Gil Troy: My Jerusalem jogging track

Center Field: My Jerusalem jogging track

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-26-09

Almost every morning, I walk my children to school in Baka, in south-central Jerusalem, then jog toward the Old City. I jog 35 to 45 minutes. But I journey through thousands of years, celebrating Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital and the spiritual focal point for billions. Doctors debate if jogging is good for your body; my Jerusalem jogging track uplifts my soul.

In Baka, I enjoy the jumble of houses and the mix of people. The Anglo and French immigrants-by-choice often live in the renovated houses. Many older neighbors arrived after Arab countries expelled them in the 1950s. Today, they are citizens, not perpetual refugees. I appreciate the flat, lush terrain amid the hills of the Judean Desert, especially in the stately German Colony.

Already, five minutes into my jog, I have traversed Jewish history. Many Baka street names are biblical. I jog along Jacob’s sons: Judah, Zebulun, Levi. My German Colony route honors non-Jews who helped Jews: Emile Zola, the French novelist whose “J’Accuse” defended Alfred Dreyfus against anti-Semitism; Lloyd George, Britain’s prime minister when Lord Balfour recognized Jews’ right to a homeland. Setting out along Derech Beit Lehem, the road to Bethlehem, I pass three institutions symbolizing modern Jerusalem’s cultural vitality. The Khan Theater, built where a Crusader inn once stood, is one of two excellent theaters in walking distance from our house.

The Menachem Begin Heritage Center’s fabulous interactive museum commemorates one of Israel’s founders, while hosting weekly Torah portion discussions, historical conferences, a mock Knesset for students. Behind Begin, archeologists found a First-Temple-era priestly burial site, discovering an engraving of the Torah’s Priestly Blessing, with which we bless our children every Friday night. Further down, the cutting-edge Cinematheque hovers over the Hinnom Valley, known in the Hebrew Bible as Gei (the valley of) Ben Hinnom. Because ancient pagans sacrificed children to Moloch there, “Gehenna” now means hell. This is sobering stuff for a morning jog – but one of many reminders how Judaism civilized the region.

CROSSING HELL, I ascend to the Old City. Mount Zion’s green, sculpted slope reflects the remarkable efforts of so many worldwide to beautify Jerusalem, especially through the Jerusalem Foundation, in this case working with JNF Canada. One friend calls Jerusalem every Jew’s synagogue; all want to make their lasting contribution. To my left into the valley is the no-man’s-land that divided the city for 19 years when the Jordanians occupied east Jerusalem. I often enter the Old City imagining some historical figure resting on my shoulder.

One day King David or King Solomon might be admiring what of his handiwork survived. Another day it might be a medieval rabbi, a Holocaust victim or my own paternal grandfather, who all longed to visit the magical city I enter easily. Coming through Zion Gate, the Jewish Quarter’s lifeline blocked in 1948 which IDF soldiers freed in 1967, I enter the Armenian Quarter. Occasionally, I notice a “map of the Armenian genocide.” Turkey’s refusal to acknowledge its crimes against the Armenians depresses me, as does the world’s indifference to Rwanda’s Tutsis in the 1990s and Sudan’s Darfuris today.

IN THE JEWISH Quarter, I vary my route. Sometimes, I pass the Broad Wall, a 23-foot-wide outer wall from the First Temple period, probably destroyed in 586 BCE. Sometimes, I glimpse the Western Wall, which survived the Second Temple’s destruction in 70 CE. Sometimes, I climb the stairs at the end of Rehov Chabad to appreciate the Old City’s skyline with curved rooftops, modern satellite dishes, hanging laundry and sacred Christian, Muslim, Jewish sites jutting into the air. Sometimes, I pass the majestic Hurva Synagogue, its new dome now dominating the Jewish Quarter skyline. Arab rioters destroyed the Hurva, meaning ruin, in 1720, long before Zionism began. Rebuilt in 1864, Jordanian troops ruined it again in 1948. After 1967, Jews rebuilt only one large arch suggesting the dome’s grand height. Recently, this homage to McDonald’s became one of four arches supporting the new dome. The rebuilt synagogue opens soon. The Jewish Quarter tends the past while growing in the present, preserving history without being mummified. Children rush to school above Roman streets. Men wrapped in tallit and tefillin roam. Women scurry in the direction of the Temple Mount or the new city. All reflect the 42-year renaissance since Jews returned to the quarter the Jordanians desecrated.

