Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.

150092873US003_ORTHODOX_JEW

 

Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
 

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

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.

“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-28-12

There they go again. Over 600 liberal American rabbis have ignored their usual concerns about religion invading politics, climbed the wall separating church and state, disregarded the feelings of conservative congregants, and joined “Rabbis for Obama.” As I said when criticizing the original initiative four years ago, I do not object to individual rabbis joining “Jewish Americans for Obama” and expressing themselves as Jews and Americans. However, by building this organization around their job titles, they seek to apply their spiritual authority in an inappropriately secular and partisan way.  What’s next: Ministers for Microsoft to counter Apple’s disciples, or Priests for Pilates to bless one particular form of exercise? Just as the Hatch Act barred federal civil servants from campaigning, just as reporters – not columnists – are discouraged from partisan politicking, just as I as a professor would never endorse one slate of student politicians, rabbis as rabbis should refrain from crass electoral politics — and yes, I especially wish such professional restraint constrained the Israeli rabbinate too.

Whereas courage involves risk, these hypocrites-for-Obama took an easy position. A liberal American Jewish rabbi needs little nerve to endorse a liberal Democratic president against a budget-busting, conservative Republican. Liberalism remains American Jewry’s dominant theology, with the Democratic Party the most popular affiliation even as more Jews label themselves religiously “unaffiliated.”  Increasingly, the American Jewish community is filled with evangeliberals – liberals with evangelical zeal. And despite Israel’s general popularity among American Jews, most are more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Therefore, it is annoying that these rabbis choose this cause as the reason for overriding their usual desire to separate politics and religion – while still condemning evangelical ministers or ultra-orthodox rabbis who politick, of course. Instead, we need these rabbis to make other, harder, principled stands collectively.  Those rabbis should do their jobs by confronting their congregants’ sacred cows more directly. How about rabbis for more ethical business practices? Or rabbis for less materialism? Rabbis for cheaper, less luxurious, more meaningful, bar mitzvahs?  Or rabbis for less libertinism? Rabbis for less careerism? Rabbis against family breakup? Or rabbis against excessive reliance on electronics? Rabbis for less toxic gossip, exhibitionism and voyeurism on the Internet? Rabbis for a community which judges people on the depth of their souls or the quality of their mitzvoth not their net worth or charitable giving?  Or let’s get bold. How about rabbis for God? Rabbis for Halacha, Jewish law? Rabbis for Shabbat observance? Rabbis for more Jewish learning? Rabbis for musar — moral living?

But no, better to grandstand, better to play politics with the big shots than to risk roiling American Jews’ famous complacency.

Unfortunately, we see a similar dynamic with much rabbinic intrusion in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All those American rabbis rushing to join the J Street rabbinic cabinet, all those rabbinical students moralizing about Israel’s West Bank and Gaza sins, should scrutinize their own society, their own neighborhoods. To reach the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from the Philadelphia airport, I drive through miles of urban moonscape, home to tens of thousands of broken lives finding refuge in cheap liquor stores, whittling away endless hours on park benches, before reaching suburban Wyncotte. As a native New Yorker, I notice it less when I visit the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary just below Harlem, but it does seem so much easier to preach about how others should solve intractable inter-group problems without tackling those closer to home.

Moreover, in our era of gotcha politics, it would be naïve for the Rabbis for Obama to expect to be so hallowed that Republicans would ignore an anti-Israel critic who advocates boycotting the Jewish state on their membership list. One of this political season’s buzz words  is “optics” – obsessing about how things look — and it counts for rabbis too. Politicians are often held responsible for their allies, with the test coming from the ugliest and most controversial associations not the many safe and obvious relationships.

Of course, that does not make every Rabbi for Obama “anti-Israel” as critics charge. Sloppiness is not collaboration. Still, as a professor, I try to avoid signing petitions with those who policies I abhor, be they from the left or the right.  Rabbis for and against Obama should beware unwelcome bedfellows too.

This harsh approach some rabbis and rabbinical students take toward Israel has become such an emotional issue for three reasons. First, is what I call the IAF – just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a modern flashpoint that magically escalates discussions into shouting matches, especially among Jews. And in an age of delegitimization, when Iran can host dozens of nations at a non-aligned conference this week while advocating Israel’s destruction, when criticism of Israel often degenerates into demonization, internal Jewish criticism stings intensely – and frequently legitimizes the delegitmizers. Finally, Israel remains the largest, most ambitious, collective Jewish project of the modern age.  The most extreme liberal rabbis are turning into nouveau Haredim, aping the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism of yesterday and today.

