My temporary visa to the land of the disabled

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By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 4-30-12

It was the kind of big, fancy cocktail party I attend rarely enough that I enjoy the occasion. I was looking forward to this one because, in addition to liking the honoree and his family, there were half a dozen friends whom I rarely see amid the 1,500 guests, just enough to make for an interesting evening.

Yet as soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. I felt nervous, vulnerable, endangered. For the first time in my life, I entered a crowded room full of partying people enjoying themselves and not really thinking about who they might bump into – literally – while I was hobbling on crutches.

Less than a week before, I had been soaring, running in the Jerusalem halfmarathon while on academic leave in Israel this year. Running with thousands of people with this ancient city as the backdrop was magical. Unfortunately, an undiagnosed and improperly healed fracture from a bicycle accident two years before turned into a stress fracture, and I collapsed at the 20.5-kilometre mark of the 21-kilometre race. I ended up with emergency surgery, a plate, and five screws in my femur two days later.

Ironically, both the bike accident and this stress fracture resulted from a health kick. For decades I had a sedentary professorial lifestyle that resulted in no hospital runs. I started jogging and occasionally biking with dramatically mixed results – weight and blood pressure down, heart rate excellent – but two sports injuries.

Fundamentally, I am fine. This setback is temporary. But my two crutches – the low-forearm kind, not the painful under-the-armpit type – offer a visa to the world of the handicapped. In this alternate universe, innocuous settings like cocktail parties can feel dangerous, and so many actions that most of us take for granted must be thought through and planned out, or sometimes skipped because the extra effort is not worth it.

As I am still in post-op recovery, I frequently fall into an unusually deep sleep. Whenever I awake, I assume I am fine and can stand – until I see those darned crutches. Hobbling about with them invites sympathetic stares, stopped cars when I cross the street, and far too much discussion when I socialize.

When I am using the crutches, my hands are helping me walk and can’t do much else. Even breakfast is an ordeal, although I can now grasp the big orangejuice container with my fingertips while gripping the crutches with my fist. What was once an easy, automatic morning routine now requires three laborious round trips: yogurt and OJ from fridge to table; glass, bowl and spoon from cabinet to table; and cereal from pantry to table. Of course I could ask my wife or children, who have been extraordinarily helpful. But when you ask for so much so frequently – because everything is always in the wrong room or on the wrong floor – you also want to do something yourself.

My breakfast trial is repeated morning, noon and night. Getting dressed, showering, fetching the newspaper – each action requires too much planning, too much strain, too much improvisation. After two weeks of this, I should feel cranky. Yet I am more often humbled and awestruck.

I am humbled because I know my visa will lapse soon and I will return to “normal.” I have friends with permanent passports to this challenging world of the disabled. Some have always lived there, while two friends in particular are learning to cope with dramatically more limited and more lasting limitations. All I need to do is remember their predicaments – or those of countless others – and my drops of self-pity transform into tidal waves of empathy for them and their families.

Moreover, while as a historian I am more the rationalist than the mystic, my visit to this demanding, draining world has made me awestruck by the miracles of the everyday. We take for granted our health, our functioning, the many things we do instinctively, automatically. Our brains process so much and orchestrate so many actions hour by hour, flawlessly, and our bodies co-operate magnificently. I would wish my experience on no one. But I want to share with everyone my new-found appreciation for what most of us do have, for what most of us can do.

In modern society, despite all we have materially, technologically and politically, we are enduring epidemic levels of unhappiness, discontent and psychological distress. The therapy business is booming; we consume psychotropic drugs by the warehouse-full. I have long believed in Vitamin P: perspective. We need to view our concerns, challenges, worries and fears in a broader context. North Americans should see their problems – as pressing as they may feel them to be – in comparison to the poverty and the sanitation and safety challenges that most humans in Africa and Asia endure.

And those of us lucky enough to be healthy – and I still define myself as belonging to that happy club – should appreciate the simple joys of getting breakfast, going to work, being able to play, and living the basic miracle of life.

Meanwhile, my sojourn in the land of the disabled has helped teach me that those with physical limitations also find joy and meaning in the important things of life – relationships, ideas, values, achievements – despite their challenges.

