What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

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Kadima Marches Backwards

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”

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Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

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

Israelis and Americans converge and diverge in summertime mourning

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-24-12

In traveling this week from Israel to the United States, my family and I visited two wounded countries, recoiling from different faces of the evil that bedevils our world. Last week, Israel’s chofesh hagadol, grand summer vacation, was ruined by the terrorist who destroyed an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. Days later, the `”Joker” gunman who shot up a Colorado movie theatre during the Batman premiere, assaulted all Americans who usually enjoy such leisure pursuits without fearing violence, and without the security guards who have become ubiquitous wherever Israelis gather in large numbers. As these two nations united in mourning, certain differences also emerged, as Israelis lamented external dangers, and Americans confronted internal threats.

Both sister democracies, both proud peoples, rallied around their scarred citizens, and shared communally in the individual anguish and anger, which for some will remain forever. Israelis kept on repeating the story of the 42 year old who finally became pregnant after years of trying, of the two sets of best friends off on a summer lark killed by what was probably an Iranian and Hezbollah operative.  Americans – including President Barack Obama who visited Aurora, Colorado – talked about “Stephanie,” the 21-year-old who, with no military training, put her finger on the bullet wound in her friend Allie Young’s neck, to stanch the bleeding, and refused to flee the theatre, despite her friend’s pleas to save herself.  Both survived.

Some of us read such stories obsessively, trying to personalize the horror beyond the statistical death tolls of six here, twelve there. We seek stories of everyday heroism to inspire ourselves and, in my case, share with my children, in our own attempt to vanquish the evil. Others simply turn away, finding the grief too overwhelming.

Beyond this range of human reactions, each story propelled each society onto a different political, ideological, and existential search for meaning. For Israelis, this was one of those nightmarish moments which brought back all the pain from the wave of Palestinian terror that destroyed the Oslo Peace Process a decade ago. The unique Israeli infrastructure of logistical and emotional support that kicks in with its organizational array from Zaka to Mada, the media memes and themes, all stirred emotions that are constantly roiling just below the surface of the Israeli body politic, which still suffers from collective post-traumatic stress syndrome following Palestinian terrorists’ amoral assault on basic human hopes and assumptions ten years ago. Even more disturbing, we again saw the international double standard at work, as UN officials condemned the “bombing” without using the t-word, terrorist, and even the US helped host a UN-based counter-terrorism conference that excluded Israel.  These insults left Israelis feeling abused by the terrorism death cult flourishing among Palestinians, Iranians, and Islamists, and abandoned by a world that often enables such violence yet somehow blames Israelis even when citizens simply trying to enjoy themselves at a beachside resort are targeted.

Americans struggled with different traumas, as the newspapers told the story of an honors science student turned mass murderer while authorities tallied up the 6000 rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, and high capacity “hundred round drum magazine” that this homicidal maniac purchased with just a few clicks of his computer.  Two of the most beautiful byproducts of American nationalism, the Constitution and the Internet, helped yield horrifically ugly results.

More profoundly, as Americans asked “why?” many resurrected the question from the 1960s – is ours a “sick society?” With faith lost in Wall Street, Capitol Hill, the Oval Office; with relationships disposable, values contingent, optimism lagging, and the economy still flagging, many Americans are scared. If America had the right leaders, such violence could provide a much-needed wakeup call. Alas, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have shown that kind of skill or vision this year.

As my children and I prepare to observe the Ninth of Av, commemorating the two holy temples’ destructions, while visiting Washington DC this weekend, I see a similar parallelism. When I am in Jerusalem, during the endless summertime fast, I feel our enemies’ oppression most intensely, as I contemplate the litany of horrors that have stricken the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, culminating in the Holocaust.  When I am in Washington, I think more about exile than oppression. What little anti-Semitism there is in America is so mild compared to the European and Arab variations, the American Jewish experience has been so darned positive overall, that it is hard to feel targeted in the land of the free.  What kind of an exile is it, when it has become so voluntary, and so delightful?

In fact, I usually have serious problems with Tisha Ba’av.  I do not know whether it is more absurd to mourn so intensely in rebuilt and reunified Jerusalem or in the proud, free capital of the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish superpower in history, which is populated by Jews who live there happily and thrive.  While I recall the story of the soldier in Napoleon’s army, who impressed the great emperor by mourning his people’s loss from 2000 years earlier so intensely – “this is an eternal people,” Napoleon supposedly said — I frequently fear all this breast-beating about our past traumas invites neurosis.

