Red lines and blue-and-white lines

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-21-10

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Many Israel bashers are hypocrites. They declare open season on Israel, repudiating Israel’s existence – not just particular policies. Yet, when criticized for delegitimizing and demonizing, the critics suddenly resent vigorous debate. They deem any criticism of them attempts to insulate Israel from any criticism. We can combat the delegitimizers without squelching the healthy criticism essential to democratic growth.

This document represents the collective judgment of a group of people – ranging from left to right, religious to secular – who met informally in Jerusalem, and decided to propose self-imposed guidelines in discussing Israel for those who care about Israel’s future. Remarkably, we reached consensus quickly. We disagree about particular policies, but we share a vision of a vital, democratic Israel which can learn from criticism, but which should not be the only country whose right to exist is constantly questioned.

Last week, the New Israel Fund promised not to fund groups that work to “deny the right of the Jewish people to sovereign self-determination within Israel.” We offer a more detailed series of dos and don’ts – red lines not to cross and blue-and-white lines affirming core principles – inviting people who support Israel from left to right to embrace them.

We can restore sanity to the debate around Israel by refuting the claim that because some demonize Israel, you can never criticize the country and the claim that criticizing delegtimizers  is an attempt to silence all critics. Unlike other petitions which seek to lead with names – we want to lead with ideas – but invite people who agree with us to click on our website and sign their names.

Red Lines against Delegitimization; Blue-&-White Lines for Fair Play:

We denounce the growing attempts to delegitimize Israel. We share a commitment to a two-state solution with a Jewish, democratic Israel living peacefully besides a democratic Palestine. We do not see how anyone who claims to support the two-state solution to bring peace can delegitimize one nationalist movement or another.

Averse to censorship, coercion or any limitation on the freedom of speech or expression, we urge supporters and critics of Israeli policy to keep their discussions within the following “blue and white lines”:

*Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, is the Jewish people’s national liberation movement, the collective force that has helped Jews achieve self-determination as a people in their homeland.

* The State of Israel fulfills the Jewish people’s national aspirations in their ancestral homeland. This affirmation acknowledges the Jews as a people, united by a common past, culture and language, rooted in their homeland, the land of Israel. The modern state of Israel is a natural outgrowth of Jews’ three-thousand-year-old relationship with the land of Israel.

* Israel is a democratic state striving to offer all its citizens, including Palestinian Israelis, “full and equal citizenship and due representation in all its provisional and permanent institutions,” as Israel’s Declaration of Independence guarantees.

* Affirming Israel’s and Zionism’s legitimacy and acknowledging Jews’ historic claim to their land does not negate Palestinian claims to that same geographical space. History is complex. A peaceful solution requires compromise from both sides regarding what they consider their legitimate national and territorial rights.

Keeping passionate, critical, even hard-hitting discussion within these “blue and white” lines requires not crossing these “red lines” in discussing Israel, Zionism, and the Middle East:

* Denying Israel’s Right to Exist as well as Delegitimizing the Zionist movement and Jewish State: Assaulting Jews’ legitimacy as a people, Jews’ valid claims to the land, or Jews’ right to national self-determination in Israel, crosses the line from legitimate criticism to an aggressive a-historical negationism. Labeling the founding of Israel a “colonial enterprise” distorts the meaning of colonialism, negating the Jewish people’s ongoing relationship with the land of Israel.

* Demonization: Equating Israel and Zionism with the twentieth century’s worst racist ideologies such as Nazism and South African Apartheid, or treating Israel as uniquely cruel in order to deny it moral legitimacy, is not only demonstrably untrue but inflammatory, and incompatible with aspirations for peace and mutual respect.

* Double Standards: Calling Zionism – but no other nationalism – racism, holding Israel and its army to artificially high standards by which no other nation or military is judged, or subjecting Israel to the kind of disproportionate criticism it endures in the United Nations, are all acts of bad faith.

* Essentialism: Jumping from vigorously denouncing particular policies to repudiating Israel or Zionism raises the stakes destructively, and has a long infamous pedigree rooted in anti-Semitism.

* Promoting the One State Solution – Trying to resolve the Mideast conflict by advocating one bi-national state in former Mandatory Palestine entails dissolving Israel as the expression of the Jewish people’s right for self-determination and is an unrealistic and destructive solution, likely to cause more bloodshed.

