“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

meretz-openz
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.

American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-26-12

I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”

Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.

American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message.  American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state.  The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.

Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.

Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.

Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides.  A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.

Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.

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

Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

Gil Troy: Struggling With Jewish Power

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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.

Jews in the Bosom of Father Abraham — and America

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-16-12

Imagine, if you can, an American Jewish nightmare. What would American Jewish voters do if a presidential candidate they considered good for the country was bad for the Jews – or Israel? Would they vote as “good Americans,” judging governing philosophy, domestic policy preferences, and personal character, or would they act as single-issue voters?

A great irony of American Jewish history is that most people, Jews and non-Jews, consider Jews single-issue voters who always place Jewish interests first– even though voting patterns suggest otherwise. Long before the age of Barack Obama, American Jews have been far more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel. For most, their liberalism has always trumped their Zionism at the voting booths, because so many blur their identities as Jews and Democrats.

Of course, one of American Jewish history’s great blessings is that Jews have rarely faced such an unhappy, Hobson’s Choice. Support for Israel has been a bipartisan tenet for decades, while the United States has welcomed Jews warmly overall.

And yet, despite American Jewish history’s generally happy demeanor, this sense of vulnerability persists. The anxiety partly stems from the community’s reputation as being more particularist than patriotic. Moreover, the opening contrast was unfair – single-issue voting is as “good,” as “American” a political choice as voting for a candidate’s philosophy, policies, or personality.

People fascinated by these questions, and by American Jews’ enduring ambivalence about power, will particularly enjoy reading Jonathan Sarna’s new tour de force, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. An award-winning-historian at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Sarna begins his short compelling book about Grant’s General Orders No. 11, promulgated in 1862, with this “central conundrum of Jewish politics” from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. Most Jews at the time believed that the late Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was best suited to lead the country. But some hesitated to choose Grant as Lincoln’s successor, given Grant’s involvement in what might be the most outrageous act of anti-Semitism in American history, the banning of Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee during the Civil War.

Sarna’s book – which he wrote while on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where I was lucky enough to befriend him – provides good news cubed. First, this “worst” act of American anti-Semitism was mild, and quickly rescinded. Second, by the time Grant ran for president six years later in 1868, he had repeatedly done tshuva – repented – for what his own wife Julia called “that obnoxious order.” And third, Grant worked so hard to undo this stain on his honor that, Sarna writes, as president, he relied on a prominent Jewish advisor, “appointed a series of Jews to public office, attended a long, tedious synagogue dedication – staying until the end — and had aides help save “persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.” “General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history,” Sarna argues. “Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.”

A great historian at the top of his game, Sarna cannot resist telling the story of General Orders No. 11 with all its traditional melodrama, while helping the reader retain enough skepticism in case the tale’s most colorful aspects were embroidered. The irresistible story has one Prussian immigrant who settled in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, defending the Jewish people against expulsion – the smuggling by some Jews had endangered them all — by lobbying the President of the United States. What Sarna subtly calls “the oft-quoted report” claims Abraham Lincoln responded grandly, Biblically:

“And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

“Father Abraham” then replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

The kind of broad-minded historian who uses small incidents to make sweeping points effectively, judiciously, Sarna turns the book into a celebration of American exceptionalism. And his ending is not just “happy” but downright poetic. Grant’s transformation from the General who expelled “Jews as a class,” Sarna writes, “to a president who embraced Jews as individuals – reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.” Sarna finishes, powerfully: “In America, hatred can be overcome.”

That finale makes the book most suited for this season – and for the excellent “Jewish Encounters” Series, a Shocken-Nextbook collaboration, so ably edited by the novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen. These gems sparkle because, as with Sarna’s book, they take a small moment, or one theme, and in a short, punchy, readable monograph, illuminate bigger, important, dimensions of the Jewish experience.

Sarna’s salute to America captures American Jewry’s optimistic mood today — despite the epidemic political nastiness, despite the lingering economic troubles, despite the looming threats to the American dream. American Jews are feeling good about themselves – as further exemplified by the extraordinary New American Haggadah that leading American Jewish novelists, journalists, and essayists produced this year. In fact, whereas most Israelis and Zionists have learned not to indulge in Shlilat HaGolah – negation of the Diaspora – we are starting to see a new, arrogant, Shlilat Zion – an American Jewish condescension toward Israel as world Jewry’s perpetual headache, viewing America as the Jews’ Promised Land

Sarna’s Grant book focuses on the story’s happiest elements – the public dimensions. An earlier work of Sarna’s, American Judaism, highlights the more ambiguous, fraught, private American Jewish religious story – a story of assimilation, for better and worse. The more humbling assessment that follows reminds us, as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday, that the relationship between American Jews and Israelis should be mutual. Each side benefits when the other thrives.

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

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-3-12

When I was young, the Bizarro back-of-the-book feature in Superman comics fascinated me. In the mirror-image Bizarro universe, Superman was ugly and mean, while words’ meanings were reversed. “Bad” meant “good” in Bizarro talk – long before my Boston friends taught me that “wicked” could mean cool. These days, when I hear the Blame Israel First crowd’s relentless criticism of Israel, I often feel I have stumbled into that back-of-the-book Bizarro feature. Some of the criticisms are valid, but they end up exaggerated and distorted.

That, ultimately, explains the failure of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is too smart and too much of an insider to make baseless complaints.  But he goes too far repeatedly, magnifying Israel and the Jewish community’s flaws until they are, Bizarro-style, unrecognizable, grotesque. Thus, typically, he cannot simply criticize Israeli policies on the West Bank or toward Israeli Arabs. He has to echo the trendy “racism” and “apartheid” rhetoric. He views the mutually fraught relations between two competing national groups, Arabs and Jews, through the distorting lens of “anti-Arab racism.” And manipulatively invoking his South African roots to sharpen the moral condemnation, he equates “occupation” with “apartheid,” despite being unable to find in Israel any of the formal racial distinctions which defined South African apartheid.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has popularized the term “dog-whistling” to mean using “coded ambiguous language” to telegraph bigoted positions.  The “racist” and “apartheid” accusations send subliminal messages to the Left of demonization and delegitimization, without having to go that far explicitly.  Why this keeps on happening with Israel, why the compulsive need to turn an imperfect state worthy of some criticism into a Bizarro grotesquerie raises the discussion about Israel’s critics from the normal to the pathological – revealing more about them and their need to feel morally superior by picking on what Bernard Lewis calls “the fashionable enemy” than about the Jewish State.

Similarly, Beinart caricatures American Jewry and American Zionism as imprisoned in a state of “perpetual victimhood.” I share his concern with the unfortunate American Jewish tendency to invest more in Holocaust memorials than in day schools, and criticize those Israelis and Zionists who are too obsessed with the Holocaust. Still, Zionism is not only about victimization. A more triumphalist American Jewish narrative and Israeli narrative are at play simultaneously – with a much richer Jewish and Zionist conversation than the woe-is-me cliché reading of Jewish holidays, “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

One book unintentionally offering a tikun, a healing counter to Beinart’s bile, is a sophisticated discussion of the Jewish laws of conversion recently published by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis. Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, celebrates the rich, delightful mishmash of modern Jewish identity. Rabbi Ellenson is the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. Rabbi Gordis – a friend of mine – studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and lives an Orthodox lifestyle. Together, these two scholars analyzed Orthodox readings of the conversion question.

Two important conclusions emerge. First, Ellenson and Gordis have uncovered a wide array of Orthodox responses, sensitive to social conditions, political realities, and changing times, while rooted in the Halacha, the law.  These findings prove that Judaism is complex, fluid and flexible, refuting the distorted ultra-Orthodox perspective which pretends there is one unchanging and always hyper-rigorous interpretation.

The second conclusion more directly repudiates Beinart’s victimization claim. In analyzing Israeli religious responsa, Gordis and Ellenson discovered that “their attitudes toward conversion have been palpably affected by the return of Jewish statehood…. Some clearly understood their roles as public policymakers and not merely as halakhic decisors.” The Jewish return to statehood is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has triggered the revival of Hebrew, the creation of a new culture, fascinating improvisations in secular law and Jewish law. To miss how that fosters a positive new Jewish identity, inspiring Jews in Israel and abroad, is to focus on the Crisis of Zionism so much you miss the Opportunity of Zionism. Seeing Israel as one big Yad Vashem, one big Holocaust memorial, overlooks the Wall and the malls, the nature and the technology, the vitality and the creativity, in short, Israeli life at its fullest.

The Passover holiday similarly resists caricature. Only focusing on Pharaoh and slavery misses more than half the holiday. Passover is not just about the bread of affliction and the paschal sacrifice, it is the Festival of Freedom and the Holiday of Spring. The four cups of wine start with leaving Egypt and delivery from slavery, then build to a redemptive promise and a nation-building process. Stopping with the victimization would be like celebrating Thanksgiving by remembering the Pilgrims’ cold winter but forgetting the turkey and sweet potatoes.

