Celebrate Green Zionism this Tu B’Shvat

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-28-10

Tu B’Shvat, the Jewish Arbor Day, is this Shabbat, January 30. When I was young I preferred Israel’s Independence Day because we received blue-and-white cookies rather than yucky figs and carobs, known by the aggressive Yiddish name “bokser.” But educators should distribute blue-and-white cookies along with Israeli fruit because Tu B’Shvat celebrates Israel – and Zionism. The world only recently discovered environmentalism, yet Jews have a deep relationship with nature, while Zionism resonates with the environmental ethic. Tu B’Shvat is our annual opportunity to show just how “green” the “blue and white” sensibility is.

It never ceases to amaze me how frequently we miss opportunities to deepen our connection to Israel and Zionism, naturally, organically. As we brainstorm about re-branding Israel, re-framing Zionism, trying to justify our existence, we often forget the rightness of our case and the richness of our tradition. The Jewish calendar is our friend. It provides us with many moments that tell our story beautifully, express our values vividly, allowing us to celebrate Israel, to renew our Zionism, without fighting anyone, without being defensive.

Tu B’Shvat is particularly welcome because of the growing “green” movement and because it coincides with the anti-Israeli activity in late January and early February that falsely compares democratic Israel with the racist Apartheid regime that once dominated South Africa. While we should refute the Apartheid libel aggressively, we should also use Tu B’Shvat to celebrate Israel, Jewish values, and Zionism. In the ideological wars surrounding Israel, it is always better to celebrate on our terms than try defending against our enemies’ assaults. Our failure to build a proactive strategy around Tu B’Shvat and other moments reflects the epidemic of ignorance in the Jewish world today, and our ceding of the agenda to the Palestinians and their fellow travelers, especially on campus.

Tu B’Shvat is a great Zionist holiday. It starts with the Jewish love of the land of Israel, by celebrating the agricultural cycle of our one Jewish homeland. When we sing “the almond trees are growing, the beautiful sun is shining,” it might be snowing in Montreal or raining in New York, but buds are sprouting in Israel. At Akiva School in Montreal, our kids used to build little Tu B’Shvat dioramas that told the story effectively: half would be filled with white cotton balls evoking the Canadian snow; the other half would be covered in brown and green construction paper symbolizing the trees of Eretz Yisrael. Tu B’Shvat orients us toward Israel as the center of the Jewish world, highlighting Judaism’s uniqueness as a world religion bound to one homeland, a people whose Holy Days are defined by the Israeli agricultural calendar, rooted in theological concepts, and linked with historic events.

Tu B’Shvat reminds us of Zionism’s central values and great achievements, in redeeming the Jewish people by redeeming their homeland. The way early Zionists made the desert bloom – even if they made some ecological mistakes – remains one of the great stories of the 20th century. In Israel, to this day, every tree, every blade of grass, every patch of green, testifies to the love, skill and sweat Zionists poured into the rocky patch of the world that has been ours since the days of Abraham and David. During the 2008 campaign, a story circulated that when Senator Barack Obama took the obligatory AIPAC helicopter tour of Israel, he did not remark – as the script demands – “my, how narrow” as he crossed Israel at its narrowest. Instead, he said, “my, how green,” noting he could trace the band of Israeli settlement by following the contours of the Zionist agricultural revolution. (The punchline to the story, which I could never verify but certainly reflects the great faith Jews had in Obama in 2008, had him landing, being asked by reporters for his impression, and following the script, saying, “my, how narrow.”)

In turning the land green Zionists turned Israel into a constructive force in the modern world. From the drip irrigation of Kibbutz Hatzerim which has made deserts bloom all over the world, to the cutting-edge attempts of Arava Power based in Kibbutz Ketura to harness solar energy in the Arava desert, the return to the land meant a return to history, responsibility, vitality and world leadership in many realms. Early Zionists like A.D. Gordon did not realize that the heroic era of the kibbutzim would be a way station on the road to today’s high tech society. And yes, sometimes Israel has developed rapidly, crudely, thoughtlessly. But there remains in modern Israel a love of the land, a commitment to what we now call “green” values, that keeps alive the pioneering spirit.

