Center Field: Obama beware: Sometimes personal magic can be tragic

By Gil Troy, The Jerusalem Post, 7-30-09

Barack Hussein Obama has now been president for six months – when campaigning he avoided using his full name, now he embraces it. As he passes this half-year milestone, his honeymoon with the public may be ending – although America’s media remain gaga over him.

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is...

US PRESIDENT Barack Obama is sworn in at the inauguration ceremony in January. ‘So far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement.’
Photo: AP

Obama is readying for a major fight over health care. His popularity is starting to sag. As he enters what was a difficult phase for new presidents, Obama should learn from history not to bank only on his charisma. Other presidents have learned the hard way that depending too much on personal magic can prove tragic for the country.

Thus far, simply getting elected has been Obama’s greatest achievement. On Election Day, and with his inauguration, Barack Obama brought hope to a depressed country. Counterfactuals are impossible to prove, but it is hard to believe that electing John McCain or Hillary Rodham Clinton would have generated the excitement of Obama’s victory. A McCain win in particular probably would have triggered rounds of recriminations and accusations of racism, especially considering most reporters’ pro-Obama bias during the campaign – and since.

Obama played his part magnificently. “Yes We Can” inspired a country demoralized by George W. Bush’s lethargy, Iraq’s complexity, New Orleans’ devastation and the financial collapse. As both candidate and rookie president, Obama demonstrated perfect political pitch on the racial issue, never indulging in racial demagoguery or anger, refusing to run as the black candidate, but embracing his historic role as an agent of healing and change when he won.

GOVERNING, of course, requires more than winning election by spinning an uplifting personal narrative. In fairness to Obama, when he started running he – and most everyone else – believed these years would be times of continued prosperity. Few anticipated the financial crash, although that secured Obama’s victory, given that the debacle occurred on the Republicans’ watch. Obama has also been blessed by his predecessor’s unpopularity and the Republican opposition’s stunning impotence.

But Obama has been cursed by this financial crisis’s depth and complexity. So far, he has blamed Bush. But, as Ronald Reagan learned, presidential success early on – and pie-in-the-sky promises about saving the economy – quickly make the incumbent responsible. In 1981, Reagan blamed Jimmy Carter and the Democrats for the great inflation, high interest rates and crushing budget deficits he inherited. After many legislative successes and hope-laden speeches that culminated in August 1981, seven months into his presidency, the economy nose-dived. When Congress returned from its summer recess, Democrats blamed their constituents’ suffering on “The Reagan Recession.”

The $787 billion stimulus plan could end up being Obama’s albatross. He erred by allowing the congressional pork-kings to dictate the legislation, burdening it with pet projects rather than smart stimuli. He further erred by forgetting his vows of bipartisanship and post-partisanship, thus failing to share responsibility with the Republicans.

ULTIMATELY, like Reagan, Obama has time on his side. All he needs is a recovery by spring 2012 and he can still claim a new, Reaganesque, “morning in America,” with his own liberal twist.

But by veering as far left as he has domestically, by playing the hard partisan game he has, he risks following in the footsteps of Jimmy Carter – who six months into his presidency scored about 10 percentage points higher than Obama has in public approval surveys. And Obama is now entering a particularly difficult passage in his presidency as he tries to overcome the health care reform curse that stymied Bill Clinton – another young charismatic Democrat with great potential.

In foreign affairs, Obama’s addiction to his own rhetoric and charisma is more apparent, and more dangerous. Foreign policy has often been a refuge for modern presidents, an arena for bold actions, stirring speeches and fawning headlines with less congressional or press interference.

But many major presidential disasters of the past half-century were rooted in foreign troubles. Most people forget that the phrase “the best and the brightest” – which has been used repeatedly to boost Obama and his Ivy League advisers – was more epitaph than tribute in David Halberstam’s classic work on Vietnam. John Kennedy’s people, despite his charisma and eloquence, despite their smarts and pedigrees, steered America into the bogs of Indochina.