Unfortunately, anyone aware of Jewish history feels the pain of centuries of persecution. This month, we have fresh graves in Israel of young Jews once again killed in Europe for being Jews – this time, in Tolouse, France. And this seder marks the tenth anniversary of the nightmarish Passover of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber destroyed the Park Hotel seder in Netanya.

My late grandfather used to shake with rage during “shfoch chamatcha,” the “pour out your wrath” prayer after the Seder meal, denouncing our oppressors. But he would tremble with joy just minutes later when singing the final round of seder songs. That ability to laugh and sing, to live and build, is an essential Jewish trait that has animated Zionism for decades. Those who only see the hurt, without seeing the healing, are the Bizarros of today.  I, for one, wish my grandfather were around to pour out his Polish-honed wrath on them too.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

Fighting anti-Israel week with historical facts

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Israel Essay Desecrates Martin Luther King’s Memory but Wins an M.L. King Award

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-22-12

The anti-Zionist blogosphere is celebrating that a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Award to a Jewish high school student who fancies himself a hero for freeing himself from the yoke of supporting Israel. Comparing himself – and his people — to King’s Southern redneck “oppressors,” this junior wrote that, as a pro-Israel Jew, “I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason.”
Dietrich College of Carnegie Mellon University chose this essay “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong” to share first place honors in the High School Prose category in its annual competition. This self-important, sloppy screed would have appalled Martin Luther King, who said “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking antisemitism.” Carnegie Mellon should disassociate itself and Martin Luther King’s noble name from the politicized decision to honor this essay that betrays King’s commitment to fighting bigotry.
Unfortunately, this essay typifies the lazy reasoning and false analogizing clouding much discussion about Israel. The essay begins, Woody Allen style, calling Judaism “a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time.” Having caricatured Jews as arrogant yet “self-pity[ing],” the student distorts Israel’s actions in what seems like Operation Cast Lead but he fails to specify. Accusing Israel of “genocide,” he claims Jews described “the situation in shockingly neutral terms,” hiding behind formulations that “it was a ‘difficult situation.’”
Having incorrectly used the G-word – when genocide means slaughtering unarmed millions not firefights that result in limited casualties – he then stretches to suit a King Day competition by introducing the four letter word “race.” He alleges that once, “after a fresh round of killings … I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. ‘We need to defend our race,’ they told me. ‘It’s our right.’”
Most educators would recognize such a pat quotation as overdoing it. I have never met any modern Jew, let alone a Jewish teenager, who talks about defending the Jewish “race” — the Jewish people, maybe.  Race-talk died with Hitler. If the student claimed friends invoked the Holocaust or said something bigoted about Palestinians, I would have winced but found it plausible. This unconvincing, unsourced quotation undermines the essay’s credibility, and the judges’ judgment.
The student describes attending temple.  After a “seventeen-minute cello solo,” during the rabbi’s Q and A, the student asks how he can “support Israel … when it lets its army commit so many killings?” The rabbi supposedly answers:  “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it? But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.”  I hope the rabbi will write in and claim he was misquoted too. However, there are idiot rabbis who answer challenges about Israel with such empty equivocations.
Some critics are blaming the student’s angst on the Israel-is-perfect brainwashing American Jews supposedly receive.  The essay may reflect an opposite problem. The student also claims:  “I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs.” Too many American Jewish rabbis, educators and parents are so ignorant, so awash in ambiguity, they cannot explain why Israel felt compelled to enter Gaza after unilaterally withdrawing from it but then suffering thousands of rocket attacks. Too many American Jews are too morally confused to detail Israel’s attempts to limit civilian casualties while fighting terrorists cowering behind mosques and hospitals, schoolyards and family compounds.
This essay includes the basic elements of the classic anti-Zionist attack: misreading chosenness as arrogance, charging genocide against Palestinians whose population continues to grow, viewing the conflict as about race not nationalism, analogizing falsely to demonize Israel. Mass-produced in the 1970s, this formula received UN approval after its 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
That a naïve teenager might swallow this Big Lie, given how frequently it is repeated, is not news. That this young Jew will feel so self-righteous, pretending that denouncing Israel is a courageous, countercultural move rather than a politically correct act which eventually wins him a prize, is an old story. What is newsworthy is the way this kind of Israel-bashing risks becoming the conventional wisdom, especially among academics like the Carnegie Mellon judges who swallowed it whole.
Martin Luther King’s family has nothing to do with this desecration of his name. Anyone can make an award and call it anything they like. Tomorrow, I could, on my university stationary, announce the Noam Chomsky-Yasir Arafat Appeasement of Terror awards for sniveling dupes who distort Zionism and libel Jews. But my university would not assign its public relations team to publicize it. I would expect university leaders to distance themselves from such a move, because academics should not implicate their universities in polemics. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon should be embarrassed that this biased, inaccurate essay, with at least one crucial line that is so implausible, dishonors King and perpetuates prejudices.
Using Martin Luther King’s name to spread any form of bigotry is disturbing enough. But to use his name against Israel is particularly dismaying. On March 25, 1968, shortly before his assassination, King called Israel, “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
Meanwhile, Sunday night’s Avi Schaefer memorial Jerusalem symposium “Z-Word: Re-Imagining Zionism,” attracted a sold-out crowd of over 300 students. These students are the real heroes – who will have to fight trendy anti-Zionism, especially on campus. These countercultural Zionist activists, like the late Avi Schaefer, who fought in Israel’s army but also fought for peace, would have made Martin Luther King, Jr., proud.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

 

Thomas Friedman (and others) on Israel – Sloppy but not Self-hating

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-20-11

This year, 2011, proves that even top journalists can have a bad year. Thomas Friedman started the year with naive reports about the Arab spring as democratic idyll. Friedman turned cranky in mid-year when he witnessed an impressive democratic moment, the ecstatic bipartisan greeting America’s Congress gave Israel’s Prime Minister. Most recently, Friedman’s claim that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” evoked the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of rich, powerful and manipulative Jews. It also ignored most Americans’ genuine love for Israel.

But Friedman is neither anti-Semite nor self-hating Jew. Using either epithet to defame him is simplistic and offensive. If Friedman is “a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater,” as my esteemed fellow columnist Caroline Glick called him yesterday, despite many ties to Israel and his deep, conflicted feelings about the place, what do you call Noam Chomsky? If we group his columns with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion how should we respond to the real, virulent, anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab press – or increasingly in the European press? My broad Zionist tent is big enough to welcome Friedman, even while slamming him for being sloppy and insensitive, letting his distaste for Bibi Netanyahu override good taste.
Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush called himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after 1200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating 0. Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked to meet Bush. As Sheila Segal recounts, when Cardin explained that implying that Jewish lobbyists outmuscled America’s President echoed traditional exaggerations about Jewish power and stirred anti-Semitism.  Bush replied, “But I didn’t specifically mention the Jews, did I?” Cardin replied: “You didn’t have to. It was very clear to us and to everyone. It was offensive, and it was personally painful.” Bush, abashed, apologized. So should Friedman.
Friedman, of course, is not the only reporter whose pen often becomes a negatively-charged magic wand to make Israel look ugly. Israel excites much passion and too much exaggeration. Some Israel reporters suffer chronotaraxis — time disorientation – confusing legislation that is proposed with legislation actually enacted. We are currently living through the Israeli version of 2002’s Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where criminals are punished before committing any crimes, simply for considering them.
Believe it or not, most of the controversial “anti-democratic” laws recently proposed have NOT passed. Nevertheless, hysterical reporting decries these pre-crimes and prematurely eulogizes Israeli democracy, when it is working effectively, resisting many bad initiatives.  I also wonder how foolish the U.S. Congress would look if every ridiculous law proposed made headlines worldwide.
Reporters also suffer from historical hysteria, analogy inflation, overstating the significance of contemporary actions by invoking some legendary game-changer.  Tanya Rosenblit deserves praise for bravely sitting in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, resisting Hareidi harassment.  Gender segregation on buses does not belong in a modern state nor is it required by our ancestral religion. Still, Rosenblit’s actions don’t match Rosa Parks’ heroism. In 1955, Parks, a black woman in a racist South, broke the law, defied convention, shattered what Southerners considered to be the natural order of things when she sat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.  Similarly, it’s not McCarthyism if someone disagrees with you, even if they hurt your feelings; it’s McCarthyism when a demagogue exploits government and media power to try blacklisting you, ruining your life, imprisoning you.
Once upon a time, exaggerations about Israel cut in Israel’s favor. Just a few decades ago, in the Israel of “Exodus” and Moshe Dayan, every soldier was a Maccabee, every blemish overlooked. The renowned liberal historian Henry Steele Commager praised Zionism on Israel’s tenth anniversary as “benign” and peace-loving, while characterizing Israel’s neighbors as committed to “chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism.”
Things changed, thanks to a systematic Palestinian propaganda campaign that resonated with a post-1960s, post-liberal, post-modernist ideology – here Glick and I agree. This worldview caricatured Israel as a white Western racist, colonial power, amid automatic sympathy for the weak over the powerful, the non-white over the white, the Third World over the West, anti-colonial nationalism over liberal democratic nationalism. Just as a concave lens makes an object look bigger while a convex lens makes it look smaller, much of world opinion switched lenses from convex to concave when examining Israel. Viewing Israel through this distorting black-versus-white concave lens magnified even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.
These days, many people also see the Hanukkah holiday through one distorting lens or another. It is easy to caricature Hanukkah as the holiday of violence, of fanaticism, turning the Maccabees into Spartan warriors or Second Temple Hareidim. Examining Hanukkah in America, we could distort it as the holiday of mindless consumption or of dangerous assimiliation – with Christmukkah, the Hanukkah Bush, and, yes, Hanukkah Harry.
But Hanukkah’s power and meaning lie in its Zen balance. Was it God or the Maccabees? Yes. Is the triumph military or spiritual? Yes. Is it a national or a religious moment? Yes. Should we indulge by giving gifts, scarfing down sickly sweet doughnuts, ingesting grease-laden latkes – or should we give charity, celebrate with friends and families, delight in our traditions? Again yes.
Hanukkah’s power stems from its proportionality. Israel’s maturity – as a democracy, as a society, as a topic of concern and conversation, and in coping with critics – will also come from a similar search for balance. We need some Zen in our Zionism while reporters need some poise in their prose – even when writing about Israel.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
 

