Obama should be happy not sober on his 50th Birthday

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-2-11

Barack Obama turns fifty this Thursday, August fourth. Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama’s White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession. But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary — and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.

The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union. Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin. Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.

Obama was also born into a world still shell-shocked by World War II and the Holocaust – in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down. Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing. And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement.

Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for Civil Rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock – in 1969 he was nine. Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids — it was Michelle’s favorite show — and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

Becoming an adult in the Reagan era – Reagan became President in 1981 when Obama was 20 – Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked. He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally. He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter. Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s – and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania — Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview.

Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted. Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.

This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blind spots in Obama’s presidency so far. He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects. But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses.

In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies. At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.

The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.” For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests.

When he started campaigning for the Presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the US economy would be, he would have shorted the market. Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated. As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime. In particular, Communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University 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.” giltroy@gmail.com

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Favorite Zionists: Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch Embodying Liberalism And Zionism

GIL TROY’S FAVORITE ZIONISTS

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Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch: Embodying Liberalism And Zionism

By Gil Troy, New York Jewish Week, 8-2-11

Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of essays on Zionist thinkers and doers, in Israel and outside, who are pioneering new understandings of what Jewish nationalism can mean in the 21st century. The first essay profiled Professor Ruth Gavison.

On Monday, June 27, Zionist activists gathered in Jerusalem to launch Rabbi Richard G. Hirsch’s new book, “For the Sake of Zion, Reform Zionism: A Personal Mission.”

At a time when we read constantly about the crises of Liberal Zionism and Reform Zionism, Rabbi Hirsch, at 85, has a youthful, hopeful message. He sees liberalism and Zionism as mutually reinforcing. He has devoted his life to proving that, as he writes, “American Jewish culture needs the stimulus that come from Israel, just as Israel needs the stimulus that comes from the diaspora.”

Rabbi Hirsch, a native of Cleveland, is both a liberal hero and a Zionist hero. The founding director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C. from 1962 to 1973, he offered the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. free office space whenever the civil rights leader was in town. Rabbi Hirsch also helped pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964, which was drafted in his center. This former Young Judean also established the Reform presence in Israel. He insisted on moving Progressive Judaism’s international headquarters to Jerusalem, which he deems Reform Judaism’s “most significant decision … in the 20th century.” As former refusenik Natan Sharansky, who now chairs the Jewish Agency to which Hirsch has devoted decades of service, notes, “At a time when so many think that human rights and Zionism pull in the opposite direction, here is a leader who proves by his own life that the struggle for Zionism and the struggle for human rights are one and the same.”

Rabbi Hirsch is not naïve. He knows the many tensions between Reform Judaism and Zionism. He explains that Reform Judaism “was grounded in hope for Jews in a gentile world,” while Zionism “was mired in hopelessness for Jewish survival in the gentile world.” Rabbi Hirsch has also led the long, frustrating fight for religious pluralism in Israel, demanding a “Jewish State,” meaning a state with a Jewish character not a state privileging Orthodox Judaism. In 1974, Rabbi Hirsch lectured Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin about the importance of opposing “the politicization of religion and the religionization of politics,” while nevertheless remaining friends with the thin-skinned, hot-tempered, Rabin.

Rabbi Hirsch’s Zionism begins with peoplehood, refusing to limit Judaism to a religion without appreciating its national aspect. This “religionized” American Judaism, as he puts it, risks losing its family feeling, its activist impulse, its historic soul, encouraging assimilation. Rabbi Hirsch is grateful that, for all the problems, “Israel has restored balance and perspective to Reform Judaism, necessitating the strengthening of our ties with the Jewish people. Israel has enriched the consciousness of Jewish peoplehood, and, in doing so, has revitalized Jewish history and culture.”

Rabbi Hirsch also believes that Israel “is the testing ground for the determination of Jewish authenticity. If liberal Judaism can flourish only in a non-Jewish environment and not in a Jewish environment, then we will be like fish that can [only] live out of water.”

While cherishing what Israel has done for Reform Judaism, Rabbi Hirsch also sees what Reform Zionism has done — and can do — for Israel.

“Liberal Judaism projects a viable option of a Judaism that is relevant, egalitarian, aesthetic and moral,” he says, asserting that Liberal Judaism has combated religious coercion. Liberal Judaism, he believes, can help seemingly alienated, supposedly secular Israelis, return to tradition, and values, to foster “new kinds of creative Jewish cultural expression,” and create “a program of social action and advocacy” through Jewish frameworks, while bypassing the Orthodox rabbinate that alienated them originally.

Rabbi Hirsch lives by the dictum: “Every Jew is responsible for every other Jew.” He explains that “within the confines of the family, shared experiences and crises bind us together. Our obligations to members of the family dictate special relationships.” That special relationship has not stopped him from criticizing Israel. But he will not abandon Israel or Zionism because his starting premise is Jewish “interdependence.” He welcomes controversy as a consequence of caring and belonging.

“Since the nineteenth-century rebirth of Zionism,” Israel’s “supporters have been embroiled in controversy concerning the character, purpose, direction, and meaning of a Jewish state,” he explains. “Let the debates continue.”

For appreciating Jewish peoplehood not just as a glue that binds us together but as an engine driving us to greater heights; for using the very best of liberalism to make the United States and Israel fulfill their loftiest ideals; for championing Zionism as a vehicle of Jewish idealism, not just a Jewish insurance policy against bigotry; for being the kind of rabbi who ministers to the masses and lives his ideals every day; and for urging us, welcoming us, teaching us to “let the debates continue,” I designate Rabbi Dick Hirsch one of my favorite Zionists.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, is the author of numerous books, including “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.”