* Trying to Undo the Establishment of Israel, Implicitly or Explicitly – Emphasizing the “right of return,” or displaying maps of Mandatory Palestine without Israel, shifts the conversation from debating borders to attacking Israel’s right to exist. Those still seeking a victory in the 1948 war seek to keep Israel’s very existence a matter of international debate, no matter how destructive and distracting that might be.

We regret to note that, among others, activists in the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement repeatedly cross these red lines. Their tactics are rooted in the “Durban Strategy” to ostracize and delegitimize Israel adopted by the NGO Forum at the 2001 UN Conference Against Racism. We condemn those who reject Israel entirely rather than debating one policy or even a group of policies, instead suggesting that Israel is fundamentally illegitimate. We urge honest critics of Israeli policy to distance themselves from the stains of the past and the poisons of the present, keeping the debate focused on the actions and policies of all the participants in the conflict, rather than Israel’s essence, or Israel’s existential right to exist.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He can be reached at The Petition can be signed at

We need Palestinians and Israelis to atone

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-15-10

When the latest peace talks began, I was interviewed on talk radio in Montreal. I thought I was invited to offer historical analysis, but at the last minute the producers told me a radical Palestinian would also appear. “I don’t do food fights,” I said. The producer promised that the host would never let the conversation degenerate – but it did.

The radical cleverly condemned all the region’s dictatorships and theocracies – lumping Israel with the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Somehow only Hamas was a legitimate, democratic government. This stance allowed him to dismiss the peace talks and, perversely, define Israel as a dictatorship, because it dared to have peace with Egypt and Jordan while negotiating with Mahmoud Abbas. Trying to manipulate North Americans, he advocated one secular democratic state in Palestine, claiming that any Jewish state or Muslim state  was theocratic, oppressive, dictatorial, undemocratic, un-American, un-Canadian, and, of course, racist and apartheid.

This radical masked his ugly vision of destroying Israel behind beautiful words like democracy, liberty, equality. I told him he was trying to transplant the uniquely North American concept of civic nationalism into the Middle East’s inhospitable soil, forgetting that most of the 192 nations in the United Nations build on some ethnic, national, tribal distinction – including most European democracies. He was also being impractical, considering that ethnic tensions destroyed Yugoslavia and triggered civil war in Lebanon. Arabs, in particular, have never established a state treating Jews equally.

Finally, and most obnoxiously, calling Israel a theocracy treated Judaism only as a religion, ignoring Judaism’s national dimension. “Palestinians have spent decades demanding the right to define themselves as a nation,” I said. “How dare you turn around and deny my rights – and my people’s rights – to define Jewish identity as we choose, as national not just religious.” He replied with an absurd tirade comparing this fundamental right to national self-determination with Osama Bin Laden asserting his rights to create a Muslim empire.

I left the studio depressed. These hateful, pessimistic, anti-peace verbal smokescreens seduce naïve North American audiences, especially in universities. This self-righteousness exemplifies the Palestinian national movement’s great failures, including its inability to tailor Palestinians’ maximalist dreams to fit current realities, to take responsibility for bad decisions, to acknowledge complexity and to apologize.

Sure enough, Mahmoud Abbas made more demands, vowing to “pack his bags and leave” any conference if forced to make certain concessions. Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat bristled at the suggestion that he might have apologized to Israel in conciliatory remarks he made online. “I never intended to say sorry to the Israeli nation, they are the ones who should be sorry for what they have done to Palestinians,” he fumed. The addiction to feeling victimized is too great to take responsibility, even among those relative “moderates” who at least talk to Israel.

This year, the Jewish and Muslims seasons of reflection and repentance coincide. Jewish liturgy frames its ashamnus, its confessionals, in plural so we all take communal responsibility for one another. One of the most powerful Jewish prayers, recited daily, not just during “sorry season,” says me’pnai chataeinu gelinu me’arzenu, because of OUR sins we were exiled from our land. This act of taking communal responsibility for our national fate paralyzed Jews for centuries, as we preferred breast-beating and maximalist messianic longing to action. Zionism in the late 1800s and early 1900s launched a pragmatic revolution to solve problems, to accommodate reality, to build a state not just dream about it. Zionists compromised repeatedly, especially in November, 1947 when the Zionist movement reluctantly but pragmatically accepted the UN partition compromise, despite the indefensible borders and the proposed internationalization of Jerusalem.

