Becoming an Activist

By Gil Troy, The New Vilna Review, 11-28-10

I always shock my students by admitting that when I attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, class of 1982, I was shy. I always had things to say in sections but was too intimidated to speak.  As a graduate student and then a lecturer in history and literature there, I gained more confidence – I often call graduate school my finishing school. Still, during ten years at Harvard, the only time I was in the newspaper was in 1982 during a collective bout of food poisoning. Interviewed about “Quincy House Plague,” I told the Harvard Crimson that while lying on the floor retching, I could hear a chorus of others suffering through the bathroom vents and added: “It was charming.” That was the Crimson’s quotation of the day.

Teaching at McGill in the 1990s, I kept my public profile low, especially on Jewish affairs. I had been involved in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement in high school, and worked at Camp Tel Yehudah while in graduate school. But I took refuge in my name “Gil Troy” – although my “Christian” name is Gilad, and my father was born Troyansky.  Being “Gil Troy” not “Gilad Troyansky” meant that, beyond getting warm welcomes in Greek restaurants, I was ethnically “clean.” One colleague once told me, “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard.” I replied, putting on my heaviest New Yawk accent, “even fewer den u tink!” And every spring, earnest young freshmen would approach me,  saying, “Professor Troy, we need to take off the next two nights” – as if we met at night – “for the Passover say-ders,” saying “seder”  slowly for my supposed non-Jewish ears. Furrowing my brow, I would ask if they were going to make up the extra work, then surprise them by saying “chag sameach.”

Truth is, I wanted to “make it” in “the real world” as a regular person. I did not want to run into extra static or stand out as a “model minority.” I was not ashamed of being Jewish. I had a rich Jewish private life but no public life.

That changed, a decade ago, due to two forces, one positive, one negative. The positive spur was the establishment of birthright Israel. When I first heard about this idea to send young Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel for free for ten days, I feared the community was throwing money once again at the “continuity problem.” I wrote an article in Moment that if these new trips offered the same old Jewish guilt trip, they would fail.

If you criticize Jews, either you are lucky and get demonized, never to be bothered again, or you get the kind of call I got saying, “OK, big shot, help make this work.” Before I knew it, I was chairing the Montreal birthright task force, accompanying the first 200 birthright students from Montreal to Israel. Seeing how educationally sound the program was, and how much power the Israel experience had for alienated young Jews, I wrote a follow-article “Birthright Israel:  Why I Was Wrong.”

That first trip was in February 2000. In September 2000, Yasir Arafat led the Palestinians away from the Oslo peace negotiations back toward terrorism. I supported Oslo. One of the first articles I ever wrote in the Canadian Jewish News warned that if we did not build personal relations between Jews and Palestinians, in the Diaspora and Israel, then, when we hit bumps in the peace process, we would lack the necessary good will to insulate the peace process and protect it.

That Israel made such tremendous concessions during Oslo, especially bringing Arafat back, training and arming his men, was extremely significant for me. The fact that nevertheless as soon as the Palestinians resorted to terror, Israel was attacked simply for defending herself traumatized me. I felt betrayed by the Palestinians, by the hypercritical UN, and by much of the world. As things deteriorated, I smelled that ugly, stale smell of anti-Semitism shaping too much of the criticism. I did not see how we could have peace when Palestinians and their allies delegitimized Israel, attacking Israel’s right to exist, precisely when they were arguing for their national rights and most Israelis finally, belatedly, had recognized them.

Together, the birthright inspiration along with the trauma of Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism spurred my activism, and the book that I wrote “Why I Am a Zionist.” I came out publicly as a Jew, proud and loud, finding my own personal voice too. Students don’t explain “say-der” to me anymore.

Gil Troy was educated at Harvard University and is currently Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. He is also the current Chair of the Birthirght Israel International Education Committee and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Troy is the author of several books, including Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.



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