Building A Broad, Civil Jewish Tent On Israel


By Gil Troy NY Jewish Week, 5-29-12

As the American Jewish community mimics the rest of America with ugly, polarizing political fights, calls for a “big tent” are becoming common. Partisans are pushing back, caricaturing calls for a big tent as lacking in principle or shilling for the status quo. But constructing a big tent that is open enough to welcome disparate voices, yet not so undefined that it has no mooring, takes great skill and vision.

The finesse required was on display earlier this month. AJC Access, the American Jewish Committee’s youth wing, convened a second annual conference with the Reut Institute, an Israeli action-based think tank, to try creating a big, broad, respectful conversation about Israel, left, right and center. Young Jews, mostly aged 25 to 45, from more than 30 countries, participated.

During an intense, four-hour marathon session on “Legitimizing Israel,” I suggested four poles necessary for building a civil Jewish tent when talking about Israel. Like Abraham’s tent, it should be open on all four sides, while nevertheless offering protection.

Start by acknowledging complexity. Despite being a messy muddle, the Middle East seems to invite the most simplistic sloganeering. Yossi Klein Halevi, my colleague at Engaging Israel, a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says that the Israeli right fails by ignoring the first intifada’s lessons — that the Palestinians are a people with rights to self-determination, which must be respected. The Israeli left fails by ignoring the second intifada’s lessons, that Palestinian political culture is possessed by annihilationist impulses. Until Palestinian leaders become more committed to building their own state rather than destroying Israel, peace will remain elusive.

Secondly, we should build identity, mounting what Donniel Hartman of Engaging Israel calls a “Jewish values conversation about Israel.” Last summer, after I wrote two articles critical of J Street in the Jerusalem Post, I nevertheless was invited to address J Street U’s student mission to Israel. Using the Engaging Israel methodology, which entails drilling down to core issues while carving out open, respectful space for dialogue, I hosted the students in my home, and began the conversation by exploring the question of why we need a Jewish state. Having studied fundamentals together, and having forged a broad consensus about Jewish identity that requires expression in state form, we could then start debating borders and tactics with no acrimony.

More broadly, we have to stop only experiencing Israel as a country that needs our support. We have not fully recognized how Israel’s existence enhances Jewish identity worldwide — or how Israel helps solve our existential dilemmas as human beings and as Jews in a stressful, confusing modern world. This kind of Zionism highlights consensus and spotlights values, while ending the constant obsession with Israel’s headaches.

Thirdly, we also must not be afraid to define our community. We should develop “red lines” and “blue and white lines,” meaning ideas we repudiate and principles we champion. Two years ago, a group that I was a part of, ranging from left to right, worked together to define common parameters. The document we produced came easily. We all affirmed our beliefs in Jewish nationalism, Jewish statehood, and mutual respect. And we agreed on red lines, such as not accusing Israel of racism or apartheid, and, more generally, not trying to refight the 1948 war about Israel’s right to exist, rather than the 1967 war about Israel’s borders.

Connected to this is the fourth and final pole, recognition of the toxicity that emerges from the systematic Arab attempt to delegitimize Israel. We are all scarred by living in the age of delegitimization. The Zionist left, in particular, should start getting angry at the delegitmizers, recognizing just how much delegitimizing Israel harms the peace process.

In building this tent, my advice is: acknowledge complexity, because nuance matters; engage Jewish identity issues, because values matter; define our community, because boundaries matter; and condemn the delegitimizers’ toxicity, because words matter.

In concluding the conference, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, eloquently explained why AJC convenes a big tent and cultivates a strong center. “We are more effective, we are more intelligent, we are more credible, when we listen hard to reasoned sides of the complex Israel issue before speaking up,” he said. Harris said the stakes couldn’t be higher, and, simplistic, doctrinal thinking doesn’t help advance the discussion; the argumentative Jewish tent should not an echo chamber, but must embrace civility and mutual respect.

This big tent approach appreciates that, as Harris noted, Israel is both a modern-day miracle and a work in progress. And it recognizes that over the millennia, Jews have created what he calls “the consummate guilt culture,” which is now applied obsessively to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have developed “the consummate blame culture,” which then preys on us so perfectly. The big tent approach notes the growing shrillness and polarization in American political culture but says, “We can do better.”

