Conceptually correct, politically tone deaf

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-18-10

President Barack Obama dithered when it came to the question of building a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero. In that problematic-for-a-president-but-perfectly- professorial-way of his, Obama initially framed the issue as a question of liberty, saying “This is America and our commitment to freedom must be unshakable.”

A day later, backpedalling from the firestorm his remarks ignited, Obama posed the Ground Zero mosque as a question of propriety, saying: “I was not commenting, and I will not comment, on the wisdom of making the decision to put a mosque there. I was commenting very specifically on the right people have that dates back to our founding.”

Unfortunately, once again, Obama stumbled by seemingly embracing both sides of a debate, thereby alienating almost everybody invested in the issue. Initially, conservatives grumbled that he failed to defend America – and the 9/11 survivor families – against an Islamic affront. Twenty-four hours later, liberals groaned as
he retreated.

Yet, Obama was conceptually correct if politically tone-deaf. Government bias in favor of freedom of religion should be so strong it butts out of the issue, neither preventing nor facilitating the building of the mosque. At the same time, the Muslim community should be sensible enough to back down, for its own sake – as rumors suggest it may finally be willing to do.

Dwight Eisenhower warned his successor John F. Kennedy that only the tough issues end up on the president’s desk, and this is one tough issue. It pits a community’s fundamental freedom to worship where it chooses against the fact that people acting in the name of that community committed mass murder on that site. When facing this kind of impasse, rather than invoking the Talmudic principle of “teiku” – it is a tie — I invoke the baseball principle of “tie goes to the runner.” In a clash of liberty versus sensibility, I still prefer to see the government erring on the side of liberty and the people swallowing their discomfort, rather than risking religious liberty.

I WRITE this well aware many Islamists would view a Ground Zero Mosque as a monument of Muslim triumphalism. I do not believe the choice of location is benign, given how many mosques have been built on land sacred to others, and how in Jerusalem alone the golden Dome of the Rock is one of many Islamic holy places purposely positioned to dwarf a Jewish holy site. Moreover, I am disgusted that Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf the alleged moderate behind this initiative, has said: “The US and the West must acknowledge the harm they have done to Muslims before terrorism can end,” refuses to recognize Hamas as a terrorist group, and said, when discussing 9/11, that “we [Americans] have been accessory to a lot of innocent lives dying in the world. In fact, in the most direct sense, Osama bin Laden is made in the USA.”

As a result, the ideal outcome would be for the American government and people to allow the mosque and for the Muslim community to seek a different location. That would create the kind of monument to mutuality we need in this world; that would build the kind of bridge Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf claims to desire. Democracy requires self- restraint and self-policing by both the minority and the majority, to weave a web of mutuality, civility, community. A constant assertion of one’s rights in conflict with communal sensibilities generates social stress. By contrast, occasional strategic concessions build goodwill, as does taking responsibility for one’s own community. In turn-of-the-century New York, when Jews were blamed for feeding a crime wave, Jewish leaders organized undercover operations to bust Jewish criminals. Rather than being defensive, the Jewish community chose to be constructive.

In a different vein, after Jerusalem’s reunification in 1967, Israel’s decision to allow Muslims to control Muslim holy places and Christians to control Christian holy places exemplified the noble democratic instinct to cede some rights, to respect certain sensibilities, rather than maximize the government’s prerogatives. While this arrangement has not worked perfectly, in the blizzard of accusations enveloping Israel, its many jaundiced critics often avoid the question of Muslim and Christian freedom of worship, because of Israel’s generous concessions from the start. If anything, it is the Islamic Waqf which has more frequently behaved badly, notably in moving tons of dirt rich in archaeological evidence from the Temple Mount to garbage dumps outside Jerusalem.

WHATEVER THE ultimate outcome of the mega-controversy over the mega-mosque, Barack Obama’s contribution to the discussion foolishly diminished his already dwindling political capital. The Obama of 2008 – who could seemingly do no wrong – might have brokered a compromise with the Muslim community. At the time, he sang his song of multicultural modern nationalism so beautifully, he might have been able to find that political sweet spot which preserved his liberal principles without enraging conservatives. But Obama the lyrical nationalist has been missing-in-action since he won the presidency.

President Obama has rarely succeeded in pitching a position above the partisan bloodbath – and seems to have stopped trying. Instead, once again, he failed to reassure more traditional American nationalists that he shares their post-9/11 pain, that he understands their justifiable worries about Islamism. Dismissing valid concerns as bigotry – as New York’s mayor Michael Bloomberg has done – only creates more tension. And once again, many were left wondering whether President Obama was too naive to see the historic patterns, harsh statements, and horrific crimes of the Islamists fuelling this fiery debate, discomforting even making many of us who would nevertheless support the building of the mosque. Today, in 2010, we turn desperately to the American Muslim community – rather than to the eloquent American president – to save America from this painful predicament.

