The Zionism-Racism lie lives – 20 years after the UN’s repeal

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-11

Last week, Ha’aretz’s publisher Amos Schocken joined the chorus prematurely mourning “the elimination of Israeli democracy” – although articles like his in his hyper-critical newspaper prove Israel’s democratic vitality daily. Exaggerating further, he accused Israel of practicing “apartheid.” This libel is inaccurate and inflammatory. Tragically, it appeared just before an important anniversary that should not be overlooked – the United Nations’ repeal of its odious Zionism is Racism resolution twenty years ago on December 16, 1991.
A clever polemicist, Schocken appeared more subtle than the average Israel-basher by acknowledging a “difference” between South African apartheid “and what is happening in the territories.” Nevertheless, he found “points of resemblance.” He defined apartheid as “the undemocratic system of discriminating between the rights of the whites and the blacks, which once existed in South Africa.” But he discussed “discrimination” in the West Bank without offering any evidence regarding the offense which made apartheid apartheid, defining people systematically, legally, by skin color.
In a world which abhors racial distinctions but organizes itself around many distinctions between different national groups, justifying the apartheid accusation requires proving a racial dimension. Schocken could have charged “discrimination” – which is devastating enough to a democracy. Using the demonizing word “apartheid” linked him to the Big Lie delegitimizing the Jewish state by calling Zionism racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The apartheid charge gussies up the Zionism-racism lie with sincere concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but both blood libels share common origins, carrying the putrid stench  of Soviet totalitarianism’s rotting corpse.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet and Arab propagandists concocted the Zionism-racism charge to ostracize the Jewish state by identifying it with racist South Africa and Rhodesia. This “Big Red Lie,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it, also echoed Nazi views of Jews as a “race.” Trying to racialize Zionism, to South Africanize Israel, to demonize the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the UN’s General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, calling Zionism racism.
Moynihan, serving as America’s UN Ambassador, saw the resolution as an attack on democracy and decency.  And he recognized the genocidal implications of accusing Israel of the one international crime punishable by national death. Comparing Zionism to Nazism and white supremacism wished the same fate on Israel that befell Nazi Germany and – eventually – apartheid South Africa. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, denounced the Hitlerite anti-Semitism shaping the resolution, targeting the collective Jew rather than individual Jews.
Both Herzog and Moynihan believed “words matter” and ideas count. When Herzog became Israel’s president in 1983, he and now-Senator Moynihan began campaigning to repeal the resolution. Everyone said that no General Assembly resolution was ever repealed – although Spain joined the UN in 1950 despite an earlier resolution prohibiting its membership.
Herzog and Moynihan persisted. In 1985, Israel’s UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a conference demanding repeal. Netanyahu explained the resolution’s potency, noting “there is no worse epithet in today’s lexicon than ‘racist,’” the word is “the modern version of ‘Christ killers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘usurers,’ and ‘international conspirators.’”
Moynihan, a Democrat, cooperated with the Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, who ultimately secured the repeal. The Jewish community mobilized, uniting grassroots protests with effective organizational advocacy. And history happened. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The liberated Eastern European countries endorsed repeal. Following a courageous intervention by Elie Wiesel, who pointedly asked the Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk how come no one in Kiev opened up a door to save even one child as thousands marched to their deaths toward the forests of Babi Yar in 1941, Kravchuk rejected this “resolution born out of bitter ideological confrontation.” The Czech President Vaclav Havel needed no coaching, saying: “I didn’t approve of it then; I don’t approve of it now.”
Unfortunately, despite the repeal, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Big Red Lie refuses to die. “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid accusation have become central memes in modern politics. A meme, “something imitated,” is an idea popularized in a culture through repetition. Israel’s enemies have used these two Killer Memes to make their assault on Israel’s existence constant and cumulative. The Zionism-Racism claim integrates one criticism with the next; the apartheid allegation treats every Israeli misstep as a crime against humanity.
No one involved in Middle East matters, least of all Ha’aretz’s erudite publisher, can claim to be ignorant of the significance of validating the Apartheid-Racism memes. Intentionally or not, in the internet age, Ha’aretz is an important link in the chain of delegitimization that often starts with its incendiary coverage and ends with the Boycott Israel-Kill the Jews crowd feeling vindicated. That realization should never stop Schocken or others from truth-telling. But it should caution them against sloppy rabble-rousing.
Schocken should get a taste of those democratic prerogatives he defends so eloquently. The Jewish Agency, the Federations, the Israeli government, the universities, should stop taking out those ridiculous, expensive front page ads in the English Ha’aretz welcoming this group or that board to Israel — and explain why the gravy train stopped. Charity dollars should not be wasted in such vanity enterprises anyway — especially if they subsidize spreading these modern blood libels.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Jewish organizational world, and the Jewish people should celebrate December 16. We should toast the American-Israeli friendship, America’s bipartisan cooperation on this issue, Zionist activism, and the welcome defeat of Soviet totalitarianism that produced the victory. Our students should learn that sometimes Israel’s advocates, Zionism’s champions, democracy’s defenders, can win. And all Israelis, from across the political spectrum, should learn they have a treasury of words and historical comparisons to use during vigorous democratic debate. However, using the Zionism-Racism and Apartheid memes assaults the truth and encourages Israel’s deadliest enemies.
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 Challenge of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: Zionism is Racism, the Rise of Reagan and the Fall of the UN.”