So far, while his actions in boosting troops in Afghanistan and keeping troops in Iraq have been measured, Obama’s instincts abroad have proved troubling. Reacting feebly to in-your-face North Korean missile tests and initially dismissing heroic Iranian protests while belligerently targeting Israeli settlements further evokes unhappy memories of Jimmy Carter, who incompetently alienated friends and appeased enemies.

OBAMA’S CAIRO speech revealed his characteristic tendency to hover above the fray, create moral equivalencies between opponents and promise to reconcile the unreasonable combatants. World affairs are rarely that simple. Naivete and moral obtuseness usually fail, even if George W. Bush proved too heavy-handed, simplistic and incompetent.

Still, the presidential learning curve, especially in foreign affairs, can be steep. The presidency, despite being the world’s most scrutinized job, is also ever-changing, providing more plot twists than an Alfred Hitchcock movie. Nikita Khrushchev bullied John Kennedy when they first met in Vienna in 1961, only to be outmaneuvered by a more experienced JFK during the October 1962 Cuban missile crisis.

And Israelis forget that George W. Bush, whose warm friendship for Israel seems to have put off Obama, did not enter the White House as an obvious friend. Well into Bush’s first year in office, Bush – or his secretary of state Colin Powell – criticized nearly every Israeli action against Palestinian terrorism, which mounted with increasing intensity that awful year. Only the horrors of September 11, 2001 – followed in January 2002 by Yasser Arafat’s direct lie to Bush claiming not to know anything about the Karine-A illegal arms shipment from Iran – changed Bush’s approach.

A now-famous YouTube video shows Obama killing a fly easily during a television interview. Obama gloats at his success, which was cool and impressive. As he governs, Obama has demonstrated great potential but even greater confidence. Whether his cool personality roots him, or his arrogance defeats him, remains to be seen.

Ultimately, results not charisma will count.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University, on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction has just been published by Oxford University Press.

Yes we can Zionism

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-16-09

I recently attended a plenary session at a major Zionist organization. The plenary was off the record, so I won’t identify the organization. Some speakers invoked “Obama’s way” as a model, marvelling at the extraordinary fundraising and community-building network that U.S. President Barack Obama and his people developed during the 2008 campaign.

Yes, we can learn a lot from Obama and company’s networking skills. But we must remember that much of the magic of the moment came from Obama’s message. Without a clear vision, without a compelling and positive message, all the networking skills in the world won’t revitalize Zionism – or modern Judaism.

Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan captured the sense of hope, renewal, youth that Obama’s network then spread so effectively. Embedded in his positive “Yes, we can” messaging was a “No, we are not” message too. The dynamics of the Democrats’ successful 2008 campaign began as a reaction against then-president George W. Bush and the Republicans. But Obama’s marketing genius was to transform that negative into a positive.

Especially in our apathetic, distracted society, people often react more to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. Usually, terrifying headlines about disasters or failures grab our attention. But in our happy-dappy, entertainment-addicted society, we don’t want to dwell in that negative space.

A great leader – and shrewd marketer – builds momentum off fear to fulfil longings and achieve something positive. I would say that one of the weakest and most worrying aspects of Obama’s initial approach to foreign policy is that he is too stuck in his “No, we are not” George W. Bush counter-reaction phase and has not yet shaped a positive foreign policy vision that fits the world’s ugly realities while moving forward.

The struggle between the negative and the positive looms as a central challenge for the modern Zionist movement, too. During the “good old days” of the 1990s, when Israel flourished economically and seemed headed for peace, most Diaspora Jews ignored Israel. When the Palestinians rejected the Oslo peace process and turned to terror, all of the sudden, many Jews began rallying around Israel. Too many “Israel advocates” are caught in the cat-and-mouse game against the ugly alliance of amoral moralizers linking the left with pro-Palestinian forces, especially on campus. The fight galvanizes, but ultimately it distracts and demoralizes.

