Israel Beyond The Political

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 6-27-12

Just days ago the mighty Jerusalem Raiders lost 3 to 1 in the do-or-die Israel Association of Baseball championship game to the Bet Shemesh Chili Peppers. The Raiders—a little league team with players ranging in age from 11 to 14—played their last game on the historic Gezer field, with a fabulous view of Tel Gezer—the archaeological site of the first positively identified Biblical city. The night before, the Audrey Delisse Ballet studio had mounted a full two-hour production of Coppelia with over fifty ballet dancers ranging in age from 3 to 17. That event took place in Jerusalem’s Masorti High School, one of the flagship schools of the thriving TALI educational movement—dozens of schools not in Israel’s religious system committed to teaching about Zionism, Judaism and democracy. Full disclosure: my eleven-year-old son alternated between pitching, catching and playing outfield on the Raiders as my fifteen-year-old coached, and both my ten-year-old and seventeen-year-old daughters danced in Coppelia.

These thoroughly normal moments—despite their dramatic settings—are worth mentioning because thoroughly normal moments should be part of any “new conversation about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish future,” which this Website aspires to launch.  Celebrating the poetry of the everyday in Altneuland, the Jews’ Old New land, is not dodging “the subject”—it should frequently be The Subject. And yet, a quick survey of the first 320 posts of this Website, shows nothing about regular, everyday life in Israel—or Palestine for that matter. I have not read anything that would prepare me for the extraordinarily ordinary and delightful student-faculty interactions I experienced when I visited Al Quds University in Abu Dis or the easy interactions between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim patients and staffers I saw when I was hospitalized last month with a running injury at Hadassah Hospital.

We need to celebrate the normal because it was one of Zionism’s great dreams and is one of Zionism’s greatest achievements. The Jewish people were so marginalized, ostracized, and persecuted in both Europe and the Arab world for so many centuries that many doubted the comfortable, casual interactions that characterize modern Israeli life today would be possible to foster.

And, yes, there is a political dimension here too. Palestinian propagandists have succeeded in making people believe that Israel and the Palestinian territories are a perpetual warzone. Stories of ordinary life on both sides of the divide, instances of easy interaction, even cooperation and friendship, between Jews and Palestinians, threaten the dominant distorted narrative. The venom of an Alice Walker, who does not want her novel The Color Purple translated into Hebrew, but would not block the book’s distribution in Syria or Saudi Arabia, is partially due to this pathologization of everyday life in the Holy Land.

Let me be clear, this is not some guilt-inducing, call for Open Zion to be “responsible”—with all the complexities inherent in such a word regarding any blog or journalistic endeavor. This simply is a call for Open Zion, and others writing about the Middle East, to be more accurate.

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.

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American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-26-12

I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”

Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.

American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message.  American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state.  The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.

Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.

Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.

Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides.  A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.

Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.

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,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Call me a proud ‘Zionist firebrand’

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By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, 6-22-12

A blogger on the Maclean’s magazine website has deemed me a “Zionist  firebrand” – and it was most assuredly not intended as a compliment. “Firebrand” is Canadian for extremist, fanatic, a most non-academic and far too aggressively American combatant in the Middle East wars.

My crime, apparently, was writing a “fiery” defence of a delegation of Canadian comedians who were heckled in east Jerusalem. Their crime, apparently, was mentioning the word “Israel” in front of a group of Palestinians in east Jerusalem.

The story begins in Toronto, when Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuks chain of comedy clubs, decided he wanted to help the Jewish state. “I could write a cheque,” he explained to me, “but so could a dentist.” He wanted to use his particular skills as a comedian and an entertainment entrepreneur to help Israel.

He therefore decided to lead a delegation of six young talented comedians to Israel on a goodwill tour, which took place in June and was sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In the spirit of a good comedian, who knows no boundaries – geographic or verbal – and abhors censorship, when he heard that few comedians play east Jerusalem, he volunteered to bring his troupe there.