Leaving the Jewish Quarter, I wander the Arab market, the shouk. Sometimes I jog through the Muslim shouk, smelling the spices, hearing the birds chirp, staring at the butchers’ carcasses hanging for all to see (and breathe on). Sometimes I jog through the Christian Quarter, with its wide streets. Usually I jog up David Street watching merchants arrange their touristy trinkets, exit Jaffa Gate back toward the new city, cross Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish neighborhood built outside the Old City, pass its famous windmill from 1857, then return home. I move seamlessly between the quarters. In years of jogging through Jerusalem, during calm times and after terror attacks, I have never felt fearful. I have never witnessed Arabs and Jews quarreling – or any arguments in the Old City (except when people bargain). I am not naïve. I know the tensions, frustrations, angers. I pass markers commemorating terrorist stabbings and the 14A bus bombing. But I experience the Jerusalem most Jerusalemites experience daily, a city of normal hustle and bustle amid powerful historical and spiritual currents, a city once violently divided now blessedly united. A city that works and prays, learns and plays.

A city that for the overwhelming majority of its residents, an overwhelming majority of the time, lives up to its name, Jerusalem, the city of peace. A city heroes liberated in 1967, 42 years ago yesterday, tended for decades by visionaries like mayor Teddy Kollek, which deserves to be celebrated today and everyday. Happy Yom Yerushalayim.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.

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Gil Troy: Canadians uphold a proud human rights legacy

Canadians uphold a proud human rights legacy

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-21-09

Canada stood tall – dare we say, glorious and free? – during the recent Durban Review debacle in Geneva, thanks to Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s pre-emptive strike in boycotting the so-called UN anti-racism conference long before anyone else did.
Canada is now spearheading the push to reform the United Nations, while challenging liberal and autocratic hypocrisy worldwide. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s bigotry at an anti-racism conference defined Durban II as yet another festival of despots bashing the West and Israel. But more significant was the alliance forged beyond the conference halls between pro-Israel and human rights activists frustrated that the UN’s Israel obsession hurts human rights.

Canadians such as MP and former Liberal justice minister Irwin Cotler and the executive director of UN Watch, Hillel Neuer, were essential marriage brokers in building this friendship, demanding the UN live up to its ideals and condemn the world’s true human rights abusers.

During the first World Conference Against Racism, held in 2001 in Durban, South Africa, the streets filled with anti-Zionists shouting vitriolic anti-Semitic slogans that Adolf Hitler didn’t finish the job. Some human rights groups and pro-Israel groups began working to reform the UN human rights mechanisms.

Not surprisingly, Canadians such as Cotler and Neuer were crucial in launching this initiative. Many Canadians maintain great faith in the UN’s founding ideals and are proud that John Peters Humphrey, a longtime McGill University law professor, drafted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Cotler, on leave as a law professor from McGill, is a world-renowned human rights crusader who has spent decades cris-crossing the globe defending the oppressed, including Nelson Mandela and Natan Sharansky. Neuer was Cotler’s student at McGill, continuing this McGill – and Canadian – tradition.

When the UN started preparations to host a review conference in Durban, Neuer was particularly well-placed to head off another hatefest. Based in Geneva as the executive director of UN Watch, he has frequently highlighted the UN’s anti-Israel obsession and its hypocrisy in letting dictatorships dominate the Human Rights Council. Working with various organizations in shifting coalitions – including its parent organization the American Jewish Committee, as well as NGO Monitor and B’nai Brith International, Freedom House and Freedom Now – UN Watch helped redirect the process.

Effective lobbying of the Ford Foundation and others cut off funds that NGOs would have used to replicate the Durban I sideshow. The UN, embarrassed by Durban I, agreed to shift the venue of this year’s conference to Geneva, where the UN and Swiss police could better control events. Western diplomats worked to moderate the Durban Review declaration. In this environment, Canada’s bold decision to boycott galvanized the forces trying to right Durban’s wrongs.

As a result, in Geneva, there were no angry mass rallies against Israel. UN Watch and dozens of other groups hosted conferences and side meetings, giving dissidents and victims from Iran, Egypt, Cuba, Burma, Rwanda and Darfur opportunities to tell their tales. The participants denounced the United Nations for allowing oppressors such as Libya to chair the Human Rights Council, and for ignoring real abuses in their zeal to demonize Israel.

The largest demonstration appears to have been a festive gathering of 2,000 to 3,000 Israel supporters on the conference’s third day. Joining one American, one Italian, one Israeli, and one French politician on the podium were two of us from McGill, Cotler and I, as well as Harper’s parliamentary secretary – and personal representative to the side conferences – MP Pierre Poilievre. The MC, David Harris, of the American Jewish committee, joked that at these events, Canadians rarely outnumber Americans. May we always compete to lead the way on these issues.

