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.

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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.

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“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.