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

What Israelis can learn from American Thanksgiving

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-23-11

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a great American invention. As Americans from coast to coast sit down and dig in, eating their turkey and stuffing, their cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Israelis should contemplate the holiday’s broadmindedness. This is the all-American day, when blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews, immigrants and natives, act in concert, bonding as one nation.
Thanksgiving’s magic lies in each individual’s memory, ritual, experiences. For me, Thanksgiving is about schlepping into a cold, windy Manhattan with my parents to see Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade – shivering from the cold and with delight, while watching supersized-balloons of Superman and Underdog, Popeye and Bullwinkle J. Moose waft down Broadway.  It’s about defrosting in the apartment of my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Lenny, clambering around with my brothers as the grownups crowd around a table extending the length of their Bronx apartment, from their dining room into their living room. It’s about braving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a college student, sitting on the highway from Boston to New York, now blocked by one massive traffic jam as millions rush to make it for the command performance which is the Thanksgiving meal. It’s about the sweet smell of American success as we gather around successively larger dining room tables in my uncle’s successively more magnificent houses, sharing our accomplishments, thrilled that America is so welcoming to us Jews.
My Thanksgiving is about mounds of my Aunt Lenore’s chestnut stuffing vacuumed off the plate, cases of my Uncle Irv’s Beaujolais Nouveau drained dry. It’s about the sticky sweetness of the melted marshmallows atop my mother’s sweet potato casserole, the alluring smell of the turkey as my father carved it so expertly. And it’s about my late grandparents’ desperate delight in seeing their children and grandchildren gather year after year, pleased we were all “tugetha” – Newyawk speak for together – but fearing that once they died these reunions would stop – which they did.
If the charm lies in these intimacies, the grandeur comes from the simultaneity. We were all doing it at once as Americans.  Our turkeys might be kosher, and our tables might lack a big ham, but despite our ethnic idiosyncrasies, our religious peculiarities, we never felt so American as when we gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing in synch with our neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.
Christmas is too Christian.  July Fourth substitutes finger-menacing fireworks for the finger-lickin’ turkeys. Thanksgiving has a purity, a universality, a magnanimity, a ubiquity epitomizing America at its best. The overflowing Thanksgiving cornucopia embodies America’s abundant blessings of openness, acceptance, fluidity, civility, and stability in the world’s shining example of a society delivering liberty and prosperity. Other countries have festivals to give thanks, but American Thanksgiving stands out in its ecumenicism, its welcoming embrace, whether or not you begin it by saying grace.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s idea when he signed the first proclamation creating a uniform Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. The United States was fighting a bloody Civil War. Different states had celebrated at different times for decades. Lincoln wanted to devote one day to toasting the good despite all the bad, celebrated “as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
Thanksgiving’s charms evoke the many, magical communal moments punctuating Israel’s calendar. There is a national magic and grandeur to Rosh Hashanah’s mass joy and massive heartburn, Yom Kippur’s stillness and piousness, Chanukkah’s lights and lightheartedness, Purim’s costumes and chaos, Passover’s cleaning and cuisine, Yom HaShoah’s sorrow and solemnity, Yom HaZikaron’s sadness and supportiveness, Yom Ha’atzmaut’s bliss and barbecues. But none of these fabulous festivals which enrich Israeli life involve all Israelis. Twenty percent of the population, the Arab twenty percent, takes the days off but few Israeli-Arabs partake in these national celebrations.
The absence of 20 percent of the population does not invalidate these national festivals. The majority culture in a democracy can mount mass celebrations enacting majority rituals and expressing majority ideals. But it would be great if the Arab sector embraced Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, or another holy day, perhaps making the Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial day a day for uniting all Israelis.
American Thanksgiving should inspire Israelis to nurture more national rallying points, more communal bonding moments that remind Israel’s Arabs and Jews of their common values and intertwined fates as Israeli citizens. All Israelis should have a broader appreciation of Israeli Arab celebrities such as the singer Mira ‘Awad, the soccer star Walid Badir whose 83rd-minute goal let Israel tie France in 2006, Salim Joubran the Supreme Court justice who judged Moshe Katzav, the comedian and writer Sayed Kashua of the sitcom “Avoda Aravit,” the former general Yusef Mishlab, the Hebrew poet and successful diplomat, Reda Mansour. The educational ministry should focus more on what Americans call “civics,” creating a common language and common values to unite the four school systems – an absurd number for a small country – so that young Arabs, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and secular Jews can share more not less.  Arabs should volunteer for national service to demonstrate their participation in the social compact. And politicians should devote more resources to eliminating discrimination, nurturing civility, facilitating unity, and cultivating a common discourse.
This kind of bonding, this search for new social glues that transcend the familiar divides, will not be easy. Communal moments and touchstones are not easily mass produced or conjured. But history teaches that change sometimes occurs for the better. When Abraham Lincoln started the first national Thanksgiving, Americans were slaughtering one another en masse. But he believed in his nation. This notion of seeking one covenant of, by and for the people should inspire and bond modern Israelis, uniting Arabs and Jews.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book, is “The History of American Presidential Elections.”

The Court Jews of the 21st Century: ‘Confessions’ of ex-Zionists dehumanize Israelis and delegitimize Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-11

The recent bouts of ‘confessions’ from ex-Zionists dehumanize Israelis and delegitimize Israel.

Confessional testimonies of the latest Jewish, anti-Zionist poster children recall Puritan Americans’ “captivity narratives.” Virtuous seventeenth-century women kidnapped by Indians described their brutal incarceration, then, their redemption. The new captivity narrative, modern-spoiled-American-Jewish-suburban style, recounts a young Jew’s harrowing redemption from Birthright Israel or Zionist summer camp.

Force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes, midnight adventures, passionate friendships, and hunkalicious Israeli soldiers, they courageously flee their brainwashing into the welcoming bosom of the New York intelligentsia, rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught. Kiera Feldman, describing her Birthright Israel trip for The Nation, writes: “Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.” Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt in “the Awl,” recalls: “Those summers blur together, but each day begins and ends at the flagpole, where we raise and lower two flags: the American and the Israeli. We make blue and white lanyard bracelets, carve Israel out of ice cream, and sing ‘Hatikvah.’” She adds the self-loathing line: “Because it’s all Jews, I’m considered cute.” She ends the memoir recalling her escape from these cy-ops executed against her by mysterious, manipulative, nebbishes in Bermuda shorts saying: “My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there.”

Even the rare compliments are dehumanizing. Benedikt’s non-Jewish husband, whose contempt for Israel triggers her transformation, visits Israel, rudely condemns her sister’s “morally bankrupt decision” to make Aliyah, “but at least concedes that … the women are hot.” The “hot” Israeli women and handsome Israeli soldiers reduce these new Jews to all brawn, making American Jews smarter, civilized but flaccid. The stereotyping parallels the racist and sexist 1950s hipsters who considered white men all mind — feminized and impotent — but black men all body — hyper-sexualized and super-potent.

Emboldened by the intellectuals’ conceit that their marginal views reflect popular sensibility, welcomed by a left-leaning media echo chamber, they believe their redemptions signal a mass movement. “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel,” Benedikt reports. “It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.”

With this allegation, anti-Zionist delusions meet pro-Israel fears. “Oy the kinde,” loyalists yell, fearful “we” are losing “our” youth. “Ah, we enlightened ones see through that Israel trip tripe,” hipsters rejoice. The surveys from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center and elsewhere calling younger Jews today more pro-Israel than their immediate elders – thanks to big bad Birthright — are irrelevant. Never let evidence ruin a good rant.