The comedians appeared in east Jerusalem on a Friday night and ran into trouble immediately. Within seven seconds, Sam Easton was heckled. In typical comedians’ style of acknowledging the site of their gig, Easton, the MC for the evening, had begun by saying, “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

People hissed and booed. They shouted out “Palestine.” At least one person shouted that Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. The next comedian, Jean Paul, also was attacked for telling an innocuous joke – what does a polite Israeli magician say? TO-dah!  Some westerners in the audience called Jean Paul, a black man, “racist” for making the joke. Some Canadian diplomats attending told Breslin that Israel “stole” Palestinian land.

My supposedly “fiery” response involved chiding the Palestinians for forgetting the Middle East tradition of welcoming strangers and suggesting that this kind of Palestinian intolerance and rudeness made Israeli democracy look good.

The Canadian comedians were innocent non-combatants. We should not become so inured to conflict that we accept the politicization of every evening and every innocent joke. So, yes, if defending these kind comedians, who meant no harm, makes me a “Zionist firebrand,” I will wear that designation proudly. And if defending the Jewish state makes me “fiery” and non-academic, I accept those labels too.

But it’s worth exploring the underlying subtext here. At work is the delegitimizers’ delegitimization of the legitimizers. Part of the systematic strategy to attack Israel, isolate Israel, read Israel out of the community of nations, involves making the very act of defending Israel illegitimate. If any defence of Israel, no matter how innocuous, is labelled extreme, the defence of Israel is undermined. And using the term “Zionist” pejoratively, in a world that increasingly demonizes the movement for Jewish national liberation, makes the attack more dismissive.

These attacks often have a chilling effect, putting defenders on the defensive. If I were untenured, or more sensitive, I might be intimidated – which was the intention. Instead, I wear the attacks as a badge of honour – and call out the attackers for their methods. I am a Zionist – not merely an anti-anti-Zionist. And I make no apologies for my passion, even as I back it up with evidence and reason.

On a deeper level, this incident offered a classic example of the pathologization of Israel. If every trip to Israel becomes controversial, if every conversation about Israel becomes headache-inducing, we lose and the anti-Israel forces win. The true, important, resonant headlines about the comedians’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with their rude treatment in east Jerusalem. These comedians loved Israel – they loved the spirituality of Jerusalem, the normalcy of Tel Aviv, the Israelis’ indomitable spirit. They laughed and learned from the Dead Sea to Masada, from the ancient tunnels of Jerusalem’s Western Walls to the chic shops of Tel Aviv’s Kikar Ha’atzmaut.

In short, as the boyish, charming, exuberant Easton said: “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

So will other visitors, both Jews and non-Jews.

This column appears in the June 28 print issue of The CJN

Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

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.

One-Note History: A Response to Yousef Munayyer

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-19-12

One of the most moving Jewish prayers begins by saying, “MiPnai Chataeinu Gilinu MeArzenu,” we were exiled from our land, because of our sins. The prayer captures the humility of the Jews in exile, and explains a fundamental force that propelled the Zionist movement. Some Jews, overwhelmed by the sins of fraternal hatred that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, preached passivity, awaiting Messianic redemption.  Others, fearing national paralysis but nevertheless humbled, reacted and acted.

Awareness of national sins, of collective imperfections, helped make most Zionists pragmatists. They were trying to fix a problem—the problem of statelessness—and were willing to compromise to achieve their goal. Most dramatically, in 1947 David Ben-Gurion led his people to accept what the Peel Commission had acknowledged was a proverbial half loaf—a partition of the Jewish homeland into Jewish and Arab parts, with Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s geographic heart and soul, internationalized. This compromise preceded other compromises, including the 1979 Camp David treaty with Egypt, the various Oslo Accords of the 1990s, and the Gaza Disengagement of 2005—all of which involved withdrawing from territory for the hope of peace.