We must evolve away from our sorry situation, which makes the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his fellow Palestinian terrorists – of Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah – the most effective tools for raising Jewish and Zionist consciousness. Like Obama during his campaign, we should build momentum from the “No, we are not.” We should say, “No, we are not deluded by the politically correct cant that demonizes Israel, that singles out Israel. No, we are not swayed by the distorted reasoning that rationalizes Palestinian terrorism and excuses Palestinian – and Islamist – authoritarianism, sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.”

But as we build our networks we must master our messaging. We should say “Yes, we can” to Zionism, not just as a movement of national self-preservation to protect us against the Israel bashers’ one-sidedness, disproportionality, anti-Semitism and irrationality. We should say “Yes, we can” to a Zionism of hope and of vision, of individual and collective fulfilment. We should say “Yes, we can” to a Zionism that uses Jewish history, Jewish nationalism, and the extraordinary opportunity of building a modern democratic Jewish state to answer our deepest existential needs. “Yes, we can” have a Zionist revolution about inspiration. “Yes, we can” look at Israel and the Jewish national project as vehicles for finding meaning, values, a sense of mission in the world today.

“Yes, we can” have a Zionist movement that invites us in, saying we are so lucky to be living in this historical moment, when by spending time in Israel, learning about Israel, viewing the world through a Zionist lens, we can grow as individuals, but remember that humans flourish best and accomplish the most when they’re rooted in enduring values, and when they’re working, building, and dreaming together in larger frameworks that pull us beyond ourselves without sacrificing our selves.

This July 4, Israelis and Americans should celebrate our past

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-2-09

This July 4, we remember the shared interests, values, ideals, experiences and enemies uniting Israel and the US. These bonds are particularly important as a new American administration picks on Israel while wooing America’s foes. President Barack Obama himself has deemed the American-Israeli friendship “unbreakable.” Yet his zeal for criticizing Israel, and his initial hesitation even to criticize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, has unnerved Israelis. Celebrating national holidays and learning national histories help nations understand themselves better, clarifying values and priorities, sifting friend from foe. America and Israel could each learn from the other how to “do” holidays and history better.

The Statue of Liberty holds a...

The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet inscribed with the date of United States independence. Americans can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally.
Photo: Bloomberg

As an American Jew born in New York and bred in a Zionist family, my most exhilarating Fourth of July was in 1976. For months we had been building toward celebrating America’s 200th birthday, especially with Bicentennial Minutes. Every night on CBS television, a celebrity – Ed Asner or Lucille Ball, Walter Cronkite or Betty Ford, Nelson Rockefeller or Gerald Ford – described a moment from the American Revolution. That summer I went to Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah ambivalently, not wanting to miss the tall ships from around the world that would sail around the Statue of Liberty on July 4.

All doubts disappeared in camp as history-in-the-making overrode history to commemorate. Terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 and held all the Jews (and the brave flight crew) hostage at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. After havdala on July 3, when we heard that Israeli commandos had rescued the hostages, we all went crazy – singing and dancing and high-fiving. Pride in Israel and pride in America reinforced one another that day: The Bicentennial healed an America reeling from Watergate and Vietnam as Entebbe healed an Israel still reeling from the Yom Kippur War.

WHEN IT comes to celebrating national holidays, Americans could learn from Israelis. Israel’s national calendar revolves around the traditional Jewish calendar. The major Jewish holidays unite so-called “secular” and religious Israeli Jews in a delightful symphony, mixing the old with the new. Silly shticks like cheesecake on Shavuot and masks on Purim emphasize sacred values like the joys of learning and the joys of giving.

Nationally, the most powerful holidays are Remembrance Day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s memorial day followed immediately by Independence Day. The doleful siren’s wail that stops traffic as the nation mourns its fallen soldiers and terror victims reinforces the glee that sweeps the country the day after. The historical experiences of founding the state – as well as the repeated sacrifices imposed on thousands to preserve it – remain immediate, vivid, emotionally raw.