Then Bulgaria happens. And Aurora happens.  Following both crimes, my Tisha Ba’av this year will be particularly resonant. I will mourn the losses the Jewish people have sustained from unreasoning, often broadly enabled, anti-Semitism. And I will appreciate the opportunity to root my children and myself in a more enduring story of loss and rebirth, in a deeper set of values which includes memory, which can anchor the soul, even if the result is occasional anguish and perpetual mourning programmed into our calendar.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Institute 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: America’s Fight Against Zionism is Racism,” will be published this fall.

Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-18-12

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

iEngage Evening Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute Summer 2012 Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem, June 28, 2012, featuring Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone, Gil Troy

Get Creative For Yossi Falafel

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-17-12

Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a  “red line.”  Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: “He who says 26, doesn’t want true equality.” Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.

Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law on July 16, 2012 (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

 

The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.

Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.

This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

To Rome (from Jerusalem) with love — of nationalism

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-17-12

Visiting Rome reminds us of the magic of cities and the power of nationalism.  Like people, cities have distinct characters. You can no more take the romance out of Rome, than take the Jew out of Jerusalem. While some tourists are cultural scavengers, cannibalizing disjointed elements of rich, integrated civilizations, tourism at its best is holistic and nourishing, stretching visitors to embrace the unfamiliar, the exotic. Hopping across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome reinforces the deep atavistic understanding that people do best in thick, historically-resonant, values-laden communities, bound by multiple ties, while making their tribalism transcendent.

Of course, the wandering Jew in Rome is a fiddler on the roof, dancing delicately between delight and despair. The proud, historically-conscious Jew takes guilty pleasure in Rome’s grandeur. You don’t need to see the Arch of Titus, which toasts our Temple’s pillaging, to remember how destructive was the power represented in the towering columns that punctuate today’s Rome as frequently and dramatically as potholes popped up in 1970s’ New York.  But like a wounded lover nobly trying to restore lost faith, the Jew must not be imprisoned by past traumas. While honoring our martyrs’ memories and refusing ever again to be helpless, we distort history and risk poisoning our souls if our collective rearview mirror remains only tinged blood-red.

The story of Rome and Jerusalem, like the Jewish story overall, is not just about Jews confronting non-Jews but about Jewish and non-Jewish collaboration, consonance, and creativity.  Martin Goodman’s 2007 book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, ends tragically but starts happily.  “At the beginning of the first millennium CE both cities were at the peak of their prosperity and grandeur, each famous throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond,” Goodman writes. “They were two cities with a culture partly shared, from the gleam of ceremonial white masonry in the summer sun to acceptance of … the influence of Greek architecture and philosophy.”

Seventeen hundred years later, the two cities epitomized the old-new power of Europe’s romantic nationalist resurgence. In Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, Karl Marx’s colleague Moses Hess pivoted from universalist socialism’s false cosmopolitanism toward the Jewish nationalism that Theodor Herzl later called Zionism.   Nationalism was roiling Hess’s Western world in 1862, as Europeans began what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “matching” various peoples with particular states. That year, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s “Iron and Blood” speech helped unify Germany; Giuseppe Garibaldi tried and failed to incorporate Rome into modern Italy; while Abraham Lincoln was struggling to quash Southern separatism and redeem American nationalism.

“On the ruins of Christian Rome a regenerated Italian people is arising,” an inspired Moses Hess wrote.  Returning to his own people after “twenty years of estrangement,” Hess rejoiced, “Once again I am sharing in its festivals of joys and days of sorrows, in its hopes and memories. I am taking part in the spiritual and intellectual struggles of our day.” Hess was not retreating to the ghetto but reawakening a more natural, authentic, organic self. He derided the “really dishonorable Jew” who is “ashamed of his nationality,” no matter how many “beautiful phrases about humanity and enlightenment … he uses so freely to cloak his treason.” Hess’s renewed communal sentiment empowered and enlightened.  He hailed “the thought of my nationality, which is inseparably connected with my ancestral heritage, with the Holy Land and the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and of the hope for the ultimate brotherhood of all men.”

