Emanuel’s visit reflects ‘big tent’ Zionism and refutes Beinart

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-31-10

White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel’s visit to Israel this week for his son’s bar mitzva helps refute Peter Beinart’s controversial article claiming that modern Zionism and liberalism are becoming incompatible. The Emanuel family has witnessed the real, multi-dimensional, cosmopolitan Israel that disproves Beinart’s caricature of an emerging right-wing theocracy. Even more important, the family’s decision to celebrate the bar mitzva in Jerusalem reflects the kind of “Big Tent Zionism” Beinart and other critics lament as passé.

Media reports of the Emanuel family itinerary suggest they have encountered a country that has much to offer American Jewish pilgrims, of all political stripes. A beach vacation in Eilat showcased Israel at its most mellow, its most charmingly Mediterranean – on the Red Sea. At this resort town, the Zionist dream of Israel as a normal democratic country welcoming all is exemplified by the easy mix of scantily-clad European tourists, native Israeli beach bums, and Sudanese refugees staffing the hotels, grateful to have found refuge in the Jewish State.

Rousing Friday night services at the egalitarian Orthodox congregation Shira Hadasha in Jerusalem’s German Colony demonstrated some of the rich varieties of Jewish expression and experimentation fermenting in Israel today. At Shira Hadasha – and more broadly in southern Jerusalem – the Zionist dream of Israel as the central force for Jewish renewal is on full display. Here, passionate, literate sophisticates reconcile modernity and tradition, spreading their ideas throughout the Jewish world via the delighted visitors who come and go.

Finally, celebrating a bar mitzva at the Western Wall, under Robinson’s Arch, allowed the visitors to soak in the Jewish people’s proud past, exciting present and inspiring future. At the Kotel – which includes the entire western wall of the Temple compound – the Zionist dream of Israel as Altneuland, Old New Land, comes alive, especially when young Jews from all over the world come of age amid the ancient stones linking us to our glorious past. In the area of the Davidson Center, all the different forms of Jewish ritual practice can be expressed, reflecting the “Big Tent” tolerance typifying Judaism and Zionism at their best. With stones seemingly frozen in mid-fall when the Romans destroyed Second Temple 1940 years ago, with some structures still partially standing, that site feels more authentic than the familiar, open but sterile plaza most people call the “Kotel.”

Here are the ingredients for the Big Tent Zionism some of us have championed for years. Big Tent Zionism transcends today’s political fights to focus on the eternal meaning of Jewish nationhood and the quest to build a just, democratic and normal society, living in peace. Big Tent Zionism uses the Zionist trinity of peoplehood, history and homeland, to build identity, seeking frameworks of meaning in the modern world and spurs to Jewish revival. Big Tent Zionism is not about Left or Right but about building a Jewish state in our historical homeland. Big Tent Zionism acknowledges that despite much that divides us certain core values unite us. Big Tent Zionism embraces a Hyphenate Zionism, wherein individuals express divergent opinions about religion, peace, borders, economics, while remaining loyal to the essential dream to build a free state in our own land. Just as before the state, we had Labor Zionism and Revisionist Zionism, Cultural Zionism and Religious Zionism, today we need Liberal Zionism and Conservative Zionism, Environmental Zionism and Entrepreneurial Zionism, along with updated versions of Cultural Zionism and Religious Zionism.

Unfortunately, a few right-wing hooligans taking the my-way-or-the-highway approach to Zionism threatened the Emanuel celebration. Despite modern media sensationalism which allows a rotten apple or two to define the whole bunch, these isolated loudmouths should be ignored. Ironically, they are politically self-destructive brutes. If they hope to keep Jerusalem united, what better symbol of the Jewish people’s eternal bond with Jerusalem could they desire than the Chief of Staff of Barack Obama’s White House celebrating this profound moment in an area many of his White House colleagues deem “occupied.” The smarter move would be to welcome Rahm Emanuel and his family into the Big Tent – or chuppah – despite passionate disagreements.

A Big Tent Zionism is more important than ever to rebuff the systematic attempt to delegitimize Israel and Zionism. Of all countries, only Israel remains on probation, with acceptance into the family of nations subject to good behavior. Consider the benighted government of Pakistan, representing an artificial country carved out of the crumbling British Raj. No matter how outrageously Pakistan behaves, sheltering terrorists, honoring nuclear scientists who share nuclear secrets with the North Koreans, the world accepts Pakistan’s right to exist. But even when Israel defends itself as other countries do, many reject Israel’s very existence.

