Building A Broad, Civil Jewish Tent On Israel

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By Gil Troy NY Jewish Week, 5-29-12

As the American Jewish community mimics the rest of America with ugly, polarizing political fights, calls for a “big tent” are becoming common. Partisans are pushing back, caricaturing calls for a big tent as lacking in principle or shilling for the status quo. But constructing a big tent that is open enough to welcome disparate voices, yet not so undefined that it has no mooring, takes great skill and vision.

The finesse required was on display earlier this month. AJC Access, the American Jewish Committee’s youth wing, convened a second annual conference with the Reut Institute, an Israeli action-based think tank, to try creating a big, broad, respectful conversation about Israel, left, right and center. Young Jews, mostly aged 25 to 45, from more than 30 countries, participated.

During an intense, four-hour marathon session on “Legitimizing Israel,” I suggested four poles necessary for building a civil Jewish tent when talking about Israel. Like Abraham’s tent, it should be open on all four sides, while nevertheless offering protection.

Start by acknowledging complexity. Despite being a messy muddle, the Middle East seems to invite the most simplistic sloganeering. Yossi Klein Halevi, my colleague at Engaging Israel, a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says that the Israeli right fails by ignoring the first intifada’s lessons — that the Palestinians are a people with rights to self-determination, which must be respected. The Israeli left fails by ignoring the second intifada’s lessons, that Palestinian political culture is possessed by annihilationist impulses. Until Palestinian leaders become more committed to building their own state rather than destroying Israel, peace will remain elusive.

Secondly, we should build identity, mounting what Donniel Hartman of Engaging Israel calls a “Jewish values conversation about Israel.” Last summer, after I wrote two articles critical of J Street in the Jerusalem Post, I nevertheless was invited to address J Street U’s student mission to Israel. Using the Engaging Israel methodology, which entails drilling down to core issues while carving out open, respectful space for dialogue, I hosted the students in my home, and began the conversation by exploring the question of why we need a Jewish state. Having studied fundamentals together, and having forged a broad consensus about Jewish identity that requires expression in state form, we could then start debating borders and tactics with no acrimony.

More broadly, we have to stop only experiencing Israel as a country that needs our support. We have not fully recognized how Israel’s existence enhances Jewish identity worldwide — or how Israel helps solve our existential dilemmas as human beings and as Jews in a stressful, confusing modern world. This kind of Zionism highlights consensus and spotlights values, while ending the constant obsession with Israel’s headaches.

Thirdly, we also must not be afraid to define our community. We should develop “red lines” and “blue and white lines,” meaning ideas we repudiate and principles we champion. Two years ago, a group that I was a part of, ranging from left to right, worked together to define common parameters. The document we produced came easily. We all affirmed our beliefs in Jewish nationalism, Jewish statehood, and mutual respect. And we agreed on red lines, such as not accusing Israel of racism or apartheid, and, more generally, not trying to refight the 1948 war about Israel’s right to exist, rather than the 1967 war about Israel’s borders.

Connected to this is the fourth and final pole, recognition of the toxicity that emerges from the systematic Arab attempt to delegitimize Israel. We are all scarred by living in the age of delegitimization. The Zionist left, in particular, should start getting angry at the delegitmizers, recognizing just how much delegitimizing Israel harms the peace process.

In building this tent, my advice is: acknowledge complexity, because nuance matters; engage Jewish identity issues, because values matter; define our community, because boundaries matter; and condemn the delegitimizers’ toxicity, because words matter.

In concluding the conference, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, eloquently explained why AJC convenes a big tent and cultivates a strong center. “We are more effective, we are more intelligent, we are more credible, when we listen hard to reasoned sides of the complex Israel issue before speaking up,” he said. Harris said the stakes couldn’t be higher, and, simplistic, doctrinal thinking doesn’t help advance the discussion; the argumentative Jewish tent should not an echo chamber, but must embrace civility and mutual respect.

This big tent approach appreciates that, as Harris noted, Israel is both a modern-day miracle and a work in progress. And it recognizes that over the millennia, Jews have created what he calls “the consummate guilt culture,” which is now applied obsessively to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have developed “the consummate blame culture,” which then preys on us so perfectly. The big tent approach notes the growing shrillness and polarization in American political culture but says, “We can do better.”