The writer 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, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at

How Zionism can get a passing grade on campus today

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-11-10

There is something wrong with this picture: This is a golden age for Jews on North American campuses. Never before have there been so many Jewish college presidents and Jewish professors, Jewish students and Jewish Studies majors. Yet, this is also a golden age for anti-Zionism on campus. Never before has Israel-bashing appeared to be such a popular intramural sport. An unholy alliance of anti-Israel activists and jaundiced professors demonizes Israel and damns Zionism on many – not all – North American campuses. These false but potent poisons injected into the intellectual bloodstream of so many leaders of tomorrow will haunt us for decades.

In preparing for another school year, we do not need another woe-is-me round of laments about the asinine activists, perverted professors and useful idiots who mask Palestinian rejectionism and Arab anti-Semitism behind a veneer of liberal pieties. The pro-Israel community on campus cannot just be anti the anti-Israel-crackpots on campus. We should start thinking about what we have been doing wrong – and what we need to do right – in this fight for Israel’s legitimacy, Jewish dignity and democratic decency. We must improve our defenses, strengthen our alliances, and, most important of all, advance a new vision, engaging Israel in a fresh, exciting way by singing a new song of Zion.

When I visit North American campuses, I frequently am amazed by how lonely and embattled pro-Israel students feel. Although the Jewish community is considered well-organized, even smothering and monolithic, many students standing for Israel feel isolated and exposed. Even more surprising, despite the systematic campaign against Israel on campus, both pro-Israel students and local Jewish communities frequently seem unprepared when targeted. We need more information-sharing, more “cookbooks” providing recipes for how to react, more exchanges via conferences and websites about best practices. At the same time, we cannot forget that the university has its own unique political culture and each campus has its own particular anthropology and sociology. Cookbooks are helpful; cookie-cutter approaches or what seems like outside interference are not.

Students would also feel less isolated if they solidified alliances. Pro-Israel forces should develop a language attacking Islamism on liberal grounds and joining with other campus groups offended by the illiberal, sexist, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-democratic, anti-universalistic impulses menacing the world today, which emanate from Israel’s enemies – not Israel. How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Iranian students and pro-Israel students against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sexist, homophobic, repressive, nuclear-hungry Iran? How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Indian students, Christian students, pro-Obama students, college Democrats and college Republicans – all of whom should favor Israel as a democratic Western-oriented state in the Middle East over its dictatorial, Islamist enemies?

Internally, the Zionist world should clarify what unites us not just what divides us. We must foster a broad big-tent Zionism that carves out space for vigorous debate about the territories and the settlements, conversion and religion, Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, while emphasizing the core values that make Zionists Zionist. We should define the red lines we impose on ourselves which we shall not cross in debate, knowing that we operate in a toxic atmosphere, agreeing, for example, not to invoke the historically inaccurate, morally mischievous apartheid analogy, because we know it is used to delegitimize Israel and repudiate Zionism.

At the same time we should affirm the blue-and-white lines which we share, the way all of us, from left-wing secular Zionists to right-wing religious Zionists, believe in Zionism as the movement of Jewish national liberation, affirm Israel’s centrality in Jewish life, and appreciate how lucky we are to enjoy a democratic Jewish state in our traditional homeland.

In reaffirming our blue-and-white lines and ties, we will remember that the Zionist revolution is incomplete: Israel remains an unfinished product inviting more input while Zionism’s mission to solve the Jewish problem remains relevant today. We grant our enemies a propaganda victory they do not deserve when we make Israel the central headache of the Jewish world today, when we reduce Zionism only to the Israel Defense Force, when we forget Zionism’s redemptive power. Zionism, like Americanism, like all forms of constructive liberal nationalism, roots individual members in a collective enterprise greater than themselves. Starting with the grounding history provides, Zionism – like all liberal nationalisms – injects meaning into the present by dreaming about and building toward a better future.

It is fitting that Theodor Herzl’s slogan was Eem Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah, “if you – collectively! – will it, is no dream.” While acknowledging the universalists’ critique that terrible crimes were committed in the name of nationalism, many of the greatest achievements of the modern world resulted from nationalism too. On one side of the Atlantic, consider the American achievement – the world’s most successful mass, middle-class civilization, mass-producing freedom and prosperity for hundreds of millions. On the other side of the Atlantic, consider the Israeli achievement – returning Jews to history’s stage, reviving the Hebrew language, saving millions after the Holocaust and from the Arab expulsion, forging an Altneuland, an old-new land, a modern Western democracy with a Jewish flavor in the Middle East.

