Should Pro-Israel Blue-state Democrats Boycott Obama?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-29-12

Among the great anomalies of this political season have been the eerie campaign quiet in major American states, along with the refusal to admit that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama differ regarding Israel, as each candidate competes to appear more blue-and-white than the other. In the campaign’s waning days, let’s have some straight talk rather than partisan bluster.

President Barack Obama speaks during the AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images) President Barack Obama speaks during the AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

For starters, the Electoral College makes the contest a vote for state votes not popular votes. American culture has become increasingly nationalized, and homogenized. Yet, every four years, first in primaries that give some states disproportionate importance because of their timing, and then in the general election that gives some states disproportionate importance because they happen to be divided, we go suddenly regional.

The blue-state red state phenomenon makes many people in the neglected states feel their votes do not count. But, in the age of the online petition, strategic voting can use the Electoral College insanity to send important messages.

Progressive Outrage Over Gaza Rockets?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-26-12

Being associated with Open Zion is a great privilege, but I confess, sometimes I get frustrated. I just clicked on to the site, and saw the usual assembly of thoughtful, high quality essays – but tinged, I regret to say with the progressive obsession about Israel’s alleged “apartheid” and “racism.” Nowhere did I see an article reflecting the major Israeli concern this week – dozens of rockets fired from Gaza over the Green Line aimed at peaceful Israelis, just daring to live their lives. Where is the outrage against these aggressive, hateful moves? Where is the sympathy for nearly a million Israelis forced to rush to bomb shelters, to miss school and work, to build fortified extensions in their homes, to live from red alert to red alert?

Seen at dusk from along the Israeli-Gaza Strip border, a trail of smoke is seen as a rocket is launched from the Palestinian Gaza Strip towards southern Israel on October 24, 2012. (Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images)
Seen at dusk from along the Israeli-Gaza Strip border, a trail of smoke is seen as a rocket is launched from the Palestinian Gaza Strip towards southern Israel on October 24, 2012. (Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images)

We need more broad-based anger against these rockets. We need to hear more progressive voices denouncing these hate-filled, peace-killing, missiles. These rockets are in no way defensive, in no way constructive, in no way justified. They have one, clear aim and message: that innocent Israelis should die because these terrorists do not believe that Israel should exist. And the collateral damage, even when the kassams fall in an empty field, is tremendous. Every Islamist rocket from Gaza hurts those of us who support a two-state solution, because they symbolize to many Israelis, left, right and center, the utter failure of the Gaza withdrawal and the futility of further negotiations or withdrawals. Every Islamist rocket from Gaza hurts those of us who believe that in order to have any kind of compromise, some quiet, some stability, is a necessary first step. Every Islamist rocket from Gaza hurts the Israeli left, as it struggles to find some credibility, some vision, in the decade since the Oslo peace hopes degenerated into the Palestinian terrorist onslaught. Every Islamist rocket from Gaza hurts those Palestinians who seek compromise, including Palestinians like the Palestinian Authority Prime minister Salem Fayyed, who prefer to build their own state rather than destroy the Jewish state. And every Islamist rocket from Gaza hurts peace-seekers worldwide who abhor terrorism, and prefer what Winston Churchill called jaw-jaw to war-war.

I know of no country in the world which endures so many missiles crossing its internationally-recognized, undisputed border with such equanimity and restraint. Why does Israel continue to allow the flow of any supplies, any electricity, into an entity which launches unprovoked lethal assaults against it? Why does Israel continue to accept Gazans into Israeli hospitals when their fellow Gazans seek to kill Israelis? A neighboring country is under no moral or legal obligation to provide any goods or services to a hostile neighbor. That Israel continues to allow even some flow is a tribute to the country’s humanitarian generosity—but morally problematic when one assess the country’s own obligation to protect its citizens.

And make no mistake about it, many citizens in the area near Gaza are suffering. My cousin Adele Raemer has started a facebook group “Life on the Border with Gaza—things people may not know (but should).” Adele lives in a left-wing kibbutz that yearns for a two-state solution and true peace with all Arabs. What they have endured over the last eight years of rocket fire is unfathomable. Most recently, she reported on CNN’s iReport, about the dilemma she and some friends faced when she received a text message advising all area residents to go into their safe houses—while in the middle of a Yoga lesson.

