Finding Members Of The Tribe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-10-12

During a Sukkot week excursion to London, my family and I were repeatedly Bageled—American Jewish slang for when a fellow Jew who has figured out you are Jewish, makes the Jewish connection, usually using insider language—a shanah tovah here, a shabbat shalom there. We also, inevitably, crossed paths with many Israelis and therefore coined another expression. To Crembo is to start speaking Hebrew to an Israeli whom you have overheard using the Jewish people’s old-new mother tongue. (Crembos are a distinctive Israeli treat, only served in the autumn and winter, offering mini-mountains of vanilla crème sitting on a cookie base encased in a thin layer of chocolate).

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

Bageling and Cremboing are particularist peoplehood moments, moments when we break through the usual armor of anonymity we carry around with us in public and click with another human being. But while we can affirm our common humanity with just about anybody—and when traveling do that too—Bageling and Cremboing capture the particular joy we share when we discover what we called an “MoT” when growing up in New York—a member of the tribe.

A central tenet of Zionism is that Judaism is not just a religion; Jews are a people, a nation, with ties to a particular homeland. Especially in elite progressive circles, the validity of Jewish nationalism is often challenged. At a recent brainstorming session about how to revitalize Zionism, I recommended inviting Jews to take Zionism personally, meaning to create a nationalist vision that works for them. One progressive deemed my words “nationalistic” and therefore “right wing.” The attack prompted me to quote Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and other leading progressives about the joys of patriotism—joys which politically effective liberals know they cannot renounce.

But my progressive colleague was reflecting the trendiest of thoughts which are an obstacle in discussing Zionism.  Many elite American Jews, in particular, are enthralled by a faux cosmopolitanism, a belief that universalism is good; nationalism is bad, with Jewish nationalism somehow getting the brunt of the critique. If we are to nurture a new, revitalized Zionist discourse for the 21st century—an Open Zion if you will—we must confront this distaste for Jewish particularism and this false god of universalism, which has been luring Jews for over two centuries now.

Fortunately, leading thinkers are tackling both these tigers. In his massive new volume, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel,” Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University shows how the negation of Jewish nationalism—singled out among all nationalisms—and this Jewish craving for universalism have been building blocks of the left, and of leftist anti-Semitism (not just anti-Zionism). My friend Daniel Gordis’s new book, “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength” celebrates Israel as a model of particularism, a beacon for the 21st century, showing how having a deep, multidimensional, vital national identity leads to personal satisfaction, communal cohesion, and good deeds individually and collectively. Gordis argues, convincingly, that the Arab Spring and the Palestinian national movement will succeed best if Arabs try mastering and mimicking the Israel model, combining a democracy tolerant of diversity with a proud particularist national-religious culture, rather than trying to recreate the American “tower of babel,” which Gordis, the sociologist Robert Bellah and others show often leads to individual rootlessness, loneliness, and alienation. And the legendary Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has declared that he will dedicate the rest of his career to bridging the gap between Jewish particularists and universalists—challenging Orthodox Jews to emerge from their intellectual bubbles and embrace what Western thought offers while challenging universalist Jews to emerge from their own constrained virtual reality and appreciate what having a rich, traditional Jewish identity can offer as well.

Gordis, Sacks and others are standing on the works of other great modern thinkers, especially Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor, who teach that nationalism is a neutral tool, able to help or hurt, and that human beings crave community and most often thrive as anchored communitarians not alienated individualists.

On a more basic level, my family’s British experience was enhanced because all our Bageling and Cremboing paid off.  Stumbling in as wandering Jews, we were hosted magnificently at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue, welcomed and honored at the services, invited to meals in the synagogue’s sukkah and in a private home, and made to feel absolutely special. As two of my children and I spontaneously became the 17th, 18th and 19th guests at an Israeli’s table at the end of the holiday, I went up quietly, apologetically, to our hostess, offering to drink a quick l’chaim and run. “Of course not,” she said, “it’s Simchat Torah—and you are welcome.” And, of course, she and her family would be welcome in our home too, with bagels, crembos—and even the kind of four course meal we were lucky enough to enjoy with them, our fellow MoTs.

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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Despite the Eilat tragedy, Israel programs heal

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-9-12

Last week’s Eilat tragedy is a nightmare scenario those of us working in informal education dread.  A troubled participant on an extended Israel experience program, William Hershkovitz, murdered Armando Abed, a 33-year-old sous-chef at Eilat’s Leonard Club hotel, in a workplace dispute. Security forces then shot and killed Hershkovitz.  Acting responsibly, the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky promised a full inquiry into how this troubled young man ended up on the “Israel Way” program, which is part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s successful Masa initiative, which has subsidized 70,000 young Jews’ extended stays in Israel since 2003.

