Fight anti-Israel week by rejecting the apartheid smear

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Dec. 28, 2008

How could it be that in 2008, whenever a certain professor mentions the market meltdown, he blames specific economists and businesspeople whom he identifies as Jewish – but never mentions other people’s religion? (And this before Bernard Madoff became anti-Semites’ newest poster child even though he most hurt Jews.) How could administrators dither as Jewish students feel bullied during the week perpetuating the libel that Israel is recreating South African racist apartheid? How could a campus “free speech forum” feature one speaker after another bashing Israel, with hecklers shouting down anyone who defends Israel? These are some of the challenges Jewish students on one Canadian campus are facing.

AS SOMEONE who has spent his life in the university, it pains me to identify campuses as centers of the new anti-Semitism. The new anti-Semitism is subtler than the traditional, more recognizable, type. But recent conversations with Jewish students reminded me how vulnerable many feel, how unsettling this new epidemic is for many.

Analyses of campus anti-Semitism must acknowledge that Jews are enjoying a golden age on campus. There never have been so many Jewish students, professors and university presidents. Most North American campuses are neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Israel battle zones. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore many students’ distress – or fail to help them.

The new anti-Semitism is not wholly dependent on the controversies surrounding Israel. The Israel-Palestinian conflict has legitimized the hatred and confused the issue. The growth in blatantly anti-Jewish remarks, the insensitivity to Jewish concerns despite hyper-sensitivity to racist, sexist or homophobic epithets, and the singling out of Israel and Zionism for particular hatred, not just condemnation, transcend Israel’s policies. It often feels that too many university communities accept Count de Clermont-Tonnerre’s proposal to the French National Assembly of 1789: “The Jews must be granted everything as individuals – but nothing as a nation.”

THIS CAMPUS hostility toward Israel and Jews collectively is rooted in the 1960s. Students’ noble fight against Southern segregation curdled into attitudes romanticizing Third Worlders while demonizing whites and Westerners. The great modern sins became colonialism, imperialism and racism – along with sexism, heterosexism and now, the latest, Islamophobia.

Palestinian propagandists cleverly tagged Israel with the first three sins – caricatured as a colonialist, imperialist project of racist Zionists. This labeling is absurd. Jews returned to their historic homeland; they did not join a colonial expedition. Moreover, Palestinian Jews fought against the British Empire in the 1940s. And calling Zionism racist is itself racist, singling out Jewish nationalism for special disapproval in a world organized by nation-states.

Casting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a racial rather than national struggle demonized Israelis as Western whites stealing noble, colored Palestinians’ land – despite the many non-Western, non-white Israelis, the many white-looking Palestinians and the fact that some Arab Palestinians who left in 1948 were as new to Palestine as some European Jews, because Mandatory Palestine attracted many Jews and Arabs.

These distortions underline the latest anti-Israel smear, the odious attempt to link Israel with South African racism. When we simply repeat the name of the week that is often observed in early February, without putting many words between the Jewish state and the word apartheid, we fail. Repetition creates a link just as Jewish nationalism was linked with that awful word racism. We should rename the week “Anti-Israel Week.”

AS THE first semester winds down, now is the time to plan for the inevitable attack. Zionist activists should fashion a strategy based on these principles:

  • This is politics, not physics; not every action demands a reaction. The goal is not to try dissuading Israel’s enemies. If Israel’s attackers are being ignored or – as frequently happens – alienating bystanders by being aggressive, leave them alone. Only engage in battles which can build Jewish pride or present Israel to those who are open-minded.
  • Learn from feminists. In opposing sexual harassment, feminists have sensitized us to “hostile environments,” the subtle ways intentional or unintentional aggression can make people feel demeaned. Students, their parents, alumni and professors must demand that administrators foster safe learning environments. The feminist idea of “taking back the night,” is to celebrate where others may simply defend. So use the Z-word “Zionism” even if it is maligned, and turn “anti-Israel week” into a week-long celebration of Israel’s accomplishments and Zionism’s righteousness.
  • Students should be good consumers. If professors commit educational malpractice by not listening, or being so biased they squelch debate, students should file detailed complaints not against bad politics but demanding good education.
  • Find allies. The established Jewish community should find former black South Africans who endured apartheid and African scholars to explain apartheid’s pernicious racism. We should seek South Africans offended by propagandists hijacking apartheid just as Jews resent hijacking the Holocaust to score cheap political points. Every comparison of the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict to apartheid dilutes the evil, racist injustice South African blacks and “mixed colors” endured under the color-conscious, depraved system which is not similar to the security measures Israel adopts in response to Palestinian terrorism.
  • Fight the upcoming Durban conference. Rather than simply reacting defensively, let this year’s anti-Israel week become a consciousness raising moment for the university and broader Jewish community about the attempt to recreate the Durban conference this April in Geneva – again targeting Israel. Rather than stewing, and accepting the anti-Zionist agenda, use the attacks to fight the epidemic of Jewish apathy and mobilize a powerful pro-Israel response.SADLY, PREPARATION for the next semester must be political not just educational. But we must master political jujitsu – a negative force, if properly met, can be transformed into a positive one. This February let us transform anti-Israel week’s negative force into a positive force celebrating Israel, redeeming Zionism and moving forward with an effective, upbeat response to Durban.The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.
  • Center Field: This Hanukkah let’s teach our childen how to give

