Professor Gil Troy: March of the Living Speech

Center Field: WWHD: What would Herzl do?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-10

In celebrating Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday – he was born May 2, 1860 – it’s easy to despair.

"Holyland" has become shorthand for corruption and cronyism, not religious nationalism. The recent sobering statistics publicized by Professor Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel depict Israel as a blighted nation socially and economically, not a light unto the nations. And the keys to our future, our children, are neglected, crammed into crowded classrooms, frequently taught by underpaid, under-qualified and overworked teachers, while all too often steeped in paganism, materialism, selfishness and aggressiveness.  Looking at the mess, just as some Christian friends ask WWJD – "What would Jesus do" – we should ask WWHD – "What would Herzl do?"

Let’s acknowledge that first, Herzl would say "Wow." Before tackling the problems, he would note all Israel has accomplished. He would remember that his famous prophecy in 1897 predicting a Jewish state within 50 years was too wild to be believed or even admitted publicly – he confessed it to his diary.

Today, despite its challenges, Israel remains a marvel, an Altneuland, old-new land, trying to fulfill modern democratic and liberal values without forsaking tradition while playing it all out in our ancient homeland. Thanks to Herzl and modern Zionism, we revived the Hebrew language, rescued and resettled millions of Jewish refugees, developed a thriving culture, showered the world with technological and scientific innovations, nurtured pockets of idealism and returned the Jewish people to the stage of history.

Alas, some snakes are slithering in our Zionist Eden as well. Corruption, like a cancer, grows wildly and corrodes from within. Our own leaders, who are supposed to look out for us, inspire us, care for us, have turned on us, having sacrificed the public good for their own private gain. The Holyland perversion is just the most egregious example of a "magiya li (I deserve it)" culture, entangled in a spider’s web of insiders who conspire with one another, feeling entitled to take, thus robbing the public not only of money but, even more important, of faith in society and politics.

By contrast, in his utopian novel from 1902, Altneuland, Herzl imagined amateur politicians who avoid partisanship and know better than to "try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work." In Herzl’s world, the "salaried [political] positions are allotted for skill and merit only." And "for filling the honorary positions we have one simple principle: Those who try to push themselves are gently ignored; while, on the other hand we take great pains to discover real merit in the most obscure nooks. We thus make certain that our precious commonwealth will not become the prey of careerists."

We need some amateurs at the helm. We need some reluctant leaders. We need leaders with the modesty of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who fought each other fiercely, but who lived humbly. We need leaders who value values and want to raise standards rather than undermining the law or lowering themselves to line their own pockets.

Just as selfishness seduces politicians, it distorts society. Professor Ben-David points out that the wide gap between rich and poor threatens us economically, as well as socially and ideologically. A thriving consumer society, as well as a just democratic society, needs a strong, middle class base. Cultivating a strong foundation requires a delicate balance. We need not return to the bad old days of stranglehold regulation and oppressive taxation, but there are less heavy-handed ways for the very rich to support the very poor. And, even more important, as Herzl dreamed: "We, in our new society, will not measure people by their wealth. Let us measure our brothers and sisters by their merits."

Underlying these challenges is the educational crisis. We need better institutions for transferring knowledge, honing skills and inculcating values. It is astonishing that a government that calls itself nationalist could be comfortable presiding over such a flawed system. It is depressing that a state founded on communitarian values laced with a strong sense of altruism could be so complacent over the sloppy selfishness that grips so many. It is worrying that a society still requiring a great deal of cooperation could be filled with so many people fearful of being a frier, a fool, that they inject absurd levels of tension and aggression into the most mundane interactions. Nearly everyone I speak to acknowledges Israel’s values crisis – but few seem willing to inconvenience themselves or their children to fix it.

Just as the United States in the 1950s kicked into gear after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Israel today must reboot by reaffirming common values, core ideals, a commitment to community and the common good. As a 19th century romantic nationalist, Herzl understood that through liberal democracies people could mobilize and achieve greatness. As a Jew, Herzl appreciated our rich heritage which we could synthesize with the best of the modern world.

But Herzl’s greatest gift then was as a dreamer, and his greatest role now is to continue challenging us to stretch ourselves and our society. The great leap forward Herzl imagined, and which the Jewish people achieved, should remind us that this society is too young to become a nation of shrugged shoulders and sharpened elbows. We still must roll up our sleeves, link arms and make collective dreams come true, appreciating Herzl’s insight which became cliché – im tirzu ein zo aggadah – if you will it, it is not an impossible dream.