My friends in the Israeli environmental movement have taught me that a greater green sensibility can help Israel tackle its most intractable problems. Dr. Eilon Schwartz and Dr. Jeremy Benstein of the Heschel Center for Environmental Learning and Leadership have tried creating a common language between right-wing settlers and left-wing environmentalists, united by their common love of the land, while also using environmentalism to sensitize Israelis to the broader values crisis Israel will face if it becomes addicted to capitalism and materialism without an environmentalist and Zionist counterbalance. Dr. Alon Tal of the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev at Sde Boker founded the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies to help Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians find common ground rooted in their common commitment to preserving the environment, considering that pollution respects no political borders. It is no coincidence that Drs. Schwartz, Benstein, and Tal graduated from Young Judaea, America’s largest Zionist movement, and thus can synthesize modern American, Jewish and Zionist values in ways that inspire people on both sides of the Atlantic.

So this Tu B’Shvat let’s break away from the pediatric Judaism of too many synagogues that makes the Jewish Arbor Day just about dried fruits and tired ditties. And let’s break away from the defensive Zionism on too many campuses that only deals with Israel when it is under attack. Instead, following the Jewish calendar, let’s sing a new song of Zion, rooted in the past, relevant to the present, envisioning a better future – and let’s sing it particularly vigorously because this Tu B’Shvat falls on Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song, wherein we sing Moses’s song of liberation too.

Gil Troy 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, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Anglos enraged over Galilee rape – are others numb?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-17-10

My December 27 post “Galilee Rape Crisis Tests Us All” told about a teenager from Karmiel brutalized in Kishon jail. I hoped that Israel’s leaders and citizens would inspire me to write a “happy ending” follow-up story – or as happy an ending as can be to a story of police brutality and incompetence, violent prisons, repeated gang rape and a 17-year-old having his ear pierced with a copper wire to mark him as his tormenters’ sexual slave.

Over the last two weeks, I have been moved by the love and generosity that has woven a web of caring, linking fellow Jews in Montreal, New York, Ra’anana and Jerusalem with this family in Karmiel. But I am disgusted by the Israeli bureaucracy’s indifference. And I am saddened that too many of the Israeli offers of help have come in English, not Hebrew.

Many in the Anglo-Israeli community are furious about this incident, which risks becoming a defining “anti-aliya” story, one that makes it harder to encourage people to move to Israel. For this family that moved from Miami full of idealism, with an older son serving in the IDF, the dreams of “Exodus” have soured into “Midnight Express,” Israel-style. Their teenage son was not only physically and psychologically brutalized, they themselves feel brutalized by the system, wherein, among other insults, the police are insisting their 17-year son is actually 18.

Many Anglo-Israelis identify with the family, understanding that the teen’s newness to the country complicated the story. This is every Anglo immigrant’s worst nightmare, with whatever traumas of dislocation being magnified exponentially by this ultimately preventable – yet increasingly familiar – mix of inexcusable police incompetence and vile, violent criminal behavior. Also, this scandal is being exposed because, with American-style standards for the criminal justice system, we – and the family – won’t accept the police striking a boy on the head (especially having been warned he had suffered a previous head injury), or incompetently sending him to prison with hardened criminals.

Still, the pain runs deeper than this one family’s anguish. The Western aliya is an idealistic, voluntary immigration of people who often risk standard of living to improve quality of life. Israeli society’s growing violence – and the growing indifference to the violence – threatens the quality of Israeli life which attracted these modern-day pioneers to the historic Jewish homeland.

Israel and the Jewish world have a huge aliya and Zionist bureaucracy. I called the father of the traumatized teenager and asked him: “Has anyone from Nefesh b’Nefesh contacted you?” He said “no.”

“Has anyone from the Jewish Agency contacted you?” He said “no.”

“Has anyone from AACI (Association of Americans and Canadians) contacted you?” He said “no.”

“Has anyone from the Ministry of Absorption contacted you?” He said “no.”

Billions of shekels are spent on encouraging people to come to Israel, and not one person responsible for aliya took responsibility for reaching out to these olim in distress – because they were already here. This is not my Zionism.

More broadly, as of this writing, no one from the President’s Office, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Knesset, or the municipality has contacted this anguished family, although in fairness, apparently the Minister for Welfare and Social Services contacted the teen’s lawyer, Amir Melzer, after reading about the story in The Jerusalem Post. Still, given how outrageous a systemic failure there was, given how many Israeli leaders have been informed about the case, the silence stings. A nation’s leaders are responsible for more than security and budgets. These kinds of incidents, which sear the nation’s conscience, demand effective, sensitive responses.

“This is a national issue because our internal security is at risk if we accept deviations from proper police procedure that harm our citizens,” says Mark Cohen, the vice chair of Hadar, the Israeli Council for Civic Action, a new grassroots organization. “You just start becoming numb to each individual horror story you hear about. And it’s dangerous.

