Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

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Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-25-12

Warning: this posting contains good news and positive thoughts about Israel, Jerusalem and the Middle East.

So many of the narratives about Israel are so negative, especially in the media, that we often fail to note the poetry of the everyday that comes from living in the Jewish state, or even the most mundane prose of life that shows that things are functioning. What I think of as the Great Israel Disconnect distorts: the gap between the hysterical, judgmental, apocalyptic headlines, and the calmer, happier, more meaningful experiences of most Israelis, most of the time (be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim) is confusing. As a result, some dismiss all the media jeremiads as propagandistic and jaundiced, while others dismiss any positive reports as propagandistic and deceitful.

 

Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism's most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)
Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)

 

In the few hours before Yom Kippur begins in Jerusalem, it is worth contemplating the magic of that day in the Jewish State, as an indicator of many of Israel’s greatest successes. For starters, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is not really just one “yom” day—despite its name. It is the culmination of a 40-day process that begins as the last month of the year, Elul, begins. Especially in Jerusalem, there is a flowering of Jewish learning as people study texts about forgiveness, piety, the power of prayer, the meaning of life. In the Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) tradition, there are additional “Slichot” forgiveness prayers for an entire month—with some waking up at midnight or at 4 am to recite them; in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition those prayers only begin a week before the Jewish New Year. This week, I had the privilege of participating in Slichot prayers at midnight at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys, which my two sons attend. Experiencing the mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic prayers and rituals was incredibly moving, offering a counternarrative of communal respect and interweaving contradicting the usual focus on ethnic gaps and communal tensions.

Similarly, during a pre-Yom Kippur jog through the Old City, I witnessed a very different Jerusalem than the one I usually read about. I always tell visitors to the city never to walk alone in the Old City. That is a historical spur, not a safety warning. “Walk with someone on your shoulder,” I like to say. “It can be David or Solomon, the kings who built the city, Jesus or Mary for our Christian friends, or an ancestor or relative who never made it here—and whom you are now representing.” In fact, the real hazards I faced—as usual in my jogs—were slippery steps, rocky roads and the occasional bicyclist. In hundreds of jogs through the Old City over more than five years, I have never witnessed an argument, never tasted fear (despite being a hyper-aware and cautious native New Yorker). The only clash I have ever experienced occurred when a young Arab cyclist and I each turned a blind corner and nearly collided. Instead, we ended up in an awkward (but manly!) hug. I like to think of that as a metaphor for what we could achieve, rather than the collisions that we more frequently read about.

As I jog through the Old City, I always imagine myself a human thread, weaving together the past and the present, uniting the different communities, as I traverse a borderless entity. I am neither deaf to Palestinian cries for national fulfillment nor numb to the occasional tensions and pressing issues. But I also see a calm, a functionality, a vitality that is equally palpable, and in fact defines the experiences of most Jerusalemites, which is why the population keeps growing and demands for Israeli citizenship papers from the Eastern (Palestinian) Jerusalem side grow too.

Finally, as Yom Kippur itself begins, I will see—as I have seen repeatedly before—a tremendous display of Jewish unity. Israel turns into one vast spiritual retreat center, as by custom not law cars disappear from the streets, and a deep, elevating spiritual quiet envelops the country. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “approximately two-thirds of Jewish Israelis will fast this Yom Kippur and over 80 percent will use the day either to pray or for general introspection,” blurring the usual distinctions between religious and non-religious. The highlight for many of us in Southern Jerusalem will be the post-Kol Nidre Emek Refaim promenade. After the evening prayers, hundreds of Jerusalemites descend on Emek Refaim, the increasingly fashionable shopping and restaurant boulevard. In a modern equivalent of the Easter Parade, they simply walk—or bicycle—up and down, greeting neighbors and friends, enjoying the liberation from the noise of cars, the burdens of work, and the compulsions of the clock. And—judging by the array of clothing (mostly but not exclusively white) and the happy cyclists pedaling up and down—this is a mix of Israelis, of observant and non-observant, just enjoying the magic.

The Yom Kippur repentance ritual demands that we reconcile with our fellow human beings before we reconcile with God. Note that we are supposed to make our peace with all humans, not just Jews. In toasting the Jerusalem I see—which so frequently unites  Ashkenazic and Separdic, Muslim and Jew, religious and secular, simply in the act of being safe, happy and productive in Israel 2012—I pray that the normalcy I experience will become epidemic and standard, that the reconciliation required will be among peoples not just individuals, and that the only clashes we have next year will end, as mine did, in an awkward (but manly!) embrace.

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.

Top Ten Apologies We Need to Hear– and Those I Offer

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-24-12

Although apologies are often required throughout the year, during these ten days of penitence Jews are supposed to struggle harder and ask forgiveness for offenses they overlooked during the year – or for cumulative injuries beyond the dramatic hit-and-run sins for which they need to apologize immediately. While “I’m sorry” is the simple phrase to become friends again and make amends, sometimes more elaborate apologies are required – or offered. The legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s classic supplication “When I make a mistake it’s a beaut,” conveyed his large personality, when right or wrong. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did not just say, “We were wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam, he added, poignantly, “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”  And the Yom Kippur “Ashamnu” prayer is doubly poetic, in affirming individual and community responsibility with its cascade of communal sins, from A to Z.

In the US, Mitt Romney so fears that Barack Obama’s apologies for American foreign policy conveyed weakness, especially to the Arab world, that he issued a manifesto:  “No Apology – the Case for American Greatness.”   While dodging that debate, we should note that the two concepts “apology” and “greatness” are not inherently at odds.  The right apology – proportionate, appropriate, heartfelt – elevates; the wrong apology – grudging, insincere, or unnecessary, demeans.

A grudging or false apology is like a botched shofar blow. We await a clear, dramatic clarion call, at once familiar yet unique, but end with a tepid pffft of hot air, blocked sound, and dashed hopes.  Every parent has had to extract a more sincere apology after a child spit out the words “I’m sorry.”  In March, 1987, Ronald Reagan offered an older man’s variation on the schoolboy’s side step when he said about the Iran-Contra affair:  “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” One Reagan staffer wrote out the words he believed the American people wanted to hear — “I’m sorry” — but the President purposely ignored the text.

