Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is truly Canadian


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-22-12

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has done it again. By confronting Iran, he has championed Canadian values, and democracy. It’s ironic that one of the criticisms of his assertive, affirmative foreign policy is that it is somehow “not Canadian.” Fighting evil and refusing to maintain business as usual, even to the point of withdrawing your diplomats, marks a fulfilment of Canadian ideals, not a violation of them. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the Iranian mullocracy disrespect peace, order and good government. Canada’s controversial, principled prime minister has once again showed that he understands what each of those core concepts means.

Actually, we should ask the opposite question. What made serious, good, idealistic Canadians start believing that appeasement was the Canadian way? Diplomacy is, of course, a noble pursuit. And peace is preferable to war. But history teaches that frequently strength, morality and vision are the best guarantors of peace – especially when facing evil, ambitious, greedy powers. As every parent knows, giving in often makes unacceptable behaviours worse, not better.

Canadian academics and politicians took a lead role in trying to heal the world after the horrors of World War II. The Canadian contribution to the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with McGill University’s John Peters Humphrey taking the lead, is a justifiable source of pride to Canadians. Similarly, Lester Pearson did great work in teaching the world that human rights standards should be universal and that peace can be achieved through what Winston Churchill called “jaw jaw” not “war war.”

But Pearson was no relativist. Among his great achievements was helping the world recognize its obligation to support the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine in the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan. Supporting the initiative entailed taking a stand, articulating a moral position and rocking the boat. Similarly, when he said in his speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that “ideas are explosive,” Pearson was acknowledging the power of ideas, while admitting that some ideas can be forces for good, even as others can be extremely harmful.

Unfortunately, the cataclysmic 1960s upset the moral compass of many of Pearson’s and Humphrey’s successors. As the United Nations degenerated from the world’s democracies’ attempt to spread democratic principles worldwide into the Third World dictators’ debating society, many in the West lost heart. Rather than defending the universality of certain key principles such as human rights, they succumbed as a crass coalition of Soviets, Arabs and Third World Communists politicized and thus polluted the human rights apparatus in the UN and elsewhere.

On Nov. 10, 1975, when the U.S. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan – a Stephen Harper precursor – stood strong against the “Zionism is racism” resolution, he was making a stand against the new perverted world order that was emerging. Saul Rae, father of interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae and the Canadian ambassador to the UN at the time, supported Moynihan and denounced the infamous antisemitic and anti-democratic resolution.

But the resolution passed, and the appeasers caved.

Since the 1960s, many in the West have been more guilt-ridden than principled. Suitably abashed at the West’s culpability in an earlier era’s crimes of colonialism, imperialism and racism, many have refused to stand up to the new criminals of today, because they’re still seeking forgiveness for those earlier sins. But a moral inversion has occurred, as some of the victims have become victimizers, which is what is occurring with Islamist terrorists and the Iranians.

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian mullahs have harassed their own people, devastated their own economy and violated their own culture’s character. Moreover, they violated centuries-long international rules by kidnapping and holding American diplomats hostage, they entered into a bloody war with Iraq that caused more than one million deaths, and they have threatened Israel – and the United States – with destruction. Persian civilization was sophisticated, disciplined, and tolerant for its day. Iranian Islamism has been crude, violent and infamously intolerant in an increasingly tolerant era. Now, this outlaw regime is seeking nuclear weapons, and progressing rapidly in its perverse quest.

I confess: I don’t get it. How is it progressive or peace-seeking or in any way Canadian to indulge these monsters in their immoral pursuits? We need to echo Moynihan in his eloquent denunciations. And we need to follow Harper’s way, refusing to conduct “business as usual” with regimes that are unnaturally evil.

Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel


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.

PQ ethnocentrism could bring Jews and Muslims together


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Call me a proud ‘Zionist firebrand’


By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, 6-22-12

A blogger on the Maclean’s magazine website has deemed me a “Zionist  firebrand” – and it was most assuredly not intended as a compliment. “Firebrand” is Canadian for extremist, fanatic, a most non-academic and far too aggressively American combatant in the Middle East wars.

My crime, apparently, was writing a “fiery” defence of a delegation of Canadian comedians who were heckled in east Jerusalem. Their crime, apparently, was mentioning the word “Israel” in front of a group of Palestinians in east Jerusalem.

The story begins in Toronto, when Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuks chain of comedy clubs, decided he wanted to help the Jewish state. “I could write a cheque,” he explained to me, “but so could a dentist.” He wanted to use his particular skills as a comedian and an entertainment entrepreneur to help Israel.

He therefore decided to lead a delegation of six young talented comedians to Israel on a goodwill tour, which took place in June and was sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In the spirit of a good comedian, who knows no boundaries – geographic or verbal – and abhors censorship, when he heard that few comedians play east Jerusalem, he volunteered to bring his troupe there.

The comedians appeared in east Jerusalem on a Friday night and ran into trouble immediately. Within seven seconds, Sam Easton was heckled. In typical comedians’ style of acknowledging the site of their gig, Easton, the MC for the evening, had begun by saying, “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

People hissed and booed. They shouted out “Palestine.” At least one person shouted that Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. The next comedian, Jean Paul, also was attacked for telling an innocuous joke – what does a polite Israeli magician say? TO-dah!  Some westerners in the audience called Jean Paul, a black man, “racist” for making the joke. Some Canadian diplomats attending told Breslin that Israel “stole” Palestinian land.

My supposedly “fiery” response involved chiding the Palestinians for forgetting the Middle East tradition of welcoming strangers and suggesting that this kind of Palestinian intolerance and rudeness made Israeli democracy look good.

The Canadian comedians were innocent non-combatants. We should not become so inured to conflict that we accept the politicization of every evening and every innocent joke. So, yes, if defending these kind comedians, who meant no harm, makes me a “Zionist firebrand,” I will wear that designation proudly. And if defending the Jewish state makes me “fiery” and non-academic, I accept those labels too.

But it’s worth exploring the underlying subtext here. At work is the delegitimizers’ delegitimization of the legitimizers. Part of the systematic strategy to attack Israel, isolate Israel, read Israel out of the community of nations, involves making the very act of defending Israel illegitimate. If any defence of Israel, no matter how innocuous, is labelled extreme, the defence of Israel is undermined. And using the term “Zionist” pejoratively, in a world that increasingly demonizes the movement for Jewish national liberation, makes the attack more dismissive.

These attacks often have a chilling effect, putting defenders on the defensive. If I were untenured, or more sensitive, I might be intimidated – which was the intention. Instead, I wear the attacks as a badge of honour – and call out the attackers for their methods. I am a Zionist – not merely an anti-anti-Zionist. And I make no apologies for my passion, even as I back it up with evidence and reason.

On a deeper level, this incident offered a classic example of the pathologization of Israel. If every trip to Israel becomes controversial, if every conversation about Israel becomes headache-inducing, we lose and the anti-Israel forces win. The true, important, resonant headlines about the comedians’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with their rude treatment in east Jerusalem. These comedians loved Israel – they loved the spirituality of Jerusalem, the normalcy of Tel Aviv, the Israelis’ indomitable spirit. They laughed and learned from the Dead Sea to Masada, from the ancient tunnels of Jerusalem’s Western Walls to the chic shops of Tel Aviv’s Kikar Ha’atzmaut.

In short, as the boyish, charming, exuberant Easton said: “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

So will other visitors, both Jews and non-Jews.

