Was Canada punished for supporting Israel at UN?

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-27-10

Canada’s failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council has triggered a predictable debate – with a surprising twist. Predictably, most have seen the move as a rejection of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s muscular, pro-western, pro-Israel, anti-terrorism foreign policy.
But the columnist David Frum has injected a fascinating perspective. After actually doing some research, Frum suggested that the vote had more to do with European power dynamics, western rivalries, and the peculiarities of the UN regional voting bloc system. Outsiders will have a hard time figuring out who is correct. Hopefully, historians in the future will be able to sort it out. Still, the debate about the failure illustrates some enduring anomalies regarding how we discuss foreign policy, Israel and the United Nations itself.

For starters, the central assumption guiding the partisans in the debate is depressing. The most passionate talk has focused on whether Canada was being punished for supporting Israel. We are at a dangerous moment here. We are starting to take Israel’s toxicity for granted. Why should support for Israel bear such a price? Israel’s enemies have been so successful in maligning Israel and elevating Israel into such a powerful symbol that where a country stands on Israel risks defining its entire foreign policy.

As we approach the 35th anniversary of the General Assembly’s despicable “Zionism is racism” resolution, Israel’s adversaries are poised to enjoy a double victory. The anti-Israel package they sell involves both demonizing Israeli actions and exaggerating Israel’s centrality in the Middle East, and world politics. The Palestinians’ ultimate conceit traditionally has been to make everything about Israel be about them, pushing a perspective suggesting that no conversation about the Jewish state should be about anything but the Palestinian issue. Now, the Palestinian conceit – fed by the UN – is even more grandiose, suggesting that the Palestinians’ problems are not just the most significant in the world today but the key to world peace. It is extraordinary how many foolish diplomats, politicians, academics, students and activists.

Amid all the hysteria, Frum’s alternative perspective noting that Canada was boxed out because the European bloc secured seats for Germany and Portugal was doubly welcome. First, both pro-Israel and anti-Israel partisans need to remember that not everything is about the Palestinians and the Jews. At the end of the day, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a minor regional conflict. Even if some peace agreement could be signed, Iran would still be trying to go nuclear, North Korea would remain a bad citizen of the world, Islamist terrorists would still target westerners – and their own people – the economy would waver, the environment would be at risk, etc. Pro-Israel forces also have to be careful not to see everything through the Palestinian-Israel prism. We should remember that it is not helpful to jump at every attack on Israel.

Frum’s perspective also reminds us how complex, political, and bureaucratic the UN has become. The high hopes of the 1940s continue to mislead most of us when we talk about the UN. Even after decades of watching it degenerate into the Third World dictators’ debating society, we still want to see it as the biggest do-good organization in world history. Even when the UN is not being corrupt, or not being obsessive about Israel, politics rules. Regional rivalries are only one of the many distracting side shows that stop the UN from fulfilling its main mission to advance the causes of peace and justice throughout the world.

Getting a seat on the Security Council is not an award for doing good – or much of anything else. It is one of many privileges and responsibilities constantly doled out, periodically in play, in the world organization. Of course, it was delusional to expect that the UN would be politics-free. But rather than having Canada’s loss trigger yet another round of pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian fireworks, perhaps it is time for all of us to start learning about how the UN functions, what is does right, where it goes wrong, and how it can improve.


Israel is peripheral in the US elections – fortunately

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-27-10

Although Americans glided smoothly to the 2008 presidential election, with most increasingly giddy at the prospect of Barack Obama’s historic victory, they are stumbling haphazardly toward the 2010 congressional midterms, with most increasingly cranky.  Pollsters predict that on November 2, Barack Obama will suffer a major defeat. Gone is the faith that this mortal can solve America’s problems. Gone is most of the hope that galvanized millions. Gone is the sky-high popularity rating that had Republicans and comedians wondering in January 2009, “how are we ever going to criticize, let alone laugh, at this guy.” Gone is the “yes we can” optimism, as many Americans take a “no we can’t” approach. And gone may be the power President Obama drew from his Democratic congressional majority.

