Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-18-12

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

iEngage Evening Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute Summer 2012 Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem, June 28, 2012, featuring Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone, Gil Troy

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Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

VIDEOS

By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 6-10-12

Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

Prof. Gil Troy, iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, discusses the lessons to be learned from Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader often associated with the “right,” but whose idea of bringing “hadar” – glory and beauty – to Jewish life – applies to today. Recorded June 10, 2012, Jerusalem, Israel.

Gil Troy: Struggling With Jewish Power

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 4-25-12

Gil Troy, a Fellow of the Engaging Israel Project at Shalom Hartman Institute, talks about how, in the context of the current US presidential election, Jews in the US and in Israel must come to grips with power.

Israel at 64: What I Am Celebrating This Year… The Sounds, Smells, Sights, Tastes and Touch of Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 4-22-12

Fellows of the iEngage Project at Shalom Hartman Institute write about what they are celebrating as Israel turns 64: 
GIL TROY: The Sounds, Smells, Sights, Tastes and Touch of Israel
 
I am celebrating Israel this year with all five senses.
 
I rejoice in the sounds of Israel, from the medley of happy, healthy kids shouting as they play in Jerusalem’s playgrounds – which include the Old City’s ancient alleyways – to the awestruck quiet on Yom Kippur, when through custom not compulsion, few Israelis drive.
 
I delight in the smells of Israel, with the Galilee and Negev in full bloom after a winter of real rain, and that drooping purple plant, the wisteria, entrancing with its sweet fragrance as I wander Jerusalem’s streets.
 
I celebrate the sights of Israel, particularly the juxtaposition of old and new I witnessed as I ran the Jerusalem half-marathon this year with thousands of others, starting with the symbols of modern Israeli statesmanship – the Knesset, the Supreme Court, the Foreign Ministry – and then cutting through the Old City on the way up to the new neighborhoods of Arnona – and back!
 
I appreciate the tastes of Israel, particularly the flavors I can savor just by waltzing down Emek Refaim Street – from Joy’s modern fusion to Caffit’s creative choices to Marvad Haksamim’s Sephardic delicacies to Buffalo Steak House’s entrecote to Sushi Rehavia’s Sushi, and to my new discovery, thanks to my daughter, the eclectic 54HaMoshava – and all are kosher.
 
And I toast the soft touch of Israel – it feels right to be a part of the Hebrew Revolution, where pigs-in-blankets (mini hotdogs in buns) become Moshe be-teva, Moses in a basket. It feels good to be in a place committed to building an idealistic Zionist “us” not just indulging the never-satisfied “me.” It feels grand to contribute to an experiment in nurturing a liberal democracy with a Jewish sensibility, a modern country proud of its ancient past, a Start-up Nation which is also a Values Nation. Chag Sameach.
independence

iEngage: Hartman Summer Internship: Continuing the Jewish Mentorship Tradition

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 3-22-12

The new bestselling tell-all memoir by Mimi Alford, the 19-year-old Monica Lewinsky of the John Kennedy White House, who detailed her 18-month-long affair with JFK, has once again made the phrase “White House intern” a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor. More broadly, the internship, a lovely, often life-changing rite of passage, is the latest sacred cow under attack.
 
Reductionist radicals who only view society through the prism of power as exploitative, have assailed internships as providing organizations with free labor, giving rich kids a form of affirmative action, because only they can afford internships, and muscling out workers who need the paying jobs. These attempts to pathologize what for many young people and organizations is a constructive win-win, mentorship growth opportunity, overlooks an essential Jewish value which internships epitomize, the beauty of learning by doing.
 
This summer, we at the Shalom Hartman Institute hope to have a tikkun, repairing the breach by creating the right kind of internship.
 
Despite being the People of the Book, Jews have a profound, historical, even theological appreciation for the educational osmosis that occurs when a talented young person shadows a worthy role model. Two of the greatest Biblical leaders were first nurtured as interns. Joshua was, we learn in Numbers 11:28, “the attendant of Moses from his youth.” In his role as Moses’ assistant, protege and shadow, Joshua received the ultimate opportunity, the most intimate look at the greatest moment for Moses and the Jewish people – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Exodus 23:13 says, “Moses rose up and Joshua, his attendant.” In both cases the Hebrew root of the word shin-resh-taf speaks of service, of ministering, of intense devotion.
 