“We all chose to finish our yoga lesson,” she writes. “At least if something fell on us, we would be the most chilled out and limber bunch of survivors the rescue teams would ever have come across. Sometimes you have to insist on keeping things sane. That is just an example of how some of us make it through these rough days, here on the border with the Gaza Strip.”

True, Adele and her friends demonstrate a remarkable, upbeat, living-well-is-the-best-revenge kind of spirit, which is characteristically Israeli. But, reality check: no one should have to live like that. No one should have to resort to that kind of gallows humor. Anyone who cares about Middle East peace, and about a fair, equitable, solution for all the people in the area, should start protesting against those Islamist rockets from Gaza, loudly, indignantly, consistently.

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

Celebrate Israel Legitimacy Month

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-23-12

In our base ten culture, which gives mystical power to anniversary milestones ending in five or zero, this November—in addition to being Native American Heritage Month, National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, National Novel Writing Month, and Lung Cancer Awareness Month—should become “Israel Legitimacy Month,” using two anniversaries to celebrate the legitimacy of the Zionist project. November 2 will mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, official British acknowledgement of the need for a Jewish homeland that culminated thirty years later—sixty-five years ago—on November 29, 1947, when the United Nations officially endorsed a Jewish state—and an Arab entity—in partitioning the land of Palestine.

Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)
Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)

In celebrating, it is important to note how unjust it is that we have to turn what should be simple celebrations into complex justifications. Israel should not have to defend its legitimacy. In a world wherein nationalism remains the central constitutive political force, most nations can enjoy the luxury of having their national rights respected, even taken for granted. But Israel and Zionism have been subjected to a systematic campaign of delegitimization targeting Jewish nationalism and Jews’ ties to their historic homeland, while questioning the validity and viability of Israel itself. We have to risk appearing defensive—even while acknowledging the disproportionate singling out—so as not to be unduly naïve, undereducated, and unprepared.

Moreover, in asserting Jewish national claims and Israel’s legitimacy we need not fall into the mutually exclusive trap and negate Palestinian claims. In a world that tends to give claims of national rights of self-determination the benefit of the doubt, both Jewish claims and Palestinian claims have their own legitimacy and historical pedigree.

The great significance of the Balfour Declaration, issued as a letter by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, stems essentially from the power at the time of Great Britain in drawing most of the map of today’s Middle East.   When “His Majesty’s government,” in all its imperial grandeur, looked with favor on “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the movement that Theodor Herzl had started twenty years earlier to articulate a nearly two-thousand-year-old dream of redemption received international legitimacy. When the British General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem five weeks later on December 9, 1917, military might reinforced the diplomatic vision. These moves led to the British mandate over Palestine, a period of stability, prosperity, and population growth for both the Jewish Palestinians and the Arab Palestinians, as they were called at the time. The fact that Jews from Europe and Arabs from the Middle East flowed into the newly flourishing Jerusalem and environs at the time should remind us that borders shifted and people moved—two essential historical insights that shape my openness to compromise on boundaries today.

Alas, during the British mandate, enmity between the two groups built up, along with the two populations and the infrastructure of a Jewish state. Nevertheless, as the historian Efraim Karsh shows in his important book “Palestine Betrayed,” there were also strong, healthy, grassroots relations among many Jews and Arabs.

Karsh’s title reflects his indictment of the Palestinian Arab leadership. The Hitlerite demagogue Haj Amin al-Husseini, and other extremist Arab leaders betrayed their people—and the vision of two peoples living side by side—by fomenting violence and, when offered a partition compromise by the United Nations in 1947, rejecting it outright and calling for Holy War instead.

Yes. I can respect Palestinian claims even while criticizing their leadership for rejecting that compromise—and others. And yes, we should return to the joy of November 29, 1947, when dancing broke out spontaneously throughout the Jewish world to celebrate the new world body’s validation of a Jewish state—even though Jews were also compromising, including accepting the internationalization of Jerusalem, their precious national capital.

