Looking monstrous, feeling virtuous: How delegitimization distorts

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6 -28-10

Last week I was bicycling through Jerusalem’s picturesque German Colony. Suddenly, at one of those blind intersections where the picturesque building looms dangerously close to the picturesque curb, an SUV cut me off. I braked. The next thing I knew my face was bonded with the pavement on picturesque HaTzfira street.

I was lucky. My helmet did its work. I stood up immediately. I had no headache, no neck pain, no breaks, no internal injuries, and am happy to be alive. But I ended up with stitches on my now-very fat lip, a swollen nose, a huge multicolored raspberry across my left cheek, a black eye, and stitches over my eyebrow. I look monstrous.

All this while facing a week with 2 bar mitzvahs, 4 speaking engagements, and 5 end-of-year kids’ class parties or performances, including my younger son’s Tae Kwon Do competition just hours after the accident. My wife wisely insisted I skip the competition, to avoid “freaking out” everyone. Otherwise, although my children suggested I hibernate, I attended every event.

Walking around with a gruesome face, however temporary (I hope), has stirred up “stuff,” as we non-touchy-feely guys call “feelings.” I gird myself for each interaction, from going to the bank to greeting friends, planning what to say, seeking just the right tone of bravado. I recall my teenage years in the 1970s. Back when Woody Allen was king of New York, we Jewish-intellectual-wannabes built our defense mechanisms around his. As kids from Queens, my friends and I constructed personae compensating for our lack of good looks and lack of wealth by mocking vanity and materialism.

Steeped in a culture worshipping blond-haired, blue-eyed, moneyed jocks – on screen and even at university – we were happily countercultural. Our unkempt hair, flannel shirts and t-shirts, ripped jeans and construction boots, were our uniform, our own particular psychic armor. Rather than competing with the mythical WASPs in realms we never could master, we changed the channel, valuing winning quiz bowls not college bowls or beauty pageants.

Even so, it’s no fun unsettling passersby, and wounded pride kicks in on many levels. Expressions of sympathy often come with bike safety lectures, as if I failed. I constantly relive the moments before the accident, wondering why I had not fixed my shrieking brakes, should I have been going slower? Seeking to reassert control over my life, I made sure, before Shabbat, to order new glasses, fix my watch, buy a new bike – and helmet.

Simultaneously, as I wander about looking gruesome my newfound insecurities are blunted by feelings of self-righteousness. I know I’m the same me who never before received double-stares on the street. My fleeting disability provides a quick taste of how tough life is for those born impaired or permanently scarred by some moment in life you relive constantly but never can undo. Looking monstrous, feeling virtuous reminds me of my graduate school poverty. Working as an historian never felt as pure as when I was accumulating debts rather than earning a salary.

Politically, my horrid new look has me wondering about the distortions in Israeli political culture that come from appearing so monstrous to most of the world. Our enemies’ enmities – like people’s prejudices – clarify yet distort. Underlying the latest surge in attempts to delegitimize Israel is a systematic campaign to single Israel out for special opprobrium. No country has endured such a decades-long campaign against its very right to exist, fueled by petro-dollars, ramped up by Islamist fanaticism, ingrained into Arab political culture, integrated into parts of Western political culture. No other country has been kept on probation for 62 years, with its legitimacy subject to good behavior, with its leaders, founding ideology and people condemned so harshly, so disproportionately.

And yet, as I do with my accident, Israel should take some responsibility for its own predicament. Just because you are paranoid does not mean you do not have enemies. Just because you are demonized does not mean you do not make mistakes. Dismissing any criticisms because they amplify the vicious condemnations is as destructive as not taking responsibility for how criticisms delegitimize. Israel must learn from legitimate criticism and make necessary policy changes, while fighting off illegitimate criticism and defending its right to self-defense.

That is why the current moment is so dangerous. Too many of Israel’s honest, patriotic critics are not doing enough to fight delegitimization while too many of Israel’s ardent patriotic defenders are not doing enough to help Israel reform where necessary. Those deemed to be on the “left” must marshal more forces to fight delegitimization, distancing themselves from the ugly cesspools of Arab anti-Semitism and Palestinian rejectionism feeding it. The Zionist left must do a better job criticizing Israeli failures in the territories and elsewhere without using false analogies about Nazism and Apartheid, without repudiating Zionism’s essence, while acknowledging the poisoned atmosphere in which Israel operates. The Zionist “right” must stop using our adversaries’ fanaticism as excuses for failed leadership. Just days after President Barack Obama fired his top commander in Afghanistan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to fire any number of incompetent Ministers because of coalition politics and this lockdown mentality becomes even more glaring.