So WWHD? Herzl would counter modern Israeli’s epidemic cynicism with his appealing can-do Zionist idealism. "No philosopher’s stone, no dirigible airship is needed," Herzl’s main character preaches. "Everything needful for the making of a better world exists already. And do you know, man, who could show the way? You! You Jews! …  You could make the experimental land for humanity. Over yonder, where we were, you could create a new commonwealth. On that ancient soil: Old-New-Land!"  

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



Understanding Obama As Our First PC President

By Gil Troy, New York Jewish Week, 4-27-10

Three mysteries underlie the current crisis between America and Israel. The first one is biographical: How can President Barack Obama call himself Israel’s friend, yet display such animus toward the Jewish state, exemplified most recently by refusing even to be photographed with Israel’s Prime Minister when hosting Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House?
The second is diplomatic: Why is Obama pursuing a policy that is so strategically shortsighted? His great accomplishment so far is raising Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and a two-state solution.

And the third is political: How come Obama is not paying much of a price from the American Jewish community? The smart money, so far, is on most Jews still voting Democratic in 2010 and 2012.
To unravel these mysteries, and understand this politician who repeatedly used his biography in his political ascent, we should look more closely at Obama’s personal story. Americans have not paid sufficient attention to Obama’s years at Harvard Law School — partially because he ignores those years, even in his memoir. But while it is shrewd for an ambitious politician with populist pretensions to downplay his time at one of America’s most elite institutions, it is foolish for citizens to underestimate the impact those years had on his ideological development.

In a rare article exploring Obama’s Harvard years, The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2007) proclaimed that “In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice.” While describing the consensus-building skills that would win him the White House, the article also glimpsed at the atmosphere in the Law School in 1990 when Obama became the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president. Harvard in those years was in the throes of “PC,” political correctness. The Times captures this by saying that “a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights” and that in “dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

These lines suggest that Obama conformed with the general atmosphere on campus, which was addicted to narratives of victimhood in the search for “diversity and economic justice.” The PC movement was rooted in the justifiable disgust with American racism, sexism and homophobia. Alas, like many counter-revolutions, it overreached, repudiating many Western values independent of those ills, celebrating whatever political groups succeeded in positioning themselves as underdogs afflicted by those ills, and frequently overlooking inconvenient facts that contradicted the larger plotline.
To be fair, Obama is too smart and subtle to be reduced to a PC poster child. Just as too many PC types caricatured complex situations around the world, it is unfair to caricature him. Still, it seems clear that the ethos of the time, which was overwhelming, monolithic, and quite unforgiving of any deviations, shaped Obama’s worldview.
Having lived through those years at Harvard, I salute Obama for emerging from that caldron of political correctness with as much range and nuance as he has. Still, when I see his edge on the Israel issue, when I see how quick he is to bash Israeli housing starts and how slow he is to criticize Palestinian incitement and violence, I recognize the signs of the distortions imposed by the PC-prism.
By 1990, Israel was no longer politically correct and the Palestinians were considered the African-Americans of the Middle East, insulated from criticism by virtue of their victimhood. Obama’s refusal to recognize the now-established historical pattern, whereby Palestinians increase their demands and intensify the violence when they feel supported by the West, is reminiscent of many other Ivy League New Leftists who saw the world as they wished to see it, not as it was — and is.

The Shin Bet documented 125 terror attacks or attempts this March, 27 of them in Jerusalem, in contrast to 53 in February with only three in Jerusalem. The Obama administration has consistently pressured Israel more than the Palestinians — even though this strategy undermines the push for peace. Yasir Arafat only negotiated when desperate, not when confident. Clearly, our first PC president’s worldview distorts his view of world events. And as for American Jewry, let’s face it, most of our community was — and is — PC too.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. 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.

Israel at 62: A Year of Achievement

Yes, the country is not above criticism, but too often its accomplishments are ignored.

By Gil Troy, The Mark News, 4-26-10

Judging by the headlines, Israel’s 62nd anniversary comes at an ominous time. Iran is going nuclear and threatening to wipe Israel “off the map.” President Barack Obama is going ballistic, treating Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rudely. The peace process is going nowhere, as Palestinians increase their pre-conditions while many Europeans and intellectuals wantonly demonize Israel, validating the decades-long Arab campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.

Neither Iran’s threat nor Obama’s animus should be underestimated – nor should they be compared, of course.

If anyone doubted the Iranian Mullahs’ brutality, their recent slaughter of their own people for daring to dissent clearly displays their contempt for human life. This demonstration of the regime’s power – and willingness to use it – was all the more sobering for its timing, coming on the cusp of the country achieving nuclear status.

