Center Field: Say No to Rabbis for Obama

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-17-08

Now that the American election is over and this will not seem to be a partisan attack, it is time to ask whether it was appropriate for hundreds of rabbis to launch an unprecedented organization, “Rabbis for Obama.” The organization’s founding letter, which over four hundred rabbis signed, said: “We join together as rabbis who believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate of the United States, and we do so in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”

This initiative constituted a clear attempt to give a rabbinic hechsher – stamp of approval — to Barack Obama. There is nothing wrong with a rabbi, as an American citizen, choosing to endorse a candidate. But there is something unseemly about rabbis pooling their theological and spiritual authority as rabbis to boost a particular politician.

For starters, this kind of politicking seems remarkably insensitive to congregants who may support a rival candidate. Congregations hire rabbis for their pastoral skills not for their political stands. For rabbis to join together, as spiritual leaders, in the service of a politician is to try transferring authority granted by congregants in one realm into another realm. Taking this kind of stand with other rabbis seems to risk importing political conflict from the streets into the synagogue.

Usually when rabbis, professors, and corporate leaders sign advocacy advertisements, they put in the boilerplate admonition that the institutional affiliation is for identification purposes. This posture is a constructive charade. It at least acknowledges the questions of propriety surrounding the action and attempts to defend the institution and all its members from being defined by its leader’s actions. Rabbis for Obama did the opposite, trying to build credibility based on the collective power all these rabbis derived from their institutions and their congregants. Like it or not, they implicated their congregants in their actions.

It is difficult to see the issue clearly, especially now, with Obamania in full swing. Undoubtedly, these rabbis are feeling vindicated, heroic – and happily anticipating invitations to four, maybe even eight, annual White House Chanukkah parties.

But what if 400 rabbis had come out in favor of California’s Proposition 8, advancing the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage? Theologically, the rabbis would have been on stronger ground, considering that the Bible actually addresses questions of homosexuality (but has nothing to say about Barack Obama’s strengths or weaknesses). And what if most of those rabbis had been ministering to overwhelmingly liberal congregations or congregations filled with gay couples? If offended congregants tried firing any of these rabbis against gay marriage would any of the Rabbis for Obama have been willing to defend them?

I know of a congregation which fired its rabbi when she opposed gays’ ordination in the Conservative movement. Members of the congregation felt blindsided because the rabbi had not informed them beforehand of the stand she was going to take. And the congregants were particularly distressed because the rabbi’s opposition created an insurmountable barrier between her, as a theological leader, and a lesbian couple in the congregation.

This is not a free speech issue. The rabbis could have joined a Jews for Obama or Citizens for Obama group with no questions asked. This is, however, a separation of church and state issue. While separation of church and state, constitutionally, only refers to avoiding government support or control of particular religions, American Jews have been in the forefront of the movement to insulate politics from religion as much as possible. It is particularly hypocritical for liberal Jews, who have spent years railing against Evangelical Christians who blur the line between church and state, to now indulge in the same conceit, deploying God in the service of political power.

In fact, Rabbis for Obama clarifies what most liberals mean when they object to religion intruding on politics – they usually mean religion advancing the wrong political positions. Liberals appalled by the right-wing Moral Majority in 1980, did not criticize the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., for so brilliantly applying his spiritual powers to advance the Civil Rights revolution. King obviously did a world of good, and would not have been as effective as just a social activist. But the perpetual abuse of rabbinic authority for cheap political gains in Israel offers proof that, acknowledging the King exception, it is best for rabbis to be a bit more discrete when playing politics.

In our cynical but careerist world, the credibility we derive from our professional standing is a potent yet fragile commodity. At a time when so many congregants are among what we could call the Jewishly vulnerable – not as solid in their identities as their parents and grandparents were – rabbis have to be particularly careful to preserve their authority. With all due respect to the historic nature of the 2008 election, and Barack Obama’s undeniable charismatic appeal, it seems a shame that hundreds of leading American rabbis chose to set this kind of precedent. American Jewish leaders need all the credibility they can muster – and they need to focus their energies as much as they can on the many Jewish issues bewitching the community, leaving politics for their leisure hours without muddying their professional, spiritual, pursuits.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Montreal. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today,  his latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

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

From OJ to Barack

By Gil Troy, THE JERUSALEM POST, Nov. 6, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Democratic presidential...The outpouring of emotion when Barack Obama clinched his presidential victory Tuesday night was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, illustrating a split-screen America.