In that spirit, we should jumpstart a Zionist conversation that is dynamic not defensive, empowering not pedestrian. We should be Jewishly-ambitious – not just setting career goals, financial benchmarks, and personal growth targets, but Jewish aspirations, individually and collectively. In asking “how can I grow Jewishly,” we can also ask “how can I help Israel thrive.” And in so doing, we will find the ultimate Zionist secret: by seeking redemption for Israel we will also help redeem ourselves. In a modern world that often feels aimless, alienating, and disempowering we will find purpose, focus, roots, as we sing a new, renewed, relevant song of Zion.

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

Chelsea Clinton’s Jew “ish” wedding contrasts American Jewish vastness with Israeli Jewish density

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-5-10

This week, Chelsea Clinton was married under a chupah, during Shabbat, to a Jew, Marc Mezvinsky. That Bill and Hillary Clinton’s daughter married a Jew has thrilled many Jews craving acceptance as further proof that American Jews have “made it.” That this intermarriage was adorned with some ritualistic Jewish touches has appalled many Jews defending tradition as further proof that American Jews have diluted Judaism, making it Jew-ish, a more digestible Judaism-lite. I am surprised either camp is surprised.

North America is defined by its vastness. Whenever I travel around America, I am struck by the expanse that defines the New World. Irving Berlin was not just whistling Dixie when he praised America’s spacious skies.

By contrast, Israel is defined by its density. First time pilgrims and veteran Israelis are equally impressed by all the history, humanity, and hysteria often packed into every square kilometer. Israel’s greatest national songwriter Naomi Shemer got it right when she channeled the great medieval poet Yehudah HaLevi in “Yerushalayim Shel Zahav” by writing “for ALL of your songs I am your violin” (or lute) – lechol shiriech ani kinor. Especially in Jerusalem, it seems that every stone has multiple stories, nothing is simple; everything is multilayered, multidimensional.

Parked in a land so vast and free, American Jewry has developed a culture of expansiveness. American Jewry is justly celebrated for its openness, to others and to new ideas. The creativity and accessibility make American Jewry hip, dynamic, and welcoming. Most American Jews seem to shout out “Shalom Aleichem,” or “y’all come on in,” to fresh initiatives for achieving gender equality, to liturgical updating, to new rituals, to syntheses with modern culture, to new bridges beckoning to those who show interest in Judaism, regardless of their halachic legal status.

Alas, the vastness also leads to porousness, the creativity flirts with superficiality, constantly being demeaned by trendiness. Judaism, traditionally defined as the Etz Haim, the solid, steadfast Tree of Life, risks becoming a will o’ the wisp.

Living in the land of possibility, existing in a state of mobility, blessed by so much space, Americans and American Jews often view identity as malleable, relationships as disposable, change as the only constant. With surveys showing that American Jews are among the most cosmopolitan Americans, this next generation of American Jews is particularly wired to roam intellectually, ideologically, spiritually, existentially. And in the age of prolonged adolescence, all this searching, all this pondering, all this comparing and contrasting, sifting and synthesizing, can persist for decades.

At the same time, Israel’s density roots Israeli Judaism in more traditional anchors, in tremendous depth and passion. Committed Israeli Jews are justly celebrated for their literacy, their intensity, their zeal. Israeli Jews are more likely to mutter “take it or leave it,” relating to the legend about the Shalom Aleichem hymn that if all is prepared for the Sabbath, the good angel who accompanies every Jew back from synagogue prays “may it be the same next week,” and the bad angel must mutter “amen”; but if all is chaotic at home the bad angel prays for a repeat the next week to which the good angel must mutter “amen.”

This approach treats Tzur Yisrael, the Rock of Israel, as unyielding, unchanging, stone-like in its reliability and impermeability. It risks being unwelcoming, unaccommodating, unresponsive, unable to adjust, paralyzed when facing great change. It makes Jewish education less about the American-style exploration and process but more of a knowledge-transfer. It sets Judaism in opposition to the modern world, come hell or high water, for better or worse.

These general characteristics were on display during the recent conversion controversy. The Israeli Jewish establishment appeared particularly foreboding, hidebound, medieval, insensitive both to the Russian Jews who are Israeli cititzens but are not halachically, legally, Jewish and to the sensibilities of American Jews who value klal yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people.

At the same time, too many American Jewish leaders approached the problem emotionally, even demagogically. Many railed about “Israel” delegitimizing them, Israel invalidating all American conversions, when no law passed, no such sweeping move even was proposed, and, beyond all the politicking, a complex problem needed solving.

Judaism has survived all these years by having clearly defined boundaries, making it clear who is and is not a Jew. But Judaism has thrived all these years by being humane, by improvising solutions to new, unanticipated problems.