Moreover, Barack Obama’s initial silence when Iran’s dissidents and the world looked to him for inspiration is unforgivable. His hesitation in criticizing the killers in Tehran contrasts with his willingness to disappoint many traditional American allies, especially Israel. Still trying to distance himself from George W. Bush, Obama too frequently accommodates adversaries while neglecting friends. The result has been hurt feelings in Great Britain as Obama downgrades the historical Anglo-American “special relationship” to a mere alliance, a sense of betrayal in Eastern Europe after Obama canceled the anti-ballistic missile system slated for Poland and the Czech Republic, as well as consternation in Jerusalem.

Obama’s refusal even to be photographed with Netanyahu during their recent meeting, and the president’s zeal in exploiting Israel’s poorly-timed announcement regarding housing starts in a Jerusalem neighborhood have stung Israelis. This strategy is short sighted and counterproductive. Obama’s great accomplishment so far has been to raise Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and against a two-state solution. This fits an historical pattern. Yasser Arafat only considered compromising with Israel when he was desperate, not when he was confident.

All of these strategic shifts feed the increasingly shrill attacks on Israel. The tone of the United Nations lynch mob, where Israel is singled out for disproportionate disapprobation, is increasingly becoming the international norm as the demonization derby goes global.

Only one country in the world seems to be on probation, with its legitimacy questioned repeatedly. Only one country in the world is repeatedly criticized for defending itself against terrorists. Only one country in the world is blamed when terrorists target it. Only one country in the world is consistently accused of committing the great international crimes of colonialism, racism, and apartheid.

Of course, Israel makes mistakes that can be criticized. But the essentialism looming behind so many condemnations – jumping from disapproving of particular policies to delegitimizing the state itself – is the mark of the bullying bigot, not the thoughtful critic. Just as many Catholics justifiably resent critics who gleefully delegitimize an entire Church and religion based on the perversions of a few, Israel’s supporters are justified for bristling at how Zionism is considered the only illegitimate nationalism in the modern world and democratic Israel is singled out as an outlaw state.

Nevertheless, on this Independence Day, Israelis have much to celebrate. This year their economy was spared much of the financial devastation so many other countries endured. This year, the country distinguished itself as an upstanding member of the world community when Israeli soldiers were dispatched to help Haitians recover from that country’s devastating earthquake. This year, an Israeli scientist, Professor Ada Yonath, become the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry since 1964, and Israeli entrepreneur Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place, advanced his green vision of a practical electric car with replaceable car batteries. Also this year, the international best-seller by Dan Senor and Saul Singer, Start-Up Nation, explained how Israel’s unique mix of informality, creativity, adaptability, and audacity facilitates such world-class innovation and entrepreneurship.

These achievements are particularly striking considering how young the state is, how hostile a neighborhood the Middle East has proven to be, and how formidable the challenges Israel has faced.

Sixty-two years ago, in 1948, the Jewish people were still reeling from the mass murder of six million, boldly illustrating the need for the state Zionists had been building for decades in the homeland Jews had lived in, been exiled from, and for millennia dreamed about. Fifty-two years ago, in 1958, Israel was trying to cope with the influx of nearly a million Jews expelled from Muslim lands, welcoming these refugees as future citizens even as Israel’s Arab neighbours treated Palestinians as perpetual political props. Forty-two years ago, in 1968, Israelis were still trying to process the enormity of their victory in the Six Day War and the rapid turnaround from being targeted for mass slaughter to having defeated powerful enemies.

No country is perfect, no state ideal. We have to grade all governments on a curve. The quest to improve and the freedom to criticize are critical components in the success of any democracy. But Israelis and their friends worldwide can take pride in this old-new land’s accomplishments. Like all anniversaries, Israel’s Independence Day is an opportunity to compare what was and what is, appreciate the accomplishments, while still dreaming about what might be.

Obama the president is not Alexander the Great

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-26-10

I understand Barack Obama’s impatience with Israel. I see his logic whereby if only Israel would freeze, concede, withdraw, the conflict would end. I can imagine the appeal, for the first African-American president, the first incumbent president to win a Nobel Peace Prize in decades, the first president to pass such sweeping health care legislation, of his next big win being in the Middle East.

Just as Alexander the Great solved the problem of the Gordian Knot by slicing it in half rather than untying it, Obama the president wants to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict by cutting through what the world consensus has deemed to be the obstacle to Middle East peace: Israeli intransigence. Alas, Obama is no Alexander. So far, the more Obama pulls at this knot, the tighter it gets; the more Obama pressures Israel, the more the Palestinians raise their basic demands.