These testimonials do suggest that anti-Zionism is ever trendier among America’s elites. The narratives pivot on a zero-sum ideological universe, first caricaturing the Zionist message as “Support Israel Right-or-Wrong,” then treating Israel as all-wrong and all right-wing. The “brainwashing” set-up imputes to the Zionist educational process a mythic, monolithic propagandizing power. I have helped shape the educational programming of the Young Judaea movement Benedikt mocks as well as Birthright Israel. There is more ideological fluidity, self-criticism, and anguish over the Palestinian problem than is alleged. Simultaneously, the redemptive deprogramming paints Israel as uniquely depraved. As Feldman writes, “With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.”

Feldman’s essay spews out modern anti-Zionist clichés, as lecherous billionaires bankrolling Birthright seduce naive American Jews with a bewitching cocktail of sex and Israel advocacy. Everything Israeli is militarized, right-wing, racist, tainted by occupation. Kibbutz Gvulot is a “kibbutz cum military outpost.” AIPAC and Stand With Us are “right-wing Zionist groups … whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray” – news to me. Philanthropists like Lynn Schusterman and Charles Bronfman, who finance Israel’s left, are “hawkish,” with one small educational grant over the Green Line used to accuse Schusterman of “financially support[ing] illegal Jewish settlements.”

Like a jilted lover, the apostate’s sanctimony, mixing penitential self-righteousness with insider’s knowledge, ultimately sounds petty, vengeful. These testimonials rankle because by repudiating Israel itself rather than criticizing Israeli actions, these Jews feed the delegitimization campaign against Israel. This disapprobation treats Israel as the only country on probation, reinforcing the anti-Semitic Arab campaign against Israel’s right to exist.

Ignoring such complexities, these posturing progressives are the New Galut Jews, the court-Jews of twenty-first century elite society, purchasing acceptance from others by mocking their own. While the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine saw conversion as the admission ticket to European culture, some American Jewish extremists now use anti-Zionism as their admission ticket to hip, progressive circles.

Refugees from leftist circles could mock Birkenstock-wearing, vegan know-it-alls as tree-huggers claiming to save humanity by recycling paper while ignoring American racism, poverty and violence. But rather than trading insults and perpetuating the false claim that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible, better to learn about the liberal Zionist synergies Rabbi Richard Hirsch celebrates in his new book For the Sake of Zion, which Natan Sharansky hailed at a book launch this Monday in Jerusalem.

A leading Reform Zionist, Hirsch shared his Washington office space with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, and has championed liberal Zionism since first visiting Israel as a rabbinical student in 1949. Sharansky thanked Hirsch for supporting his dual role in the Soviet Union as a human rights activist and a Zionist, understanding particularism as a path to universalism. Hirsch sees tribalism as comforting, familial, not stultifying because these “special relationships” never stopped him from criticizing Israel when necessary. To him, controversy demonstrates caring and belonging: His response to Israel’s struggles: “Let the debates continue.”

These Zionist captivity narratives ignore the debates that shaped their educational processes, and the debates shaping Israel today, silencing further discussion through their contempt and ridicule. Instead Hirsch’s Zionism is a Zionism of controversy and loyalty, of nuance and complexity, of proudly belonging while ambitiously striving to improve Israel – and the world.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

How can Jews be ‘Orthodox’ without living in Israel?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-11

I just experienced a classic American Jewish cultural phenomenon – the deluxe, kosher-for-Passover hotel. For eight days, a New Jersey hotel became a Yiddishe Club Med, mostly for the tzitzes-and-snood set. Consuming mounds of flanken, schools of gefilte fish, cartons of matzoh, our spirits soared. Our hearts gladdened. Our waistlines expanded. Our arteries clogged. Yet it seemed a great inversion has occurred. The Torah does not just dictate what to eat but where to live. Although to some traditional commentators the mitzvah, commandment, of living in Israel outweighed all other mitzvoth combined, the behavior of many Orthodox Jews today suggests that many trifling mitzvot trump living in Israel. I wondered: How can Jews be “Orthodox” without living in Israel? Rather than singing so passionately about “Next Year in Jerusalem,” why don’t they simply make it happen?

I regret being ungracious because the experience was beautiful. The seders enabled far-flung families to reunite, consecrate the moment, and reinforce their bonds by embracing enduring values while reenacting meaningful rituals. And this time, someone else did the dishes.

In creating this temporary, luxurious, Jewish village, the guests expressed that characteristically Jewish need to consecrate a Jewish space. Living in Jewish time is not enough – which is why Golden Ghettos have sprung up worldwide. The contrast between the temporary kosher zone we rented in Central Jersey and the chametz-filled Newark Airport we encountered upon leaving was striking. Part of this year’s seder magic came from our parallel experiences in our artificial Jewish space: hearing the echoes of Dayenu resounding through the hotel’s halls; peeking into other family seders; noting who wore white kittels and who did not, who prepared shtick for kids and who did not, who continued past midnight and who did not, while all singing from the same hymnal, er, Haggadah.

As a sensual, 24/7 religion, involving tastes, smells, sounds, and as the religion of one historic people, Judaism functions best in a Jewish space. But suburban New Jersey is not our natural habitat; the land of Israel is, being the Jewish people’s historic homeland. That is why the Bible made Judaism a homeland-based religion. That is why so many commandments are bound up in the land. That is why the exile was so painful for millennia. And that is why – at two of the most popular, profound Jewish religious moments – ending Yom Kippur and climaxing the seder – we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

I am not a Zionist fanatic. I understand why non-Orthodox Jews, especially those who do not take the Torah literally or believe in God, might live elsewhere, even if they acknowledge the upside of Jewish sovereignty, even if they love Israel. And these secular Zionists, of course, are the minority. Most American Jews have never visited Israel. They love the land they were lucky enough to be born in. As modern Jews they easily balance their Jewish and non-Jewish selves outside Israel. Most have no problem supporting Israel without ever living in Israel. I applaud Zionism for maturing beyond its original negation of the Diaspora. I particularly love the United States and Canada, being grateful for the welcoming home these two, safe, flourishing, prosperous democracies provide to millions of Jews.

But Orthodox Jews are, well, Orthodox! Anyone who feels commanded to live fully as a Jew should acknowledge Israel’s centrality in that mission. Moreover, Orthodoxy seems to be particularly rigid these days, with fanatic rabbis turning ritually autistic, blurring minor and major commandments, demanding blind observance to all religious dictates equally, passionately, fully. The traditional seventy fences placed around each mitzvah risk becoming seventy prison walls, with the most restrictive interpretation triumphing.

This rigidity is often curmudgeonly. Before Passover, the New York Times’ front page covered the quinoa controversy. Many Ashkenazi Jews have embraced this South American grain during Passover to expand their gastronomic repertoire. Yet some rabbis have banned it, although it was unknown in Biblical times, in what seems to be this Ashkenazi compulsion to disdain anything new and make Passover another trial to endure.

Given that, how do so many rigidly pious Jews ignore the commandment to live in Israel? How do they reconcile this contradiction? And why do their rabbis, who hector them about the most minor kashrut questions, avoid this subject in sermons?

My mother, despite being Jewish, teaches that “guilt is a wasted emotion.” I do not raise this question to make Orthodox Jews feel guilty. I acknowledge how deeply Zionist the Orthodox community is, having made the pre-college year studying in Israel a given for most Orthodox youth. But this mass violation of the commandment to settle the land, in an era when the land is accessible and appealing albeit challenging, demands debate.

A fuller discussion might help religious Jews see other compromises they make too. That recognition might encourage the often-ignored Jewish value of humility, which could improve relations with less-Orthodox Jews. This humility could encourage greater flexibility on minor matters such as micro-bugs in lettuce as well as major matters such as conversions and the need to consider compromising with Palestinians, who actually live in the land of Israel and whose own nationalist longings should be respected – if they choose to be peaceful and recognize Jewish nationalism.

At its worst, Orthodoxy today risks making Judaism into what traditional Christian critics claimed it was – a pots-and-pans religion obsessed with form not substance, more concerned with superficialities than spirituality. Three decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the guts to read Torah in his Manhattan synagogue, follow its dictums and move to Israel with a small committed minority. Are other rabbis at least brave enough to broach the subject with their congregants? Or are these supposedly Orthodox rabbis and their professedly pious followers actually reformers, having magically made the Israel-based mitzvoth optional?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

Why do we need a Jewish state anyway?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 8, 2011

Newsflash: Theodor Herzl’s Europe is gone. Most Jews today live in welcoming, open, civil societies like the US and Canada.

By all indications, Israel Apartheid Week, that intellectual and ideological abomination I call Anti-Israel Week, is a flop.

Apartheid did not mean keeping peoples apart; it separated individuals by race. IAW’s institutional infrastructure is as shoddy as its intellectual foundations. Scattered, poorly-attended events by noname political hacks take on global pretensions because a website lists about 60 locations where these events take place in March. Just as you cannot transpose apartheid’s color-obsessed racism to the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, IAW represents marginal local events, not a mass movement.

Still, as Rahm Emanuel taught, never waste a crisis – or the appearance of one – especially because spreading big lies against Israel has become a global pasttime. But while mocking IAW’s failure, and condemning Palestinians’ political culture for not identifying this apartheid lie and delegitimization business as obstacles to peace, we need positive messages. Let’s ask the real question behind today’s Zionist questioning – why do we need a Jewish state, anyway?