On this extraordinary night of national reconciliation, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, and hoping together in a tableau of healing. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America – but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern using the same expansive and moderate tone his speech set. Barack Obama’s stance on Israel will be one of many test cases to see just what kind of president this eloquent, talented, but still untested and inexperienced young man will be.

While exit polls confirmed that Obama’s victory was driven by what Bill Clinton’s people in 1992 called “the economy, stupid,” a range of foreign policy challenges will haunt the administration. The top priorities, of course, are the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the possible nuclear threat from Iran.

In addition to having to walk gently but firmly in these hornets’ nests, Obama is going to have to walk gingerly around his various campaign statements – and the intense desires of many of his supporters.

In Iraq his promises may prove to be a particular albatross. Calls for pullouts and exit timetables are effective counterpunches in a campaign, especially when the situation looks disastrous. But such specific vows become straitjackets when governing, especially when the situation has improved so dramatically – thanks to that surge that someone named John McCain pushed so effectively.

Obama’s Israel policy will also present interesting dilemmas for the rookie president between politics and governance. Fears that Barack Obama will sell Israel down the river in an expression of fealty to Rashid Khalidi or other Palestinians he befriended over the years are exaggerated.

Obama has made too many strong, sincere, pro-Israel statements, and has too many pro-Israel supporters, donors, and aides for this to be a serious issue. Among many others, the man who helped Bill Clinton coin the phrase “Shalom Chaver,” Rahm Emanuel, will be Obama’s Chief of Staff. Moreover, it would take more than a first-term president with his eye on re-election to shatter the rock-solid relationship between Israel and the United States.

A more valid concern, especially for those from the center and right, is that Obama, like Bill Clinton, may risk killing Israel – or too many Israelis – with kindness. Obama may have a bit too much of a naïve, “We are the world” view of foreign policy for the brutal, dishonest, realpolitik of the Middle East. His closest foreign policy advisers seem to be a mix of “even-handed” Zbigniew Brzezinski types and Oslo-architect Dennis Ross types.

Moreover, one of the demands Iran has made as a precondition for negotiations will be an abandonment of America’s support for Israel. Whether this stiffens Obama’s spine, as it should, or leads to a cooling toward the Jewish state, may be a first, relatively early test, of Obama’s direction.

Still, for now, all this is in the realm of speculation. As the records of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and all of their predecessors show, the presidency one imagines or promises is rarely the presidency one experiences or provides. Remember how George W. Bush was going to focus mostly on domestic policy, governing as a compassionate conservative? Remember how Bill Clinton was going to be a Mr. Clean restoring faith in government and avoiding the insider politics of the Beltway?

For now, then, let us all join the great Barack Obama love-in. Let us celebrate the kind of country America is – a country that can correct its mistakes, heal its wounds, and elect a black man president. Let us honor the impressive talents that brought this self-described skinny guy with a funny name to the heights of American politics, defeating first the formidable Clinton machine then the Republican juggernaut. And let the people inspired by HaTikvah not be cynical about this new harbinger of hope. Let us hope that the hope unleashed last night can be converted into a powerful governing force that revitalizes the United States of America – for America’s sake, for Israel’s sake, and for the world’s sake.

Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

By Gil Troy, MyJewishLearning.com

In one of the funnier–but more absurd–appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.  

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: “And I know you’re saying, like, ‘Oh my god, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.’ Yes, that’s true, but you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa.” 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web’s street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people “who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties.”

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution–and a reaction to the 1960s’ politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the “neoconservatives” were a loose collection of disproportionately–but not exclusively–Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left’s politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These “neocons,” as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan’s 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb’s classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Jews still remain liberal — with some exceptions

Since Reagan’s presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee’s 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman’s stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic–although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set’s aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed “Red State” versus “Blue State” phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about “Red Jews” and “Blue Jews”–not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain’s support among Jews only peaked at 31% –and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain’s most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama’s most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama’s pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate.  