When the actor Jamie Foxx led Los Angeles Democrats in chanting “We are not exhausted,” to introduce Obama, even the pro-administration New York Times called it “a backhanded rally cry if there ever was one.”

Many issues have shaped this campaign, especially health care, taxes, immigration, and gay marriage. The challenges of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan loom in the background. But Israel has been a peripheral issue – which makes sense, for America’s sake and Israel’s.

Americans are, most appropriately, focusing on domestic issues. America’s economic crisis has once again triggered a crisis of faith. Americans rarely view their economic ups and downs as cyclical – but as cataclysmic. In a nation addicted to prosperity and success, hard times are particularly hard.

Remembering the Great Depression, and his father’s slide from garment center riches into economic and psychic despair, the playwright Arthur Miller recalled: “a fine dusting of guilt fell upon the shoulders of the failed fathers.” Guilt implies responsibility. Rather than blaming economic failure on outside forces, Americans often blame themselves. This approach helps propel most to the kind of creativity that triggers the next boom, but it makes the bust extremely traumatic.

Obama’s liberal agenda and the Republicans’ obstructionism have not yet stimulated the economy but they have stimulated debate about how big government should be. While this campaign hit a low when Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate from Delaware, felt compelled to insist, “I am not a witch,” the ideological clash is significant. Americans are still debating the issues Ronald Reagan’s election raised in 1980.  Obama seems to have misread his mandate to replace George W. Bush as a mandate to restore the Big Government which first sparked Reagan’s revolution.

The truth from 2008 still holds in 2010. What Israel most needs from America is a strong America. Israel needs its best friend in better shape, economically, diplomatically, militarily, psychically. While there is no guarantee this election will improve matters, Israel was lucky that Americans have been debating their future not their friendship with Israel.

Although Israelis and Jews often assume Israel is a central issue, focusing on Israel is not necessarily good news for the Jews. Barack Obama has made two central mistakes in approaching the Middle East. The first, was buying the Palestinian conceit that solving the Palestinian problem is the keystone problem in world politics today. An American-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace accord tomorrow probably would not even calm the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraq and Afghanistan would remain problematic and unaffected.

Nevertheless, acting on his first flawed assumption, Obama bullied Israel into freezing building in settlements. Obama’s big push for a settlement moratorium created a new opening demand for Palestinian negotiators – which has now become the new first obstacle to peace talks. This move placed an issue of short-term importance which a real agreement would solve, ahead of the difficult long-term issues which must be resolved for any agreement to hold.  It also treated settlements as the major obstacle to peace, ignoring the threat posed by continuing Palestinian dreams of destroying Israel.

Ironically, Israel’s most enthusiastic friends and harshest enemies overplay Israel’s centrality in the world. It has long been the anti-Semite’s distinguishing tic to blame the Jew for many ills; modern anti-Semites masquerading as “just” anti-Zionists impute to the Jewish State undue importance in singling out Israel for condemnation. The entire BDS – Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – movement hinges on this exaggeration.  Labeling Israel the new South Africa, the boycotters caricature Israel as the great threat to world peace, the world’s greatest source of injustice and instability.

Israelis should be relieved that Israel has not been an issue in this American campaign. Recent polls showing just how enthusiastically Americans support Israel should prove even more reassuring. And the late summer survey by the Cohen Center at Brandeis estimating that 63 percent of Jews feel “very much” or “somewhat” connected to Israel while 75 percent agree that caring about Israel is an important part of their Jewish identities, should be even more reassuring.

Nevertheless, despite this popular enthusiasm for Israel, no one should interpret any setback Barack Obama may suffer at the polls as any kind of message about Israel. Nor will a Democratic defeat lift the pressure on Israel.  If Obama feels he did better than the pundits predicted, he may feel more empowered to continue pushing Israel around without pressuring Palestinians equally. Alternatively, if the Democrats lose so badly Obama fears he may be a one-term president, he may pressure Israel to give him some victory somewhere. Foreign policy is often the last refuge of a frustrated president.