Gil Troy is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.

Needed: A New Jewish Civics Course

By Gil Troy, The New York Jewish Week, 1-11-11

If 2000-2010 was the decade of delegitimization, when Palestinian attacks on Israel’s existence gained renewed traction, 2010 was the year of delegitimization-lite.

More and more Jews responded to the relentless criticism of Israel by internalizing it.

True, most rejected the radical caricature of Israel as a racist or apartheid state deserving destruction. But absorbing the anti-Israel poison in the atmosphere, increasing numbers, especially among liberal Jewish elites, attacked Israel as fundamentally broken, caricaturing Zionism as a right-wing enterprise.

This neo-conning of Israel accepted the Israel-as-keystone-to-world peace delusion, indulged in the occupation preoccupation that the settlements constitute the main obstacle to peace, viewed liberalism and modern Zionism as increasingly incompatible, and bought the pro-Israel monolith myth, that the Jewish community squelches criticism of Israel.

Angry leftists and defensive rightists overlooked the Brandeis surveys showing growing support for Israel among young Jews, thanks especially to Birthright Israel, along with the debate raging about Israel within the community.

This apparent crisis, even if exaggerated, triggered much soul searching, including debates about how to teach Israel. Inevitably, in such a politicized environment the debate degenerated into a clash about how critical to be when trying to teach young Jews about Israel.

Educationally, we risk creating a mess. If adults struggle to sift through conflicting arguments, positions and emotions, how can we expect our students to absorb a coherent message?

To reframe the debate, we should re-conceptualize Zionist education. We need a revitalized Jewish history curriculum to teach the rise of Zionism and the realities of Israel as the result of a long historical process. However, Zionism should be taught as part of Jewish civics, exploring our rights and responsibilities as Jewish citizens in the modern world.

A Jewish civics curriculum makes explicitly Zionist assumptions, that we are a people with a civics to teach. Jewish civics starts by teaching belonging, explaining our deep, multi-dimensional connections to Judaism and Jews, to Israel and the Jewish people. If done effectively, it rejects probationary Judaism, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Judaism, a transactional Judaism making Jewish identity contingent on Judaism being useful for us, and dependent on Israel’s good behavior.

Jewish civics then moves from being to becoming. Our connection to Judaism becomes not simply a static piece in a modern person’s jigsaw puzzle of identities but a dynamic engine that helps us become better people while improving the world.

Jewish citizenship entails understanding peoplehood, realizing Judaism is more than a religion. It means learning how belonging to community enriches us and obligates us. It means understanding tikkun olam as a way of fixing the world through being Jewish not by escaping from Judaism. And it means studying Israel and Zionism in context — the context of rights and responsibilities, and, yes, rights and wrongs, challenges and dilemmas.

Zionism taught as Jewish civics involves understanding Zionism’s historical roots, Zionism’s mission to fix Judaism, to make it whole and historical and multidimensional again. It explores Zionism’s character, emphasizing action, not just identity.

Israel taught in the context of Jewish civics sidesteps the whole Israel right or wrong debate in two crucial ways. First, emphasizing belonging also makes the connection to Israel more integral, more natural, fewer contingents. It roots our Israel connection in our shared, enduring roots, not in the latest headlines. And by teaching Israel as part of the process of becoming, we carve out room for a wide variety of political responses while empowering a range of civic responses, meaning opportunities to build it, improve it, engage with it, dream about it, and find fulfillment through it.

Done effectively, a Jewish civics curriculum could be particularly empowering in the modern world and deliciously counter-cultural. It could move our youth beyond the internet’s passive, isolated, meta-community, with its false Facebook “friends” and virtual experiences. It could root our youth in the eternal us, in longstanding traditions, rather than the me-me, my-my, more-more, now-now of contemporary culture.