Unfortunately, today, 95 years after the Balfour Declaration, and 65 years after the UN Partition plan, too many are ignorant of the history—and too many others purposely distort what happened. History should not offer handcuffs, shackling us to past realities that prevent compromise in the present. But history can teach us that, despite many attempts today to delegitimize Israel, Zionism, and the very notion of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish rights are historically valid, legally legitimate and cause for celebration.

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

President Barack Obama: Neither “Best Friend” Nor “Anti-Israel”

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-17-12

A Washington Post editorial on October 16 matter of factly stated the obvious: that President Barack Obama “sought to publicly distance himself from Israel early in his term” and that Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu “have made a mess of their personal relationship.” Both of these statements are quite obvious even to many casual observers of the Middle East. But it contradicts the central claim of many pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrats that Barack Obama has been “Israel’s best friend,” with some even claiming he is the best presidential friend Israel “ever” had.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)
Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

Both exaggerations emerge from the unhappy overlap between a common Israeli political pathology and a common American pathology. For decades now, the discourse about Israel has been far too hysterical, far too polemical, far too zero-sum. I call this the IAF—just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. Too many of Israel’s most ardent supporters brook no dissent, deeming anyone who deviates from their particular political playbook “anti-Israel.” This hawkish defensiveness is partially understandable, given the harsh anti-Israel voices out there, who quickly jump from criticizing an Israeli action to repudiating Zionism and the Jewish State. While being careful to avoid suggesting any moral equivalence between Israel’s overzealous defenders and its genocidal critics, we can acknowledge that such extremism is not helpful, on either side.

Having endured attempts to delegitimize us as Zionists, we should be careful not to delegitimize others. Obama, therefore, is not “anti-Israel,” but he is critical and skeptical about some Israeli policies, which has led him sometimes to be unreasonably hard on Israel.

Unfortunately, admitting that is not only difficult in the hysterical Israeli context, such nuance is no longer welcome in the American political context either.

In the age of the red-blue, right-left, Mitt Romney-Barack Obama polarization, shades of grey are welcome as trashy literature but not in American politics. In my book “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: From George Washington to Barack Obama,” I quote New York’s legendary mayor Ed Koch, who challenged voters, saying, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

American politics has also too frequently become an all-or-nothing proposition, making the USA the United States of Agita. As Republicans and Democrats twist themselves into ideological pretzels, or stretch further than “The Incredibles’” Elastigirl to accommodate their particular party’s most outlandish positions or politicians, subtlety is lost. Candidates get labeled as pro-this or anti-that, when effective politics or governance often requires a lighter touch, some acknowledgement of complexity.

So, yes, even as the campaign culminates in a down-to-the-wire slugfest, let’s try to restrain ourselves, and avoid extremes. I am waiting for a pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrat either to admit to voting for Obama despite his Israel position, or to support Obama’s Israel position as measured, complex but not the most enthusiastic support, ever. Similarly, I invite others who condemn some, not all, of Obama’s Middle East policies to join me in repudiating them, complimenting other positions, and calling Obama an Israel-skeptic but not anti-Israel. Let’s reserve that term of opprobrium for Israel’s enemies, who unfortunately earn that ignominious label, far too frequently and enthusiastically, day after day.

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

Finding Members Of The Tribe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never Forget, But Forget The Auschwitz Tattoos

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-5-12

Reflecting the modern media’s appetite for ghoulish anomalies, and its particular delight in pathologizing Israel, the New York Times published an article this week about young Israelis tattooing themselves with replicas of their survivor-grandparents’ Auschwitz numbers. Putting aside that other modern media tendency to interview half a dozen renegades and—poof—deem their marginal behavior an instant trend, one generation’s importing the scars of an earlier generation is perverse.