In short, after the election, Israelis will awake to a world similar to the world today. Obama will remain president. And the perpetual conundrum – how to give the Palestinians enough concessions to feel satisfied while giving Israelis enough assurances to feel safe – will also persist. Few should expect dramatic lurches in American policy – or quick resolutions of this complex conflict.

Boycotting Israel damages Palestinian cause

By GIL TROY, Montreal Gazette, 10-23-10

Montrealers seeking peace in the Middle East should condemn the “All-Canada BDS Conference” convening here this weekend.

“BDS” stands for “boycott, divestment, and sanctions,” a toxic cocktail designed to ostracize Israel. This tactic makes it hard to achieve a two-state solution that respects the national rights of both Jews and Palestinians.

Members of the postal union CUPW and other unions should be ashamed that their dues are subsidizing a conference dedicated to making that volatile region even more unstable. Members of the academic community should regret that the UQAM campus is being used as a forum for demagogy and dishonesty.

Mutual recognition requires mutual respect. Exaggerated attacks on Israel as the world’s bogeyman feed a cycle of de-legitimization.

Boycotting Israel economically, academically, and diplomatically assumes that Israel is so reprehensible that it deserves to be quarantined. This punishment is particularly absurd considering that these activists do not advocate boycotting truly repressive dictatorships such as Iran, North Korea, and Saudi Arabia.

Polls show that most Israelis now accept the legitimate national aspirations of the Palestinian people, but Israelis will be less likely to acknowledge those rights if they feel that Palestinians are assailing Jews’ national rights and Israel’s very right to exist. Nations, like people, stiffen when besieged. Even Israelis who advocate compromise are unlikely to compromise with adversaries calling for their country’s destruction.

A peaceful future means nurturing relationships between Palestinians and Israelis, while fostering within the Palestinian national movement a culture of nation-building. But the many posters falsely accusing Israel of being an “apartheid state,” and the many sessions promoted on the conference’s website perpetuating that lie, suggest that this conference is more dedicated to trying to destroy Israel than to building a future Palestine.

Calling Israel an apartheid state is part of the New Big Lie which singles out only Zionism, Jewish nationalism, as racist. Apartheid was the system of racial segregation of the old racist South African regime. Using that ugly word to characterize Israeli policy and Israel itself suggests that Israel, like the old South African regime, cannot be reformed but must be destroyed.

Again and again, the BDS movement hides its exterminationist agenda behind a smokescreen of human rights rhetoric. Using liberal terms to hide a most illiberal agenda is an increasingly popular technique aiding the world’s terrorists and dictators. Those of us living in free, liberal democracies must expose these frauds. Calling for peace while making it ever more elusive; targeting democracies while shielding dictators; and respecting the human or national rights of some but not all -these tactics mock the universal standards for human rights that Canadians helped the world define six decades ago.

Unfortunately, this masquerade has lured some trade unionists in Quebec and elsewhere into supporting a movement which is so busy being anti-Israel it often harms Palestinians. In a world where conflicts abound, union members should ask how a simplified, stick-figure version of the complicated Israeli-Palestinian issue has been catapulted to the forefront of their collective agenda. And in a Middle East where many Israelis and Palestinians are economically interdependent, union leaders must prove that assaulting the Jewish state economically would not harm many Palestinians.

The selective obsession with Israel also makes the BDS movement vulnerable to the charge of anti-Semitism. Of course, not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but too many in the BDS movement too frequently echo traditional anti-Semitism.

On campus today, we tread extra carefully to avoid offending historically disenfranchised groups. In that spirit, I challenge the participants to show equal sensitivity in distancing themselves from the historic anti-Semitism which has marred their movement. In combating prejudice, the burden of proof is on the bigot not the victim to distinguish between legitimate criticism and historic bullying. There is enough extreme anti-Semitism festering among anti-Zionists for true moderates to condemn, while still having much opportunity to criticize Israeli policies they dislike.