Civics skill-building could actually turn some of the time that young people spend surfing the net into more productive time, as they master the skills of citizenship 2.0, including learning how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist hate propaganda on the web. And it can unite young Jews all over the world, because young Israeli Jews need a new Jewish civics as desperately as do young American, Canadian and British Jews. n

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

How Liberalism, Zionism Reinforce Each Other

By Gil Troy, The NY Jewish Week, 7-6-10

The increasingly popular claim that Zionism and liberalism are incompatible misreads contemporary Israeli politics, modern Zionism and liberalism itself.

Zionism, like Americanism, is a form of liberal nationalism, one of the world’s most constructive, successful ideologies. Liberalism and Zionism remain not just compatible but mutually reinforcing.

Like George W. Bush’s America, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is a diverse democracy, with its current conservative government vigorously opposed politically and within civil society. Israel has a powerful left-leaning judiciary, an outspoken left-leaning press, and an influential left-leaning intelligentsia. In Israel today, women’s legal rights to an abortion are rarely questioned. Gays serve openly in the military. Israel’s labor federation, the Histadrut, remains formidable.

Moreover, in the last 15 years, as Israel ceded control of most major Palestinian population centers to the Palestinian Authority and left Gaza, most Israelis accepted the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism. Netanyahu’s government has endorsed a two-state solution, dismantled checkpoints and nurtured the West Bank economy. By contrast, most Arabs continue to repudiate Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism. The Israeli peace consensus, which has consistently supported territorial compromise, is currently stymied because the recent concessions triggered violence, followed by international condemnation when Israeli defended itself.

While Israelis quarrel about how to achieve peace, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel combined with Israel’s continuing control over millions of Palestinians has helped make Israel politically poisonous to many liberals.

Back in 1975, when the Soviet-Third World alliance in the United Nations labeled Zionism racism, the mainstream American liberal establishment denounced the UN, not Israel. UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that this “terrible lie” assaulting democracy and decency would enter like a toxin into the bloodstream of international discourse. Subsequently, the Soviet Union collapsed. The UN repealed the resolution in 1991. But the poison persists.

Israel remains the only nation on probation, with its legitimacy seemingly contingent on good behavior. Exaggerating Israel’s rightward shift and concluding that the state never belonged in the Middle East internalizes the relentless attacks rejecting its right to exist.

Treating support for Israel as a right-wing phenomenon ignores the longstanding calls for a “big tent” Zionism spanning right and left, and overlooks the common sources that spawned liberalism and Zionism. Both movements stemmed from the Enlightenment, with central values rooted in the Bible. Zionism and liberalism are intertwined with that sometimes ennobling, sometimes cruel, but defining modern movement — nationalism.

Modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, harmonized these three intellectual currents. In his visionary 1896 book, “The Jewish State,” Herzl dreamed of the Jewish state as a liberal model for the world. Herzl articulated the essential Zionist message still true today, echoed in America’s liberal nationalism, that national self-determination can provide the best framework to achieve utopian ideals collectively. Communities first must unite and protect their members before becoming forces for good.

Israel’s proclamation of independence in 1948 reconciles Zionism and liberalism, achieving universalism through particularism, by establishing a Jewish state rooted in Jewish history, expressing Jewish culture, carving out a Jewish public space, while promising equal rights to all its inhabitants. Despite tensions and imperfections, a liberal democratic oasis has sprung up in a harsh totalitarian desert. As Barack Obama eloquently told the Atlantic Monthly in 2008, Zionism represents this “incredible opportunity … when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Liberal nationalism American style — and Israeli style — enjoys the magical gift of self-correction. In countries offering their citizens equal rights, the natural logic of those guarantees have dramatically expanded freedom for all residents. Free speech, in particular, serves as a battering ram, knocking down hypocrisies, orthodoxies, inequities, injustice. Without changing regimes, America progressed from being a slave-holding white male democracy to today’s multicultural democracy.

Like Americanism, Zionism has never been static or monolithic. Zionism’s founders were charmingly, creatively, fragmented. Labor Zionists battled Revisionist Zionists. Cultural Zionists combated Political Zionists. Today, Religious Zionism and settler Zionism flourish alongside multicultural Zionism, eco-Zionism, entrepreneurial Zionism, feminist Zionism, and two-state-solution Zionism.