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on “The economy, stupid,” And many Jews supported Obama’s proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Why isn’t Jerusalem our jewel in the crown?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-5-08

If there was one thing that the many different constantly quarreling Zionists of yesteryear agreed about, it was that Zionism had to end the era of Jewish passivity. Zionism repudiated the religious addiction to waiting for the messiah. Zionism also rebelled against the ghetto tendency to do the oy vay dance whenever faced with a problem: Shrug to the left, sigh to the right, call out gevalt and end with a world weary witticism about how hard life can be.

Imagine how appalled our Zionist forbears would be by the sense of resignation paralyzing the Israeli body politic these days. Kacha zeh, “that’s how it is,” is as debilitating and defeatist as our grandparents’ many disquisitions on how hard it is to be a Jew.

Imagine how shocked our Zionist founders, who willed a state into being, would be by the fact that the future of Jerusalem is at risk because not enough citizens can be bothered to vote.

On November 11, Jerusalemites will have a chance to shape their city’s future. Last time municipal elections were held, only one-third of the city’s Jewish but non-haredi citizens bothered to vote. Nir Barkat, an attractive, creative, energetic candidate who had potential to revive the city, lost by less than 20,000 votes.

They say there are no second acts in show business, but politics is filled with great comeback stories. Five years later, having served in the city council honorably, Barkat is running again, more experienced ­and determined to get out the vote.

JERUSALEM IS the capital of Israel and of the Jewish people, a magical city that romantically meshes the old and the new. It should be the jewel in the crown of the Jewish people, a model city that delights its inhabitants as well as its visitors. Instead, it is a city of great contrasts, of absurdly high real estate prices and devastating poverty, of transcendent spirituality and vulgar corruption, of splendid sites that gleam at night and of litter strewn willy-nilly that stinks during the day. Jerusalem should be compared to Athens, Rome, Washington.

Instead, it often seems like Chelm, that mythical city filled with people who looked wise but acted foolish.

As the real Jerusalem has become infamous for its dysfunction, many residents have adopted this demoralized, depressing, ghetto-like weariness. Facing underfunded schools and overcrowded classrooms, too many change the subject by saying that the home is the most important influence on children anyway. Watching an overpriced, ill-conceived light rail project soar over budget, and clog traffic by ripping up large stretches of crucial roads for months on end, too many Jerusalemites knowingly explain that the fix is in, the contractors are earning too much for anything to be done. Hearing about houses burglarized, cars broken into, precious items people spend their lifetime collecting stolen by brazen robbers, too many citizens wearily ask “what can you do?”

Citizens in others cities have learned that you can fight corruption, revitalize schools, clean up streets, improve public transportation and crack down on crime. A great mayor can help save a city. New York has been blessed by larger than life mayors who revived that great metropolis. Mayor Ed Koch lured major corporations back to Manhattan, stopping the decline it suffered in the 1960s and 1970s. Mayor Rudy Giuliani fought crime by deploying the police strategically and refusing to tolerate the turnstile-jumping and aggressive panhandling that undermined civic values.

The current mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has reformed the schools, fought corruption, and balanced the budget. Beyond New York, Chicago’s Mayor Richard Daley has pioneered private-public partnerships and made America’s second city work. Less well-known is Mayor Randy Kelly who reduced the crime rate in St. Paul, Minnesota by 30 percent in four years. Within Israel, Mayor Moti Sasson has turned Holon, of all places, into a cultural center. And one of the most legendary of mayors remains Jerusalem’s Teddy Kollek, who showed how to parlay the worldwide love affair with Jerusalem into major cultural, architectural and landscaping projects that made the city sparkle.

DESPITE THEIR accomplishments, all these mayors had flaws, of course. And Barkat himself comes with no surefire guarantees. As a hi-tech entrepreneur, he may lack the politician’s light touch essential in such a volatile city. Recently, he made the absurd proposal that foreigners who own mostly unoccupied apartments should be fined ­ even though no one has ever tried inviting these absentee owners to contribute to the city with a voluntary extra-municipal tax fund through the Jerusalem Foundation or a similar charity.