“The failure in this case is part of a broader failure that, ultimately, is a security issue. We should expect the highest quality police force since on a local level it is the police our daily lives depend on for the feeling of safety and security. On a local and national level we must acknowledge when mistakes happen, as occurred in this case.”

When I hear about the 6-year-old killed by his pedophile neighbors, the mother raped by her son’s killer – who was also the son’s friend – along with this story, I fear Israel’s predicament is approaching that of New York in the 1970s. Back then, a growing crime wave threatened the city – and for too long, too many innocents suffered. Finally, in the 1990s, the end of the Baby Boom, more effective policing, tougher sentencing and a growing outcry reversed the trend. Until then, New York languished. People abandoned the city, its character frequently turned ugly, and many citizens withdrew from civic life, numbed by the daily cascade of crime stories.

In Israel, we cannot wait 20 years to solve the growing crime problem. We need to do something about it today. We need zero tolerance for violence in schools. We need to demand effective policing and community responses. And we need leaders to confront this growing crisis.

Effective policing – like effective national security – requires perfect pitch. There is little margin for error. If police come on too strong and brutalize innocents, civil society suffers. If police are too passive, allowing criminals to brutalize innocents, civil society also suffers. Tragically, as with the education system, one of the state’s most crucial arms is mired in bureaucracy, famously ineffectual, and relies on underpaid, poorly-trained staff. The result has been a crime epidemic, and increasing public resignation, rather than indignation.

I hate to use this word, but maybe, given Israeli leaders’ obsession with the Palestinian problem, we must warn of a criminal “intifada” – and call on this nationalist government to fight crime as aggressively as Ariel Sharon combated Palestinian terrorism. National security begins at home – with an effective police force, an efficient justice system, a lowered crime rate – along with citizens and leaders ready to respond if something goes wrong.

I recently solicited names for this past “decade of death and disengagement.” The contest winner proposed: “Israel’s Decade of Resilience” – amid terrorism and delegitimization. May this next decade be one of renewal, not just resilience, as in this case the kind of love and empathy the Anglo community has showered on this family once again becomes standard operating procedure in Israel, our one and only Jewish state.

Gil Troy 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, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

“Jewish Soul Renewal – Renew Our Days as of Old” Hosted by Gil Troy

Jewish Soul Renewal – Renew Our Days as of Old (Jewish Partnership Online), 12-30-09

http://www.jewishagency.org
Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This week’s edition focuses on the value of “Jewish Soul Renewal” through the activity of the Tzahar – Palm Beach Partnership, with a special focus on the Kaballah project in the Mystical City of Safed, combining spiritual growth with tourism development.

To be pro-Ahmadinejad is to be anti-peace

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-10

History is dynamic, not predetermined. There are crossroads in the life of nations, and 2010 could be such a moment for Iran. With the international community looking weakened and the rule of international law being mocked, this could be the year the Iranian nuclear project passes its point of no return, and this ugly repressive regime is strengthened. Alternatively, in 2010 the Green Movement of Iranian students and dissidents could save the world – and the Iranian people – from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s grip. People of conscience throughout the world cannot stand by. We can make a difference, we must make a difference.

That was the theme of an extraordinary press breakfast held at the King David Hotel in the final days of 2009, just short of US President Barack Obama’s deadline for the Iranian mullahocracy. Professor Irwin Cotler, the human rights champion, Canadian Parliamentarian and former justice minister and attorney general, presented his “Responsibility to Prevent” petition demanding the international community fulfill its legally mandated responsibility and punish Ahmadinejad’s Iran for inciting to genocide, sponsoring state terrorism, illegally pursuing atomic weapons, and oppressing its own people. Cotler denounced the “culture of impunity,” whereby Iran has defied international law. He said Iran presents “a clear and present danger to international peace and security, to Middle East stability, as well as to its own people” – and must be sanctioned.

An impressive array of human rights activists and jurists reinforced Professor Cotler’s detailed, tightly-reasoned legal plea. Professor Suzanne Last Stone of the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law noted this was “not a policy matter, but a legal obligation.” The countries of the world have signed treaties obligating them to act against these crimes with “specific remedies.” Calling in from Boston at 2 a.m., Professor Alan Dershowitz of the Harvard Law School emphasized that “The crime has already been committed,” saying “This it the time, this is the moment, this is the true test” for the international community. “History will judge us all,” Professor Dershowitz warned, if we are silent, and thus “complicit in this evil.”