I do not solicit apologies from terrorists, murderers and the like. We don’t share the same moral universe, which is essential for repentance and reconciliation. But in honor of these ten days, here are ten individual apologies I would love to hear, based on recent events:

  • From Barack Obama to the American people for allowing his personal pique at Bibi Netanyahu to unsettle Israelis just when they need more demonstrations of American friendship, both symbolic and real.
  • From Bibi Netanyahu to the Israeli people for allowing his lack of personal chemistry with Barack Obama to cloud relations with Israel’s closest ally.
  • From Tzipi Livni to the Israeli electorate for failing to secure the job of foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government, Livni could have forged a relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would have alleviated some of the predictable Obama-Netanyahu tension.
  • From Ehud Olmert to his fellow citizens and to the Jewish people for failing to live up to the high ethical standards we merit from our leaders.
  • From Shaul Mofaz for making Israeli politics appear even more ridiculous than usual by leaving the coalition as abruptly as he joined it – what could he possibly have learned about Netanyahu, the Likud, or Israeli politics he didn’t know before he joined?
  • From Bill Clinton to the American people for demonstrating once again his tremendous political talents, thereby reminding many of us that his presidency disappointed because he indulged his baser needs, repeatedly.
  • From Mitt Romney to the “47 percent” of Americans he dismissed for allegedly being too dependent on government handouts – and to the other 53 percent for failing to offer the uplifting, competent, gaffe-free campaign all Americans yearn for, regardless of partisan affiliation – or net worth.
  • From the Haredi extremist bullies who spat on 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis in Bet Shemesh, and to all those who sweep innocent children into their vortex of hate.
  • From the Jewish teenagers, their parents, their teachers, and in some cases their rabbis, who attacked a young Arab Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, and to all bigots and hooligans everywhere.
  • From UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for emboldening Iran and undermining the Western campaign of sanctions by attending the non-aligned movement meeting in Tehran.

On a personal note, allow me to apologize publicly to all friends, colleagues, relatives, students and readers for whatever words or actions of mine that hurt them this year. I apologize specifically for resorting to sarcasm in a recent column when challenging rabbis-for-Obama not to assert their spiritual authority to make partisan endorsements. The confrontational tone contradicted my work in various contexts, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program and the Red Lines and Blue-and-White Lines initiative, trying to construct as big and as welcoming a tent as possible when talking about Israel and Zionism. Striking the right balance on issues close to our hearts is easy to endorse, sometimes hard to implement. I promise to do better in this realm and others.

The difference between a heartfelt apology and one that is phoned-in is the difference between ending up with a relationship doomed to stagnate – at best — and one that can be renewed. True reconciliation is not a monologue but a dialogue. An artful apology not only expresses the deliverer’s remorse but recruits the recipient to accept, stretch, and join in the act of resetting.

In the spirit of the season, I wish everyone a meaningful fast, a good stretch, a healthy epidemic of heartfelt reconciliations and revitalizing resets.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published in November.

Romney’s Understandable Views on Palestine

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-21-12

Mitt Romney’s remarks at the Florida fundraiser four months ago were indeed “shameful,” as Peter suggests. It is shameful that presidential candidates sell briefings to donors wherein they disrespect opposing voters and undermine their own publicly stated positions. It is shameful that a culture has developed wherein both Barack Obama, with his “bitter” remarks in 2008, and Romney with his recent, newly infamous “47 percent” riff, obviously feel compelled to explain to people who are investing in their campaigns how others could possibly oppose them. However, most unfortunately, I find it easier to understand Mitt Romney’s pessimism about Palestinian intentions regarding the peace process than to share Peter’s optimism—as articulated in both his recent blog post and his book.

A Palestinian man holds a Hamas flag. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)
A Palestinian man holds a Hamas flag. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)

As someone who supported the Oslo Peace Process (remember that?) and desperately hopes that his fifteen-year-old son will not have to do anything in the Israeli army in three years that squelches another people’s national ambitions, I genuinely wish that I believed Ehud Olmert’s claim that Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinians are deeply committed to the peace process. But, I confess, I am stuck. I am stuck in the trauma of Yasser Arafat’s turn from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. I am stuck in the trauma of Hamas’s ongoing calls to wipe out Israel and the Jews. I am stuck in the decades-long, worldwide, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist campaign of too many Arabs and too many Muslims. And I am stuck by the continuing Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel, which many (not all) of these supposed “moderates” and peace partners finance, encourage, and frequently orchestrate.

It is too easy to dismiss these as “right-wing” views. Such caricatures absolve Palestinians of too much responsibility and miss the implosion of the Israeli left—precisely because the left failed to acknowledge Palestinian terror and delegitimization. My friend Yossi Klein Halevi states it quite elegantly. He says the Israeli right failed to learn the lesson of the first intifada—that the Palestinians are a people who deserve national self-determination and are not going to disappear or be bought off. They should be respected and they need their own state—for their sake and for Israel’s. But the Israeli left failed to learn the lesson of the second intifada—that too many Palestinians remain committed to Israel’s destruction. They are still trying to refight the 1948 war over Israel’s existence, not just win the 1967 war regarding Israel’s borders.

While Peter blames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for perceptions that he is not fully committed to peace, he gives Palestinian political culture a free pass. One of the essential lessons of our season of repentance is that we are each responsible for our own behavior, and for the way others see us, too (within limits given that there are bigots in the world, of course). Doubting Palestinians’ peaceful intentions is logical, and certainly understandable, based on history and based on much Palestinian rhetoric, especially the continuing celebration of terrorist murderers as martyrs, as well as the condemnation of Israel as a racist, imperialist, apartheid state—crimes which in the modern world are seen as being worthy of the national equivalent of the death penalty.

While this does not mean that I endorse Romney’s entire analysis, he did use an interesting word that I also believe is unappreciated. Peter perceived Romney’s call for “stability” as code word for creeping annexation. Having spent a lot of time in Israel during the reign of terror ten years ago, I believe that more stability could be the pathway to peace. Stability can be the start of bridge-building and reconciliation, not the end of progress.

I believe the Golda Meir cliché that when Palestinians are more committed to building their state than destroying the Jewish one there will be peace. I have been thrilled to see the first serious attempts at nation-building initiated by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. I have personally met with peace-seeking Palestinian moderates—whose courage demonstrates that they are an often unwelcome, embattled minority in the non-democratic Palestinian Authority culture. And I await new signs that the Palestinians are ready to wean their political culture from the addiction to terror, delegitimization, and demonization, which have proved to be such lethal obstacles to the peace process.