This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism from Jews or rabbis. But assessing the optics, sensitive to the fragility of the situation, acknowledging the conflict’s complexity, anticipating how criticisms will be perceived, would calm debates not inflame them.

The backlash against Rabbis for Obama should be instructive. I hope it does not lead to Rabbis for Romney. I hope it does lead to rabbis, especially during their High Holiday sermons, building on positive visions and serious challenges, pushing their congregants spiritually, morally, religiously, rather than pandering to partisan sensibilities, no matter how compelling the heated presidential campaign might be.

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: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

PQ ethnocentrism could bring Jews and Muslims together

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 8-24-12

Amid a glorious summer, with great weather, fabulous festivals and deliciously lazy days, the collective blood pressure of most Quebec Jews spiked, as the provincial election contest heated up, referendum talk mounted and property values prepared to nosedive. You don’t need the honed-by-history, trained-by-trauma instincts of a long-oppressed people to hear the demagoguery and nativism in the rhetoric of Pauline Marois and her Parti Québécois. All you need are the sensibilities of a humanist, the decency of a democrat, the passions of a liberty-lover. During the first great Palestinian terrorist onslaught of the 1970s, novelist Cynthia Ozick said Jews aren’t paranoid, but narapoid – a term she coined to mean when you think people are out to get you, and they are.

The Jews of Quebec live in a gilded cage. For many, Canadian niceness and the average Quebecer’s generosity generate many blessings: the standard of living is high, quality of life is good, community infrastructure is deep and Jewish identity is strong. Yet the nastiness of Quebec politics – and the ever-present, shouted today, perhaps whispered tomorrow, threat of separation, erodes community self-confidence and individual self-respect. Politically, most Jews are held hostage, forced to support the tired, ineffectual, tainted-by-corruption Liberal government of Premier Jean Charest, because the alternative isn’t just worse, but potentially catastrophic.

The separatist threat is debilitating enough, but Marois has raised the trauma considerably with her Charter of Secularism. The notion of banning Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh symbols in government offices but not, dare I say it, God forbid, the crucifix, because of its “cultural” significance – not its religious meaning of course – would be laughable if it were not so offensive. Marois has made it clear that she would invoke one of the least democratic planks in any modern democracy – the Charter of Rights’ Notwithstanding Clause – to impose her offensive, selective, Christianocentric, vision on Quebecers.

Fundamental rights of free expression and religious liberty shouldn’t be up for grabs. All Quebecers of good conscience should vote against Marois’ medievalism. This threat to peace, order and good government should also motivate Canadians across the country to rally against the Notwithstanding Clause. Provincial legislatures shouldn’t be able to suspend fundamental rights temporarily. The clause mocks the notion of constitutional guarantees.

I don’t get it. I thought the new generation of young, hip, cosmopolitan Quebeckers rejected their baby boomer predecessors’ extremism. Yes, there were historic imbalances between Anglophones and Francophones that needed correcting. And yes, these young, prospering, sophisticated Francophones have benefited from their elders’ boldness. But progress occurred, a new world developed, and now, this divisive, destructive demagoguery threatens all the good and goodwill that exist, while obscuring important work that needs to be done in improving the health-care system, cultivating the economy and making the infamous Quebec bureaucracy more respectful of individual citizens and their rights.

History teaches that a lynch mob atmosphere against some citizens ultimately hurts all citizens. So many people, be they of venerable French lineage or fresh off the boat, who have had run-ins with Quebec tax authorities or Quebec welfare boards or Quebec parking authorities understand that the province’s power dynamics are too skewed toward officious bureaucrats and against regular folk. We need a grand government worthy of its marvellous citizens, not a banana republic. Marois’ ethnocentrism and separatist talks diminishes individuals and the rule of law while preventing an important debate about this problem and many others.