Big Tent Zionism also shifts the focus away from the Palestinians. Yasser Arafat’s central conceit was to make every conversation about Israel be about the Palestinians. That obsession with the Palestinian conflict leads to one-dimensional caricatures of Israel, rather than complex appreciations of the Middle East’s only thriving democracy. That obsession also feeds the contemporary Palestinian campaign to rob Jews and other Israel supporters of the joy of Israel. If every conversation about Israel is about the conflict, Israel becomes the Jewish people’s central headache, not the Jewish Hope-land; the country of the furrowed brow and the concerned look, rather than one of the modern world’s great technological, political, ideological and economic marvels.

In the spirit of Abraham, Israelis should welcome the Emanuel family to the Jewish homeland with open arms. Their pilgrimage, one of thousands of bar mitzva trips arriving annually, augmented by the tens of thousands of birthright student pilgrimages, further augmented by millions of tourist trips, affirms Israel unique role in the world today, as a bridge between yesterday and today, as an extraordinary experiment rooting a modern, cosmopolitan democracy in the soil of one of the world’s oldest and proudest civilizations.

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

The neo-conning of Israel and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-10

A disturbing new trend risks making Israel and Zionism politically poisonous to liberals. Israel has been “neo-conned,” cast as a neo-conservative Sparta, caricatured as a militarized theocracy, defined by the ultra-Orthodox haredim’s black garb and the IDF’s olive green uniforms, epitomized by “Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas,” as Peter Beinart claimed in his recent, overwrought, New York Review of Books essay.

This narrative depicts American Jewish organizations as mindless and monolithic, enabling every right-wing, racist Israeli impulse, squelching dissent, making Zionism incompatible with liberalism, and cloddishly alienating the next, noble generation of American Jews. Treating Israel as more conservative than it actually is alienates many Jews and non-Jews from the Jewish state, especially in the Age of Obama.

Even for those writers who reject the perverse, inaccurate South African Apartheid analogy, seeing Israel through an American historical prism frequently distorts too. Barack Obama compares Palestinian suffering to African-Americans’ oppression. This comparison also sloppily and demagogically racializes a national conflict, making the multi-hued Israelis the “white guys,” meaning the bad guys.

Many critics are also shouting “McCarthyism,” hysterically defining even mild, non-governmental counterattacks against Israel’s relentless critics as hysterical. “McCarthyism” involved government repression of critics, ruining careers, even jailing dissidents; yet today McCarthyism is often alleged when right-wingers dare criticize the Left.

While rooted in the decades-long campaign to declare Zionism racism and Israel illegitimate, the latest surge stems from George W. Bush’s toxic embrace of Israel. His unpopularity proved contagious. Many Americans, including the current president, reflexively transferred their dislike of Bush to countries Bush liked, especially Israel.

Increasingly, championing Israel was deemed “conservative.” The timing was particularly ironic, amid Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, then Ehud Olmert’s centrist government offering the Palestinians generous concessions. Clearly, as a modern capitalist consumerist society Israel is not the socialist workers’ paradise David Ben-Gurion imagined. Israel remains vexed – and tarred – by the continuing Palestinian conflict. Israel’s current governing right-wing coalition includes some parties that have taken appalling anti-democratic positions. And Israel occasionally does stupid things, such as banning Noam Chomsky from the West Bank (then rescinding the ban).

Still, this wave of articles paints Israel not as leaning rightward but as abandoning democracy. These shrill attacks ignore the many counter-balancing forces – and Netanyahu’s own centrist shifts. Avigdor Lieberman is an unpopular, straitjacketed foreign minister, often bypassed. Still, he attracts more attention than moderates like the urbane, cosmopolitan Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

In neo-conning Israel critics overlook Arab illiberalism. Peter Beinart correctly notes that many young Jews resent hearing about Palestinian terrorism, incitement and intransigence. Casting the Arabs as the victims and Israel as the aggressor constitutes one of the greatest con jobs in modern politics.

Most significantly, Netanyahu embraced “two states for two peoples.” Seeking stability as a prerequisite to peace, his government has dismantled checkpoints, nurtured the Palestinian economy and cooperated on security matters with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu’s moves reflect Israel’s historic peace consensus, with most Israelis consistently willing to compromise for peace. These political steps and this profound yearning for peace are under-reported. They muddy the popular narrative of heavy-handed Israelis, long-suffering Palestinians, morally blind American Jewish leaders and justifiably rebellious American Jews.