Establishing a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission for Israelis and Palestinians is premature. But both Israelis and Palestinians should do some soul searching – and atoning. As this season reminds us, it takes self-confidence to say you are sorry.

Both Israelis and Palestinians fear that apologizing would weaken their standing in world opinion. Yet Israelis can apologize for mistakes made, abuses imposed, suffering Palestinians endured, killing and maiming thousands of innocent Palestinians, men, women and children, caught in the crossfire – even if many of those actions were justified reactions. This week’s tragic mistake which killed 91-year-old Ibrahim Abu Said and his grandson Ismail Abu Odeh, 21, who apparently stood next to someone lifting an RPG, required a more heartfelt comment than the IDF’s sterile response: “This is not the type of result that we would like from such incidents.” Since Israel made genuine sacrifices for peace in the 1990s under the Oslo peace process only to suffer a thousand civilian deaths when Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back to terror, most Israelis have ignored Palestinian suffering because it has been self-imposed.

Ironically, this moral numbness has spread, despite the Israeli political consensus swinging toward accepting the two-state solution compromise. Palestinian self-righteousness and violence along with the campaign to delegitimize Israel make Israelis worry that any apology will be used to negate Israel’s right to exist. Those extreme Israeli leftists who take their apologetics so far they repudiate any Israeli action, thus negating Israel’s right to self-defense, make matters worse.

At the same time, Palestinian apologies for extremism, rejectionism and terrorism would also foster an atmosphere conducive to compromise and mutual concessions. Some mainstream Palestinian apologetics without negating their losses in territory and in blood would help eliminate perhaps the greatest obstacle to peace today – the culture of demonization of Israelis, Zionists and Jews that perverts too many Palestinian sermons, classes, textbooks, and TV shows.

Atonement offers an opportunity to press what Barack Obama has famously called a reset button. As we reset our individual lives and relationships, let us also press a communal reset button. If we can reconcile with the past, we can start taking steps toward the kind of future moderate Israelis and Palestinians seek and can build together.

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

Jewish Partnership Online Hosted by Gil Troy: Love of the Land of Israel

Jewish Partnership Online: Love of the Land of Israel, 9-7-10

Jewish Partnership Online, the Partnership 2000 eZine hosted by Professor Gil Troy, highlights Jewish values in the Partnership setting. This episode showcases how the Karmiel-Misgav – Pittsburgh Partnership combines values such as conservation and women’s health with the value of the Love of the Land of Israel as it builds a network of bridges between the communities.

Next year: Let’s end consumerist Judaism by becoming Jewishly ambitious

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-7-10

Two of the most traumatic cataclysms Westerners endured this past decade coincided with Rosh Hashanah. September 11, 2001 fell one week before the Jewish New Year. Some religious Jews who normally would have been in the Twin Towers when the planes hit were delayed because of the slichot, repentance, hymns which extend the morning service in Elul. Then, two years ago, the financial system melted down during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In some synagogues in New York, rabbis had to implore their congregants to turn off their Blackberries as the constant buzzing with market updates interfered with the PA system.

Alas, to echo White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, we collectively have wasted these crises. The high anxiety experienced around the High Holidays did not propel us collectively to greater spiritual or moral heights. Traditionally, wars and economic crises have triggered geysers of self-sacrifice, streams of idealism, pools of communal concern, amid waves of revulsion against the complacency that often accompanies peace and prosperity. After 9/11 some regretted not having done more good works during the good times. Americans considered making September 11 a national day of voluntarism. But most of us followed President George W. Bush’s advice to get back to normal, to return to the malls. The opportunity for mass reckonings or dramatic reform vanished.

Instead, an unchecked consumerism continues to pervert our politics, our culture, our intimate relations, even our spiritual lives. Consumerist Judaism distorts across the religious spectrum. Consumerist Judaism reduces our profound link in the chain of Jewish civilization to another take-it-or-leave consumption choice. It fosters a paradoxical sense of harsh judgmentalism and enervating passivity. We scrutinize Judaism hyper-critically, picking and choosing whatever fragments work for us, if and when it is convenient.

Rather than using our critical faculties as springboards to transform modern Judaism, we take it as it is. We behave like shoppers not owners, an audience to be lured not empowered agents of change and renewal, rarely taking responsibility to make Judaism better, richer, deeper, more meaningful.