What Israelis can learn from American Thanksgiving

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-23-11

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a great American invention. As Americans from coast to coast sit down and dig in, eating their turkey and stuffing, their cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Israelis should contemplate the holiday’s broadmindedness. This is the all-American day, when blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews, immigrants and natives, act in concert, bonding as one nation.
Thanksgiving’s magic lies in each individual’s memory, ritual, experiences. For me, Thanksgiving is about schlepping into a cold, windy Manhattan with my parents to see Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade – shivering from the cold and with delight, while watching supersized-balloons of Superman and Underdog, Popeye and Bullwinkle J. Moose waft down Broadway.  It’s about defrosting in the apartment of my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Lenny, clambering around with my brothers as the grownups crowd around a table extending the length of their Bronx apartment, from their dining room into their living room. It’s about braving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a college student, sitting on the highway from Boston to New York, now blocked by one massive traffic jam as millions rush to make it for the command performance which is the Thanksgiving meal. It’s about the sweet smell of American success as we gather around successively larger dining room tables in my uncle’s successively more magnificent houses, sharing our accomplishments, thrilled that America is so welcoming to us Jews.
My Thanksgiving is about mounds of my Aunt Lenore’s chestnut stuffing vacuumed off the plate, cases of my Uncle Irv’s Beaujolais Nouveau drained dry. It’s about the sticky sweetness of the melted marshmallows atop my mother’s sweet potato casserole, the alluring smell of the turkey as my father carved it so expertly. And it’s about my late grandparents’ desperate delight in seeing their children and grandchildren gather year after year, pleased we were all “tugetha” – Newyawk speak for together – but fearing that once they died these reunions would stop – which they did.
If the charm lies in these intimacies, the grandeur comes from the simultaneity. We were all doing it at once as Americans.  Our turkeys might be kosher, and our tables might lack a big ham, but despite our ethnic idiosyncrasies, our religious peculiarities, we never felt so American as when we gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing in synch with our neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.
Christmas is too Christian.  July Fourth substitutes finger-menacing fireworks for the finger-lickin’ turkeys. Thanksgiving has a purity, a universality, a magnanimity, a ubiquity epitomizing America at its best. The overflowing Thanksgiving cornucopia embodies America’s abundant blessings of openness, acceptance, fluidity, civility, and stability in the world’s shining example of a society delivering liberty and prosperity. Other countries have festivals to give thanks, but American Thanksgiving stands out in its ecumenicism, its welcoming embrace, whether or not you begin it by saying grace.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s idea when he signed the first proclamation creating a uniform Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. The United States was fighting a bloody Civil War. Different states had celebrated at different times for decades. Lincoln wanted to devote one day to toasting the good despite all the bad, celebrated “as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
Thanksgiving’s charms evoke the many, magical communal moments punctuating Israel’s calendar. There is a national magic and grandeur to Rosh Hashanah’s mass joy and massive heartburn, Yom Kippur’s stillness and piousness, Chanukkah’s lights and lightheartedness, Purim’s costumes and chaos, Passover’s cleaning and cuisine, Yom HaShoah’s sorrow and solemnity, Yom HaZikaron’s sadness and supportiveness, Yom Ha’atzmaut’s bliss and barbecues. But none of these fabulous festivals which enrich Israeli life involve all Israelis. Twenty percent of the population, the Arab twenty percent, takes the days off but few Israeli-Arabs partake in these national celebrations.
The absence of 20 percent of the population does not invalidate these national festivals. The majority culture in a democracy can mount mass celebrations enacting majority rituals and expressing majority ideals. But it would be great if the Arab sector embraced Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, or another holy day, perhaps making the Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial day a day for uniting all Israelis.
American Thanksgiving should inspire Israelis to nurture more national rallying points, more communal bonding moments that remind Israel’s Arabs and Jews of their common values and intertwined fates as Israeli citizens. All Israelis should have a broader appreciation of Israeli Arab celebrities such as the singer Mira ‘Awad, the soccer star Walid Badir whose 83rd-minute goal let Israel tie France in 2006, Salim Joubran the Supreme Court justice who judged Moshe Katzav, the comedian and writer Sayed Kashua of the sitcom “Avoda Aravit,” the former general Yusef Mishlab, the Hebrew poet and successful diplomat, Reda Mansour. The educational ministry should focus more on what Americans call “civics,” creating a common language and common values to unite the four school systems – an absurd number for a small country – so that young Arabs, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and secular Jews can share more not less.  Arabs should volunteer for national service to demonstrate their participation in the social compact. And politicians should devote more resources to eliminating discrimination, nurturing civility, facilitating unity, and cultivating a common discourse.
This kind of bonding, this search for new social glues that transcend the familiar divides, will not be easy. Communal moments and touchstones are not easily mass produced or conjured. But history teaches that change sometimes occurs for the better. When Abraham Lincoln started the first national Thanksgiving, Americans were slaughtering one another en masse. But he believed in his nation. This notion of seeking one covenant of, by and for the people should inspire and bond modern Israelis, uniting Arabs and Jews.

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 History of American Presidential Elections.”

Liar, liar, the Israel discourse is on fire…

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-11

There we go again. President Barack Obama grouses about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a pain, after President Nicholas Sarkozy of France calls Netanyahu a “liar.” Many pro-Israel partisans then condemn Obama as “anti-Israel.” Meanwhile, when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) request that the “US-Israel friendship … never be used as a political wedge issue,” critics accuse them of trying “to stifle debate on US policy toward Israel.”

We need a little subtlety, even in our hysterical age. America’s President can dislike Israel’s Prime Minister without hating the State itself. And we can – and should — vigorously debate that President’s Middle East policy without being sidetracked by questioning his basic support for a Jewish state or turning the deep bond uniting America and Israel into a divisive flashpoint. When Prime Minister Jean Chretien detested President George W. Bush, Canada and the US remained best friends.