By contrast, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, like most American holidays, are too frequently divorced from any meaningful rituals or deeper meanings. Some families mourn on Memorial Day, and some communities celebrate July 4 with reverence and appreciation. Alas, for most Americans, these holidays are more days off – or sale days – than days of reflection.

YET AMERICANS can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally. Israelis should seek out more “teachable moments,” fostering historical awareness and national pride. This spring, Americans could not avoid Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebrations – will Israelis even notice Herzl’s 150th birthday next May 2, or his 105th yahrzeit today? Recently, the World Zionist Organization helped pass a law in the Knesset launching Herzl Memorial Day, first held in 2005. We need more such initiatives.

Too many Israelis are losing touch with the heroic history that explains what the country is all about. I recently entered my local bookstore on Rehov Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, seeking basic Hebrew texts about Israeli history for school-age kids. There were slim pickings. I asked the sales clerk why there were so few choices, saying that American bookstores feature shelves filled with creative history books for kids. “We are not patriots here,” she shrugged in reply.

Those Bicentennial Minutes, the 60-second snippets celebrating 1776 in 1976, boosted national pride when Americans were demoralized. The CRB (Charles R. Bronfman) Foundation in Canada funds the Heritage Project and Historica “to raise greater interest and awareness of Canada’s past” by “linking what children see at home, on television and on computer screens to their studies at school.” CRB developed the Bicentennial Minute Canadian style, telling stories of Canada’s past while developing various curricula and popular materials.

In Israel, the schools in general need fixing, the history curriculum in particular needs modernizing. Creative initiatives, like “Toldot Yisrael” started by Aryeh Halivni, need funding and support. Halivni wants to record the testimonies of 5,000 people from the founding generation recalling the struggle to establish the state. We need more books, movies, documentaries and computer games explaining the Zionist idea and Israel’s historical fulfillment of it.

Nationalism, patriotism, history itself are not the exclusive preserve of the Right. Since the 1960s, too many conservatives have sought to dominate their national narratives, and too many leftists have ceded the field to them, in both Israel and America. Barack Obama, among others, has spoken eloquently about the need for a bipartisan patriotism that is not the preserve of the Right or the Left.

All democracies, but particularly America and Israel, need a strong civic sensibility, rooted in history. Americans need it because of their diversity; Israelis need it because of the continuing adversity this unique country endures.

In movies, when someone gets knocked on the head and loses his memory, his first question when he wakes up is “Who am I?” Without memory we have no identity; without history we do not know who we are or who we should become. History helps provide the glue that keeps nations together – and fosters the idealism necessary for nations to survive and thrive, especially amid today’s challenges.

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 and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.

Center Field: Taliban Judaism does not work in modern world

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post as:

Radicals Aren’t Necessarily More Authentic

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-09

Once again haredim held massive, violent demonstrations over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat near the Old City. Somehow, some bizarre rabbinic dispensation allows haredi radicals to launch their own unholy war on Shabbat, desecrating it by rioting. Other controversies regarding conversion and appointing Zionist chief rabbis for Jerusalem feed perceptions of a “religious-secular” divide.

Parking lot riots. Taliban Judaism does not work in the

modern world. PHOTO: Ariel Jerozolimski

Actually, the push for a Zionist chief rabbi proves this is not a religious-secular issue but a clash pitting violent haredi radicals against patriotic Zionists. In this struggle, Orthodox Jews from around the world and Religious Zionists in Israel must stand strong. Those two (overlapping) communities must send a clear message to the haredi radicals, saying “back off.” The message must be reinforced by religious Zionists fighting for quality of life in the State of Israel as ardently as many fight for every inch of the Land of Israel and by Orthodox Jews threatening to cut off donations to all haredi institutions if haredi violence persists.