Hess made the classic nationalist move, which is often unappreciated in our age of faux-cosmopolitanism. He repudiated the thinness of the universalist’s righteous-sounding but hollow “we are the world” postures while reveling in the thickness of the Jewish nationalist’s ambition to redeem his people and then the world. He understood that the pathway toward uniting Rome and Jerusalem in constructive collaboration was for the Italians to renew Rome and for the Jews to renew Jerusalem. Only by triggering a “national renaissance” rooted in their authentic collective selves could these communities tap into the necessary energies to be the best they could be.

Last month, 150 years later, the New York Times columnist David Brooks, explaining New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen’s continuing success worldwide, wrote:  It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition … you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.” Echoing Hess, Brooks pleaded:  “Don’t try to be everyman…. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible.”

In that spirit, nationalist scientists tapped into their individual and collective power in discovering the “God particle.” Israeli newspapers emphasized Israel’s role; Italian newspapers proclaimed “Italians help.” Canadians and Indians were equally boosterish – deservedly so.  Like religion, nationalism can build or destroy. National pride need not descend into chauvinism; it can be harness to achieve universal goods.

Zionism offers Jews the opportunity to mine the geography of our own past and enjoy our own national pride. The Zionist draws intimate strength from Jerusalem and respectful inspiration from Rome, appreciating Rome’s deep roots and broad vision, while understanding that the same collective power that so long ago built a majestic Colosseum to last, can be tapped today to help individuals find meaning and countries solve their most pressing problems.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Leaving The Language Of Conflict

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-11-12

Showing a remarkably Israeli insensitivity to international public opinion—or is it a charmingly Zionist assertion of independence?—the Levy Committee, chaired by the retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, has declared settlements legal and what is broadly called the “occupation” of the West Bank not a classic occupation under international law. The predictable Pavlovian reaction has Right Wing settlers calling for more settlement and Is-crits internally and externally condemning these rapacious, racist, imperialist colonialists.

Following the script, here on Open Zion Hussein Ibish called the Levy Report “The Anti-Balfour Declaration.” After making the subtle, clever argument that the Israeli government has to decide whether it wants to use the legal status of occupier to justify military measures and treat them as temporary or treat the territories as permanent extensions of Israel, with all the resulting democratic and demographic headaches, Ibish succumbs to the kind of moralistic rhetorical exaggeration that makes discussions about Israel and Palestine so combustible. Brandishing the A-word, apartheid, he writes: “When systematic ethnic discrimination is intended to be maintained rather than temporary, it is a crime under international law. Although Israel is not a signatory to the treaty, this is how the Statute of Rome, which outlines the work of the International Criminal Court, defines Apartheid.”

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An Israeli father and his child play on swings in Kfar Etzion (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)

Ibish links to the Rome Statute—sounds pretty authoritative. But when I pursued the link to Article 7 2 (h), I discovered that “The crime of apartheid” means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Apartheid was an abhorrent system of racial discrimination which is not the same as ethnic discrimination. Moreover, the Israel-Palestine mess is not at all about race, much less about ethnic issues, and much more about a national conflict.

Palestinians see themselves as a separate nation. Most Israelis post-Oslo learned to acknowledge that national identity. The separation on the West Bank acknowledges Palestinians’ distinct national identity, mirrors their own desire to be apart from Israel, and often reflects security complexities. Moreover, many of us who endorse a two-state solution do so precisely because we respect those national differences.

So, as everyone mans—persons?—their usual battle stations, it is worth commenting on the toxicity of the debate and how the rigid categories and hysterical terms so many use to describe the Middle East threaten a two-state solution. Sweeping generalizations treating all the settlements as one, rigid binary categories like “legal” or “illegal,” even the word “occupation” implying that there is a clear provenance to this oft-conquered and redrawn land, are all obstacles to peace and reconciliation—as are inaccurate, inflammatory cries of “racism” and “apartheid.” They go to the ontological—Israel’s essential character—rather than the transactional—Israel’s actions.