This weekend, Quebecers can vote against this destructive distraction by responding to calls for a boycott with a “buycott.” Buy one Israeli product -wine, cosmetics, or candy. Send an email to friends encouraging them to do the same.

Let’s see a run on Israeli products in Montreal. With these seperate acts by fair-minded individuals, we can show the BDS activists that their destructive campaign against Israel truly is counter-productive.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

The struggle to save Soviet Jews – Book Review

quixotic protests for freedom eventually triumphed

By GIL TROY, Montreal Gazette, 10-23-10

Jewish  schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of  Soviet Jewry  outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Jewish schoolchildren in Montreal demonstrate in support of Soviet Jewry outside the Soviet consulate in June 1978.

Photograph by: PETER BROSSEAU, GAZETTE FILE, Freelance

When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry

By Gal Beckerman

Houghton Mifflin, 608 pages, $33.95

– – –

When the Soviet secret police detained the dissident Anatoly Scharansky, one of his KGB interrogators mocked the movement to free Soviet Jewry as limited to students and housewives. Scharansky -today Natan Sharansky -a chess master constantly outwitting his tormentors, feigned surprise. The KGB provided photos of rallies. Scharansky demanded more evidence, thereby getting the KGB to update him about the grassroots protests that saved his life.

Soviet dissidents like Scharansky, along with the students and housewives the KGB disdained, star in Gal Beckerman’s compelling new book When They Come for Us, We’ll Be Gone: The Epic Struggle to Save Soviet Jewry. Beckerman, a young journalist, shows how scattered American and Soviet-Jewish protests in the 1950s and 1960s gradually gained momentum, until Soviet Jews’ fate became a central U.S. political issue, a diplomatic Cold War hot potato, and the symbol of “all that was repressive and evil about Soviet society.”

The movement achieved popular-culture immortality when Gilda Ratner, caricaturing a senile granny, asked on Saturday Night Live why everyone was fussing about “Soviet jewellery.” The movement achieved political immortality when the Soviet Union collapsed. “If the first half of the twentieth century gave us the ultimate example of Jews as victims of history,” Beckerman writes, “then the second half gave us -in addition to the establishment of Israel -this triumphant story, one in which Jews grabbed history and changed its course.”

To help modern readers appreciate this achievement, Beckerman illustrates how marginal the calls to grant 3 million Soviet Jews the right to emigrate first were -and how oppressive life in Communist Russia could be.

Two decades after Communism collapsed, many forget the Soviet dictatorship’s evils. Even at the time, many Western elites minimized them. In tracing the rise of the “refuseniks” -the Jews the Soviets blocked from emigrating -Beckerman catalogues the Soviets’ sins against their own citizens. Jews suffered doubly, prevented from embracing their distinct identity while nevertheless frequently targeted as different.

Anyone who deviated from the Soviet line risked harassment, imprisonment, exile, even death. Beckerman marvels: “Living in a totalitarian state, these were people who decided, almost out of nowhere, to assert an ancient identity, turn themselves into pariahs, risk everything, and become living proof of man’s capacity for bravery -all so they could be Jews.”

Many also forget how quixotic the movement abroad first was. Most Jewish leaders preferred private pleading to public protesting. Many leading Americans were too enamoured of Communism’s egalitarian aspirations or too fearful of nuclear destruction to embrace the cause. When the movement grew in the 1970s, U.S. President Richard Nixon and his powerful Secretary of State Henry Kissinger bristled as Senator Henry Jackson, backed by a growing chorus of Americans, demanded that Soviet citizens enjoy basic human rights before relations between the two nuclear superpowers improved.

Yet powerful forces galvanized the movement. American Jews were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and sobered by their community’s failure to save European Jews during the Holocaust. When a young Holocaust survivor named Elie Wiesel published The Jews of Silence in 1966, he solidified the link, prodding America’s once-silent Jews to defend Russia’s now-silenced Jews. While wary of enraging the Soviet superpower, Israel saw 3 million Soviet Jews as a source for Zionist renewal and population growth. And within the Soviet Union, the trauma of the Holocaust, the thrill of Israel’s Six Day War victory, the lure of Jewish tradition and some human beings’ indomitable resistance to having their state crush their souls, helped propel ordinary people from conventional if constricted lives to these dissidents’ historic achievements.