Obama is failing because he is blind to history. He is ignoring the history of Israeli willingness to compromise. In 1947, David Ben-Gurion accepted the UN’s Partition Plan, the Arab leaders did not. Thirty years later, Menachem Begin relinquished the entire Sinai Peninsula in return for Egypt’s promise of recognition and peace. And in 1993, Israel accepted the Oslo Accords, recognizing Yasser Arafat as a peace partner and arming his henchmen.

No one, no matter how charismatic, self-confident, or powerful, will succeed in jump-starting the Middle East peace process without acknowledging Israel’s longstanding openness to compromise – and the series of betrayals Israel has nevertheless endured. The Oslo Accords degenerated into Arafat’s terror war, during which over 1000 innocent Israelis were murdered. The Gaza withdrawal of 2005 led to Hamas’ rise and intensified the rain of Kassams pounding Sderot and other Israeli towns. This is not ancient history. This is not about who first had ties to Jerusalem centuries ago (which, of course, the Jews did). This is about a longstanding pattern of Palestinian violence and intransigence, manifested repeatedly – and recently.

Israel also remains justifiably haunted by the perversions of Jenin and the wrath of Goldstone. Jenin is shorthand for two sobering lessons. Back in April, 2002, when Israel finally, belatedly counterattacked after hundreds of its civilians were murdered, Palestinians slaughtered 23 Israeli reservists in an ambush in the West Bank town because Israel chose to go house to house rather than bomb from the air. Not only did the international community fail to give Israel credit for displaying remarkable restraint, but within days Palestinians accused Israel of committing mass murder in Jenin. Even after this lie was exposed, the taint of illegitimacy still lingered around the Israeli army. Similarly, the Goldstone Report of 2009 offered a topsy-turvy accounting of Israel’s actions during the Gaza operation in late 2008 and early 2009. The report ignored the years of patience Israel exhibited before responding, and, among other outrages, downplayed how Hamas planted terrorists and bombs among Gaza’s civilian population.

So, yes, if you ignore Arafat’s war and Hamas’s rise, the Jenin slaughter along with both the Jenin and Goldstone libels, Israel does seem intransigent. And Israel can seem inconvenient if you accept the simplistic slur that Israel causes America’s Middle East headaches. But Osama Bin-Laden started planning his anti-American terrorism during Oslo’s heyday. The jihadists admit that they hate America because it is too Christian and too secular – yes, that is a contradiction – meaning too Western and non-Islamic.

Unfortunately, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Israel’s supporters, can repeat these facts again and again without convincing Obama, Israel’s critics, or even many American Jews, who condescendingly call for Obama to administer some "tough love" to Israel, treating a sovereign state like a recalcitrant teenager.

Therefore, it is imperative that Israelis accept the legitimacy of Palestinian claims to the land – oops, most Israelis have.

And it is imperative that Israel negotiate with the Palestinians, demonstrating tremendous flexibility and openness – oops, that’s what Ehud Olmert did.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu declare his acceptance of a two-state solution – oops, he did that already.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu accede to American demands for a construction freeze in the West Bank, while taking down checkpoints, empowering Palestinian security and helping the Palestinian economy thrive – oops, he did that already.

And it is imperative that Netanyahu endure the humiliation of being browbeaten by the US secretary of state, vice president and president – oops, been there, done that.

This is what galls Israelis and the pro-Israeli community – including increasing numbers of American voters, according to the latest polls. Obama has harmed Israel by casting it as the obstacle to peace rather than the peace-seeker. This pernicious accusation feeds the Arabist and radical leftist Big Lie seeking to delegitimize the state itself. All Israeli peacekeeping gestures are ignored, as is Palestinian rejectionism. When Obama’s administration, to its credit, actually condemned Palestinian incitement reflected in honoring terrorists with street naming, most major media outlets ignored the statement, because it muddied the simpler narrative of Israel the intransigent, the obstacle, the illegitimate.

Even though his and his country’s peacemaking gestures have been ignored, Netanyahu should make one more move – Anwar Sadat style, offering to go to Ramallah while inviting Mahmoud Abbas to the Knesset. There, Netanyahu should say, "I’m willing to negotiate, with no preconditions, no preconceived outcomes. Here’s my phone number, the ball is in your court."