Newsflash: Theodor Herzl’s Europe is gone. Most Jews today live in welcoming, open, civil societies like the US and Canada. A modern Zionism reacting to anti-Semitism is old-fashioned. Today, even in France, Jew haters like designer John Galliano are disgraced and fired, not lionized.

This good news feeds a growing split among Jews. For Israeli Jews, a Jewish state encourages the natural expression of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The French have France, Germans have Germany, the Dutch have the Netherlands, Jews have Israel. As Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, Zionism began “as nothing more than the assertion that the Jews were a people and had the same rights to nationhood that other such people were then asserting.”

The Jewish state’s Jewishness is also normal. Once we understand that Judaism involves a national identity and not just a religious identity, a Jewish state can be democratic yet not theocratic. Such national-cultural expression is not unique to Israel. In most countries the majority culture enjoys the right to shape the public character, yet democratic countries nevertheless protect minorities’ full political and civic rights. The UK might have a cross on its flag and a national church at its collective heart, the US has “In God We Trust” on its currency and a national holiday on Christmas, yet atheists and non- Christians enjoy full civil rights in both.

But why should happy American Jews, who have never visited Israel and will never live there, care about a Jewish state; what’s in it for them?

TO ANSWER that question, we must define what Judaism is, noting the central assumption shaping the previous paragraphs – that Jews are a people. Judaism is not just a religion. Years ago, my teacher Dr. Steve Copeland compared Judaism to an Oreo cookie – just as the Oreo requires both cream and cookie parts, Judaism entails overlapping religious and national parts.

Is Passover a holiday of religious redemption or national liberation? “Yes.” Is the Western Wall a holy religious site or a national historical site? Again, “yes.”

Belonging to a people, not just a religion, fills our identity. It roots us in the sweep of history, binds us to a community, connects us to a rich values conversation, ties us to national moments, making us a part of something bigger than our selves. In a world where for most Westerners the physical basics – food, clothing, shelter – are covered, but where we often feel emotionally, ideologically, existentially starved, naked and exposed, we are lucky to have this peoplehood treasure trove.

I am not arrogant enough to claim that Jewish stories, ethics, ideas or ideals are the best; nor am I foolish enough to renounce these wonderful frameworks that deepen my life and my family life – and belong to us.

If you like peoplehood, you should love statehood. “The essence of the Zionist argument is that to express a national identity to its fullest, territory is basic,” Prof. Ruth Gavison teaches. “You need a majority culture, not just a minority culture where you are in constant conversation with the host culture.”

Especially for nonreligious Jews, but then again, especially for religious Jews, having a national Jewish culture enhances, enriches, encourages and ennobles Jewish identity.

Just this week, another study showed that camps offering 24/7 Judaism build Jewish identity. Having a Jewish state takes 24/7 Judaism to a higher, more natural level, living in Jewish space, not just Jewish time, with a full-time symphony of Jewish sounds, smells, tastes, events, memories, associations, connections, values and dreams. No state is perfect, but our core values can improve it. While Israelis define different forms of political Zionism, Diaspora Jews should cultivate identity Zionism based on four Bs – Being Jewish provides a sense of Belonging, which helps in Becoming a better, more idealistic, more fulfilled person through our home Base.

Any homeland places an individual into a lifelong color movie rather than an occasional black-and-white snapshot; our homeland is consecrated by history. Just as in antiquing a 4,000-year-old jug is infinitely more precious than a four-day-old cup, just as in baseball a hitting streak becomes exponentially more significant with each new plateau, our relationship with Israel is magnified by its age, and by our many-layered connections to this place.

Herzl was right. In what he called the altneuland, old-new land, we can enjoy the best of today and yesterday, creating a dynamic modern identity anchored in tradition. Such dynamism should be embraced and celebrated, which is why our holidays use memories to affirm values, and why we would never devote a week to denigrating others.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal, a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

Why did 400 rabbis attack Fox News’ Glenn Beck and defend George Soros?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-1-11

American Jewry faces many crises. Jewish education is increasing in cost while often losing relevance, appeal, and popularity. In the Orthodox world, an obsession with petty, pedantic ritualism often obscures larger compelling ethical concerns while tolerating an untrammeled materialism. Among the non-Orthodox, the lures of leisure blot out a commitment to community, tradition, modesty, Jewish learning and Jewish living. Every year thousands of Jews drift away from Judaism, apathetic, lazy, bored. Beyond the Jewish world’s dwindling synagogues, dying organizations, declining schools, and decaying communities, Israel is enduring a vicious assault so systematic that many Jews internalize it, assuming Israel must be guilty of at least some of the many crimes people attribute to it. But, never fear. Amid this trouble, 400 American rabbis united, and spent $100,000 taking their stand – against Fox News and Glenn Beck, while defending George Soros.

I don’t get it. There are so many pressing issues for 400 rabbis “of diverse political views” to tackle.  There are so many fabulous ways to spend those anonymously donated non-transparent one hundred thousand holy dollars – because every charity dollar is sacred.

Moral leadership requires courage. Yet too many rabbis today seem afraid of their congregants. It is easier to bash Fox News than question congregants’ cushy lifestyles, their lazy worldviews, their phoned-in often phony Judaism. It is safer to target Glenn Beck’s obnoxious references to the Holocaust than to challenge congregants to change their lives, recalibrate their values, redefine and revive their Jewish commitments. Predictably, 400 Rabbis taking out a $100,000 ad in the Wall Street Journal to defend George Soros against Glenn Beck’s ranting fed more rants on MSNBC and elsewhere.

In fairness, many of the signing rabbis were sincere, even if it looked like they sought cheap notoriety hitting an easy target. Seeing that two of my closest rabbinical friends were listed at the top, I asked them why they signed the ad, which the Jewish Funds for Justice addressed to Rupert Murdoch and placed in the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere. Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, the President of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, is offended by Glenn Beck’s constant, sloppy, histrionic invoking of the Holocaust, to demonize those he dislikes, including the controversial financier George Soros. “It is worth paying attention to the way people use language around the Shoah- that’s a lesson I took from my classes with Professor Elie Wiesel years ago at Boston University,” Rabbi Ehrenkrantz explained.  “The Shoah is already poorly understood. And it’s even more difficult for the Holocaust to have meaning in people’s minds if the language surrounding it is cheapened.”

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, Vice President of the American Jewish University, Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, also reacted to Beck’s polarizing demagoguery. “What I intended to sign was a strong statement that abusing the Holocaust to impugn politics with which one disagrees cheapens the memory of the Shoah and makes real conversation across the aisle impossible. It is abused on the left and on the right and it must stop,” Rabbi Artson noted. “Hence, I signed. I would have signed a similar statement against impugning President Bush or any other public servant. Differ with the policies, but references to the Shoah are destructive to the democratic process.”

I share my friends’ distaste for Holocaust-fueled histrionics. But they and their 398 colleagues missed repeated opportunities to denounce the sloppy invoking of the Holocaust when George W. Bush was president. George Soros himself did to George Bush what Glenn Beck does to George Soros. Saying he believed the White House was guided by a “supremacist ideology,” Soros said in late 2003:  “When I hear Bush say, ‘You’re either with us or against us,’ it reminds me of the Germans… My experiences under Nazi and Soviet rule have sensitized me.”  Moreover, too many of Soros’s fellow anti-Zionists frequently deploy the offensive, inaccurate Nazi analogy to bash Israel.

Yet with most American Jews often placing their liberalism before their Judaism, it does not take much courage for their rabbis to take on Fox News. Liberal rabbis attacking Glenn Beck is like stand-up comics mocking the bald guy in the front row. The laughs are cheap, easy, predictable but forgettable.  Moreover – and I say the same thing about Israel’s National Religious camp – theologians should beware confusing the clear lines of faith and morality with the messy compromises of politics and governance.

When drafting a call for civility regarding Israel, defining blue and white lines to affirm and red lines not to cross (www.restoringsanity.info), I learned the Zen of such declarations. If too bland, they lack punch; if too biased, they backfire. In these polarized times, finger-pointing in one direction when championing centrism is like Sarah Palin’s daughter Bristol preaching abstinence while pregnant.

Predictably, the ad fueled the flames of partisanship. Rabbi Artson reported that the responses he received to his signing “skewed along political lines… conservatives deplored the signing as hypocrisy and liberals celebrated it as courage.” He asks: “Is there no one left who thinks, across the board, that using Nazi labeling is illegitimate whether it comes from left, center, or right? Is there a way to say that and for people across the spectrum to chastise their own when that line is crossed?”

This is where the rabbis’ collective wisdom failed them. In today’s polarized community, big tent civility must be nurtured, cultivated, taught. An ad with 400 rabbis complaining about loudmouths from both sides of the spectrum sloppily invoking the Holocaust would have worked; this ad, singling out only one manifestation of the broader problem politicizes complaints about the Holocaust. An ad with 400 rabbis calling for a more respectful tone in politics, acknowledging abuses from both sides of the spectrum, would have worked; this one-sided ad risks reducing a call for civility to a partisan battering ram – which we certainly don’t need.