This column appears in the June 28 print issue of The CJN

No, McGill is not antisemitic


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-28-12

An e-mail sent to me and copied to McGill’s principal Heather Munroe-Blum grabbed my attention. It contained a forwarded article headlined “McGill University’s Rampant, Historic, and Current Anti-Semitism,” which concluded that “Antisemitism is clearly engrained into the culture at McGill University, and any proud Jew wouldn’t go anywhere near the university.”

As a proud Jew associated with the university for more than 20 years, knowing that it is led by another proud Jew whose first public letter to the McGill community eloquently denounced antisemitism, I thought the issue required investigation.

The article’s author certainly had grounds for being furious. The trigger was an outrageous smear in the McGill Daily that ran this past March calling Israel “The Land of Milk and Heroin.” This latest anti-Israel libel accused the Jewish state of encouraging heroin addiction among Palestinians, especially in Jerusalem. This article belongs to a genre we can call “Israel as bogeyman,” which seeks to blame the Jewish state for any problem even vaguely associated with the Middle East or Israel’s existence. Such delegitimization and hatred reeks of antisemitism, with its extremism and essentialism.

The version of the article I read online was already sanitized, shorn of its most offensive statements, thanks to the effective response of Michelle Whiteman, Quebec regional director of HonestReporting Canada. As she explained in a Times of Israel blog entry, HonestReporting confronted the Daily, and even though the paper only ran a heavily edited letter from HonestReporting six weeks later, it cleaned up the article online, partially.

Gone were such absurd, unfounded libels, based on “Palestine TV’s arguments,” that “Israeli authorities are actually responsible for encouraging and facilitating heroin use among Arabs for political reasons.” Still, pathetic, inaccurate faux anthropological insights abounded, such as the claim that “drug abuse is often found burgeoning in regions facing political conflict, with rates of addiction rising during times of both physical and structural conflict – it is seen as being a defence strategy to cope with insecurity and violence.” How this “insight” explains the spike in heroin addiction during the prosperous 1960s in the West or the fact that Israeli Jews and Arabs have similar rates of heroin addiction – except among Arab women, where it plummets – is beyond me.

Still, while the article was heavily biased against Israel, and while I understand the historic resonance of antisemitism fuelling such smears, and while I recoil from the blatant antisemitism in the Arab world that is now, to my horror, shaping the conversation on too many college campuses, that does not make McGill an antisemitic institution.

For starters, the McGill Daily is known on campus for frequently running shoddy, provocative, extreme, “politically correct” articles. Despite being a professor who rarely turns away from a good ideological battle, I won’t lower myself to responding to Daily articles. I was thrilled that HonestReporting did – although I wish McGill students themselves had done it, as some did in the online comments. Second, the Daily is a student-run publication that does not represent McGill University in any way. Finally, McGill has a thriving Jewish student life, many Jewish students, professsors and administrators, a first-rate Judaic studies department, an impressive Hillel, and an exciting, student-run Ghetto shul – attributes that make it one of the most welcoming campuses for Jews.

The bigger issue here is the shrillness of debate about Israel. Again and again, so many of Israel’s opponents seem utterly incapable of making a nuanced argument when it comes to the Middle East. Israel is demonized in multiple ways worldwide. In response, I regret to say, some of Israel’s defenders also overreact. When our allies in the fight for Israel unfairly call an institution such as McGill “antisemitic,” we all suffer. It undermines our credibility. When I have seen antisemitism, I have fought it, passionately, and have the professional scars to show for it. But when I see false and extreme accusations, even when I understand the pain underlying it, I also have to respond.

And let me be clear: my response is not only tactical, made because we might look bad. We need to set the highest standards for the pro-Israel community, demanding truth, consistency, nuance and accuracy. Hysteria hurts us, distracting us from the real issues and the bigger problems. It also alienates us from our environment unnecessarily, blinding us to potential allies and even to true friends.

The genius behind Tel Aviv’s towers


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-2-12

In Tel Aviv on March 22, hundreds of Israelis gathered at Israel’s Tel Aviv Exhibition-Gardens to honour the great Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur David Azrieli.

At 90 years young, David still dazzles, making his mark in business and philanthropy. The man who brought the indoor mall to Israel – and coined the term for it, kanyon – continues to initiate projects while setting new standards in charitable giving in Canada and Israel.

David is of that extraordinary Holocaust generation that not only survived, not only thrived in the New World, but improved it. Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, he escaped into Russia, survived getting shot, and eventually took the land route into Palestine, aided by another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. After studying at the Technion, he fought during the War of Independence, travelled abroad and arrived in Canada in 1954. While working as a melamed, a Hebrew-school teacher, he entered the wild world of real estate. One of those successful, hardworking, driven, visionary tycoons who makes it look easy – but outlasted many others who failed – he built an empire in Canada, the United States and Israel.

Along the way, David also built a beautiful family with his amazing wife, Stephanie, and four extraordinary children – my prejudice as a family friend shines through – while giving back as a community leader, heading the Canadian Zionist movement for many years. David has always proudly proclaimed himself a Zionist, embodying the Zionist values of self-reliance, forward-thinking and constructive action. An avid art collector, David is now applying his endless energy and broad vision to the world of charitable giving. News reports when the Azrieli Group in Israel went public estimated that he and his family may contribute one billion dollars to his foundation.

Successful philanthropy requires spending money intelligently, not just giving it generously. Two of the Azrieli Foundation’s signature projects prove that the insight that made David Israel’s Master Builder is now helping him to become the Jewish world’s Great Strategic Giver. In 2001, he published his memoirs, with his co-author and daughter, Danna Azrieli, as One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950. The experience proved so meaningful for him and his family that he decided to help others produce quality memoirs, too. The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program now humanizes the Holocaust victims “one story at a time,” allowing survivors without David’s resources to share their legacy with their heirs.

Similar empathy and creativity is being used to fight the problem of high school dropouts in Israel. When briefed about the challenges of keeping kids in school, David asked the critical question – when do we lose them? He discovered that most high school dropouts are “born,” if you will, in the frustrations of junior high. As a result, the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment has created a network of community centres in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere that assist young, overwhelmingly poor learners early in the educational process, so they can feel good about themselves entering high school.

Beyond the headlines, I have had the pleasure of knowing David as a loving family man, a warm presence, a sophisticated analyst, a probing conversationalist. Sixteen and a half years ago, when I was far more familiar with his reputation as a tough businessman than with his gentle scholarly soul, my wife – who grew up with his daughters – and I introduced him to our oldest daughter, who was about four months old then. David zeroed in on her, engaged her with his delighted smile, whipped out a camera, snapped off a roll of pictures, popped the film out of camera and gave it to us.  I had simply never seen a 74-year-old gush so much over a baby, nor had anyone simply handed me a roll of film like that before – in the pre-digital era, it was simply not done.

Whenever I drive into Tel Aviv, I am entranced by the three tall, sleek towers David built, which have become, surveys tell us, among Israel’s most defining icons. I marvel at their modernity, at the pioneering spirit behind them, at the constructive, entrepreneurial Zionism they epitomize. And I cherish the private moments my family and I have shared with the genius behind the towers, a modern-day David demonstrating the same reach, ambition and joyous abandon for which that great ancient king was known.

Fighting anti-Israel week with historical facts


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 2-9-12

As some universities brace for the annual spring round of anti-Israel weeks, which falsely accuse Israel of the great crimes committed by South African apartheid racists, we must put this absurdity in historical perspective. For starters, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a national one, not a racial one. The false comparison between what happens in the Middle East today with what non-whites experienced under South Africa’s apartheid regime, dishonours the suffering blacks in South Africa endured. Anyone who perpetuates the big lie accusing Israel of practising apartheid or claiming that Zionism is racism is simply passing on Soviet propaganda that has outlived its maker. In that spirit, let’s contemplate the African-American community’s response in 1975 to the United Nations General Assembly resolution claiming that Zionism is racism.