As the New Israel Fund meets this week, the left and the right must rally together, fighting delegitimization while acknowledging differences on other issues. The stakes are too high to accept the denial on the left which minimizes the harmful nature of the vicious attacks on Israel or to accept the laziness on the right which hunkers down rather than moving forward.

As my own recent experiences reminded me, appearances count, like it or not. Israel needs some of its critical patriots to help improve its image abroad. Israel also needs some policy changes and governmental renewal to make that image change significant, not just cosmetic surgery. Better to feel virtuous because you are, rather than because others misperceive you.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal 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, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

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Yes, You Can Be Pro-Palestinian and Pro-Zionist

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-21-10

Last week, I addressed hundreds of young Australians finishing their “shnat” year-in-Israel programs. A number asked me more or less the same critical question: How can we be pro-Zionist while being pro-Palestinian (and thus occasionally criticized for being anti-Zionist)?  I glibly answered that today, with Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister endorsing two states for two peoples, you can be pro-Palestinian and pro-Zionist. Moreover, our enemies make it easy for us. The attack against Israel is so extreme, so disproportionate, so resonant with anti-Semitic imagery and animus, we can simply unite on an anti-anti-Israel platform – leaving much room to argue. Finally, I said a Big Tent Zionism needs the left as well as the right; Jewish leaders should welcome them not reject them.

Despite Israel’s long record of compromising for peace, from accepting the pre-state partition in 1947 to signing the Camp David accords three decades later – it used to be harder to be pro-Zionist and pro-Palestinian. Since the Oslo Peace Process began in 1993, most Zionists and most Israelis have respected the legitimacy of Palestinian national aspirations and sought a two-state solution. In 1995, the anti-Defamation League’s Abe Foxman quit his synagogue when his rabbi harshly denounced the Israeli leaders who accepted the Oslo compromises.

On June 14, 2009, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proclaimed at Bar Ilan University:  “In my vision of peace, in this small land of ours, two peoples live freely, side-by-side, in amity and mutual respect.  Each will have its own flag, its own national anthem, its own government. Neither will threaten the security or survival of the other.”

We must stop treating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a zero-sum game. Two different peoples are in love with the same land and must coexist together somehow. In defining nationalisms, in constituting peoples, the mix of romantic myth and historical fact prevents one nation from judging another’s validity. True, the Jewish people’s relationship with Israel predates Palestinian or Islamic consciousness. But as an historian I would be the first to admit that such facts are irrelevant centuries later, because Palestinian and Islamic consciousness now exist.

Palestinian nationalism’s great crime has been treating the conflict as a zero-sum game, becoming addicted to negationism, nihilism and violence. The Hamas Charter, dripping with anti-Semitism, seeking Israel’s destruction, is only one example. That is the basis of my second argument. Even these days, Israel’s enemies make it easy for Israel’s defenders. The attack on Israel goes beyond boundaries or behavior. So many of Israel’s enemies endorse destroying Israel itself, so many jump to delegitimizing Zionism, to hating Judaism, they shift the terms of debate. The burden of proof is on the bigot not the victim to prove that they are not perpetuating historic stereotypes. Zionists defend Israel’s right to exist, and denounce the anti-Semitic strains shaping these obsessive attacks on Israel. Criticizing Israel’s behavior, and championing Palestinian rights to self-determination, fit within the Zionist framework, which respects national rights to self-determination.

In fact, the Zionist movement needs pro-Palestinian Zionists. Support for Israel has long been bipartisan and must remain so. The double helix forming Zionism’s DNA interweaves what people today consider the liberal commitment to collectivism, liberty, and universalism with the conservative commitment to individualism, tradition and particularism. The Kibbutz and the fighting Hesder Yeshiva are both quintessentially Zionist institutions, just as the quest for universal justice and Jewish self-defense are both quintessentially Zionist aspirations.