    by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Monday Dec 22, 2008

    Jews are preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. The world seems to have gone mad. Islamic extremists declare war on the West, yet many Westerners, especially in Europe and Canada, deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. Iran threatens to destroy the United States and Israel while striving to go nuclear, yet the world appeases – and continues funding the regime by remaining addicted to oil. Palestinians declare a war of terror on Israel, Hamas and Islamic Jihad rain missiles on Sderot and the western Negev, yet too many, including Israelis and Jews, are quicker to blame Israel, the victim, than the terrorist perpetrators.

    On the domestic front, the market meltdown wiped out billions of dollars. Then, just as we were bracing for a lengthy recession, news of the Bernard Madoff Ponzi scheme hit. Not only did this brigand rob close friends and business associates of their hard-earned wealth, but while posing as a charitable man himself, he stole billions of holy charity dollars, devastating the Jewish community.

    It is precisely during such bleak moments that we are compelled to celebrate. Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current troubles in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.

    Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Precisely now, during this time of crisis, we should be rededicating ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the “oy.” Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.

    While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In that spirit, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.

    At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of “freedom” resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.

    As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.

    In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.

    Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become “Festivals of Consumption,” in the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.

    Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?

    The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.

    This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:

    On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War, and most especially the embattled citizens of Sderot, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hizbullah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot and the western Negev. We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. Right now, we should focus our efforts on helping out the people of Sderot. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through the Sderot Media Center.

    Also, support Camp Koby, a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims.

    On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Gilad Shalit, honoring his heroism and that of his family. More than 900 days ago, Gilad Shalit, a 20-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza. His pain – and his families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until he comes home – and we have not done enough for him. His family shares a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Buy Gilad’s book “When The Fish and the Shark first Met.” Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit  http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html or add your wishes to http://giladshalit.blogspot.com/

    On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel, who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but even before the global financial crisis began there was far too much poverty in Israel. The gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever. We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel’s Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools.

    On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, Hadassah continues to modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli “Red Cross”) serves all people in Israel under trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. To honor their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa [in Hebrew] as well, as part of the rebuilding effort, which continues.

    On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to taking back the night, to undoing some of the evil that was done this year. We can through our good deeds exorcise some of the bad deeds that have been done.  In that spirit, visit the website of the Chais Family Foundation, which was wiped out by Bernard Madoff’s financial scheme. Marvel at all its good works, and pick one cause the Foundation supported for your family to support, to mitigate the harm. Alternatively, to remember the good people the Islamic terrorists in Mumbai killed, support your local Chabad house showing that we, too, will target them, but with love.

    On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. In the Diaspora and in Israel, if we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees. This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better.  More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?

    On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering and to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season. Wherever we stand on the War in Iraq, we should all stand united in support of the American troops, those idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include donating Frequent Flyer Miles so troops on leave can fly home for free ; buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free.  Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others’ inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader in this, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving.

    On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.

    The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely. Together, our collective lights can defeat the forces of darkness.

    For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: “What did you get last night?” This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: “What did you give?”

    Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, which was just re-released in an expanded and updated edition.

    Mumbai “Blowback” – terrorists miscalculated again

    By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-10-08

    Islamist terrorists are no doubt celebrating the Mumbai mayhem, convinced they triumphed somehow by turning luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish community center into killing fields. And in the media’s pathological patter – shaping too many Westerners- defensive defeatism – talk of the “militants'” “successful operation” feeds these triumphalist delusions. In fact, once again, the terrorists miscalculated. Their depraved actions triggered another “blowback.” India’s three days of terror boosted George W. Bush‘s legacy, strengthened Barack Obama‘s fortitude in combating terrorism, embarrassed  many Indian Muslims, highlighted the ugliness of Islamist anti-Semitism and triggered worldwide sympathy for the victims. Strangers united to mourn the spiritually-inclined American father and daughter shot in a hotel, the altruistic Montreal doctor and social worker slain on vacation, the lovely Lubavitch Jewish couple murdered in their outreach center, and the dozens of good citizens of India who suffered the most from these thugs.