Alternating his focus between the Soviet and U.S. sides of the equation, Beckerman effectively captures the movements’ parallel successes at the grassroots and the highest levels of government. But Beckerman ignores the movement’s global reach. The crusading housewives and students, lawyers and politicians, in Canada, Britain, France, Australia, and elsewhere in the West were essential. They added resources to the fight. They increased the pressure on the Soviets. And they made it harder for the Soviets to dismiss the pleas as simply another U.S. Cold War tactic.

In April 1987, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, hosted a Passover seder for leading refuseniks at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. With a skullcap perched on his head, Shultz said: “You are in our minds; you are in our heads. … But never give up, never give up.” They didn’t -and good people throughout the world didn’t, either. Beckerman reminds us how lucky we all are that the refuseniks’ democratic and spiritual aspirations triumphed over the Soviets’ police powers.

© Copyright (c) The Montreal Gazette

Buycott Against the anti-Israel Boycott


As some of you may know, there is an anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) conference taking place in Montreal this weekend (22nd-24th).

After consulting with various Israel-related activists and academics in the city, we have determined that a BUYCOTT will be organized this weekend.

The Israeli Consulate in Montreal recommends that we focus on Israeli wines and Ahava products. People should go to buy these products between the 22nd and the 24th (this weekend) at their own leisure.

Please disseminate this information to your mailing lists and post it to social media. We need your help, so please include this in the upcoming mail-outs of your organization.

Check out www.buyisraelgoods.org to find the closet place to you to BUYCOTT. Please ensure in your dissemination that, when people buy a product, that they send an email to Zach Paikin: zpaikin@hasbarafellowships.org so that we can keep track of how many purchases have been made.

This is focusing on the Montreal region, but isn’t limited to Montreal.


American Jews should demand Pollard’s freedom

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-20-10

What many long suspected has been confirmed. Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger targeted America’s Jewish spy from the 1980s, Jonathan Jay Pollard, to teach Israel a lesson. One of Weinberger’s assistant secretaries of defense, Dr. Lawrence Korb, recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama saying: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

As members of Congress circulate a demand for Pollard’s release after nearly 25 years in captivity, as American Jews once again agonize, as speculation grows about using Pollard’s release as a figleaf to allow Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to extend the settlements’ building moratorium, justice remains AWOL. Pollard should not be freed as part of a deal but as part of a settlement, wherein the American government atones for abusing his rights. The presidents who could have released him, the national security types who insisted on jailing him, as well as the Americans and Israelis who failed to redeem him, should all hang their heads in shame. The hero of the moment, Dr. Korb himself, should explain his quarter-century delay before doing the right thing. While we dithered, Jonathan Pollard has languished in jail.

Since Jonathan Pollard’s arrest in November 1985, most American Jews have wanted to forget all about him. Until Bernard Madoff, Pollard was the undisputed black sheep of the American Jewish family. If Madoff’s swindle brought to life the anti-Semitic caricature of the greedy Jew, Pollard embodied the treasonous Jew, the untrustworthy Jew, the dual-loyalty Jew. Despite the community’s affinity for lost causes, few have dared buck America’s national security establishment to defend the most infamous Jewish Judas since the 1950s’ Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Atomic spy case. Such blaring silence for so long demonstrates a dismaying insecurity about Jews’ place in America.

It makes sense that in 1985 most American Jews wanted to see Pollard jailed. Pollard broke the law when he passed secret navy intelligence documents to Israel. No patriotic American can countenance such behavior – even if the documents went to an ally. Yet even at the time, in denouncing Pollard’s “despicable” and “shameful” acts so vehemently, Jews seemed overly anxious to demonstrate their loyalty at Pollard’s expense.