Last week, before delivering a rousing call for an Orthodoxy balancing the universal and the particular, universities and yeshivas, secular learning with religious wisdom, Lord Jonathan Sacks, England’s Chief Rabbi, spoke informally to some of us about fighting Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism. “We have gotten it all wrong,” he lamented, summarizing his majestic 2002 book The Dignity of Difference. Sacks rejects Jews’ tendency to “narrowcast” – convening Jews to complain to other Jews about anti-Semitism. He teaches that truly understanding Judaism – and other faiths – can encourage mutual respect, championing universal values by embracing one’s own particular narrative and community while making “space for difference” too.

Like religion, nationalism can turn people inward or outward, becoming destructive or constructive. A Big Tent Zionism, with strong left and right flanks, will put Zionism’s creative tension to good use, as Israel defends its own citizens while respecting others, seeking win-wins in international politics rather than do-or-die zero sum interactions.

The day before Lord Sacks’ speech, my colleague from the Shalom Hartman Institute, Dr. Micha Goodman, explained second-generation Israelis’ disappointment with Zionism to the World Zionist Congress by quoting Naomi Wolf’s The Beauty Myth. By demanding perfection, reality inevitably looks ugly and becomes devastatingly disappointing, he warned. Goodman’s insight also explains some liberals’ disappointment with Israel. Many Jews hold Israel up to unrealistically high expectations, then overreact, recoiling in disgust when Israel disappoints.

But an opposite phenomenon occurs among more committed Diaspora Zionists, left and right. For many of us who grew up in large, well-organized, well-manicured, suburbanized Western countries, the seeming perfection of these paradises can feel overwhelming, alienating, diminishing of our potential impact. For that committed minority, Israel’s imperfections are a lure, a compelling invitation to make a difference, to help change the world. This should be the new chalutziut, the new pioneering spirit, seeing Israel’s challenges as opportunities to help shape a dynamic society still in formation, and because of its youth, intimacy, and myriad troubles, more open to creative inputs.

While not solely the province of progressives, forging conversations about the dignity of difference and embracing opportunities for reform have long been standard-issue equipment in the liberal toolbox. Now, more than ever, the Zionist movements needs that universal vision, that reforming zeal, and the credibility that comes from embracing others, balanced by the realism, dignity, and self-protectiveness the anti-Israel left and the self-loathing Israeli left often lack. That kind of Zionism is pro-Palestinian, pro-Jewish, pro-humanity.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. 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. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

“Ghost Zionism” Haunts the World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-16-10

The 36th World Zionist Congress has been meeting in Jerusalem this week, but few people noticed. The Congress which once shaped Jewish history is a ghost of its former self. Zionism is in crisis, attacked internally and externally, by frustrated Jews, honest critics, and anti-Semites. The Zionist Congress itself – along with most of its constituent organizations – has become so irrelevant critics have not even bothered targeting it. Nor has the Zionist Congress responded to critics effectively.

Post-Zionism has infected many Israeli elites, assailing the State’s foundations and Jewish nationalism’s legitimacy. But more dangerous than post-Zionism is Ghost Zionism. Ghost Zionism is a Zionism that has been distorted by critics who treat the Jewish national liberation movement as some ghoulish expression of the West’s worst characteristics not its highest ideals. They caricature Zionism as racist, imperialist, colonialist, not a legitimate movement of liberal democratic nationalism and Jewish national rights.

At the same time, Ghost Zionism is possessed by pro-Israelism. The obsession with Israel advocacy narrows the Zionist agenda, concentrating on self-defense not self-fulfillment. Most consider AIPAC, the ADL, and the AJC – American Jewish Committee – America’s main Zionist organizations, but they are advocacy organizations. Zionism always had more ambitious, more humanistic, aims to elevate the Jewish soul not just protect Jewish bodies, and by redeeming the Jewish people, redeem the world.

In a recent attack in Tablet suggesting “maybe American Liberal Zionism simply isn’t worth saving,” Daniel Luban mocked the Jewish community’s “constant insistence on changing the subject from the concrete political issues at stake to issues of Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding. It is the worst kind of narcissism to insist on talking endlessly about our feelings rather than the political realities that stare us in the face.”

Actually, discussions concerning Israel should pivot more on “Jewish identity and Jewish self-understanding.” Not every Zionist interchange should be about Palestinians. Luban’s failure to understand why that is essential not narcissistic reflects the stunning educational failure of Diaspora Jewry, Israel, and the Zionist movement.