 

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Kemal Arekat (l), former leader of Futuwa movement, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, commander of Palestinian Arab forces in Jerusalem (c) and Kassem Rimawi (r), leader of Palestinian Arab Party 16 February 1948 during the offensive against Jews in Palestine. (AFP / Getty Images)

 

By contrast, the dominant Palestinian narrative has long been about the sins of others leading to their exile and suffering. In “Blaming the Victim” Yousef Munayyer once again offers such an account of his people as blameless, claiming that any suggestion of Palestinian responsibility is “ahistorical,” condescending, and, invoking the accusation du jour, a reflection of “racism.”  Setting up a straw man—or straw passage—he targets his enemies with his own improvised quotations, writing, “‘Those Arabs had a chance to make a deal by accepting the 1947 UN Partition,’ the narrative often goes, ‘but they chose war and thus deserve whatever befell them.'” Munayyer’s characterization drains the nuance from the discussion and turns an assessment of historical responsibility—losing wars you trigger does have consequences—into a condescending moral judgment.

Then, trying to cleanse Arabs of responsibility and blame the Jews he writes: “Given the discussion of ‘population transfer,'”—again undocumented—”Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control.”Here, using historical slight of hand with no proof, he implicitly accuses Israelis of a pre-crime, speculating that the Jews “might very well act.” Finally, reversing historical causation, he makes the Arab military attack on Israel a justified reaction rather than an aggressive invasion when he writes, again without evidence, “The influx of refugees pouring into Arab states pushed those governments into a war they were neither prepared for nor really desired.”

This account ignores the well-documented research of historians such as Efraim Karsh who in Palestine Betrayed (2010) presents a nuanced, multidimensional perspective. Karsh explains that some Palestinians had strong ties with Jews, some accepted the partition compromise, but that extremist leaders such as Hajj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, betrayed their people by being so uncompromising. (And Karsh’s portrait is far from “monolithic,” mocking another Munayyer complaint which is undermined by Munayyer’s own sweeping claim that “the native Palestinians opposed” partition—as if all acted as one).

Rejecting the Palestinian claim that Palestinians were passive pawns, Karsh quotes Radio Baghdad in May 1948 that “Fright has struck the Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country.” The Palestinian leader Musa Alami admitted in 1949 that his people “were told that the Arab armies were coming, that the matter would be settled and everything return to normal.”

Most damning, Karsh dares introduce complexity into the story by noting that after 1948, many Palestinians blamed their Arab brethren not the Jews. Sir John Troutbeck the pro-Arab head of the British Middle East office in Cairo, reported in June 1949 that the Gaza refugees “Express no bitterness against the Jews,” but “speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states.” Many told Troutbeck: “we know who our enemies are.” He concluded, the Gaza refugees “have no quarrel with the Jews.” He explained: “they have lived with the Jews all their lives and are perfectly ready to go back and live with them again.”

Johnny one-note history is anathema to a two-state solution. The dominant, monolithic woe-is-us, we-were-“ethnically-cleansed” Palestinian narrative undermines any spirit of pragmatism or compromise in a demand for absolute “justice” rather than a search for a subtle solution. Many Israelis have spent over two decades now arguing about their history, acknowledging the messiness of the past, the complexity of the conflict, the dual claims of two people in love with the same land. Parallel Palestinian discussions, acknowledging some of their sins and miscalculations too, would help lay the ideological and conceptual groundwork for the kinds of compromises they—and the Israelis—will have to accept for peace to be achieved.

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.

Migrant Mitzvahs

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-12-12

“52% of Israeli Jews agree,” the Times of Israel headline cried: “African migrants are ‘a cancer.’” The subhead continued that the poll also “establishes a direct correlation between racist attitudes and religiosity.”  While sobering themselves, these findings about bigotry will of course feed other bigotry, with the ever-more-popular “Israel is racist” and “religious people are yahoos” memes leading the way.