Gil Troy is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.

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Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

No, McGill is not antisemitic

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-28-12

An e-mail sent to me and copied to McGill’s principal Heather Munroe-Blum grabbed my attention. It contained a forwarded article headlined “McGill University’s Rampant, Historic, and Current Anti-Semitism,” which concluded that “Antisemitism is clearly engrained into the culture at McGill University, and any proud Jew wouldn’t go anywhere near the university.”

As a proud Jew associated with the university for more than 20 years, knowing that it is led by another proud Jew whose first public letter to the McGill community eloquently denounced antisemitism, I thought the issue required investigation.

The article’s author certainly had grounds for being furious. The trigger was an outrageous smear in the McGill Daily that ran this past March calling Israel “The Land of Milk and Heroin.” This latest anti-Israel libel accused the Jewish state of encouraging heroin addiction among Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem. This article belongs to a genre we can call “Israel as bogeyman,” which seeks to blame the Jewish state for any problem even vaguely associated with the Middle East or Israel’s existence. Such delegitimization and hatred reeks of antisemitism, with its extremism and essentialism.

The version of the article I read online was already sanitized, shorn of its most offensive statements, thanks to the effective response of Michelle Whiteman, Quebec regional director of HonestReporting Canada. As she explained in a Times of Israel blog entry, HonestReporting confronted the Daily, and even though the paper only ran a heavily edited letter from HonestReporting six weeks later, it cleaned up the article online, partially.

Gone were such absurd, unfounded libels, based on “Palestine TV’s arguments,” that “Israeli authorities are actually responsible for encouraging and facilitating heroin use among Arabs for political reasons.” Still, pathetic, inaccurate faux anthropological insights abounded, such as the claim that “drug abuse is often found burgeoning in regions facing political conflict, with rates of addiction rising during times of both physical and structural conflict – it is seen as being a defence strategy to cope with insecurity and violence.” How this “insight” explains the spike in heroin addiction during the prosperous 1960s in the West or the fact that Israeli Jews and Arabs have similar rates of heroin addiction – except among Arab women, where it plummets – is beyond me.

Still, while the article was heavily biased against Israel, and while I understand the historic resonance of antisemitism fuelling such smears, and while I recoil from the blatant antisemitism in the Arab world that is now, to my horror, shaping the conversation on too many college campuses, that does not make McGill an antisemitic institution.

For starters, the McGill Daily is known on campus for frequently running shoddy, provocative, extreme, “politically correct” articles. Despite being a professor who rarely turns away from a good ideological battle, I won’t lower myself to responding to Daily articles. I was thrilled that HonestReporting did – although I wish McGill students themselves had done it, as some did in the online comments. Second, the Daily is a student-run publication that does not represent McGill University in any way. Finally, McGill has a thriving Jewish student life, many Jewish students, professsors and administrators, a first-rate Judaic studies department, an impressive Hillel, and an exciting, student-run Ghetto shul – attributes that make it one of the most welcoming campuses for Jews.

The bigger issue here is the shrillness of debate about Israel. Again and again, so many of Israel’s opponents seem utterly incapable of making a nuanced argument when it comes to the Middle East. Israel is demonized in multiple ways worldwide. In response, I regret to say, some of Israel’s defenders also overreact. When our allies in the fight for Israel unfairly call an institution such as McGill “antisemitic,” we all suffer. It undermines our credibility. When I have seen antisemitism, I have fought it, passionately, and have the professional scars to show for it. But when I see false and extreme accusations, even when I understand the pain underlying it, I also have to respond.

And let me be clear: my response is not only tactical, made because we might look bad. We need to set the highest standards for the pro-Israel community, demanding truth, consistency, nuance and accuracy. Hysteria hurts us, distracting us from the real issues and the bigger problems. It also alienates us from our environment unnecessarily, blinding us to potential allies and even to true friends.

Exaggerating the Refugee Problem: Response to Lara Friedman’s Open Zion Post “Legislating the Refugee Problem”

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-29-12

The situation in the Middle East is complicated enough without inflammatory oversimplifications. Lara Friedman’s post “Legislating the Refugee Problem,” should be called “Exaggerating the Refugee Problem.” Unfortunately, supposedly pro-Palestinian discourse is rife with such destructive distortions, which undermine the push for a two-state solution.