We come by this hysteria honestly. The rise of Fox News and the Internet have reduced political communication to short tweets and shrill blogs.  Moreover, the Israel debate often escalates into a high-stakes confrontation, because the stakes are so high. Israel is surrounded by enemies who have found the one country whose destruction you can champion and whose citizens you can target without sacrificing your own standing in the world.

Decades of delegitimizing Israel has victimized us all. Wherever we stand politically or religiously, whether we are Jewish or not, Zionist or not, religious or secular, pro-Israel or anti-Israel, left or right, pro-settlement or anti-occupation, our understanding of Middle East issues has been distorted by the systematic 63-year-old campaign against Israel’s right to exist.  No other country has endured such an ideological assault – frequently backed by deadly attacks. No other country remains on probation more than six decades after its founding. No other country has so many issues, be they major or minor, elevated from discussions of particular policies or actions to existential tests questioning whether it deserves to survive.  No one is immune to this ugliness. The assault poisons the perspectives of even the most “pro-Israel” activists.

The polluted atmosphere surrounding Israel, generated by Arabs and anti-Zionist collaborators, creates its own dense, highly combustible, ideological smog, which clouds perceptions and makes Israel discourse inflammatory. The first major distortion is that the blame-Israel-all-the-time-no-matter-what approach gives Israel’s enemies a free pass.  In the latest impasse, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who, has long outlived his mandate, has been playing Dr. No. He is the one, again and again, who has said “no” to negotiations, “no” to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “no” to President Barack Obama’s entreaties not to bypass give-and-take in search of unilateral UN freebies. And yet, much of the world, peering in through a polluted prism, deems Benjamin Netanyahu the obstructionist in chief.  Whatever the fuller exchange was between Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, their “Blame Bibi” bonding moment reflects this spoiled ideological environment.

The second major distortion is this abrupt, zero-to-sixty emotional jump when discussing Israel – among detractors and supporters. Israel’s critics frequently morph into Israel’s enemies as they one-sidedly blame Israel, exaggerate Israel’s flaws, and elevate minor errors into capital crimes. The intense microscope the world focuses on Israel magnifies small imperfections into justifications that enemies already predisposed to hate it use to demand its destruction or that more naïve observers use for abandoning the Jewish state. Amid this relentless barrage, Israel’s defenders have trouble distinguishing friend from foe, valid criticism from hysterical, existential attack. Israel’s extreme critics shirk responsibility for the damage their fanaticism has caused the peace process and the natural, self-critical process every democracy needs to reform.  Subtleties get lost. Lines get drawn. Tempers flare. The status quo calcifies.

Barack Obama’s Israel policy warrants scrutiny – and deserves criticism. He has been unduly harsh on Israel, wrongly biased in his excessive criticism, naively blind to Palestinian recalcitrance, unfairly hostile to Bibi Netanyahu, generally insensitive to Israeli fears, foolishly hamhanded in singlehandedly creating this whole settlement freeze precondition to negotiation, contemptibly weak in dealing with the Arab world, depressingly clueless in misreading the Islamist storm threatening the Arab spring, cruelly passive back in 2009 when Iran’s Green Revolution first erupted, and singularly inept in managing the Middle East. But I would not call him anti-Israel. I reserve that term for people, like Jimmy Carter, unlike Barack Obama, who do not believe in the idea of a Jewish state, are blatantly anti-Zionist, compare Israel to South Africa’s despicable, departed apartheid regime, or attack Israel verbally, ideologically or physically.

Therefore, it is important in this 2012 presidential campaign to debate Obama’s Middle East policies, learn from his mistakes, and test his rival to see if any improvement can be expected, in orientation, conception, or execution. It is fair to raise the awkward question of why the Democratic Party, once the party of pro-Israel stalwarts like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, still the party of Ed Koch, Bill Clinton, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, has become the home of the vicious, genuinely anti-Israel minority on Capitol Hill and across the United States. And it is reasonable to ask Republicans to help voters distinguish between supporting Israel existentially and handling the Middle East effectively.

So, yes, the ADL and the AJC are A-OK, support for Israel should remain bipartisan without becoming a wedge issue. But Barack Obama’s Israel policy should be debated—he certainly has not earned a free pass – as should the question of how the party which enjoys the uncompromising loyalty and bountiful generosity of the vast majority of American Jews can so comfortably house the hard anti-Israel left as well. A tent that broad just might need some architectural restructuring.

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 “A History of American Presidential Elections.”

Montreal a model for other Jewish communities

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-10-11

The mid-October issue of the Jerusalem Report exploded as a naches-bomb for me. Naches, of course, is that delicious Yiddish word meaning delighting in someone else’s accomplishments. My delight stemmed from two articles in that issue demonstrating how young Montrealers are revitalizing the Jewish world. These articles raise the question of how did these transformative, creative juices start flowing in Montreal?

The first article described downtown Toronto’s vibrant Jewish scene, centring on the hip, Carlebachian “Annex Shul.” One co-founder, Richard Meloff, is a Torontonian who studied at McGill University in the mid-1990s, while the Annex’s spiritual leader, Yacov Fruchter, is a Montrealer who enrolled at McGill in 2002.

The second article was written by a Montrealer who is now a Jerusalemite, Justin Korda, executive director of ROI community, an international network of 600 social entrepreneurs and Jewish innovators in 40 countries, created by American Jewish philanthropist Lynn Schusterman. Korda’s article, “Innovating Jewishly,” describes how social entrepreneurs are transforming modern Jewish life at the grassroots level, social entrepreneurs being innovators who combine “the vision of a social reformer with the business acumen of an entrepreneur.”