Identity Zionism must coexist with Crisis Zionism. Zionism is an affirmative response to assimilation and alienation not just a defensive response to anti-Semitism. Our Zionist dreams should tap into the power of the “us” in the age of the “I,” harness and hone idealism in an age of materialism, deploying Jewish values, Jewish history, Jewish community, and the Jewish homeland in the fight for meaning in a world that often makes people feel aimless and adrift. The Zionist movement should provide an educational framework, an ideological structure, and a vehicle for action. This vision of “Big Tent Zionism” stretching left to right is more sweeping than the latest “Hasbara” campaign.

The Zionist movement – spearheaded by the Zionist Congress – should fill this gap in the Israel conversation, showing that engaging Israel is about who we are and who we want to be not simply what political stand we take regarding the Palestinians. Instead, the Zionism movement today is usually spectral, invisible. Today’s greatest Israel-oriented identity-building initiative, Birthright Israel, is so removed from the World Zionist Congress and its concerns, Birthright avoids the word Zionism. And while 250,000 young Jews have returned from Israel trips in the last decade, the World Zionist Congress has done nothing significant to further their Jewish journeys, to follow up on Birthright’s breakthrough.

The World Zionist Congress should be a forum for embracing creative ideas to renew Judaism through renewing Zionism. Delegates should learn about the concerns of young people – and address them. Delegates should consider Professor Jonathan Sarna’s suggestion that some credible Jewish organization should issue “Klal Yisrael Impact Statements,” warning when politicians, organizations, political parties, individuals, in Israel and abroad, harm the unity of the Jewish people. In that spirit, they should repudiate religious coercion in Israel, emphasizing freedom as a central Zionist ideal. Delegates should tackle what Rabbi Daniel Gordis calls the “40-60” challenge – to reverse the percentage of American Jews who have NOT visited Israel from 60 percent to 40 percent. Delegates should discuss initiatives to determine just what “red lines” supporters of Israel should voluntarily agree not to cross in political debate, and just what blue and white lines we should respect, what common ideas unite us. Delegates should demand that the Israeli education system improve overall and start teaching about Diaspora and Zionist values to enhance Jewish peoplehood. Building on one recent World Zionist Organization success, delegates should learn from the celebrations of Theodor Herzl and brainstorm about devoting 2011 to celebrating David Ben Gurion’s 125th birthday, 2012 to Yitzhak Rabin’s 90th birthday, and 2013 to Menachem Begin’s 100th and Chaim Weizmann’s 140th.

Instead, this year, Shas, having recently joined the World Zionist Organization, is trying to change the iconic Jerusalem Program. That Johnny-come-lately politicos are quibbling over wording while neglecting so many other pressing issues borders on the comic. That the proposed changes will feed stereotypes of Israel and Zionism as conservative, theocratic, and alienating Diaspora youth, makes the episode tragic. This is a Talmudists’ twist on rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs: arguing what the exact wording of the organization’s death certificate should be – if anyone bothers issuing it, or noticing the movement’s demise.

In 2010, we cannot afford a convention of conventional Zionists and bureaucrats. We need a World Zionist Congress worthy of its tradition. We need a modern Theodor Herzl to move us from hysteria to hope, from defending to dreaming, from reacting to crises to creating opportunities. We need a modern Ahad Ha’am to tap into the Jewish homeland’s secular and religious spiritual powers, reminding us of its centrality in our lives and nationalism’s constructive power. We need a modern Max Nordau, whose literary fame in the non-Jewish world elevated the Zionist movement, and who proclaimed: “We Zionists wear our Judaism as a badge of honor.” We need a renewed commitment from the Jewish masses, to embrace a program of deep commitment, inspirational leadership, and bold change.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal 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. He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

Steve Averbach z”l: Israel’s man of spiritual steel

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

The recent death of  Steve Averbach, yet another victim of Palestinian terrorism, stirred memories of the bad old days of 2003, when suicide bombers regularly attacked. Averbach was paralyzed during a bus bombing in Jerusalem early Sunday morning May 18, 2003. The informal networks of love that helped him showed “We Are One” is more than a slogan. His steadfastness, grit, and humor while imprisoned in his own body inspired those of us lucky enough to know him.

In 2003, Averbach was a 37-year-old New Jersey suburbanite turned Golani “gever,” whose talents as a gun instructor earned him the nickname “Steve Guns.”  A Palestinian terrorist, masquerading as a religious Jew, boarded the bus near French Hill. Noting the tell-tale bulge, Averbach reached for his weapon. In that instant, the terrorist blew himself up.

