Heritage Sites Should Not Be Political Hot Potatoes

Bibi’s ‘exercise in survival’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-28-10

The storm in Israel and around the world kicked up by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Heritage Program is doubly unfortunate. It distorts Israeli politics, perceiving everything through the Israeli-Palestinian lens. It also clouds an important shift; finally, our leaders are addressing this country’s values crisis and the need to build a strong Zionist identity among young Jews both here and abroad.

Last Sunday, Netanyahu took his Cabinet to Tel Hai, the Upper Galilee settlement where the early Zionist hero Joseph Trumpeldor died defending what became Israel’s north. Mortally wounded in 1920, Trumpeldor supposedly said, “Never mind, it is good to die for our country.” Ninety years later, Netanyahu returned to Tel Hai to teach young Jews that it is even better to live for one’s country.

Netanyahu allocated nearly NIS 400 million to rehabilitate 150 historical sites, both ancient and modern, which tell the story of Israel and modern Zionism. The next day, Netanyahu explained to the Jewish Agency’s Board of Governors: “We’re just presenting the facts… the actual facts of the growth of Zionism, the return of the Jews….”

Building on the success of Birthright Israel and the MASA programs, Netanyahu wants young Jews, from Israel and abroad, to “actually walk this land – walk it, sense it, feel it, study about it, learn it directly – [as] we say in the army, ‘through the boots’ – through the boots but also through your eyes, through your brain and through your heart, to learn about our heritage and to make that heritage part of the foundation of our future.”

Logically, in offering a triptych of Jewish history, Netanyahu included Rachel’s Tomb, near Bethlehem, and Me’arat HaMachpelah, the Tomb of the Patriarchs, in Hebron. Alas, anger over improving those two West Bank sites upstaged the necessary discussion regarding the remaining 148. Israeli leftists, Palestinians and the Obama administration denounced Netanyahu for including those sites. The attacks perpetuated the late terrorist Yasser Arafat’s classic conceit, trying to make everything about Israel about him and the Palestinians. And once again, the alleged pro-peace camp missed an opportunity to push talks about the territories to a more realistic plane.

The Israeli left made a mistake of historic proportions – paralleling its failure to ensure that every settler displaced from Gaza in 2005 was welcomed back to Israel within the Green Line smoothly, efficiently and warmly. The traditional burial places of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel are as essential to Jewish history as George Washington’s Mount Vernon and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello are to American history. Negating that fact negates Jewish history and offends Jewish sensibilities.

No one should seek territorial compromise by diminishing the value of these and other sites to Jews. The compelling pro-compromise argument should be: “Yes, Hebron is one of our holiest cities. Yes, the Tomb of the Patriarchs and Rachel’s Tomb are precious to us. But yes, nevertheless we are willing to give those up for peace.” Pretending they have no value distorts history and cheapens the compromise the left claims to champion.

Moreover, in making the Heritage Program another Israeli-Palestinian flashpoint, the Israeli left once again self-destructively risks making patriotism, Zionism and Jewish identity right-wing issues rather than common concerns of the Jewish people. During their successful presidential campaigns, Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 refused to concede family, flag and faith to Republicans. In a powerful Independence Day speech at Harry Truman’s hometown of Independence, Missouri, Obama described his “deep and abiding love” for America, insisting “there’s nothing smart or sophisticated about a cynical disregard for America’s traditions and institutions.”

Israeli governments, right and left, should have launched a Heritage Program long ago. In Israel, and abroad, too, many young Jews are seduced by the siren song of modernity, by the lure of “I” over “us”, “now” over “then”, the fleeting over the eternal. Modern life makes many humans feel like random atoms floating around rather than complex molecules bonding together – more grounded, effective and powerful. With social ties diminished, social capital plummets. The result is an identity crisis, a values crisis, addiction to the Internet, growing violence and sexual abuse, family breakdown and epidemics of immorality, cynicism, materialism and selfishness.

