My soviet seder from hell

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-25-10

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1985, I had the seder from hell in the world’s largest prison – the Soviet Union. My friend Danny and I landed just before Passover in Novosibersk, emboldened after meeting in Moscow with the legendary Yuli Kusharovsky, a man the KGB secret police targeted for teaching Hebrew. Seeing his and his fellow “refuseniks'” courage, watching them carve out meaningful Jewish lives amid great oppression, made us confident we would complete our mission to make seder with Jewish professors fired because they applied to emigrate to Israel. Alas, we were wrong.

In those bad old days, a new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had just emerged. We assumed he was no better than his dictatorial predecessors. Anatoly Sharansky’s name was on everyone’s lips, but we were sure it would be years, if ever, before he would be freed. Kushavorvsky and others seemed particularly worried about their heroic young friend Yuli Edelstein, recently jailed on false charges and ailing in prison. Many feared he would not survive.

From Novosibersk, in the heart of Siberia, we traveled 20 kilometers to Akademgorodok, the academic suburb. We approached an apartment building, laden with matzot and other gifts, ready to swoop down as heroic angels from America and the Jewish people on the professors who awaited us. In Moscow, we had knocked on doors, said “Shalom Aleichem,” then been embraced by strangers who instantly became brothers. But here a menacing man sporting a huge Russian fur hat blocked us. We said we had come to visit a friend. He said, “This building is not for ‘foriginers,'” comically mispronouncing the word with a hard g. We insisted, but he was adamant – and intimidating.

Devastated, we returned to our hotel just before the holiday – with no seder, no seder plate, only the first-time understanding in our American-charmed lives of what it meant to feel unfree. Scrambling, we improvised a seder plate. Finding an egg in the hotel’s breakfast room, we charred it using the cigarette lighters we carried to burn the messages we wrote each other when we wished not to be overheard. The “shank bone” was kosher salami brought from New York, ripped to look rectangular, not circular. Karpas, the green vegetable, was fittingly, dried fruit, because there was no spring in still-snow-covered Novosibersk – nor any sense of renewal. We made charoset from the dried fruit and some nuts – an awful concoction tasting more like mortar than my grandmother’s sweet mush. But we hit a wall with marror, the bitter herbs. Finally, we realized we were so bitter about how the Communists treated our fellow Jews and human beings we needed no more marror at the table.

During this, the smallest, most pathetic, depressing, homesick seder of my life, never before had the words and rituals so resonated. When we said shebechol dor va’dor, that in every generation enemies rise up to try knocking us down, we instinctively raised our voices and looked up, not at the Lord above, but at the KGB microphone we assumed was hidden in the ceiling vent; during the trip we were followed frequently and would be detained once.

The feast of freedom, the human yearning for freedom, took on tremendous meaning for me in the pathetic hotel room at what felt like the end of the earth. Still, I lacked faith. I did not believe the redemption the Haggadah promised would come. The names of Sharansky and other heroes had been etched in the bracelet on my wrist – and in my heart – for so long, I assumed they would stay there forever, just as every academic expert I knew assumed the Soviet Union would last. I never believed that within a few years Sharansky, Edelstein and other Prisoners of Conscience would be freed, the Soviet Union would crumble, a million former Soviet Jews would live in Israel, our national homeland, or that today, I, a kid from Queens, would serve so casually on Jewish community committees with these giants.

From this celebration of freedom in the land of the unfree, I learned that Jewish tradition is renewable. In every generation we experience the ancient rituals differently, even as we connect to each other and our proud past. In 1985, I considered the Soviets the modern Egyptians. Today, I read the four sons as mapping out modern Zionist challenges, with the Wise Ones – from Left, Right and Center asking “what are our principles,” “who are we,” “who will we be”; the Wicked Ones disdainfully disassociating themselves from our collective Zionist project, saying “yucch”; the Simple Ones mystified by the craziness swirling around Israel and Zionism today, simply saying “duh,” and, the vast majority at least, not being able – or not even bothering – to ask.

From this little taste of oppression – which lasted only three weeks and was blunted by the power of the precious American passport tucked safely in my money belt – I learned that history is correctable. I never thought the Soviet Union would fall even as I witnessed the beginning of its end. Similarly, a few years ago, many of us thought Palestinian terror would never end – and were so dumbfounded when it petered out we never even mounted the victory celebration Israel deserved for smashing Yasser Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure.