A vital, creative and liberal Zionist center still thrives. True, if reporters continuously quote post-Zionist radicals such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell or Avraham Burg, they will find backing for caricatures about a Holocaust-obsessed, racist country that ignores the noble elites trying to save it from itself. This one-sidedness would be like writing darkly about “George W. Bush’s America” in 2006 by quoting only Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

Reporters covering Israel should work harder, muddying the story further with truth. They could quote Professor Ruth Gavison, whose “Metzila” think tank harmonizes Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, with universal democratic values. They could interview Professor Moshe Halbertal, a political philosopher who wears a kippa, opposes settlements, and refuted the Goldstone Report. They could visit the Shalom Hartman Institute where Rabbi Donniel Hartman is leading a project I have joined reframing the vocabulary describing Israel and Zionism through Jewish texts as well as enduring Jewish and liberal values. They could consult Reut, the centrist think tank, which champions full equality for Israeli Arabs while defending Israel. Of course, now that Reut opposes delegitimizing Israel it has been branded “right wing.”

Within American Jewry, shoving established Jewish organizations into a box marked “Danger: Conservatives” makes the Jewish leadership and Israel unkosher no matter how bipartisan AIPAC is, no matter how committed to civil liberties the American Jewish Committee is, no matter how many Jewish leaders endorse two states.

Moreover, considering the many arguments about Israel at Sabbath tables and social events, it is absurd to claim that American Jews feel forced to march in lockstep regarding Israel. In most American Jewish circles, there is much more social pressure to be pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Considering Jews’ rich history of disputation, this culture of intensely criticizing Israel may be the modern Jew’s way of showing love. Professor Theodor Sasson argues that intense Jewish debates about Israel reflect a new paradigm of “direct engagement,” rejecting the traditional, more personally passive, organizational model of “mass mobilization.” The 250,000 young students, age 18 to 26, who visited Israel in the last 10 years with Birthright Israel, he notes, feel personal ties to Israel.

Birthright is a non-partisan program, an open-ended gift defined by the catchphrase “no strings attached.” As the new voluntary chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee, I have been struck how researchers tracking the program report that few participants complain about being force-fed a line. The trip’s organizers know their credibility as educators rests on being open-minded not heavy-handed. Birthright is not an advocacy program but an identity-building program, launching thousands of individualized Jewish journeys.

The Zionist center is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic – even if ignored by reporters. It is a Zionism of balance, seeking to better Israel while opposing its enemies’ irrational, obsessive hatred. It is a Zionism sobered by reality, seeking peace while remembering how territorial concessions bred Yasser Arafat’s terrorism and Hamas’s Kassams. It is a Zionism characterized by idealism, viewing nationalism as a framework for finding collective meaning and harnessing group power to achieve universal values. And it is a Zionism still nurtured by its liberal roots, viewing individual liberty, true equality, a just democracy and a lasting peace as keys to fulfilling Judaism’s teachings, Zionism’s dreams and Israel’s promise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. Among his books are Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Wiesel’s Jerusalem: celestial and earthly – but not stereotypical

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-10-10

Some leading Israeli leftists criticized the Nobel Peace Prize winning-writer Elie Wiesel for being too lyrical in defending Jerusalem. His recent ad, “For Jerusalem” declared: “For me, the Jew that I am, Jerusalem is above politics.” His critics scoffed: “You speak of the celestial Jerusalem; we live in the earthly one… We prefer the hardship of realizing citizenship in this city to the convenience of merely yearning for it.” As my family and I celebrate our third Yom Yerushalayim – Jerusalem Day – as residents of this extraordinary city, I want to thank Professor Wiesel for using poetry to teach President Barack Obama that Jerusalem is not just another bargaining chip but the eternal window into the Jewish soul.

Accusing Elie Wiesel of being too lyrical is like accusing Isaac Stern of being too musical or LeBron James of being too athletic; that’s what they do. Even those of us who lack Professor Wiesel’s eloquence frequently wax poetic about the Jewish people’s capital for the last 3,000 years. That, our radical friends should remember, is what nationalists do when talking about their capitals – and homelands. Americans celebrate Washington’s monuments; Brits hail London’s towers; Jews rhapsodize about Jerusalem’s walls.

Unfortunately, if Jews celebrate their eternal ties to Jerusalem – or dare question Palestinian ties – they are deemed racist. Yet those who question Jewish ties to Jerusalem get human rights awards and EU grants, especially if they are Jewish. This narrative imbalance is another form of asymmetrical warfare.

Jerusalem’s walls evoke for Jews a profound mix of nationalism and religion, glory and tragedy, spiritual fulfillment and political redemption, longevity and longing. The Phoenicians, Babylonians, Assyrians and the Romans disappeared, but the Jews remain connected to the same land, speaking the same language, following the same basic laws, and romanticizing the same capital city three thousand years later. Jerusalem has been consistently Jewish since King David, but it has not been consistently free. Just 43 years ago, until early June, 1967, Jews could glance towards our holiest sites but could not touch our holiest stones.

