Obama the Idealistic Internationalist versus Romney the Muscular Isolationist

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-23-12

Despite this week’s testy debate, it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.

Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing. Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here. To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”

Still, the two opposing candidates have contrasting foreign policy visions. Essentially, Barack Obama is an idealistic internationalist. Growing up in Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, living in Indonesia with his anthropologist mother, attending Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he absorbed a disdain for colonialism, an appreciation for globalism, and a yearning for worldwide cooperation. In 2008, Obama ran to Hillary Clinton’s left on foreign policy, emphasizing his early opposition to the Iraq war, questioning George W. Bush’s war on terror, promising to first try negotiating with Iran, showing great sensitivity to the Palestinians, and questioning Bush’s go-it-alone, my-country-right-or-wrong, might-makes-right swagger.

In fairness, Obama insisted he was not a pushover. His doubts about the Iraq war had to do with that war, not war in general. And he refused to be pegged as a quiche-eating, new age, feminized man who would not know what to do as president if awakened with an emergency call at 3 AM.

The initial Obama foreign policy moves that proved so controversial reflected Obama’s worldview. Making his first foreign call after his inauguration to Mahmoud Abbas, bowing to the Saudi king, exiling the Winston Churchill statue from display in the White House, mollifying Iran, staying silent when the Iranian Green revolution first began, giving his Cairo speech, planning to run a terrorism trial in New York, alienating allies and charming enemies, all stemmed from Obama’s desire to “reset” American relations. He wanted to distance himself and his country from George W. Bush, to build a foreign policy based on cooperation not confrontation, trusting international structures and negotiation not American exceptionalism and unilateralism. In the debate, Obama claimed he “refocus[ed] on alliances and relationships that had been neglected for a decade.”

But Obama has adapted to the demands of running America in 2012. He has kept most of the infrastructure of the war on terror. He has proved steely in okaying drone strikes and hunting down Osama Bin Laden. He has been tough in Afghanistan – having inherited a mess there. And, he has put stopping Iran’s rush to nuclearize on his agenda. In short, blasts of realism reoriented Obama’s idealistic internationalism.

Although he does not admit it, Mitt Romney is probably closer to the Midwestern isolationist tradition than anything else. Nothing in his career – beyond his Mormon missionary work in France – suggests an engagement with the rest of the world, or a faith in the international structures Obama likes. You could hear Romney’s reluctance in his debate statement: “the mantle of leadership for … promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.”

Romney is more comfortable with American exceptionalism and insulation than American engagement and multilateralism. However, in our tense, interconnected global village, Romney embraces the more modern, muscular, neoconservative tradition. In short, Romney tends to see America’s involvement overseas as unfortunate, but is comfortable with America asserting itself aggressively both militarily and ideologically abroad, even if that means acting alone. If Romney becomes President, he will have to become more diplomatic and less unilateral than he would like – or than he currently promises.

Regarding the Middle East, while having more Palestinian and pro-Palestinian friends, Obama is also more sensitive to Arab, European, and UN opinion on Israel – although he has resisted the harshest anti-Israel voices there. In addition to disdaining the court of international public opinion, Romney recognizes that anti-Americanism and Islamism help fuel Palestinian terrorism. This makes him particularly hostile to Palestinian nationalism – and far more skeptical about the Arab spring than Obama, who still hopes for redemptive democratic results. So, if Obama wins, Israel does have cause for concern. Especially given the toxic dynamics between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, chances are good that Obama will pressure Israel for more concessions on the Palestinian issue than many Israelis would otherwise make, and relations regarding Iran will continue to be fragile. Meanwhile, a winning Romney will probably have to adjust and show some sensitivity to Palestinian conc erns to preserve American credibility on the issue – as George W. Bush did when endorsing a Palestinian state.

Ultimately, while tactics may vary, events may intrude, and sparks did fly, the debate left the impression of more convergence than divergence. Both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, see a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. Even amid this campaign’s enmity, we could hear a helpful reminder that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties.