The Montreal flavour to these welcome Jewish revolutions struck me because when I moved to Montreal in 1990, I saw a stodgy, top-heavy, uncreative Jewish community. Even the few young Jews involved in this decaying city seemed prematurely old, shmoozing their elders, not wowing their peers. Although still dining out on its Yiddishist, Zionist prime earlier in the 20th century, the city was now traumatized by Quebec separatism, which sent many young Jews packing. Montreal Judaism seemed more likely to turn Jews off than turn them – and others – on.

I asked Meloff how he explained Montreal’s success in helping to incubate exciting new Jewish expressions. “Montreal’s Jewish community was where I was when I started to feel the tug of my faith and heritage and it was a wonderful, welcoming place,” Meloff responded. He was impressed by Montreal’s ideological diversity – “there was Hillel and Chabad, Revisionist Zionists and progressive Zionists, and perhaps most critically, a tight-knit and traditional community that surrounded the school. Toronto is huge and impressive, but the community is far-flung. Montreal seemed so intimate yet still had the amenities of a significant community.” Meloff got the message that “you could do anything you wanted from a community point of view” – which soon resulted in the launching of the “Ghetto Shul,” a vibrant, intimate, student-based synagogue in Montreal which has inspired – and helped populate – Toronto’s “Annex Shul.”

Fruchter notes that Montreal’s traditionalism provides such solid grounding for Jewish life in the city, including “a fairly strong knowledge base,” as well as “strong Holocaust education and a commitment to Israel.” He also draws inspiration from leading activist Orthodox rabbis such as Rabbi Reuben Poupko and Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz. Fruchter appreciates the “Moroccan (French) element of the Jewish community,” which “has remained distinct while adding some ‘cool’ and spicy flavour to the overall community,” as well as the “fertile ground for cross-denominational exchange” resulting from the mix of Toronto and Montreal Jews at McGill. Finally, Fruchter mentions that “Hillel and the Ghetto Shul are set up to maximize empowerment and ownership. When I was the student president of Hillel Montreal, I controlled the $50,000 program budget.”

In his article, Korda, who with his friend Sig Shore created a dynamic duo of Jewish activism during their days at McGill, added another critical element, the successful Birthright Israel program which has connected thousands of young Jews to each other and to their heritage through “transformative free trips to Israel.” Birthright Israel helped inspire the founding of the Ghetto Shul, which inspired the founding of the Annex Shul, while ROI logically flows from philanthropist Lynn Schusterman’s generous involvement with Birthright.

I would also add two important “I” words – infrastructure and investment. Montreal has a rich Jewish organizational and educational network, maintained by a strong federation and thousands of generous donors. Visionary donors such as Charles and Andy Bronfman were also critical in funding identity-oriented initiatives, small and large, which bore fruit later.

The Montreal formula, then, emerges. A traditional, literate, well-organized, and well-financed community also needs strong youth-oriented programming, empowered young leaders and an openness to new ideas. But ultimately, you need sparkplugs, young, passionate, creative people to create a new mix, putting their dynamic modern twist on our ancient, enduring, traditions.

Occupy Wall Street: Preoccupied with PC Posturing

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

Last week, I occupied Wall Street. Okay, I only jogged around Zuccotti Park, and talked to some people. I figure, though, that if tent encampments housing hundreds of people popping up here and there can be exaggerated into a mass movement that reporters claim has changed the American conversation, I can turn my short visit into an “occupation.”

The true story about “Occupy Wall Street” is how preoccupied the media is with a marginal movement. In 1962, the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe made-for-the-cameras events, which barely stand alone without the klieg-light-induced boost. Similarly, this movement is more of a con than a conquest of capitalism, more of a charade than a parade of reforming game-changers. Their slogan, “we are the 99 percent,” is inaccurate – more like .0000000009 percent.

When I visited, at 8:30 AM one morning, and saw masters-of-the-universe in their powersuits photographing the squatters, I wanted to shout, “Turn around! You, the supposed bystanders, the passers-by, are the real story.” Wandering around Wall Street on a weekday morning thousands of people stream by, going to work. Their energy, their diverse styles, their different tasks, their props – wired into their iPods, armed with their Starbucks – tell the real story of modern America. Passing the cops and the drivers, the security guards and the security analysts, the secretaries and the stock brokers, the real people who make the city work, I felt they would save America. Amid the many worker-bees paying their bills, digging out of debt, sending their kids to college, are the few queen bees, the future Steve Jobses working maniacally to innovate, rather than “chilling” in a park.

There’s an awkward sociological reality to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The “occupy” tent encampments’ free food, available tents and the cool buzz of the mostly young slacker-protestors have attracted street people. Homeless people have rights, too, of course. But many are mentally ill. They enhance the impression of marginality, injecting an air of randomness as well. At “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy DC” at McPherson Square in Washington, DC, which I also visited, the real victims of this troubling, lingering recession seemed missing – the single moms trying to feed two or three kids on Walmartized jobs, meaning minimal wages with artificially limited hours to ensure no benefits; the middle-aged, once-middle-class dads who lost their jobs and are not even being considered for others because they are too experienced, too expensive, and at the age of forty plus, too old, no matter how fit; the retirees who could live off interest rates of four and five percent but suffer when they hover between zero and two percent.

“Occupy Wall Street’s” lack of focus also weakens it. We know what the movements for feminism, environmentalism, pro-life, pro-choice, free Palestine, or Zionism are about. These protestors barely know what they are against and have no idea what they stand for. Their answer to this FAQ – frequently asked question — is to affirm 1. “We must be accountable to ourselves” and 2. “Our government must be accountable to us and corporations must be accountable to the government.” I agree. Now what?