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

National Insecurity American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

By Gil Troy, Tablet Magazine, 11-16-10

Jonathan Pollard.

Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Pollard, who is now marking his 24th year in prison, has earned the dubious record of serving the longest prison term in American history for spying for an ally. Convicted of espionage in 1987, Pollard was the suburban American Jewish dream turned nightmare: a good, middle-class, high-achieving boy turned traitor. The son of a college professor, smart enough to graduate from Stanford, patriotic enough to be hired to work in naval intelligence, he made a criminal decision to betray his country to help Israel.

And yet new petitions on his behalf have recently begun to circulate, and gain momentum, both in the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset. This is, in large measure, because Pollard’s situation rests on a contradiction: He was guilty of a reprehensible crime, and yet he has been treated abominably. One of the most infamous Jewish criminals in modern times, he is also the victim of the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes. With his round face and shoulder-length hair, Pollard today still looks more like a perpetual grad student than an arch criminal, but he has suffered severely. He has served hard time, mostly in maximum-security prisons, spending years in lockdown 23 hours a day. Websites pleading his case detail his medical ailments, noting that he has “developed diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-glaucoma, and arthritis while in prison.”

From the moment he was sentenced, there were people in the Jewish community—and beyond—who believed Pollard had been unjustly punished and who fought for his release. But they were few and far between, and they often made the wrong case for him. This newest round of argument on Pollard’s behalf is different. For starters, many of his champions have been careful not to lionize him. Rather, they focus on correcting what Judge Stephen Williams, who filed a dissent in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, deemed “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Most surprisingly, on September 27, 2010, a former assistant secretary of Defense confirmed many people’s decades-long fears that, at some point, the case had turned personal—and poisonous. Without explaining what prompted him to break his silence, Lawrence Korb, who served in the Pentagon in Reagan’s first term, wrote President Barack Obama: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

Decades into this tragic and pathetic tale, American Jewry’s continuing allergy to defending Pollard says more about our communal fears and the price we are willing to pay for social and political acceptance than it does about Pollard and his crimes.

***

On November 21, 1985, FBI agents arrested Pollard, 31 at the time, just outside Israel’s embassy in Washington. Since June 1984, Pollard had been routinely removing sensitive documents from the Naval Intelligence Support Center on Friday afternoons, passing them to his Israeli handlers for Xeroxing, and blithely returning them on Monday mornings. When first interrogated by the FBI, Pollard called his wife. After he worked the word “cactus” into the conversation, their designated SOS code word, Anne Henderson-Pollard scurried about their house—with a neighbor’s help—sanitizing it. The neighbor subsequently gave the FBI a 70-pound suitcase filled with secret documents, reflecting the volume of Pollard’s activities and sloppiness.

Despite transferring thousands of documents to his Israeli handlers, Pollard failed to gain asylum at the embassy on that day in 1985. Backpedaling furiously, Israel first labeled Pollard a rogue agent, as his handlers worked out of a shadowy organization called Lekem, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Scientific Relations. The department, headed by the legendary Mossad man Rafi Eitan, was disbanded shortly after Pollard’s arrest. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995—long after such a move could have done him any good. And it wasn’t until 1998 that Israel finally acknowledged what everyone knew: Pollard had been an authorized agent spying for Israel.

An American Jew’s arrest as an Israeli spy was upsetting enough for American Jews. But Pollard’s defense made the affair excruciating. Minimizing the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring the Israelis gave him, and his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan, too, Pollard portrayed himself as a Zionist idealist. Anti-Semites bullied him as a child, he recalled. He claimed that the documents he smuggled out, so crucial to Israeli security, should have been shared freely. And, using a most obnoxious and threatening term, he said a “racial obligation” compelled him, as a Jew, to defend the Jewish state.

Suddenly, amid Ronald Reagan’s resurgence of hard-bodied patriotic machismo, in the age of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy “make my day” taunt, a balding, mustachioed, jowly-faced American Jewish nerd in glasses was betraying the red, white, and blue for the blue and white. Pollard’s crimes epitomized Zionism-run-amok, with the ideological implications of Jewish tribal solidarity pushed to its extreme.

“I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do, and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that,” Anne Pollard said defiantly on 60 Minutes shortly before being sentenced, one of many arrogant, self-destructive moves the couple made back then. While stirring up the terrifying “dual loyalty” charge—far more terrifying to Jews than to Irish-Americans and other hyphenated Americans—the Pollards defined every Jew’s ultimate loyalty as being to the Jewish state. Desperately repudiating the charge, the prominent academic Jacob Neusner would declare America to be the true “promised land.”

This American Jewish skittishness regarding Pollard was particularly surprising because by the 1980s American Jews were thriving in America’s suburban meritocracy. Some American Jewish superstars were accented immigrants like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. But most American Jewish success stories were 100 percent American. Speaking unaccented English, they were supposed to be unscarred psychologically, unapologetically American.

***

American Jews had been here before. Three decades before Pollard made headlines, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s arrest, trial, and conviction as Soviet spies for stealing atomic secrets rendered the American Jews’ nightmare scenario in pinkish hues. But in the 1950s, American Jews were greener, more marginal. Julius Rosenberg represented the intellectual, foreign-born, New York Jew as Communist, at a time when Communism was disproportionately popular among Jews.

With the Rosenbergs—as with the Pollards—the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment. The zeal with which they were prosecuted, the way Judge Irving Kaufman presided over their trial, and Ethel Rosenberg’s unjust execution along with her husband, all suggested something deeper in both the American Jewish psyche and the larger American political culture. The American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews, while many American Jews leapt to prove their own loyalty—at the Rosenbergs’ expense.

Just as in the Rosenberg case, the judge presiding over Pollard’s sentencing was swayed to render too harsh a punishment—a decision that kicked up new waves of suspicion and anxiety.

In an effort to keep his wife out of prison, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of espionage. His wife, Anne, then 26, pleaded guilty to the milder charge of illegally possessing classified documents. In return, the prosecutor asked the judge to punish Pollard with a “substantial number of years in prison.” During the sentencing phase, one voice proved damningly influential. In a secret 46-page-pre-sentencing “damage-assessment memorandum” sent to the judge—and an additional four-page memo that was recently declassified—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger made a fierce argument. “It is difficult … to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel,” wrote Weinberger, before adding—malevolently and unnecessarily—that Pollard’s “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.”

Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sentenced Jonathan Pollard to life in prison and his wife to five years. (After Anne Henderson-Pollard served three-and-a-half years, she was paroled. Jonathan Pollard divorced her so she could rebuild her life without him.) The sentence was surprisingly harsh. By comparison, in 1987 Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, who’d been seduced by a Soviet agent, became the first Marine ever convicted of espionage. His crimes compromised agents and the American embassy in Moscow. Yet a military court—under Weinberger’s direct authority—sentenced Lonetree to 30 years in prison, and he eventually served nine years. Richard Miller, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviets in the 1980s, served 13 years. Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt, and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years. Pollard’s extreme sentence—along with the continuing refusal to free him–has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.

Given that neither Weinberger nor Robinson ever explained their actions, the Pollard case remained shrouded in this noxious mystery. Years later, Weinberger would skip over the case in his memoirs and, when asked about the omission, would dismiss the Pollard case as a “very minor matter.” But it’s clear that his accusation that Pollard committed “treason”—and harmed the nation—had a devastating impact.

In his recent letter, Lawrence Korb suggested that Weinberger, his former boss, had exaggerated the damage Pollard caused and that an anti-Semitic bias distorted the case. From the start, some speculated that Weinberger, who had Jewish grandparents but was a devout Episcopalian, sacrificed Pollard to exorcise his own ancestral demons. There was something about this pudgy, sloppy, unapologetic Jewish spy for Israel that repulsed Weinberger. Weinberger was also one of the Reagan Administration’s leading Israel skeptics. Caught in a power struggle with the pro-Israel Secretary of State George Shultz, Weinberger usually viewed the Jewish state as more albatross than asset.

More benign observers guessed that the secrets Pollard spilled did more damage to U.S. interests than Pollard or the Israelis suggested. Perhaps, some argued, Russian spies secured key codes thanks to Israeli-based KGB agents. Others assumed Pollard received instructions from a higher-level mole who remains unexposed. After Aldrich Ames’ arrest for spying in 1994, some speculated that Weinberger and others may have blamed Pollard for the damage Ames had actually caused, including the deaths of as many as 10 CIA assets. The author John Loftus and others theorized that Ames, who was a top CIA counter-intelligence official, probably pinned his own crimes on Pollard. In 1995, Moment magazine editor Hershel Shanks would quote Loftus quoting naval intelligence “sources” who admitted that “90 percent of the things we accused [Pollard] of stealing, he didn’t even have access to.”