It is no coincidence that the moral crisis for Jews in the modern world, our mass meaning crisis today, follows the mass abandonment of Jewish tradition, values, rituals and structures. We have created a “whatever” culture, a “why bother” society, generations of Jewish pagans addicted to the me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now shopping and leisure imperatives. And despite our many blessings of freedom, comfort, safety, prosperity and serenity, medical breakthroughs and enlightenment, we must acknowledge the mass social wreckage modernity has wrought, the many broken souls, the many derailed lives, all our goodies, all our indulgences somehow produce.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is right to root young Jews in our history, our community, our dreams. Similarly, Minister for Diaspora Affairs and Public Diplomacy Yuli Edelstein should be applauded for offering to train Israelis traveling abroad how to fight the growing push to delegitimize Israel. A sense of responsibility fosters a sense of community. And Netanyahu’s appointee to the Jewish Agency for Israel, Natan Sharansky, should be praised for trying to revitalize that organization around an identity agenda.

In his Soviet prison, Sharansky discovered that Jews and Pentacostalists who belonged to a community and a larger narrative found it easier to stay true to themselves and defy the KGB. We must define what Jewish identity means in the 21st century while cultivating mass pride of membership in our historic enterprise, the Jewish people.

Netanyahu called his Heritage Program “not merely an exercise in education,” but “an exercise in survival.” We can find salvation in more Jewish education because Jewish education is not just about learning the facts but mastering life. Jewish education is not just about thinking, but also about doing. Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but also fixing it – Tikun Olam. Jewish education is not just about skill-building but identity-building.

In short, Jewish education is values education – and that is the added value Jews need, both young and old. Treat these Heritage sites as invaluable Jewish educational tools not political hot potatoes.

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.

Are we ready for Anti-Israel Week?

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 2-11-10

Like clockwork – or a recurring infection – Anti-Israel Week is returning to a campus near you.

One Israel-bashing website declares: “Mark your calendars – the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will take place across the globe from from the 1st to the 14th of March 2010!” Note the duplicated “from” reflecting the organizers’ sloppiness. Note the organizers’ lack of awareness that a “week” is usually seven days, not 14. Their knowledge of history and their moral sensibilities are equally wanting, although that doesn’t stop them from becoming popular on many campuses.

In fact, of the 40 “cities” they claim as participants, 12 are Canadian, and many of those are actually just Canadian campuses. Still, the website indicates that Israel’s enemies are planning an elaborate assault on Israel’s legitimacy, just weeks from now. Are we in the Jewish community ready? Is our university leadership ready?

Pro-Israel activists need an action plan, and so do university leaders. Recently, when a series of academic administrators testified before the Canadian Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism, most were so busy reassuring concerned legislators that all is well that they failed to acknowledge the trouble and dilemmas they face.

Of course, Canadian campuses aren’t hotbeds of anti-Semitism, but that doesn’t mean the scourge of anti-Jewish animus isn’t motivating and shaping many political attacks on Israel.

Administrators need to prepare carefully for Anti-Israel Week (repeating the actual name echoes the lie). They should keep five guidelines in mind:

First, academic freedom protects all students, enabling them to express a range of opinions on campus.

Second, civility is also a value on campus and must be nurtured. Professors and administrators should take advantage of teachable moments to foster a culture of civility and mutuality.

Third, no student should ever feel menaced or threatened. Hooliganish behaviour, even if politically motivated, should be punished harshly – and swiftly.

Fourth, Jews don’t need special treatment but deserve equal treatment. If there’s a no-criticism zone on campus around gays, women, blacks and Third Worlders, it should extend to Jews, too. If there’s a special attempt to be sensitive to particular groups that have been oppressed historically, Jews merit that sensitivity, too. Moreover, many of the groups trying to ostracize or delegitimize Israel are perpetuating traditional anti-Jewish tropes, accusing Jews and Israel of being at the centre of the world’s troubles, of being all-powerful, or of being devious and manipulative. These libels don’t pass historical smell tests.

Finally, leadership is about turning potentially destructive moments into constructive moments. Campus leaders – administrators, professors, and, yes, students – need to be proactive pre-emptive and creative in seeing the great opportunity here to turn a week or two of tension into a time of engagement and bridge-building, or at least a truce.

