Needed: A New Jewish Civics Course

By Gil Troy, The New York Jewish Week, 1-11-11

If 2000-2010 was the decade of delegitimization, when Palestinian attacks on Israel’s existence gained renewed traction, 2010 was the year of delegitimization-lite.

More and more Jews responded to the relentless criticism of Israel by internalizing it.

True, most rejected the radical caricature of Israel as a racist or apartheid state deserving destruction. But absorbing the anti-Israel poison in the atmosphere, increasing numbers, especially among liberal Jewish elites, attacked Israel as fundamentally broken, caricaturing Zionism as a right-wing enterprise.

This neo-conning of Israel accepted the Israel-as-keystone-to-world peace delusion, indulged in the occupation preoccupation that the settlements constitute the main obstacle to peace, viewed liberalism and modern Zionism as increasingly incompatible, and bought the pro-Israel monolith myth, that the Jewish community squelches criticism of Israel.

Angry leftists and defensive rightists overlooked the Brandeis surveys showing growing support for Israel among young Jews, thanks especially to Birthright Israel, along with the debate raging about Israel within the community.

This apparent crisis, even if exaggerated, triggered much soul searching, including debates about how to teach Israel. Inevitably, in such a politicized environment the debate degenerated into a clash about how critical to be when trying to teach young Jews about Israel.

Educationally, we risk creating a mess. If adults struggle to sift through conflicting arguments, positions and emotions, how can we expect our students to absorb a coherent message?

To reframe the debate, we should re-conceptualize Zionist education. We need a revitalized Jewish history curriculum to teach the rise of Zionism and the realities of Israel as the result of a long historical process. However, Zionism should be taught as part of Jewish civics, exploring our rights and responsibilities as Jewish citizens in the modern world.

A Jewish civics curriculum makes explicitly Zionist assumptions, that we are a people with a civics to teach. Jewish civics starts by teaching belonging, explaining our deep, multi-dimensional connections to Judaism and Jews, to Israel and the Jewish people. If done effectively, it rejects probationary Judaism, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Judaism, a transactional Judaism making Jewish identity contingent on Judaism being useful for us, and dependent on Israel’s good behavior.

Jewish civics then moves from being to becoming. Our connection to Judaism becomes not simply a static piece in a modern person’s jigsaw puzzle of identities but a dynamic engine that helps us become better people while improving the world.

Jewish citizenship entails understanding peoplehood, realizing Judaism is more than a religion. It means learning how belonging to community enriches us and obligates us. It means understanding tikkun olam as a way of fixing the world through being Jewish not by escaping from Judaism. And it means studying Israel and Zionism in context — the context of rights and responsibilities, and, yes, rights and wrongs, challenges and dilemmas.

Zionism taught as Jewish civics involves understanding Zionism’s historical roots, Zionism’s mission to fix Judaism, to make it whole and historical and multidimensional again. It explores Zionism’s character, emphasizing action, not just identity.

Israel taught in the context of Jewish civics sidesteps the whole Israel right or wrong debate in two crucial ways. First, emphasizing belonging also makes the connection to Israel more integral, more natural, fewer contingents. It roots our Israel connection in our shared, enduring roots, not in the latest headlines. And by teaching Israel as part of the process of becoming, we carve out room for a wide variety of political responses while empowering a range of civic responses, meaning opportunities to build it, improve it, engage with it, dream about it, and find fulfillment through it.

Done effectively, a Jewish civics curriculum could be particularly empowering in the modern world and deliciously counter-cultural. It could move our youth beyond the internet’s passive, isolated, meta-community, with its false Facebook “friends” and virtual experiences. It could root our youth in the eternal us, in longstanding traditions, rather than the me-me, my-my, more-more, now-now of contemporary culture.

Civics skill-building could actually turn some of the time that young people spend surfing the net into more productive time, as they master the skills of citizenship 2.0, including learning how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist hate propaganda on the web. And it can unite young Jews all over the world, because young Israeli Jews need a new Jewish civics as desperately as do young American, Canadian and British Jews. n

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute 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.” giltroy@gmail.com

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After Arizona: Israelis, Americans must make democracy work

Israelis should reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned sense.

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 1-11-11

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Photo by: AP

The Tucson, Arizona rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written a book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and- greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the Right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After president John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with his murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.

Campaign became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”

In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.

Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from Left and Right, against George W. Bush and Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-againstme worldview. As a Democrat who supports gun control, Giffords refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

ISRAELIS SHOULD reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course. Most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation.

Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaux we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on election night 2008 when John McCain and Obama spoke so graciously of each other and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

In Israel, leftists and rightists are capable of demagoguery, demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on the margins, tempered by the civility of the McCains and Obamas, too many shrill voices emanate from the Knesset. Israeli politicians seem to scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner.”

Shas rabbis and other haredim should admit that not all internal critics are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is McCarthyism.

No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by day by ourselves.

Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Prof. Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at attention when the mourning siren sounds on Remembrance Day knows that Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together.

POLITICAL PARTIES work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Giffords’ lifework and for our common good.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.