Distinguishing between some settlements and others, rather than speaking about them as “the” settlements, explains why a thriving suburb so close to Jerusalem like Gush Etzion, with its tragic history of being destroyed by Jordanians on the eve of Israel’s Declaration in 1948, is well within the “peace consensus,” consistently supported by at least 70 percent of Israelis, as opposed to a hilltop outpost, conceived in revenge, surrounded by Palestinians. If critics drop words like “legal” or “illegal”—especially considering the British Mandate of 1922 which was never abrogated but allowed Jews to settle in the area of historic Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean—they can stop thinking of Israel as an international criminal and view the country as a potential peace partner. If we can end the occupation preoccupation, with its harsh, inflexible reading of the ever-changing boundaries in the Middle East, we can accept land swaps, improvise, and focus on present demographic realities rather than past claims or slights.

In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the modern philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that we frequently underestimate the importance of honor—and dishonor—in facilitating reform and making the world a better place. Those who have been systematically delegitimizing Israel with false charges of racism and condemning “the Occupation” as illegal should acknowledge that dishonoring Israel makes compromise less likely—countries and individuals tend to hunker down not take expansive risks when under assault. In fact, Israel proved most willing to compromise in the early 1990s, after the UN repealed its odious Zionism is racism resolution in 1991.

While I believe that Israel’s control over the West Bank has legal and historical validity, the Levy Report argument is distracting and incendiary. I start by assuming that in the area of historic Palestine—however you define it—borders shifted and populations changed. Given that two peoples are in love with the same land, they must negotiate and compromise, aware of their history but not handcuffed by it, acknowledging past slights without adding to them, while concentrating on pragmatic demographic and geographic realities.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Yes, there is no occupation – legally not practically

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-10-12

With the mind-numbing predictability of ants entranced by food, Israeli leftists and rightists are instinctively condemning or praising the former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy’s Committee for declaring that “Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria.” The report concluded that the laws of occupation “as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable to the unique and sui generis historic and legal circumstances of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria spanning over decades.” I agree. Israel’s control over the West Bank is legal. But that does not mean it is practical, advisable, tenable, moral or should be perpetual.

Both the Left’s hysteria and the Right’s euphoria distort the debate.  Rather than condemning the three-person commission report as “born in sin,” “stupid,” “ideological” not “legal,” and authorizing “crime” – as Yesh Din’s attorney Michael Sfard did — leftists should acknowledge the arguments’ validity. July 24 will mark the 80th anniversary of the League of Nations’ confirmation of the British Mandate in 1922 which granted Jews the rights to settle between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, given “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” Those rights remain.  November 29 will mark the 65thanniversary of the UN partition plan which due to the 1948 war was not fully implemented. This created a legally ambiguous situation in the West Bank, both when Jordan, ahem, “occupied” it until 1967, and continues today, after Israel seized the disputed, legally undefined territory in a legitimate war of self-defense. And the post-Six Day War, UN Resolution 242 called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” – not “the territories” or “all the territories,” while using the o-word, occupied.

These arguments are legally and historically valid. Leftists who profess to love peace should accept them, then confront Israeli rightists by saying, “Yes, we have legitimate, legal ties to this land. But I love peace so much I am willing not to exercise those valid rights because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live there with their own national rights and needs.”  Israeli leftists lose credibility by minimizing the importance of Judaea and Samaria, of Hebron and Gush Etzion, to the Jewish people and the Zionist story. Returning something you believe you stole is meaningless.  Giving away something you know is yours, for pressing practical or ethical reasons, is magnanimous.

Israeli rightists have foolishly allowed their accurate reading of history and law to blind them to the complicated realities. Most Israelis do not want to control millions of Palestinians. A workable two-state solution would be good for the Jews, not just the Palestinians.

Just as Americans frequently misuse the word “constitutional” as a synonym for “good,” the international community often declares actions it likes “legal” and actions it dislikes “illegal.” This intellectual tic reflects the elaborate international legal structure developed after World War II which hoped to prevent another worldwide catastrophe. Unfortunately, the post-1960s politicization of these once universal principles, and the promiscuous labeling of phenomena as legal and illegal, have frequently confused matters, especially in the Middle East.

Rather than quibbling about legalities, let’s address the complicated realities. I reject the international community’s assumption – increasingly shared by many American Jewish elites – that the “occupation” is “illegal,” that settlements present the main obstacle to peace, and that the Palestinians have valid rights to the entire West Bank while the Jews do not.