The day after the resolution passed, on Nov. 11, 1975, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group of 32 leading American Jewish organizations, organized a noontime “rally against racism and antisemitism” in Manhattan. Many blacks attended the rally, and three important African-American leaders spoke: Percy Sutton, a famous lawyer and politician; Clarence Mitchell, a veteran NAACP official, and the activist Bayard Rustin. Many in the black civil rights community resented the Arabs hijacking their language and sloppily misapplying it to the Middle East.

“Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” wrote Vernon Jordan, the then-40-year-old president of the National Urban League. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words like ‘forced busing,’ ‘law and order,’ and others, can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for antisemitism.” Jordan, a Southern-born lawyer, based his case against the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardi Jews.

One African-American speaker in particular, Bayard Rustin, stole the show. Born in 1912, a Communist during the Great Depression, a pacifist and draft resister during World War II, a gay activist long before it was safe to be one, and a labour union organizer, Rustin coached his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., in Mahatma Gandhi’s ethos of non-violence. Rustin believed in “social dislocation and creative trouble.” Nicknamed “Mr. March,” Rustin helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, meeting Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly thereafter on the civil rights circuit. Rustin worked closely with Jews, championing Israel as a democratic sentry surrounded by Middle East dictatorships. Rustin knew how much Jews wanted black support for Zionism in refuting the UN’s racism charge, and he happily provided it.

Rustin considered the resolution “an insult to the generations of blacks who have struggled against real racism.” In his newspaper column, he described the “incalculable damage” done to the fight against racism when the word becomes a “political weapon” rather than a moral standard. Rooting anti-Zionism in the ugly intersection between traditional antisemitism and the Arab desire to eradicate Israel, Rustin quoted Rev. King, a strong supporter of Israel, who said:  “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking antisemitism.”

Rustin and others also feared distraction from the anti-apartheid fight. Before the vote, 28 African-American intellectuals appealed to the General Assembly to bury this “extraneous issue.” The scholars warned that a taint of antisemitism around the broader mission “will heavily compromise African hopes of expunging apartheid from the world.”

Given his roots in the labour movement, Rustin resented the Arabs’ hypocrisy, considering their traditional contempt for black labourers. At the rally, Rustin noted Arabs’ historic involvement in the African slave trade. “Shame on them!” he shouted.  “[They] are the same people who enslaved my people.”

Tall and handsome, with his Afro sticking up and looming over his high forehead, Rustin ended his speech by bursting into song, singing Go Down Moses. As thousands of New Yorkers, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, joined in shouting “Let my people go,” the black and Jewish experiences reached a harmonic convergence.

We need to learn our history. We need to learn the facts. We need to fight the apartheid libel with the truth.

And we need to challenge Palestinians to devote a week to celebrating their own nationalism rather than focusing on destroying Israel and denigrating Zionism.

A Rosh Hashanah lesson


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-15-11

On July 15, Ronnie Cahana, the 57-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal’s Town of Mount Royal, suffered a massive stroke in his brainstem. He now lies immobilized in the Montreal Neurological Institute, unable to talk, walk or even wave.

Yet, his mind is intact and his spirit is soaring, and from his hospital bed, Rabbi Cahana is teaching his devoted congregants, his loving family and the rest of us, about the soul’s power and Judaism’s deeper meaning, even when we lose the physical, the material. “I live in a broken place,” he said when stricken, “but there’s holy work to do.”

Rabbi Cahana’s body is in trouble. A ventilator and other tubes do for him what most of us do naturally. Nevertheless, he may be the healthiest – and happiest – person I know. “Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis,” he preaches. “To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Before the stroke, this gangly, 6’2 Houston-born rabbi was the least Texan Texan, and the most unconventional Conservative rabbi, I knew – I befriended Ronnie and his amazing wife, Karen, decades ago in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement.

A dazzling personality, both vital and ethereal, as well as a passionate Jew and perpetual seeker, Rabbi Cahana has never done small talk. He makes even the most casual interaction intense and intimate. Watching him with his congregants and his family is wondrous. His “How are you?” is never perfunctory. Rather, it’s a sincere probe, asking whether you’re getting the most out of your life, nurturing fulfilling relationships while benefiting from the kind of profound interaction he enjoys with Judaism and God.

Visiting the bedridden rabbi, you brace for heartbreak and emerge uplifted. He mouths words – or laboriously blinks them out. When no one can read his lips, he closes his eyes, and someone starts reciting “a, b, c…” He opens his eyes at the desired letter. The “Blinkischer Rebbe,” as Karen calls him, blinks out stirring weekly sermons, greeting congregants from his “subterranean world,” urging them to use the blow he sustained to experience life and Judaism in new dimensions.

“I know the end will be good,” this rabbinic Stephen Hawking insists. “I did not lose anything. I gained.”

All summer, Rabbi Cahana has bathed in his extraordinary family’s love and laughter – he and Karen have five fabulous children, ages 14 to 23. Karen says it’s hard to despair when he’s so positive, when he delights in “feeling” every prayer for him, “visiting” with his late father, renewing his relationship to Judaism and God by painstakingly re-learning each mitzvah, bringing new meaning to each commandment.

On Tisha b’Av he fasted, demanding that his feeding tube be shut down. Every weekday morning, he puts on tfillin at the same time his congregants do.

“Finding spiritual paths in the hospital while vulnerable and fragile,” he blinked to them, provides “a great delight of the day… I hear the tone, rhythm, the light banter, music and join you. I know our sounds and I listen to your voices. Our prayers are good and honest, and God looks favourably on the kind.”

Currently, he can only wear the head phylacteries. This, he calls “the most healing of privileges. The retzuot [straps] course through the whole body… from the mind. Crown encircles the cranium. In the holiest of holies, the kesher, which we believe lies contiguously off of Hashem’s holy kesher knot, sits on the brainstem to heal, to repair, to purify the world.”

This year, I witnessed the miracles that can occur despite catastrophic brain trauma after my father took a serious fall and recovered remarkably. Rabbi Cahana has already progressed much faster than the doctors predicted. This Rosh Hashanah – as those who can rally around the Cahana family, bombarding them with the love and support they need – we should also learn from the Blinkischer Rebbe’s teaching.

Let us follow him, temporarily, voluntarily, into the realm of the purely spiritual, the world of the soul, his transcendent universe of pure Jewish thought and emotion. And let us return less complacent and more compassionate, less tense and more intense, less alone and more loving, learning that whatever this next year brings, “the end will be good.”

Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

We love you, Charles Bronfman (In Honor of his 80th Birthday)

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-16-11

At an intimate birthday dinner in Jerusalem at the end of May, the president of Israel, Shimon Peres, had a formidable task.
The golden-tongued Peres had to honour a personal friend of 60 years, a man who is a cherished friend to Israel, the Jewish People, and citizens of Canada and the United States. He had to find a fresh and meaningful way to capture the emotions in the room as we toasted a visionary philanthropist who has been honoured again and again with honorary doctorates, the Order of Canada and honorary citizenship status from Jerusalem.

Smart and sophisticated enough to know that, sometimes, it is best to trust simplicity and sincerity, Peres, brimming with emotion, welcomed Charles Bronfman to the exclusive club of vital, vibrant, inspiring octogenarians, and said: “We love you, Charles.” Peres’ soft-spoken delivery and Polish-accented “r,” elongating the name nobly, made the name “Charrrrles” sound like the loftiest of titles.