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.

Celebrating Hadassah’s Activist, Pragmatic, Identity Zionism

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-12

Nearly two thousand women have gathered in Jerusalem this week to mark the hundredth anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. Jerusalem is not only the Jewish people’s capital, it is the city graced by two Hadassah hospitals, and dozens of other Hadassah blessings. On display this week – and every day — is a celebration of the three words in Hadassah’s subtitle, tapping into: the power of women, the magic of Zionism, and the transformational potential of one, effective organization.

For years now, some have wanted Hadassah to be the WOMEN’S zionist organization – downplaying the Zionism – while others have wanted it to be the women’s ZIONIST organization – downplaying the gender identity. Both extreme factions are wrong. The two together make Hadassah, Hadassah. When Henrietta Szold launched the organization in 1912, women did not have the power or public standing they have today. Hadassah has empowered generations of Jewish women, demonstrating how much women could accomplish, while reflecting a female sensibility in such crucial, life-affirming arenas as health, education, and welfare.

Growing up in the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement, my friends and I in the late 1970s witnessed a world in which women’s leadership was natural not forced. We met powerful role models, who were just doing what they were doing as Zionist leaders, running a multi-million dollar organization, speaking at rallies, meeting with Israeli leaders. The formidable Charlotte Jacobson, the legendary Ruth Popkin, the extraordinary Marlene Post, were all part of a chain of leadership that began with Henrietta Szold, reached fulfillment with Golda Meir, and continues today. The Zionism we absorbed was egalitarian, non-sexist, constructively, easily, healthily feminist.

Hadassah Zionism has also been unique. Hadassah Zionism is broad-based, pragmatic, welcoming, and activist. It is about building bridges and uniting Jews around the idea of a Jewish State, not testing each other for ideological or religious purity on a dozen dimensions. And it is about a purifying, transforming, altruistic activism. Hadassah is not just check writing and fundraising. It is about educating and imagining: educating its members and non-members, while imagining a better world for all through the best medical institutions in the world, top technical colleges, extraordinary programs.

Hadassah Zionism, therefore, especially as exemplified by its two flagship hospitals in Jerusalem, teaches the important Zionist and nationalist lesson – that through peoplehood power, through national pride, through Jewish values, through Zionist commitments you can have universalist achievements, doing a world of good for Jews, Arabs and Christians who live in the Middle East and for humanity through pioneering medical and social service work. For that reason, because through peace and through war, Hadassah has been an oasis of mutual cooperation improving the world, I have repeatedly asserted one of my few powers as an academic and nominated it for the Nobel Peace Prize – only to be disappointed as the relativistic, self-involved Europeans honor Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and in the ultimate act of self-indulgence, the European Union this year.

For its next 100 years, Hadassah must adjust its mission. It is now evolving away from underwriting the Young Judaea youth movement, giving that important organization the independence it needs. It continues its holy work supporting the Hadassah Medical Organization, epitomized by this week’s opening of the $363 million dollar, high-tech, up-to-date, 19-story, 500-bed Davidson Medical Tower at Ein Karem. But it also should embrace a new cause – fighting the growing values crisis afflicting modern Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular.

Even during these economically perilous times, so many of us are suffering from affluenza, the spiritual influenza that comes from having too much. Symptoms include amnesia regarding enduring values, materialism, lack of motivation, addiction to electronics, weakened commitments, diluted relationships, bouts of depression, epidemics of meaninglessness.

Belonging to the Republic of Nothing, so many sleepwalk through life, wired in to virtual experiences and fake Facebook friends, insulating ourselves from a culture of ideas, of values, of caring, of sacrificing for any principles. If the stereotyped Hadassah Ladies of yesteryear, reeking of character, were characterized by their indomitable spirit, formidable presence, and relentless pursuit of their goal, their children and grandchildren, of the “Whatever” generation, risk being pale shadows of their colorful forbears, rootless, aimless, spineless, amoral, disaffected, passive, disengaged.