Still, Barkat has been impressive during the campaign, uniting modern Orthodox and secular Jews, denouncing the light rail boondoggle, highlighting the funding disparities in education, culture, infrastructure investment between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

All the hoopla about the mayoral contest overlooks the fact that residents will cast two ballots. The second, equally important, ballot is for the city council. Jerusalemites should not vote for party hacks more concerned with national party politics. The Hitorerut Yerushalmim list offers young idealists, both secular and religious, who want to do what their name promises, revive Jerusalem¹s splendor. The right to vote is a privilege too many of us take for granted. Those of us lucky enough to live in a democracy should not be so blasé. Those of us lucky enough to live in Jerusalem dare not be so lazy.

Jerusalem has experienced periods of grandeur and periods of desolation during its long history. Jerusalem should be thriving in this the 21st century. Everyone who lives in the city should do everything possible to ensure that Jerusalem has the right leadership to make the city the pride of Israel, the Jewish people and the activist, constructive Zionist cause.

The writer, who lives in Jerusalem, is an American historian and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Israel irrelevant in campaign – as it should be

By Gil Troy , THE JERUSALEM POST, Nov. 3, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

If we could devise some kind of objective “Friend of Israel” test, all but the most blindly partisan Democrats would agree that Senator John McCain has a longer, deeper, more meaningful relationship with Israel than does Senator Barack Obama – and fewer advisers who seem very critical of Israel. Even controlling for the difference in age or Senatorial tenure, it is clear that McCain has been a more consistent and enthusiastic Israel supporter.

This does not negate Obama’s pro-Israel record or even mean that McCain would necessarily be a “better” president for Israel. Determining what kind of president is good for Israel is an even more complicated matter than quantifying different levels of friendship. But it seems quite clear that John McCain has been a steadfast friend who has stood up for Israel repeatedly.

Moreover, most fair observers can imagine that if McCain’s church contemplated a boycott of Israel or if his pastor had denounced Israel, McCain would have been more likely to take a stand, whereas Obama was silent in both situations, which he actually faced.

Still, American Jews and America’s many non-Jewish Zionists should not vote for McCain because of his Israel stand. There are many other valid reasons to vote McCain – and many valid reasons to vote Obama. But there are many other bigger issues in this election than support for Israel, especially considering that both candidates have vied to emphasize their respective pro-Israel stands.

The first thing I wrote about this election back in 2007 still holds true: ultimately, especially during these difficult times, the best president for Israel – is the best president for America.

All the hand-wringing about Israel’s irrelevance in the American election is inappropriate. There are many other more valid indicators reflecting the disturbing distance growing between American Jews and the Jewish state. In this election, even the most ardent Zionist should take a broader perspective.

The general debate about whether or not to carry on with George W. Bush’s policies, the financial meltdown of the markets, the continuing war against terror and the specific questions about what to do regarding Iraq and Iran are much bigger issues than America’s continuing support for Israel, which seems assured with both a Democratic and Republican administration.

As – let’s be honest – America’s controversial but reliable client state – what Israel most needs now is an effective, thriving, America. Canadians used to say that when the American economy sneezes, Canada catches a cold; with Israel, if America is fighting a cold, Israel risks a serious illness.

Israel will do best with an America that can solve its economic problems, improve its diplomatic standing, and stay dominant militarily. Americans need reassurance. They need a plan to avoid a prolonged recession. They need effective leadership able to fight Islamic terror, stabilize Iraq, restrain Iran – and manage North Korea, Russia, China, and a host of other unanticipated world hotspots.

Let us play out the fears bluntly. If Barack Obama is a great president, it will be great for Israel, whether or not he squeezes Israel to make more territorial concessions than most Israelis like (but some Israelis believe are absolutely necessary).

And if John McCain is a terrible president, he will be disastrous for the world, including Israel, even if he never pressures Israel on anything. Of course, the McCaniacs’ fear is that Barack Obama will be Jimmy Carter redux, and will be a terrible president who proves hostile to Israel. The Republicans also paint the most optimistic scenario, a great president McCain who also proves to be a great friend to Israel.

Given the sobering conditions America faces it will be hard for the next president to achieve greatness – although the contrast with George W. Bush may give him a great boost. And the dynamics of the American-Israel friendship will be more driven by other events than presidential prerogatives. Besides, this business of predicting friendship and support is a tricky one. George W. Bush entered the White House with a minimal track record regarding Israel. Few can question his obvious, enthusiastic support for the Jewish state as president, but there is a raging debate in the United States and Israel about whether Bush’s friendship was good for Israel or not.