Hamas took responsibility for the attack which murdered seven people immediately. Twenty were severely wounded, including Averbach, a father of four, who ended up paralysed below the neck after a steel ball bearing ripped into his spine.

Averbach’s alertness scared the bomber into detonating earlier than his bloodthirsty Hamas handlers planned. The Defense Ministry honored Averbac’s heroics, because the bus was about to pick up dozens of schoolkids and commuters. He regretted not stopping the bomber – an impossible expectation he imposed on himself – and wondered how to rebuild his life. “I control nothing, zero. I can’t turn over, lift a hand,” he told  a reporter. “So they tell me that I’m my kids’ father, and no one can take that away from me. But look at me, what kind of a dad can I be? I want to walk and play with my kids, what can I do now? What does anyone need me for? It’s hard to think that I’m really worth anything like this.”

But Averbach was a warrior. He fought to breathe on his own, when experts doubted he would. He fought to live at home, when experts doubted he would. He fought to get some quality of life, maintain his dignity, be a good father – despite his own doubts.

Word of Averbach’s remarkable progress reached Christopher Reeve, the one-time Superman actor paralyzed after an accident. In July, 2003, Reeve visited Israel and met Averbach, Israel’s own man of spiritual steel.

As Averbach lay in the hospital, bereft and struggling for each breath, word of his troubles reached Rabbi Emanuel Forman, an oleh himself who was temporarily at Congregation Shaar HaShomayim in Montreal. Rabbi Forman told some of us about the tragedy, and, we immediately raised over $15,000. Sean Bernstein from Dawson College Hillel undertook to raise $1000. He miscalculated. He raised $2000.

As more people embraced the mitzvah of giving, more people asked how to help. We were living out the rabbinic teaching “Mitzvah gorrer Mitzvah” – one Mitzvah tugs another. Thanking Sean and singling out the Hadassah women enveloping Steve and his family, Dr. David Averbach – Steve’s father – reported, “There are many more wonderful people in the world than I ever realized.”

In November, 2003, I visited Steve. While searching for his hospital room, I felt nervous. I am a professor not a social worker or a rabbi. I don’t do hospital visits. I wondered: What will I say? How long should I stay? Does he even want visitors? Fortunately, Sean had sent a letter along with the money I was delivering, praising Steve as a hero. I read it. We both teared up as Steve insisted, “aw, no, Gil, I’m no hero.” The friendship flowed from there.

Steve dismissed all the hero talk, insisting “I simply had no choice. It was required of me. It would be like a doctor who sees a car crash and doesn’t stop.”

Steve Averbach was a macho Zionist, a street-smart Zionist. He was tough, partied hard, and loved Israel fiercely. He did not sit around quoting the “Zionist Idea.” His Zionism was more instinctive, sensual, primal. He felt he belonged in Israel, threw his lot with Israel, and did what was necessary to defend it. His Zionism was of self-defense and self-fulfillment

In spring, 2004, Sean Bernstein went on Birthright Israel. As a non-political, identity-oriented journey for first-time visitors, Birthright usually avoided visits to terror victims. Nevertheless, we felt this was an exceptional opportunity to bring Sean and Steve together (as well as Sean’s 39 bus mates).

At the meeting, Steve disarmed everyone by joking about his best friend Jack – Jack Daniels. He spoke movingly about Zionism as a way to make a difference in this world. Deflecting all the attention on him, he asked the participants about their aspirations, their impressions. They ended by singing, hugging, and crying together.

Lorne Klemensberg of the Israeli arm of the Canada Israel Experience Centre, himself a tough oleh and combat veteran, reported that “Steve touched the heart of every single person in the room. He made us all think about the meaning of certain words we throw around every day like courage, heroism, commitment, belief, Zionism, sacrifice.”

After Steve’s death, one friend wrote Sean Bernstein: “I was deeply saddened to learn of Steve’s passing today. I am glad you pushed for us to meet him on our Birthright Trip. Hell of a guy. He made the Zionist in me fiercely proud!” Sean wanted the Averbach family to know “that 45 minutes with Steve changed 40 young students forever.”