    Suddenly, following these attacks, the terrorists’ least favorite president, George W. Bush is seeing the first uptick in his standing in months. Many people are noting one of the great anomalies of Bush’s administration. Perhaps his greatest achievement is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must acknowledge albeit grudgingly that he deserves credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.  Subsequent atrocities in London , Madrid , Bali, Jerusalem , and now Mumbai – among many others – suggest that the terrorists kept trying.

    In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that as of this writing all of North America has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that at least some of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

    President-elect Barack Obama‘s decisions to keep Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State reflect Obama’s own realization that the terrorist threat is serious. So far, the apologetic appeasers who occasionally advised him during the campaign have not joined his official family. As one of the two Senators from New York State when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a deep, heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, the videotape al Qaida recently released, wherein one of their leaders used an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but clearly caught Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, illustrated that this nasty problem is not disappearing – and that an underlying, obnoxious ideology unites these murderers who strike at Westerners, Jews, and democrats wherever possible.

    The fact that in a sea of tragic stories, the siege of Mumbai’s Chabad Lubavitch house stood out also helped thwart the Islamist terrorists’ goals. These terrorists seek to isolate Jews, to make others recoil from Jews in fear. But the slaughter of simple, defenseless, idealistic, giving people targeted because they were Jewish triggered a massive outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel , Chabad, and Jews. That Islamist ideology is equally intolerant of a black president, of Jewish do-gooders, of Western tourists, makes the lines in the sand very clear. Those of us appalled by these acts – and, make no mistake about it, in the terrorists’ sights — must rally together. We should not only be united when we are being hunted by maniacs who have caught us by surprise; we must unite to eradicate this evil, putting minor differences aside to meet this great moral challenge.

    As the civilized world rises up and repudiates these acts, Muslims must share the outrage. These Islamist terrorists claim they are performing their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-democratic acts in the name of Islam. By contrast, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan , wrote a poignant article in Tuesday’s New York Times denouncing the terrorists and noting that he is a victim too – terrorists murdered his wife last year. In India , Muslims have asserted their Indian nationalism – and their humanity – by refusing to bury the terrorists in Muslim ceremonies and condemning the killers’ brutality. If hundreds of millions more Muslims stood up in outrage, embraced Moshe the two-year-old son of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the murdered Chabad couple, repudiated  the terrorists for trying to hijack their religion – and whenever possible spit these people out from their communities, the Islamist terrorist problem would disappear.

    We have, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan mourned in a different context, defined deviancy down. We have grown too accustomed to the racist rantings of al Qaida brigands, to the murderous rampages of Islamist terrorists, and to the silent and thus implied consent of too many of their co-religionists. The eloquence of President Zardari, the outrage of the Mumbai Muslims, are balanced out by the cant of so many others who scream “Islamophobia” anytime someone condemns Islamist terrorism or notes Muslim complicity in anti-semitism, racism or sectarian violence. These Mumbai massacres pose another moral challenge to all of us, those who are targeted and those who are standing idly by. Now is the opportunity to rise up, to mourn those martyred, repudiate the murderers, then take individual and collective responsibility to ensure that this will be the long-awaited, long-overdue turning point in the war against terror.

    Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and 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.”

    Ode to a secular kibbutz Zionist – and secular kibbutz Zionism

    By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-4-08

    Laurie Levy died suddenly last month at 54. Born in England, he had lived on Kibbutz Nirim in the Western Negev since 1974. His passing is not only a tragedy for all of us lucky enough to have known him, but it highlights the dying out of the kibbutz aliya and the dwindling phenomenon of non-religious aliya from Western democracies.

    Flipping through Laurie’s photo albums at the shiva, I saw so many images familiar to those of us lucky enough (and, er, old enough) to have lived in Israel in the 1970s and early ’80s. In one faded no-longer-so-colorful photo after another, Laurie is beaming, looking tanned and strong while invariably hugging a beautiful woman. This proper London boy is tasting freedom kibbutz-style.