Bassem Eid, the executive director of the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, offered another dimension, warning that Iran pumps hundreds of millions of dollars into Hamas, trying to fuel the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and undermining the PA. Keeping the Middle East “unstable” plays into the mullahs’ hands, Eid noted. He said he had not heard “any clear statement from the international community in terms of supporting the opposition and putting pressure on Ahmadinejad’s Iran.”

While Professor Cotler and his colleagues focused on international law and leaders, students and grassroots activists have a crucial role to play now. The silence of campus activists and the broader human rights community in the face of Iranian crimes has been deafening. The student heroes of Iran must know that students throughout the world are protesting for them, supporting them. Yes, appeasers will caution that too much support from the West will enable the Iranian regime to claim the dissidents are Western dupes. The Iranian autocrats are making that charge anyway, shouldn’t we at least show the Iranian heroes they are not alone, that the rape, torture, murder and beating they endure are not being ignored and will not be forgotten?

As students return from their holidays, the fight to support the Green Movement in Iran should be the top item on the student activist agenda. Rallies should spread from the universities to the capital cities, attracting more media coverage, stoking more popular outrage, demanding more international action, especially sanctions. Politicians will run for cover if they can – they will act when they cannot.

The pro-Iranian movement – and that’s what it is when it opposes Ahmadinejad’s Iran – should focus on effective pressure points. Germany should be a particular target, given the billions of dollars in business Germany conducts with Iran annually. The country responsible for the 20th century’s most horrific genocide should do what it can to derail the country so far most brazenly promising to enact a genocide in the 21st century – especially given that Jews were the target then, and now. Iranian diplomats throughout the world should be shouted down, shamed in public, targeted – in nonviolent, creative ways, of course – for representing this despicable regime. And every government in the world today must be held accountable for its inaction in fighting this evil. President Barack Obama in particular must hear from the young Americans who idolize him that his “Yes We Can” message must resonate more loudly, clearly, pointedly, and yes, aggressively in Teheran.

While the pro-Israel student community should forge broad alliances against Ahmadinejad, campus Zionists should focus their activities on Iran in the next few weeks, building up to the annual anti-Israel week during which the democratic state of Israel is falsely compared to South Africa’s abhorrent Apartheid regime. Maybe this is the year to ignore the anti-Israel activities that week by simply beefing up the push against Ahmadinejad.

Let us draw a clear line in the sand for the hypocrites of today who purport to love human rights. Invite them to join up against Ahmadinejad’s Iran. Either they do, and we have common cause in a pressing concern – or they don’t and we see where they stand on human rights, and, if we follow Bassem Eid’s analysis, on seeking real attempts to bring peace to the Middle East. Being pro-Ahmainejad is essentially being anti-peace.

And let us not be ashamed to stand as pro-Israel Jews against Ahmadinejad’s Iran. When asked at the breakfast if all the petition-signers were Jews – they are not and include distinguished Arab and Muslim leaders – Denis MacShane, the British parliamentarian calling in from the UK, bristled. MacShane said that increasingly, the so-called human rights community seeks to silence the Jewish voice on human rights issues. MacShane, who identified himself as a proud Catholic, encouraged Jews to stand as proud Jews on this defining human rights issue of our time.

A poignant plea came from Vancouver, from Nazanin Afshin-Jam, “Miss World Canada 2003,” and the President of Stop Child Executions. “I thank you for hearing the cries of the Iranian people who are suffering under this oppressive reigme…,” she said. “The Iranian people need your help. They need the support of the international community.” How dare we ignore her – and their – pleas.

Gil Troy 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, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Galilee ‘rape nightmare’ tests us all

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-09

The Jerusalem Post recently featured a sickening story about a 17-year-old from Karmiel arrested for public urination who was beaten by the police, then brutalized in prison, enduring repeated rapes and having his ear pierced with a copper wire to denote his enslavement to his tormentors. The youth’s family, who made aliya from Miami three years ago full of idealism, is devastated. “We came with a dream,” the victim’s stepfather said. “We were prepared to work in a tomato field if we had to. But now we are absolutely going to leave.” The heartbroken mother asked, “How could this happen in Israel?”

Yes, sadly, horrible things can happen in Israel. It is a normal state; a modern, increasingly anonymous society with police who can overstep the bounds, with overcrowded and undersupervised prisons, and hardened criminals who can be unspeakably brutal. Such a tragic chain of circumstances could have happened in Miami or Madrid, let alone Moscow or Mumbai.