In my forthcoming book, “Moynihan’s Moment,” I show how delegitimization, and Zionism-is-racism rhetoric have encouraged extremism on both sides, and in 1975 helped invigorate settlement expansionism. In this new year, I call on the pro-peace forces, left and right, to fight delegitimization and demonization—of both sides—vehemently and vigorously to improve the climate so that stability can become a launching pad for progress not a dead end.

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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.

Memo To The US: Avoid Extremes While Fighting Islamists

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-18-12

With anti-American riots persisting, and the loved ones of the murdered American diplomats and security personnel mourning, the debate about Middle East matters remains polarizing – and depressing.  Two schools of thought dominate, and both are wrong. The first group, the submitters, is too quick to apologize, too quick to appease. The second, even more unappealing group, the bigots, is too quick to demonize, too quick to swagger.   In the long torturous history of the clash between East and West, both extremes err – by negating Western values in a pathetic attempt to woo the East or by perverting Western values in a contemptible expression of contempt for the East.

Unfortunately, too many American diplomats and Obama administration officials are submitters. These are the people who immediately accepted the false rationale blaming the anti-Mohammed video clip as the rationale for the Libyan riots, without noticing that these events were occurring on 9/11 – and that the Libyan “protestors” came well-armed and well-briefed about the Benghazi diplomatic compound.  These Arabist apologists quickly repudiated the now-infamous video, forgetting that citizens in a democracy cannot take responsibility for every ugly way fellow citizens might use freedom of speech – while also forgetting that throughout the Middle East official government organs, especially religious leaders, spew anti-American bigotry.

David Harris, the thoughtful Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, notes that Palestinians have a culture of blame, Jews have a culture of guilt; his insight applies more broadly too.  Especially since the 1960s, the West is perpetually seen as guilty of many sins, while anti-Americanism has become as ubiquitous in the Middle East, as sand, oil, Islam, kaffiyas, and anti-Zionism.   Too many Americans have internalized this detailed indictment of our culture as imperialist, colonialist, and racist.

As Westerners who talk about diversity and tolerance but are surprisingly limited in their imaginations, the submitters tend to believe that every one around the world thinks and acts as they do.  And as rationalists unable to fathom the Arab street’s twisted illogic, too many assume that if we demonstrate our goodwill, if we behave properly, we will reconcile with our Eastern neighbors.  This thinking prompted Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and fed elite America’s enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring. Seeing Arab protestors as incipient Jeffersonians with laptops – without fathoming that they might become Islamist warriors with RPGs – they waxed poetic about the new democracies aborning, abandoned American allies, and condemned Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israelis for daring to doubt, for worrying before celebrating.

Especially at the start of his administration, Obama frequently telegraphed a sense of American guilt. While anti-Americanism existed long before Obama appeared on the national scene, it is fair to ask whether his apologetics – and general hesitancy in leadership – broadcast a dangerous message of American weakness which emboldened the Islamist attackers.

These submitters frequently apologize for and feel superior to the bigots, who tap into longstanding prejudices against anyone who is different, as well as particular Western condescension toward Muslims and Arabs, as pagans and savages.  The reprehensible video clip; the misinformation that the producers were an Israeli with 100 Jewish donors backing him, reflect the bigots’ simplistic, perverse, dog-eat-dog – or more accurately group-fight-group – worldview – how convenient to scapegoat Israelis and Jews.  Moreover, these people think that patriotism is about bluster, xenophobia, and demonization, when democratic patriotism entails pride, moderation and discernment. Mitt Romney has to be wary of stirring these extremists, either directly or indirectly.

In 1975, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was American ambassador to the United Nations, he rejected the State Department culture of guilt and appeasement. He found most American diplomats unprepared for the realities of the new world, where the US was in opposition, a world of blaming America as a way of absolving your own country of responsibility.  Moynihan wanted to hold countries accountable for their rhetoric –- and their UN votes — especially if they received American subsidies.

Moynihan took what other countries said and did seriously, and he wanted to end America’s post-Vietnam self-flagellation spree. His approach thrilled the American people. He became an American pop star, cheered for his stand, beloved for his courage, and won four elections to the US Senate over the next quarter-century. But Moynihan’s approach was too countercultural for a State Department that had internalized the Sixties Counterculture’s values.  He only lasted as Ambassador for eight months, resigning after being undermined by Henry Kissinger’s Machiaevellian moves.

Channeling Moynihan’s defiant defense of American democracy, a proper, patriotic defense of America should include Mitt Romney’s refusal to apologize, with Barack Obama’s sharp reminder to Egypt’s president to act like an ally. It should avoid demonization of Islam, Muhammad, or any Arab country, without apologizing for American values and American freedoms. Countries which accept American help should be expected to accept America as a friend, which includes not having official state organs and nationally-subsidized religious leaders rabblerousing against the US.  Americans have every right to be furious – and should attack this anti-Americanism indignantly and aggressively. American diplomats should confront leaders who use anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism as the stimulant of the Arab masses.  Diplomats must remember their primary mission is to defend their country’s interests and dignity, not make friends at any cost.

There is a perverse reversal in the Middle East today.  Americans should be the ones rallying on 9/11 against their enemies—because they were victimized.  Americans should be demonstrating angrily against the outrageous attacks against their representatives in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere. Fortunately, overall the tradition of national self-restraint holds, even as marginal loudmouths like the Reverend Terry Jones spew hatred. Neither submitting meekly nor succumbing to racism, Americans should continue resisting this constant, systematic assault, championing democracy, American values with a proud, constructive, strategic but strong, don’t tread on me approach.

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

Israel’s Allergy to the Arab Spring—Justified Again

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-13-12

When the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt in January 2011, Israel’s cautious response did not play well. Many Israel critics—always quick to see Israel as abandoning democracy—decided that Israel’s worries were about democracy itself. Rather, the concerns were about how this particular series of popular revolts would play out in the Middle East cauldron. Moreover, most American experts and politicians, ignoring decades of ugly anti-Americanism and Islamism on the proverbial “Arab Street,” viewed the Arab revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere as the best of Thomas Paine, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and their favorite blogger combined.