Hadassah’s network of 300,000 women cannot only trust their role modeling and their good works to help tackle this problem. They have to, as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, address this problem boldly, directly, creatively. The must be harbingers of a Zionist values revolution, championing Identity Zionism. They must learn how to inspire their children and grandchildren to inherit their commitments not just their assets, their skill sets not just their bank books, their values not just their valuables.

They should start a conversation immediately, about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why they need the next generation as partners in this holy work. They should explain how much they have done for Israel – and explain how by doing so much for that great country and for the United States, they also did so much for themselves. In so doing, they will reveal the true secret of Jewish communal work, of charitable giving and community building, that the more you give the more you get, the more you invest in good deeds and good works, the greater and grander your life becomes.

John Kennedy got it half right. It is good to ask “what you can do for your country.” But the experience of hundreds of thousands of Hadassah heroines over the years shows that in doing for your country, your people, your community, you also discover all the good that your country, your people, your community can do for you.

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.

I Wish I Could Vote Bibi, But I Can’t

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-11-12

During this difficult moment in history, with Iran rapidly progressing toward nuclear status, with world economies still fragile, and with Western values under attack, Israel needs strong leadership. In the upcoming elections, I would love to vote for Israel’s popular and powerful prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, giving him a clear mandate to lead domestically and diplomatically.  But, like so many Israelis, I will search elsewhere for political redemption and reassurance, knowing just how limited the choice really is.

Netanyahu would have earned my vote if he had exercised the power he has to move Israel forward rather than hoarding it to stroke his political allies. He would have earned my vote if he seemed more committed to making peace with the Palestinians rather than keeping the peace in his coalition. He would have earned my vote if he had maintained that broadening, empowering alliance with Kadima he had ever so briefly, and made some progress in ensuring that Ultra-Orthodox Israelis affirm their responsibilities as citizens instead of just demanding more rights and protecting their entitlements. And he would have earned my vote if he had fired his incompetent, non-Zionist interior minister or his ineffectual, marginalized foreign minister.

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Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press calling for early elections on October 9, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

In short, if Bibi had been the bold leader he often called for in his writings rather than the placeholder I often read about in the press, he would have earned my vote. In his second term, which at this writing looks likely, he needs to be more like his hero Winston Churchill, making history boldly, and less like a Chicago wardheeler, making deals repeatedly.

At the same time, I give Netanyahu credit for keeping the economy stable and productive during one of the most tumultuous financial eras in recent history.  On the whole—and as far as outsiders can tell—he has managed the complicated Iran file effectively, pushing this pressing problem onto the world agenda, leading to sanctions which may actually be working, keeping the pressure—and the peace—so far.  And as the Obama-Palestinian settlement freeze debacle proved, Netanyahu is not the biggest obstacle to negotiations with the Palestinians—Abbas, Hamas and their people are. In fact, Netanyahu has eased conditions in the West Bank, lifted numerous checkpoints, improved security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsed a two-state solution, helping to foster the stability that is a necessary prerequisite for progress in this volatile region.

It is possible that historians may look back on Netanyahu’s years as the start of the Great Reset, when the trauma of the Palestinian betrayal of Oslo and turn to terror needed some quiet, but the range of opinion in Israel began narrowing and coalescing around an acceptance of the hard but necessary compromises a willing, honorable, non-threatening peace partner and process would require. Moreover, I support many of the Zionist values revival initiatives Netanyahu and his education minister Gideon Sa’ar have championed, especially the recommitment to historic sites that tell Israel’s story.

Alas, I am also underwhelmed by the alternatives. I blame Shaul Mofaz for the Kadima coalition debacle more than Netanyahu; I do not understand how he was able to enter and then leave a coalition so quickly. Did Mofaz fail to do his homework before joining or stumble in with no game plan? The Labor Party is a joke, a walking corpse with a proud history but a seemingly limited future. And I could no more vote for Avigdor Lieberman and his party then I could vote for Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich in America. As someone who cast his first political vote for John Anderson in the 1980 showdown between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, I will look at the mini-parties, but I acknowledge that as an act of political cowardice, dodging responsibility for the serious contenders while still fulfilling my civic duty.