And it’s so true.

We love you, Charles, as Montrealers, because of the devotion you showed the city during its darkest hour. By keeping the Montreal Expos alive when you did, you were investing in the city where your father launched your legendary family’s many heroic accomplishments. And by supporting McGill and Concordia universities so generously, you helped Anglo life continue to thrive, not just survive.

We love you, Charles, as Canadians, because your Canadian foundation’s CRB Heritage Minutes not only educate Canadians about the past but offer a model of public education, proving that not everything popular and compelling need be superficial or stupid.

We love you, Charles, as Americans, because, spurred by your beloved late wife, Andrea, you helped us heal after the mass murders of Sept. 11. Andy’s initiative, “The Gift of New York,” giving free museum, culture, and sports tickets to 9/11 families, not only embraced the families brutalized by Islamist terrorism, it helped revive the New York cultural scene after the mass trauma, reminding Americans to define New York by the institutions that make it live, not the evildoers who marked so many for death.

We love you, Charles, as Israelis, because your Keren Karev is like a magic wand waved up and down the country, making once-ugly sites beautiful and turning seemingly intractable social and educational problems into opportunities to help people by pioneering creative, cutting-edge solutions.

We love you, Charles, as Jews, because your Taglit-Birthright Israel program has now launched more than 250,000 Jewish journeys at a critical time in the life of Israel and the Jewish People.

Like a brilliant matchmaker, you and your fellow philanthropists brought together Jews from communities scattered throughout the world – craving inspiration – with Israel, a country oozing with inspiration, but increasingly misunderstood by Jews and non-Jews who judge it harshly from afar rather than experiencing and embracing it up close.

And in your typical style, you’ve followed through on the unexpected consequences of this bold experiment, pioneering through your Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies in New York programs for the oft-overlooked and neglected Jewish 20-somethings, who deserve creative, open-minded and dynamic programs tailored to their unique characters.

Of course, this is only a sampling of Bronfman’s art of giving, the many amazing projects he has shared with the world. That such a miracle man is such a mensch, mastering the art of living, too, is even more impressive. I have seen how gentle, modest, and accessible he is with Birthright participants, flustered by meeting the great man, yet immediately put at ease by his charm.  And I vividly remember the first time, he, and the lovely but formidable Andy, along with their dog, Yoffi, first hosted an obscure young academic in the majestic Montreal headquarters of Seagram’s a decade ago. The warmth, the respect and the openness conveyed at our first meeting also set me at ease, launching me on one of my great life adventures: helping with Birthright’s educational programming.

And so for your kindnesses and your accomplishments, your greatness and your heimishness, I echo the president of Israel’s plain but profound words:  we love you, Charles – and happy 80th birthday.

Mulcair the mensch

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 5-19-11

As Liberals reel from their stunning electoral defeat and Conservatives rejoice, Israel’s supporters in Canada can find reassurance in two important outcomes from the recent federal election.

First, the re-election of Prime Minister Stephen Harper is sweet vindication. Harper has been a steadfast friend of Israel, defending and embodying the democratic values uniting Israel and Canada. Claims that Harper and his party would suffer at the polls for befriending the Jewish state proved as empty as the charge that Canada was not elected to the UN Security Council as punishment for voting for Israel.

The second piece of good news is that, as the NDP gets used to becoming the loyal opposition, the NDP deputy leader and designated coach for its unseasoned rookie MPs is Thomas Mulcair, a thoughtful, reasonable progressive who refuses to join the pile-on against Israel.

I had the privilege of hearing Mulcair address the Ottawa Conference on Combating Antisemitism last fall. Amid a tsunami of speeches, Mulcair’s stood out. It was short, elegant, eloquent and effective. Although I will only quote from a CBC blog description because the conference was under Chatham House Rule, Mulcair impressed me in three ways.

First, he struck me as someone who believes in democracy and the rule of law, refusing to sacrifice core ideals to follow one trend or another. Second, he was embarrassed, as a member of the McGill community, having graduated from McGill Law School, that McGill hosts Israeli Apartheid Week. His indignation reflected an awareness that those who claim to be “only” anti-Zionist are usually antisemitic, too, as well as a deep commitment to preserving universities as safe, open, tolerant places for thinking students.

Third, he described an ugly moment in an anti-Israel demonstration when protesters wanted to attack a Jewish-owned business. This move reflected what he called the “any Jew will do” mob mentality of picking on all Jews because of a disagreement with some Israeli policy – demonstrating the underlying antisemitism perverting so much of the anti-Israel movement.

A year earlier, when a local synagogue was defaced with swastikas in his riding, Mulcair again stood tall. He declared the act of hatred “particularly disgusting in the case of a congregation that includes several Holocaust survivors.” He quoted Martin Luther King’s teaching that “he who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really co-operating with it.”

And in that spirit, when his NDP colleague and fellow deputy leader Libby Davies supported the anti-Israel boycott movement, Mulcair confronted her swiftly and directly. Davies is a long-time critic of Israel who mocks Canada’s “so-called friendship with Israel.” She has no problem speaking at a rally whose chants call for another intifadah or being photographed at that rally in front of a poster making the false comparison between Israel and South African apartheid.

“No member of our caucus, whatever other title they have, is allowed to invent their own policy,” Mulcair proclaimed when Davies endorsed boycotts. “We take decisions together, parties formulate policies together, and to say that you’re personally in favour of boycott, divestment and sanctions for the only democracy in the Middle East is, as far as I’m concerned, grossly unacceptable.”

I have no idea where Mulcair stands regarding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or Israel’s ultimate borders, and I don’t care. We need a broad pro-Israel coalition that fights blatant antisemitism and the antisemitism masquerading as “only” anti-Zionism.

We need a broad pro-Israel coalition uniting people from left to right who defend Israel’s right to exist and fight the demonization of Israel and Zionism. We need a broad pro-Israel coalition standing for core democratic rights and the understanding that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, the only stable country following rule of law, the only steady source of civil liberties for Arabs and Jews, and the Mideast’s only true friend to Canada.

And we need to honour steadfast friends such as Mulcair, hoping that as he coaches his young, newly elected NDP MPs, he points out some of the hypocritical trends that some fellow progressives succumb to, while reminding them of the enduring liberal rights and democratic ideals that make Canada and Israel among the few functioning democracies in the world – whatever mistakes they may make, whatever imperfections they may have.

Bold change is an opportunity

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-24-11

Question: “How many congregants does it take to change a light bulb in a synagogue?” The answer is: “Change? You vant we should change the light bulb? My grandmother donated that light bulb!”Change is never easy – personally or communally. Most of us like our lives, habits, institutions – or at least are so addicted to them we fear the unknown. As informal, democratic structures keeping our traditions alive, Jewish communities frequently resist change – even when they need it. And Jewish institutions are particularly loath to change themselves – particularly when they are still functional. Usually, we change when it is too late – failing to move deliberately ahead when strong and instead scrambling chaotically, reactively, when weak.

Aware of the challenges in changing, the Montreal Jewish community has, nevertheless, bravely launched the unification of JPPS-Bialik and UTT/Herzliah into a new, innovative, centre of educational excellence to create Montreal’s New Community School.

The visionaries behind the initiative understand the difficulties involved in combining two educational institutions, each with a proud past and distinct personality. The challenge is ensuring that 1 + 1 does not equal 1 – shrinking two institutions into a third, but to make 1 + 1 = 3, creating an institution that is bigger, better, bolder than the two were separately, when 1 + 1 only yielded 2.