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

 

Israel’s anxiety then—and today’s unhappily confirmed fears—reflected a closer reading of the dynamics within each Arab country and throughout the Muslim universe. American hopes were rooted in a two-centuries-long American belief that the rest of the world wants to replicate their revolution, spiced up with a longstanding romantic view of the Arab world, especially among elites. This came even after the decades-long phenomenon of Arafatian terrorism, Islamist fundamentalism, the rise of Hamas, the trauma of 9/11.

Now, nearly two years after that politically correct euphoria, Americans are burying an ambassador to Libya and three colleagues, defending the embassy in Yemen in nearly hand-to-hand combat, and—surprise, surprise—disappointed by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government’s tepid response to the rabid mobs menacing the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Meanwhile, Israel has a newly unstable border with the Sinai, an even colder peace with Egypt, and an expanded role as the Middle East scapegoat.

One can fear the Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of Islamism, the ugly, ubiquitous, frequently violent, anti-American and anti-Zionist demagoguery poisoning the Arab world without fearing democracy, or pining away for Hosni Mubarak and Muamaar Qaddafi. Change is frequently difficult and by definition unstable. Things can still shift for the better. But to help facilitate a necessary change in the Middle East, to help Egypt, Libya and other countries evolve into more stable, more democratic, more free, more humane entities, Western policymakers need to be clear-eyed and not romantic, tough without being dogmatic, and far-sighted rather than myopic. I, for one, am still waiting for such leaders to emerge, from any country, from anywhere along the political spectrum.

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

Americans and Israel After 9/11

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-11-12

Shortly after the horrific 9/11 attacks, Canadian government agency invited a group of McGill University professors to provide an off-the-record briefing explaining what had occurred. One professor after another blamed the assault on one American sin after another. Crossbreeding elitist anti-Americanism with narcissistic academic theorizing, the Central American specialist mentioned America’s assault on Nicaragua in the 1980s; the Africanist blamed America’s neglect of Africa; and so on. When it was my turn, I said, “I think I was watching the wrong channel that day—perhaps NBC not CBC. What I saw was that al Qaeda attacked America, yet you are all blaming the victim.”

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)
 

Eleven years later, I remember that exchange as a warning to those of us who wish to understand 9/11’s significance to Israel. Viewing those events through a blue-and-white prism risks distortions, especially given the black-clouded fury of those days and today’s misty haze of forgotten memories. Still, it does seem that then—and now—the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a propellant for some Americans and Jews, bonding them ever more intensely with Israel. While for others, 9/11 ultimately served as a repellent, especially after the ugly fight over America’s war in Iraq.

On that awful day, many Americans immediately thought of Israel. People talked, for example, about learning Israeli security techniques. They felt a common destiny, a shared anguish, a reinforced sense of values. They started paying more attention to the wave of Palestinian terror Israel had been enduring for a year already—especially after CNN aired images of Palestinians dancing after the Twin Towers’ collapse.

Moreover, 9/11 heralded a Bush’s administration shift toward Israel’s response Palestinian terror. September 11 was a crucial step in Israel gaining American approval for military incursions in the West Bank in April 2002. Subsequently, strategic, diplomatic and military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in their common war against terror further bonded the two countries—and many of their people.

At the same time, 9/11 ultimately propelled the Bush administration into the Iraq War. The divisive fight over the invasion distanced some from Israel. First, there were those who believed that it was America’s pro-Israel orientation that landed American soldiers in Baghdad. Some who did not buy that narrative were still so sour on Bush that his increasingly ardent support for Israel became a toxic embrace. To these people—and again, I am giving impressions not statistical analysis—Israel and Iraq became neoconservative projects. This neoconning of Israel alienated some Americans, including some American Jews, from the Jewish State.

Today, many foreign policy issues, especially those concerning the Middle East, shake out between those who worry about another 9/11 and those who fear another Iraq. Even though Barack Obama as President has done much to blur the lines by approving the assault on Osama Bin Laden and deploying drones against terrorists while ending the Iraq war, this division persists. The memories of 9/11 do provide more glue in the America-Israel relationship, even as the lingering effects of the Iraq debate strain the friendship. We can also see the impact in the current debate about Iran. Those who focus on 9/11’s lessons champion aggressive preventative action. Those who remember the Iraq War debacle are more skeptical of American motives and the military’s ability to produce desired outcomes.

On this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, in the broad, compassionate, national spirit that emerged on that painful day, each faction should learn a bit from the other, rather than simply refuting each others’ claims. Both regarding Israel and the rest of the world, those who worry about another 9/11  are correct—there are evil forces that need aggressive policing. But those fearing another Iraq War are also correct—the world is far too complex for us to dictate desired outcomes, with complete confidence, all the time.

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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.

History’s handcuffs: The Iraq and Lebanon wars feed skepticism about attacking Iran

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-11-12

As the debate rages over Iran’s nuclear intentions – and Israel’s options, both military and otherwise – we need to acknowledge three recent moments that are making many people doubt the wisdom of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Both Israeli and American policymakers need to be aware of the dark, nearly blinding, shadow of recent history, because in our 24/7 media world, responding to those fears is an essential part of telling the right story. And getting it right is not just spin. It is of strategic value in democracies like the United States and Israel.

Those supporting a military option against Iraq have invoked Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Jimmy Carter’s indulgence of the Ayatollahs, and the West’s tendency to tolerate dictators as negative examples. They have mentioned the fight against Nazism, the resistance that ultimately defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, and Israel’s super-successful, surprise-strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities as positive examples.  Bullies crumble, the optimistic chorus suggests, and democracies rise to the challenge, when necessary.  Having done it successfully before, the reasoning goes, Israel, and the United States can and should do it again.

Many Americans, however, are doubly traumatized by the Iraq war, which began in March, 2003 but was triggered by the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Most important, many continue to believe that George W. Bush lied America into the conflict. The absence of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction — suggests to them that Bush manipulated the data and imagined a Saddam Hussein weapons program where none existed, to drag America into war.

The sorry spectacle of the most credible member of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, making the case for war and WMDs before the United Nations Security Council, seemingly confirms the impression that the whole buildup to the war was a farce. The WMD story seems to be a cover for a VMA – a Very Mad America after the 9/11 trauma – and, unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu is closer to George W. Bush in the public credibility scale than he is to where Colin Powell was in public trust and esteem before the unfound weapons debacle.