“Please use your liberty to promote ours,” Soe Aung, a Burmese dissident, begged at the Geneva Summit for Human Rights, Tolerance and Democracy, which celebrated 60 years of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Genocide Convention. While the first Durban sideshow embodied the UN at its worst, the second Durban side conferences tried to meet Aung’s challenge.

If the UN starts to reform, history will honour the Conservative Harper – with his Liberal colleague Cotler – for not only saving the United Nations, but also for helping to save many liberal activists from their own moral myopia.

Gil Troy: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

Center Field: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 5-18-09

I applaud American reformers’ push to improve the Jewish Agency’s governance and purge politics from the selection of its chairman. But today’s political appointee is the right man for the job. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s nomination of the legendary human rights activist Natan Sharansky to be the Jewish Agency’s chairman is a gift to the agency and the Jewish people. After a lifetime of serving not just the Jewish people but humanity, Sharansky should not have to ask anyone for votes. Those of us who care about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish future should beg him to serve.

The Jewish Agency is at an awkward moment in its proud history. It was established on August 11, 1929, fulfilling the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine proposing a “Jewish agency” representing world Jewry to help establish “the Jewish National Home… in Palestine.” In 1948, the actual state superseded this proto-state. Today, with that historic mission accomplished, the agency promotes aliya, Jewish-Zionist education and Israel-Diaspora partnerships.

Most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary. Be they working for Partnership 2000 to partner 250 Diaspora communities with 50 Israeli regions, serving in the World Zionist Organization or developing MASA to bring young Jews for sustained periods of work or study in Israel, they are idealistic, passionate, visionary. Unfortunately, they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation.

I have met the occasional Jewish Agency hack who sends a staffer ahead to check that he has a microphone to address two dozen people. Then, having wasted staff resources, this apparatchik – with a rumored penchant for expensive travel – alienates all the young, enthusiastic Zionists he addresses with his dismissive arrogance. As a result, when many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

To me, the building pulsates with the energy of the Zionist mission. It is rooted in Jewish history, throbbing with idealists, and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings. Just as Israel’s occasional mistakes should not define Zionism, the occasional pen pusher should not tarnish the agency’s reputation.

DURING THESE difficult times, with the Jewish Agency seeking more of two key “M”s – money and a focused mission – Natan Sharansky can save it, while using this platform to revitalize Zionism. Just because Sharansky’s story is familiar, we should never take for granted the miracle he not only lived through but shaped. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1985, Sharansky had been imprisoned since his March 1977 arrest on trumped-up charges. Few of us imagined that within a year he would be free and that within a few years, the Soviet Union would implode.

Gil Troy: Center Field: Obama at 100 days

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-11-09

Barack Obama has just completed his first hundred days as president, an artificial benchmark rooted in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. John Kennedy proved more successful than his first hundred days suggested, marred as they were by the aborted Bay of Pigs attack against Cuba. George W. Bush’s presidency ended less successfully than it began. Still, a presidential character starts forming during this honeymoon, while story lines emerge that determine a president’s destiny.

Obama’s greatest challenge has been saving America’s economy, but he cannot ignore foreign policy. Domestically, Obama wants to match Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, presidents who restored hope, revived the economy, and redefined Americans’ relationship with government – in this case correcting Reagan’s anti-government drift. Regarding foreign policy, Obama appears to follow Theodore Roosevelt with a twist. TR advised: “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” So far – and the presidency remains young – Obama is speaking softly to enemies, treating friends coolly and carrying a medium-sized stick.

OBAMA’S FOREIGN AFFAIRS messaging has positioned him as the “unBush,” apologizing for American “arrogance” in Europe, smiling with Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and denouncing torture. He has offended many British and Canadian citizens while signaling he is ready to rumble with Israel. But Obama has not acted like the pushover he sometimes appears to be. He is keeping troops in Iraq. He has intensified combat in Afghanistan. And he gave the shoot to kill order when Somali pirates held an American hostage.

Obama has suggested it does not cost anything to be friendly, to engage, to consider negotiating. He enjoys tweaking conservatives. He knows that when they criticize his chatting with Venezuela?s dictator or his sweeping bow to Saudi Arabia’s king, it helps the world consider him reasonable.

Such kowtowing to dictators and Europeans can backfire, especially when Obama slights America’s closest friends. British newspapers attacked Obama for not scheduling a podiumto-podium press conference when Prime Minister Gordon Brown visited Washington, and for giving Brown a pedestrian gift of 25 DVDs with classic American movies. Among other gifts, Brown presented Obama with a pen holder crafted from the timber of a 19th-century British warship that fought slave traders.