The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)
The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)

As both a Jew and an historian, I believe in keeping memories alive, never forgetting, and learning the lessons of the past. I worry that, as the survivor’s generation dies off, it will be harder to convey the true horrors Jews endured in the Holocaust. I cherish Elie Wiesel’s work, and as I write this my 12-year-son is spending some of his Sukkot holiday vacation reading Wiesel’s classic memoir “Night.” Moreover, as someone who is not “Gen 2” or “Gen 3,” whose four grandparents made it to American safety and freedom from Russia and Poland by the early 1920s, decades before the Nazi evil, I respect the trauma of the survivors and their descendants. I cannot fathom what bearing such a legacy would be like and am loathe to be judgmental.

Still, perpetuating the Auschwitz tattooing offends me as a humanist, a Jew and a Zionist. As a humanist, I celebrate most survivors’ instinct to insulate their children and grandchildren from history’s horrors. The survivors’ ability to go forward, to build new lives, reflects the extraordinary human capacity to heal, to regenerate, to grow—that is the lesson I embrace and echo.

As a Jew, I appreciate the power of ritualizing memory but through words and more benign deeds, turning the bread of affliction into edible matzah, the bitterness of slavery into horseradish, the tears of the oppressed into salt water. As Jews in particular, we don’t tattoo, we don’t self-flagellate, we don’t self-mutilate. We respect our bodies as holy and whole. I agree with my colleague Peter Beinart, who argues in “The Crisis of Zionism” that while remembering is a sacred act, there is something wrong with a Jewish community that has more Holocaust memorials than functioning Jewish day schools. I fear that with too much money invested in remembering how we died, not enriching how we live, with Jewish college students flocking to Holocaust courses but not courses on modern Jewish ritual or philosophy, we risk violating the Torah’s preaching to “choose life”; Judaism is not a death cult.

Finally, as a Zionist, this deification of trauma appalls me. Zionism was not about holding on to the sufferings of Europe—or the Middle East for that matter—but about transcending them. By returning to history’s stage, Jews were supposed to stop being the victims and feeling victimized. Zionism talked about rebuilding the Jewish body, reconstituting the Jewish body politic, regenerating the Jewish soul, affirming humanist values—not holding onto our hurts so much that we desecrate our bodies to remember our inherited pain.

Two years ago, an 89-year-old survivor Adolek Kohn returned to Auschwitz with some of his children and grandchildren at the urging of his daughter Jane Korman. She shot a video of him and his kids dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Some thought that was in poor taste—I thought it was fabulous. Dancing with the next generation, even at humanity’s gates of Hell, affirms life, keeps Judaism alive and lively, while reinforcing the Zionist mission whereby we achieve our own redemption through self-determination, inner strength, constructive visions, and good works.

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.

Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney’s Understandable Views on Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israel’s Allergy to the Arab Spring—Justified Again

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Americans and Israel After 9/11

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuke-Washing Iran

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Democrats Booed Jerusalem at the DNC?

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

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

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

obama-aipac

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter Is Worse Than Clint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Announcement: Gil Troy, Open Zion 2.0

Open Zion 2.0

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Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-4-12

By , 9-4-12

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

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

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

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

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

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

Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.

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Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
 

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

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.

Gil Troy Responds to Yousef Munayyer

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-21-12

The many articles like Yousef Munayyer’s asking just how racist is Zionism echo the classic loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife”?

Supporters of Israel are forced to start backpedaling immediately, and frequently, unthinkingly, defensively, confirm too many unfair assumptions built into the question. I have no need to defend Aaron David Miller or his New York Times op-ed worrying about Israel’s demographics. I am not an Israeli WASP—a White Ashkenazi Sabra with Protekzia (connections), nor am I an American Jewish WASP, a Washington Peace Processor. Moreover, we at the Engaging Israel project of the Shalom Hartman Institute reject the whole Demography of Fear industry. As educators and as activists we believe in inculcating collective values and educating individuals, not in counting which groups at what scale threaten society.

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A young Arab-Israeli holds up the Palestinian flag run as he rides his horse in a Lod village, during a demonstration for “Land Day”, 30 March 2006. (Samuel Aranda / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Still, Munayyer’s use of Millers article to repudiate the Zionist project as racist raises recurring issues that should be addressed.