Instead, I start with the historical understanding that in the area of historic Palestine, borders shifted and populations moved. Anyone’s monism – treating the messy Middle Eastern story as based on one single unifying idea – makes me moan. Accepting the chaos of the past encourages compromising in the present. In that spirit, the 70 percent Israeli peace consensus – the mainstream of the country consistently open to compromise – would keep the historic Jerusalem suburb of the Gush Etzion Bloc but would sacrifice historic Hebron, while affirming valid legal and historic rights there too.

The history that concerns me more is the tragic, destructive and self-destructive history of the Palestinian National movement, which has consistently rejected compromise. We should mark today, July 11, as the End of Arafat Delusion Day, the 12th anniversary of the start of the Bill Clinton-Ehud Barak-Yasir Arafat Camp David talks. Remember that Arafat did not even offer a counter-proposal in July 2000 to Barak’s sweeping proposal for a two-state solution – as Clinton himself confirmed. Arafat then proved to be the terrorist he was rather than the Nelson Mandela many dreamed he would be by unleashing a wave of terror. In his gripping, enlightening, stunningly fair book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, Hirsh Goodman reminds us that: “The failure at Camp David and the ensuing violence were seen by both the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right as a total renunciation of the concept that peace was possible if Israel returned to the 1967 borders. Barak offered Arafat a deal considered by all to be substantial, fair, and beyond what any other Israeli had offered in the past. Still, the Palestinians wanted it all.”

Goodman notes that the pattern persisted through Mahmoud Abbas’s repudiation of Ehud Olmert’s generous proposals. Goodman wants to end the “occupation.” But he has too much integrity to manufacture a distorted history to serve his ideology, and instead acknowledges Israel’s “ball of thorns.”

Arguing about the legality of settlements and occupation is like neighbors quarreling about which one will have to pay the water bill as their row house burns. The core issue remains how two stubborn peoples in love with the same land learn to live together. Ideologues ignoring realities from all sides make peace more elusive, whether they label themselves “peaceniks” or not.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Haute Couture Histories

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-6-12

 

The Middle East is combustible enough without adding one-sided, incendiary historical accounts to the mix. And yet, again and again, we see what we could call haute couture history—history custom-fitted to the trendy, distorted narrative that confuses cause and consequence, reduces complexity to simplicity, and ignores inconvenient facts to blame Israel as the rigid, bullying, source of Middle East trouble. Two of the latest examples emerged this week in the New York Times, and on Open Zion.

In the Times, Thomas Friedman, writing about Israel’s relations with Egypt’s new rulers, perpetuated the year-plus long allegation that Israel feared Egyptian democracy “because it was so convenient for Israel to have peace with one dictator, Mubarak, rather than 80 million Egyptians.” Friedman then caricatured Israel as a collective court Jew, replicating a medieval pattern of relying on alliances with the powerful over healthy relationships with the people. This tall tale treats Israel’s unhappy acceptance of reality as along standing Jewish ideal. In 1979, when Israel returned all of the Sinai to Egypt for the hope of peace, Israelis believed it would be a true, full peace. The cold peace that emerged was a blow to a central collective Israeli fantasy that needs to be acknowledged when trying to understand Israeli fears about a peace deal with the Palestinians. And yes, by 2011, a cold peace with Mubarak appeared to be better than no peace with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Friedman’s column would have been deeper and more accurate, had he confronted the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty’s messy past.

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Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir (1st-r), facing Haidar Abdel Shafi (1st-l), the head of Palestinian delegation across the table 30 October 1991 in Madrid, listens to the inaugural speech of the Middle East Peace conference by Spanish Premier Felipe Gonzalez. (David Ake / AFP / Getty Images)

Similarly, Gershom Gorenberg described the late Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir in harsh terms as a heartless, unbending extremist, “who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.” Gorenberg’s dyslogy—the opposite of eulogy—throws in the mischievous fact that Shamir’s Lehi underground group “was the last twentieth-century organization to identify proudly as a terror group.” This semantic aside reinforces Gorenberg’s recent book’s tendency to overlook Islamist and Palestinian terrorism. I am sure the relatives of all those who died at Munich and Ma’alot, at Kiryat Shmona and in the Twin Towers, will find comfort in the notion that Yasir Arafat, Osama Bin Laden and their henchmen preferred the label “freedom fighter” to terrorist.