The pro-Israel community should also have some guidelines, including:

First, firefighters need to extinguish fires not stoke them. Sometimes anti-Israel activities are best ignored.

Second, your goal is not to convince anti-Israel activists of anything. Your target audience is other Jews and the vast majority of non-combatants.

Third, don’t let haters set the agenda. Far better to celebrate Israel than to get defensive.

Fourth, speak the language of campus on campus. Note that Arab autocracies are anti-democratic; apartheid doesn’t apply to a national conflict between two peoples, both of whom have blacks and whites as members; blacklists and boycotts are illiberal and close-minded; many of the attacks on Israel are wildly inaccurate; Palestinians help legitimate terror as a tactic, and that life is more complex than the simplistic sloganeering of Anti-Israel Week.

Finally, do your homework and, like good Scouts, be prepared. Read Alan Dershowitz’s devastating critique of the Goldstone report. Use a timeline and maps. Understand the background of the Gaza disengagement and the Oslo accords, which both resulted in massive violence against Israel after concessions, and, most important of all, understand why Jews are a nation, not just a religion, why we need a homeland, and why we have a valid historical, ideological, legal, political and living claim to Israel.

The toxic context of ‘the Israel debate’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-10-10

We have become so used to it we take it for granted, but one of the great scandals of modern politics is the way Palestinian negationism and terrorism have been facilitated by the UN and championed by the left, cloaking lethal desires to wipe out Israel in the language of human rights.

Moreover, as Professor Shalom Lappin of Kings College, London testified to Britain’s All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry Against Anti-Semitism, which issued its report September 2006:

The Israel-Palestinian encounter has been largely denaturalised and removed from its political and regional context. It is no longer seen as a political and military struggle between two nations with a long and complex history…. Instead, it has been endowed with the peculiar status of an iconic clash between good and evil. Israel has increasingly come to be construed as the purest embodiment of imperialism, racism and oppression whose sole national purpose is to dispossess the Palestinians.”

This inaccurate, Manichean misreading of the conflict encourages perverse behavior. Again and again, institutions violate their own core ideals. Again and again, the blinding bias against Israel obscures facts, precedents, common sense itself.

In this toxic context, the distinguished scholar and Israel’s Ambassador to the US, Michael Oren, was shouted down repeatedly while speaking at University of California, Irvine. The Muslim Student Union “strongly condemn[ed] the university for co-sponsoring, and therefore inadvertently supporting, the ambassador of a state that is condemned by more UN Human Rights Council resolutions than all other countries in the world combined.”

Note how the libels get recycled. The UN’s bias against Israel legitimizes the Muslim Student Union protest – which escalated into shouting and hooliganism, resulting in eleven arrests.

Fortunately, at least one academic with a conscience defended Oren. “This is beyond embarrassing…,” Professor Mark P. Petracca proclaimed. “This is no way for our undergraduate students to behave. We have an opportunity to hear from a policy maker relevant to one of the most important issues facing this planet and you are preventing not only yourself from hearing him but hundreds of other people in this room and hundreds of other people in an overflow room. Shame on you! This is not an example of free speech.”

Meanwhile, across the continent, a 20-year-old’s personal decision to join the Israeli army triggered a brouhaha in New York because his father is the New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief. Ethan Bronner, despite a distinguished decades-long record of reporting which includes some hard-hitting reports criticizing Israel, was accused of “pro-Israel bias” because his son enlisted in the IDF. Even the Times’s public editor Clark Hoyt suggested reassigning Bronner – although Bill Keller, the executive editor, refused.

Bronner’s response, “I wish to be judged by my work, not by my biography,” is perfect. But the operative assumption fueling the controversy is disturbing. The arguments against Bronner assumed the son’s actions reflected the father’s wishes and would bias the father in favor of Israel. Twenty-year-olds frequently defy their parents. And many Israelis criticize Israeli policy even more intensely because their children serve in the army. Especially given even very Zionist American Jews’ ambivalence about their sons enlisting, why assume young Bronner’s decision will make his father more sympathetic to Israel?