The polls indicate a problem that Israel has—which Israel shares with many Western democracies, including the U.S. The same day the Times of Israel publicized its immigration survey finding, the CBS News Political Hotsheet pronounced: “Most Americans think Arizona immigration law is ‘about right,’” with 52 percent of Americans approving the controversial law requiring Arizona law enforcement officials to check citizenship status aggressively.

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An African migrant stands as a right-wing protestors walk past holding Israeli flags and banners during a demonstration against African migrants in Tel Aviv. (David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images)

Immigration is a blessing and a curse, a welcome engine for creativity, entrepreneurship and growth as well as a dramatic social disruptor.  Even immigrant-friendly societies such as the US and Israel have long histories of resisting newcomers. The United States has NINA—No Irish Need Apply signs in windows—in its past; Israel has “sabonim”—calling Holocaust refugees “soap”—in its. The anxiety over immigrants is partly rational, partly atavistic. Immigrants sometimes compete for jobs, commit crimes, upset social order.

Furthermore, they always represent change. The great liberal icon Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, worried about the different mores, customs, sensibilities, and attitudes toward democracy immigrants would bring.  His fears do not invalidate the power of the Declaration of Independence, just as some polls, and a series of ugly incidents do not justify branding Israel as a racist society—especially when most Israelis and most of Israel’s political leadership denounced the recent hooliganism.

This problem is educational—citizens have to learn that immigration benefits society, that immigrant pathologies are not more prevalent only more visible because immigrants stand out, and that, regardless of the pragmatic payoffs, welcoming the less fortunate into free, more prosperous societies is a democratic “mitzvah” in the fullest sense of the word, a commandment, an obligation, a good deed.

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.

Honoring the Alchemy of Education: Israel’s Honorary Doctorates

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-12-12

What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.

Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.

The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate.  Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them.

Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform.  Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research — about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.

In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.

At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.”  Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”

Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.

Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.

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.

Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

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By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 6-10-12

Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

Prof. Gil Troy, iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, discusses the lessons to be learned from Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader often associated with the “right,” but whose idea of bringing “hadar” – glory and beauty – to Jewish life – applies to today. Recorded June 10, 2012, Jerusalem, Israel.

Gil Troy: Speech at the Young Judea Year Course 2011-12 Closing Ceremony

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Gil Troy’s speech at the YC 2011-12 Closing Ceremony

When Canadian Comedy Confronts Palestinian Enmity, Israeli Democracy Wins

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-5-12

Seven Canadian comedians on a goodwill tour sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs walked into East Jerusalem’s Legacy Hotel Friday night. They put on a raunchy, funny show, showering the crowd with dirty words – and descriptions of dirtier actions. But, as the tour organizer Mark Breslin explains, “while we thought we might get into trouble over the darker stuff we do about sex, death, and bodily functions, that’s been no issue. It was one word, one word, that got everybody up in arms. And that word was ‘Israel.’”

The MC that night – the comedians rotate while touring – was Sam Easton, a 32-year-old with a delightfully boyish exuberance. A joke he told the next night was “My name is Sam. In Hebrew, it’s Shmuel, or Shmulik. My brother is Tom. Does that mean his Hebrew nickname is Tushlik?’” Following, what the energetic comedienne Nikki Payne notes, was standard comedian protocol, he started by saying “’Hello – insert town or country here’ – and that’s when the trouble began.”

“It just took seven seconds,” Sam said, days later, still reeling. “I’ve never seen anyone blow it in seven seconds. I said ‘man, what a beautiful country, we are having such an incredible time here in Israel.’” The Palestinian audience objected, with hissing and calls of “Palestine.” Someone shouted “Israel shouldn’t exist!” “From the comedian’s standpoint,” Easton recalls dejectedly, “I made it extremely difficult for the comics who were coming on after me, I dug such a big hole for them, they couldn’t climb out.”