In short, like so many voters in so many democracies today, I—and, I fear, most Israeli voters—will not be rushing to the polls, heart pounding, anxious to help my team win. Instead, I and so many others will take a deep breath, hold our noses, and choose what appears at that moment to be the least bad alternative.

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.

Despite the Eilat tragedy, Israel programs heal

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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.

Commitments Not Reaffirmed

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-2-12

Are there any progressives out there sufficiently committed to the peace process and the two-state solution to criticize Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly? Abbas’s address once again proved his “moderation” to be a masquerade, as he plunged Palestinians and Israelis into round after round of the delegitimization derby, piling on insults and libels, making it difficult for any self-respecting Israeli government to respond constructively. And the fact that after more than 1,600 words of denunciations and demonization, he claimed to “reaffirm, without hesitation,” his and his people’s commitment to “peace and international legitimacy,” suggested that he was insulting the international community’s intelligence, not just the Israeli “occupier.”

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)
 

Before Abbas’s false call for peace, he warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.” He used the code words his mentor Yasser Arafat first injected into the Israeli-Palestinian conversation: “racist,” “discriminatory,” “ethnic cleansing,” “siege,” “apartheid,” “terrorism,” “colonial,” etc. etc. Most of these words were purposely imported into the language about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s to turn discussion of the conflict from its local particulars to universal condemnations, as a way of linking the Palestinians with all Third World victims of Western powers. Bringing new meaning to the word chutzpah, Abbas then complained about “an Israeli political discourse that does not hesitate to brandish aggressive, extremist positions, which in many aspects and its practical application on the ground is inciting religious conflict.”

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech began with an affirmation of Jewish history not a negation of the Palestinians. He segued into his call for “a durable peace with the Palestinians” by talking about a point of common civility: how Israeli doctors treated Palestinian Arabs in Israelis hospitals. Netanyahu did criticize Abbas’s rant by saying: “We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the U.N.,” but he limited his denunciations of the Palestinian Authority to two sentences, admittedly spending more time than that attacking Iran and Islamism.

This is not to say that Abbas’s speech had no merit and that Netanyahu’s speech was unassailable. It was heartbreaking to hear Abbas’s account of what he called “at least 535 attacks perpetrated” against Palestinians by Israeli settlers “since the beginning of this year.” The Israeli government must have zero tolerance for such criminal behavior, which is legally and morally wrong. At the same time, Netanyahu’s crude cartoon illustrating the Iranian bomb threat was undignified and unhelpful. Domestic critics are mocking Netanyahu’s address as “the Looney Tunes speech”—and such criticism is deserved.

But on the Palestinian issue, one cannot equate the Israeli Prime Minister’s constructive approach with the Palestinian Authority President’s rhetorical howitzers. Of course, that is precisely what the New York Times and others did. Generating the usual fog of moral equivalence, the Times editorial “Talking at Cross Purposes,” acknowledged Abbas’s “exceptionally sharp rhetoric” while excusing it, and noted Netanyahu’s “reference to wanting peace with the Palestinians” while dismissing it as “brief” and insincere.

For peace to be achieved—in fact, for any real progress to occur—all actors in this enduring drama will have to break out of their assigned roles. Palestinians will have to stop playing the victim and demonizing Israel. And those observers supposedly devoted to peace will have to start criticizing, cajoling, inspiring, and reassuring both sides, showing a willingness to condemn Palestinian actions when warranted and even grant compliments to Israel, if warranted.

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.

Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-2-12

As holiday-weary Israelis wonder whether they will ever be productive again, Americans are preparing to watch their presidential candidates sweat.  Just as Tishrei is holiday-saturation month for Jews, every four years October is debate month in American presidential politics. Tonight, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado.  On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 – two weeks before Election Day – Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates – which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges – are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama.  Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge – and the largest last minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative Tarot Card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney.  In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated.  Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.”  This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise – and plaintively claim he was strong – or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction.  Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes.  Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room.  Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting.   In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor.  At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.”  In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press – although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament:  image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. How lucky Israelis are that in the Jewish state politics is substantive, straightforward, serious, and scrupulous….
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents:  George Washington to Barack Obama,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memo To The US: Avoid Extremes While Fighting Islamists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Make Israel a Wedge Issue in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

Why Ha’aretz Hates Birthright

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending Sheldon Adelson’s Support for Mitt Romney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism,” will be published in the fall.

What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

Kadima Marches Backwards

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”

kadimasplit-openz

Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

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.

Israelis and Americans converge and diverge in summertime mourning

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-24-12

In traveling this week from Israel to the United States, my family and I visited two wounded countries, recoiling from different faces of the evil that bedevils our world. Last week, Israel’s chofesh hagadol, grand summer vacation, was ruined by the terrorist who destroyed an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. Days later, the `”Joker” gunman who shot up a Colorado movie theatre during the Batman premiere, assaulted all Americans who usually enjoy such leisure pursuits without fearing violence, and without the security guards who have become ubiquitous wherever Israelis gather in large numbers. As these two nations united in mourning, certain differences also emerged, as Israelis lamented external dangers, and Americans confronted internal threats.

Both sister democracies, both proud peoples, rallied around their scarred citizens, and shared communally in the individual anguish and anger, which for some will remain forever. Israelis kept on repeating the story of the 42 year old who finally became pregnant after years of trying, of the two sets of best friends off on a summer lark killed by what was probably an Iranian and Hezbollah operative.  Americans – including President Barack Obama who visited Aurora, Colorado – talked about “Stephanie,” the 21-year-old who, with no military training, put her finger on the bullet wound in her friend Allie Young’s neck, to stanch the bleeding, and refused to flee the theatre, despite her friend’s pleas to save herself.  Both survived.

Some of us read such stories obsessively, trying to personalize the horror beyond the statistical death tolls of six here, twelve there. We seek stories of everyday heroism to inspire ourselves and, in my case, share with my children, in our own attempt to vanquish the evil. Others simply turn away, finding the grief too overwhelming.

Beyond this range of human reactions, each story propelled each society onto a different political, ideological, and existential search for meaning. For Israelis, this was one of those nightmarish moments which brought back all the pain from the wave of Palestinian terror that destroyed the Oslo Peace Process a decade ago. The unique Israeli infrastructure of logistical and emotional support that kicks in with its organizational array from Zaka to Mada, the media memes and themes, all stirred emotions that are constantly roiling just below the surface of the Israeli body politic, which still suffers from collective post-traumatic stress syndrome following Palestinian terrorists’ amoral assault on basic human hopes and assumptions ten years ago. Even more disturbing, we again saw the international double standard at work, as UN officials condemned the “bombing” without using the t-word, terrorist, and even the US helped host a UN-based counter-terrorism conference that excluded Israel.  These insults left Israelis feeling abused by the terrorism death cult flourishing among Palestinians, Iranians, and Islamists, and abandoned by a world that often enables such violence yet somehow blames Israelis even when citizens simply trying to enjoy themselves at a beachside resort are targeted.

Americans struggled with different traumas, as the newspapers told the story of an honors science student turned mass murderer while authorities tallied up the 6000 rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, and high capacity “hundred round drum magazine” that this homicidal maniac purchased with just a few clicks of his computer.  Two of the most beautiful byproducts of American nationalism, the Constitution and the Internet, helped yield horrifically ugly results.

More profoundly, as Americans asked “why?” many resurrected the question from the 1960s – is ours a “sick society?” With faith lost in Wall Street, Capitol Hill, the Oval Office; with relationships disposable, values contingent, optimism lagging, and the economy still flagging, many Americans are scared. If America had the right leaders, such violence could provide a much-needed wakeup call. Alas, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have shown that kind of skill or vision this year.