Yes, reporters have personal lives. Who knows how many Times reporters have army-age children serving in Iraq and Afghanistan? Journalists are not nuns, although they belong to a guild with its own assumptions, norms and narratives. Usually, reporters are judged but what they write, not who they are – until we get to Israel.

These two incidents put another raging controversy in context. The organization Im Tirtsu was called “McCarthyite” for issuing a report detailing “a staggering example of a self-propelled process: the very organizations that pressed for the establishment of the [Goldstone] commission provided the testimonies used by the Goldstone commission to justify its claims against the IDF and Israel, and most of these organizations are supported by the NIF [New Israel Fund].” The report also revealed that the Coalition of Women for Peace – also an NIF grantee – initiated the writing of a letter on December 22, 2009, to top British officials demanding they try top Israeli officials.

Israel is a vibrant democracy. I am proud that organizations like the New Israel Fund exist to support a full range of Israeli human rights organizations. However, I am frequently dismayed by these organizations’ one-sidedness. The report notes that few of these organizations bothered supporting Sderot or reaching out to Israeli victims of Palestinian terror – don’t Israelis have human rights too? Moreover, many of these organizations do not acknowledge the toxic context in which the discussion about Israel takes place, and take no responsibility for their role in further poisoning the atmosphere. The New Israel Fund would boost its credibility by refusing to fund organizations that single out Israeli leaders for war crimes allegations. It would increase the credibility of the organizations it funds if it demonstrated some sense of proportion, some sensitivity to the disproportionate, hysterical demonization of Israel emanating from the Arab world and, I regret to say, rationalized by the left.

Typically, while attacking Im Tirtsu for daring to look at who the NIF funds, Ha’aretz and other critics looked at who funds Im Tirtsu. And while objecting to criticism of the NIF’s chairwoman Professor Naomi Chazan, as well as making her a martyr to free speech, her supporters overlooked The Jerusalem Post’s justification for dropping her column; because she threatened legal action against the paper. None of us, reporters, academics, or politicians, can afford to turn our ideological battles into legal wars. Only the lawyers win.

Of course Israel should not be immune to criticism, and Israel’s democratic values must be maintained. Citizens should argue about the Im Tirtsu report, while the Knesset and Cabinet should keep away, demonstrating respect for free speech. But citizens have rights as well as responsibilities. Voices from the left should leverage their credibility – and ultimately enhance it –  by condemning the cycle of demonization rooted in Arab anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, then rationalized and perfumed by the UN and the left, resulting in hooliganism on campus, vendettas against reasonable reporters and a one-sided, hysterical discourse that makes the dream of peace appear ever more distant.

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.

Let’s mobilize against anti-Israel week

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-7-10

We historians don’t predict the future – the past is foggy enough. But allow me one prediction. Within weeks, the Jewish world is going to be in high dudgeon, outraged at the Anti-Israel Week activities on campuses across North America. And, judging by the past, and the current situation as far as I know, we will shift into temporary crisis

mode, reacting and overreacting, flailing about with little discipline, little coordination, little strategy, little tactical gain, but much frustration.

Our enemies – and yes, they are our enemies – have been planning this Israel hate-fest for a year, if not longer. One Israel-bashing Web site declares: “Mark your calendars – the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will take place across the globe from the 1st to the 14th of March 2010!” True, a “week” usually lasts only seven days; our adversaries count days as sloppily as they recount the past. These Israel-libelers claim 40 cities will participate – 12 in Canada alone – mostly on campuses. Rather than dithering then scrambling, we must plan – in fact, planning should have started months ago.

David Olesker, the director of JCCAT, the Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training, warns that before planning tactical responses, we must clarify our strategy. “Where do we want to be in five years, where are we going with our arguments and advocacy?” he asks, noting how rarely pro-Israel advocates think about the big picture, although our adversaries do.

Thinking strategically, the pro-Israel community should remember “Three P’s.” First, Push back, but push back intelligently, remembering our target audiences. We will rarely sway with mere facts someone who has swallowed the apartheid libel and drunk the anti-Israel Kool-Aid. Our target is wavering Jewish students and the vast uninformed and uninterested middle. We should play off the radical demonizers, making them look extreme and foolish as we demonstrate our informed commitment, our enlightened passion, the rightness and righteousness of our cause.