There are two alternative scenarios. First, that there were WMDs and they were hidden, perhaps in Syria, which is what Israeli intelligence seemed to believe. And second, the fact that British intelligence, Israeli intelligence, and Colin Powell himself believed Saddam Hussein’s WMD posturing, suggests to me – and to others – that the liar was Saddam not Bush.  Saddam Hussein overdid his con, convincing credible people that he was further ahead in his weapons development than he was, and paid for it with his regime and his life.  That interpretation treats Bush and company as themselves gullible not venal. Still, whatever your interpretation, the Iraq war first teaches skepticism regarding claims that one regime or another is “close” to nuclear capability.

The second lesson of the Iraq War is even more sobering. Historians have long taught that even though many nations frequently go to war to preserve the status quo – the status quo is every war’s one guaranteed victim.  The Iraq War reinforced that lesson dramatically, resulting in chaos and shaking Americans’ own faith in their military might. Americans learned that we could defeat Saddam, but we lacked the power to impose the kind of peace we wanted at the kind of pace we could accept.

Israelis learned a similar lesson from the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Israel crushed Lebanese infrastructure – and wiped out many Hezbollah strongholds, especially when the war began. But Israel could not crush Hezbollah, stop the missiles raining on the north, or even capture Hassan Nasrallah, who continues to manipulate Lebanese politics today, six years later, even as he remains in hiding.

The Second Lebanon War ultimately ended the nearly four-decade old Six Day War heroic hangover for many. If the Yom Kippur War of 1973 buried the myth of Israeli invulnerability, the Second Lebanon War of 2006 buried the myth of Israeli invincibility. The Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack made Israel bleed – but Israel’s army revived and conquered. The Lebanon War made Israel doubt, for Israel’s army flailed away at the Hezbollah rocket launches without solving the problem.

Leaders cannot be handcuffed by history, but they should heed its lessons. There are political and operational warnings aplenty. Neither the Israeli nor American public has much appetite for failure, for prolonged conflict, or for ambiguity in the precipitating factors or the ultimate results.

In this case, both Israeli and American policy makers must figure out how to convince a skeptical public that Iran is rushing to go nuclear, they have to reassure millions that there are no other alternatives to war, and they have to deliver a decisive blow with minimal fallout or blowback.  The kind of sloppiness that had the United States unprepared to govern Iraq, the day after Saddam fell, is not acceptable now.  After all this talk, after all this preparation, Israel and the United States will have to justify the move – and the wait.

I do not feel competent to judge whether or not a military attack is now justified. The papers seem full of cover stories, political postures, military feints, and misdirection. But if Israel and/or the United States enter into a war with Iran, the PR challenge is to explain, to spin, but ultimately to sell. The military challenge is to win – and win big.

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

Nuke-Washing Iran

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-7-12

For more than six decades, the fight against nuclear proliferation has been a central concern of the left. From J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 1940s to Helen Caldicott in the 1980s, proclaiming “No Nukes” has been an easy way in for the “Yes We Can” crowd. The 2008 Democratic platform, envisioning  “a world without nuclear weapons,” reflected Barack Obama’s deep yearnings, and the left-leaning academic milieu from which he came.

Given that, it is surprising—and dismaying—that the fight to block Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons has not stirred progressive passions. Such things are hard to quantify, but it has not been a popular issue on the left. The level of activism pales in comparison to1980s’ standards. There has been no 700,000-person demonstration in Central Park, no prime time apocalyptic television movie like the ABC 1983 blockbuster “The Day After,” no push like the one from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)

 

Here we seem to have a case of nuke-washing (or radioactive cleansing, as it were), with two possible explanations. First, just as Palestinians who target Israelis are often called “militants” when their al-Qaeda comrades who target Americas or other innocents are “terrorists,” threatening Israel does not generate the same outrage as threatening other countries. The Non-Aligned Movement farce that played out in Teheran last week, not only undercut the Obama administration’s salutary push to isolate and sanction Iran, but it made countries like India complicit in Iranian war-mongering when their delegates  did not object to the rhetorical targeting of Israel. Similarly, on campus and in other progressive centers, Israeli checkpoints for security trigger many more protests than Iranian plans for weapons of mass destruction.

My late grandfather would have sighed and said, “Jewish life is cheap.” But it’s a culture of blaming Israel, demonizing Zionism, and romanticizing Palestinians that gives Israel’s enemies a free moral pass in too many quarters. Israel’s controversial policies regarding the Palestinians have created a popular construct that delegitimizes the Jewish state (and the entire Zionist project) well beyond the confines of the Holy Land.

The concept of “pinkwashing,” for example, had to be developed to overcome progressive cognitive dissonance. How could a country that has been so demonized, whose very essence has been deemed corrupt and evil, be so much more enlightened than its neighbors on that core value of the left, equal rights for the LGBT community? Simple: turn that genuine expression of Israeli democracy and human rights into a propaganda ploy by the supposedly sinister, all-power Israeli Hasbara manipulators and lobbyists.

The second explanation reflects a broader historical phenomenon. Since the 1960s, the culture of Western self-flagellation has created an outrage gap, exaggerating any Western, liberal democratic imperfections while excusing many serious Third World crimes. We saw this in the 1970s, when the UN was silent for years regarding the genocide in Cambodia, occupying its time instead branding Zionism as racism and bashing the U.S. as colonialist. We saw this in the 1980s, when the left-wing “no nuke” protests in Europe and the U.S. focused much more on American proliferation than Soviet expansionism and weaponry. This culture of self-blame purports to be anti-racist, but actually reflects liberal condescension and its own imperialist arrogance. Rather than holding every country to the same moral standard, all too often dictatorial enemies of the United States get a free pass—especially those from the Third World.

While the myopic left long excused the sins of others, there was a more muscular, less hypocritical progressive tradition in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that vigorously fought dictators and international outlaws. As our own Peter Beinart wrote in his 2006 book, The Good Fight, “antitotalitarianism” once sat “at the heart of the liberal project.” It was the Henry Wallace—George McGovern—Michael Moore counter-tradition that “preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”

Barack Obama arrived in the Oval Office in 2009, frequently sounding like he was a standard bearer of that purist, pacifist, appeasing counter-tradition. Yet in his steely determination to hunt down al Qaida terrorists with drones, and in his cool-headed approval of the plan to take down Osama Bin Laden, Obama often took the tougher approach, though still with a liberal outlook. Whether he will be equally strong with Iran remains to be seen.

