How to defend, and delight in, Judaism and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-17-09

As an academic, I like that my work year and the Jewish New Year begin together. As Jewish professors, administrators and students return to campus for a new academic year (and as some start afresh on their academic adventure), we should set some goals for effective pro-Israel advocacy and satisfying Jewish living.These truly are the best and the worst of times on campus for Jews. There have never been so many Jewish students and staffers, or so many Jewish studies programs and vital Hillels. Unfortunately, this Golden Age is also an era of systematic demonization of Israel on campus. The challenge here is to keep perspective. Our delight in the comfort Jews have in the academic world should not blind us to the ugliness of the anti-Israel assault. Our bitterness at the attacks’ toxicity should not sour us on the joys of academic life. Neither complacency nor paranoia works. We must celebrate Israel as well as defend Israel. We must focus on Jewish life and not let our enemies set the agenda.

In forging an effective campus strategy to defend and delight in Judaism and Zionism, consider the following guidelines:

• Israel’s culture is vital and infectious, an appealing mix of the East and the West. We should change the stereotype of “Israel the warrior state.” Students – and professors – should see the Israel that Madonna recently saw, the Israel of a modern rock beat and of ancient wisdom, the Israel of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

• Never attack academic freedom, but never tolerate educational malpractice. I wholeheartedly support professors’ freedoms to draw whatever conclusions they can from their assessment of evidence, but I reject the way too many professors abuse their podiums. If a professor refuses to air opposing views, mocks students who disagree, or turns the lecturer’s stand into a political soapbox, students should document it carefully, get corroborating witnesses, ask the professor to stop and contact administrators, parents, alumni and community leaders if the complaints are ignored.

• Let’s delegitimize the delegitimizers. For too long, we have allowed those using the “racism” and “apartheid” slanders to carry the day. We must be proactive, pointing out that singling out Israel, rationalizing Palestinian terrorism, drawing false analogies with the evil South African regime and making libelous comparisons to Nazis puts Israel’s critics in league with Arab anti-Semites and outdated Soviet propagandists. The moral onus is on them to prove they are not anti-Semitic or abetting anti-Semitism by distancing themselves from the exterminationists and hate-mongers.

• Don’t fear the Z-word. Too many Jews on campus have internalized the critics’ lies and fear using the word “Zionism.” Those who have visited Israel on Birthright Israel or other programs should learn that Zionism is another name for all those warm glowy feelings they have about Israel – that sense of peoplehood and appreciation for a Jewish state.

• We need a big-tent Zionism. Our anger at the unreason of too many of Israel’s accusers shouldn’t shut our minds down. We should welcome a wide spectrum of opinions and voices, making it clear that we can disagree graciously about settlements, boundaries, strategies, even values, without demonizing or delegitimizing. There is a rich Israeli and Jewish tradition of dissent that should not be squelched. Only when people start attacking Israel disproportionately, inaccurately and with the language of those who seek its extermination should we react strongly. Beyond that, our Jewish centres should be centres of creative, vital and diverse thought and argument.

• Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing or singing or learning or praying or enjoying…). Outside the closed Dolphinarium, the Tel Aviv disco where a terrorist – later glorified by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat – slaughtered 21 teenagers and wounded 120, a simple monument promises defiantly: “Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing).” Our enemies cannot defeat us or demoralize us.

Universities should be centres of Jewish revival, places where students and professors discover the spiritual, intellectual, ideological depth of the Jewish experience. We should embrace Judaism, engage Israel, learn Torah, appreciate Jewish civilization and never, ever stop singing and dancing. Shanah tovah.

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