There is one silver lining amid these gathering northern clouds. In targeting the hijab and the kippah, Marois has provided Muslim and Jews an opening for a much-needed dialogue. I have long wondered why every conversation between Muslims and Jews has to be about Israelis and Palestinians. We have many common challenges that could invite productive, meaningful exchanges. We should talk together about the tensions of preserving traditions in the modern world, of difficulties navigating smaller, more insular but nurturing communities along with larger, more expansive and empowering, yet sometimes alienating, communities.

In mobilizing together against Marois’ ethno-ugliness, Muslims and Jews might find some Canadian common ground and build strong ties that could help alleviate Middle East tensions. That would make us not just narapoid, but what I would call “fedended.” That’s when by defending yourself, you make yourself – and others – stronger.

This column appears in the August 30 print issue of The CJN

Gil Troy Responds to Yousef Munayyer

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-21-12

The many articles like Yousef Munayyer’s asking just how racist is Zionism echo the classic loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife”?

Supporters of Israel are forced to start backpedaling immediately, and frequently, unthinkingly, defensively, confirm too many unfair assumptions built into the question. I have no need to defend Aaron David Miller or his New York Times op-ed worrying about Israel’s demographics. I am not an Israeli WASP—a White Ashkenazi Sabra with Protekzia (connections), nor am I an American Jewish WASP, a Washington Peace Processor. Moreover, we at the Engaging Israel project of the Shalom Hartman Institute reject the whole Demography of Fear industry. As educators and as activists we believe in inculcating collective values and educating individuals, not in counting which groups at what scale threaten society.

DV32649
A young Arab-Israeli holds up the Palestinian flag run as he rides his horse in a Lod village, during a demonstration for “Land Day”, 30 March 2006. (Samuel Aranda / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Still, Munayyer’s use of Millers article to repudiate the Zionist project as racist raises recurring issues that should be addressed.

First, using the terms “racist” and “racism” is inaccurate and inflammatory. The racism charge was launched with great force into the Middle East by Soviet propagandists in the 1970s, particularly with the UN General Assembly’s infamous 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. This was an attempt to charge Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with the most heinous of crimes, crimes that in Nazi Germany, South Africa and the American south—on different scales of course—immorally judged human beings’ worthiness, and sometimes even their rights to live, on the basis of specious biological differences, especially skin color.

That is not what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict pivots on a set of national and ethnic distinctions which most of the world is more comfortable making. In a world of nation states that are frequently built on ethnic and tribal differences, we acknowledge that membership in one group or polity can affect the distribution of certain rights among human beings.  We also acknowledge that one valid role of a nation state is to preserve, affirm, and transmit a culture and certain collective values, not just to protect individuals.

Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:

A. Certain countries, particularly the United States and Canada, live by a from of civic nationalism, which focuses more on the relationship between individuals and the nation, although even in those two countries the rise of multiculturalism has led to discussion, awareness and sometimes even assigning of group rights.

B. Most countries represent a form of ethnic nationalism, using some vision of solidarity as the foundation for national unity and seeking to celebrate certain ethnic values in the nation’s public space.

C. Most Arab countries are on the high end of the scale of ethnic sensibility and the low end of the scale reflecting social tolerance, diversity, or fluidity.

D. Israel is a hypbrid. Israel’s Declaration of Independence establishes it as a Jewish state but also articulates civic aspirations, offering all its “inhabitants” equal rights.

Yes, there is a tension between the desire to keep Israel as a Jewish state—whatever Jewish means—and its civic aspirations. But all democracies navigate key tensions such as the tug of war between majority rule and minority rights. Just because two goods or two rights are in tension, it does not mean that one should negate the other.

Tragically, many critics use Israel’s civic, democratic aspirations as truncheons against the Jewish state, without noticing the exclusivity and rigidity of so many other countries, neighboring and otherwise.

I want Israel to keep pushing in both directions. I want Israel to be democratic, welcoming, broad-minded, giving all its citizens full rights and dignity. I also want Israel to be an ideal Jewish state, celebrating and redefining Jewish culture, embodying and enriching Jewish values, epitomizing and stretching the best Jewish ideals. Categorical “ahas” like Munayyer’s, implicitly saying, “you see, I told you the Zionist project was worthless” don’t help.  We need to fight the ethnocentrism that is an unfortunate byproduct of ethnic pride—especially at a time of ethnic and national conflict.