Similarly, the great prophet Samuel was an intern to Eli at Shiloh. Although that career choice seemed to have been made for him by his Jewish mother ­- an action that became so common it became a staple of American popular culture – Samuel 1, 3:1 says “the boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.”
 
Although statistics are unreliable, the world capital of internships may be Washington, DC. Every summer, America’s hot, muggy capital attracts swarms of young, fresh-faced college and post-college students, eager to work for senators, representatives, government agencies, NGO’s, thinktanks, authors, and, most coveted of all, the president, at least symbolically, in the White House. These earnest, dressed-for-success young men and women have their own hangouts, their own rental patterns, their own group rituals. Some can afford not to work for money, but others will hustle as waiters or in other capacities at night to finance their daytime dream-job. Each one ends up with an individualized experience that can range from frustrating grunt work to what feels like profound, holy work, as it did to Samuel and Joshua.
 
The Zionist movement has long treasured the ideal of peer leadership, not for cheap labor but for ideological purity. The combination of role-modeling and on-the-job training has empowered generations of Jewish leaders in Israel and abroad. Peer leadership reinforces the traditional Jewish value of learning by doing with the Zionist commitment to self-reliance, authenticity, and returning to history.
 
A successful internship depends on the intern – but it also depends on the mentor. A successful internship flourishes as what the philosopher Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” relationship, not as an “I-it.” An “I-it” internship throws at the young person a pile of unappealing work that no one else wants to do. An “I-Thou” internship requires investment from the mentor, who models an approach to work and to the mission behind the work, so that even filing and answering correspondence can feel important. Not everyone who has an uncompleted to-do list can handle an intern. The “I-Thou” mentor takes the time to pass on a suitable project that stretches the intern, that teaches the intern, that builds a relationship – many of which last for decades.
 
This year, at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we are launching an iEngage Shalom Hartman Summer Internship that we hope will model how to train young people, in the same way we hope our iEngage project will model a new way to talk about and appreciate Israel. The three critical elements in building what we hope will be lasting relationships with a cadre of talented young people every year are: study in the morning, learning about the foundations of Judaism together, with each other as hevruta, as learning partners, with top Hartman scholars, work in the afternoon on the Engaging Israel project, either working closely with one of the EI scholars on a particular research project or working in small groups on some of the projects the EI team has identified as essential next steps in our educational mission, and finally, a commitment in the following school year to host one EI Hartman program on campus, to put the learning to work.
 
Beyond that, we expect our interns to breathe in the atmosphere of the city of Jerusalem and this think tank over the summer – enjoying many free lunches – as rabbis, scholars, ministers, teachers, philosophers, and activists gather on the Hartman campus in Jerusalem and do what we hope the interns will do – work together, think together, laugh together, bond together, and learn together. Click here for more information on the iEngage internship program.

iEngage: Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Haredi Wolf?

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By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 2-1-12

 
The reddening of Israel, dismissing the Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, Republican project, increasingly foreign to cultured, blue-state Democrats, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis – haredim – as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true?  Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.
 
Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while maintaining gender distinctions. The debate about TV and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture continues infiltrating into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.
 
While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Statistics are elusive. But communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series. Simani Sheilah – question marks – evoking the modern epidemic of doubt, debuted last year. It tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, abruptly confronting modernity. 
 
The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic – and inspiring – example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the Palestinian terror campaign, dispatching the ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.
 
One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks, which spawned two leading social service organizations. Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.
 
In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works – and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews – who epitomize the stereotypical Jew — makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”
 
More broadly, liberal, secular, Westerners’ condescension toward religious people kicks in. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”
 
Haredim – and their leaders — are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.
 
Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper: “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.” Still, in such a hierarchical community, which grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. 
 