The Montreal Jewish community needs a flagship school reflecting the character of Montreal’s unique community. In the 20th century, Quebec’s linguistic obsession yielded schools often defined by the languages they emphasized. A new school suited for the 21st century starts with the assumption that Jewish identity is about who we are not what language we speak. This school will reflect the central value of klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish People, that broad connection we feel one to another by sharing that noble title “Jew,” while making them deep, passionate, literate Jewish patriots, committed to our shared sense of community with a common heritage and common values.

Simultaneously, we have diversity within the unity. The new school will accommodate – and nourish – different languages, different traditions, different levels of observance, different communities of origin – while maintaining high standards of excellence and a tone not just of mutual respect but of community solidarity. Students will go deep, reaching into the particular traditions, ideas and Jewish expressions they bring from home, that anchor them, while also going broad, weaving their particular thread of home heritage and observance into the rich communal tapestry that unites Montreal Jews – and Jews worldwide.

The phrase New Montreal Community School says it all. “New” – it will be cutting edge. “Montreal” – it will reflect Montreal’s uniqueness as one of the most Jewishly literate, committed, activist, Zionist, multi-lingual, diverse communities in North America. “Community” – in an age of extreme individualism, disposable relationships, and the lure of the here and now, Judaism is about community, continuity, commitment – which cultivates and roots an individual. And “School” – by learning together, volunteering together, living together, students can benefit from the greater resources one thriving educational centre can offer while maintaining their particular identity. And in age of fragmentation, when everyone wants to know if you go to a Reform school or a Conservative school, if it is Ashkenazi or Sephardi, to be able to answer, “Yes, it is a community school,” could be a great peoplehood platform, a great way of reminding us that the core values, the defining narrative, the central rituals, the rich civilization – the Montreal Jewish community – uniting us is more significant, resonant, lasting than whatever differences we might have.

Other communities have succeeded with community day schools – Boston, London and – dare we say it – Toronto. Montreal’s time has now come to create this while preserving Montreal’s special character.

Another light bulb joke: “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?” The answer: “30. One to change the bulb, and 29 to discuss it, yelling conflicting instructions to the person changing the bulb.” This bold change is an opportunity to have a communal conversation about what community means, what Judaism means, and why we should send our children to Jewish day schools in the first place. Rather than staying on the sidelines complaining, parents, students and alumni should line up to help write this great new chapter in Montreal’s history, saying, “Hineni, here I am, how can I help?”

What the vandals could learn from their targets

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 1-27-11

On a cold Montreal night in mid-January, criminals vandalized five synagogues and a school.  Canadian leaders from left to right denounced the crime, proving that North American antisemitism today is unlike the antisemitism of Europe then or too many Arab countries now.
Antisemitism in Canada – and the rest of the civilized world – is a crime committed by marginal misfits, not an extension of state policy or local politics. As of this writing, the criminals remain at large, but we can nevertheless learn some important lessons from these outrages.

Jews should learn once again the essential lesson of Jewish unity. The criminals struck Ashkenazi and Sephardi institutions, four Orthodox synagogues, one Conservative and one Reconstructionist shul. These hoodlums target Jews, regardless of ethnic or denominational difference. We should reaffirm our mutual respect for one another. We may pray differently or believe a bit differently. We may look or sound a little different. But we are one.

That unity, of course, shouldn’t simply be because we all look the same in the antisemite’s crosshairs, but because we share a rich tradition, many similar values and a common fate. Traumas such as these are never welcome. But we should exploit them as opportunities to reaffirm our common sense of peoplehood, maintaining the Jewish tradition of making poetry out of our enemies’ perversity.

If these hoodlums are caught, I hope that – after they (or their parents) pay not just for the damage but to improve each institution somehow – they are forced to learn about their six targets. Simply learning about the six names alone would expose them to the richness of Jewish tradition and history.

Let them start with Congregation Tifereth Beth David Jerusalem to learn about King David and the Holy City of Jerusalem. Let them learn David’s psalms, which show how glorifying God elevates humanity. And let them learn how even King David was not above the law, enduring God’s punishment when he sinned by pursuing the married Batsheva. Let them learn about the Temple’s grandeur in Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, a time when few humans had seen such a large structure, let alone built one.

Moving on to Yavne Academy, I would teach about Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, who in 68 CE established Yavne as a centre of Jewish learning outside Jerusalem so Jewish scholarship and civilization could continue – and keep us thriving – after Jerusalem’s destruction two years later. I would teach why we use the term “CE” (common era) rather than AD (anno domini) to organize the western calendar. We acknowledge Jesus as an epoch-making historical character without characterizing him as our lord – or the lord of many others who don’t believe in him.

Congrégation Sépharade Beth Rambam would provide an opportunity to introduce Rabbi Moses ben-Maimon, Maimonides, the extraordinary rabbi, doctor and philosopher who lived from 1135 to 1204. Maimonides’ life symbolizes the rich mix of western, Muslim, and Jewish cultures that flourished in medieval Spain, and flourishes now. Learning about Maimonides reveals the creative tensions between rationalism and faith, between secular learning and religious studies, with the message that we don’t have to make false choices between two good things. Life involves balancing, synthesizing and learning from difference.

I would continue the history lesson – with its life lessons – with Beth Zion Congregation, teaching how Zion, the mountain in Jerusalem, became a focus of longing and unity through nearly 2,000 years of exile. Learning of Zion flows naturally into learning about Zionism, about the remarkable return to the Jewish homeland and the unfortunate hatred this extraordinary Jewish and human enterprise endures.

Finally, I would end with Congregation Dorshei Emet, the Truth Seekers, and Shaarei Zedek Congregation, the Gates of Justice, teaching about the eternal Jewish – and human – quest for understanding and righteousness. Note that Judaism judges people by their good acts, their mitzvot, not their beliefs – by what they do not what they think.

I would end with another creative clash defining Judaism today, between modernity and tradition – and how that yielded Conservatism and Reconstructionism, as well as Orthodoxy, because Orthodoxy itself is a modern concept forged in rebellion against the Reformers of the 1800s.

Wouldn’t it be great if all antisemites learned about the richness of Jewish civilization from these synagogues and other sources? Then again, wouldn’t it be great if every modern Jew could not only take this kind of course, but teach it?

How did it get to that point?

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 12-23-10

Once again, as I watch a Canadian campus get roiled – and a university shoot itself in the proverbial foot – I ask, “Where are the grown-ups?”
The British agitator George Galloway spoke at York University in mid-November. Rabbi Ahron Hoch circulated an e-mail urging community members to protest. In it, Rabbi Hoch characterized York’s president, Mamdouh Shoukri, in ways I never would, saying “Mr. Shoukri has again showed his amazing tolerance for antisemitism and lack of vigilance regarding the feeling of safety for Jewish students on campus.” A lawyer for York responded with a letter that I would never write, calling Rabbi Hoch’s words “actionable” while warning Rabbi Hoch and his supporters to stay off campus because the university is “private property.”

Predictably, the clash intensified. Rabbi Hoch circulated the exchange on the Internet, asking why York grants free speech to anti-Israel agitators such as Galloway (who also has said insensitive things about Darfur) but not to pro-Israel Jews. Meanwhile, the university felt harassed, not realizing how much the lawyer’s letter exacerbated the latest mess.

As an outsider, I’m shocked that no one in the York community with ties to the rabbi and the president could talk both sides down, protecting the principle of civil free speech for all and the university’s reputation. I urge York’s president and his counsel to consult with key faculty insiders before pouring oil on future fires.