American Jews got their wish.  Pollard was punished, severely. In March, 1987, as part of a deal intended to keep his then-wife Anne Henderson Pollard from jail, Pollard plead guilty to “conspiracy to commit espionage.” His plea spared the government from the risk of spilling more secrets at trial. Yet despite the plea bargain, and swayed by a blistering pre-sentencing memorandum from Secretary of Defense Weinberger, Judge Aubrey Robinson threw the book at both Pollards. Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment; his wife, who was never accused of stealing secrets, was sentenced to five years.

Pollard is no hero. But should Jews ignore the compelling cries for fair, proportionate justice simply because Pollard embarrasses us? Pollard does not deserve special treatment because he is Jewish, but neither does he deserve undue retribution. He is entitled to the same crusade the ACLU might mount for a murderer who, while guilty, does not deserve the death penalty.

When Pollard was arrested, many American Jews were furious because his actions supposedly made all Jews suspect. Since 1985 many Jews have endured more extensive investigations when being considered for security clearances; Israelis have faced more obstacles collaborating in defense-related American industries too. That one person could cause so much damage is mind-boggling. But does this say more about Pollard’s crimes or about Jews’ status in America?

If one rogue can threaten an entire community’s standing, something is wrong. Is that all it takes to derail the Jewish campaign to be America’s model minority? Are Jews merely tolerated, not accepted? American Jews’ reaction to the Pollard case evoked 1950s America, when first-generation greenhorns struggled to prove that Jews could be “a credit to our race and to our country.” Back then, Judge Irving Kaufman presided over the Rosenberg Atomic espionage case determined to rehabilitate Jews’ reputation. Millions of success stories later, American Jews should feel more secure. The many accomplishments, the deep patriotism, should refute the ancient dual loyalty libel.

American Jews do not live at the indulgence of Polish Nobleman patrons or a Russian Czar. American Jews do not enjoy civil rights as long as they sacrifice their Jewish identities, as their ancestors in “enlightened” Germany and “emancipated” France did. Jewish freedom is not contingent on anyone’s good will or on communal good behavior, but stems from inherent rights, “regardless of race, color, or creed.”

The American dream invites all citizens to sit at the table as equals. The American Jewish neurosis compels Jews to act like model dinner guests terrified of being banished from the dining room. Ironically, American Jews’ shame concedes too much to Jonathan Pollard and to anti-Semites – maybe Jews don’t feel as at home as they claim to in the Diaspora.

American Jews should be free, strong, proud, and comfortable enough to demand Jonathan Pollard’s release – unconditionally.  This one individual does not reflect on the community but his continued imprisonment does reflect badly on American justice. If Jews lack that comfort, if Jews cannot apply the same standards to this one unfortunate Jew that they do to others the courts mistreat, then maybe American Jews should realize that they too are imprisoned, by delusions and fears. Ironically, by defending this spy, by arguing that Jonathan Pollard has been punished enough, Jews can demonstrate loyalty to America, and to the fundamental fairness that makes America, America.

Loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths

By GIL TROY Jerusalem Post, 10-13-10 

Talking Peace
Photo by: lior Mizrahi (AP)

We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

Trying to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character by imposing loyalty oaths like the one the Netanyahu government is proposing makes as much sense as trying to solve America’s unemployment crisis by simply declaring the recession over. Words have meaning. They can set tones, define directions, articulate visions, reaffirm core values and, when done right, inspire confidence. But in building national identities – as with managing national economies – changing behaviors trumps pronouncements. 

Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, with its pluralistic population in all its glorious contradictions, depends on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths. We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

In an age of multiple identities and mobile populations, all Western democracies struggle, trying to balance patriotism and pluralism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Nineteenth-century romantic nationalism found unity in sameness. Countries were built on shared senses of history, community and destiny. The nationalist ideal assumed interlocking, mutually-reinforcing identities. Thus the Englishman would be Protestant, white and British; the Italian would be Catholic, white and Italian.

These nationalists got it half right. The nation-states they created remain our defining political unit. But the Disraelis and Garibaldis of yesteryear would be shocked to see how people of different races, colors, and creeds now share common citizenships. Today, there are British Pakistanis and black Italians.

