir reflects her complicated juggling act among being treated like “one of the boys,” tapping into some “girl power” and staying true to her Revisionist anti-Golda roots.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to win a congressional seat, ran for president in 1972. She insisted : “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not a candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America…” Alas, if anyone remembers Chisholm today, it is because of her race and gender.

Still, hers is an admirable formula. And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement, appreciate his impressive abilities independent of his race, yet also welcome this breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. Similarly, as long as Sarah Palin appears more like Al Gore than Dan Quayle, she should be hailed as an impressive individual and a leading pioneer.

We need a little constructive hypocrisy on this issue. People should rise and fall on their merits, but in this imperfect world, if they bring their subgroup a little more pride and standing, that is an added bonus.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.