And from my Siberian Seder I learned that peoplehood is redemptive. We have great power in our solidarity as a people, as a nation. My membership in the collective enterprise called the Jewish people sensitized me to Soviet oppression when many of my professors were still enthralled by Communism and appalled by America. Moreover, by belonging to the Jewish people I had a small role in the great historical movement which resulted in Communism’s collapse.

For too many of us, the seder is a rote ritual, done on automatic pilot to discharge some family and ancestral obligation. May this seder instead be like my Soviet seder in hell was – ironically, a seder of renewal and relevance, part of a great historical correction, a seder of redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow 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.

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Jewish Identity (Jewish Partnership Online) Hosted by Gil Troy

Jewish Identity (Jewish Partnership Online), 3-23-10

http://www.jewishagency.org/jpol

Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This week’s episode showcases “living bridge” Jewish Identity activity linking Beer Sheva-Bnei Shimon with Montreal.

Obama’s nation – or abomination?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-23-10

A mentor of mine teaches that you always end up making three speeches – the one you plan to deliver, the one you actually deliver and the one you wish you’d delivered. Similarly, there are three presidencies – the one the candidate promises, the one that actually occurs and the one the president, partisans and historians argue about forever after. It will surprise many caught in the Israel bubble, that while Israelis have been obsessing about the Biden brouhaha, President Barack Obama was focused on pushing his health care legislation through Congress. With this historic health care bill, Obama fulfilled yet moved beyond the presidency he promised, defined his administration as liberal and secured his place in history.

Victory was costly. Obama broke the defining vow that launched him into the White House. He failed to become the post-partisan, red-and-blue together healer he hoped to be – and which Americans elected him to be. But he fulfilled his campaign promise to be a “transformational” leader. In 2008, he offended his rival Hillary Clinton by saying bluntly that “Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, that Bill Clinton did not,” and that Reagan “put us on a fundamentally different path because the country was ready for it.”

Barack Obama has bet his political future on the assumption that America is ready for the change he just shoved through Congress. With his administration staffed by former Clintonites, Obama was determined not to replicate the Clinton health care debacle. Rather than dictating from the White House down Pennsylvania Avenue to Capitol Hill, Obama let Congressional Democrats write the law. The downside is that Obama’s health care reform attracted no Republican votes in the House of Representatives.

This failure marks a dramatic fall from the bipartisan high of Election Night 2008 and deviates from the American standard for passing historic legislation. Franklin Roosevelt passed Social Security and Lyndon Johnson passed Medicare with bipartisan support. The upside is that Obama has a big win, despite having been counted out weeks ago, when the Republican unknown Scott Brown won the Massachusetts Senate seat Democrats assumed was theirs because the late Senator Ted Kennedy occupied it for so long.

Power is like a muscle – the more it is exercised, the more it grows. Obama’s victory will make him stronger, and will make America more Obama’s nation. Republicans fear that Obama’s nation is an abomination. Obama does not have enough time to prove them wrong regarding health care. Even he admits that this health care investment will take years to pay off. But Obama can win the health care debate, at least in the short term, if he applies the same determination he just demonstrated to his administration’s defining challenge – producing jobs for millions of unemployed Americans.

This week Americans learned what Israelis learned last week: Obama spent his years in Chicago wisely, mastering the political wards’ kill-or-be-killed ethos. No one could have risen so far, so fast, without a spine of steel beneath his Harvardian eloquence. And just as he blithely muscled past Republicans and bipartisan sensibilities on his way to Congressional victory, Obama brutally ambushed Bibi Netanyahu. Israel should not have walked right into Obama’s Chicagoland sucker punch, although Obama, shrewdly, had his associates administer the beating.

Unfortunately, the Middle East masses are less malleable and more violent than 535 American legislators. The Obama treatment proved incendiary, stirring Palestinian violence while calcifying Palestinian rejectionism. Obama must learn what another young president, John Kennedy, learned a few weeks into his presidency with the Bay of Pigs. Presidential action and inaction, presidential words and gestures, can kill. Especially in an area as volatile as the Middle East, given the history of Palestinian recalcitrance, and with the world piling on against Israel, exploiting a mistake to “condemn” Israel was counterproductive.

Many commentators are correct in wishing Obama would learn to be as tough on Iran and other American enemies as he is on America’s friends. Not only will George Mitchell now have to work even harder to lower the rhetorical temperature over Jerusalem, from all sides, but Obama risks looking like a substitute teacher punishing the timid A-student who whispered in class while failing to control the true troublemakers vandalizing the classroom.