I am appalled by the “lynch” of Arabs in Zion Square, the racist rabbis of Tzfat, the yahoos who do not appreciate Israel’s delicate and diverse democratic dance. But to defeat them, we need a more nuanced, open, sophisticated and forgiving dialogue that seeks to find the right balance, forge the Golden Path, so that Israel can be what its founders wanted it to be a democratic Jewish state, protecting Jews, preserving Jewish tradition, opening up Jewish life and embracing all its inhabitants. Achieving that goal requires better education, clearer ideologies, sharper visions—and a constructive push for values neither counting one group of citizens as the “good” kind or repudiating the Zionist project itself.

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.

 

Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-21-12

Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the water’s buoyancy was liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed.  My Jerusalem half-marathon run had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone, meaning the hip socket. One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.

My physiotherapist — like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious, generous-minded and far-seeing of our species — recommended I try swimming. Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem Pool, with its fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn’t formal, repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my injury.

This summer, during a three week family vacation in the Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming. Whenever I plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial sterility, with its clear chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor, versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles floating around as you swim.

Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in twenty years of summer visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young — my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics not running, jumping, or swimming.

It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up injured.  I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?

Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My fifteen-year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my twelve-year-old and ten-year-old kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.

I started strong.  My rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl, created a soothing, symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart started pounding faster. The shore was looking mighty far away.

With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature emerges.

Recovery from trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as reimagining.” Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their lifestories.

This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of “Resilience studies” introduced in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds – personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic — reflects what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.”  This is not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new circumstances. Resilience, ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,” being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles, to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions, to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to apologize or forgive.

This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son arrived. We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.

Returning back, I flew, er, swam briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water, fully cured, with no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not Hollywood. Still, I return from vacation strengthened,  refreshed, recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized yet, if you do it right, very real rupture, repentance, reimagining, and rebirth. And I look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals. Happy Elul.

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 is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

Boycott Hamas — But Foster Palestinian Moderation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-17-12

This is the first in a series of articles that will answer the question of how to deal with Hamas.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon part of it,” Part III, Article eleven of the Hamas Charter reads. “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad,” says Article fifteen. And then it goes wacky, invoking the Protocols of Zion, targeting “Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like,” making it clear that, as Article twenty-eight teaches “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

Those who pressure Israel to mollify Hamas want Israel to appease an unrelenting, paranoid, anti-Semitic, Jihadist movement committed to Israel’s destruction and ideologically opposed to compromise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that “words matter.” And the words in founding charters matter the most. They reflect an entity’s character, its highest aspirations, its most cherished self. To ignore those words—and those ideas—is to disrespect the organization, let alone delude oneself.

Par7260417

Palestinian Hamas premier in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya gestures in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City on August 6, 2012 during a protest against five gunmen who killed 16 Egyptian guards. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Moreover, Hamas has never renounced, never regretted, never apologized for, the many civilian deaths resulting from its suicide bombing campaign against the Oslo peace process. Moreover, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza resulted in repeated rocket fire from Gaza, an area now controlled by Hamas. Hamas dictates how women should dress and what children should learn yet pretends that its dictatorial rule somehow runs out when it comes to a government’s most basic responsibilities, which include maintaining order internally and determining how it acts externally.

At the same time, Israel must live in the real world, a world in which Hamas controls Gaza, and a world in which Palestinian assaults against Israel are repeatedly ignored or excused away. What to do?

As long as Hamas continues to live by its charter, as long as rocket fire and terrorist incursions continue to come from Gaza, Israel should maintain its policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. I would go even farther and let Egypt take responsibility for all deliveries, all electricity, all hospitalizations. If Gaza had no border with Egypt, Israel would have a moral obligation to keep some goods and services flowing. But a country has no moral obligation to a sworn enemy when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to its south.

At the same time, Israel should acknowledge its own historic failures in building up moderates in the Palestinian camp—and learn how to avoid giving extremist groups like Hamas the oxygen they need to grow. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates. And yes, they are justified in being frustrated that Israel frequently responds to the violent extremists more than the reasonable moderates.

The Gaza disengagement should have been part of an exchange with moderate forces in Fatah, giving them a victory rather than allowing the Hamas murderers to take credit.  Israel should continue building economic, political, and security infrastructure in the West Bank, continue its Benjamin Netanyahu-implemented policy of lifting checkpoints there, continue to make it clear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will be better off if they push their leaders toward more moderation rather than veering toward the extremism imposed on their Gazan cousins.