Friedman charges  that “Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), a Tea Party member… introduced legislation supporting Israeli annexation ‘of Judea and Samaria’—aka, the West Bank.” Following the link she provides, H.RES.394 is called “Supporting Israel’s right to annex Judea and Samaria in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to press for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.” One can still oppose the law, but understanding it as potential Congressional pushback to counter a unilateral declaration by Palestinians fills out the narrative.

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Colombian supporters of Israel demonstrate to back Colombia’s position of not to vote the recognition of a Palestine statehood by the UN, at Bolivar Square in Bogota in October 2011. (Felipe Caicedo / AFP / Getty Images)

Beyond telling half the story, Friedman loves appearing horrified by the mundane. She is outraged that, when serving in the House, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, “made going after UNRWA—the UN agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees—a pet project.” What did this evil man do? She reports: “His efforts have focused on demanding audits and imposing ever-increasing demands for UNRWA accountability as a condition for U.S. funding.” Demanding audits? Seeking accountability? It is indeed shocking when modern legislators stop posturing and start doing their jobs by providing Congressional oversight. But those efforts should be applauded, not condemned.

In fairness, Senator Kirk expanded his mission. He is challenging the accepted UNWRA definition of Palestinian refugees while questioning UNWRA’s overall bias against Israel—although again, Friedman’s links show that Kirk is not proposing an aid cutoff for impoverished Palestinians, which, if mentioned would have made him sound much less Scrooge-like.

Senator Kirk has a point. The Palestinians have long enjoyed extra protection and indulgence from the UN, and especially the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNWRA, first established in 1949. In those days, the world was awash in refugees. There were as many as 40 million European refugees after World War II, and another 14.5 million after the Indo-Pakistan partition plan. Over the next decade, 850,000 Jews from Arab lands would also become refugees, driven out by anti-Semitic fury following Israel’s creation.

UNWRA defines a Palestine refugee as “any person whose ‘normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.’” That makes sense. Whatever caused the displacement—and the historiographical battle rages as to how many fled voluntarily and how many were driven out involuntarily—six hundred to seven hundred thousand Palestinians ended up homeless after the 1948 war. They deserved international assistance. But UNWRA then adds a twist: “Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition” [italics added]. Now, we need George Orwell.

Pop Quiz: What do you call “descendants” of European refugees, Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees, or Jewish refugees from the post-1945 or post-1948 turmoil? Answer: Citizens of their respective lands. The classification “refugee” is a transitory one not an enduring identity willed from one generation to the next—except when we come to the question of Palestine and we see the world’s investment in perpetuating the problem.

This perma-Palestinian-refugee status prolongs the Middle East conflict. I respect Palestinian national identity and endorse a two-state solution. Moreover, I endorse a right of return for the original Palestinian refugees. This incendiary issue could be defused if UNWRA kept to the historic definition and treated Palestinians like all others. Palestinians could become citizens of their new state, once created. The remaining 30,000 or so original Palestinians displaced 64 years ago, could be welcomed back in Israel or compensated. Palestinians could get a symbolic victory of great import to them without threatening Israel or trying to undo six and a half decades of history.

UNWRA’s categorizing inflation reflects its systematic anti-Israel bias. Over the years, UNWRA schools have preached anti-Israel hatred, UNWRA’s director has demagogically attacked the Jewish state, and UNWRA has been part of a network of UN institutions that prolong the conflict by encouraging Palestinian extremism and maximalist demands.

The Zen notion that less is more also applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Less encouragement of Palestinian radicalism would facilitate more progress toward a two-state solution. If the Palestinian goal is creating a Palestinian state and not destroying the Jewish one, being pro-Palestinian must undergo a redefinition which focuses on advancing that goal rather than feeding destructive, maximalist fantasies.  Friedman, UNWRA and so many other undiscriminating cheerleaders are playing the role of enablers, perpetuating Mideast dysfunction rather than providing the perspective and tough love good friends sometimes need.

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.