The stress test Obama imposed on Israel highlighted many faults in Israel’s political culture, too. The foolish claim that Obama is an anti-Semite because he criticized Israel demeaned all Zionists – and undermined those of who fight against the real threat of anti-Semitism. Just as our enemies must be taught not to jump from every disagreement about Israeli policy to negating Israel itself, some Israelis must learn that not every disagreement is a call to destroy Israel, or anti-Semitic. No one should call anyone a bigot so casually, let alone the leader of Israel’s staunchest ally. It is untrue – and counterproductive. Just as we should condemn the hooligans who threatened to disrupt Rahm Emanuel’s son’s bar mitzvah when rumors suggested the Emanuel family was considering an Israeli venue, we should repudiate the verbal bullies who prefer to cast aspersions rather than debate policies.

Obama’s aggressiveness also imposed a stress test on American Jewry – and the jury is out regarding the results there. Obama’s team is calculating that if Jews could not bring themselves to vote for George W. Bush even when he stood up for Israel, few Jews will abandon Obama for pushing Israel around. American Jews remain more committed to liberalism than Zionism. No presidential election has ever been determined by a president’s Middle East record.

Yet foreign policy failures have doomed presidencies. As Obama rests on his laurels, as he pushes for more jobs, he should remember that his great threat comes not from Bibi Netanyahu but from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. To be another American president who watched Jewish neighborhoods be built in areas of Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s historic capital, that were previously uninhabited is no great shame. To be the first American president who watched Iran go nuclear – could be disastrous.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow  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.

JP Online: Strengthening Jewish Identity

Jewish Partnership Online, hosted by Gil Troy

March 18, 2010 / 3 Nissan 5770

Before he became the public face of Jewish Partnership Online (JP Online), Gil Troy was admittedly something of a skeptic.

But a family visit to Israel soon changed that. Since the Troys lived in Montreal, his children asked to visit Maayanot, a school in Beer Sheva that was twinned through Partnership 2000 (P2K) with their Canadian Jewish Day School.

“The reception the kids received was just lovely,” said Troy, a Professor of History at McGill University and The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Very soon after he saw even more evidence that P2K – a platform connecting some 550 communities around the world in 45 partnerships – does, indeed, build living bridges.

This was in 2004, when Beer Sheva endured a double bus bombing.  Very soon after, a delegation from Montreal arrived to show support. The mutuality, the genuine partnership between the people of both cities, pushed Troy over the edge and straight into the realm of unabashed P2K advocate.

“When we sit back and talk about where the Jewish Agency should be going and where the Jewish people should be going, it is this kind of mutuality and this kind of vision that we need to be working on,” said Troy. “I think with P2K, they really got it!”

Established in 1994 by the Jewish Agency, United Jewish Communities, and Keren Hayesod-United Israel Appeal, P2K has evolved over the past 15 from being a program that focuses on the needs of Israel to a program that focuses on the needs of the Jewish people, according to Andrea S. Arbel, director of the division of partnerships for the Jewish Agency.

“Today P2K strengthens Jewish identity and values on both sides of the ocean,” said Arbel.
And JP Online – four-minute videos posted on YouTube and the Jewish Agency website – is the perfect vehicle to showcase these values and the communities embodying them.

Troy, who is now based in Israel as a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem, serves as the host for JP Online. Each segment begins with a Jewish value, such as “Jewish Peoplehood,” or “Loving the Land of Israel.” Then specific communities are featured.

“The thing about JP Online is we always emphasis the personal,” said Troy, such as the way Los Angeles and Tel Aviv work together through the arts and education.

Now in its third year, JP Online seeks to reflect back the work and goodwill done by the 300,000 people who are involved every year with P2K. And, as with everything in the age of YouTube, the possibility for exposure is limitless.

“My dream is that the excitement that this conversation generates will go beyond the P2K community so that people who are not already in on conversation will join us at the table,” said Troy.

Center Field: And the prize goes to…

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-14-10

Eli Yishai seized the ‘Amir Peretz’ prize for his blunder during the Biden visit, for which he should be fired.