Those on the left who so demonize Zionism and romanticize Palestinianism to the point that they ignore Hamas’ violence against Palestinians and Israelis, violate liberalism’s core commitments to individual liberty and fair, rational conclusions. Progressives should delight in the vitality of Israel’s democracy, the vigor of its press, the power of its courts, the creativity of its universities, the dynamism of its population, the brashness of its many patriotic critics, the rights of its minorities, the freedom and equality so many of its citizens enjoy.

The Jewish and liberal traditions of development through disputation thrive in Israel, analyzing shortcomings, advancing reforms. Nevertheless, Israel, facing serious challenges, stumbles, like every nation-state, like all human creations. While criticizing Israel’s faults, without pulling any punches, also reaffirming the historic, harmonic convergence between liberalism and Zionism can help redeem Zionism — and liberalism.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His upcoming seventh book on American history will analyze Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s battle against the 1975 UN Zionism is racism resolution.

Understanding Obama As Our First PC President

By Gil Troy, New York Jewish Week, 4-27-10

Three mysteries underlie the current crisis between America and Israel. The first one is biographical: How can President Barack Obama call himself Israel’s friend, yet display such animus toward the Jewish state, exemplified most recently by refusing even to be photographed with Israel’s Prime Minister when hosting Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House?
The second is diplomatic: Why is Obama pursuing a policy that is so strategically shortsighted? His great accomplishment so far is raising Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and a two-state solution.

And the third is political: How come Obama is not paying much of a price from the American Jewish community? The smart money, so far, is on most Jews still voting Democratic in 2010 and 2012.
To unravel these mysteries, and understand this politician who repeatedly used his biography in his political ascent, we should look more closely at Obama’s personal story. Americans have not paid sufficient attention to Obama’s years at Harvard Law School — partially because he ignores those years, even in his memoir. But while it is shrewd for an ambitious politician with populist pretensions to downplay his time at one of America’s most elite institutions, it is foolish for citizens to underestimate the impact those years had on his ideological development.

In a rare article exploring Obama’s Harvard years, The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2007) proclaimed that “In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice.” While describing the consensus-building skills that would win him the White House, the article also glimpsed at the atmosphere in the Law School in 1990 when Obama became the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president. Harvard in those years was in the throes of “PC,” political correctness. The Times captures this by saying that “a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights” and that in “dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

These lines suggest that Obama conformed with the general atmosphere on campus, which was addicted to narratives of victimhood in the search for “diversity and economic justice.” The PC movement was rooted in the justifiable disgust with American racism, sexism and homophobia. Alas, like many counter-revolutions, it overreached, repudiating many Western values independent of those ills, celebrating whatever political groups succeeded in positioning themselves as underdogs afflicted by those ills, and frequently overlooking inconvenient facts that contradicted the larger plotline.
To be fair, Obama is too smart and subtle to be reduced to a PC poster child. Just as too many PC types caricatured complex situations around the world, it is unfair to caricature him. Still, it seems clear that the ethos of the time, which was overwhelming, monolithic, and quite unforgiving of any deviations, shaped Obama’s worldview.
Having lived through those years at Harvard, I salute Obama for emerging from that caldron of political correctness with as much range and nuance as he has. Still, when I see his edge on the Israel issue, when I see how quick he is to bash Israeli housing starts and how slow he is to criticize Palestinian incitement and violence, I recognize the signs of the distortions imposed by the PC-prism.
By 1990, Israel was no longer politically correct and the Palestinians were considered the African-Americans of the Middle East, insulated from criticism by virtue of their victimhood. Obama’s refusal to recognize the now-established historical pattern, whereby Palestinians increase their demands and intensify the violence when they feel supported by the West, is reminiscent of many other Ivy League New Leftists who saw the world as they wished to see it, not as it was — and is.

The Shin Bet documented 125 terror attacks or attempts this March, 27 of them in Jerusalem, in contrast to 53 in February with only three in Jerusalem. The Obama administration has consistently pressured Israel more than the Palestinians — even though this strategy undermines the push for peace. Yasir Arafat only negotiated when desperate, not when confident. Clearly, our first PC president’s worldview distorts his view of world events. And as for American Jewry, let’s face it, most of our community was — and is — PC too.
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.