First, using the terms “racist” and “racism” is inaccurate and inflammatory. The racism charge was launched with great force into the Middle East by Soviet propagandists in the 1970s, particularly with the UN General Assembly’s infamous 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. This was an attempt to charge Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with the most heinous of crimes, crimes that in Nazi Germany, South Africa and the American south—on different scales of course—immorally judged human beings’ worthiness, and sometimes even their rights to live, on the basis of specious biological differences, especially skin color.

That is not what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict pivots on a set of national and ethnic distinctions which most of the world is more comfortable making. In a world of nation states that are frequently built on ethnic and tribal differences, we acknowledge that membership in one group or polity can affect the distribution of certain rights among human beings.  We also acknowledge that one valid role of a nation state is to preserve, affirm, and transmit a culture and certain collective values, not just to protect individuals.

Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:

A. Certain countries, particularly the United States and Canada, live by a from of civic nationalism, which focuses more on the relationship between individuals and the nation, although even in those two countries the rise of multiculturalism has led to discussion, awareness and sometimes even assigning of group rights.

B. Most countries represent a form of ethnic nationalism, using some vision of solidarity as the foundation for national unity and seeking to celebrate certain ethnic values in the nation’s public space.

C. Most Arab countries are on the high end of the scale of ethnic sensibility and the low end of the scale reflecting social tolerance, diversity, or fluidity.

D. Israel is a hypbrid. Israel’s Declaration of Independence establishes it as a Jewish state but also articulates civic aspirations, offering all its “inhabitants” equal rights.

Yes, there is a tension between the desire to keep Israel as a Jewish state—whatever Jewish means—and its civic aspirations. But all democracies navigate key tensions such as the tug of war between majority rule and minority rights. Just because two goods or two rights are in tension, it does not mean that one should negate the other.

Tragically, many critics use Israel’s civic, democratic aspirations as truncheons against the Jewish state, without noticing the exclusivity and rigidity of so many other countries, neighboring and otherwise.

I want Israel to keep pushing in both directions. I want Israel to be democratic, welcoming, broad-minded, giving all its citizens full rights and dignity. I also want Israel to be an ideal Jewish state, celebrating and redefining Jewish culture, embodying and enriching Jewish values, epitomizing and stretching the best Jewish ideals. Categorical “ahas” like Munayyer’s, implicitly saying, “you see, I told you the Zionist project was worthless” don’t help.  We need to fight the ethnocentrism that is an unfortunate byproduct of ethnic pride—especially at a time of ethnic and national conflict.

I am appalled by the “lynch” of Arabs in Zion Square, the racist rabbis of Tzfat, the yahoos who do not appreciate Israel’s delicate and diverse democratic dance. But to defeat them, we need a more nuanced, open, sophisticated and forgiving dialogue that seeks to find the right balance, forge the Golden Path, so that Israel can be what its founders wanted it to be a democratic Jewish state, protecting Jews, preserving Jewish tradition, opening up Jewish life and embracing all its inhabitants. Achieving that goal requires better education, clearer ideologies, sharper visions—and a constructive push for values neither counting one group of citizens as the “good” kind or repudiating the Zionist project itself.

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.

 

Boycott Hamas — But Foster Palestinian Moderation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-17-12

This is the first in a series of articles that will answer the question of how to deal with Hamas.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon part of it,” Part III, Article eleven of the Hamas Charter reads. “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad,” says Article fifteen. And then it goes wacky, invoking the Protocols of Zion, targeting “Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like,” making it clear that, as Article twenty-eight teaches “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

Those who pressure Israel to mollify Hamas want Israel to appease an unrelenting, paranoid, anti-Semitic, Jihadist movement committed to Israel’s destruction and ideologically opposed to compromise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that “words matter.” And the words in founding charters matter the most. They reflect an entity’s character, its highest aspirations, its most cherished self. To ignore those words—and those ideas—is to disrespect the organization, let alone delude oneself.

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Palestinian Hamas premier in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya gestures in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City on August 6, 2012 during a protest against five gunmen who killed 16 Egyptian guards. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Moreover, Hamas has never renounced, never regretted, never apologized for, the many civilian deaths resulting from its suicide bombing campaign against the Oslo peace process. Moreover, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza resulted in repeated rocket fire from Gaza, an area now controlled by Hamas. Hamas dictates how women should dress and what children should learn yet pretends that its dictatorial rule somehow runs out when it comes to a government’s most basic responsibilities, which include maintaining order internally and determining how it acts externally.