In response, understanding that he has made his point with Israel, while only hardening Palestinian hearts, Obama should lighten up on Israel. Obama should denounce the delegitimization derby as a threat to peace. He should acknowledge Israeli efforts at compromise and fears of violence following concessions. He should continue pressing for peace talks, if he thinks they might succeed. But he should understand that if he wants to convince Israelis to make the difficult compromises peace will require, American reassurance and acknowledgment of Israel’s disappointments will accomplish much more than American bullying. We need less Alexander-style hubris and more of the centrist wisdom candidate Obama promised.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Research Fellow. The author of Why I  Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Speaking Engagement: April 26 @ 7:45PM

“The 1975 Zionism is Racism Resolution: American Anger and British Appeasement”: A Lecture at Beit Avi Chai

Apr 26 2010 7:45 PM
Venue: Beit Avi Chai
44 King George St.
Event URL:
Contact: 02-679-0587
Organization: Jewish Historical Society of England – Israel Branch
Cost: 20 NIS
Sponsors: Beit Avi Chai

The Jewish Historical Society of England – Israel Branch presents a talk with Prof. Gil Troy, who will lecture on “The 1975 Zionism is Racism Resolution: American Anger and British Appeasement”.

Beit Avi Chai, 44 King George St.
For more information: 02-679-0587 or 02-561-9431.

Donation: NIS 20.

Oh, Canada Why anti-Zionism festers in a country otherwise known for its friendliness

By Gil Troy, Tablet Magazine, 4-13-10

Protesters and counterprotesters before Benjamin Netanyahu’s scheduled speech at Montreal’s Concordia University in 2002.

CREDIT: Marcos Townsend/AFP/Getty Images

Although the two-week period in March designated as Israeli Apartheid Week sputtered this year, attracting few participants, it highlighted a great Canadian anomaly. Twelve of the 40 communities the IAW website identified as host cities were in Canada. IAW was hatched in Toronto. Some of the worst anti-Israel violence in North America has occurred in the land of endless winters and polite pacifists. Last year, at York University in Toronto, hooligans chanting, “Die, Jew, get the hell off campus” menaced Jewish students, who barricaded themselves in the Hillel offices, terrified. This year, at the University of Western Ontario, three students who started a Facebook group called “UWO Students Against Israeli Apartheid Week” reported receiving death threats. Why are such virulent anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism festering in Canada despite its national niceness?

The violence contradicts the Canadian government’s dramatically pro-Israel turn in the last several years. Compared to America’s “love-fest,” Canada has always been more “reservedly respectful” of “both Israel and Jews,” says Ted Sokolsky, president of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. Former Prime Minister Jean Chrétien’s Liberal government from 1993 to 2003 treated Israel coldly. But since 2006, Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s Conservative government has been enthusiastically pro-Israel. Last spring, Canada led in boycotting the Durban Review Conference in Geneva, fearing a rehash of the 2001 anti-Zionist hate-fest.

Thanks especially to Irwin Cotler, a Liberal MP and former justice minister, support for Israel is what Canadians call “all party.” This year, the Liberal leader and human-rights activist Michael Ignatieff repudiated the false analogy that has become a central anti-Zionist tenet: that of equating the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict with the systematic racism of South Africa’s Afrikaner regime. “International law defines ‘apartheid’ as a crime against humanity,” Ignatieff has said. “Labeling Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state is a deliberate attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Jewish state itself. Criticism of Israel is legitimate. Attempting to describe its very existence as a crime against humanity is not.”
Nevertheless, despite all this goodwill off-campus, and even considering Canadians’ cultural aversion to conflict, many Jewish college students in Canada report feeling “uncomfortable, unsafe, and targeted” on campuses, says Zach Newburgh, the Hillel Montreal president. Newburgh transferred from the University of Toronto to McGill partially because of Toronto’s aggressive anti-Israel environment, which peaks during anti-Israel week. Many Jewish students felt besieged, “no matter what stripe they were,” Newburgh recalls, “whether they were Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, or just Jewish, had been to Jewish summer camp or not, had been to Israel or not—it did not matter.” Newburgh received death threats, he says, because he criticized the IAW’s activities in online forums….. READ FULL ARTICLE

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of six books on American history and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Delegitimizing Catholicism is no better than delegitimizing Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-11-10

That Israel’s rise has unleashed new waves of hatred against Jews, with Israel as the prime target, is one of Zionism’s greatest disappointments. Our enemies’ injustice and the world’s hypocrisy can be overwhelming. Yet we cannot become addicted to our indignation. Even as the media hypes controversies, we should not take offense at every slight. For that reason, unlike, apparently, most Jews, the sermon by the “Preacher of the Pontifical Household,” Father Raniero Cantalamessa, comparing the attacks on the Catholic Church amid the sexual scandal with the “collective violence” against Jews, made me sad, not angry.