Second, Position Israel better as a modern democracy fighting terror, sometimes forced to make unhappy decisions like other countries. The truth is our friend. Israel has compromised – and seen withdrawals from territory and other concessions “rewarded” with violence. Until critics deal with that, they are simply Israel-bashing with no real commitment to peace. And speaking of peace, let’s call the libelers’ bluff. Those who falsely accuse Israel of practicing racist, South African-style apartheid, are essentially saying Israel is so odious that, like that regime, it should not exist. How can such a libelous, historically misinformed attack advance the peace process?

Third, be Proud of Israel as an extraordinary old-new land, one of the great successes of the twentieth century, now leading the way technologically in the twenty-first century. Just as the US is not only defined by its racial troubles, and Canada not only defined by its linguistic tensions, Israel is not just about the Palestinians. It was the central conceit of Yasser Arafat and his terrorist henchmen to make every conversation about Israel revolve around them – and it worked. In taking back the narrative, we should jump to a different track, not always talking about Israel in the context of defending Israel or justifying its existence but celebrating Israel, delighting in Israel’s achievements, pluralism, values, democracy and historically redemptive role.

Tactically, as we wait for the latest initiatives rumored to be in the works in North America and Israel to help galvanize and centralize pro-Israel sentiment, we should mobilize the Jewish Netroots. Let us put out a call to the pro-Israel blogosphere for an approach defined by the “Three H’s.”

For starters, we must be Horizontal, understanding that today’s informational, ideological and political playing field is vast, chaotic and democratic. Students, bloggers and activists should speak their minds, display their passions, forge their own relationships with Israel and express their pride as effectively, as creatively, as widely, as they can.

This more horizontal approach must be Hip, singing, rapping or tweeting a new song of Zion, one that is relevant, resonant, inspirational, conversational, internalized among millions of pro-Israel and pro-democracy activists, rather than dictated from above or simply inherited from our ancestors.

And finally, we should not be afraid to be Hysterical¸ to laugh among ourselves while mocking the heavy-handed propagandists who build their entire ideology on negation – investing time, money, energy in denigrating Israel rather than building anything constructive for Palestinians, or anyone else, for that matter. Israeli culture is improvisational – demonstrated particularly by the ingenuity of the IDF and the creativity of high tech entrepreneurs. Those same skills should be deployed in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy, but with humor, not a heavy hand. We should mock our enemies – because their positions are laughable and because ridicule is such an effective tool on the net.

We must go global and virtual in Israel advocacy, not because of anti-Israel week but because we have a great story to tell. And in the virtual world millions can take the lead in celebrating Israel. For too long, Israelis have sat on the sidelines, watching their brothers and sisters flounder in the Diaspora, or, even worse, allowing a small minority of Israelis to fuel the fires of anti-Zionism abroad, giving Israel and particularly Israeli universities a bad name. But today, Israelis and non-Israelis can work together – or at least in parallel – broadcasting a pro-Zionist message while ridiculing and undermining our enemies.

In a country that must engage its youth in more nationalistic, values-oriented projects, and at a time when parents lament how much time their kids spend on the computer, here is a great challenge for the country’s high schools and universities. The anti-Israel forces wish to wipe Israel off the map and demonize Zionists as the “New Nazis.” If we fail to fight back, they will continue poisoning the discourse around Israel, especially on campuses and in Europe. Let young Israelis learn enough history to defend themselves and their country effectively on the Internet. Let this be a great virtual contact point, building relations between Israeli and Diaspora youth.

Wouldn’t it be great if next year, the anti-Israel forces canceled their annual festival of nihilism because the push-back they triggered simply wasn’t worth it? Now that’s a strategic goal worth pursuing.

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.

The Power of Language (Jewish Partnership Online) Hosted by Gil Troy

The Power of Language (Jewish Partnership Online), 2-3-10


Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This week’s episode showcases how the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership uses different forms of “language” to build a network of bridges between the two communities.