Who will pay for the Biden blunder? So far, it seems that only Israel and the Jewish people will. This was a classic lose-lose from left to right. Those who desire territorial compromise lamented the derailing of Vice President Joe Biden’s goodwill tour, thanks to the announcement of 1,600 new housing units being built in east Jerusalem. Those who hope to continue building settlements under the radar screen, as well as those who distinguish east Jerusalem from the rest of the West Bank, are now going to see more American scrutiny and more diplomatic clumping of Jerusalem with the other territories which Israel won in 1967. This rank incompetence put the issue of a united Jerusalem in the American government’s crosshairs, not just in the occasional media spotlight.

In a sane political system, heads would roll. If he had any class, Interior Minister Eli Yishai would resign even before the prime minister fired him. Last week, Yishai seized the “Amir Peretz” prize from Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman for the cabinet member least qualified for his essential post but only there because of the country’s dysfunctional political system.

Alas, instead of paying for his mistake, Yishai is keeping his job while his Shas allies remain as unrepentant as ever. “The prime minister remembers who gave [Binyamin] Netanyahu his job,” one source “close to Yishai” told The Jerusalem Post, still demanding payback for Shas’s refusal to join Tzipi Livni’s proposed Kadima government in October 2008. Such arrogance reducesthe prime minister to a head waiter, simply serving his political allies the goodies they demand at the snap of their fingers.

An executive unable to fire is neutered, like a conductor barred from waving a baton, or a rabbi banned from teaching. Some South American countries under US sway were once banana republics; Netanyahu’s government – like too many Israeli governments – risks becoming a doughnut democracy with no power in the center and too many greasy pols circling around. Netanyahu should fire Yishai – even if it means having his government fall.

WHILE IT is always hard to predict the future, let alone the Israeli political scene, if Netanyahu faced down Yishai on this issue, he and the Likud probably would emerge stronger, even if new elections resulted. The public would applaud Netanyahu for showing some spine, especially if he framed the issue as an attempt to end government by blackmail.

And if, while leading boldly, Netanyahu proclaimed that his government would not fracture the Jewish people by stirring up the who-is-a-Jew hornet’s nest, he would improve his standing in the Jewish world and Jewish history too. The fact that some politicians and the Chief Rabbinate have even suggested blocking those converted abroad from being recognized under the Law of Return is outrageous. They forget Naomi’s welcome of Ruth in the Bible. More practically, politicians cannot complain about lacking allies in the world and then target or embarrass Israel’s most loyal friends, meaning the American government and Diaspora Jewry.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s continuing overreaction to the Biden blow-up will box Netanyahu into a corner and prevent him from doing what he needs to do. Apparently Biden’s delaying of a private dinner with Netanyahu, lecturing him about the slight, getting repeated apologies for the unintended offense fromthe prime minister and reprimanding Israel again during his Tel Aviv University speech did not satisfy President Barack Obama. The president also had to have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denounce Israel’s misstep as “insulting” and have his government “condemn” its actions.

As Elliott Abrams, a former George W. Bush administration official and senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, noted in The Washington Post, “The verb ‘condemn’ is customarily reserved by US officials for acts of murder and terrorism – not acts of housing.” One wonders whether certain Obama administration officials are enjoying Israel’s stumble just a little too much – and using this to put the screws on the Jewish state.

Even so, there is no excuse for giving Obama this opportunity. The stakes are too high for such low-level sloppiness. Can anyone, anywhere in Israel’s vast, overstaffed, overpaid, underperforming bureaucracy claim ignorance either as to the timing or the sensitivity of Biden’s trip? My children knew about the trip. Anyone who gets a salary from the people and was in the dark about the trip or the impact such an announcement would have made should be fired too – and without the typical cushy government severance package.

LAST WEEK in Jerusalem, my friend and colleague Saul Singer officially launched Start-Up Nation, the book he coauthored with Dan Senor about Israel’s economic miracle. Taking advantage of the excitement the book has generated, Singer generously turned his hometown launch into a fund-raiser for the Jerusalem Circus, which builds trust between young Arabs and Jews who must support one another while standing on each other’s shoulders or catching one another as they jump.

Singer linked the creative, impressive, world class hi-tech entrepreneurship his book describes with the equally path-breaking social entrepreneurship the Jerusalem Circus and many other worthy initiatives represent. I left thinking: How tragic that a country which produces such brilliant computer wizards, such visionary social activists, is stuck with so many political clowns who turn the government into a circus.