Let me be clear. Priestly sexual abuse is evil. As a professor, a parent and a human being, I am disgusted by the breach of trust, the violence, the perversion and the despicable cover-up. As someone who always keeps my doors open during office hours, and will not even clasp a distressed student’s shoulder to avoid any mixed messaging, I cannot fathom how a preacher or a teacher would abuse the trust invested in us by individuals, their families and society. I am also appalled by the old-boys’ network that enabled these crimes to occur again and again and again.

As both a McGill professor and a Jewish community activist I cannot imagine covering up for any colleague who would sin, let alone so outrageously. I believe in shunning people who behave badly, and have shunned people for much milder offenses. I feel diminished by the priests’ actions and their superiors’ inaction. As a traditionalist I also feel compromised by their crimes, watching the delight too many modern secularists take in seeing the Church supposedly exposed as corrupt.

But all this media and mainstream schadenfreude, the pleasure too many take in the Church’s agony, gives me pause. For starters, I confess to being bemused that the Pope’s preacher so internalized the evil of anti-Semitism he invokes it as the ultimate symbol of persecution. We have come a long way from the Auto de fé – burning Jews at the stake during the Spanish Inquisition. We should thank the late Pope John Paul II and many others for freeing Catholicism from the historical grip of anti-Semitism, so that the Pope’s preacher rails against Jew-hatred instead of practicing it.

Beyond that, I think of my Catholic friends, and especially about my college roommate, Justin Whittington, who became a Jesuit priest. That despite his life of self-sacrifice and piety he is viewed suspiciously hurts me, as it must him. Jews should take this opportunity to reach out to our Catholic friends, individually and communally, hear their pain, share their concerns, help them sort out justifiable anger at some leaders’ betrayal from repudiating their entire belief system and network of good works.

I do not believe the evil of priestly child abuse is inherent in Catholicism. Yes, Pope Benedict XVI and the rest of the Church hierarchy must lead more boldly yet humbly in defeating this scourge. Nevertheless, the Church passes my Tikun Test. “Tikun” means fixing, but implies a redemptive repair. When an institution or a state fails – which, as a collection of imperfect human beings it inevitably will – we must also judge it by its stated ideals and its ability to reform, not only by its mistakes, or even its crimes. These priests and their enablers are deviants, violently violating core Church values.

Similarly, democratic countries, from the United States to the United Kingdom, from India to, yes, Israel, frequently pass this Tikun Test by preserving defining liberal ideals and demonstrating both institutionally and popularly the tools for Tikun – embarrassment, indignation, flexibility, adaptability, meaning the ability to reform and progress. I would rather have a hypocrite, who at least has worthy ideals to fail to live up to, than a nihilist. One of the great failures of Palestinian nationalism and Islamic fundamentalism is the violence, the rejection of humane ideals, coursing through too many foundational documents and honored acts. Hamas cannot reform when its covenant is anti-Semitic and demands Israel’s destruction. The Palestinian Authority cannot reform as long as it names streets after terrorists – which even Barack Obama’s State Department has denounced, although most media outlets ignored the condemnation.

And as we discuss this, person to person, and institution to institution, Catholics and Jews should bond over our shared commitment to tradition and the shared pain of delegitimization. While the offenses are not comparable, Father Raniero Cantalamessa’s unfortunate analogy was reacting to the way some critics jump from attacking the Church’s sins in these deplorable cases to repudiating Catholicism itself. Similarly, many Israel supporters are reeling from watching so many people jump from debating Israeli policies to repudiating Israel, Zionism and the rationale for a Jewish state. Democracies – and vibrant modern religions – thrive on discussion, debate and dissent. To criticize, and especially to be embarrassed, reflects a sense of belonging in a community. In his monumental work Justice the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes: “Pride and shame are sentiments that presuppose a shared identity.”

Unfortunately, in the modern politically correct world, certain institutions, religions and states are more targeted for delegitimization than others. Jewish nationalism is targeted, Palestinian nationalism is not. Catholic sins are frequently seen to reflect mainstream Catholicism, while Islamist violence is deemed a rare deviation from Islam, “the religion of peace.” Similarly, conservative criticism of liberal critics gets labeled McCarthyism; liberal criticism of conservatives is merely free speech. The calculus of delegitimization reflects a moral hierarchy rooted in New Left sensibilities, refined in universities, spread by much of the media.