At the same time, Israel must live in the real world, a world in which Hamas controls Gaza, and a world in which Palestinian assaults against Israel are repeatedly ignored or excused away. What to do?

As long as Hamas continues to live by its charter, as long as rocket fire and terrorist incursions continue to come from Gaza, Israel should maintain its policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. I would go even farther and let Egypt take responsibility for all deliveries, all electricity, all hospitalizations. If Gaza had no border with Egypt, Israel would have a moral obligation to keep some goods and services flowing. But a country has no moral obligation to a sworn enemy when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to its south.

At the same time, Israel should acknowledge its own historic failures in building up moderates in the Palestinian camp—and learn how to avoid giving extremist groups like Hamas the oxygen they need to grow. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates. And yes, they are justified in being frustrated that Israel frequently responds to the violent extremists more than the reasonable moderates.

The Gaza disengagement should have been part of an exchange with moderate forces in Fatah, giving them a victory rather than allowing the Hamas murderers to take credit.  Israel should continue building economic, political, and security infrastructure in the West Bank, continue its Benjamin Netanyahu-implemented policy of lifting checkpoints there, continue to make it clear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will be better off if they push their leaders toward more moderation rather than veering toward the extremism imposed on their Gazan cousins.

There is an expression in Arabic and Hebrew—sikin b’sikin—one dagger sharpens the other. That has been the dynamic, in many ways, for the last few decades. Surprisingly, right now, there is a bit of a respite, with moderates like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building their state not targeting their neighbors—and Israel is responding in kind. It is fashionable to complain about the current stalemate without seeing how much better off the region is in 2012 than it was in 2002, when violence reigned.  Heavy-handed moves like boycotts, blockades and bombings are easy to implement; creative diplomacy and visionary statesmanship are harder to pull off—but more necessary than ever.

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.

Response to New York Times Op-Ed: Avraham Burg’s Blind Spots

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-7-12

Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.

The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a  “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.

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Workers put up an election poster for the left-wing Meretz party reading: “Only Meretz is Great.” (David Silverman / Getty Images)

 

The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”

Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?

Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.

I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.

These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.

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.

Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-3-12

Mitt Romney’s recent Israel trip proved yet again that a political gaffe is a politician caught in the act of telling the truth. True, his comment that “culture makes all the difference” when comparing the Israeli and Palestinian economies was too broad—all politicians should learn never to use words like “all” and “never.” But the media firestorm his comments evoked, and Saeb Erekat’s predictable charge that Romney made a “racist statement,” mixed together two topics about which it seems impossible to have a textured, subtle, mature conversation these days: the Middle East and the impact of culture.

For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

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Palestinian girls walk home from school inside the refugee camp of al-Fawar in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, the Middle East had its own Great Inversion as Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.

Underlying these complex phenomena, which had many causes, manifestations, and subtleties, was a defining ideological and intellectual struggle. By 2000, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published an anthology “Culture Matters” as a rallying point for David Landes and other culture-oriented colleagues. Romney’s remarks should be understood in the context of this ongoing debate and ideological power struggle. His analysis reflects his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a central critique of Barack Obama’s worldview.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As the scholar-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Culture matters—but politics matters too.

So no, it is not helpful to shut down every conversation about the impact of culture by shouting “racist.” And yes, it is absurd to see the same people who generalize so broadly about Israeli culture and character take such umbrage at generalizations about Palestinian character. The Middle East will not progress until Palestinians can look at their culture critically, and see how worldviews that emphasize victimization, accept authoritarianism, impose sexism, celebrate terrorism, and squelch individualism are destructive. It is more than true that many Palestinians, partially due to their contact with Israelis, are more entrepreneurial and democracy-minded, than many other cultures we could easily name. But Israelis—and Palestinians—both have to take responsibility and step up to progress.

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.

Kadima Marches Backwards

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.”

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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.