For 2574 days, Steve Averbach lived in hell. Each day was endless, filled with anguish and indignity. He suffered. His saintly wife Julie suffered. His family suffered. Strangely, such suffering – which in Israel is multiplied exponentially considering the thousands of casualties – is invisible, even to many American Jews, who label Israeli intransigence the only obstacle to peace.

Steve’s suffering illustrated the risks of peace – and the need for peace. His heroism, carving out moments of beauty and pockets of meaning amid this nightmare, proved how deep our reserves as human beings are – and how one person can not only face tragedy but touch so many others with his strength, vision, idealism.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of
Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

The Left’s fiasco flotilla: Betraying Zionism and liberalism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-7-10

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This month, in Jerusalem, Way Off Productions and AACI are premiering Arsenic, The Musical, an original musical based on Arsenic and Old Lace. In this charming, energetic production, the exceedingly normal star, Mortimer Brewster, suddenly realizes he is surrounded by homicidal lunatics – including his two doddering old aunties. What a fitting metaphor for Israel’s read of the flotilla fiasco, wherein purported “peace activists” pummeled fellow human beings with metal rods and the whole world went crazy, blaming Israel while Israel felt assailed.

There is, of course, much to criticize in Israel’s actions. However, amid all the righteous indignation targeting Israel, will any leftists criticize the Turkish jihadists who masked their violent intentions by blustering about human rights and humanitarian aid? Who will defend Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals? Who can cry for the people of Gaza AND the tattered teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., who would have despised having his non-violent philosophy hijacked by these goons?

Some prominent American Jews are complaining that Zionism betrayed liberalism. They ignore modern Zionism’s big broad tent while caricaturing Israel in all its chaotic complexity and democratic diversity as a McCarthy-ite theocracy slouching toward fascism. In fact, liberalism remains compatible with Zionism, having helped spawn it. But today’s hypocritical left, driving recklessly because of its moral blind spots, repeatedly betrays both liberalism and Zionism.

Honest liberals could not support Hamas; a theocratic, dictatorial, anti-Semitic terrorist movement that snuffs out any signs of liberal life that try sprouting in Gaza. Consistent liberals would recoil from the jihadist associations of the IHH, the Turkish organization calling itself the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, while ferrying rogues lacking identity cards, flush with cash and armed for a fight. True liberals would make time to protest North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship – purposely killing three times the number Israelis mistakenly killed this week. They would protest Pakistani violence, Saudi Arabian sexism, Iranian repression while rushing toward nuclear weaponry, Islamic homophobia, the brutal trampling of individual rights throughout the Arab world. Wise liberals would understand that the left’s selective indignation, represented by the human rights establishment’s obsession with Israel, undermines liberalism’s core ideals, abandoning millions who need help throughout the world.

Some trace this leftist betrayal to liberalism’s nineteenth-century tug of war between universalism and particularism. Yet liberal nationalism triumphed, epitomized by the US and implemented widely as democracy spread throughout the West. Some modern anti-Zionism, especially among Jews, stems from a faux cosmopolitanism – an inability to see how particularism, nationalism, rootedness in an identity, can better fulfill universal ideals. Today’s toxic hypocrisy picks and chooses among particularisms, for example, romanticizing Palestinian nationalism while demeaning Jewish nationalism. More broadly, the New Left holds Western democracies to artificially high standards while giving a moral free pass to non-white, non-Western autocracies.

This perverse double standard is younger. After World War II, the virtuous struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism created what we could call “Che Guevara rules”. In advancing civil rights, in defeating colonial regimes, revolutionaries like that Argentinean Marxist taught that, in any national struggle, white Western powers are always wrong, indigenous people of color are always right, and that anything goes for those deemed to be oppressed in opposing the oppressor. In the 1970s, Soviet propagandists pushed further, redefining human rights from protecting individuals against their states to protecting the supposedly weak against the powerful, which usually meant virtuous Third World countries against decadent Western democracies.

The New Left’s addiction to these revolutionary theatrics and Identity Politics violated liberalism’s defining enlightenment rationalism. Liberalism abhorred unreason, considered violence a last resort, and even in its nationalist expressions valued universal individual rights and consistency of results. All of a sudden, “identity” trumped “politics”; who you were determined what rights you had and became more important than what you did. Palestinians could get a free pass to be terrorists; Israelis were scorned even when defending themselves.