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Gil Troy: My Response to Rashid Khalidi

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By , Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-27-12

Professor Khalidi is anxious to bar me from the debate about the Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem’s building site that adjoins an ancient Moslem graveyard by questioning my credentials. And I guess he is right.

Offering a symphony of subtlety to a Middle East problem may well be too “American.” It is unfortunate that he could not see in my response any basis for common discourse or compromise or acknowledge that my essay essentially endorsed his goal of preserving the Mamilla Cemetery out of shared reverence for his ancestors and out of respect for his—and others’—feelings.

However, I am sorry to disappoint Professor Khalidi. I will not retreat in the wake of his assault. I stand by my criticism. Without rehashing the entire debate, allow me to offer three correctives to his version of events that prove my point that the whole situation is a classic Middle East muddle rather than a black-and-white situation with the Israelis and Jews acting as evil stick figures.

For starters, Khalidi indignantly dismisses what he calls “the canard regarding the Palace Hotel.” Sounding more like a lawyer than an historian, he carefully emphasizes that “it was always outside the boundaries of the cemetery, so the specter of the Mufti invoked by Troy” is like “a ghost rattling chains to scare the naïve and ignorant.” I had pointed out that the “fiery Palestinian nationalist Haj Amn al Husseini … built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse” and “decreed the end to burials in the cemetery.” If we’re interested in full disclosure, we should acknowledge that one of the architects who worked on the Palace Hotel, Baruch Katinka, wrote in his memoirs that while excavating the foundations, workers discovered human remains—suggesting that the boundaries of the Mamilla Cemetery were less clear than Khalidi would have us believe.

Moreover, when Katinka reported this discovery to the Grand Mufti, the Islamic leader ordered Katinka to rebury the bones elsewhere.  To be fair, because I acknowledge complexity, I will admit that this triggered a religious and political dispute among Muslim religious leaders, and that is why I conclude that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has rights to build but would be wiser not to exercise them.

Similarly, it would be fair to acknowledge this dispute’s timeline, because that, too, lightens the burden on the Wiesenthal Center. As described in the Israeli Supreme Court opinion, the building plan was published on August 29, 2002, the application was approved on October 27, 2004, and remains were only found toward the end of 2005, triggering an even later objection. So the Museum of Tolerance did not target a Muslim cemetery. It began building an important project on an area that was an eyesore—an ugly multistory parking lot—then stumbled into this mess.

Finally, the Supreme Court judgment detailed three different compromise solutions offered, which are often used when human remains are found on building sites in Israel. These included “hand excavation,”  “freezing the area” then extracting the bones, or cutting the graves out, raising them on a wooden platform and transporting them to an “alternative site” with no direct human contact being made to respect the graves’ sanctity. These proposals, even if not fully satisfying to the plaintiffs, also demonstrate more good will and intricacy than Khalidi suggests.

Maybe those Wiesenthal people have a point when they complain that their attempts at compromise have been rebuffed. But there again I guess am showing my alleged ignorance by trying to avoid a zero-sum, black-white, good versus evil discussion here.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Celebrating Israel’s six great achievements

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-25-12

Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.

Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness.  Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem.  And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”

Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.

The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you — and they are.

My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.

First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.  People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people.  Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.

Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.

Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.

Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election — meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election — uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent.  In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.

This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too.  Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.

And finally, reviving Hebrew.  In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.

As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets — let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.

The writer 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 next book will be Moynihan’s Moment:  The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

Gil Troy: Struggling With Jewish Power

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By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 4-25-12

Gil Troy, a Fellow of the Engaging Israel Project at Shalom Hartman Institute, talks about how, in the context of the current US presidential election, Jews in the US and in Israel must come to grips with power.

Israel at 64: What I Am Celebrating This Year… The Sounds, Smells, Sights, Tastes and Touch of Israel

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By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 4-22-12

Fellows of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute write about what they are celebrating as Israel turns 64: 
GIL TROY: The Sounds, Smells, Sights, Tastes and Touch of Israel
 
I am celebrating Israel this year with all five senses.
 
I rejoice in the sounds of Israel, from the medley of happy, healthy kids shouting as they play in Jerusalem’s playgrounds – which include the Old City’s ancient alleyways – to the awestruck quiet on Yom Kippur, when through custom not compulsion, few Israelis drive.
 