As a result, a corrupting materialism has too many focusing on what they will wear to synagogue rather than how they will grow by going; too many rites of passage showcasing the fancy “bar” not the meaningful mitzvah; too many community leaders selected because of their net worth not their Jewish values; too many communal decisions driven by the bottom line not a transcendent vision. We risk turning our Etz Chayim, our ever growing and flourishing Tree of Life, into an elaborate icon, frozen in time, evoking the past but not heralding an appealing future.

To start acting like concerned Jewish citizens not lazy Jewish shoppers, we must become Jewishly ambitious. The awkwardness of the phrase reflects the rarity of the phenomenon. This goes way beyond a few New Year’s Resolutions, treating Rosh Hashanah like a second January first. We should set ambitious goals for ourselves as Jews, individually and communally. Rather than simply pressuring our kids to do well in school, to achieve materially, we should start inspiring them – and ourselves – to grow spiritually and communally. And our institutions must start becoming more dynamic and visionary, taking risks to accomplish great missions not just trying to survive.

Religious Jews need less humility regarding Judaism as a system while modern Jews need more. Too many religious Jews confuse the current religious status quo with God’s vision. Halachic Jews need to distinguish between Torah-based essentials and cultural adaptations that should change. Too many modern Jews fail to appreciate Judaism as a way of life, a worldview, a moral vision, not simply a catalogue of traditional rites, stories and superstitions.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would involve the religious world – in Israel and the Diaspora – rising up against the Rabbinate’s torpor, corruption and heavy-handedness – understanding that religion thrives from internal impulses reinforced by communal norms not government coercion.  It would involve remembering that mitzvot are means to morality and meaning, not chits to accumulate competitively or yardsticks for feeling superior vis a vis one’s fellow Jews. It would mean ensuring that Religious Zionism is more concerned with people than with land while building a state that showcases Judaism’s best values and Jews’ better selves.

Becoming Jewishly ambitious would also involve secular Jews refusing to allow themselves to be turned off by letting the rabbinate or ineffective rabbis define Judaism. Instead, we need ways to turn on to a vital, substantive Jewish identity that is historic, authentic and challenging – not simply a quaint ethnic or ancestral ritual or two. It means triggering a values revival throughout the Jewish world, using Judaism as a framework for meaning and virtue, as a bulwark against the me-me-me, my-my-my- more-more-more secular world. It means positioning Judaism as an alternative to modern society not a slave to the latest trends.

To be Jewishly ambitious, to stop approaching Judaism as another item to be sampled in the smorgasbord of life, we must take ownership. Individual happiness comes from taking responsibility for your own actions, for your destiny. Jews from across the religious spectrum can feel more fulfilled Jewishly by investing enough, learning enough, caring enough, committing enough, to make Judaism their own – and make the community better.

We forget how lucky we are. Never before have so many Jews lived with such freedom, with such prosperity. And for 2000 years we lacked a state that could serve as a point of pride, a source for protection, and, most important of all, home to half of world Jewry – even more if they choose to come. These gifts offer tremendous opportunities. This New Year let’s celebrate our good fortune with a mass Jewish revival, setting sweeping goals, taking more responsibility, pushing toward a Jewish community that thrives and a Judaism that sings an old-new song of revival and redemption.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and, most recently, The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at

We need creative extremism – not left or right Orthodoxy

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-1-10

Ideologues left and right seem unhinged these days. Leftists claim that bullying right-wingers menace Israeli democracy. Their diatribes suggest there is no free thought in Israeli universities, with everyone forced to parrot a right-wing line. Meanwhile rightists charge traitorous left-wingers with threatening Israel’s very existence. Their diatribes create the impression that Israelis are bracing for apocalypse now rather than anticipating the start of school today and the Jewish New Year next week.

Day after day both warring camps make extreme claims and idiotic moves. Leftists hysterically – and ahistorically – cry “McCarthyism” whenever anyone dares criticize them. And most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu foolishly fed the paranoia by threatening to cut theatres’ funding when some actors refused to perform in the West Bank. Both extremes forgot that democracy guarantees freedom for the thought we hate.