Of course, the “no nukes” crowd will be quick to talk of a nuclear-free Middle East, sweeping Israel into the push against Iranian nuclear proliferation. Here, too, the nuke-washers will reflect a double standard. Israel’s weilds its presumed decades-old nuclear power quietly, as a democracy accountable to its people. The Iranian theoocracy, which threatens the United States, not just Israel, cannot clam the same restraint or accountability to its citizens.

I challenge my colleagues and this generation of the left: stand strong and shout “No Iranian Nukes.” Obama committed himself to non-proliferation, and to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons, but he needs the support of progressives, and liberals at home and among the international community.

There could be an immediate peace payoff if the protests take off. Mass protests against Iranian nuclear proliferation might help make sanctions work, might rein in the Iranians, and might make Israel feel less embattled and less compelled to defend itself militarily, even possibly unilaterally against what the Iranians’ own rhetoric has suggested could be an existential threat to the Jewish state and other democracies.

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.

How Many Democrats Booed Jerusalem at the DNC?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-6-12

When the Democrats restored the Party’s now traditional affirmation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there were so many noes that the move required three attempts to be accepted. Eventually, the plank was pushed through, albeit ham-handedly, to boos from a loud minority. That display of hostility in the Democratic lovefest, as well as the initial desire to drop the Jerusalem plank from the Party platform, tells a tale about an internal Democratic debate—and possible shift—that pro-Israel Democrats are desperately trying to cover up.

No matter how many glowing New York Times op-eds Haim Saban writes, no matter how many pro-Israel speeches Robert Wexler gives, no matter how many times they channel Pravda by hitting the same talking points about Barack Obama’s love for Israel, Democrats cannot ignore the elephant—er, over-sized donkey in the convention hall. Like it or not, the Democratic Party is becoming the home address of anti-Israel forces as well as Israel skeptics. And Democratic support is flagging, with a 15-point gap between Republican support for Israel and Democratic support. I believe strongly that support for Israel should be a bipartisan bedrock—and with more than 70 percent of Americans supporting Israel that foundation remains strong. The new partisan disparity is between an overwhelming 80 percent of Republicans and a still solid 65 percent of Democrats.

obama-aipac

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

 

I have criticized the Republicans for trying to make supporting Israel a wedge issue through demagoguery. But Democrats should not deny that they are also helping to make Israel a wedge issue by hosting those who are hostile to Israel and then covering it up dishonestly.

As an observer, not a pollster, I perceive four different factions within the Democratic coalition regarding Israel. The largest probably remains the I-love-Israel and I-love-America AIPAC Democrats. These are pro-Israel, pro-Israeli-government liberals, who have no problem being progressive domestically and supporting Israel enthusiastically, especially since 9/11 and the Palestinian wave of terror reinforced their understandings of the shared values, interests, and needs of the United States and Israel.

A growing faction, which is probably louder and sounds more influential than it actually is statistically, is the “Tough Love,” anti-settlement, J-Street Democrats. These people are deeply pro-Israel, but also deeply hostile to the Netanyahu government, deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians, outraged by the settlements, and convinced that Israel needs to be pressured—not coddled—for there to be peace. Barack Obama has fluctuated between those two positions as president—and there is a disparity of 50 percent to 25 percent in Bibi Netanyahu’s favorability ratings among Republicans versus Democrats.

Before his presidency, Obama also flirted with a third faction, which was probably the main source of the booers—enhanced, I would guess, by some J-Streeters who are incredibly sensitive to the Muslim-Arab “optics” (meaning how American actions look to the Muslim and Arab world), yet incredibly insensitive to the Jewish-Zionist “optics” (meaning how American actions look to Israel and Israel’s supporters). Members of this third Jimmy Carter-Jesse Jackson, Israel-Apartheid, Zionism-racism faction are ardently pro-Palestinian, hostile to Israel—not just its government—and disappointed with Democratic support for Israel. Nevertheless, they are far more disgusted with Republican positions on just about anything, which is what keeps them Democrats.

Finally, and we Israel junkies tend to ignore them, are the “whatever”-John Edwards Democrats. Never forget that many Americans are like John Edwards, they just do not care that much about this issue. I am sure that Edwards said the “right” things about Israel so he would get the votes he sought, but he never took leadership, never embraced the Jewish State, and was probably just phoning it in, as my students say.

I will admit, the Jerusalem issue is somewhat of a red herring. It is, like the abortion issue domestically, more symbolic than real—the chances of an American embassy in Jerusalem during the next four years, whoever wins, are about as unlikely as the chances of a reversal of Roe v. Wade that would ban abortions. But these symbolic issues count in politics, showing core values, broadcasting an identity, and often indicating where a party is heading.

Under Obama, there has been a drip-drip-drip, a steady draining of general Democratic support for the pro-Israel community. Moreover, Obama’s failure to visit Israel after his Cairo speech, his testy relationship with Netanyahu (for which both are responsible), his fumbling on the settlement issue (which gave the Palestinians a new excuse to avoid negotiations), the post-Biden trip blow-up which could have been more astutely handled, his failure just recently to distance himself from General Dempsey’s insulting remarks about a possible Israeli airstrike, as well as this unnecessary Jerusalem platform plank brouhaha, suggest a certain tone-deafness on the Israel file, at best, and a hidden animus, at worst. At a time when those of us who wish to avoid an Iran-Israel war understand that the Israeli government needs reassurance that the United States is completely behind Israel, these kinds of misfires are dangerous.

In the Party, J-Street Democrats have too often been either a stepping stone for Democrats seeking to distance themselves from their AIPAC comrades or, frankly, a cover for a deeper anti-Israel hostility. Just as in 1991, William F. Buckley confronted Pat Buchanan’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic prejudice on the right, pro-Israel Democrats need to confront the Jimmy Carter-Jesse Jackson faction’s anti-Israel and occasionally anti-Semitic animus from the Left. If they continue simply uttering denials, offering the same laundry list of Obama’s pro-Israel moves, claiming Obama is the most pro-Israel president ever, they risk losing both their credibility—and their dominance in a party that was the party of such champions of Israel as Harry Truman and John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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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.