I delight in the smells of Israel, with the Galilee and Negev in full bloom after a winter of real rain, and that drooping purple plant, the wisteria, entrancing with its sweet fragrance as I wander Jerusalem’s streets.
 
I celebrate the sights of Israel, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new I witnessed as I ran the Jerusalem half-marathon this year with thousands of others, starting with the symbols of modern Israeli statesmanship – the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry – and then cutting through the Old City on the way up to the new neighborhoods of Arnona – and back!
 
I appreciate the tastes of Israel, particularly the flavors I can savor just by waltzing down Emek Refaim Street – from Joy’s modern fusion to Caffit’s creative choices to Marvad Haksamim’s Sephardic delicacies to Buffalo Steak House’s entrecote to Sushi Rehavia’s Sushi, and to my new discovery, thanks to my daughter, the eclectic 54HaMoshava – and all are kosher.
 
And I toast the soft touch of Israel – it feels right to be a part of the Hebrew Revolution, where pigs-in-blankets (mini hotdogs in buns) become Moshe be-teva, Moses in a basket. It feels good to be in a place committed to building an idealistic Zionist “us” not just indulging the never-satisfied “me.” It feels grand to contribute to an experiment in nurturing a liberal democracy with a Jewish sensibility, a modern country proud of its ancient past, a Start-up Nation which is also a Values Nation. Chag Sameach.
independence

Gil Troy: JTA Letter to the Editor “On respecting Birthright participants”

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By Gil Troy, JTA, 4-18-12

On respecting Birthright participants

To the Editor:

Birthright Israel has succeeded by allowing more than 300,000 young Jews to experience Israel’s magic directly, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters. But Birthright’s success also reflects its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy.

This approach bears repeating to counter the false impression of the JTA article reporting on a debate between Peter Beinart and Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies. Describing the popular mifgash meeting program with Israeli soldiers, Shrage added that for Birthrighters, “Their next major decision may be what fraternity they’re going to join; the Israeli’s decision is whether they’re going to live or die in a special unit.” One student, Emily Unger responded,  “If that’s the attitude of people running Birthright, that the most important thing I’m thinking about is what fraternity to join, that explains why it wasn’t a program run as if I could think like an intelligent person.”

I understand Unger’s anger. No one wants to be dismissed as a mindless party animal. So let me be clear: We at Birthright respect all our participants and understand the serious dilemmas they face. The program invites 18- to 26-year-olds because we understand that it is the age of great decision-making, requiring clear values — and time to think.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles provide a quilted theory — an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and fun. We respect each participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity, only asking them to participate constructively and then draw their own conclusions.

Barry Shrage knows this. He has been one of the pioneers in the identity-building revolution sweeping the Jewish world. He was humbly acknowledging the life-and-death choices Israelis make – and American students’ good fortune in not having to make that choice.

Gil Troy
Professor, McGill University
Chairman, International Education Committee, Birthright Israel


Jews in the Bosom of Father Abraham — and America

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-16-12

Imagine, if you can, an American Jewish nightmare. What would American Jewish voters do if a presidential candidate they considered good for the country was bad for the Jews – or Israel? Would they vote as “good Americans,” judging governing philosophy, domestic policy preferences, and personal character, or would they act as single-issue voters?

A great irony of American Jewish history is that most people, Jews and non-Jews, consider Jews single-issue voters who always place Jewish interests first– even though voting patterns suggest otherwise. Long before the age of Barack Obama, American Jews have been far more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel. For most, their liberalism has always trumped their Zionism at the voting booths, because so many blur their identities as Jews and Democrats.

Of course, one of American Jewish history’s great blessings is that Jews have rarely faced such an unhappy, Hobson’s Choice. Support for Israel has been a bipartisan tenet for decades, while the United States has welcomed Jews warmly overall.

And yet, despite American Jewish history’s generally happy demeanor, this sense of vulnerability persists. The anxiety partly stems from the community’s reputation as being more particularist than patriotic. Moreover, the opening contrast was unfair – single-issue voting is as “good,” as “American” a political choice as voting for a candidate’s philosophy, policies, or personality.