As my children and I prepare to observe the Ninth of Av, commemorating the two holy temples’ destructions, while visiting Washington DC this weekend, I see a similar parallelism. When I am in Jerusalem, during the endless summertime fast, I feel our enemies’ oppression most intensely, as I contemplate the litany of horrors that have stricken the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, culminating in the Holocaust.  When I am in Washington, I think more about exile than oppression. What little anti-Semitism there is in America is so mild compared to the European and Arab variations, the American Jewish experience has been so darned positive overall, that it is hard to feel targeted in the land of the free.  What kind of an exile is it, when it has become so voluntary, and so delightful?

In fact, I usually have serious problems with Tisha Ba’av.  I do not know whether it is more absurd to mourn so intensely in rebuilt and reunified Jerusalem or in the proud, free capital of the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish superpower in history, which is populated by Jews who live there happily and thrive.  While I recall the story of the soldier in Napoleon’s army, who impressed the great emperor by mourning his people’s loss from 2000 years earlier so intensely – “this is an eternal people,” Napoleon supposedly said — I frequently fear all this breast-beating about our past traumas invites neurosis.

Then Bulgaria happens. And Aurora happens.  Following both crimes, my Tisha Ba’av this year will be particularly resonant. I will mourn the losses the Jewish people have sustained from unreasoning, often broadly enabled, anti-Semitism. And I will appreciate the opportunity to root my children and myself in a more enduring story of loss and rebirth, in a deeper set of values which includes memory, which can anchor the soul, even if the result is occasional anguish and perpetual mourning programmed into our calendar.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Institute 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 is Racism,” will be published this fall.

To Rome (from Jerusalem) with love — of nationalism

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-17-12

Visiting Rome reminds us of the magic of cities and the power of nationalism.  Like people, cities have distinct characters. You can no more take the romance out of Rome, than take the Jew out of Jerusalem. While some tourists are cultural scavengers, cannibalizing disjointed elements of rich, integrated civilizations, tourism at its best is holistic and nourishing, stretching visitors to embrace the unfamiliar, the exotic. Hopping across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome reinforces the deep atavistic understanding that people do best in thick, historically-resonant, values-laden communities, bound by multiple ties, while making their tribalism transcendent.

Of course, the wandering Jew in Rome is a fiddler on the roof, dancing delicately between delight and despair. The proud, historically-conscious Jew takes guilty pleasure in Rome’s grandeur. You don’t need to see the Arch of Titus, which toasts our Temple’s pillaging, to remember how destructive was the power represented in the towering columns that punctuate today’s Rome as frequently and dramatically as potholes popped up in 1970s’ New York.  But like a wounded lover nobly trying to restore lost faith, the Jew must not be imprisoned by past traumas. While honoring our martyrs’ memories and refusing ever again to be helpless, we distort history and risk poisoning our souls if our collective rearview mirror remains only tinged blood-red.

The story of Rome and Jerusalem, like the Jewish story overall, is not just about Jews confronting non-Jews but about Jewish and non-Jewish collaboration, consonance, and creativity.  Martin Goodman’s 2007 book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, ends tragically but starts happily.  “At the beginning of the first millennium CE both cities were at the peak of their prosperity and grandeur, each famous throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond,” Goodman writes. “They were two cities with a culture partly shared, from the gleam of ceremonial white masonry in the summer sun to acceptance of … the influence of Greek architecture and philosophy.”

Seventeen hundred years later, the two cities epitomized the old-new power of Europe’s romantic nationalist resurgence. In Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, Karl Marx’s colleague Moses Hess pivoted from universalist socialism’s false cosmopolitanism toward the Jewish nationalism that Theodor Herzl later called Zionism.   Nationalism was roiling Hess’s Western world in 1862, as Europeans began what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “matching” various peoples with particular states. That year, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s “Iron and Blood” speech helped unify Germany; Giuseppe Garibaldi tried and failed to incorporate Rome into modern Italy; while Abraham Lincoln was struggling to quash Southern separatism and redeem American nationalism.