Some Canadians resent Obama’s initial green light to congressional protectionists, fearing a trade war which could make this traumatic recession another Great Depression. Others were insulted when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano foolishly equated Canada’s peaceful if congested border with Mexico’s violent, porous one.

President Barack Obama arrives for the annual White House Correspondents’ Association dinner in Washington, Saturday, May 9, 2009 PHOTO: AP

Moreover, while avoiding confronting Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, Obama has retreated from Bush’s pro-Israel embrace. The first foreign leader Obama called was Mahmoud Abbas, clearly saluting the Palestinians and implicitly criticizing Israel’s Gaza operation. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has forgotten her enthusiastic support for Israel as a senator and a presidential candidate. Treating a nuclear Iran as Israel’s problem not America’s and the world’s, she said Israel would have to make concessions to the Palestinians to ensure American pressure against Iran. Most ominously, Obama seems ready to fund a Palestinian unity government. This move would end the sensible boycott against Hamas, without first demanding Hamas change its genocidal charter or terrorist ways.

DEMOCRATS USED to be America’s foreign policy idealists. Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John Kennedy spoke eloquently and acted righteously. They defended the world against German aggression, Nazism and Soviet communism while establishing noble but effective multilateral institutions. The Vietnam War and, now, the Iraq war, soured many Democrats on high-flying ideals. Obama seems to govern in that spirit.

Obama will eventually have to start distinguishing America’s friends and enemies. Obama happily dispatched Vice President Joe Biden to AIPAC with a “tough love” greeting, but will he confront America’s critics or fairweather friends with a “you’re not going to like my saying this” message too? Rather than simply apologizing for Bush’s War on Terror, Obama will have to remind Muslims how many Americans died trying to protect Muslims in Kosovo, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan. His administration will have to find its moral center, rather than disappointing dissidents worldwide when Clinton says human rights issues will not divide the US and China. And Obama needs to learn what it took Bill Clinton years to learn – that Palestinian rejection of Israel’s very existence and Palestinians’ addiction to terror pose the major obstacles to Middle East peace not Israeli settlements or sentiments.

MEANWHILE, OBAMA’S cool temperament moderates his actions, making his policies less radical than his gestures. His tough-minded approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan suggests he understands the threat al-Qaida and the Taliban pose. His gradual troop reduction in Iraq reflects a similar sobriety and maturity, letting the realities of governance eclipse the rhetoric of campaigning.

Obama’s actions regarding the Durban anti-racism review conference exemplified his strategy at his best, as he played good cop, then bad cop. By sending diplomats to preliminary meetings, Obama showed he would engage the world, unlike Bush. By nevertheless boycotting because too many Muslim and authoritarian delegates pushed their anti-Israel, anti-Western and anti-free speech lines, Obama acted properly, but with greater credibility.

Yet Obama has opened a dangerous Pandora’s box by exposing so many of the CIA’s torture tactics. He seems to want to root his moral center in the traditional American disgust for torture and America’s repudiation of the Bush administration. He is a brilliant communicator and strategist, beloved by the media, who outmaneuvered experienced opponents like Hillary Clinton and John McCain to become president. Obama is betting he can woo back America’s wavering allies and outfox America’s enemies. He trusts that America’s staunchest allies, including Great Britain, Canada and Israel, will persevere, judging him by his actions not his gestures.

Still, another terrorist attack on American soil, an aggressive nuclear-armed Iran, the Taliban overrunning Pakistan, a defiant, dictatorial Russia or some unexpected disaster could feed a media spin that Obama’s concessions emboldened America’s enemies a la Jimmy Carter and derail his administration. Obama is emerging as a leader ready to make big changes and take big chances. Succeeding will require great skill, clear values, incredible good fortune – and America’s true friends working alongside it.

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

Gil Troy: Israeli 6th graders learn hope, not hate

Center Field: Israeli 6th graders learn hope, not hate

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-30-09

On Monday, just before Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Remembrance Day, and shortly after I returned from the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, I was invited to talk about Durban to my son’s 6th grade class in Jerusalem. He attends a Dati-Mamlachti, religious public school, Efrata, in Baka. I have spoken to elementary school classes at various Jewish day schools in Montreal over the years, so I have some sense of what kids this age know and don’t know about current events, and about Israel. What shocked me – and then in many ways impressed me – (beyond their excellent, polite behavior throughout the class) was how shocked so many of the sixth graders in Jerusalem were by the depth of anti-Israel hatred on display at the Durban II conference.