In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us – we are all here to stay.”
 
Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a stable media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.
 
This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization – and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.
 
The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership.
 
The pathologies of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. Needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments. 
 
Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

iEngage: Field of Dreams and Reality: Toward a Balanced Zionist Vision

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By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 11-8-12

Healthy nations, like healthy individuals, have dreams, ambitions, defining ideals. Democracies are dream factories, where the “ought” – the model society we hope for – inspires individual and collective achievements. In the United States, the “American Dream” shapes personal ambitions, while noble principles such as liberty, democracy, justice, and equality shape America’s greatest communal accomplishments. These collective aspirations create the high standards by which the world judges any democracy’s behavior, and by which citizens in a democracy should judge themselves. They also steer democracy’s self-corrective mechanisms, its remarkable capacity for peaceful reform.
 
All governments and societies are imperfect and must balance national ideals with difficult realities, the “ought” and the “is.” Achieving equilibrium often proves particularly vexing when it comes to Israel. Both the expectations people have of the country and the problems facing it seem overwhelming. Today, at their most extreme, many supporters of Israel are so dazzled by the idea of a Jewish State that they only judge Israel by the “ought,” its noblest dreams, failing to admit any faults in the “is.” Alternatively, extreme critics only judge Israel by the “ought” of artificially high standards that no state under attack can achieve, forgetting then to acknowledge any good that there “is.”
 
Usually, among most Jews, the dialogue about Israel is more nuanced. But contemplating the extremes can encourage thinking about a more tempered discussion, exploring how Israel as it is and how Israel as it ought to be can form the basis for a healthier engagement with Israel. Even if Israel’s high ideals court great disappointment or invite unfair criticism, Israel must keep striving, as both a Jewish state and a Western democracy. Israel should remain engaged with the “ought” – the country it hopes to become – in order to improve the “is,” the country it currently appears to be. A renewed Zionism based on a mutually satisfying relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel requires a recalibration between the “ought” and “is.”
 
Creative Dissatisfaction
 
The State of Israel was conceived by a playwright, Theodor Herzl, who coined the slogan: ”If you will it, it is no dream,” and set into motion the political process that culminated in 1948. Israel is not just an Altneuland – an old land renewed – but a dream-come-true land. The Jewish return to the Promised Land, after nearly 2000 years of yearning, in the form of a functioning state committed to traditionally Jewish and modern democratic ideals, was one of the twentieth century’s great redemptive stories. And the founding of Israel, imbued with the idealism of the halutz and the kibbutz, the pioneer and the communal farm, cast the Jewish state as a model nation for the world.
 
As a people, too, Jews are addicted to the “ought.” Our Torah offers practical pathways toward creating an ideal world. Our foundational texts speak of pursuing justice, treating neighbors graciously, honoring strangers. Our national anthem is “Hatikvah,” the hope. We end every Seder with the aspiration “next year in Jerusalem,” thinking perhaps of aliyah, or at least of a renewed Jerusalem, be it a rebuilt capital in the Middle East, a celestial city, or even a new Middle East entirely. The cycle, repeated again and again throughout Jewish history, of facing oppression and then being redeemed – or at least surviving – demanded a capacity to reach for the “ought,” dreaming about a better world, while coping with the “is,” no matter how ugly the actual world was at a given point in time.
 
As Jews, we are constantly searching for how we and our homeland can stretch, can improve. The search creates a culture of intense criticism, passionate arguments, and, sometimes, deep disappointment. But it also cultivates a politics of high ideals, magnificent aspirations, and great achievements. We have seen Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Arab lands, the crumbling Soviet Union, distressed Ethiopia become productive citizens of a sovereign state. We have seen peace treaties signed, technologies developed, economic benchmarks surpassed, which the experts never thought would happen. We have seen Jewish values applied creatively to modern situations.
 