Easton, an innocent whose harsh treatment violated the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality toward strangers, apologized. “This is a very confusing city,” he said, “I am sorry if I insulted or offended anybody.” Hecklers yelled he should learn more about his audience before performing.

The next performer, Jean Paul, a silky-smooth, Trinidad-born, Torontian, also offended the audience –with a mild joke. “What does a polite Israeli magician say?” he asked. The answer: “To-DAH!” (not tada…)  Afterwards, three young Westerners called him “very offensive, very insensitive.” “It’s a cute joke about Israel, it’s harmless,” he replied.

“It’s not harmless, you don’t know the culture of the people,” one responded. Another accused this black man of being “racially insensitive.”  “Sometimes people in thinking that they are helping, are not helping,” the softspoken comedian says. “It seemed like there was an agenda here. They came out to scold. These weren’t Palestinians or Israelis, these were white people trying to tell me they were offended on behalf of others.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Kohler, a thoughtful comedienne, filled with probing questions about the Middle East situation, was “accosted in the bathroom,” Paul reported, and told to remove her Canada-Israel flag pin.

Perhaps most outrageous, Mark Breslin encountered hostility from “two tables of Canadian diplomats” there.  “One of them, an army guy, said something like, ‘well, you know it was a good show, but Israel stole the land.’” Breslin thought “that was kind of shocking coming from a diplomat, who should be neutral.”

Breslin, famous for founding Yuk Yuk’s (pictured above), Canada’s largest chain of comedy clubs, and for discovering Jim Carrey decades ago, believed the critics “could have been more forgiving, shown more tolerance. We weren’t trying to make a political statement, there was just a little bit of ignorance on our part.”  Remembering having been told that people don’t perform in East Jerusalem, and “we said we will,” he now sighs, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

These Canadians did the standard Israel tour, visiting the Western Wall, Masada, and Yad Vashem.  “It’s the most wonderfully intense trip I have ever taken,” Nikki Payne said. “I think the place is beautiful, the people are beautiful – I love their fiery spirit,” Jean Paul reports. Both he and Sam Easton liked Tel Aviv, but “loved Jerusalem.” “When we left Jerusalem my first instinct was: ‘I want to get out of this intense tense city,’” Easton reports. “And in Tel Aviv I realized that that is what makes Jerusalem one of the most incredible cities in the world.”

Easton can’t get the “images from the Holocaust museum” out of his head. Breslin reports that these comics, “who are famous for making snappy comments and talking nonstop were absolutely silent on the bus afterwards.” Easton was particularly affected because this was a roots trip for him. His grandfather was Jewish but intermarried and was pressured by the priest who officiated at his wedding to renounce Judaism. “My mom is so proud it means to much to her that I am here,” Easton said. Thinking of his last 72-hours in the country, he reports, “I might need my whole life to debrief, after everything I’ve experienced.”

In East Jerusalem, Easton did not “blow” anything; the rude Palestinians did. Once again, Israeli democratic openness defeated Palestinian totalitarianism. A gracious response explaining the Palestinians’ position without humiliating their guests would have worked. But Palestinian public culture cannot tolerate such flexibility – even as off-the-record events, private interactions, life itself, invite more malleability. The brittle, aggressive reaction, echoed by Canadian diplomats violating their mission to be honest brokers, let alone defend democracy, reinforced by white people calling a proud black man “racist” when the conflict is national not racial, lost their audience, the visiting comics.

Meanwhile, Israelis did what they do best – greeting these visitors with warmth, enthusiasm, and an uncensored, uninhibited love of life. Israel’s freewheeling democratic culture feeds cultural creativity, political vitality, and comedy.  These cultural contacts, these personal contacts, in rich, nourishing, liberating contexts, work; they reinforce shared democratic values, and build friendships. That is the serious lesson these comics –and their many fans back home — should learn from this Middle East adventure, soon to be featured in a documentary.

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,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.