People fascinated by these questions, and by American Jews’ enduring ambivalence about power, will particularly enjoy reading Jonathan Sarna’s new tour de force, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. An award-winning-historian at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Sarna begins his short compelling book about Grant’s General Orders No. 11, promulgated in 1862, with this “central conundrum of Jewish politics” from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. Most Jews at the time believed that the late Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was best suited to lead the country. But some hesitated to choose Grant as Lincoln’s successor, given Grant’s involvement in what might be the most outrageous act of anti-Semitism in American history, the banning of Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee during the Civil War.

Sarna’s book – which he wrote while on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where I was lucky enough to befriend him – provides good news cubed. First, this “worst” act of American anti-Semitism was mild, and quickly rescinded. Second, by the time Grant ran for president six years later in 1868, he had repeatedly done tshuva – repented – for what his own wife Julia called “that obnoxious order.” And third, Grant worked so hard to undo this stain on his honor that, Sarna writes, as president, he relied on a prominent Jewish advisor, “appointed a series of Jews to public office, attended a long, tedious synagogue dedication – staying until the end — and had aides help save “persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.” “General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history,” Sarna argues. “Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.”

A great historian at the top of his game, Sarna cannot resist telling the story of General Orders No. 11 with all its traditional melodrama, while helping the reader retain enough skepticism in case the tale’s most colorful aspects were embroidered. The irresistible story has one Prussian immigrant who settled in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, defending the Jewish people against expulsion – the smuggling by some Jews had endangered them all — by lobbying the President of the United States. What Sarna subtly calls “the oft-quoted report” claims Abraham Lincoln responded grandly, Biblically:

“And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

“Father Abraham” then replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

The kind of broad-minded historian who uses small incidents to make sweeping points effectively, judiciously, Sarna turns the book into a celebration of American exceptionalism. And his ending is not just “happy” but downright poetic. Grant’s transformation from the General who expelled “Jews as a class,” Sarna writes, “to a president who embraced Jews as individuals – reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.” Sarna finishes, powerfully: “In America, hatred can be overcome.”

That finale makes the book most suited for this season – and for the excellent “Jewish Encounters” Series, a Shocken-Nextbook collaboration, so ably edited by the novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen. These gems sparkle because, as with Sarna’s book, they take a small moment, or one theme, and in a short, punchy, readable monograph, illuminate bigger, important, dimensions of the Jewish experience.

Sarna’s salute to America captures American Jewry’s optimistic mood today — despite the epidemic political nastiness, despite the lingering economic troubles, despite the looming threats to the American dream. American Jews are feeling good about themselves – as further exemplified by the extraordinary New American Haggadah that leading American Jewish novelists, journalists, and essayists produced this year. In fact, whereas most Israelis and Zionists have learned not to indulge in Shlilat HaGolah – negation of the Diaspora – we are starting to see a new, arrogant, Shlilat Zion – an American Jewish condescension toward Israel as world Jewry’s perpetual headache, viewing America as the Jews’ Promised Land

Sarna’s Grant book focuses on the story’s happiest elements – the public dimensions. An earlier work of Sarna’s, American Judaism, highlights the more ambiguous, fraught, private American Jewish religious story – a story of assimilation, for better and worse. The more humbling assessment that follows reminds us, as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday, that the relationship between American Jews and Israelis should be mutual. Each side benefits when the other thrives.

The writer 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 next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

How To Model Tolerance

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion, The Daily Beast, 4-16-12

Critics of Israel are having a grand old time turning the proposed Museum of Tolerance under construction in Jerusalem into a symbol of Israeli intolerance, given the museum’s seemingly insensitive decision to build its monument to broadmindedness on a centuries-old Muslim cemetery. Rashid Khalidi’s “Tolerance of Whom?” is the latest attack on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s initiative, this time deeming it “grotesque” and an “abuse of the dead.”

But the outrage over the building is one of those made-in-the-Middle-East cases of selective indignation and political grandstanding. The Wiesenthal Center has every right to build there and is the victim of a political mugging. Nevertheless, sometimes solving a problem with a touch of grace and self-sacrifice is preferable to standing on principle and asserting your rights.