***

After Pollard’s sentencing, New York Times columnist William Safire warned that Pollard encouraged “anti-Semites who charge that Jews everywhere are at best afflicted with dual loyalty and at worst are agents of a vast fifth column.” Issuing a personal declaration of independence from Israel, Safire proclaimed: “American supporters of Israel cannot support wrongdoing here or there. In matters of religion and culture, many of those supporters are American Jews, but in matters affecting national interest and ultimate loyalty, the stonewalling leaders of Israel will learn to think of us as Jewish Americans.”

But one keen observer of American Jewry, the political scientist Daniel Elazar, noticed that it was American Jews—and not their non-Jewish neighbors—who were actually raising the dual-loyalty specter, “apparently in the hope of preventing the issue from surfacing by raising the charge in order to deny it. Even more frequently, it was raised by Jews in the media, most of whom were highly assimilated but still apparently needed to demonstrate their ‘bona fides’ as Americans.” Elazar concluded: “The level of American Jewish insecurity is astounding.”

American Jews still viewed themselves and their community as on probation in the United States, with their ultimate acceptance conditional on good behavior. This pathology would be stated clearly, if unconsciously, years later, by one of the highest-ranking Jews in American history, who served his country nobly as director of naval intelligence from 1978 to 1982 and yanked Pollard’s security clearance—temporarily—years before the spying began. Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro sounded like a scared yid when discussing Pollard. Annoyed at fringe American Jewish groups that defended Pollard, Shapiro told the Washington Post in 1998: “We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up … and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”

All minorities want to celebrate their tribal successes as reflecting the best of their people without being tarred when one of their own acts poorly. And given the torturous history of anti-Semitism, American Jews feel this intensely. We circulate lists of Jewish Nobel prize winners, delighting in each American Jewish success, using Jewish achievements to validate our rich but complex Jewish baggage. And while we reserve the right to cringe when a Bernard Madoff becomes the modern face of the greedy Jew or a Jonathan Pollard becomes the modern face of the traitorous Jew, we also reserve the right to object when our neighbors make similar leaps from the one bad apple to the whole bunch.

Nearly two years after Pollard’s arrest, with the sentencing returning the case to the headlines, the Israeli academic Shlomo Avineri zeroed in on this American Jewish insecurity—and inconsistency. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, first condemning Pollard as a traitor and his own government as clumsy, Avineri mocked the “nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing” of American Jews. Playing the role of the abrasive Israeli—or biblical prophet—Avineri wrote: “Today, American Jewish leaders by their protestations of over-zealous loyalty to the United States at a moment when no one is really questioning it, are saying that America in the long run is no different from France and Germany. When you have to over-identify, there is no other proof needed that you think that your non-Jewish neighbors are looking askance at your Americanism. You are condemned by your own protestations of loyalty and flag-waving.” At a time when Israel’s actions made it unpopular with many American Jews, Avineri’s aggressively Zionist analysis only exacerbated tensions.

***

The controversy–and speculation–peaked during the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in October 1998. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first round as Israel’s prime minister, lobbied hard for Pollard’s release. President Bill Clinton seemed set to free him as a sweetener to Israel until the CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign. Such power politicking against a spy who had been imprisoned for over a decade reinforced both camps’ speculation. Those who fear anti-Semitism say this irrational move reflects a deep aversion in the WASP-iest bastions of the American government. Those who believe Pollard did more damage than we know insist that the usually mild-mannered Tenet had a good reason to be so rigid.

To Israeli settlers, Pollard’s case symbolizes the anti-Semitism of even benign non-Jewish polities such as the United States and the weak-kneed appeasement policies of successive Israeli governments, which have failed to free Pollard. The most popular pro-Pollard bumper sticker in Israel simply appeals for Pollard to come home “haBaytah,” but a few years ago one poster challenged: “BUSH: FREE YOUR CAPTIVE.” This poster not only targeted a good friend of Israel’s, George W. Bush, but it pictured Pollard with the young Israeli Hamas is holding, Gilad Shalit. The implicit comparisons, between the innocent Shalit and the guilty Pollard, as well as between the democratic United States and the terrorist-state Hamas, were offensive. While the right’s support has sustained Pollard emotionally, it may have made his get-out-of-jail card even harder to get. The Israeli right is unpopular with both the American Jewish community and the American political establishment, making Pollard even more unappealing.

***

However unappealing he may be, the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard—not as some sop to Israelis but as a matter of justice. Holding an individual hostage to the vagaries of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is cruel and unusual punishment. The Pollard case has become a question of justice, American-style, unrelated to American-Israeli relations. And justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust. For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights organizations have taught that we take up certain criminals’ cases not because we like the criminals or excuse their crimes but because, at a certain point, it becomes the right thing to do.

Imagine another case in which an accused man served a disproportionately long sentence after being tried in a court where direct pressure was applied by the secretary of Defense for reasons that may well have been mistaken or personally motivated. If there was another such case, one imagines that it would attract lots of attention from the ACLU and other groups concerned with the civil liberties of Americans. So why are they silent? More to the point, why are we silent?

If the Pollard case represents the worst of American anti-Semitism, then, by historic standards, anti-Semitism American style is mild indeed. Still, that American Jews, despite their long record of defending the underdog, still hestitate to champion Pollard’s release now, suggests that we—like Jonathan Pollard—remain victims of the “astounding” insecurity Elazar witnessed two decades ago.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of six books on American history and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Analysis: Obama, you’re losing the Jews too

By Gil Troy, The Jewish Chronicle, 11-4-10

Democrat Barbara Boxer takes to the podium after beating Republican Carly Fiorina in Hollywood this week. Democrat Barbara Boxer takes to the podium after beating Republican Carly Fiorina in Hollywood this week

As Americans tallied their red, white and blue electoral scores from the 2010 midterm elections, many American Jews completed a parallel blue and white score too.

In charting their wins and losses, sifting through what definitely happened and what might have happened, US Jews will see yet more evidence of their march toward Americanisation. What may also strike them is their increasingly paradoxical position regarding liberalism, the Democratic Party, Barack Obama and Israel.

The range of the Jewish candidates’ political views was extraordinary. Barbara Boxer, who was re-elected in California, and Russ Feingold, who was defeated for re-election in Wisconsin, were among the most liberal senators in the previous, extremely liberal Congress.

Across the aisle, Eric Cantor, who is expected to become the majority leader when the House of Representatives turns Republican, is a fellow Jew but their staunch ideological foe. If Mr Cantor becomes majority leader he will be the highest ranking Jewish legislator in American history. Most impressive of all was the fact that for most Jewish candidates, being Jewish was irrelevant. These Jewish congressional candidates star in the American success story by fitting in rather than standing out.

The election – and Mr Obama’s repudiation – hinged on domestic matters.

The House of Representatives turned Republican because the “Yes We Can” candidate from 2008, who seemingly could do no wrong, found himself at the head of a “No We Can’t” campaign, leading many to think that as president, he can do no right. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan and Israel all took a back seat to worries about 9.7 per cent unemployment, anger over Obama-care, consternation about the growing budget deficit, frustration with high taxes and fears about America’s future.

At the same time, the election will certainly affect America’s foreign policy, even if foreign policy did not shape voters’ decisions. Even though Democrats did not capture 78 per cent of the Jewish vote, as Mr Obama did in 2008, American Jewry still voted disproportionately Democratic.

With domestic issues at the forefront, and most Jews voting on domestic concerns, not Israel’s needs, it will be hard to argue that American Jews were punishing Mr Obama for being hard on Israel. And those who were hoping that a chastened Mr Obama may be more inclined to charm Israel (or Great Britain and other allies whom he has slighted) are trusting their hopes rather than this president’s track record. Mr Obama has shown little ability to learn from his mistakes, or even acknowledge them.

Moreover, presidents who find themselves handcuffed by the House are more likely to seek big, quick victories abroad. The amateurish impatience which led Obama to create the settlement freeze demand as a new issue, which Palestinians have turned into a condition for negotiations, may become even more evident as Obama 2.0 seeks to flex his muscles abroad.

And the unhappy fact for American Jews that, despite their community’s abiding loyalty to the Democratic Party, it is becoming the home of those illiberal leftists who hate Israel may become even more evident and stressful in the next two years.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Centre in Washington

The neo-conning of Israel and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-10

A disturbing new trend risks making Israel and Zionism politically poisonous to liberals. Israel has been “neo-conned,” cast as a neo-conservative Sparta, caricatured as a militarized theocracy, defined by the ultra-Orthodox haredim’s black garb and the IDF’s olive green uniforms, epitomized by “Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas,” as Peter Beinart claimed in his recent, overwrought, New York Review of Books essay.

This narrative depicts American Jewish organizations as mindless and monolithic, enabling every right-wing, racist Israeli impulse, squelching dissent, making Zionism incompatible with liberalism, and cloddishly alienating the next, noble generation of American Jews. Treating Israel as more conservative than it actually is alienates many Jews and non-Jews from the Jewish state, especially in the Age of Obama.