So far, the handbills distributed offer a smorgasbord of lefty concerns. It’s green. It’s queer. It’s very, very PC – politically correct. It’s a politics of postures and gestures more than one of policies and ideas. Occupy DC lists 16 “guidelines” starting with: “Respect each other, each other’s stuff and space.” It makes the important, poignant point, rule number 5, that “we consider working class police officers part of the 99%,” so they are not instinctively seen as the enemy. Rule number 10 is “Don’t assume anyone’s gender. When possible go with gender-neutral pronouns and nouns such as friend/comrade instead of brother/sister.” The movement often seems like those free-associating, earnest, PC political message boards, that sprout like weeds on campuses, brought to life – only garbed in layers of ill-fitting clothing and reeking of body odor.

Alas, Jews, and especially Zionists, do not make it onto the lengthy list of protected groups – insulated from any criticism — by the prevailing PC sensibility. It’s unfair to accuse OWS of anti-Semitism. The movement is too diffuse to turn a few errant signs or some offensive loudmouths into a statement. But at Occupy DC, the African-American guy who was ranting about the 9/11 conspiracy, inevitably, predictably, denounced Zionists, their power, their “apartheid” state, and the “Uncle Tom in the White House” who supports Israel. I am quite sure, that in this same special space which encourages gender-neutral pronouns, the friends/comrades would not tolerate pejorative language about any other group, or a racist slurring of President Barack Obama’s name in any other context. Yet this has emerged as the great leftist blind spot — insensitivity about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism too often gets a free pass.

In DC, when I spoke to an organizer, he asked me where I was from. “Jerusalem” I answered – curious to see his response. He smiled. “You guys had those great protests,” he said, “sorry to hear how expensive housing is.” “Yes,” I responded, “those protests had a huge middle class base” –he insisted ODC did too.

This interaction made me doubly proud. After years of scarring from the delegitimization battles, it was nice to see Israel inspiring leftists again. And, yes, Israel’s protest movement also has to figure out Act 2, to solve that difficult post-Cold War conundrum of how we develop a thriving capitalist economy with some seichel, some social justice, some soul without socialism. But Israel’s protests are not pseudo-events. They are broad, middle-class, open, inviting, mainstream, real – and politically formidable – something Occupy Wall Street, despite all the media hype, has yet to become.

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 History of American Presidential Elections.”giltroy@gmail.com

iEngage: Field of Dreams and Reality: Toward a Balanced Zionist Vision

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By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 11-8-12

Healthy nations, like healthy individuals, have dreams, ambitions, defining ideals. Democracies are dream factories, where the “ought” – the model society we hope for – inspires individual and collective achievements. In the United States, the “American Dream” shapes personal ambitions, while noble principles such as liberty, democracy, justice, and equality shape America’s greatest communal accomplishments. These collective aspirations create the high standards by which the world judges any democracy’s behavior, and by which citizens in a democracy should judge themselves. They also steer democracy’s self-corrective mechanisms, its remarkable capacity for peaceful reform.
 
All governments and societies are imperfect and must balance national ideals with difficult realities, the “ought” and the “is.” Achieving equilibrium often proves particularly vexing when it comes to Israel. Both the expectations people have of the country and the problems facing it seem overwhelming. Today, at their most extreme, many supporters of Israel are so dazzled by the idea of a Jewish State that they only judge Israel by the “ought,” its noblest dreams, failing to admit any faults in the “is.” Alternatively, extreme critics only judge Israel by the “ought” of artificially high standards that no state under attack can achieve, forgetting then to acknowledge any good that there “is.”
 
Usually, among most Jews, the dialogue about Israel is more nuanced. But contemplating the extremes can encourage thinking about a more tempered discussion, exploring how Israel as it is and how Israel as it ought to be can form the basis for a healthier engagement with Israel. Even if Israel’s high ideals court great disappointment or invite unfair criticism, Israel must keep striving, as both a Jewish state and a Western democracy. Israel should remain engaged with the “ought” – the country it hopes to become – in order to improve the “is,” the country it currently appears to be. A renewed Zionism based on a mutually satisfying relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel requires a recalibration between the “ought” and “is.”
 
Creative Dissatisfaction
 
The State of Israel was conceived by a playwright, Theodor Herzl, who coined the slogan: ”If you will it, it is no dream,” and set into motion the political process that culminated in 1948. Israel is not just an Altneuland – an old land renewed – but a dream-come-true land. The Jewish return to the Promised Land, after nearly 2000 years of yearning, in the form of a functioning state committed to traditionally Jewish and modern democratic ideals, was one of the twentieth century’s great redemptive stories. And the founding of Israel, imbued with the idealism of the halutz and the kibbutz, the pioneer and the communal farm, cast the Jewish state as a model nation for the world.
 
As a people, too, Jews are addicted to the “ought.” Our Torah offers practical pathways toward creating an ideal world. Our foundational texts speak of pursuing justice, treating neighbors graciously, honoring strangers. Our national anthem is “Hatikvah,” the hope. We end every Seder with the aspiration “next year in Jerusalem,” thinking perhaps of aliyah, or at least of a renewed Jerusalem, be it a rebuilt capital in the Middle East, a celestial city, or even a new Middle East entirely. The cycle, repeated again and again throughout Jewish history, of facing oppression and then being redeemed – or at least surviving – demanded a capacity to reach for the “ought,” dreaming about a better world, while coping with the “is,” no matter how ugly the actual world was at a given point in time.
 