I understand the university counsel’s first instinct to defend Shoukri against even the hint of an accusation that he’s antisemitic or tolerates antisemitism. It is an ugly charge against a decent man with a tough job. The charge of “lack of vigilance” regarding the safety of Jewish students or any students is devastating enough. The antisemitism jab was inaccurate, even incendiary.

But the prospect of a university suing a rabbi – which is what actionable means – is a lose-lose. A clever lawyer could tar the university’s reputation and cost York big bucks fighting it out regarding what constitutes “tolerance” for antisemitism. More importantly, universities should be bastions of free civil speech. Our recipe for bad speech should be more speech. Few academics can afford to defend themselves against libel suits. A university should never encourage resorting to courts of law rather than courts of public opinion, the sheer beauty of an effective rebuttal or truth itself.

The second half of the counsel’s letter, which most people overlooked, was equally disturbing. The letter unfairly accused Rabbi Hoch of trying to disrupt with more radical action when he merely invited community members to a rally. Yes, the lawyer is correct, technically. Universities are private property. But universities want members of the public to spend money to hear speakers, attend plays and watch films on campus. They celebrate when tourists, potential students, and, of course, most important, potential donors, visit. No one wants universities to be bunkers with “Keep Out” signs.

A lawyer’s job is to make sure a client remains true to core ideals and to talk the client out of foolish, emotional overreactions. Judging by this letter, it’s a shame no one served that function for the university’s lawyers this time.

Meanwhile, as leading Jews squabble with York’s leaders and the university’s core values get trampled in the crossfire, the true enemies of civility and scholarship flourish.

Let’s face it. York has become a flashpoint. I hear about students who have second thoughts about enrolling and about employers who first ask job applicants what’s happening on campus rather than what they’re learning in class. I also hear of a thriving Jewish and intellectual life on campus nevertheless.

This incident was predictable and avoidable. People of stature committed to university values should learn from this experience: those values include students feeling safe, even if they’re Jewish and pro-Israel; encouraging civility and mutual respect, not just for students but for university presidents, and keeping universities as open, welcoming spaces for the public.

There will be other incidents. Will there be grown ups be ready next time to stand up, mediate and avoid another PR disaster for York and the university community?

Pushing back for its own sake

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-25-10

In late October, amid much self-promotional hype, leaders of the Canadian BDS movement met in Montreal to celebrate their campaign of boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel.
By all reports, the BDS movement once again proved to be more virtual than real, puffing itself up on the Internet while failing to stir much excitement. The movement’s broad call to mobilize “civil society” was met with awkward silence. Apparently, barely 100 people attended the conference’s final session. It’s clear that this fall will be remembered for the glowing depictions of Israel as a profitable, thriving “startup nation,” in La Presse and other French media outlets rather than for the glowering denunciations of Israel by angry misanthropes.

With the BDS momentum proving to be more bark than bite, much of the organized Jewish community ignored the conference. Believing that you should never disturb your enemy if he or she is in the process of self-destructing, there were no major counter-demonstrations, few clarion calls to mobilize. The strategy seemed to be that shining a spotlight on the BDS movement’s flaws would give the boycotters attention they don’t deserve.

While I understand that logic, the strategy ignored the great distress that the simple fact of the conference convening in Montreal caused among many pro-Israel Montrealers. Even if the conference failed to live up to its own hype, we in the pro-Israel community needed to push back for our own sake. In fact, the conference, even if minor, provided an opportunity for a classic ju jitsu move:  taking an opponent’s energy and redirecting it for your own purpose.

Just before the conference, dismayed by the Jewish communal silence, I met with one student who was willing to stand up for Israel publicly and proudly. Following the successful “buycott” strategy in Toronto, when BDS calls backfired and a call to boycott Israeli wine led to a run on Israeli wine, and calls to boycott a Dead Sea Scroll exhibit and the Toronto film festival’s celebration of Tel Aviv’s centennial led to waves of sold-out shows, a few students sent out a call to buy Israeli products that weekend. I forwarded the call around, and echoed it in a Montreal Gazette opinion piece that ran during the conference, while blasting the boycott movement for endangering the peace process.

We didn’t have the time or resources to trigger a mass movement. That was never our intention. But the feedback we received was extraordinary. As people e-mailed to detail their purchases of Elite chocolate here or 10 israeli bottles of wine there, they also thanked us. Most moving were the thanks – from Jews and non-Jews – that celebrated the opportunity to do something personal, positive, and constructive for Israel. “What a wonderful idea,” one woman wrote. “Finally a logical way to respond to all the madness around us.”

Group responsibility and individual empowerment are essential to effective grassroots action. It’s the logic of the firing squad put to good use. Firing squads demand full participation from all assigned, while one of the shooters unknowingly fires blanks. This allows everyone to take responsibility as a group while indulging the calming and exculpating hope that their gun was the one firing blanks.

In the Torah, every Jewish citizen took responsibility for the community by paying a half-shekel. Today, the federation campaign tries to enlist as many participants as possible, even if many make token donations and most funds are raised from big givers – often in one big splashy event.

If we understand the importance of spreading communal responsibility and maximizing individual feelings of involvement when it comes to fundraising, shouldn’t we apply that same principle to supporting Israel? I’m proud of what we did to push back against the BDSers, yet I feel we missed an opportunity. The weekend could have been a chance for even more Montrealers to embrace the plucky democracy in the Middle East by acting out the Zionist and Jewish imperative to act constructively – not just believe abstractly, or even hide delightedly when your adversaries stumble.

Was Canada punished for supporting Israel at UN?

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-27-10

Canada’s failure to win a seat on the UN Security Council has triggered a predictable debate – with a surprising twist. Predictably, most have seen the move as a rejection of Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s muscular, pro-western, pro-Israel, anti-terrorism foreign policy.
But the columnist David Frum has injected a fascinating perspective. After actually doing some research, Frum suggested that the vote had more to do with European power dynamics, western rivalries, and the peculiarities of the UN regional voting bloc system. Outsiders will have a hard time figuring out who is correct. Hopefully, historians in the future will be able to sort it out. Still, the debate about the failure illustrates some enduring anomalies regarding how we discuss foreign policy, Israel and the United Nations itself.

For starters, the central assumption guiding the partisans in the debate is depressing. The most passionate talk has focused on whether Canada was being punished for supporting Israel. We are at a dangerous moment here. We are starting to take Israel’s toxicity for granted. Why should support for Israel bear such a price? Israel’s enemies have been so successful in maligning Israel and elevating Israel into such a powerful symbol that where a country stands on Israel risks defining its entire foreign policy.

As we approach the 35th anniversary of the General Assembly’s despicable “Zionism is racism” resolution, Israel’s adversaries are poised to enjoy a double victory. The anti-Israel package they sell involves both demonizing Israeli actions and exaggerating Israel’s centrality in the Middle East, and world politics. The Palestinians’ ultimate conceit traditionally has been to make everything about Israel be about them, pushing a perspective suggesting that no conversation about the Jewish state should be about anything but the Palestinian issue. Now, the Palestinian conceit – fed by the UN – is even more grandiose, suggesting that the Palestinians’ problems are not just the most significant in the world today but the key to world peace. It is extraordinary how many foolish diplomats, politicians, academics, students and activists.