Eli Yishai’s Biden-based boobery has presented Netanyahu’s doughnut democracy with its ultimate test. Here is an opportunity for Netanyahu to lead – and emerge more popular, more powerful, and more able to deliver the quality governance the people of Israel need and deserve.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

Galillee rape victim learns ‘Israel is with you’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-14-10

Finally, in an act of justice and sanity that should have occurred months ago, the Northern District State prosecutors in the infamous “Galilee rape case” dismissed all charges against the American oleh from Karmiel. The tormented 17-year-old’s legal slate is wiped clean. The father sent out a text message to many of us who have been hoping for this day proclaiming: “We won.”

Of course, there are only losers in this case, from the traumatized youth and his family to all who desire a safe, moral Israel. The fact that the boy was allegedly beaten by policemen who falsely accused him of trying to break into a house will never leave him (he was stopped for public urination). The fact that he was unjustly remanded for four days, that he endured repeated rapes in prison, and that his tormenters pierced his ear with a metal wire to demonstrate his servitude to them cannot be forgotten. The fact that it took too many bureaucracies far too long to function remains inexcusable. Still, fortunately, the family feels vindicated – and grateful for the help they finally received.

“I’m beginning to have my faith in the justice system and in this country restored,” said Lior, the victim’s father, who himself has suffered psychologically, ideologically, physically and financially, while heroically shepherding his family through this nightmare. At court someone told him: “You are a great man to have endured so much.” A World War II buff, Lior responded by quoting Admiral “Bull” Halsey: “There are no great men. Just great challenges which ordinary men, out of necessity, are forced by circumstance to meet.”

Lior and his family have pursued justice tirelessly, while helping the young man heal emotionally. Amid Lior’s rollercoaster of emotions, while seeking justice for his son, he was also defending “the Russian kids and Ethiopian kids” who get hit by the police but come from cultures less likely to protest.

Since The Jerusalem Post‘s Yaakov Lappin broke the story last December – thanks to the doggedness of Amir Melzer, the boy’s lawyer – many have stood by this beleaguered family. Together, they have demonstrated that Israel remains a community with a conscience, more a small town with a soul than a heartless megalopolis.

Terrible things can happen here, just as they can anywhere else. Violence and corruption remain a concern. But armies of everyday heroes stand ready to respond.

Before the story broke out of the Anglo bubble and was highlighted in the Hebrew media, angels of mercy from Ra’anana had swooped down, bearing Shabbat dinners, contributions and hugs. Hadar, the Israel Council for Civic Action, lobbied effectively. Minister Isaac Herzog and MK Yohanan Plesner were the first politicians to stand up for Israel’s true character.

Other soldiers of civility included a retired police official, a top criminologist, an AACI social worker, an old shaliach of mine who was the first Sabra to call and offer help, along with donors from across the Jewish world who covered some of the family’s unexpected expenses of more than NIS 100,000. Much more help is needed. The boy’s lawyer opened an account for donors, who are desperately needed. All these patriots and dozens of others who offered time, expertise and love, expected no compensation – beyond demanding justice and that this family experience the kind of idealism and communal caring that makes Israel, Israel.

In that spirit, when the prosecutors dismissed the case Lior asked permission to address the court in English. This was a big moment. The prison nightmare began when the judge who remanded the youth forbade the youth’s brother from translating the court proceedings for the father. Many experts – and Israelis on the street – agree that had the family been more connected, fluent and skilled in working the system, there would have been no four-day remand. This time, the judge agreed. “I hope never to see you again,” Lior said. Offering a classic Israeli response, she smiled and said: “you mean in a courtroom?” He replied that of course he would be happy to see her in the mall or around town.

Fortunately, other healing moments have helped the family inch toward recovery. In February, the victim testified against his three prison tormentors. As Lior described it, after “five grueling hours” something remarkable happened. Those attending “witnessed a remarkable metamorphosis from a victim who had been emotionally broken back into his former self. S. showed incredible strength and resilience as he took on three defense attorneys.” Lior finished that email with pride: “Today S. walked into a courtroom a slave to fear and the memories of the traumatic experiences he had suffered, and emerged whole.”

Similarly, when tough legislators exited an emotional hearing of the Knesset’s Interior Affairs and Environment Committee, some in tears, when they hugged the family and offered support, when one anonymous Israeli woman donated 10,000 shekels to the family through a politician to “show we are not all bad,” the family finally felt heard, affirmed, protected, embraced. That day MK Amir Peretz told the boy: “Don’t worry, Israel is with you.” Peretz called to congratulate the family when the charges were dropped, too.