Jews have forged a modern democracy rooted in the ancestral homeland, whose citizens live by the Jewish calendar. Israelis have synthesized Western law with Jewish law, revived the Hebrew language, and pioneered a dynamic new Israeli culture. Israel has shared agricultural and medical technologies with Third World countries. We as a people have not only survived amid difficult conditions, we have thrived. Without an addiction to the “ought,” a constant search to improve individually and collectively, our “is” would not be as good as the “is” is today.
 
In building a Zionism for the 21st century, Jews should take this “ought” talk more personally. Belonging to a people, a nation, helps individuals envision the future and change the present by mobilizing communal resources and sharing skills. In Israel and the Diaspora, many Jews use this “peoplehood platform” to fix the world, to be a vehicle for fulfilling personal and communal ideals. We can see Jewish idealism in the ways Jews lead philanthropically, in Israel and the Diaspora, giving money to a variety of causes, “Jewish” and “secular.” In May 2006, at the Save Darfur rally in Washington, DC, Jewish students, wearing Jewish organizational T-shirts while demonstrating for oppressed Sudanese, showed they understood how to advance universal ideals through Jewish values and affiliations. Likewise, in March, 2011, Israelis helped stricken Japanese earthquake and Tsunami victims through IsraAID’s skilled search-and-rescue teams. These young Israeli army veterans also proved they could help humanity via their national identity.
 
As Israel’s president, Shimon Peres has eloquently invoked national ideals in ways that none of the recent, pedestrian prime ministers have. Peres frequently celebrates Jews’ “dissatisfaction gene.” He calls it “the greatest thing about Judaism,” explaining that “a Jewish person cannot be satisfied . . . The minute he is satisfied he begins to be non-Jewish. Dissatisfaction is the source of creation. All the time, because we were oppressed, we were small, we couldn’t sit down and have a glass of wine.”
 
Ultimately, the Zionism we must develop today is an aspirational Zionism. The generation of our parents and grandparents helped found the state. The task of Israeli or Diaspora Zionists, is to correct its problems and fulfill its many ideals. We need to continue to see – in utilitarian terms – Zionism as a useful vehicle. This struggle to improve the Jewish state enlists Jewish individuals as active players in a grand enterprise. And, if we succeed, not only will we find individual fulfillment, improve Israel’s quality of life, make Israel a model nation, and use our Zionist platform to help humanity, we will also redeem the ideals of nationalism and religion. If we can show that creating a democratic Jewish state is not a futile quest to resolve an incompatible contradiction but rather an opportunity to apply values from our rich religious tradition while expressing our deep national spirit, we can teach the world – and ourselves – a valuable lesson.
 
It will not be easy. Too many Westerners today, some Jews included, have bought into a faux cosmopolitanism, caricaturing both nationalism and religion as xenophobic. And too many Westerners today, including an increasingly vocal minority of Jews, only see Zionism as xenophobic rather than temperate or constructive. Jews who have a stake in Israel, however, have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to show that nationalism can mobilize collective power for good and not just polarize. We have to prove that our religion can root us in the quest for universal justice, not just derail us into superstition and self-absorption. In fact, our rich Jewish tradition, brought to life in a thriving, modern, democratic nation-state, can be a framework for finding individual meaning and achieving universal good for the world.
 
Luftmenschen No More
 
This constant quest to improve the Jewish homeland creates a culture of high ideals and grand aspirations while risking a politics of harsh criticism and intense disappointment. Overemphasizing the “ought” can backfire. If expectations about the Jewish state are too high, there is a risk of forgetting that governments are imperfect vehicles, run by imperfect people making tough decisions. In such a situation, many outsiders make their support for the state contingent on its fulfillment of some ideal, rather than its inherent right to exist.
 
We must be clear in our thinking, especially at a moment when various international forces are aiming to delegitimize Israel, assailing Israel’s very right to exist. We should never invoke the “ought” to justify Israel’s existence out of some sense of virtue as defined by others, but should instead feel challenged and inspired to embrace the aspirations of the Jewish Zionist mission. Israel does not beg the world for the right to exist because we Jews claim to be uniquely noble. We do not accept our national rights on probation, contingent on good behavior. In viewing the “ought” not as a question of legitimacy but of destiny, not as a question of Israel’s right to exist but of what to do with that right, we can enjoy the great opportunities liberal nationalism and Zionism afford. Becoming a “Start-Up Nation” was not necessary to justify Israel’s existence, but being a “Start-Up Nation” is one of many ways the world benefits from the fulfillment of Zionism.  
 