Amid all the hysteria, Frum’s alternative perspective noting that Canada was boxed out because the European bloc secured seats for Germany and Portugal was doubly welcome. First, both pro-Israel and anti-Israel partisans need to remember that not everything is about the Palestinians and the Jews. At the end of the day, the Arab-Israeli conflict is a minor regional conflict. Even if some peace agreement could be signed, Iran would still be trying to go nuclear, North Korea would remain a bad citizen of the world, Islamist terrorists would still target westerners – and their own people – the economy would waver, the environment would be at risk, etc. Pro-Israel forces also have to be careful not to see everything through the Palestinian-Israel prism. We should remember that it is not helpful to jump at every attack on Israel.

Frum’s perspective also reminds us how complex, political, and bureaucratic the UN has become. The high hopes of the 1940s continue to mislead most of us when we talk about the UN. Even after decades of watching it degenerate into the Third World dictators’ debating society, we still want to see it as the biggest do-good organization in world history. Even when the UN is not being corrupt, or not being obsessive about Israel, politics rules. Regional rivalries are only one of the many distracting side shows that stop the UN from fulfilling its main mission to advance the causes of peace and justice throughout the world.

Getting a seat on the Security Council is not an award for doing good – or much of anything else. It is one of many privileges and responsibilities constantly doled out, periodically in play, in the world organization. Of course, it was delusional to expect that the UN would be politics-free. But rather than having Canada’s loss trigger yet another round of pro-Israel versus pro-Palestinian fireworks, perhaps it is time for all of us to start learning about how the UN functions, what is does right, where it goes wrong, and how it can improve.

Cotler keeps up the pressure on Iran

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 8-4-10

MP Irwin Cotler, the globe-trotting lawyer, professor, legislator and human rights activist, is at it again. While many people around the world ignore the abuses and dangers emanating from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, or at best make symbolic gestures of opposition, Cotler has relentlessly opposed what he calls “the toxic convergence of four distinct – yet interrelated – dangers.”
While UN sanctions, finally, offer at least some response to the nuclear threat, Cotler notes, the international community has ignored the other three “clear and present dangers”: “the genocidal incitement threat; state-sponsored terrorism; and the systematic and widespread violations of the rights of the Iranian people.”

Recently, on the anniversary of the murder of the Iranian heroine Neda Agha-Soltan during justified protests against Iranian electoral fraud, Cotler once again tried to rally the international community to make the punishment fit the crime, to respond proportionately to the disproportionate evils of Ahmadinejad and the mullahocracy.

Flanked by Neda’s fiancé, Caspian Makan, and the beauty queen turned anti-child-death-penalty crusader Nazanin Afshin-Jam, Cotler released his “Responsibility to Prevent” petition, endorsed by 100 leading scholars and activists, pleading for some serious action. In fact, toothless sanctions and limited responses can be even worse than inaction – they give the illusion of action, lulling us into a false sense of security – as the oppression of Iranians and the threats to world peace metastasize.

The world’s blind spot regarding Iran is stunning. How could it be that campuses did not come alive last year when Ahmadinejad was stealing an election in broad daylight and slaughtering his own people in the streets? How could it be that Iranian expatriates, Jews and human rights activists haven’t come together to launch the modern successor to the civil rights, anti-apartheid and Soviet Jewry movements in response to Ahmadinejad and his Revolutionary Guard goons?

The passivity on the Iran issue reflects a broader blindness to evils that fester among Islamist regimes particularly, and the Third World generally. It’s a doubly destructive form of political correctness. The West is increasingly threatened by this unchecked menace, and it’s a form of liberal condescension that ultimately reveals contempt toward others when we fail to hold them to the high standards of behaviour we have for ourselves, and for those who look and act like “us.”

Just consider the table of contents to Cotler’s report. Here are the sub-headings to one aspect of his four-pronged indictment, regarding Iran’s massive mistreatment of its own people. The report details: “The widespread and systematic violations of the rights of the Iranian people, including: the beatings, execution, killing, torture and other inhumane treatment of Iranians,” as well as “the systematic and widespread oppression of a minority – the Baha’i” in particular, the “exclusion of, discrimination and violence against, religious minorities,” the “exclusion of, discrimination and violence against, ethnic minorities,” the “assault on women‘s rights,” the “repression of freedom of speech, assembly and association – a war against students, professors, activists and journalists – and against fundamental rights and those who would exercise them,” the “crackdown on cyber dissidents,” the “assault on labour rights,” the “imposition of the death penalty for juveniles,” the “denial of gay/lesbian rights,” the “murder of political dissidents,” the “failure to provide a system of justice – show trials, forced confessions, denial of due process, [and the] absence of an independent judiciary and impunity of the Basij militia” and the Revolutionary Guards.

Proof that we’re dealing with a form of postmodernist decadence comes from Ahmadinejad’s visit to Columbia University in September 2007. His antics there stirred minimal outrage, until he denied there are any gays in Iran. This homophobia crossed the line, just as the most recent sexist threat that a pregnant Iranian Maryam Ghorbanzadeh might be stoned to death for adultery generated lots of press.

The selective indignation is troubling, although having some indignation at least marks an improvement. Cotler should stop being a lonely prophet – not because he stills his voice, but because finally, belatedly, but justifiably, millions start heeding his call to conscience, and his warnings to act collectively against Iran, before it’s too late.

Educating the spoiled brats of Jewish history

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-3-10

Halleluyah! Natan Sharansky is trying to reform the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Since he became chairman of this quasi-governmental agency, uniquely poised to bridge the State of Israel with Jewish communities around the world, he has pushed an exciting new vision for the infamously bureaucratic agency.
Sharansky views the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity. If in the 20th century JAFI’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century has to be about saving Jewish souls.

Now that may sound jarring to us, because so many of us are secular, sophisticated, technocratic and uncomfortable with “soul talk.” But if we don’t have the passion, if we don’t see that building Jewish identity is ultimately about saving souls, then how do we get the gumption to do what must be done?

Words such as “change” and “identity” can be empty slogans, amorphous and lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent, so that we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The modern Zionist movement tried to solve “the Jewish problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem for most (not all) Jews today is the opposite: we are being Loved to Death. Some 2.5 million young Israelis, 1.7 million young North American Jews, and most of the 600,000 young Jews from other countries enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many perceive that freedom as “negative freedom,” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community and from responsibilities (and many of their parents aren’t much better). We’re being loved to death in once-hostile communities that now happily celebrate our children’s marriages to theirs, and we’re being loved to death, because while we can enter the modern world freely, we often enter by voluntarily relinquishing our Jewish identity.

Our young people, in secular Israel and abroad, in this age of “I” not “us,” are entranced by the new cosmopolitanism cross-bred with a hyper-individualism, what Sharansky calls a false choice between Jewish values and universal values. That false choice is reinforced by an equally false promise that we can transcend national boundaries, cut ourselves off from tradition and simply be islands unto ourselves, encased within our own technological test tubes.

Isn’t that the Apple promise, to each his own iPod and iPhone, to each his own customized Thinkpad?

And we Jews lap it up. You know the old joke. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Christian” and you know he’s Christian. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Muslim” and you know he’s Muslim. Show me someone who says, “I’m just a human being” – he’s Jewish.

We are, New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier says, “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” more comfortable than ever before, but more selfish and self-indulgent than ever before. Our great mass crime, Wieseltier argues, isn’t intermarriage, but ignorance. One of the most educated generations in Jewish history in secular terms is one of the least educated Jewishly.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama showed that liberals shouldn’t be afraid of the “three Fs” – family, faith and flag. We have to build our identity on what we might call the “three mems” – mishpachah (family), morashah (heritage) and moledet (homeland). This holy trinity, if you will, roots us, consecrating our personal and national identities, teaching us about our past, inspiring us in the present and orienting us toward the future. JAFI – and other Jewish communal institutions – must express and foster this vision, with education at its core.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education, because Jewish education isn’t just about learning the facts, but about mastering life. Jewish education isn’t just about thinking, it’s also about doing. Jewish education isn’t just about understanding the world, but fixing it – tikun olam. Jewish education isn’t just about skill-building, it’s about identity-building. In short, Jewish education is values education – and that’s the added value we need, and must provide. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told JAFI’s board of governors: “This is not an exercise in education. It’s an exercise in survival.”