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Frank Gehry’s proposed 2004 design for the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance in Jerusalem., Getty Images

In his screed against the Wiesenthal Center, Professor Khalidi overlooked the historian’s favorite text—context—and forgot that scholars are not supposed to fear complexity. Khalidi writes poignantly about the generations of his ancestors buried there and fears that this Muslim presence is being “erased.” In fact, many Zionists welcome modern Israel’s rich Arab heritage. I, for one, share Khalidi’s appreciation for the history that consecrates the ground there for him and for many of us who cherish the traditions of all the peoples of the Middle East.

I particularly love the Mamilla burial grounds. Over the years, my children and I passed many hours on visits to Jerusalem, wandering around, absorbing the history, delighting in some of the elaborate burial structures, and imagining the biographies of the many people buried there.

But Khalidi mislead readers by failing to tell them that the story of the Mamilla Cemetery is a complicated tale of a graveyard no longer in use, no longer considered sacred, and oft-violated already by Muslims, not just Jews. Most dramatically, in the 1920s, the fiery Palestinian nationalist, Haj Amin al Husseini, decreed the end to burials in the cemetery, designated the area as a commercial space, and built the magnificent Palace Hotel on one side of this huge expanse in the heart of Jerusalem. Since then, Muslim religious authorities have considered the cemetery “Mundras,” spiritually abandoned. After 1948, much of the Mamilla area became Gan Ha’atzmaut, Independence Park, and much of the controversial corner where the Wiesenthal Center is building became a parking lot.

Moreover, the Wiesenthal Center people note that for decades, no longer considering the area sacred, Muslims approved of the various commercial activities Arabs and Israelis performed on the site. Even for the first five years after the Museum initiative began, no one filed any religious objections, until some Islamist activists sensed a good opportunity to embarrass Israel—and the trouble began. Living in the Middle East—and especially Jerusalem—means constantly time-traveling through many different historical zones. Layers of history underlie most areas, and bones show up in the most inconvenient of building sites. Here, too, although consistency is a virtue, hypocrisy is rampant. The same progressives who are so outraged at the Museum of Tolerance’s alleged intolerance seethe when ultra-Orthodox Jews try stopping archaeological digs or building projects they deem to be on Jewish burial grounds (while ignoring this controversy, of course).

Ultimately, the legal, historical, and religious record justify the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s decision to build its Museum of Tolerance on the Mamilla Cemetery’s outskirts. Yet, if I were in charge, I would make my blow for tolerance by moving the project. While reaffirming the Jewish claim, while blasting the protesters’ duplicity, while filling in the facts, I would nevertheless build elsewhere. Civility entails knowing your rights but sometimes knowing enough not to assert them fully. Civility emerges from occasionally conceding graciously, even if unilaterally, not solely for the sake of others, but for your own sake. Mamilla Cemetery should be preserved as a Garden of Tolerance, fully administered by the Simon Wiesenthal Center for a generous fee, with a Museum of Tolerance built somewhere else in Jerusalem.

Not all conflicts need be zero sum, with clear winners and losers. To give the Wiesenthal Center and the Israeli Authorities the necessary nudge, deep-pocketed, peace-loving Arabs or Europeans or Americans should help create a rare Middle Eastern win-win. Let these do-gooders tally up all the court costs, real-estate fees, and construction costs to buy out the Center, while finding the Museum of Tolerance a new home. Let the building of the Museum of Tolerance become itself a model of tolerance, achieving its founders’ vision in ways that are all too rarely achieved in the Middle East of simplistic spin and fanatic finger pointing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-10-12

“Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy”