Too many leftists apparently skipped the lessons about mutual rights along with civic responsibility in their democracy primers. For over a decade thoughtful critics have complained that too many professors in too many universities preach more than teach, imposing an anti-Zionist line which intimidates students. These charges of educational malpractice transcend the political content of the critiques. Academic freedom is not only about criticizing but about creating a learning environment which does not compel adherence to party lines. Yet, when a think tank such as the Institute for Zionist Strategies researches academic bias cries of “McCarthyism” and “thought police” mount even before the paper is released. And when Im Tirzu activists threaten to take the struggle against a politicized professoriate to donors, leftists shout “Stalinism” not just McCarthyism. Academics confident that they are offering a balanced, open-minded, thought-provoking education should say, ” Bring it on. We can win a debate about the quality of our teaching and research without crying foul.”

Similarly, NGOs that foster a culture of criticism about Israel demonize their critics rather than responding to substantive challenges regarding the sources of their funding and the destructive aims of some organizations they support. Does the Israeli left want a politically correct orthodoxy or a dynamic democracy? The shrill response to critics suggests that they love criticism only when directed at others, not at them.

At the same time, too many rightist ignore the civility and governmental restraint essential for healthy democracies. Bibi Netanyahu should know better than to risk the dignity of his office by duelling with activist actors. He should have ignored their refusal to perform in Ariel, or said this proposed boycott demonstrates Israel’s democratic vitality. The anti-Israel boycott movement abroad is reprehensible because it demonizes all of Israel, attacking the State’s legitimacy while singling Israel out for special opprobrium. That movement’s essentialism, one-sidedness and complicity in Arab-fueled anti-Semitism targets the collective Jewish state  and harms the peace process. However, focused boycotts for specific policy goals are legitimate.

While failing to defend democracy in Ariel, Netanyahu correctly condemned Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s outburst praying for Palestinians to “vanish from the world.” Still, more cabinet ministers should have repudiated such language. It is immoral and stupid, undermining Israel’s demand that Palestinians end their constant anti-Israel incitement.

Partisans should learn from two of the greatest social activists Natan Sharansky and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sharansky, who went from imprisoned dissident to cabinet minister, judges democracies using his “town square test” – can citizens denounce their rulers publicly without being harassed by the authorities? Nothing in this test absolves social critics from criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. Yet Sharansky’s test cautions leaders in a democracy to avoid any appearance of punishing peaceful protesters.

Martin Luther King advocated “creative extremism… a type of constructive, nonviolent tension” to free individuals “from the bondage of myths and half-truths” and spur “creative analysis.” Israel needs creative extremists who – blessed to live in a society that passes Sharansky’s “town square test” – foster King’s “constructive, nonviolent tension.” Understanding that freedom is a subversive power, activists should hold contradictory or nuanced thoughts in their heads:  Israel may be imperfect but it is not illegitimate; criticism may be harsh but it is not illegal; some Palestinians may be ready for peace and engaging in state building while others still seek Israel destruction.

Activists should learn from criticism and understand their political culture. King shrewdly spoke the language of Christianity, Cold War and the Constitution while demanding radical change. Too many Israeli critics repudiate Zionism and convey contempt for Israel while peddling reform, then complain when they are denounced or ignored.

Moreover, appreciating that democracy is a fragile flower and that the Middle East is a volatile region, “creative extremists” should understand some realities constraining Israeli actions. We need hope to combat the sourpusses left and right who demonize adversaries and exaggerate problems rather than seeking common ground and finding solutions.

In fact, hope might be breaking out as the Jewish New Year begins with a round of peace talks.  Understanding Winston Churchill’s vision that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” even the normally anti-Netanyahu Ha’aretz speculated that Bibi might be poised to become Israel’s Mikhail Gorbachev, confounding expectations to make peace.

Of course, Zionism has always been fueled by hope, “HaTikvah.” Without hope the Jews who stayed in the land of Israel for millennia could not have survived. Without hope the early Zionist pioneers would not have built the infrastructure for a state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Without hope no Holocaust refugees would have moved to Israel. Without hope no refugees from Arab lands would have been absorbed as Israelis – rather than being consigned to perpetual refugee status as the Arab countries have done to the Palestinians. And without hope Israel would not have matured and thrived.

Right-wing and left-wing extremists are caught in their parallel pessimisms, in dueling nihilisms. Those of us in the center must progress fast enough to catch the historical train, but not too fast that we stumble and get overrun.

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, he is also the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at