Anti-Israel week elicits yawning, not yelling

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-8-10

On Feb. 25, the Ontario legislature unanimously passed, by voice vote, a resolution condemning “Israeli Apartheid Week” (IAW), days before it began in Toronto, as well in 11 other Canadian cities and another two dozen locations worldwide.

This all-party amity on any issue is rare. Just as the Obama Administration was gearing up for an unnecessary, counterproductive showdown with Israel, Canada once again took the lead in supporting it.

MPP Peter Shurman, should be hailed for leading the fight against what he branded a “hateful… odious” comparison that insults Israel, all democratic countries that share Israel’s values, and millions of black South Africans who endured racism under apartheid, which separated people on the basis of colour systematically, legally and brutally.

Shurman’s resolution proclaimed: “I move that in the opinion of this house, the term ‘Israeli Apartheid Week’ is condemned, as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.”

Shurman understood that these resolutions are not binding. Moreover, they do not squelch anyone’s right to free speech, no matter how aggressive or untrue that speech may be. Rather, he explained, the resolution was a tool of “moral suasion,” reflecting the feelings of a democratic body, appalled by an unreasonable, undemocratic assault against the democratic nation of Israel.

By contrast, in a video circulated on the Internet promoting the bash-Israel-fest, Toronto-based activist Naomi Klein proclaimed: “Nothing about this week is motivated by hate. It’s motivated by justice. It’s about using our freedom to defend the freedom of Palestinians to exist in peace and dignity and with full equality in their land.”

In fact, Palestinian nationalism’s great failure is its nihilism, the fact that so much of the movement’s energies are dedicated to destroying Israel rather than building a Palestinian state. A week celebrating Palestinian nationalism could be about “peace and dignity.” But a week demonizing Israel and celebrating the false, misleading comparison with South African racism is about hate – and, not surprisingly, has often degenerated into hooliganism and anti-Semitism.

There is much to debate regarding Israel, Palestinians and the quest for Middle East peace. But someone committed to “peace and dignity” would acknowledge how much of this constant Israel-bashing is fed by the crudest Arab anti-Semitism. The disgusting images rooted in Nazi propaganda that still appear in the Arab press feed a demonizing discourse that led some York University students to yell “die Jew” and recently led a student at Oxford University protesting an Israeli government official to yell in Arabic “Itbah al-Yahud,” which means “Slaughter the Jews.”

Nationalism is a double-edged sword: it can elevate and enlighten, as it does in democracies such as Canada, or it can rouse and ruin. Becoming addicted to hatred of one’s defined adversaries gives a fleeting feeling of unity, but it ultimately degenerates into violence and destructiveness. Too much of the Palestinian national movement – and far too much of it on campus and in North America – is devoted to Israel-bashing. It creates a culture of martyrdom that celebrates suicide bombers rather than nation builders. It honours leaders such as Yasser Arafat, who preferred the purity of perpetual violence to the complexity of compromise. It results, in a cult of violence, sometimes feeding Hamas-versus-Fatah bloodshed, usually aimed at Jews.

Too much of the Arab world seems engulfed by this irrational hatred of Israel and Zionism. That this hatred is perfumed, rationalized and masked on campus in the language of human rights, then ennobled with the sacred mantle of the anti-apartheid struggle, is perverse.

Fortunately, most of our students are too smart to be swayed by such distortions. Initial reports this year suggest that “anti-Israel week” 2010 was a bust.

Students repudiated this festival of historical distortion, nationalist nihilism and Israel-bashing by yawning, not yelling. Most demonstrated the good sense to avoid the tumult and let the haters shout to mostly empty rooms – a perfect response.

Students, legislators stand up for Israel

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 3-11-10

With many people justifiably worried about the constant attempts to delegitimize Israel on college campuses, especially in Canada, we should highlight some successes.
Recently, we have seen that being creative, passionate and edgy can help reframe the conversation about Israel. The key is to be clever, not defensive, and to master your own particular strategic terrain.

In early February, McGill University students mobilized against an unfair and misleading resolution being proposed by their student society. There has long been an unspoken ceasefire on the McGill campus, with both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli forces holding their fire, being more committed to the tradition of civility on campus – and, frankly, to the more academic atmosphere overall. A year ago, pro-Palestinian forces broke this deal, by proposing a resolution condemning Israel’s Gaza operation. Pro-Israel students mobilized and voted it down at the student society’s General Assembly.

Last Passover, pro-Palestinian forces became even more aggressive, planting 1,415 Palestinian flags and 13 Israeli flags in the central green space on campus, supposedly representing the disproportionate death toll during Israel’s Gaza operation. This dramatic display sought to politicize the entire campus environment.

The administration should never have allowed this break with tradition, which threatens to have every other group try similar antics. I have no desire to come to work and be bombarded by one undergraduate attempt after another seeking to dramatize whatever issues is trendy one season or the next.

Undeterred, the pro-Palestinian forces this year cooked up a seemingly harmless resolution demanding McGill invest ethically, which actually was a one-sided resolution targeting Israel. Although the General Assembly votes only on the “be it resolved” clauses, two “whereas” clauses singled out Israel for special opprobrium. This was an attempt to get the many people who support ethical investing to condemn Israel implicitly. Pro-Israel – and pro-civility – forces rejected these unfair terms. At the General Assembly, they voted down the two offensive (and historically inaccurate) “whereas” clauses, then passed the resolution.

Similar out-of-the-box thinking shaped a controversial web-based ad campaign, launched by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students. Critics have called the “size doesn’t matter” video crude, vulgar and sexist. It is certainly crude and vulgar; I’m not sure if it’s sexist. But it’s also funny, attention-grabbing and speaks to college students in their language, with their sensibility. We want to speak to the “more than 80 per cent of students on a given campus who haven’t made up their minds about Israel and the Middle East,” one of the project’s creators, Noah Kochman explained. The video, which received more than 18,000 hits in its first few days, is a lure to get students learning facts about Israel.

As a professor, I wish my students got references to Aeschylus and Agamemnon. But if I want to be understood, I have to speak about Michael Jackson and Tiger Woods. Similarly, it would be great to live in a G-rated world, but our students live in an R-rated one. Kochman and his team shrewdly recognized that and spoke that language.

In a far more respectable vein, Peter Shurman, a Progressive Conservative legislator in the Ontario provincial legislature, refused to be passive in the wake of the anti-Israel week targeting campuses. Explaining that resolutions in the legislative assembly “do one thing only: they send a message, moral suasion pertinent to any given subject,” he proposed a resolution regarding something “I am passionate about” in late February. Shurman rose in chambers on Feb. 24, proclaiming: “I move that in the opinion of this House, the term Israeli ‘Apartheid Week’ is condemned as it serves to incite hatred against Israel, a democratic state that respects the rule of law and human rights, and the use of the word ‘apartheid’ in this context diminishes the suffering of those who were victims of a true apartheid regime in South Africa.” The resolution passed unanimously – and was applauded worldwide.

Edmund Burke famously noted, “All that is necessary for evil to succeed is that good men do nothing.” These examples show that when good people do something, evil can be defeated, or at least, rebuffed.