As Jews, we are constantly searching for how we and our homeland can stretch, can improve. The search creates a culture of intense criticism, passionate arguments, and, sometimes, deep disappointment. But it also cultivates a politics of high ideals, magnificent aspirations, and great achievements. We have seen Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Arab lands, the crumbling Soviet Union, distressed Ethiopia become productive citizens of a sovereign state. We have seen peace treaties signed, technologies developed, economic benchmarks surpassed, which the experts never thought would happen. We have seen Jewish values applied creatively to modern situations.
 
Jews have forged a modern democracy rooted in the ancestral homeland, whose citizens live by the Jewish calendar. Israelis have synthesized Western law with Jewish law, revived the Hebrew language, and pioneered a dynamic new Israeli culture. Israel has shared agricultural and medical technologies with Third World countries. We as a people have not only survived amid difficult conditions, we have thrived. Without an addiction to the “ought,” a constant search to improve individually and collectively, our “is” would not be as good as the “is” is today.
 
In building a Zionism for the 21st century, Jews should take this “ought” talk more personally. Belonging to a people, a nation, helps individuals envision the future and change the present by mobilizing communal resources and sharing skills. In Israel and the Diaspora, many Jews use this “peoplehood platform” to fix the world, to be a vehicle for fulfilling personal and communal ideals. We can see Jewish idealism in the ways Jews lead philanthropically, in Israel and the Diaspora, giving money to a variety of causes, “Jewish” and “secular.” In May 2006, at the Save Darfur rally in Washington, DC, Jewish students, wearing Jewish organizational T-shirts while demonstrating for oppressed Sudanese, showed they understood how to advance universal ideals through Jewish values and affiliations. Likewise, in March, 2011, Israelis helped stricken Japanese earthquake and Tsunami victims through IsraAID’s skilled search-and-rescue teams. These young Israeli army veterans also proved they could help humanity via their national identity.
 
As Israel’s president, Shimon Peres has eloquently invoked national ideals in ways that none of the recent, pedestrian prime ministers have. Peres frequently celebrates Jews’ “dissatisfaction gene.” He calls it “the greatest thing about Judaism,” explaining that “a Jewish person cannot be satisfied . . . The minute he is satisfied he begins to be non-Jewish. Dissatisfaction is the source of creation. All the time, because we were oppressed, we were small, we couldn’t sit down and have a glass of wine.”
 
Ultimately, the Zionism we must develop today is an aspirational Zionism. The generation of our parents and grandparents helped found the state. The task of Israeli or Diaspora Zionists, is to correct its problems and fulfill its many ideals. We need to continue to see – in utilitarian terms – Zionism as a useful vehicle. This struggle to improve the Jewish state enlists Jewish individuals as active players in a grand enterprise. And, if we succeed, not only will we find individual fulfillment, improve Israel’s quality of life, make Israel a model nation, and use our Zionist platform to help humanity, we will also redeem the ideals of nationalism and religion. If we can show that creating a democratic Jewish state is not a futile quest to resolve an incompatible contradiction but rather an opportunity to apply values from our rich religious tradition while expressing our deep national spirit, we can teach the world – and ourselves – a valuable lesson.
 
It will not be easy. Too many Westerners today, some Jews included, have bought into a faux cosmopolitanism, caricaturing both nationalism and religion as xenophobic. And too many Westerners today, including an increasingly vocal minority of Jews, only see Zionism as xenophobic rather than temperate or constructive. Jews who have a stake in Israel, however, have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to show that nationalism can mobilize collective power for good and not just polarize. We have to prove that our religion can root us in the quest for universal justice, not just derail us into superstition and self-absorption. In fact, our rich Jewish tradition, brought to life in a thriving, modern, democratic nation-state, can be a framework for finding individual meaning and achieving universal good for the world.
 
Luftmenschen No More
 
This constant quest to improve the Jewish homeland creates a culture of high ideals and grand aspirations while risking a politics of harsh criticism and intense disappointment. Overemphasizing the “ought” can backfire. If expectations about the Jewish state are too high, there is a risk of forgetting that governments are imperfect vehicles, run by imperfect people making tough decisions. In such a situation, many outsiders make their support for the state contingent on its fulfillment of some ideal, rather than its inherent right to exist.
 
We must be clear in our thinking, especially at a moment when various international forces are aiming to delegitimize Israel, assailing Israel’s very right to exist. We should never invoke the “ought” to justify Israel’s existence out of some sense of virtue as defined by others, but should instead feel challenged and inspired to embrace the aspirations of the Jewish Zionist mission. Israel does not beg the world for the right to exist because we Jews claim to be uniquely noble. We do not accept our national rights on probation, contingent on good behavior. In viewing the “ought” not as a question of legitimacy but of destiny, not as a question of Israel’s right to exist but of what to do with that right, we can enjoy the great opportunities liberal nationalism and Zionism afford. Becoming a “Start-Up Nation” was not necessary to justify Israel’s existence, but being a “Start-Up Nation” is one of many ways the world benefits from the fulfillment of Zionism.  
 
Many American Jews take this sort of mission in America for granted. It is rare to see any Americans use America’s failure to create a perfect”New Order of the Ages” – in Latin, Novus ordo seclorum, the words that appear on the one-dollar bill – as proof that the United States should not exist or is illegitimate. It has been argued that Israel suffers from a variation of “The Beauty Myth.” Just as feminist author Naomi Wolf warned that the constant images of supposedly perfect models make many women feel perpetually inadequate, the Zionist Beauty Myth creates artificially high expectations about what the Jewish State should be. It’s a recipe for disappointment and even repudiation.
 