A popular YouTube parody at www.collegehumor.com, which my kids love, has a youngGerman named Gunter Granz working in an American office, refusing to shake his Jewish co-workers’ hands, assuming all their fathers are rich bankers, and humiliated by Germany’s World War II misdeeds – because if only Hitler had not made the country so vulnerable with the long supply lines in Russia, he would have won. Meanwhile, in the real world, the German novelist Gunter Grass talks about Israel, the Jewish state, in equally absurd ways, bordering on parody. Grass should be mocked, refuted, confronted. But Israel’s Interior Minister is wrong. Rather than banning the author, Israel should welcome him – showing Grass a real democracy in action rather the bogeyman he targeted.
Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” throbs with the false bravado and self-righteousness of the laptop warrior against Israel. There is this conceit, among Israel’s critics, that, somehow, by joining the international pile-on against Israel they are being brave, breaking the silence, saying what must be said, when they actually are being conformist, acting in vogue, echoing clichés.Especially in Europe, and most especially in Grass’s leftist circles, attacking Israel – or the US — is as natural, and as imaginative, as grumbling about high gasoline prices or low book advances.
Among Western radicals, prejudice against Israel and the US is the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable in polite circles. As Richard Wolin explains in The Seduction of Unreason:  The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, America has long functioned as European thinkers’ Schreckbild, image of horror.  Israel, what those lovely Iranian mullahs call, Little Satan, is now similarly targeted, in a move reeking of anti-Semitism that also feels natural to European elites. Attacking each country’s essential character transcends anger at specific policies, often confusing cause and effect. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel notes that the same critics attack America as “unilateralist” and “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally but then call Uncle Sam “isolationist” when it does not.
Similarly, Grass colors within the lines, slavishly following the bash-Israel formula.  His critique is one-sided, exaggerated and hysterical. Iran can threaten to “wipe out” Israel but Grass and his ilk accuse Israel of threatening Iran, of endangering “The already fragile world peace.”  Such “wonderful illogicality” suggests not “rational analysis” to Revel but “obsession.”
I agree with Grass when he writes in his leaden, clumsy poem: “I am tired of the hypocrisy/ Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped/That this will free many from silence,/That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger/ To renounce violence….”  We just differ in our threat assessments and our definitions of hypocrisy.  I am more outraged by charlatans like Grass who cannot criticize Third World dictators and human rights abusers, and whose fight against nuclear proliferation mysteriously lost steam when the oil-rich Iranians decided they desperately needed what, an alternative energy source? And when it comes to trusting one country to act responsibly, I bet on Israel’s democracy over Iran’s mullocracy.
Grass sees the Middle East as a “Region occupied by mania” with Israelis and Palestinians living “cheek by jowl among enemies.” Beyond not wanting to deploy state power against an aging, irrelevant blowhard whose great achievement, The Tin Drum dates to 1959, before I was born, I believe Israel has nothing to hide. Grass should visit Israel now during Passover.
I wish he could have wandered, Seder night, like the spirit of Elijah the Prophet did, from house to house, watching a society stop, gather in groups of friends and relatives, to contemplate questions of justice and injustice, slavery and freedom. I wish he could visit the country’s parks and historic sites, seeing many of the same families now enjoying Israel’s natural beauty and historical grandeur as backdrop. I wish he could frolic in Sakhne, which attracted as many as 1500 people a day this Passover, and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl” splashing in the water, enjoying the mini waterfalls. I wish he could inspect the wards of Hadassah Hospital or work out in the YMCA gym in Jerusalem and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl,” living together, working together, playing together. I wish he could wander through the Old City and speak to those Palestinian-Israelis who have worked so hard to get Israeli citizenship, asking why those papers are so precious to them.
And I wish he could meet the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees from his native Germany, who survived the sadism of the Waffen SS Grass joined and then lied about, to see the lives they have made for themselves. Those monuments to the human spirit are more impressive than any monuments to the dead at Yad Vashem.
And yes, let him get political and visit the territories. Let him visit the Palestinian photographic art exhibits in Jaffa and elsewhere Israelis attend, and seek parallel expressions of sympathy for Israel, artistic or otherwise, in the Palestinian territories.  Let him visit Sderot, or my cousin’s Kibbutz, Nirim, to see how Hamas in Gaza chose rocket-launching over nation-building when given the opportunity to do what it wished after Israel withdrew in 2005 –nearly seven years ago already! –and then the Islamists seized power. And let him meet victims of Palestinian terror, learn about their missing limbs – or missing family members – and unravel why Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership turned from peace talks to suicide bombs.
Israel has nothing to hide – and would botch it if it tried. Democracy begins in conversation. Freedom thrives from exposure. Let Grass come visit Israel and learn. Then, let him make Tehran his next stop, if he dares.