That history mocks the occupation preoccupation. Occupation implies an historical clarity that does not exist – especially around Jerusalem. Even in the 20th century, borders have been fluid, populations have shifted. One cannot freeze time as of 1949 or 1967 or 70. An equitable solution must consider history, demography, security and border contiguity. I personally have no ties to Shuafat or Abu Dis. My only concerns with those parts of modern Jerusalem relate to security.

So yes, Jerusalem shel malah is a celestial city that makes my soul sing. Every morning, I jog through the Old City, passing seamlessly from one Quarter to another. I need no iPod stuck into my ears to delight in a symphony of sounds: birds chirping as I scramble up Mount Zion, schoolchildren laughing in the Jewish Quarter, Arab shopkeepers in the Muslim souk kibitzing “one-two,” “one-two” as I trudge by, church bells tolling in the Christian Quarter. I see wondrous sights, passing monks and nuns, garbagemen and high school students, each in their respective uniforms, all proceeding peacefully. Some sights defy the stereotypes. Just this morning, while jogging up the steps of David Street, I passed a haredi soldier, in uniform, with forelocks flying, bicycling down the steps.

And yes, Jerusalem shel matah is an earthly, modern municipality which must be judged practically. Is the trash collected? Is the building permit process honest? Are resources distributed fairly among its various sectors? Does the municipality preserve the city’s old-new charm? Does traffic flow? Can young people get jobs, buy homes, raise families? Amid the Holyland scandal and the Sheikh Jarrah power struggle, only fools claim all is hunky-dory. But only fanatics – or headline-hungry reporters – could caricature Jerusalem as exploding.

Stereotypes fall regarding alleged Israeli oppression when we consider that thousands of Palestinians are seeking Israeli citizenship to enjoy Israel’s bounty if the city is divided. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem the pressure-cooker when you see Arabs and Jews playing side-by-side in Liberty Bell Park, or see secular Jews, modern religious Jews, haredi Jews, Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, working, suffering, healing together at Hadassah Hospital. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem as a city inhospitable to secular Israelis when you visit the Jerusalem Theatre or see the diverse but heavily secular crowds at the annual festivals enlivening the calendar. Stereotypes fall regarding Jerusalem the dangerous when you see how freely, comfortably, safely my kids and their friends wander around our neighborhood – and others.

And yes, Jerusalem is a political hot potato. Elie Wiesel’s ad was not from someone in denial about that. Instead, he was correcting some of the oversimplifications that could have devastating political consequences. Wiesel’s plea was rooted in the historical fact that, beyond Jews’ millennial ties, Jews have been the largest demographic group in Jerusalem at least since 1845. His plea was rooted in the fact that Israel has protected Muslims’ and Christians’ freedom to administer their holy sites, even though the Jordanians trashed the Jewish Quarter and Palestinians more recently desecrated Jewish holy sites such as Joseph’s tomb. His plea was rooted in the fact that the Palestinians in 2000 turned away from negotiations and toward violence, spilling blood in Jerusalem specifically, so confidence-building measures must come from them too. And ultimately, his plea was rooted in the fact that one-side stereotyping, pressure and narratives will only delay the dream so many of us share of Jerusalem as the city of peace, bewitching us all with its spirituality, its harmony, offering a model of amity among Jews, Christians and Muslims.

In honor of Professor Wiesel – and in honor of this magical city – my kids and I will celebrate this Jerusalem Day. We will not march with those who seek to expand Israeli control into Palestinians areas, nor with those who diminish Jews’ historic ties to the city. Instead, we will participate in a sing-along of Jerusalem songs at 4 p.m. that day in front of the newly-rebuilt Hurva Synagogue for a “tolerant Jerusalem” sponsored by the “Yerushalmim” Quality of Life movement, among those who seek the balance between Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital, and Jerusalem, an international treasure beloved by billions more.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

University Presidents Should Fight Academics Delegitimizing Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-6-10

The leaders of the country’s universities must face the facts. The issue is already on many donors’ agendas: The campaign to delegitimize Israel is gaining traction, with a few, shrill, oft-quoted Israeli academics participating enthusiastically.

Board of Governors season for Israeli universities is approaching. Hundreds of wealthy Jews from across the world will rub elbows with wealthy Israelis as leading “Friends of” their favorite university, in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Beer Sheba and Haifa, Rechovot and Ramat Gan. They will be wined and dined, schmoozed and boozed. But this year, as the universities finalize their schedules they must decide. Are they treating these people as sheep waiting to be fleeced or will they address them as intelligent idealists struggling with the destructive role some Israeli academics are playing at home and abroad today?