    True, the 1970s was a decade of rebellion throughout the West, when the mostly elite revolution of the 1960s became a mass phenomenon. Still, the Israeli taste of freedom had its own unique flavor, especially on kibbutz. Israel was still a halutzic, pioneering country, barely 25 years old. The Yom Kippur War had illustrated its fragility and the entire Jewish world’s vulnerability less than 30 years after the Nazi slaughter ended. The kibbutz ideal, while never as popular as Diaspora Zionists believed, still gripped the public’s imagination.

    The kibbutz ethos of communitarianism, self-sacrifice, Spartanism and an all-hands-on-deck, fluid, cooperative eclecticism attracted thousands of suburban Jewish youth. Working and hanging out on kibbutz in a young, strikingly small but charmingly dynamic country rendered many of our angst-ridden questions about meaning in life moot.

    KIBBUTZIM WERE filled with characters straight out of a Zionist novel. New Jewish superheroes, they were as intellectual as anyone we knew back home, but tragically adept on the battlefields and wondrously competent in the growing fields they preferred. These bronzed, muscular, modern macho cowboys could have ridden desks like our fathers did, but chose to ride tractors instead.

    These ideological farmers were also impressively well-rounded, modern Renaissance men and women. One might be an archeology enthusiast, one might be an amateur musician – with time to practice – and one might be a budding biblical scholar, loving the land and learning about it while living on it and tilling it. Kibbutz life had its frustrations, limitations, perpetual controversies and sometimes draining workload. Still, many kibbutzniks seemed to express themselves more fully and diversely than the overworked, stressed-out super-specialists we knew and were aspiring to become back home.

    Most of us nevertheless moved on, although many of us still share the fantasy and warm nostalgia for those Wild West-like days. Some, like Laurie, made living on kibbutz their life’s work. Laurie was lucky, he chose well. His kibbutz, Nirim, has not only survived, it still derives much of its income from agriculture. Laurie – who had an impressive entrepreneurial streak, too – worked in various kibbutz businesses as Nirim, and Israel, evolved. But well into his 50s, his first love remained the fields. Our serious but oh-so-bourgeois consciousness about overexposure to the sun forced him to stop working shirtless, wear a floppy hat and even use sunscreen, but he never let the dangers of too much sun or falling Kassams keep him from his crops.

    WESTERN ALIYA has always been small, and the minority who went to and stayed on kibbutz even smaller. Yet, just as the kibbutzim had an outsized impact on Israel’s self-image and public identity, these capitalist suburbanites-turned-collectivist-farmers starred in the broader Zionist narrative.

    Although the admirable recent jump in Western aliya has been mostly an Orthodox phenomenon, secular olim like Laurie are a blessing to the Jewish homeland and their original home communities. The confusion people like Laurie trigger among many Israelis is healthy for Israel. Even secular Israelis can better understand religious olim; moving to Israel simply fulfills another religious obligation. But in a country that spends too much collective energy worshiping Western materialism, voluntary refugees from centers like London provide Israelis with a much-needed kick in the Zionist adrenals. These idealists prove there is more to life than the next promotion or purchase. That the move is voluntary forces Israelis to recognize their own country’s appeal.

    These secular olim are also important living links between Israel and the many Jews – unlike religious Jews – who are growing distant from Judaism and Zionism. The wonderful life Laurie built for himself with a great, loving wife (full disclosure – my first cousin), four children, dozens of friends and hundreds of kibbutznik neighbors illustrated Israel at its finest – and most normal. Olim encourage friends and relatives from the Diaspora to visit more frequently. Even more important, people think about Israel more intensely and maturely thanks to these lifelong emissaries.

    During crises, these human connections bring home the poignancy of Israel’s plight. These past few years, having close friends or relatives right on the Gaza border sensitized all of us in Laurie’s extended family to the evils of Hamas’s assault on peaceful Israelis just living their lives in territory internationally recognized as Israel’s, within the historic pre-1967 Green Line.

    Fortunately, this constructive, important secular aliya, while diminished, has not disappeared. We have already started seeing something of a birthright bounce – some birthright israel returnees parlaying their free 10-day trips into lifelong Israel adventures. The Jewish Agency’s investment in the Masa program, subsidizing 20-somethings who study, intern or work in Israel for at least six months, should also help. But until we make Israel, Zionism and peoplehood relevant to more young Diaspora Jews, we won’t have enough people following Laurie’s example, wherein a combination of noble Zionist motives and personal impulses propelled him toward the fun, meaningful and worthwhile life he lived so grandly but, alas, all too briefly.

    The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

    Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

    By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

    The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

    The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

    The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

    He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

    It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

    These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

    We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

    Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and 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.