More disturbing was Gorenberg’s failure to admit that Shamir was also the Prime Minister who decided not to retaliate against Iraqi Scuds during the first Persian Gulf War, to help preserve George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam Hussein’s pillaging of Kuwait. And while Gorenberg justifiably criticizes Shamir for opposing the Camp David accords with Egypt and blocking cabinet approval of the London Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein, Shamir did not block the Madrid Conference, which emerged as a critical symbolic step on the road to Oslo. Here too, a more nuanced assessment of Shamir’s role, including his ambivalence about Madrid, would have yielded a richer but less polemical portrait.

Gorenberg says of Shamir: “His mind was not changeable.” Neither, it seems are Gorenberg’s or Friedman’s minds, even when including all the facts would tease out richer, more multi-dimensional, but less reproachful portraits.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

 

Haredi draft dodging is an individual crime

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-3-12

 
The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.

I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.  I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions.  The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society.  Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated — and the attendant hysteria is demonizing.  But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights.  Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.

In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.

And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service.  By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.

In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.

Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.

More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too.  Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us.  The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.

In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.

A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution.” I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Opening Open Zion: Response to Raphael Magarik

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-2-12

Raphael Magarik’s response to my criticism about imbalance in Open Zion’s conversation about Israel was thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Raffi caught me. I said that my “quick survey of the first 320 posts of this Website, shows nothing about regular, everyday life in Israel—or Palestine for that matter.” I should not have written “nothing.”  “Remarkably little” would have sufficed. The few pieces he mentioned barely amount to one percent of Open Zion’s output. I did not catch those few roses because they were well hidden behind a thicket of thorns.

Moreover, I did not just call for a discussion of the “poetry of the everyday”–I called for an acknowledgment of the “thoroughly normal” too. And this is where Magarik lost me. He wants to write about what he deems “urgent: the occupation, anti-democratic legislation, African refugees.” I have written about these topics too. I am not afraid of discussion or debate, criticism or condemnation. I love the fact that Israel’s President Shimon Peres perpetually praises the Jews’ “dissatisfaction gene.” I appreciate the post-Auschwitz confidence that allows Jews to speak in essentialist terms, knowing that most reasonable people won’t take it literally and characterize the Jews in racial terms, as well as the message–question, doubt, struggle, push.

 

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Palestinian children play on the beach iin the Mediterranean port of Gaza, June 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But Magarik ignored essential parts of my argument. Noting that my percentages were off still dodges the argument about proportionality. Too much whine will make this website lose balance and has destroyed the Israeli left’s credibility.

Surveys showing that most countries judge Israel harshly result from the systematic campaign of delegitimization against Israel, which is reinforced by the Is-crits’ tendency to harp so much on the negative that reality gets distorted. So while readers  may mourn the death of Israel’s democracy after reading my close friend Don Futterman’s piece, the “Old Familiar Tunes of Suppression,” it is journalistically and politically significant that, the same weekend his lament appeared, I got snared in Saturday night Tel Aviv traffic because the protests were not suppressed–just hours after spending time with Don and his lovely family on Tel Aviv’s beach.

This lack of proportionality affects coverage of the Palestinian side as well. We do not hear about the “thoroughly normal” in the West Bank or Gaza because that would undermine the perpetually hysterical narrative that Nazifies Israel and fuels Alice Walker’s ostracize-Israel gang. I confess, when I visited al Quds University this year I was struck by how familiar, how student-y, how normal the environment was. Similarly, the opening of the Gaza Mall in 2010 refuted the sick, false narrative of Gaza as the world’s “largest concentration camp.”  Unfortunately, when discussing this messy, complex conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, even academics who usually delight in complexity frequently resort to simplistic sloganeering. It is much easier to “solve” the problem, or at least pontificate about it, by reducing it to stick figures, with evil Israelis oppressing noble, virtuous Palestinians.

The conflict has been so intractable because it is so multi-dimensional, so thorny. Those of us who seek solutions should provide the nuance, the sophistication, the discernment that is often lacking from both sides of the great divide. That is my hope for Open Zion–and that was my motivation in writing my post.