The first time I spoke to Lior, he was uncomfortable, saying, “I’m used to being you, the guy on the other side of the phone line, offering help.” Fortunately, Lior and his family are back to doing what comes naturally to them. Recently, hoodlums in nearby Sajur sodomized a young boy with a broomstick and videotaped their crime. As soon as he heard, Lior called the boy’s family, giving them phone numbers, advice, support, “so they don’t have to go through what we went through.”

That’s the kind of person he is – and that’s the kind of country we must always be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow 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.

Students, legislators stand up for Israel

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-11-10

With many people justifiably worried about the constant attempts to delegitimize Israel on college campuses, especially in Canada, we should highlight some successes.
Recently, we have seen that being creative, passionate and edgy can help reframe the conversation about Israel. The key is to be clever, not defensive, and to master your own particular strategic terrain.

In early February, McGill University students mobilized against an unfair and misleading resolution being proposed by their student society. There has long been an unspoken ceasefire on the McGill campus, with both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli forces holding their fire, being more committed to the tradition of civility on campus – and, frankly, to the more academic atmosphere overall. A year ago, pro-Palestinian forces broke this deal, by proposing a resolution condemning Israel’s Gaza operation. Pro-Israel students mobilized and voted it down at the student society’s General Assembly.

Last Passover, pro-Palestinian forces became even more aggressive, planting 1,415 Palestinian flags and 13 Israeli flags in the central green space on campus, supposedly representing the disproportionate death toll during Israel’s Gaza operation. This dramatic display sought to politicize the entire campus environment.

The administration should never have allowed this break with tradition, which threatens to have every other group try similar antics. I have no desire to come to work and be bombarded by one undergraduate attempt after another seeking to dramatize whatever issues is trendy one season or the next.

Undeterred, the pro-Palestinian forces this year cooked up a seemingly harmless resolution demanding McGill invest ethically, which actually was a one-sided resolution targeting Israel. Although the General Assembly votes only on the “be it resolved” clauses, two “whereas” clauses singled out Israel for special opprobrium. This was an attempt to get the many people who support ethical investing to condemn Israel implicitly. Pro-Israel – and pro-civility – forces rejected these unfair terms. At the General Assembly, they voted down the two offensive (and historically inaccurate) “whereas” clauses, then passed the resolution.

Similar out-of-the-box thinking shaped a controversial web-based ad campaign, launched by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students. Critics have called the “size doesn’t matter” video crude, vulgar and sexist. It is certainly crude and vulgar; I’m not sure if it’s sexist. But it’s also funny, attention-grabbing and speaks to college students in their language, with their sensibility. We want to speak to the “more than 80 per cent of students on a given campus who haven’t made up their minds about Israel and the Middle East,” one of the project’s creators, Noah Kochman explained. The video, which received more than 18,000 hits in its first few days, is a lure to get students learning facts about Israel.

As a professor, I wish my students got references to Aeschylus and Agamemnon. But if I want to be understood, I have to speak about Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods. Similarly, it would be great to live in a G-rated world, but our students live in an R-rated one. Kochman and his team shrewdly recognized that and spoke that language.

In a far more respectable vein, Peter Shurman, a Progressive Conservative legislator in the Ontario provincial legislature, refused to be passive in the wake of the anti-Israel week targeting campuses. Explaining that resolutions in the legislative assembly “do one thing only: they send a message, moral suasion pertinent to any given subject,” he proposed a resolution regarding something “I am passionate about” in late February. Shurman rose in chambers on Feb. 24, proclaiming: “I move that in the opinion of this House, the term Israeli ‘Apartheid Week’ is condemned as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.” The resolution passed unanimously – and was applauded worldwide.

Edmund Burke famously noted, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” These examples show that when good people do something, evil can be defeated, or at least, rebuffed.

The Case for Change: A Challenge to the Jewish Agency

By Gil Troy, eJewish Philanthropy, 3-7-10

Change is easy to endorse and hard to implement – if it’s easy, it means it’s not being done right. If it’s not systematic, it’s sloppy; if it’s cosmetic, it’s fleeting. Today, new directions must be forged, tough choices must be made, and new ways of doing business must be developed.

Let’s be frank, most North American Jews that I know do not know what the Jewish Agency is or does. And a surprising number of Israelis I know say – with anger in their voices – that the Jewish Agency should become extinct like the dinosaur it is.