Many American Jews take this sort of mission in America for granted. It is rare to see any Americans use America’s failure to create a perfect”New Order of the Ages” – in Latin, Novus ordo seclorum, the words that appear on the one-dollar bill – as proof that the United States should not exist or is illegitimate. It has been argued that Israel suffers from a variation of “The Beauty Myth.” Just as feminist author Naomi Wolf warned that the constant images of supposedly perfect models make many women feel perpetually inadequate, the Zionist Beauty Myth creates artificially high expectations about what the Jewish State should be. It’s a recipe for disappointment and even repudiation.
 
Alternatively, focusing exclusively on the “ought,” always seeing Israel or any country as a work in progress, also risks deferring judgments so far into the future that we avoid important issues in the “is.” When you have a sovereign government, good intentions and big dreams are not enough. Results count. For example, Israel has been a world leader in articulating a doctrine of “Tohar HaNeshek,” “the purity of arms.” In teaching soldiers in a democracy under attack how to defend themselves while preserving their souls, to fight hard without losing their moral compass, Israel’s guidelines often exceed world norms. Writing in the New Republic in the aftermath of the 2009 Gaza war, the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal noted that unlike international law, Israel’s military code demands that “soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing the deaths of civilians.” But simply having a nicely developed idea is not enough – it must be implemented on the battlefield.
 
Zionism brought Jews back to history. Returning to real time, to political power, meant no longer being free-floating Luftmenschen, living in the “maybe” – it meant taking responsibility, confronting reality. Beyond that, classical Zionist thought is ambivalent on this question of what the character of the state should be. Theodor Herzl is best known for seeking normalcy. The famous story of his founding the Zionist movement in reaction to the Dreyfus affair, when waves of anti-Semitism cascaded through “enlightened” France, emphasizes a defensive quest to establish a state like all states, so that Jews could be like all other peoples.
 
But that narrative misses the liberal idealism that shaped European – and American – nationalism in the 1800s. Herzl himself was not just a defensive Zionist, he saw the great creativity and social good that national fulfillment could accomplish. As he wrote in his famous tract Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State“), in 1896: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.” This kind of utopianism informed much of the Zionist conversation among the many different schools of Zionist thought established in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Clearly, the Jewish idea of “normal life” remained – and remains – wrapped up in getting as close as possible to creating a heaven on earth in one’s personal and collective lives.
 
Therefore, Israel should not stifle difficult conversations, or postpone needed reforms, even if it is an embattled state facing ugly situations while ennobled by lovely dreams. Zionism rebelled against waiting for the Messiah. The “ought” must be a daily spur to judge the “is” and make it better, not a ticket to perpetual absolution. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Those are impressive aspirations, especially considering that they were made with five Arab armies and Palestinian irregulars attacking as the state was declared in May 1948. But Israel must deliver. It can only solve the conceptual conundrum – can a state be Jewish and democratic? – with what Israelis call “facts on the ground.” We cannot wait for peace – we cannot hide behind Palestinian enmity – to justify failure in this realm. If Arab citizens enjoyed full political rights in Israel, in a climate of zero-tolerance for discrimination, with equally good and well-financed schools and infrastructure, Israel’s standing with its Arab neighbors and the world probably would improve – as would, even more important, Israel’s own sense of national virtue.
 
Toward a Values Nation
 
Every day in Israel, the “is” and the “ought” collide, or else two “oughts” seem to be clashing. Many of Israel’s defining ideals are in tension with one another; Israel’s leaders often seem to be making difficult choices balancing one pressing need against the next. Some of these are unique to Israel’s character, such as the tension between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. Some of these are typical of modern democracies, such as the tension between private property and social welfare, or between national security and civil liberties. Israel’s peculiar positioning in a violent neighborhood makes the choices harder, as Israelis seek peace and self-preservation, or want to welcome persecuted refugees but fear the Jewish majority being engulfed by refugees from the Sudan.
 