“On the ruins of Christian Rome a regenerated Italian people is arising,” an inspired Moses Hess wrote.  Returning to his own people after “twenty years of estrangement,” Hess rejoiced, “Once again I am sharing in its festivals of joys and days of sorrows, in its hopes and memories. I am taking part in the spiritual and intellectual struggles of our day.” Hess was not retreating to the ghetto but reawakening a more natural, authentic, organic self. He derided the “really dishonorable Jew” who is “ashamed of his nationality,” no matter how many “beautiful phrases about humanity and enlightenment … he uses so freely to cloak his treason.” Hess’s renewed communal sentiment empowered and enlightened.  He hailed “the thought of my nationality, which is inseparably connected with my ancestral heritage, with the Holy Land and the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and of the hope for the ultimate brotherhood of all men.”

Hess made the classic nationalist move, which is often unappreciated in our age of faux-cosmopolitanism. He repudiated the thinness of the universalist’s righteous-sounding but hollow “we are the world” postures while reveling in the thickness of the Jewish nationalist’s ambition to redeem his people and then the world. He understood that the pathway toward uniting Rome and Jerusalem in constructive collaboration was for the Italians to renew Rome and for the Jews to renew Jerusalem. Only by triggering a “national renaissance” rooted in their authentic collective selves could these communities tap into the necessary energies to be the best they could be.

Last month, 150 years later, the New York Times columnist David Brooks, explaining New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen’s continuing success worldwide, wrote:  It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition … you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.” Echoing Hess, Brooks pleaded:  “Don’t try to be everyman…. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible.”

In that spirit, nationalist scientists tapped into their individual and collective power in discovering the “God particle.” Israeli newspapers emphasized Israel’s role; Italian newspapers proclaimed “Italians help.” Canadians and Indians were equally boosterish – deservedly so.  Like religion, nationalism can build or destroy. National pride need not descend into chauvinism; it can be harness to achieve universal goods.

Zionism offers Jews the opportunity to mine the geography of our own past and enjoy our own national pride. The Zionist draws intimate strength from Jerusalem and respectful inspiration from Rome, appreciating Rome’s deep roots and broad vision, while understanding that the same collective power that so long ago built a majestic Colosseum to last, can be tapped today to help individuals find meaning and countries solve their most pressing problems.

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.

Yes, there is no occupation – legally not practically

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-10-12

With the mind-numbing predictability of ants entranced by food, Israeli leftists and rightists are instinctively condemning or praising the former Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy’s Committee for declaring that “Israelis have the legal right to settle in Judea and Samaria.” The report concluded that the laws of occupation “as set out in the relevant international conventions cannot be considered applicable to the unique and sui generis historic and legal circumstances of Israel’s presence in Judea and Samaria spanning over decades.” I agree. Israel’s control over the West Bank is legal. But that does not mean it is practical, advisable, tenable, moral or should be perpetual.

Both the Left’s hysteria and the Right’s euphoria distort the debate.  Rather than condemning the three-person commission report as “born in sin,” “stupid,” “ideological” not “legal,” and authorizing “crime” – as Yesh Din’s attorney Michael Sfard did — leftists should acknowledge the arguments’ validity. July 24 will mark the 80th anniversary of the League of Nations’ confirmation of the British Mandate in 1922 which granted Jews the rights to settle between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, given “the historical connection of the Jewish people with Palestine.” Those rights remain.  November 29 will mark the 65thanniversary of the UN partition plan which due to the 1948 war was not fully implemented. This created a legally ambiguous situation in the West Bank, both when Jordan, ahem, “occupied” it until 1967, and continues today, after Israel seized the disputed, legally undefined territory in a legitimate war of self-defense. And the post-Six Day War, UN Resolution 242 called for “Withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict” – not “the territories” or “all the territories,” while using the o-word, occupied.