I began simply by playing a four-minute clip from the Israeli news show “Mabat” on Monday April 20, the day Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad opened the Durban Review Conference in Geneva. The kids were understandably confused by the spectacle: someone treated with great honor saying hateful things about their own state; students dressed in multicolored clown wigs throwing red noses at the speaker; dark-suited European diplomats walking out en masse.

After the clip I explained to the students that I showed the clip with no explanation and no context, because that is what happens when we watch the news daily. We get plunged into these events as veritable eyewitnesses, often lacking a bigger picture understanding. I then started unraveling the spool, using slides to tell the story of the anti-racist conference headlined by a racist, the UN conference against discrimination that has become a symbol of discrimination against Jews.

“I don’t understand, what do they mean Zionism is Nazism?” one girl asked when I showed a Durban I poster from 2001 equating the Jewish star with the Swastika attacking “Nazionism.” “Why are they applauding Ahmadinejad?” another wondered.

This, to me, was the morning’s big revelation. Many of the students could not fathom that anyone could link anything Jewish or Israeli with anything Nazi. Probing further, it was clear that most of the students were less aware of the world’s enmity than their peers were in Montreal. I realized the blessed insulation of living in a Jewish state means that they do not see the barrage of anti-Israel criticism on television and in the newspapers Jewish kids experience in the Diaspora.

Moreover, it was clear that these kids were not being taught to hate. And note they study in the National Religious system often caricatured by critics as fomenting intolerance. By not being aware of Palestinians’ demonization of Israel, they were far less likely to demonize Palestinians.

The Yom Hazikaron Remembrance Day ceremonies at school on Tuesday reinforced this impression. The commemoration was sad but focused on the murdered not the murderers. In the spirit of the day, which precedes Yom Ha’atzmaut, Independence Day, the principal ended the ceremony by talking about hopes, dreams, pride in Israel’s accomplishments and the happiness that follows the sadness. Again, not a word of hatred, demonization, or even anger, the logical emotion when contemplating so many young deaths. I only wish Palestinian parents could report that their children were not being raised on vitriol.

As my slide show continued, the questions increased.

“Why did the UN honor Ahmadinejad as the first speaker at the conference?” the teacher asked – the question I have been asked most frequently since my return, and the question Elie Wiesel asked on Yom HaShoah, on Holocaust Remembrance Day in Geneva. I explained that Ahmadinejad exploited UN protocol. The embarrassed Europeans downgraded the conference because of the controversies and most countries sent junior ministers to Geneva. Ahmadinejad was the only head of state to attend, thus earning the first speaker’s slot. I noted that the embarrassment was good. It showed that Durban I’s critics had made an impact and some countries still had a sense of shame.

“Why does the Swiss President look so happy meeting Ahmadinejad?” a student asked when I showed the picture of a beaming Hans-Rudolf Merz greeting Ahmadinejad. This absurdity required an explanation of the passive complicity of the enabler rather than the active crimes of the deviant. I said the Swiss President could have snubbed Ahmadinejad as America’s president does when unsavory characters visit the UN. He also could have greeted Ahmadinejad coldly. The effusive welcome reflected the weakness of the diplomat, the cowardice of too many Europeans, who let evil flourish by being polite and doing nothing.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, center, gestures as he talks with Swiss President Hans-Rudolf Merz, left, shortly after arriving in Geneva, Switzerland, Sunday, April 19, 2009 PHOTO: AP

“Why did the students dress up like clowns and throw red noses?” another student asked. I repeated the French students’ explanation, that Ahmadinejad and the anti-Zionists’ racism had turned the anti-racist conference into a circus, so they might as well dress appropriately. The students appreciated that logic – although I challenged them to consult with each other and their teachers, rabbis, and parents about what is the appropriate behavior when faced with evil and the politeness that enables it. I noted I was proud that none of the Jewish students behaved violently or aggressively. They were disciplined, clever, strategic and quite limited in their actions.

A demonstrator dressed as a clown gestures from the media tribune against Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during his speech during the opening of the Durban Review Conference (UN’s Conference against Racism) at the European headquarters of the United Nations, UN, in Geneva, Switzerland, Monday, April 20, 2009 PHOTO: AP

“How come only Jewish students are standing with the Darfuri refugees?” some asked when I showed a picture of Darfuris and Jewish students in front of the UN, protesting the UN’s silence about Sudan’s genocide. “Why doesn’t the UN help?” others asked when I told them about the many human rights activists and victims from Darfur, Iran, Egypt, Libya, and Rwanda frustrated that the UN’s anti-Zionist obsession derailed attempts to stop human rights abuses. To these pertinent, depressing questions, I had no adequate answers.