Human beings are complex – as are the societies we create. We can juggle different feelings, loyalties and identities. Modern democratic nations have to figure out how to inspire some harmony amid the cacophony.

Even in the US, which always had a more diverse population, traditional assumptions of unity now conflict with the attempt to forge a national identity in a teeming, polyglot, multicultural society. Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt would recognize few people in Manhattan today as “typical” Americans. Continuing clashes about illegal immigration, mosques near Ground Zero and persistent African-American poverty demonstrate the messes of modern nation-building .

ISRAELI DEMOCRACY offers its own variation. The Jewish people are entitled to a nation-state like other peoples. The Jewish state – unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors – is democratic. And history’s particularities have created a Jewish state including 1.5 million Arabs, who are neither Jewish nor necessarily excited about the country’s founding Zionist vision.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises all citizens civic equality, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist; black, white or brown; long-standing Jewish Jerusalemite, Holocaust survivor, Jewish refugee from Arab lands or Arab villager from the Galilee. As with other Western nations, Israeli national identity can be defined enough to have a Jewish character and forge a Jewish public space, but elastic enough to offer full citizenship and rights to, say, a Palestinian who harbors resentment that there even is a Jewish state. Does that create identity confusion, legal contradictions and political tensions? Certainly. But are these problems that cannot be resolved or reasons to view the Jewish nation state as something to be dissolved? Certainly not.

Israel needs a smart, enlightened, citizenship policy to maximize individual rights while working out the complexities of minority groups’ collective rights. Focusing on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths, would start with the government ensuring that Arab schools are as well-funded as Jewish schools, and that every Israeli Arab feels empowered to live freely and prosper in the Middle East’s one truly democratic state.

Good citizenship and good governance both demand mutuality; in fulfilling its obligations to its citizens, the state also makes demands. We need universal national service, not loyalty oaths. Every young Israeli – male or female, religious or secular, Arab or Jew – should devote a minimum of two years to national service. Considering Arabs’ current sensitivities, we should only compel their service within Israeli Arab political units or institutions. But they should have opportunities to volunteer in venues that serve the entire nation – and that could get young Israeli Muslims, Christians and Jews working together. Such actions would encourage much more social cohesion than any combination of words force-fed down people’s throats.

YES, ISRAEL is being judged by yet another double standard. When Canadian immigrants swear allegiance to the queen, it is charmingly anachronistic. When Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, it is red-white-and-blue patriotic. Yet when Israelis propose loyalty oaths, it becomes oppressive.

Still, while Binyamin Netanyahu’s so-called nationalist government must do more to boost patriotism and Zionism, why start with meaningless, controversial declarations? Why not start fostering pride by fixing the education system, cleaning the streets, fighting crime? Why not create a vision of Zionist civics that includes haredim and Arabs, who frequently use state funds to carve out anti-Zionist collective identities? Nationalism is best nurtured, not dictated; loyalty is best earned, not proclaimed. We need a politics inspiring a sense of mutual obligation, not generating confrontation. We need policies that encourage rather than compel.

The best patriotism is the quiet patriotism of millions of lives well-lived, with citizens appreciating how blessed they are to live where they live, under the government they voted in, in the society to which they freely belong. The loud, aggressive patriotism of bluster and bullying is not just fleeting but counter-productive. Many have argued recently that in an age in which Israel is being delegitimized, headlines about loyalty oaths only make matters worse. I worry about the civic fallout more than the diplomatic fallout. In an age of cosmopolitanism coexisting uncomfortably with nationalism, we accomplish more with the light touch than the heavy hand. We need good citizens not resentful subjects, good government not posturing politicians.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University, and a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

Gil Troy Quoted in Time: “Israel: A Belly Dance Video and the Spectre of De-legitimization”

By Karl Vic, Time, 10-8-10

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly Cabinet meeting in September