Alternatively, focusing exclusively on the “ought,” always seeing Israel or any country as a work in progress, also risks deferring judgments so far into the future that we avoid important issues in the “is.” When you have a sovereign government, good intentions and big dreams are not enough. Results count. For example, Israel has been a world leader in articulating a doctrine of “Tohar HaNeshek,” “the purity of arms.” In teaching soldiers in a democracy under attack how to defend themselves while preserving their souls, to fight hard without losing their moral compass, Israel’s guidelines often exceed world norms. Writing in the New Republic in the aftermath of the 2009 Gaza war, the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal noted that unlike international law, Israel’s military code demands that “soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing the deaths of civilians.” But simply having a nicely developed idea is not enough – it must be implemented on the battlefield.
 
Zionism brought Jews back to history. Returning to real time, to political power, meant no longer being free-floating Luftmenschen, living in the “maybe” – it meant taking responsibility, confronting reality. Beyond that, classical Zionist thought is ambivalent on this question of what the character of the state should be. Theodor Herzl is best known for seeking normalcy. The famous story of his founding the Zionist movement in reaction to the Dreyfus affair, when waves of anti-Semitism cascaded through “enlightened” France, emphasizes a defensive quest to establish a state like all states, so that Jews could be like all other peoples.
 
But that narrative misses the liberal idealism that shaped European – and American – nationalism in the 1800s. Herzl himself was not just a defensive Zionist, he saw the great creativity and social good that national fulfillment could accomplish. As he wrote in his famous tract Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State“), in 1896: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.” This kind of utopianism informed much of the Zionist conversation among the many different schools of Zionist thought established in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Clearly, the Jewish idea of “normal life” remained – and remains – wrapped up in getting as close as possible to creating a heaven on earth in one’s personal and collective lives.
 
Therefore, Israel should not stifle difficult conversations, or postpone needed reforms, even if it is an embattled state facing ugly situations while ennobled by lovely dreams. Zionism rebelled against waiting for the Messiah. The “ought” must be a daily spur to judge the “is” and make it better, not a ticket to perpetual absolution. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Those are impressive aspirations, especially considering that they were made with five Arab armies and Palestinian irregulars attacking as the state was declared in May 1948. But Israel must deliver. It can only solve the conceptual conundrum – can a state be Jewish and democratic? – with what Israelis call “facts on the ground.” We cannot wait for peace – we cannot hide behind Palestinian enmity – to justify failure in this realm. If Arab citizens enjoyed full political rights in Israel, in a climate of zero-tolerance for discrimination, with equally good and well-financed schools and infrastructure, Israel’s standing with its Arab neighbors and the world probably would improve – as would, even more important, Israel’s own sense of national virtue.
 
Toward a Values Nation
 
Every day in Israel, the “is” and the “ought” collide, or else two “oughts” seem to be clashing. Many of Israel’s defining ideals are in tension with one another; Israel’s leaders often seem to be making difficult choices balancing one pressing need against the next. Some of these are unique to Israel’s character, such as the tension between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. Some of these are typical of modern democracies, such as the tension between private property and social welfare, or between national security and civil liberties. Israel’s peculiar positioning in a violent neighborhood makes the choices harder, as Israelis seek peace and self-preservation, or want to welcome persecuted refugees but fear the Jewish majority being engulfed by refugees from the Sudan.
 
Contrary to the polarized rhetoric in the Knesset and in the media, we should distinguish between seeing what the Israeli scholars Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, in their book Israel and the Family of Nations (2008), call “a tension between two legitimate values” and alleging “a fundamental incompatibility.” Acknowledging the tension between Zionism’s civic and ethnic impulses, between Israel’s aspirations to express the will of the majority and protect the full political rights of the minority, is not the same as claiming these are contradictions. Just as there are tensions between liberty and equality – but North Americans do not choose one to the exclusion of the other – “the Jewish and democratic character of the state can create tensions and practical dilemmas,” Yakobson and Rubinstein explain, without compelling a false choice between one or the other. They argue that valuing minority rights over the majority’s choice – exclusively – would be “denying the right of the Jewish people to national independence. This denial is in itself an assault on the principle of equality.”
 
To govern – and to vote – is to choose. When two “oughts” collide, neither leaders nor citizens can simply delight in argument and disputation for their own sake – a Jewish pastime since antiquity – or call out “teiku,” the Talmudic acronym that means “stalemate.” The moderate is more willing than the partisan to acknowledge the validity of different positions, but true, effective, muscular moderation still entails choosing one principle over another when necessary. For example, many Modern Orthodox Jews are prepared to defend the belief that when democratic values and traditional halachic law clash, democratic values should prevail. (Please note the language: this is not “democracy” versus “Judaism,” because democracy is a Jewish value too.) Similarly, many such Jews favor life over land, and are ready to compromise on Jews’ historic claims to some parts of the land of Israel in the pursuit of a true peace.
 
No formula can resolve the tension between yearning for the “ought” and confronting the “is.” Israel’s noble aspirations should not be used to sidestep difficult questions about its ugliest faults; but Israel’s faults should not be used to ignore equally important discussions about its achievements and aspirations. With apologies to Hillel, if we don’t deal with the realities, and sometimes compromise, who are we? If we remain mired in reality and don’t stretch, what are we?
 
Ultimately, however, a meaningful 21st century Zionism must be aspirational. Pragmatism is not enough. Israel cannot just be the embattled state, nor should it only settle for being the Start-Up Nation. In helping make Israel become a “Values Nation,” Zionism will build on that ambition-feeding dissatisfaction that Shimon Peres calls uniquely Jewish, and it will seek to give gifts to humanity, as Herzl dreamed. But even if we falter, in trying to save the world we save our souls. If the Jewish community can replace a growing culture of corrosive, selfish, and passive cynicism with an uplifting, communitarian, and altruistic Zionism, we will help reorient Israel for the better.
 