Israel’s university presidents must face facts. Whether or not they put it on the schedule, the issue is already on many donors’ agendas. The campaign to delegitimize Israel is gaining traction, with a few, shrill, oft-quoted Israeli academics participating enthusiastically. These people have no trouble benefiting from donors’ largesse – and the state’s educational subsidies — while trashing Zionism and Israel. They curry favor with non-Jews by denouncing Israel, without taking responsibility for how Israel’s enemies use their words.

FOR EXAMPLE, on April 6, 31 members of “Boycott! Supporting the Palestinian BDS call from within” – many of whom are Israeli academics – cheered the Berekely Student Senate for endorsing an anti-Israel diverstment initiative, writing: “we were very happy to hear of your decision.”

This letter complicated an intense but nevertheless ultimately successful campaign to uphold the student body president’s veto of the resolution.

This academic year began with one Israeli department head calling in the Los Angeles Times, the London Guardian and elsewhere for “an international boycott” as “the only way to save Israel from itself.” I am omitting names and universities because I do not want to demonize individuals or single out particular institutions. The problem is general, and growing.

When university presidents have addressed this issue they have correctly defended these caustic critics’ rights to free speech and academic freedom. I agree. I question the integrity and class of those who advocate boycotting a university while cashing its checks, but I defend their rights to be foolish, harsh, greedy, and inconsistent. Natan Sharansky’s famous test for a democracy – can you go to the town square and denounce the government without being arrested – is essential in universities.

But treatises on academic freedom are not enough. Donors justifiably resent being given a Zionist fund-raising shpiel while fearing their hard-earned dollars are subsidizing the worldwide anti-Zionist campaign.

While protecting the freedom of everyone to speak freely, university leaders must start leading on this issue. No Israeli university president has denounced delegitimization as boldy as Lawrence Summers did when he was president of Harvard.

FORE STARTERS, universities should distinguish between academic freedom and educational malpractice. There have been reports – which require more study and careful documentation – that there are many Israeli professors, and even certain academic departments, who push a harsh anti-Israel line so aggressively that students and untenured professors feel pressured into parroting the dominant radical anti-Zionist agenda. Universities must ensure that students are exposed to a wide-range of views and that students do not feel bullied politically – from the left or the right.

University presidents should crack down on educational malpractice, which includes lazy professors using their classroom podiums as political platforms, doctrinaire professors squelching students’ opinions, and a host of other bad practices not connected to politics. In too many universities, in Israel and abroad, teaching is handled with benign neglect, as an afterthought sandwiched in between research and committee work. Simply raising the issue raises consciousness and raises standards. Universities needs ombudsmen, who teach students how to respond if they feel bullied and should educate professors to become better educators. These quality-of-life initiatives will result in a better experience for students.

Second, just as the university presidents on parade boast about the scientific and technological innovations emanating from their universities, they should showcase the positive social benefits bubbling up on campus, while honoring those professors who stand up for Israel abroad – even if it costs them a research grant or two.

The efforts, for example, of Hebrew University’s Robert Wistrich, whose towering new volume A Lethal Obsession details the history of anti-Semitism, illustrate the benefits of having an open university. Wistrich’s credibility would be damaged if he came from a doctrinaire university that squelched free speech; in many ways it is enhanced knowing he emerged from an academic environment which is reputed to be hypercritical of Israel and Zionism.

Finally, the university presidents should show they are proactive by becoming proactive. Together, they represent an impressive group of world-class scholars. These scholars are the best argument against a boycott, proving that it would hurt the boycotters more than the boycotted.

Universities should encourage more study from abroad, more academic collaborations, and more initiatives helping democrats all over the world understand how to distinguish between criticizing particular Israeli policies and demonizing the Jewish state. Perhaps the presidents should draft a joint statement, signed by hundreds of academics, defending academic freedom while affirming the importance of not singling out Israel, not demonizing Israel, not delegitimizing Israel. Let them declare their commitment to Israeli democracy, to patriotism, to a renewal of a big tent Zionism that is not defined by boundary disputes but transcends our political divisions to launch a conversation about how we achieve meaning in this world individually and collectivelly, as citizens and a nation.

And once they are hosting the Governors, these elaborate schmooze-fests with a network of leaders from Israel and abroad – why not include them, substantively, respectfully, in on the conversation. Acknowledge the dilemmas, the complexities, while enlisting these generous, thoughtful donors in on the much-needed campaign in Israel and abroad to reaffirm Jewish and democratic values, defend Israel, and renew our Zionist dreams.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”