There is an expression in Arabic and Hebrew—sikin b’sikin—one dagger sharpens the other. That has been the dynamic, in many ways, for the last few decades. Surprisingly, right now, there is a bit of a respite, with moderates like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building their state not targeting their neighbors—and Israel is responding in kind. It is fashionable to complain about the current stalemate without seeing how much better off the region is in 2012 than it was in 2002, when violence reigned.  Heavy-handed moves like boycotts, blockades and bombings are easy to implement; creative diplomacy and visionary statesmanship are harder to pull off—but more necessary than ever.

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.

Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-14-12

Taglit Birthright Israel remains “the most successful project in the Jewish world,” according to the chair of its steering committee, Minister Yuli Edelstein. The Birthright Bump has helped young American Jews grow “More attached to Israel” and “marry in.” Even “Young Israeli Jews get [a] Jewish identity boost” when they participate in the program. Birthright “covers all the bases” by bringing in Jewish baseball players for special trips, and has reaffirmed that one effective way to a Jew’s heart is through the stomach, with a special culinary trip for chefs. And, of course, again and again, the love bug bites and blossoms into a lasting Zionist charm as “American girl meets Israeli soldier and stays.”

I learned all this by reading articles published in the news section of Ha’aretz over the last two years. Unfortunately, the Ha’aretz opinion pages offer a different spin. There, readers learn that “Birthright Israel tours are insulting young Jew’s intelligence” with “sanitized infantile content spoon-fed” to them; that “the Birthright model is consumer-based,” peddling “Israel and Jewish peoplehood” to these willing dupes; that it serves as “a gateway drug of sorts – in which customers consume the environment and programming around them”; and that Birthright purports to be apolitical but in exposing these young innocents of “Taglitistan” to “Jewtopia” by “carefully avoid[ing]” the “Arab-Israeli conflict, socioeconomic divisions and the ethnic and religious rifts within Israel,” a manipulative right-wing agenda is being advanced, seductively, secretly.

This gap between the facts reported and the opinions offered is symptomatic of Ha’aretz’s worldview, reflecting a general problem afflicting the Israeli and Jewish left. They take the modern media compulsion to bash, to criticize, to mock, to a pathological, self-destructive extreme. Taglit has become such a juicy target because it so successful. It ruins the reigning self-critical leftist story lines. It proves that young Jews are not alienated from Israel. It proves that Israel has not become an embarrassment to modern Jews. It proves that Israel is not only not a failure, a disappointment, an oppressor but remains a source of fascination, pride and inspiration for most participants on these now iconic ten-day trips.

To make matters worse for our perpetual cynics, Birthright Israel succeeds by not propagandizing, by not being an advocacy trip, and by being rooted in a sophisticated educational model that is person-centered, non-partisan, substantive, sensitive, broad-ranging, and thought-provoking, with its famous guarantee: “no strings attached.” The program invites young Jews to launch their own, personal, Jewish journeys rather than imposing a one-size-fits-all worldview. In fact, neither the heavy-handed, ideological, hidden-agenda-driven, propagandistic program nor the round-the-clock sex-drugs-and-rock-n’-roll idiocy the cynics claim to see would work with this generation of smart, savvy, skeptical, and serious students.

This is not to say that Birthright Israel is a sober graduate seminar. It is a fun, experiential, ten-day trip for 18 to 26 year olds. It cannot undo the party culture that is a fact of university and twenty-something life. But it strives to offer alternatives to the failing, enervating, exasperating, guilt-ridden, hidebound, hierarchical, superficial, soporific and materialistic Jewish experiences that have turned off so many young Jews today.

Ultimately, Birthright Israel’s true secret to success remains Israel itself. The gap between the distorted version of the Israel story most visitors bring to Ben-Gurion airport, and the different country they experience transforms millions every year from Israel skeptics or agnostics to Israel enthusiasts. Even with all its challenges, Israel’s mix of surprisingly normal, familiar, orderly, safe Western-style life with its charmingly offbeat, old-new, Jewish yet cosmopolitan, Zionist but not doctrinaire character continues to entrance.

That is at the heart of the Ha’aretz beef with Birthright.