Zionism should be politically correct. The attempt to make democratic, egaliatarian and Jewish values bloom in the Middle East’s rocky soil should excite liberals, academics, sophisticates the world over, just as Israel’s illiberal, authoritarian enemies who have repeatedly rejected peace should appall them. In sharing our Catholic friends’ pain we should not allow the delegitimizers to conflate Zionism and Catholicism or the Church and Israel. But having been on the receiving end of so much hypocrisy and hatred we should see through the distortions to help heal our fellow monotheists – and their embattled institutions.

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

The Magic of Masada

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-8-10

The place stimulates the kind of imaginary time travel that brings history alive. Walking along the rock-strewn trails, you expect to stumble over another piece of evidence, another link to our past

One Zionist “mitzvah” most Israelis remain committed to, be they more religious or less, left or right, patriotic or cynical, is “kum v’hitalech ba’aretz,” rise and walk the land. This Passover, an estimated three million Israelis became wandering Jews, hiking and picnicking, visiting parks, nature reserves, and — dare we say it – national heritage sites.  Joining the exodus, my family and I went south – and again remembered the lure of the land, the sanctity of this space that has been our national homeland for over 3,000 years.
The highlight was singing in the sunrise at Masada, King Herod’s grand desert fortress which became the Zealots’ Alamo, their last stand during the great Roman rebellion. The visit was culturally and historically meaningful.  We accompanied pop icon David Broza, the owner of S-Curve Records Steve Greenberg and their families – to celebrate Broza’s new album Night Dawn, which S-Curve is distributing. The timing Broza chose for our journey, the second day of Passover, is the day the ancient historian Josephus identifies as the day Masada fell in 73 CE.

Our host, Eitan Campbell, who has worked at Masada for 38 years and is now its director, justifiably bristled at the popular characterization of that moment as a mass “suicide.” Like all good historians, Campbell’s favorite “text” is context; you cannot understand what happened that night 1,927 years ago without considering the fate awaiting the rebels if they fell into Roman hands. The Jewish resistance to Roman rule was tougher than the Romans expected. Spite probably played a part in the Legionnaires even bothering to conquer the desert fortress, and a revenge-spiked slavery – or worse – awaited any Jewish captives.

Choosing to die as free people rather than be slaughtered or enslaved by the Romans, the men of Masada killed their families, then each other. Only the last one alive killed himself.

In the mid-1960s, the legendary archaeologist Yigal Yadin found ostraca – pottery shards – with names on them that probably were the lots the leaders used to organize that night. Noting how the full moon illuminated the mountain-top, Campbell emphasized that Masada’s defenders could look into each other’s eyes right before the moment of death. This intense intimacy reflected an act of love, true communal sacrifice, not the nihilism of despair.

We listened raptly to Campbell, watching the same constellation the 960 Zealots on Masada saw in the last moments of their lives – then seeing the same sunrise the Roman conquerors saw when they burst through the defenses and saw their victory stolen from them. I recalled Natan Sharansky’s insight that Jews and Pentacostalists resisted Soviet oppression most stubbornly because belonging to a community larger than themselves connected them to a national story that weaved their particular biographies into a broader, more lasting tapestry. By visiting Masada, honoring these heroes, and writing new chapters in the Jewish people’s long, proud story, we consecrate their actions, we elevate them from victims to victors.

Broza, who has performed more than twenty sunrise concerts at Masada since 1993, captured the poetry of the moment, feeling the mountain’s majesty. Playing his mega-hit “Mitachat LaShamayim” – under the sky – as we sat beneath the stars awaiting first light, as he played his newest songs from the aptly-titled “Night Dawn,” the songs and the setting created a harmonic convergence. Broza explained that during his first Masada concert, he did not fathom its power, until, as he played into the morning, the sun rose. “All of a sudden, I could see the audience,” he recalled, “and it created this overwhelming connection” as the past and the present, his poetry and their passion, the desert’s beauty and Masada’s message merged.

Despite our technological sophistication, despite our cosmopolitan aspirations, human beings still connect to stories and space, to heroes and values. Even in the 21st century the 19th century romantic nationalists’ equation of rich history + natural beauty + communal ideals = proud people, still works. Too often today, these passions are associated with “the Right” or “the religious.”  But humans are not such abstract thinkers. We need props, markers, anchors, roots, for ourselves and our communities.

Masada’s magic, its mutually reinforcing symphony of symbols, appeals to the heart and the mind, engaging our senses and our soul. Eitan Campbell and his fellow caretakers have preserved the site’s simplicity. With the desert’s natural beauty, the ruins’ grandeur, the story’s profundity, the site sweeps us up.