Carter Is Worse Than Clint

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-4-12

Bill Clinton was smart enough to keep Jimmy Carter, the Herbert Hoover of the Democratic Party, away from the 1996 Democratic National Convention; Barack Obama should have been equally wise. Instead, the ex-president will give a video address to Democratic delegates in Charlotte tonight, with the convention chair declaring Carter “one of the greatest humanitarian leaders of our time and a champion of democracy.” Not quite.

Throughout his 1992 campaign, then-Governor Clinton feared being branded ”another Jimmy Carter,” and proclaimed ”Jimmy Carter and I are as different as daylight and dark.” The Democrats’ invitation to Carter is as reckless as the Republicans’ invitation to Clint Eastwood. But if “Dirty Harry” undermined Republican dignity by trash-talking to an empty chair, Sanctimonious Jimmy has repeatedly threatened Democratic credibility by standing on a wobbly platform, kowtowing to dictators, and reminding voters of the modern era’s greatest Democratic presidential failure.

begin-carter-sadat-openz
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978 (Bill Fitz-Patrick / Jimmy Carter Library)

Between 1977 and 1981, Jimmy Carter inherited a country that was worried and left it demoralized, an economy that was sagging and left it limping, a foreign policy that was floundering and left it failing. Under his watch, Iran fell, inflation soared, and “malaise” became the buzzword of the moment, as Americans feared their power and prosperity were disappearing forever. Jimmy Carter helped spawn the Reagan Revolution, serving so usefully as the pathetic, impotent set-up man to Ronald Reagan’s vigorous, upbeat “Morning in America” routine.

As an ex-President, Carter has done some good, setting an example of public service—not private gain—and fighting disease in Africa, just as he had some presidential accomplishments, notably brokering the Camp David Peace Accords. But ex-President Carter spent too much time running for the Nobel Prize, playing a role more suited to the President of Europe than an American ex-President by catering to the Continent’s appeasement instincts. Carter seemingly never met a dictator he did not like, palling around with Yasser Arafat, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and the Chinese oligarchs, hugging Hamasniks, while toadying to Syria’s late dictator Hafez al-Assad in person and print—one chapter in Carter’s infamous book on the Middle East mostly rehashed his meetings with Assad, making the Syrian strongman seem like a likeable, peace-seeking fellow.

Of course, that book achieved the most notoriety because of its inflammatory, inaccurate, insulting title: “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.” In the book, Carter did not even bother making the case against Israel on those grounds, barely mentioning the word or adducing evidence. And when pressed, he innocently claimed he was not accusing Israel of racism or piling on with the demonizers against the Jewish State; to him, “Apartheid” meant apartness. As I wrote then, using the Apartheid label without seeking to impute racism would be like calling Carter a redneck and claiming it referred only to his tanning habits. Anyone unaware of the term’s resonance is not the Middle East expert Carter purports to be.

Barack Obama has tried to be the Democratic Reagan—healing America economically and transforming it ideologically—not Jimmy Carter redux, weakening America abroad and flailing economically at home. Obama has sought to demonstrate that he is not just pro-Israel, but he is sensitive to Israeli sensibilities. And Obama has worked to push American foreign policy beyond Carterite apologetics or Bushesque saber-rattling. Just as Repulicans did not feature former President George W. Bush at their convention last week in Tampa, Democrats could have not invited Carter. Instead, they handed Republicans a gift by honoring Carter at the convention, giving this presidential has-been center-stage when others such as Clinton did not. The Carter lovefest shows insensitivity to the buzzword of this year—the optics—not just with Israel but with American voters.

Just when Barack Obama must inspire Americans away from taking an “ABO”—Anybody but Obama—tack, it is counter-productive and self-destructive to highlight the prim, brittle, holier-than-thou, more-left-than-the-American-mainstream, far too European-oriented politician. As a candidate in 1980, Carter lost ten points in the polls just days before Election Day when Republicans took up the motto “ABC”—Anybody but Carter. That’s exactly how Ronald Reagan won.

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.

Don’t Make Israel a Wedge Issue in 2012

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-4-12

In his acceptance speech, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney charged that “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”  Beyond its vulgarity – stirring fears of statecraft by cliché – the statement is inaccurate and mischievous. “Under the bus” implies that Barack Obama has abandoned Israel, when the reality is more complicated. It also suggests Israel has suffered a catastrophic flattening blow, which is false. The throwaway line is yet another partisan attempt to make Israel a wedge issue in American politics, when support for the deep, enduring friendship between the United States and Israel should remain a bipartisan bedrock, a common foundation for each party’s foreign policy.

Public discourse about Israel, from friends and foes, is too hysterical. Many of Israel’s supporters have been so traumatized by the disproportionate attacks against Israel, the demonization of Zionism, the anti-Semitism underlying some criticism of Israel, and the existential nature of threats from Iran and others, that they exaggerate other critics’ hostility and the Jewish State’s vulnerability.

Not every criticism of Israel threatens Israel’s existence. Not every critic of Israel’s policies is “anti-Israel.” Barack Obama buys the pro-Israel’s Left tough-love toward Israel approach to solving the Palestinian problem and he occasionally offends Israeli sensibilities, including foolishly inviting Jimmy Carter to address the Democratic National Convention. Obama unfairly scapegoated Israeli settlements while excusing or overlooking Palestinian obstructionism. He broadcasts disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu while going wobbly sometimes on Mahmoud Abbas. He snubbed the Jewish State by not visiting it, visiting Buchenwald as compensation. He has not disavowed the hostile comments of the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, that he will not “be complicit” if Israel strikes Iran – and has unfairly fed the perception of Israelis as being too aggressive when he should be tougher on Iran.

Still, Obama is not “anti-Israel.” He stood strong for Israel when Egyptian mobs overran Israel’s Cairo embassy, defended Israel in the UN, and strengthened US-Israeli military cooperation in key areas too.