But acknowledging the sad realities of modern life that occasionally conspire to ruin individual lives is not enough. This horrific incident poses a challenge to every Israeli citizen and every Israeli leader. So far, the Post reported, the only official comment came from the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department whose spokeswoman declared, ever so blandly: “We have received the complaint. An investigation has been launched.”

The rules of modern society require such passive, non-judgmental, bureaucratic-speak from the “responsible authorities.” Police officers also deserve due process, the presumption of innocence, and an opportunity to defend themselves properly without being convicted hysterically in the court of public opinion. Still, just as the punishment this youth suffered did not fit the crime, the official sentiment expressed does not suit the sin.

Every person who hears this story and cares about Israel should compensate for the bland bureaucratese of this representative of the state, and try to help this family heal. The onus is on us to improvise an uniquely Israeli response to try healing this family’s broken hearts, making them feel they are absolutely going to stay. And this has to be done while respecting the family’s anonymity, allowing their suffering son the space he needs to recover physically and psychologically.

For starters, we should hear some outrage, not simply artful dodges, from state representatives. From the president and the prime minister through the justice minister, police officials and local leaders, we should hear promises that if the story is true, true reforms will follow, trying to ensure no one ever endures such nightmares again. We must be reassured that while mobilizing the appropriate state resources to investigate this incident, all the appropriate state resources to help these people heal are being deployed too.  Meanwhile, citizens should rise as one, filling the airwaves, the blogosphere, the inboxes and mailboxes of Israeli officialdom, denouncing this outrage.

And while state employees clamor to help and Israeli citizens lobby for true bureaucratic repentance and reform, Zionists in Israel and the world over should shower this family with love and support, both sentimental and material. The story reports that the family is represented by an attorney Amir Melzer. He can be the conduit for the affirmation, assistance, and encouragement this youth and his family so desperately need, immediately, on a grand scale.

What happened to this kid is an affront to civilized society. It would be a lamentable tragedy anywhere, anytime. It is every parent’s nightmare, the stuff of terrifying late-night movies. It violates the fundamental social contract underlying democratic society – we give up some freedom, our autonomy, deputizing peacekeepers, police officers, to enforce authority, empowering them on the condition they act justly. Without that basic agreement, without that trust, we are not citizens but slaves.

Yet the grieving, bewildered mother is right. This incident is a particular blot on modern Israel, insulting the Zionist idealism that forged this state – and lured this family along with thousands of others to try building a better life here. The crime mocks the Jewish values that both secular and religious Zionists wanted to embed in the state and the society. It corrodes the community sensibilities, the caring, the engagement and the intimacy, that long distinguished Israel from many other countries. And it does violence to the Zionist dream of bettering individuals, the Jewish people and the world by establishing a Jewish state in the Jewish people’s homeland.

Anu banu artzah, livnot ulahibanot bah, “we have come to the Land of Israel to build and be rebuilt,” the early pioneers sang. Knowing the magic in the words makes the report all the more tragic. The boy was so broken by his experience that Attorney Melzer reported: “I trembled when I heard it … The judge almost cried when she saw his condition” – I tremble myself while typing these words.

President Shimon Peres was quick to offer condolences when the captain of the ship Exodus died this week – where is he, where is Prime Minister Netanyahu, to offer comforting words for this youth and his family? For a country justifiably obsessed with defending itself, doesn’t self-defense begin at home, isn’t this issue truly about the strength of the homefront, the quality of the community? Shouldn’t a country that has been agonizing for 1278 days and counting over Gilad Schalit, reserve a little agonizing for this son of ours, or is it too uncomfortable when the enemy is us and not others?

In “The Israel Test,” George Gilder draws a line in the sand between countries that innovate, dare, dream, create, and are free – and those that don’t. Israel is passing that Israel test with its high-tech revolution while functioning as a free country, economically and politically, unlike most countries which are unfree, oppressive, insular. This horrible trauma poses a more basic Israel test – is this country still a place embodying the Jewish value that all members of the community are intertwined, that all are brothers and sisters? The violent police officers, incompetent magistrates, sloppy prison guards and sadistic prisoners who all conspired to torture this kid have together thrown down a gauntlet, posing a challenge to us all. Are we – as Israelis, Zionists, Jews, democrats, humanists, up to the test? I desperately hope so.