It is difficult to quantify how much money flows from Orthodox Jews abroad to haredi institutions here, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is considerable. Imagine if those legendary Orthodox Jewish visitors who love to visit yeshivot in Mea She’arim and ask how much it costs to feed the kids lunch, then donate a week of lunches, changed their tunes. What if they said, “We would love to donate, but first reassure us that your community had nothing to do with the recent violence.”

What if others specifically targeted those rabbis and yeshivot who have been acting like hooligans and cut off the money spigot from Brooklyn and the Five Towns, from Paris and London, from Melbourne and Cape Town? This money message should accompany a moral message from rabbis and leading authorities throughout the Diaspora and Israel. Rabbinic authorities with impeccable religious pedigrees must denounce haredi extremists.

LEAVING THE FIGHT to so-called “secular” Israelis exacerbates tensions. Alternatively, if religious and non-religious Jews stood together in this struggle, even while agreeing to disagree on other issues, it would reduce Israel’s growing polarization, wherein a Right-Left divide on security increasingly parallels a religious-secular divide regarding lifestyle, philosophy, pluralism and tolerance.

Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis who are so pure of heart they dismiss all this as “politics” and beneath them ignore the conflict’s religious dimensions. Anyone who prays for the State of Israel, says Hallel, the prayer of thanksgiving, on its birthday, or speaks about it as a “redemption” or “salvation” cannot stand idly by while hooligans threaten “to set the whole country… on fire.”

Moreover, for decades now religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews have been in denial about how much harm religious extremists do to those of us laboring to bring the masses of alienated Jews back to Judaism.

Taliban Judaism does not work in the modern world. The all-or-nothing, command-and-control approach of the haredim and (I am sorry to say) of much of the Israeli rabbinate alienates millions. Awash in freedom, most Jews today have to embrace Judaism voluntarily. This is not an argument for watering down Judaism. Rather, it is an argument for focusing on its essential positive messages, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, and avoiding desecrations through violence or political coercion.

UNFORTUNATELY, TOO many Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists are not just bystanders to haredi and rabbinic extremism but enablers. Too many fear the extremists. This cowardice comes from a brand of religious one-upsmanship extremists the world over have mastered. People from the center, no matter how passionate or pure, end up having their credentials questioned by the ayatollahs in religion and the commissars in politics. Too many modern Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists act insecure when amid their more radical brethren.

Radicals are more radical, not necessarily more authentic. Nevertheless, modern Orthodox families in North America send their kids (as well as their cash) to “learn” in yeshivot that are far to their Right. We also see Diaspora communities held hostage on matters of kashrut certification by the most extreme forces. In Israel, the mainstream religious voices refuse to take on the violent haredim.

Fortunately, some heroes have emerged. In Jerusalem, Rachel Azaria of Hitorerut-Yerushalmim (the Wake-up Jerusalemites party) has been an important force for change. A religious Zionist activist, Azaria led an insurgent grassroots campaign and ended up on the city council. She and her party have organized demonstrations demanding a Zionist chief rabbi for Jerusalem. They support Mayor Nir Barkat’s attempts to find a compromise on the Shabbat parking lot issue that will serve non-religious Jews seeking to visit the capital on Israel’s one full weekly day off.

Others, like the Tzohar rabbis, have sought to be, as their slogan celebrates, a bridge between the two worlds, giving non-religious Israelis more user-friendly rabbis when marrying, divorcing and celebrating a circumcision or bar mitzva. In North America, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has run programs training Israeli rabbis in the kind of pastoral duties too many neglect because they are deployed by the Chief Rabbinate and not beholden to congregants.

Still, in the face of haredi violence, the religious story has been much more one of the “silence of the (kosher) lambs.” Orthodox and religious Zionist cowardice does tremendous harm. We need mainstream religious rabbinic authorities in Israel and the Diaspora to confront the haredi bullies and repudiate violence, especially on Shabbat, with words and deeds.

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 and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.