Contrary to the polarized rhetoric in the Knesset and in the media, we should distinguish between seeing what the Israeli scholars Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, in their book Israel and the Family of Nations (2008), call “a tension between two legitimate values” and alleging “a fundamental incompatibility.” Acknowledging the tension between Zionism’s civic and ethnic impulses, between Israel’s aspirations to express the will of the majority and protect the full political rights of the minority, is not the same as claiming these are contradictions. Just as there are tensions between liberty and equality – but North Americans do not choose one to the exclusion of the other – “the Jewish and democratic character of the state can create tensions and practical dilemmas,” Yakobson and Rubinstein explain, without compelling a false choice between one or the other. They argue that valuing minority rights over the majority’s choice – exclusively – would be “denying the right of the Jewish people to national independence. This denial is in itself an assault on the principle of equality.”
 
To govern – and to vote – is to choose. When two “oughts” collide, neither leaders nor citizens can simply delight in argument and disputation for their own sake – a Jewish pastime since antiquity – or call out “teiku,” the Talmudic acronym that means “stalemate.” The moderate is more willing than the partisan to acknowledge the validity of different positions, but true, effective, muscular moderation still entails choosing one principle over another when necessary. For example, many Modern Orthodox Jews are prepared to defend the belief that when democratic values and traditional halachic law clash, democratic values should prevail. (Please note the language: this is not “democracy” versus “Judaism,” because democracy is a Jewish value too.) Similarly, many such Jews favor life over land, and are ready to compromise on Jews’ historic claims to some parts of the land of Israel in the pursuit of a true peace.
 
No formula can resolve the tension between yearning for the “ought” and confronting the “is.” Israel’s noble aspirations should not be used to sidestep difficult questions about its ugliest faults; but Israel’s faults should not be used to ignore equally important discussions about its achievements and aspirations. With apologies to Hillel, if we don’t deal with the realities, and sometimes compromise, who are we? If we remain mired in reality and don’t stretch, what are we?
 
Ultimately, however, a meaningful 21st century Zionism must be aspirational. Pragmatism is not enough. Israel cannot just be the embattled state, nor should it only settle for being the Start-Up Nation. In helping make Israel become a “Values Nation,” Zionism will build on that ambition-feeding dissatisfaction that Shimon Peres calls uniquely Jewish, and it will seek to give gifts to humanity, as Herzl dreamed. But even if we falter, in trying to save the world we save our souls. If the Jewish community can replace a growing culture of corrosive, selfish, and passive cynicism with an uplifting, communitarian, and altruistic Zionism, we will help reorient Israel for the better.
 
In returning Zionism to our communal field of dreams, instead of limiting our horizons to the toughest problems, we also have the opportunity to welcome a wider range of voices into the Zionist conversation. Engaging Jews around the world in a debate about why we need a Jewish State in the 21st century – and just what that state should be like – is more inviting for them than old-fashioned recruitment, the call to salute the Israeli government’s policies in combating anti-Israel forces. Dreaming about Israel as a Values Nation – and planning how to get there – moves beyond defending Israel the embattled state, creating the foundation for a deeper, more satisfying relationship. In short, reinvigorating the conversation about what Israel “ought” to be, can bring more people in for a look at what Israel “is” and how it can grow, trusting the Jewish people’s marvelous redemptive resilience and every healthy, functional democracy’s self-renewing, self-correcting reform impulse.

Oases of Israel excellence at IASA and elsewhere

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-19-11

Tragically, an Israeli epidemic of mediocre teachers, undisciplined students, unsupportive parents, unyielding bureaucrats and unchallenging curricula is spawning many dysfunctional classrooms and failing schools. Although we also see fabulous teachers, stimulating classrooms and well-run schools, the educational mediocrity my children have experienced has been our greatest disappointment in Israel. Shrieking teachers, wild classrooms and pointless tests demoralize students. 