This deviation from liberalism was a racist condescension masquerading as anti-racism. When someone in the conflict was cast as of color, the rules changed. Whites were consistently assumed to be wrong and held to higher standards. While supposedly sympathizing with the “other,” white leftists treated many people of color as morally inferior, as somehow absolved of the normal moral restraints.

This strategy was formalized in the UN General Assembly’s 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. The US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his Israeli colleague Chaim Herzog understood they were defending Western Civilization’s guiding principles. They recognized the attack on Israel as an attack on democracy and decency. They warned that the language of human rights and the UN itself would be diminished, that hypocrisy and selective indignation would trump consistency and the rule of law. What Moynihan called this “terrible lie” has outlasted the Soviet Union’s fall and even the resolution’s repeal in 1991.

Shortly before the UN passed the resolution, the British writer Paul Johnson wrote in The New Statesman:

The world is increasingly governed not so much by capitalism, or communism, or social democracy, or even tribal barbarism, as by a false lexicon of political clichés, accumulated over a century and now assuming a kind of degenerate sacerdotal authority.”

The Palestinians, with the help of their Soviet puppeteers and a restive Third World imprisoned the Arab-Israeli conflict in these political clichés. For decades now, the Palestinians have cleverly used these clichés to pillory Israel, indicting Israel as embodying all three great sins, as a racist, imperialist, colonialist state.

How tragic that so many leftists have drunk this potion laced with arsenic, poisoning the language of human rights, the UN itself, distracting humanitarian organizations from many important tasks, in this collective pile-on against Israel. How frustrating that Israel stumbled into the trap this week, allowing jihadis not only to do violence to our soldiers but to the West’s and liberalism’s core ideals.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His next book will be about the Zionism is Racism resolution of 1975.

He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

Educating the spoiled brats of Jewish history

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-3-10

Halleluyah! Natan Sharansky is trying to reform the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Since he became chairman of this quasi-governmental agency, uniquely poised to bridge the State of Israel with Jewish communities around the world, he has pushed an exciting new vision for the infamously bureaucratic agency.
Sharansky views the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity. If in the 20th century JAFI’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century has to be about saving Jewish souls.

Now that may sound jarring to us, because so many of us are secular, sophisticated, technocratic and uncomfortable with “soul talk.” But if we don’t have the passion, if we don’t see that building Jewish identity is ultimately about saving souls, then how do we get the gumption to do what must be done?

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

The modern Zionist movement tried to solve “the Jewish problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem for most (not all) Jews today is the opposite: we are being Loved to Death. Some 2.5 million young Israelis, 1.7 million young North American Jews, and most of the 600,000 young Jews from other countries enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many perceive that freedom as “negative freedom,” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community and from responsibilities (and many of their parents aren’t much better). We’re being loved to death in once-hostile communities that now happily celebrate our children’s marriages to theirs, and we’re being loved to death, because while we can enter the modern world freely, we often enter by voluntarily relinquishing our Jewish identity.

Our young people, in secular Israel and abroad, in this age of “I” not “us,” are entranced by the new cosmopolitanism cross-bred with a hyper-individualism, what Sharansky calls a false choice between Jewish values and universal values. That false choice is reinforced by an equally false promise that we can transcend national boundaries, cut ourselves off from tradition and simply be islands unto ourselves, encased within our own technological test tubes.

Isn’t that the Apple promise, to each his own iPod and iPhone, to each his own customized Thinkpad?

And we Jews lap it up. You know the old joke. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Christian” and you know he’s Christian. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Muslim” and you know he’s Muslim. Show me someone who says, “I’m just a human being” – he’s Jewish.

We are, New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier says, “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” more comfortable than ever before, but more selfish and self-indulgent than ever before. Our great mass crime, Wieseltier argues, isn’t intermarriage, but ignorance. One of the most educated generations in Jewish history in secular terms is one of the least educated Jewishly.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama showed that liberals shouldn’t be afraid of the “three Fs” – family, faith and flag. We have to build our identity on what we might call the “three mems” – mishpachah (family), morashah (heritage) and moledet (homeland). This holy trinity, if you will, roots us, consecrating our personal and national identities, teaching us about our past, inspiring us in the present and orienting us toward the future. JAFI – and other Jewish communal institutions – must express and foster this vision, with education at its core.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education, because Jewish education isn’t just about learning the facts, but about mastering life. Jewish education isn’t just about thinking, it’s also about doing. Jewish education isn’t just about understanding the world, but fixing it – tikun olam. Jewish education isn’t just about skill-building, it’s about identity-building. In short, Jewish education is values education – and that’s the added value we need, and must provide. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told JAFI’s board of governors: “This is not an exercise in education. It’s an exercise in survival.”