Masada stimulates the kind of imaginary time-travel that brings history alive. Walking along the dusty rock-strewn trails, it is hard not to scrutinize every rock, expecting to stumble over another piece of evidence, another living link to our past. And while contemplating the story’s meaning, the unhappy, tragic dilemma Masada’s final defenders faced, it is hard not to scrutinize your own life, your own values, wondering whether you would have the courage of your convictions they had, wondering just what core ideals you live for – and which defining beliefs you would be willing to die for.

Of all people, Barack Obama in 2008 praised Zionism as representing “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Obama understood that by coming home, tending roots, engaging history, the once-wandering Jews returned to their more normal condition – while becoming poised for new greatness. This tension between the prose of everyday living and the poetry of potential transformation shapes all liberal democratic nationalist movements. It is a major issue in Zionism, and is part of Masada’s meaning.

The Zealots built dwellings using simple stones next to King Herod’s majestic palaces. Both individually and communally we should build our lives with the simple everyday building blocks for natural living infused with the soaring ideals that help make individual lives meaningful and nations great.

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.

View All

Anti-Israel week elicits yawning, not yelling

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-8-10

On Feb. 25, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed, by voice vote, a resolution condemning “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW), days before it began in Toronto, as well in 11 other Canadian cities and another two dozen locations worldwide.

This all-party amity on any issue is rare. Just as the Obama Administration was gearing up for an unnecessary, counterproductive showdown with Israel, Canada once again took the lead in supporting it.

MPP Peter Shurman, should be hailed for leading the fight against what he branded a “hateful… odious” comparison that insults Israel, all democratic countries that share Israel’s values, and millions of black South Africans who endured racism under apartheid, which separated people on the basis of colour systematically, legally and brutally.

Shurman’s resolution proclaimed: “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.”

Shurman understood that these resolutions are not binding. Moreover, they do not squelch anyone’s right to free speech, no matter how aggressive or untrue that speech may be. Rather, he explained, the resolution was a tool of “moral suasion,” reflecting the feelings of a democratic body, appalled by an unreasonable, undemocratic assault against the democratic nation of Israel.

By contrast, in a video circulated on the Internet promoting the bash-Israel-fest, Toronto-based activist Naomi Klein proclaimed: “Nothing about this week is motivated by hate. It’s motivated by justice. It’s about using our freedom to defend the freedom of Palestinians to exist in peace and dignity and with full equality in their land.”

In fact, Palestinian nationalism’s great failure is its nihilism, the fact that so much of the movement’s energies are dedicated to destroying Israel rather than building a Palestinian state. A week celebrating Palestinian nationalism could be about “peace and dignity.” But a week demonizing Israel and celebrating the false, misleading comparison with South African racism is about hate – and, not surprisingly, has often degenerated into hooliganism and anti-Semitism.

There is much to debate regarding Israel, Palestinians and the quest for Middle East peace. But someone committed to “peace and dignity” would acknowledge how much of this constant Israel-bashing is fed by the crudest Arab anti-Semitism. The disgusting images rooted in Nazi propaganda that still appear in the Arab press feed a demonizing discourse that led some York University students to yell “die Jew” and recently led a student at Oxford University protesting an Israeli government official to yell in Arabic “Itbah al-Yahud,” which means “Slaughter the Jews.”

Nationalism is a double-edged sword: it can elevate and enlighten, as it does in democracies such as Canada, or it can rouse and ruin. Becoming addicted to hatred of one’s defined adversaries gives a fleeting feeling of unity, but it ultimately degenerates into violence and destructiveness. Too much of the Palestinian national movement – and far too much of it on campus and in North America – is devoted to Israel-bashing. It creates a culture of martyrdom that celebrates suicide bombers rather than nation builders. It honours leaders such as Yasser Arafat, who preferred the purity of perpetual violence to the complexity of compromise. It results, in a cult of violence, sometimes feeding Hamas-versus-Fatah bloodshed, usually aimed at Jews.

Too much of the Arab world seems engulfed by this irrational hatred of Israel and Zionism. That this hatred is perfumed, rationalized and masked on campus in the language of human rights, then ennobled with the sacred mantle of the anti-apartheid struggle, is perverse.

Fortunately, most of our students are too smart to be swayed by such distortions. Initial reports this year suggest that “anti-Israel week” 2010 was a bust.

Students repudiated this festival of historical distortion, nationalist nihilism and Israel-bashing by yawning, not yelling. Most demonstrated the good sense to avoid the tumult and let the haters shout to mostly empty rooms – a perfect response.