Moreover, while most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary – idealistic, passionate – they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation, with what seems to be a toxic corporate culture. When many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem, rather than seeing what I see: a building rooted in Jewish history, pulsating with the energy of the Zionist mission and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings – they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

We could kid ourselves and say, “well, it’s a PR problem, all this could be solved by some re-branding” but historic conditions have changed – demanding an adjustment in the Jewish Agency’s mission as well.

The modern Zionist Movement tried to solve “The Jewish Problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish Problem for Most (not all) today – is the opposite: We are being Loved to Death. Most Jews- thankfully – enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many of them understand that freedom as “negative freedom” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community, from responsibilities.

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 doing, Jewish education is not just about understanding the world but 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 we need – and must provide. I agree with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “This is not an exercise in education; it’s an exercise in survival.”

And that is where the Jewish Agency has started to come in – and must come in more – more effectively, systematically, and publicly. Natan Sharansky’s vision of the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity is what’s needed. If in the 20th Century, the Jewish Agency’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century must be about saving Jewish souls.

Like “change” “identity” can be an empty slogan, amorphous, lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent so we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The Jewish Agency is uniquely positioned to educate for a modern Jewish identity focusing on peoplehood with Israel at its center – with the Jewish Agency carving out peoplehood platforms for identity-building throughout the Jewish world. This is a logical evolution – the elements are all there – but the branding and focus are lacking.

There is no Jewish Agency, no rationale for a Jewish Agency, without peoplehood. The Jewish Agency must be the global hothouse for nurturing those values, proud of its worldwide reach and its own roots in Eretz Yisrael the land of the Jewish people, and its commitment to the greatest collective Jewish undertaking of the last century, the State of Israel. We have to explain the idea of Peoplehood as the Jewish superglue, the sense of shared destiny uniting us, in good times and bad. We have to build on our family feeling, that insidery “MOT” – “member of the tribe” feeling that even many seemingly assimilated, alienated hipster Jews in New York have. The beauty of peoplehood – and of Zionism, the power of Israel and of our Jewish values, is that, when done right, we make our tribalism transcendent. We move from solidarity to idealism, from we are one to “ani v’atah neshanaheh et ha olam” – you and I will change the world.

Just as drug abuse counselors call marijuana the Gateway drug, opening the way for all kinds of others we, levhadeel, should look at Peoplehood as the gateway Jewish value, opening the way to many other dimensions of identity. We will only restore it as a gateway value through education.

Decades ago, when Rabbi Yitz Greenberg requested increased Federation allocations to Jewish education in New York, the leaders hesitated. “We don’t have enough money to do what you request. What should we do? Shall we close down Jewish community centers, and the Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged that we subsidize?” “Yes, close them down!” Greenberg insisted. “But do you know what I’ll teach the children who will receive the Jewish education that you will sponsor? I’ll teach them to open up community centers, hospitals, nursing homes and homes for the aged!”

Change requires bold strategic vision, some signature programs as key tactics, and, most important, serious transformation in the trenches. Ronald Reagan was better at articulating a vision of change and focusing on a few signature programs, Margaret Thatcher implemented more fundamental changes from the top down – for better or worse.

In the Jewish world, we need “big bold ideas,” in the words of Jerry Silverman of UJ (oops, I mean JFNA – you see organizations do change). We’ve seen JNF go green; the American Jewish Committee go from being a sha-shtill organization of American Jewish shtadlanim to a muscular defender of the Jewish people; Boston Federation lead in the push toward identity and education for 20 years; and the Montreal Federation’s Gen J initiative focus on 5 gateways leading to better Jewish living: formal Jewish education; camps and youth programming; family and adult programming; Israel experiences; and arts and culture. The idea is to focus less on the hardware and more on updating communal software, trying to reach Jews at all stages of the life-cycle, but especially Jewish youth.

My uncle, who was in the advertising business for 50 years says the one constant in his career was change. My father-in-law, who’s in real estate, keeps a running list of all the rock-solid tenants like Canada’s legendary Eaton’s department store or Eastern Airlines that would never go out of business, but did. I have a Lubavitch friend who is a savvy internet marketer. He changed from his PC to an Apple – because, he said, change is good, it shakes you up. To effect change, the leaders of the Jewish Agency, this College of Cardinals of the Jewish people, will need the discipline of the Congress during Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the fluidity of the British parliament under Thatcher, the courage of Ben Gurion and this very agency on the eve of independence in 1948 and the wisdom of our ancient Sanhedrin.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” the views expressed here are his own.