Birthright shows that Israel is not just a bundle of problems and that those who see Israel solely through the lens of the Palestinian conflict have myopic vision. Israel – and Birthright – are considered exceedingly political because a relentless, delegitimizing propagandistic campaign has tried to make everything about Israel political. When an organization educates about Israel with a minimum of partisan posturing, when it unites right-leaning funders like Sheldon Adelson with left-leaning funders like Charles Bronfman and Lynn Schusterman, when it creates a conversational space that acknowledges problems and sees some ugliness but also toasts successes and appreciates the enduring beauty, it repudiates the Is-crits’ Johnny-one-note approach, it normalizes Israel, and yes, it also celebrates Israel, unapologetically, not neurotically.

The Israeli and Jewish left has yet to learn the lesson that both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama mastered to get elected. In a proud, functioning democracy, valid political positions, important self-critiques, and valuable ideological challenges, can best be heard by dissenting optimistic patriots not seemingly self-hating sourpusses. As president, Obama has struggled to find the right balance. Candidate Obama spoke eloquently during his 2008 “Hope and Change” campaign about the failure of many 1960s radicals to convey their love of country while trying to reform it. Yet President Obama has sometimes foolishly, and self-destructively, made too many apologies for American foreign policy, going too far to validate the Blame America First crowd.

Especially since the hopes of Oslo degenerated into the horrors of Palestinian terrorism, the enduring animus of the Blame Israel First, Last, and Always crowd has sabotaged some important messages that the Israeli left should be broadcasting. Critics of Israel need to be heard, for example, raising moral issues about the cost of controlling millions of unwilling Palestinians. They would be heard better if they acknowledged the toxic impact of Palestinian negationism and violence on Israel’s peacemaking efforts. Broader critiques of Israel and Zionism would also resonate better if some Israeli and Zionist successes – like Birthright Israel – could also be respected, appreciated, cheered – and then criticized carefully, constructively and lovingly in those areas where improvements are still needed.

Response to New York Times Op-Ed: Avraham Burg’s Blind Spots

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-7-12

Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.

The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a  “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.

meretz-openz
Workers put up an election poster for the left-wing Meretz party reading: “Only Meretz is Great.” (David Silverman / Getty Images)

 

The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”

Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?

Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.

I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.

These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.

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.

Defending Sheldon Adelson’s Support for Mitt Romney

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-7-12

In the myopic world of American partisan politics, Democrats are attacking Mitt Romney for daring to take money from Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who organized last week’s fifty-thousand-dollars-a-pop Jerusalem fundraiser and has pumped over ten million dollars from his own pocket into the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign. But the Romney critics protest too much. “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it’s someone else’s witch being hunted,” says the contemporary novelist and prominent ex-Mormon Walter Kirn. These same Democrats are silent when big wigs pump big money into their own favorite candidates’ campaigns.

The attacks on the Romney-Adelson alliance emphasize three major objections. First, Columbia University’s Thomas Edsall wondered in the New York Times this week how Romney, a devout Mormon whose religion abhors gambling, could take money earned from gamblers. Romney should “tell us how he reconciles the values he says he stands for with the basis on which Adelson’s fortune is built,” Edsall preached. Next, Edsall and others have snickered that Romney should be embarrassed to take so much money from Adelson, considering that this billionaire first prolonged Romney’s primary agony by pumping so much money into Newt Gingrich’s campaign.  Finally, the huge amount of money Adelson is spending offends critics, as they scream about plutocrats distorting our politics.

True, in an ideal world, only virtuous endeavors would earn money and the only donors would be saints. In this paradise, alliances would never shift, politicians would always be consistent, and money would be irrelevant to American politics — rather than its lifeblood. But in the real world, donations to very honorable causes often flow in from the rough and tumble universe of business; realists support different candidates as a broad political field narrows; and the American political system has become exceedingly dependent on major fundraisers.

Of course, the dilemmas about money and politics are not new. Decades ago the New Deal humorist Will Rogers joked that “a fool and his money are soon elected,” while the often witty, too frequently twisted novelist and commentator Gore Vidal, who died this week, defined a democracy as “a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

Since Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828 — probably the first million-dollar-campaign in American history — so much money has been invested in elections because so much rides on them.  And in a freedom-oriented country like the United States, with ironclad constitutional guarantees protecting free speech, it has been – and will continue to be – difficult to keep money out of politics, just like it proved impossible to keep the Olympics pure from the taint of lucre or commercialism.