Calling someone who supports Israel’s right to exist yet criticizes its policies “anti-Israel,” foolishly emboldens the delegitimizers. It suggests more people are anti-Israel than actually are. Israel “love it or leave it” talk makes Israel seem more fragile and hostile to criticism than it is. It mirrors and reinforces the Is-crits’ tendency to escalate discussion about Israel’s policies from constructively debating government policies to pathologically questioning the country’s very existence.

Unfortunately, there are enough anti-Israel Iranians, Palestinians, and, I regret to say, Progressives, who question Jew’s basic rights to national self-determination. We should repudiate those Arafatian Ahmadinejads and their fellow travelers, not a president who takes some positions I reject but are within the mainstream spectrum of Israeli, Jewish and American opinion.

This panicky, histrionic, all-or-nothing, debate about whether Obama is “pro” or “anti” Israel overly sentimentalizes and politicizes the American-Israeli friendship. This tendency goes back to 1948, when Eddie Jacobson lobbied President Harry Truman, his old army buddy and business partner, to support the emerging Jewish State. But sentiment rarely dictates statesmanship. Truman supported the Jewish State for many sound political and geopolitical reasons too. These included the 1948 election race, common values, seeking to solve the “Jewish problem” after the Holocaust, a desire for democratic allies in the Middle East as the Cold War heated up, and — as the historian and diplomat Michael Oren detailed in his authoritative Power, Faith, and Fantasy:  America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present – American presidents’ longstanding bipartisan commitment to Zionism.

Since 1948, that friendship has flourished, and transcends any individual, even America’s president. As the Republicans’ 2012 platform reads, “Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel, grounded in shared interests and shared values, and a clear, strong fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.” Oops. That is the Democrats’ 2008 platform.  The Republicans wrote: “The security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States; our alliance is based not only on shared interests, but also shared values.”

This language overlap shows that the American-Israel friendship is not precariously perched on artificial Astroturf, imposed by some powerful lobby or buffeted by changing presidential whims. Rather, the American-Israel alliance is natural, deep-seeded, sprouting from the grassroots and mutually beneficial to both countries.

Polls, political statements and policies indicate that Israel remains extremely popular among most Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans have a Pat Buchanan anti-Israel isolationist wing while the Democrats have a Jesse Jackson anti-Israel radical left wing, proving that, like the globe itself, the political world is round; at the extremes the zanies meet.

Unfortunately, since the far Democratic Left deemed almost anything George W. Bush embraced as toxic, too many radical Democrats have branded Israel a right-wing, neoconservative project. Not enough pro-Israel Democrats have confronted their far left peers’ neo-conning of Israel. Someone with impeccable leftwing credentials should expose the underlying prejudices of the new anti-Zionist Left, just as the iconic conservative William F. Buckley confronted Pat Buchanan’s anti-Israel, anti-Semitism on the Right in 1991. Democrats should admit that too many anti-Israel voices have found a welcoming home in their party.

Nevertheless, American political parties are broad umbrella coalitions. No candidate can be responsible for everyone sitting in one particular tent. While pro-Israel Democrats should purge their extremists, pro-Israel Republicans should avoid overly politicizing the Israel file. Making Israel a wedge issue, caricaturing Obama as “anti-Israel,” is untrue and counter-productive.

Let’s debate the candidates’ proposed policies and strategies. Let’s avoid loyalty oaths, denunciations, and recriminations. And let’s insist that the 2012 winner stop Iran’s nuclearization, for America’s safety not just Israel’s.

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.

Announcement: Gil Troy, Open Zion 2.0

Open Zion 2.0

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Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-4-12

By , 9-4-12

When Open Zion launched a few months ago, it had three staffers: myself and two enormously talented recent college graduates, Elisheva Goldberg and Raphael Magarik. With their combination of intellectual curiosity, tireless energy, commitment to the Jewish people and passion for justice and human dignity, Elisheva and Raffi helped launch a blog whose traffic has grown five-fold since its creation. Sadly for me, however, I always knew that they would not stay more than a year, and both have now gone to Israel, where they are working on behalf of the same liberal democratic Zionist vision that lies at the core of this blog. Luckily, they will both continue to write for us from there.

Starting today, we inaugurate a new Open Zion team. It starts with Gil Troy. Gil is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of history at McGill University. He’s also author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and the forthcoming Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism. He has been a frequent contributor to Open Zion over the past few months, and now joins us as editor-at-large. Joining Gil is Ali Gharib, most recently national security reporter for thinkprogress.org, the website of the Center for American Progress, who will join the site as senior editor. We are also lucky to be joined by assistant editor Sigal Samuel, a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia who has worked at the Jerusalem Post and the American Jewish World Service.

Open Zion is an experiment. It is a blog with a passionate commitment to Jewish identity, Jewish culture and Jewish religion that believes just as passionately that the debate about the future of the Jewish state should be open to everyone, whether they share that background and commitment or not. It is a blog whose core belief is that justice, dignity and safety for both Israelis and Palestinians requires a division of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean into two democratic states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. Yet it welcomes opposing views, believing that the principles of liberal Zionism cannot be simply assumed, but must rather be defended in respectful discussion with critics from both left and right. In our short existence, we have tried to live those principles, publishing writers as diverse as the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset from Likud, Danny Danon. As we said in our founding statement, we do not draw red lines; we debate them.

Gil, Ali and Sigal continue this commitment to serious, lively debate among people of varying perspectives and backgrounds. Gil is an historian of American politics, a scholar of Zionism, an observant Jew, a resident of Jerusalem and a keen observer of Israeli society and its relationship with the diaspora. Ali is a devoted secularist raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC by parents who fled the Iranian revolution. He is also among the most astute bloggers on American politics, Middle Eastern politics, and the intersection between the two writing today. Sigal was born in Montreal to a family of Mizrahi Jewish descent, studied in yeshivas in both Israel and North America, and now writes about Jewish texts, feminist theory and arts and culture.

With Americans debating whom to elect president, Israelis debating war with Iran and Palestinians debating another statehood bid at the United Nations, this promises to be a dramatic, divisive, and perhaps terrifying, fall. With Gil, Ali and Sigal’s help, our goal is to continue to create a space that surrounds these dramas with criticism, analysis and intense but civil debate. We hope that on Twitter and Facebook and through comment threads and reader submissions, you’ll join in.

Peter Beinart is editor in chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future at The Daily Beast. He is the author of The Crisis of Zionism (Times Books).