Gil Troy 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, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

American Jewry’s Decade Of Decadence

By Gil Troy, The New York Jewish Week, 12-29-09

It is tragic yet emblematic that Bernie Madoff, the billion-dollar Ponzi schemer, is this last decade’s most influential American Jew. In fairness, if this great economic recession recedes, thanks to Time’s 2009 Person of the Year, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, historians will remember Bernanke more than Madoff. But it is premature to assess Bernanke’s success, while the damage Madoff caused was clear.

Madoff epitomizes American Jewry’s decade of decadence, a time of excess spending, perverted priorities, lapsed morals and staggering selfishness. True, Madoff was extreme — and unique. But Madoff succeeded so spectacularly, ruining so many lives, because too many of us internalized the greed-is-good ethos, believing that he who makes the most and spends the most must know the most and be the best — especially if, like Madoff, he tempered his materialism with a patina of piety and charity.

While too many Jewish communities historically had to struggle amid the curse of anti-Semitism, American Jewry is flummoxed by its blessings. American Jews, the writer Leon Wieseltier has warned, are “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” among the luckiest, wealthiest, freest, strongest, most literate Jews ever. Yet for the most part we are communally adrift, Jewishly ignorant, apathetic and self-absorbed. Too many of us have turned away from our ancestors’ generosity, self-restraint, modesty, godliness, and neighborliness. We are more defined today by Seth Rogen’s vulgarity, Rahm Emanuel’s ferocity, Calvin Klein’s libertinism, Jon Stewart’s cynicism, Barbara Walters’ celebrity worship and Alan Greenspan’s irrational exuberance, than by Rashi’s subtlety, Maimonides’ morality, the Baal Shem Tov’s spirituality, David Ben-Gurion’s asceticism, Abraham Joshua Heschel’s humanism and Betty Friedan’s visionary idealism.

In response, and lured by the siren song of modernity, American Jews are voting with their feet. Scott Shay notes in his book, “Getting Our Groove Back,” that businesses that lose as many customers as say, Conservative synagogues have over the last decade, close.

Our collective self-absorption was apparent during the first half of the decade, when we felt the menace of terrorism more intensely, and the second half, when the shop-till-you-drop mentality took over — until the market dropped so much many could not afford to shop. In September 2000, when Yasir Arafat (mis)led the Palestinians away from negotiations and back toward terror, many American Jews responded slowly. It was hard to get people to focus on the Israeli lives being destroyed and the world’s cruel betrayal, blaming Israel for Palestinian violence while chiding Israel for defending itself.

Only after the trauma of Sept. 11, 2001 brought terror to America did most American Jews start taking the threat of terrorism seriously. And even with so many dramatic reminders these last 10 years of America’s and Israel’s shared fates, we end the decade with many American Jews drifting away from Israel, internalizing the world critique that Israeli settlements — not Palestinian rejectionism — remain the greatest obstacle to Middle East peace. Bad enough that the new big lies tagging Zionism as racism and Israel as being like South Africa outlasted their Soviet and Nazi originators. Even worse is how many American Jews embrace those lies, and how many more are too ignorant, cowardly, or distracted to refute them.

Yet despite these communal failures, we are also experiencing a Golden Age of American Jewry. During this decade we have seen observant Jews working in the White House, competing for Nobel Prizes, improving lives through miraculous innovations. We have also seen pockets of American Jewish resurgence, from the proliferation of egalitarian, non-hierarchical, peer-led and vibrant minyanim with intense, soulful praying to the mainstreaming of Chabad as a powerful, effective source of Jewish renewal. Educationally, the Jewish day school movement has flourished, becoming a more popular alternative to public or prep school for non-Orthodox Jews by creating exciting Jewish environments breeding great students and good values. Organizationally, an entrepreneurial spirit has energized many Jewish institutions, with guerilla philanthropists, passionate volunteers and creative professionals often compensating for the shrinking rank and file. Ideologically, the commitment to tikkun olam, fixing the world, and to more openness has inspired many. We should be proud of American Jewry’s efforts in sensitizing all Americans to the Darfur tragedy.

The brightest spot in this often dark decade has emanated from the dazzling smiles of the more than 220,000 young Jews, aged 18 to 26, who have spent 10 days in Israel thanks to Birthright Israel. I don’t write these words because I am involved on a volunteer basis with Birthright, chairing its international education committee; I became involved — after initial skepticism — because I believe these words. Birthright offers the formula American Jewry needs for its revival — passion, purpose, peers, pep and pride — celebrating Israel and Judaism, engaging our past, embracing our present, building a future — and, hopefully, leading the way to a decade of enlightenment and engagement after 10 years of too much decadence, drift and despair.

Gil Troy 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,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.