I can save Sharansky and his JAFI colleagues time and money. The only inquiry really required should scrutinize the hotel’s security training — if initial reports are accurate and Hershkovitz wrestled the gun away from a security guard. Beyond that, neither the Jewish Agency nor “Israel Way” is responsible. Moreover, I regret to say, a repeat of such violence, while as rare and anomalous as this first incident, is not really preventable.

Modern Western civilization craves order, abhors messiness and takes the smooth functioning of life for granted.  When something goes wrong, we demand explanations, establish commissions, and try to prevent a recurrence. But screening procedures for such programs are necessarily cursory – resources are limited, the focus is on recruitment more than rejection, and, as in all successful educational interactions, goodwill is generally assumed.<

Examining the far more rigorous college selection process also proves that these processes are not predictors.  Some troubled people are well-practiced in covering up their violent tendencies. Sometimes, disturbed behavior emerges abruptly, with little warning.  Moreover, the mental health crisis is so acute among young people today that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the many unhappy ones from the violently disturbed.

We tend to overlook it in two worlds I inhabit – the Israel program world and the university universe – but those of us working with twenty-somethings are working with masses of emotionally fragile young people. So many of our program participants and students have scarred psyches, are traumatized by broken families, and take psychotropic drugs just to endure.  We are experiencing but mostly ignoring epidemic levels of loneliness, rootlessness, alienation, anxiety, depression, and all kinds of dysfunction. My friends who are university mental health counselors, camp directors, social workers or psychologists working with this age group are deeply worried.  By contrast, universities in particular appear to be in denial about this widespread and acute problem.

At first glance, this epidemic does not make sense. Even amid this prolonged recession, our society is the wealthiest and freest society in history. Never before have so many people enjoyed so much autonomy, so much prosperity, so many toys, so many prerogatives. This good life and these extraordinary liberties were supposed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, not the spread of misery.

But something is seriously wrong. Too many are overdosing on ultimately unsatisfying indulgences, on alienating technologies, on illusory consumer choices.

In many ways, Israel programs are responses to this mass misery. The programs do occasionally stress some participants and Israel experiences cannot substitute for the serious psychological counseling some need. But as facilitators in the process of identity formation, the programs’ popularity stems from their widespread success in propelling most participants on journeys toward greater rootedness, deeper meaning, and more fulfilling lives.

Natan Sharansky himself has written so eloquently in his 2008 book Defending Identity about the way being a part of a larger communal story helps anchor individuals, most of whom ultimately want their lives to count for something significant, grander than simply surviving.

In his latest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually its Greatest Strength, my friend Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes the powerful case for Zionism itself, saying that Israel stands for a vision of enriching, anchoring, traditional particularism rather than empty, alienating, modernist universalism.  Gordis shows how embracing a national model, in this case a Jewish national model, is actually the most effective way to build a life of idealism that does the world good. By being comfortable in your own skin, by being connected to your own people, by buying into your own particular values framework, you can then change the world for the better, and service humanity – working with your communal comrades and building on enduring traditions.

Positing a Zionist response to North American emptiness requires subtlety not arrogance. Every individual has a biography and no one’s personal misery should become cannon fodder for ideologues.  Moreover, championing this aspect of Zionist ideology as an answer to a North American challenge should not send Zionist ideologues back to the old negating-the-Diaspora model. A true partnership encourages constructive criticism as well as splendid synthesis. Just as Zionism seeks an ideal mix of the best of the West and the gems of Judaism, so, too, both the Israeli and North American Jewish communities should seek to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Still, there is a cost to the identity annihilation, to the cutting of ties, that the American sociologist Robert Bellah has identified as the defining model for maturing in America, especially among elites.  The notion that growing up entails going beyond tradition, family, values, community rather than growing into them has helped spread this psychic stress.

So, yes, the commission investigating the Eilat murder should do its work. But the commission should not overreact and burden Israel programs with unnecessary, unwieldy admissions procedures that cannot predict that which remains unpredictable. And the commission must remember that these anchoring, orienting, meaning-seeking, Israel programs are offering important, compelling, creative solutions to the broader problem which so many responsible adults are simply ignoring or denying.

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.