The hypocrisy in this debate has more levels than a seven-layer cake. Four years ago, as Republicans screamed about George Soros’s ill-gotten gains, as they protested that billionaire’s outsized impact on the 2008 campaign, few Democrats agreed – or spoke up. And even this year, as Barack Obama seeks to raise funds for what could be the first billion-dollar presidential re-election campaign, I have heard of no restrictions on money coming from casino owners, liquor barons, cigarette manufacturers, producers of Hollywood filth, hedge fund managers, overcharging lawyers, or Wall Street Bankers.

Let’s face it, to most of his critics, Sheldon Adelson’s great crime is supporting the wrong guy, Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. Billionaires who support your candidate are altruists doing their civic duty; billionaires who support your opponent are power-hungry bums throwing their financial weight around. The rules stink, but Soros and Adelson have the right to play by those rules, and we usually honor wealthy people who divert some of their resources from personal indulgence to public service.

I confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for Sheldon Adelson. We have never had a real conversation, but as chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel international education committee and as a Jewish citizen, I admire his extraordinary generosity in contributing tens of millions to Taglit, financing the first Israel trips of thousands of young Jews, aged 18 to 26 by now. I have heard him speak movingly about his own father’s inability to make it to Israel because he was too poor, and the thrill Adelson has in telling so many young people, “Welcome to Israel.” Other donations he and his wife Dr. Miriam Adelson have made, including to Yad Vashem and their local Las Vegas Jewish community, have impressed and inspired me and many others.

It is also clear to me that Mitt Romney did not support Israel, recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital, endorse a strong, defiant stance against Iran, or question the economic impact of growing up in a sexist, repressive, authoritarian, anti-capitalist Palestinian culture, because he was following the money. In fact, it seems that Adelson’s money followed the politicians’ lead. The Adelson donation reflects a convergence of Romney’s and Adelson’s views, not any kind of deviation by Mitt Romney of any core principles.

The American democracy which gave the world the phrase “all men are created equal” should not be swayed by individuals who can give presidential candidates a bundle.  But democracies reflect the will of the people and the nature of the culture. The American people have not been sufficiently outraged by this perennial problem to tackle the constitutional or political restrictions. Moreover, the well-financed candidate does not always win, as Mitt Romney is currently learning when assessing public opinion polls.

It is unfair to caricature Sheldon Adelson as a nefarious figure seducing candidates and the American people. Just the opposite. We should praise him as a role model, re-investing some of the money he has made back in his community, his highest ideals, and his country.

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: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published in the fall.

Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-3-12

Mitt Romney’s recent Israel trip proved yet again that a political gaffe is a politician caught in the act of telling the truth. True, his comment that “culture makes all the difference” when comparing the Israeli and Palestinian economies was too broad—all politicians should learn never to use words like “all” and “never.” But the media firestorm his comments evoked, and Saeb Erekat’s predictable charge that Romney made a “racist statement,” mixed together two topics about which it seems impossible to have a textured, subtle, mature conversation these days: the Middle East and the impact of culture.

For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

culture-oz

Palestinian girls walk home from school inside the refugee camp of al-Fawar in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, the Middle East had its own Great Inversion as Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.

Underlying these complex phenomena, which had many causes, manifestations, and subtleties, was a defining ideological and intellectual struggle. By 2000, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published an anthology “Culture Matters” as a rallying point for David Landes and other culture-oriented colleagues. Romney’s remarks should be understood in the context of this ongoing debate and ideological power struggle. His analysis reflects his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a central critique of Barack Obama’s worldview.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As the scholar-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Culture matters—but politics matters too.

So no, it is not helpful to shut down every conversation about the impact of culture by shouting “racist.” And yes, it is absurd to see the same people who generalize so broadly about Israeli culture and character take such umbrage at generalizations about Palestinian character. The Middle East will not progress until Palestinians can look at their culture critically, and see how worldviews that emphasize victimization, accept authoritarianism, impose sexism, celebrate terrorism, and squelch individualism are destructive. It is more than true that many Palestinians, partially due to their contact with Israelis, are more entrepreneurial and democracy-minded, than many other cultures we could easily name. But Israelis—and Palestinians—both have to take responsibility and step up to progress.

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.