Jim Hollander / AFP / Getty Images

Israel’s latest mortification, now playing on YouTube, features a Palestinian woman, captive, blindfolded and standing stock still in modest Islamic dress while an Israeli soldier undulates against her, trilling his fingers like the belly dancer he pretends to be as he grins at the friend who holds the camera. This follows the infamous Facebook posting of a female soldier beaming beside blindfolded and bound Palestinian men — her prisoners — in the photo album “IDF — The best time of my life.” That came on the heels of a YouTube video of an Israel Defense Force patrol dancing to Kesha’s “Tik Tok” on the streets of Hebron, a West Bank city where the military mission is to protect a handful of Israeli settlers who choose to live in a hostile mostly-Palestinian city.

The dance video at least has charm. But lest there be any confusion about how the world sees these things, the algorithm is about nothing if not context. And the page’s first two “suggestions” for related fare are “Shocking video! Israeli army committing crimes…” and “Israel Soldiers shoots arrested Palestinian.” Originally posted by an Israeli, the Hebron dance line lives on under the title, “It’s easy to laugh at the occupation when you’re the repressor (and a douche bag).”(See pictures of settlements in Israel.)

The hits just keep on coming, and with a relentlessness that lends subtle but persistent urgency to the effort to keep alive the peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Even if the sides navigate the obstacle posed by the end of Israel’s moratorium on West Bank settlement construction, the odds of negotiating a solution to the conflict will remain remote. But the alternative is seeing Israel’s international standing corroded one Web post at a time.(See pictures of 60 years of Israel.)

Israelis themselves debate the fairness of this. Some, such as the former Hebron sergeant Yehuda Shaul, say social media simply showcase the moral calluses Israel has built up over the 43 years it has sent young people to occupy Palestinian territory conquered in the 1967 war.(See pictures of heartbreak in the Middle East.)

“You need a peace deal because this is the reality,” says Shaul, who with other West Bank veterans founded a group called Breaking the Silence to show the Israeli public exactly what soldiers do in their name. The group started with a photography show, then published testimonies of soldiers troubled by the abuses they described as routine.

“Social media is a great tool because it doesn’t allow the system to control everything,” says Shaul. “More or less it’s like water: You can find a way to block it, but it’s going to find a way to get out.”(See pictures of life under Hamas in Gaza.)

Others acknowledge the bad behavior of individual soldiers in what proud Israelis still dub “the most moral army in the world.” But they worry about how much is made of individual disgraces. There are some concrete reasons that world sympathy has shifted steadily away from Israel — still the underdog in 1967, when it whipped three Arab armies in six days — and gathered behind the Palestinians. Reason one: the occupation itself.

But other reasons are not so concrete, some say. They are in the air, says McGill University history professor Gil Troy, wafting on currents detectable to the antenna that Jews have developed over thousands of years living with anti-Semitism.

“Israel is the only country whose very existence is still being debated,” he claims. Troy believes Israel is “the only country that still seems to be on probation.” Consider Pakistan, also founded in 1948. But when its chief nuclear scientist sells The Bomb to rogue states, as A.Q. Khan did more than once, “people don’t jump from criticizing that action to questioning why Pakistan was created in the first place,” Troy says.

Many in Israel and its supporters believe the country faces a systematic campaign of “de-legitimization,” accomplished when international support for the Jewish state is diminished to the point where its existence is up for grabs. Indeed fear of Israel’s declining international situation, particularly in the wake of last May’s flotilla fiasco, is taken for granted here as a major factor in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to pursue a final status agreement with the Palestinians, despite decades as a hawk.

The need to nurture U.S. support against Iran was only one reason Netanyahu came around to the Obama administration’s bid for talks, says Troy. “The second is this question of de-legitimization.” And though not all criticism of Israel amounts to opposition to its existence, he says, some “use these Facebook incidents, they use aberrations, they use the flotilla to say: ‘Aha. It’s no good. We should end it.” Meaning Israel, where the middle aged recall being taught as schoolchildren to chant, “The whole world is against us,” with a brave defiance that comes a less easily to adults.