Of course, many pro-Israel oriented voters argue that support for Israel is a test case, that a candidate’s stand on Israel reflects his approach to foreign policy. That too, however, is very different than basing one’s decision on the candidate’s Israel stand. In fact, this election offers an opportunity for yet another repudiation of the Walt-Mearsheimer anti-Israel lies.

Polls suggest that the American Jewish community will vote three to one in favor of the Democrat with a more limited pro-Israel track record than his opponent. As we watch American Jews and non-Jewish Zionists choose the president who is best for America, we can once again refute the libels that Israel somehow holds American foreign policy hostage or that Jews vote their narrow parochial interests rather than fulfilling their broader patriotic duty to vote for the best president possible on all fronts.

Gil Troy: We should all turn toward Israel

Canadian Jewish News, 10-30-08

Five times a year, Israelis witness a strange sight. As they return to work after the first and last day of Sukkot, the first and last day of Passover, and the Shavuout holiday, some visiting North American and European Jews still observe the strictures of the “chag,” the holy day.

That these Diaspora Jews stick to their galut – exile – practices in the Jewish homeland when even the most pious Israelis have ended the holiday is absurd. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, should prevail

The bizarre practice of visitors to Israel observing the second days of holidays there highlights two disturbing trends. The Orthodox world suffers from a kind of autism about ritual, an inability to read subtle cues, to distinguish minor from major. More broadly, many Jews exhibit a condescending attitude toward Israel, forgetting Israel’s primacy within Judaism.

For starters, accompanying Orthodoxy’s welcome resurgence over the last few decades has been a disturbing stringency about far too many minutiae. Some – but not all – rabbis have lost their bearings. Some hector their congregants about the most picayune rules of kashrut while ignoring major sex scandals or other ethical lapses among congregants. Some gossips condemn neighbors in harsh, hateful and even violent terms for wearing dresses they might deem immodest by centimetres.

In fairness, the genius of Halachah, the Jewish system of law, lies in its focus on details. The strict attention to seemingly minor rituals has sustained Judaism through the millennia, preserving continuity, maintaining legitimacy and fostering an intensity in Jewish tradition. But focusing on details should enhance, not obscure, the major principles looming behind the minor acts. When ethical guidelines are ignored – or sacrificed – and when bigger principles are violated, ritual is distracting rather than reinforcing.

Rabbis must educate congregants about proportionality and intentionality. Maintaining the purpose behind the ritual is essential, and Jewish law should facilitate the broader quest to achieve a good, meaningful and ethical life. I once asked a rabbi what he thought about Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath obsessively yet acted in business immorally. He answered: “They are not Orthodox.” This rabbi understood that if you can’t pick and choose when it comes to rituals, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to ethics, either.

Of course, visitors observing the second day of holidays in Israel are not obscuring any lapses, ethical or otherwise. Still, maintaining this particular ritual diminishes the Holy Land, thus undermining a major Jewish principle to adhere to a more minor ritual.

Alas, more and more Jews seem to forget Israel’s primacy. Forgetting the blessings that flow from living in Israel, all too frequently, free, comfortable western Jews feel they are better off than their poor Israeli cousins. Too many fundraising appeals that caricature Israel as needy seemingly confirm this perception.

In truth, Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora face a major contradiction that most of them simply ignore. Despite devoting their lives to following every jot and tittle of Jewish law, they overlook the many mitzvot associated with living in the land of Israel. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Jews felt forced to remain in exile. Today, how can someone dedicated to following all of God’s commandments as fully as possible justify choosing to live outside the land of Israel?

I’m well aware of how explosive a charge this is, and how sensitive the aliyah issue is, so allow me to make a more modest proposal that will help restore some proportionality to the relationship. All Jews today should put the study of modern written and conversational Hebrew at the top of both communal and individual agendas. Studying modern Hebrew necessarily reorients people toward Israel, helping all Jews engage with Israel better.

And perhaps even more important for Diaspora Jews, putting Hebrew front and centre can prove humbling. Rather than demanding that our Israeli brothers and sisters speak to us in the particular language of our exile, we should make the effort – however trying – to speak the language of our people.

The great Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am said that just as the Jews preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved the Jewish people. Similarly, let future historians note that just as the Jewish people preserved Hebrew, Hebrew preserved – and redeemed – the Jewish people today.