In returning Zionism to our communal field of dreams, instead of limiting our horizons to the toughest problems, we also have the opportunity to welcome a wider range of voices into the Zionist conversation. Engaging Jews around the world in a debate about why we need a Jewish State in the 21st century – and just what that state should be like – is more inviting for them than old-fashioned recruitment, the call to salute the Israeli government’s policies in combating anti-Israel forces. Dreaming about Israel as a Values Nation – and planning how to get there – moves beyond defending Israel the embattled state, creating the foundation for a deeper, more satisfying relationship. In short, reinvigorating the conversation about what Israel “ought” to be, can bring more people in for a look at what Israel “is” and how it can grow, trusting the Jewish people’s marvelous redemptive resilience and every healthy, functional democracy’s self-renewing, self-correcting reform impulse.

Harvard WhoDunit: How to foster a civil, substantive, satisfying Zionist conversation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-1-11

The standard narrative about Zionism on campus today is one of crisis and conflagration, of academic propagandizing and intellectual hooliganism, of Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed. Unfortunately these problems occur too frequently on too many campuses. We must be intolerant of the intolerant, confronting professors and students who violate academic ideals by committing academic malpractice in the classroom, bullying at student events, or distorting the truth in books and articles. But we should not overreact or exaggerate. Every day on many campuses, especially in North America, a civil, substantive, satisfying discussion about Israel and Zionism takes place.

On Monday, October 31, Harvard Hillel invited me to speak about “Building Identity Zionism: Envisioning a Positive, Liberal, Big-Tent Identity Zionism for the Twenty-first Century.” Frankly, I expected a small turnout – and was ready for a seminar-style exchange among a dozen or so thoughtful students. I also wondered whether there would be “fireworks.” Nevertheless, I prepared for the talk I wanted to give – emphasizing modern Zionism’s ideological meaning to Jews today – but thought about how to keep the discussion focused if hostile anti-Zionist forces tried hijacking it.

I had two surprises. First, the lecture hall was quite full – I didn’t count because I was speaking but it could have been as many as fifty people, undergraduates and graduate students, including a senior Israeli diplomat touring North America. I considered that a great turnout for an event billed as ideological not confrontational – conflict, or the anticipation thereof, draws many more in. The second surprise was unpleasant. As I began, a friend whispered: “Two Palestinians students just entered with signs they plan to wave at some point to disrupt your talk.”

I looked into the crowd and saw students, with a smattering of “grown ups.” It was not obvious who the hostiles were – even as I maintained eye contact with the audience during the talk. But I followed my plan. I lectured with a PowerPoint presentation ( available here) for half the time, reserving a solid 45 minutes for questions and comments.

My message was simple. I argued that not every conversation about Israel should be about “The Conflict,” just as every conversation about the United States cannot be about racial strife and every conversation about Canada cannot be about linguistic tension. And I insisted that talking about the meaning of Zionism for us today, in Israel and the Diaspora, asking how this exciting project called Israel answers our deepest needs, addresses our existential concerns, fulfills our souls, expresses our values, is not a sidestep. I am not dodging the real conversation – this is it, I said.

In fact, we all should recognize that wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we are children of the age of delegitimization. We have so internalized the “Israel as problem” mode of discourse that we are too quick to run to our battle stations rather than listen to our muses. Singling out of only one country, Israel, for attack, only questioning its legitimacy, its right to exist, robs us of the opportunity to appreciate how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, to dream about how to perfect it, and to tolerate a range of opinions about what it should be. We need a big tent that accepts all those who believe in a Jewish state as Zionists, encouraging the kind of free exchange universities and all democratic movements should relish. And we need a hyphenate Zionism, a passionate Zionism that fuses strong ideological visions with equally strong commitments to a Jewish state, providing updated versions of the Labor-Zionism, Revisionist-Zionism, Religious-Zionism, Cutural-Zionism that animated the Zionist movement a century ago.

Underlying all this is an understanding that as Jews we belong to a people as well as sharing a common religion, and that as a people we can find our fullest ideological expression with sovereignty in our national homeland. To be is to belong, I insisted, justifying national identity in general. I am not arrogant to say that Zionism is the only way. But it is one way to get traction in this world and make our tribalism transcendent. I also talked about the obstacles facing this ideological conversation – including the pulls of the “I” in the age of the iPod and iPad when Zionism is about “us.” I insisted that they have to be the builders, thinkers, and visionaries to make Zionism relevant, inspiring, effective.

The questions and comments were superb, showing that the audience embraced the message. Students said they rejected youth group graduates’ “canned,” Israel-right-or-wrong Zionism and anti-Zionists’ “nihilistic” rejectionism. They wondered how to avoid feeling neutered as American Zionists, understanding they are not citizens of Israel yet want to contribute. They worried that some segments of Israeli society envision a very different Israel than one they would find acceptable. They asked about triggering a parallel Zionist conversation among young Israelis and about how to confront campus anti-Zionism when it does appear. And they asked about me and my struggles, what it was like working within the university while adopting these controversial positions.

I walked away extremely impressed with these thoughtful, passionate, committed young idealists, who assured me that the typical Israel conversation at Harvard was about Israel and Zionism not about the conflict or the Palestinians. And, by the way, at some point the Palestinians left the room, quietly, respectfully. They had the intellectual integrity to realize that their prepared disruption did not fit the talk and would have made them look foolish – a stance not all their comrades always adopt.

So here is the answer to the Harvard Whodunit – we had a serious conversation about the meaning of Zionism, thanks to smart, idealistic students – and the enduring power of the Zionist dream.

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.” giltroy@gmail.com