The writer 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 next book will be Moynihan’s Moment:  The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-3-12

When I was young, the Bizarro back-of-the-book feature in Superman comics fascinated me. In the mirror-image Bizarro universe, Superman was ugly and mean, while words’ meanings were reversed. “Bad” meant “good” in Bizarro talk – long before my Boston friends taught me that “wicked” could mean cool. These days, when I hear the Blame Israel First crowd’s relentless criticism of Israel, I often feel I have stumbled into that back-of-the-book Bizarro feature. Some of the criticisms are valid, but they end up exaggerated and distorted.

That, ultimately, explains the failure of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is too smart and too much of an insider to make baseless complaints.  But he goes too far repeatedly, magnifying Israel and the Jewish community’s flaws until they are, Bizarro-style, unrecognizable, grotesque. Thus, typically, he cannot simply criticize Israeli policies on the West Bank or toward Israeli Arabs. He has to echo the trendy “racism” and “apartheid” rhetoric. He views the mutually fraught relations between two competing national groups, Arabs and Jews, through the distorting lens of “anti-Arab racism.” And manipulatively invoking his South African roots to sharpen the moral condemnation, he equates “occupation” with “apartheid,” despite being unable to find in Israel any of the formal racial distinctions which defined South African apartheid.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has popularized the term “dog-whistling” to mean using “coded ambiguous language” to telegraph bigoted positions.  The “racist” and “apartheid” accusations send subliminal messages to the Left of demonization and delegitimization, without having to go that far explicitly.  Why this keeps on happening with Israel, why the compulsive need to turn an imperfect state worthy of some criticism into a Bizarro grotesquerie raises the discussion about Israel’s critics from the normal to the pathological – revealing more about them and their need to feel morally superior by picking on what Bernard Lewis calls “the fashionable enemy” than about the Jewish State.

Similarly, Beinart caricatures American Jewry and American Zionism as imprisoned in a state of “perpetual victimhood.” I share his concern with the unfortunate American Jewish tendency to invest more in Holocaust memorials than in day schools, and criticize those Israelis and Zionists who are too obsessed with the Holocaust. Still, Zionism is not only about victimization. A more triumphalist American Jewish narrative and Israeli narrative are at play simultaneously – with a much richer Jewish and Zionist conversation than the woe-is-me cliché reading of Jewish holidays, “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

One book unintentionally offering a tikun, a healing counter to Beinart’s bile, is a sophisticated discussion of the Jewish laws of conversion recently published by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis. Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, celebrates the rich, delightful mishmash of modern Jewish identity. Rabbi Ellenson is the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. Rabbi Gordis – a friend of mine – studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and lives an Orthodox lifestyle. Together, these two scholars analyzed Orthodox readings of the conversion question.

Two important conclusions emerge. First, Ellenson and Gordis have uncovered a wide array of Orthodox responses, sensitive to social conditions, political realities, and changing times, while rooted in the Halacha, the law.  These findings prove that Judaism is complex, fluid and flexible, refuting the distorted ultra-Orthodox perspective which pretends there is one unchanging and always hyper-rigorous interpretation.

The second conclusion more directly repudiates Beinart’s victimization claim. In analyzing Israeli religious responsa, Gordis and Ellenson discovered that “their attitudes toward conversion have been palpably affected by the return of Jewish statehood…. Some clearly understood their roles as public policymakers and not merely as halakhic decisors.” The Jewish return to statehood is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has triggered the revival of Hebrew, the creation of a new culture, fascinating improvisations in secular law and Jewish law. To miss how that fosters a positive new Jewish identity, inspiring Jews in Israel and abroad, is to focus on the Crisis of Zionism so much you miss the Opportunity of Zionism. Seeing Israel as one big Yad Vashem, one big Holocaust memorial, overlooks the Wall and the malls, the nature and the technology, the vitality and the creativity, in short, Israeli life at its fullest.

The Passover holiday similarly resists caricature. Only focusing on Pharaoh and slavery misses more than half the holiday. Passover is not just about the bread of affliction and the paschal sacrifice, it is the Festival of Freedom and the Holiday of Spring. The four cups of wine start with leaving Egypt and delivery from slavery, then build to a redemptive promise and a nation-building process. Stopping with the victimization would be like celebrating Thanksgiving by remembering the Pilgrims’ cold winter but forgetting the turkey and sweet potatoes.