These arguments are legally and historically valid. Leftists who profess to love peace should accept them, then confront Israeli rightists by saying, “Yes, we have legitimate, legal ties to this land. But I love peace so much I am willing not to exercise those valid rights because hundreds of thousands of Palestinians live there with their own national rights and needs.”  Israeli leftists lose credibility by minimizing the importance of Judaea and Samaria, of Hebron and Gush Etzion, to the Jewish people and the Zionist story. Returning something you believe you stole is meaningless.  Giving away something you know is yours, for pressing practical or ethical reasons, is magnanimous.

Israeli rightists have foolishly allowed their accurate reading of history and law to blind them to the complicated realities. Most Israelis do not want to control millions of Palestinians. A workable two-state solution would be good for the Jews, not just the Palestinians.

Just as Americans frequently misuse the word “constitutional” as a synonym for “good,” the international community often declares actions it likes “legal” and actions it dislikes “illegal.” This intellectual tic reflects the elaborate international legal structure developed after World War II which hoped to prevent another worldwide catastrophe. Unfortunately, the post-1960s politicization of these once universal principles, and the promiscuous labeling of phenomena as legal and illegal, have frequently confused matters, especially in the Middle East.

Rather than quibbling about legalities, let’s address the complicated realities. I reject the international community’s assumption – increasingly shared by many American Jewish elites – that the “occupation” is “illegal,” that settlements present the main obstacle to peace, and that the Palestinians have valid rights to the entire West Bank while the Jews do not.

Instead, I start with the historical understanding that in the area of historic Palestine, borders shifted and populations moved. Anyone’s monism – treating the messy Middle Eastern story as based on one single unifying idea – makes me moan. Accepting the chaos of the past encourages compromising in the present. In that spirit, the 70 percent Israeli peace consensus – the mainstream of the country consistently open to compromise – would keep the historic Jerusalem suburb of the Gush Etzion Bloc but would sacrifice historic Hebron, while affirming valid legal and historic rights there too.

The history that concerns me more is the tragic, destructive and self-destructive history of the Palestinian National movement, which has consistently rejected compromise. We should mark today, July 11, as the End of Arafat Delusion Day, the 12th anniversary of the start of the Bill Clinton-Ehud Barak-Yasir Arafat Camp David talks. Remember that Arafat did not even offer a counter-proposal in July 2000 to Barak’s sweeping proposal for a two-state solution – as Clinton himself confirmed. Arafat then proved to be the terrorist he was rather than the Nelson Mandela many dreamed he would be by unleashing a wave of terror. In his gripping, enlightening, stunningly fair book, The Anatomy of Israel’s Survival, Hirsh Goodman reminds us that: “The failure at Camp David and the ensuing violence were seen by both the Israeli Left and the Israeli Right as a total renunciation of the concept that peace was possible if Israel returned to the 1967 borders. Barak offered Arafat a deal considered by all to be substantial, fair, and beyond what any other Israeli had offered in the past. Still, the Palestinians wanted it all.”

Goodman notes that the pattern persisted through Mahmoud Abbas’s repudiation of Ehud Olmert’s generous proposals. Goodman wants to end the “occupation.” But he has too much integrity to manufacture a distorted history to serve his ideology, and instead acknowledges Israel’s “ball of thorns.”

Arguing about the legality of settlements and occupation is like neighbors quarreling about which one will have to pay the water bill as their row house burns. The core issue remains how two stubborn peoples in love with the same land learn to live together. Ideologues ignoring realities from all sides make peace more elusive, whether they label themselves “peaceniks” or not.

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 this fall.

Haredi draft dodging is an individual crime

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-3-12

 
The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.

I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.  I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions.  The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society.  Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated — and the attendant hysteria is demonizing.  But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights.  Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.

In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.

And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service.  By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.

In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.

Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.

More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too.  Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us.  The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.

In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.

A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution.” I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.

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: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.