When I complain about Israeli education, most Israelis say, yiheyeh beseder, it will be OK. They insist good families nevertheless raise good children; besides, the army straightens every one out. This characteristic insouciance, while admirable, also yields a sloppy improvisational ethos celebrating the cut corner over the job well done.

Traditional Mapai socialism confused individual ambition with indulgent elitism, high standards with bourgeois values. Today, while Israel could use more Ben-Gurionesque collectivist idealism, Israel needs centers of excellence to stretch our minds, our souls, our selves, individually and collectively.

In Jerusalem, poetically located between the Malcha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo, lies one oasis of excellence, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. The campus honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. This marvelous initiative unites American philanthropic do-gooders like the Schustermans and IASA’s founder Robert Asher with visionary Israelis to change the world. 

Visitors most notice the 200 or so students attending the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA, “Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). This high school is a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. Students hail from 100 different communities, including Christians and Muslims, religious Jews and secular Jews. Tuition assistance guarantees that anyone admitted can attend, harmonizing excellence with egalitarianism. Even with high standards, frequent tests, and crushing workloads, the school is a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers. 

“This school is much more intense than other schools I attended,” says one satisfied student. “The teachers have high expectations. There are consequences if you don’t do your work.” But students feel motivated, she explains, because these teachers are so creative and dedicated: “they don’t just teach to the bagrut,” the matriculation exams that undermine so much high school learning, “they are teaching for the sake of learning.” Science entails intensive lab work supplementing classwork. Literature class often involves following authors’ footsteps. Recently, Meir Shalev guided students through the battle sites in A Pigeon and a Boy. Describing the volunteer work in distressed communities, and the dormitory life with its group-building and values-clarifying activities at night, she sums up the school’s mission: “To be excellent in every way.”

Recently, when the Army’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashekanzi visited, the students followed through on their school’s culture of voluntarism by protesting cutbacks in pre-army volunteer opportunities. 

“This commitment to excellence in all dimensions is an expression of our Zionism.” Hezki Arieli, the chairman of the board explains. “When we founded the school twenty years ago, excellence was a dirty word in Israel, considered elitist. Today, Israelis – and people around the world – look to us, and to Israel in general, as a center of excellence.” 

Arieli spearheads the Center’s other initiatives, which include running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; and teaching teachers. The Center now exports excellence to India, Singapore and North America, where 150 schools, half Jewish, half not, use the Center’s math and science curricula. “Once educators from Singapore asked me ‘how do you do it?’” Arieli recalls. “’We don’t just want to teach our children to pass tests, we want them to be creative like you, to be considered for Nobel Prizes like you.’” Arieli explained the Zionist ethos of “ein breira.” “We have no choice but to use our wits. If we lived in a rainforest we would not need this,” he said, stopping at one of the ubiquitous drip irrigation systems that make this desert bloom, “But without water, you devise a solution. Lacking natural resources, our only major exportable resource is brainpower.” 

Seeking a new image, early Zionists considered the People of the Book too passive, vulnerable, victimized. Today, as the Israel miracle matures, we understand that the secret of Israel’s success has been remaining People of the Book, surviving and thriving with our collective smarts. But what kind of book will our foundational text be? We fear our children are becoming the people of Facebook, addicted to false friends, fleeting experiences, virtual values. We need a new Torah for today, rooted in the best of our tradition, responding to contemporary realities, and facing the future boldly, creatively, humanely, Jewishly, virtuously. 

Fortunately, the Israel Center for Excellence through Education is one of many brilliant flowers blooming in Israel today. We see the zeal for aesthetic excellence in the renewed Israel Museum, which its director James Snyder explains, “not only brings together the best of the East and the West, but has become a model for other museums. Even before the economic downturn we decided to make our recent ‘campus renewal’ project a $100 million refurbishing initiative rather than a half-billion dollar or billion-dollar tear-down-and-rebuild project. Now, colleagues worldwide are studying our alternative model.” We see the zeal for spiritual excellence in cutting-edge synagogues like Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha, which, while pioneering an Orthodoxy empowering women, has top quality volunteer cantors and sermon-givers. We see the zeal for intellectual excellence at the Shalom Hartman institute, which runs its own superb schools while pushing Israel, the world’s start-up nation, to become the world’s values nation too. 