The original idea behind the David Rotem conversion bill of empowering municipal rabbis to manage conversions would have brought more lenient rabbis into a broken, unduly strict process. Tragically, ugly coalition politics produced a proposed bill that would have formalized and centralized conversion power in the Chief Rabbinate, despite its terrible track record of not being sufficiently welcoming to aspiring Jews.

However, the headline among North American Jews should be that their voices were heard, leaders like Natan Sharansky stood tall for Jewish unity. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu most recently vowed to kill the bill.

More broadly, day by day, week after week, we see too many pockets of American Jewry that are vapid and need deeper rooting along with too many expressions of Israeli Jewry that are too dense and need some reforming. Israelis could use some of the North American vastness – not only for breathing room but to facilitate the kind of change that perpetually renewed Judaism as it evolved from Abraham to Abraham Joshua Heschel. And American Jews, in many realms, desperately needs more density, more depth, more anchoring.

So, yes, Chelsea Clinton will find whatever American Judaism her husband exposes her to far more user friendly than most modern Israeli varieties.  But whether it has the depth to grab either of them remains unclear, just as whether their yuppie peers will ever feel welcomed by Israeli-style Judaism remains equally unclear.

Cotler keeps up the pressure on Iran

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

MP Irwin Cotler, the globe-trotting lawyer, professor, legislator and human rights activist, is at it again. While many people around the world ignore the abuses and dangers emanating from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, or at best make symbolic gestures of opposition, Cotler has relentlessly opposed what he calls “the toxic convergence of four distinct – yet interrelated – dangers.”
While UN sanctions, finally, offer at least some response to the nuclear threat, Cotler notes, the international community has ignored the other three “clear and present dangers”: “the genocidal incitement threat; state-sponsored terrorism; and the systematic and widespread violations of the rights of the Iranian people.”

Recently, on the anniversary of the murder of the Iranian heroine Neda Agha-Soltan during justified protests against Iranian electoral fraud, Cotler once again tried to rally the international community to make the punishment fit the crime, to respond proportionately to the disproportionate evils of Ahmadinejad and the mullahocracy.

Flanked by Neda’s fiancé, Caspian Makan, and the beauty queen turned anti-child-death-penalty crusader Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Cotler released his “Responsibility to Prevent” petition, endorsed by 100 leading scholars and activists, pleading for some serious action. In fact, toothless sanctions and limited responses can be even worse than inaction – they give the illusion of action, lulling us into a false sense of security – as the oppression of Iranians and the threats to world peace metastasize.

The world’s blind spot regarding Iran is stunning. How could it be that campuses did not come alive last year when Ahmadinejad was stealing an election in broad daylight and slaughtering his own people in the streets? How could it be that Iranian expatriates, Jews and human rights activists haven’t come together to launch the modern successor to the civil rights, anti-apartheid and Soviet Jewry movements in response to Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard goons?

The passivity on the Iran issue reflects a broader blindness to evils that fester among Islamist regimes particularly, and the Third World generally. It’s a doubly destructive form of political correctness. The West is increasingly threatened by this unchecked menace, and it’s a form of liberal condescension that ultimately reveals contempt toward others when we fail to hold them to the high standards of behaviour we have for ourselves, and for those who look and act like “us.”

Just consider the table of contents to Cotler’s report. Here are the sub-headings to one aspect of his four-pronged indictment, regarding Iran’s massive mistreatment of its own people. The report details: “The widespread and systematic violations of the rights of the Iranian people, including: the beatings, execution, killing, torture and other inhumane treatment of Iranians,” as well as “the systematic and widespread oppression of a minority – the Baha’i” in particular, the “exclusion of, discrimination and violence against, religious minorities,” the “exclusion of, discrimination and violence against, ethnic minorities,” the “assault on women‘s rights,” the “repression of freedom of speech, assembly and association – a war against students, professors, activists and journalists – and against fundamental rights and those who would exercise them,” the “crackdown on cyber dissidents,” the “assault on labour rights,” the “imposition of the death penalty for juveniles,” the “denial of gay/lesbian rights,” the “murder of political dissidents,” the “failure to provide a system of justice – show trials, forced confessions, denial of due process, [and the] absence of an independent judiciary and impunity of the Basij militia” and the Revolutionary Guards.

Proof that we’re dealing with a form of postmodernist decadence comes from Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in September 2007. His antics there stirred minimal outrage, until he denied there are any gays in Iran. This homophobia crossed the line, just as the most recent sexist threat that a pregnant Iranian Maryam Ghorbanzadeh might be stoned to death for adultery generated lots of press.

The selective indignation is troubling, although having some indignation at least marks an improvement. Cotler should stop being a lonely prophet – not because he stills his voice, but because finally, belatedly, but justifiably, millions start heeding his call to conscience, and his warnings to act collectively against Iran, before it’s too late.