Middle East Farce Turns Tragic: Armed “Peace Activists” versus Paintball Commandos

By Gil Troy, The Mark News, 6-1-10

Armed Pacifists Vs. Paintball Commandos

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As the raid on the Turkish flotilla demonstrates, both sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict wish to appear virtuous but trust only strength.

The strange and sobering world of the Middle East conflict has now introduced a new phenomenon, the armed “peace activist,” seething with hate, professing pacifism, masquerading as an humanitarian, pounding away at another human being with a metal pole. The American writer F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Amid all the indignant denunciations of Israel, with the Jewish state’s flag being burned the world over, it is nevertheless possible to hold two, seemingly opposing, groups of ideas at once. First: Israel’s commando raid was ill-conceived and poorly executed. The tragic human casualties and Israel’s diplomatic catastrophe should have been avoided. And the party with the greater firepower holds the greater responsibility, especially when it is a democracy. But at the same time, these alleged “peace activists” pulling weapons rather than pulling a Gandhi should give us pause. This was not a humanitarian operation but a power play. And the violence that began – on one boat – was clearly planned and intentional.

The expected street theatre, actually sea theatre, turned violent because of the Turkish activists’ ambush. In five of the six boats the Israeli navy boarded, everyone followed the anticipated script. These passive protesters trusted that images of armed commandos deployed against unarmed civilians would achieve their PR goals to embarrass Israel and weaken international support for the Israeli-Egyptian blockade against Hamas’s control of Gaza. Yet, as the videos show, the boaters on the Turkish ferry the Marmara swarmed the Israeli soldiers, who initially held their fire. Israel clearly sought to avoid the kind of bloodbath which occurred. Apparently, the soldiers initially were armed with paint ball guns for crowd control. As one soldier later complained, “We went into war, and all we had were toys.”

Some of the injured Israelis were stabbed, two were shot, one had his skull crushed. Some rioters had been recorded earlier shouting “Jews, remember Khyabar, the army of Mohammed is returning,” referring to the Muslims’ seventh-century defeat of Jews. Israelis described the mob scene as an attempted “lynch” – Israelified English for “lynching,” evoking the brutal mob murder on October 12, 2000 when two Israeli reservists were killed after making a wrong turn into Palestinian territory. One report suggested that the Israeli soldiers only began shooting thirty minutes into the confrontation – when their lives clearly were endangered.

The pro-Palestinian side’s failure once again to “go Gandhi” on the Israelis reflects the great crime of Palestinian nationalism, namely its unrelenting hatred for the Jewish State. This hatred is reflected in the vicious anti-Semitic rhetoric often deployed against Israel, the continuing calls for Israel’s destruction, and the violence on the Marmara and elsewhere. This hatred has blocked repeated attempts at compromise. Many Israelis – and well-intentioned outsiders – treat the conflict as a matter of borders to be drawn while too many – but not all – Palestinians treat the conflict as a state that needs to be destroyed.

That hatred looms large in the struggle over Gaza. Israel’s blockade of Gaza does not make sense unless you read Hamas’s charter, with its anti-Semitic rhetoric and calls for Israel’s destruction, or remember Hamas’s suicide bombs and Kassam rockets. Israel – along with Egypt – is blockading Gaza because Gaza is run by theocratic terrorists. The fact that Hamas and its supporters use humanitarian rhetoric, that they have hijacked the language of human rights, that they have won over much liberal support, does not make them worthy of those ideals. In fact, this masquerade, legitimized by its international enablers, makes Israel only feel more embattled, just as the harsh rhetoric delegitimizing Israel makes it all the more difficult to nurture the kind of trust and mutual respect necessary for compromise and peace.

Here, then, is the true Middle Eastern farce, which this week turned tragic. With pacifists wielding clubs pitted against naval commandos armed with paintballs both sides dance on the head of pin, seeking to appear virtuous while ultimately trusting power. True peace will not be attained, until both sides trust the power of virtue. The challenge for the international community is to nurture that trust on both sides, rather than siding with the armed peace activists over the paintball commandos.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University.