Unfortunately, anyone aware of Jewish history feels the pain of centuries of persecution. This month, we have fresh graves in Israel of young Jews once again killed in Europe for being Jews – this time, in Tolouse, France. And this seder marks the tenth anniversary of the nightmarish Passover of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber destroyed the Park Hotel seder in Netanya.

My late grandfather used to shake with rage during “shfoch chamatcha,” the “pour out your wrath” prayer after the Seder meal, denouncing our oppressors. But he would tremble with joy just minutes later when singing the final round of seder songs. That ability to laugh and sing, to live and build, is an essential Jewish trait that has animated Zionism for decades. Those who only see the hurt, without seeing the healing, are the Bizarros of today.  I, for one, wish my grandfather were around to pour out his Polish-honed wrath on them too.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

The genius behind Tel Aviv’s towers

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-2-12

In Tel Aviv on March 22, hundreds of Israelis gathered at Israel’s Tel Aviv Exhibition-Gardens to honour the great Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur David Azrieli.

At 90 years young, David still dazzles, making his mark in business and philanthropy. The man who brought the indoor mall to Israel – and coined the term for it, kanyon – continues to initiate projects while setting new standards in charitable giving in Canada and Israel.

David is of that extraordinary Holocaust generation that not only survived, not only thrived in the New World, but improved it. Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, he escaped into Russia, survived getting shot, and eventually took the land route into Palestine, aided by another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. After studying at the Technion, he fought during the War of Independence, travelled abroad and arrived in Canada in 1954. While working as a melamed, a Hebrew-school teacher, he entered the wild world of real estate. One of those successful, hardworking, driven, visionary tycoons who makes it look easy – but outlasted many others who failed – he built an empire in Canada, the United States and Israel.

Along the way, David also built a beautiful family with his amazing wife, Stephanie, and four extraordinary children – my prejudice as a family friend shines through – while giving back as a community leader, heading the Canadian Zionist movement for many years. David has always proudly proclaimed himself a Zionist, embodying the Zionist values of self-reliance, forward-thinking and constructive action. An avid art collector, David is now applying his endless energy and broad vision to the world of charitable giving. News reports when the Azrieli Group in Israel went public estimated that he and his family may contribute one billion dollars to his foundation.

Successful philanthropy requires spending money intelligently, not just giving it generously. Two of the Azrieli Foundation’s signature projects prove that the insight that made David Israel’s Master Builder is now helping him to become the Jewish world’s Great Strategic Giver. In 2001, he published his memoirs, with his co-author and daughter, Danna Azrieli, as One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950. The experience proved so meaningful for him and his family that he decided to help others produce quality memoirs, too. The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program now humanizes the Holocaust victims “one story at a time,” allowing survivors without David’s resources to share their legacy with their heirs.

Similar empathy and creativity is being used to fight the problem of high school dropouts in Israel. When briefed about the challenges of keeping kids in school, David asked the critical question – when do we lose them? He discovered that most high school dropouts are “born,” if you will, in the frustrations of junior high. As a result, the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment has created a network of community centres in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere that assist young, overwhelmingly poor learners early in the educational process, so they can feel good about themselves entering high school.

Beyond the headlines, I have had the pleasure of knowing David as a loving family man, a warm presence, a sophisticated analyst, a probing conversationalist. Sixteen and a half years ago, when I was far more familiar with his reputation as a tough businessman than with his gentle scholarly soul, my wife – who grew up with his daughters – and I introduced him to our oldest daughter, who was about four months old then. David zeroed in on her, engaged her with his delighted smile, whipped out a camera, snapped off a roll of pictures, popped the film out of camera and gave it to us.  I had simply never seen a 74-year-old gush so much over a baby, nor had anyone simply handed me a roll of film like that before – in the pre-digital era, it was simply not done.

Whenever I drive into Tel Aviv, I am entranced by the three tall, sleek towers David built, which have become, surveys tell us, among Israel’s most defining icons. I marvel at their modernity, at the pioneering spirit behind them, at the constructive, entrepreneurial Zionism they epitomize. And I cherish the private moments my family and I have shared with the genius behind the towers, a modern-day David demonstrating the same reach, ambition and joyous abandon for which that great ancient king was known.