I have firsthand knowledge of each of these oases of excellence, representing this growing trend. For, I am not only a happy Zionist but a proud (and relieved) parent. The satisfied IASA student is my oldest daughter.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

In Creating a New Zionist Ethic History is Not Bunk

By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-7-10

The automaker Henry Ford first said: “History is Bunk.” As a trained historian, I am supposed to hate that statement, which repudiates my lifelong mission. But in the real world Ford’s claim sometimes is correct. Sometimes, being handcuffed to the past can shackle us to bad habits, old wounds, or insurmountable obstacles. For example, to resolve the boundary conflict between Israelis and Palestinians both sides will have to value the demographic patterns of today over the historical ties of yesteryear.

Nevertheless, history can help us frame our identities, gain perspective, and attain the wisdom we need in both private matters and public affairs.

Within the team working on the Engaging Israel project at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we have been debating history’s relevance in pushing toward A New Zionist Ethic, in developing a new language about Israel and Zionism for today. We recognize that most Jews today do not build their identities based on the Holocaust of 60 years ago, the Six Day War of 43 years ago, or the heroic Entebbe raid of 34 years ago. We understand that today, for most young people, “history” means their latest Google searches, not their relationship to previous ideas, heroes, actions, and movements.

Yet, we still need history as an anchor. Consider Ford’s quotation in full. Interviewed in May, 1916, the great industrialist and notorious anti-Semite said: “History is more or less bunk. It’s tradition. We don’t want tradition. We want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s dam is the history we made today.”

Some early Zionists wanted to bury the past, only wanting to live for today and tomorrow. But the Zionist movement has matured. In forging a vibrant, authentic modern Zionist identity – and modern Jewish identity – we must start with the past, history, and tradition. Without engaging the past, Israel makes no sense. In fact, every national identity, even in the modern world, begins with a particular people’s story, as a community. Our history, Jewish history, explains why Jews scattered throughout the world – and why Jews living amid the comforts of the new “Promised Land,” America, remain tied to the traditional “Promised Land,” Israel. From our history, we also understand our longstanding ties to our homeland, our collective rights to national self-determination, the cost of powerlessness over the years, and the tremendous opportunity we have in this generation to return to this land, both for self-defense and for self-fulfillment.

Most important of all, our connection to tradition enriches us, making us part of something larger than our individual selves, opening us to a fabulous library overflowing with great ideas, inspiring stories, enduring values, and valuable role models. In building modern identities that have meaning, history provides both the poetry and the prose. Romantic nationalisms of all types – American and British, German and French, Jewish and Palestinian – are all rooted in an heroic past, a sweep of history that propels us forward. That is the poetry. But the banks of knowledge that we can access – especially from the panoply of Jewish texts, Jewish teachings, and Jewish experiences, helps with the prose too, with the difficult challenge of finding meaning in the modern world – and the even more trying task of creating a just, democratic, Jewish society amid the chaos and trauma of the modern Middle East.

The founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, spoke of an “Altneuland,” an Old-New Land, in the utopian novel he wrote in 1902. We need the “Alt,” the old, to explain who we are, why we are where we are, and help guide us in figuring out where we are going. But we also need the “Neu,” the New, to build a Zionist identity and a Zionist state that is vital, dynamic, forward-looking, and speaks to this generation.

Many Birthright Israel students report that what most impresses them about Israel is its “depth.” We are blessed to have the profundity of our ideas consecrated by longevity, perfected by our predecessors. So yes, history can be bunk, but it also can be a bank of ideas, experiences, and memories that bring added value to our lives individually and collectively.

Prof. Gil Troy is a History Professor at McGill University, a Shalom Hartman Institute Fellow and a member of the Engaging Israel Panel.