Even for those writers who reject the perverse, inaccurate South African Apartheid analogy, seeing Israel through an American historical prism frequently distorts too. Barack Obama compares Palestinian suffering to African-Americans’ oppression. This comparison also sloppily and demagogically racializes a national conflict, making the multi-hued Israelis the “white guys,” meaning the bad guys.

Many critics are also shouting “McCarthyism,” hysterically defining even mild, non-governmental counterattacks against Israel’s relentless critics as hysterical. “McCarthyism” involved government repression of critics, ruining careers, even jailing dissidents; yet today McCarthyism is often alleged when right-wingers dare criticize the Left.

While rooted in the decades-long campaign to declare Zionism racism and Israel illegitimate, the latest surge stems from George W. Bush’s toxic embrace of Israel. His unpopularity proved contagious. Many Americans, including the current president, reflexively transferred their dislike of Bush to countries Bush liked, especially Israel.

Increasingly, championing Israel was deemed “conservative.” The timing was particularly ironic, amid Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, then Ehud Olmert’s centrist government offering the Palestinians generous concessions. Clearly, as a modern capitalist consumerist society Israel is not the socialist workers’ paradise David Ben-Gurion imagined. Israel remains vexed – and tarred – by the continuing Palestinian conflict. Israel’s current governing right-wing coalition includes some parties that have taken appalling anti-democratic positions. And Israel occasionally does stupid things, such as banning Noam Chomsky from the West Bank (then rescinding the ban).

Still, this wave of articles paints Israel not as leaning rightward but as abandoning democracy. These shrill attacks ignore the many counter-balancing forces – and Netanyahu’s own centrist shifts. Avigdor Lieberman is an unpopular, straitjacketed foreign minister, often bypassed. Still, he attracts more attention than moderates like the urbane, cosmopolitan Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

In neo-conning Israel critics overlook Arab illiberalism. Peter Beinart correctly notes that many young Jews resent hearing about Palestinian terrorism, incitement and intransigence. Casting the Arabs as the victims and Israel as the aggressor constitutes one of the greatest con jobs in modern politics.

Most significantly, Netanyahu embraced “two states for two peoples.” Seeking stability as a prerequisite to peace, his government has dismantled checkpoints, nurtured the Palestinian economy and cooperated on security matters with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu’s moves reflect Israel’s historic peace consensus, with most Israelis consistently willing to compromise for peace. These political steps and this profound yearning for peace are under-reported. They muddy the popular narrative of heavy-handed Israelis, long-suffering Palestinians, morally blind American Jewish leaders and justifiably rebellious American Jews.

A vital, creative and liberal Zionist center still thrives. True, if reporters continuously quote post-Zionist radicals such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell or Avraham Burg, they will find backing for caricatures about a Holocaust-obsessed, racist country that ignores the noble elites trying to save it from itself. This one-sidedness would be like writing darkly about “George W. Bush’s America” in 2006 by quoting only Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

Reporters covering Israel should work harder, muddying the story further with truth. They could quote Professor Ruth Gavison, whose “Metzila” think tank harmonizes Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, with universal democratic values. They could interview Professor Moshe Halbertal, a political philosopher who wears a kippa, opposes settlements, and refuted the Goldstone Report. They could visit the Shalom Hartman Institute where Rabbi Donniel Hartman is leading a project I have joined reframing the vocabulary describing Israel and Zionism through Jewish texts as well as enduring Jewish and liberal values. They could consult Reut, the centrist think tank, which champions full equality for Israeli Arabs while defending Israel. Of course, now that Reut opposes delegitimizing Israel it has been branded “right wing.”

Within American Jewry, shoving established Jewish organizations into a box marked “Danger: Conservatives” makes the Jewish leadership and Israel unkosher no matter how bipartisan AIPAC is, no matter how committed to civil liberties the American Jewish Committee is, no matter how many Jewish leaders endorse two states.

Moreover, considering the many arguments about Israel at Sabbath tables and social events, it is absurd to claim that American Jews feel forced to march in lockstep regarding Israel. In most American Jewish circles, there is much more social pressure to be pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Considering Jews’ rich history of disputation, this culture of intensely criticizing Israel may be the modern Jew’s way of showing love. Professor Theodor Sasson argues that intense Jewish debates about Israel reflect a new paradigm of “direct engagement,” rejecting the traditional, more personally passive, organizational model of “mass mobilization.” The 250,000 young students, age 18 to 26, who visited Israel in the last 10 years with Birthright Israel, he notes, feel personal ties to Israel.

Birthright is a non-partisan program, an open-ended gift defined by the catchphrase “no strings attached.” As the new voluntary chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee, I have been struck how researchers tracking the program report that few participants complain about being force-fed a line. The trip’s organizers know their credibility as educators rests on being open-minded not heavy-handed. Birthright is not an advocacy program but an identity-building program, launching thousands of individualized Jewish journeys.

The Zionist center is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic – even if ignored by reporters. It is a Zionism of balance, seeking to better Israel while opposing its enemies’ irrational, obsessive hatred. It is a Zionism sobered by reality, seeking peace while remembering how territorial concessions bred Yasser Arafat’s terrorism and Hamas’s Kassams. It is a Zionism characterized by idealism, viewing nationalism as a framework for finding collective meaning and harnessing group power to achieve universal values. And it is a Zionism still nurtured by its liberal roots, viewing individual liberty, true equality, a just democracy and a lasting peace as keys to fulfilling Judaism’s teachings, Zionism’s dreams and Israel’s promise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. Among his books are Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Let’s mobilize against anti-Israel week

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-7-10

We historians don’t predict the future – the past is foggy enough. But allow me one prediction. Within weeks, the Jewish world is going to be in high dudgeon, outraged at the Anti-Israel Week activities on campuses across North America. And, judging by the past, and the current situation as far as I know, we will shift into temporary crisis

mode, reacting and overreacting, flailing about with little discipline, little coordination, little strategy, little tactical gain, but much frustration.

Our enemies – and yes, they are our enemies – have been planning this Israel hate-fest for a year, if not longer. One Israel-bashing Web site declares: “Mark your calendars – the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will take place across the globe from the 1st to the 14th of March 2010!” True, a “week” usually lasts only seven days; our adversaries count days as sloppily as they recount the past. These Israel-libelers claim 40 cities will participate – 12 in Canada alone – mostly on campuses. Rather than dithering then scrambling, we must plan – in fact, planning should have started months ago.

David Olesker, the director of JCCAT, the Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training, warns that before planning tactical responses, we must clarify our strategy. “Where do we want to be in five years, where are we going with our arguments and advocacy?” he asks, noting how rarely pro-Israel advocates think about the big picture, although our adversaries do.

Thinking strategically, the pro-Israel community should remember “Three P’s.” First, Push back, but push back intelligently, remembering our target audiences. We will rarely sway with mere facts someone who has swallowed the apartheid libel and drunk the anti-Israel Kool-Aid. Our target is wavering Jewish students and the vast uninformed and uninterested middle. We should play off the radical demonizers, making them look extreme and foolish as we demonstrate our informed commitment, our enlightened passion, the rightness and righteousness of our cause.

Second, Position Israel better as a modern democracy fighting terror, sometimes forced to make unhappy decisions like other countries. The truth is our friend. Israel has compromised – and seen withdrawals from territory and other concessions “rewarded” with violence. Until critics deal with that, they are simply Israel-bashing with no real commitment to peace. And speaking of peace, let’s call the libelers’ bluff. Those who falsely accuse Israel of practicing racist, South African-style apartheid, are essentially saying Israel is so odious that, like that regime, it should not exist. How can such a libelous, historically misinformed attack advance the peace process?

Third, be Proud of Israel as an extraordinary old-new land, one of the great successes of the twentieth century, now leading the way technologically in the twenty-first century. Just as the US is not only defined by its racial troubles, and Canada not only defined by its linguistic tensions, Israel is not just about the Palestinians. It was the central conceit of Yasser Arafat and his terrorist henchmen to make every conversation about Israel revolve around them – and it worked. In taking back the narrative, we should jump to a different track, not always talking about Israel in the context of defending Israel or justifying its existence but celebrating Israel, delighting in Israel’s achievements, pluralism, values, democracy and historically redemptive role.

Tactically, as we wait for the latest initiatives rumored to be in the works in North America and Israel to help galvanize and centralize pro-Israel sentiment, we should mobilize the Jewish Netroots. Let us put out a call to the pro-Israel blogosphere for an approach defined by the “Three H’s.”

For starters, we must be Horizontal, understanding that today’s informational, ideological and political playing field is vast, chaotic and democratic. Students, bloggers and activists should speak their minds, display their passions, forge their own relationships with Israel and express their pride as effectively, as creatively, as widely, as they can.

This more horizontal approach must be Hip, singing, rapping or tweeting a new song of Zion, one that is relevant, resonant, inspirational, conversational, internalized among millions of pro-Israel and pro-democracy activists, rather than dictated from above or simply inherited from our ancestors.

And finally, we should not be afraid to be Hysterical¸ to laugh among ourselves while mocking the heavy-handed propagandists who build their entire ideology on negation – investing time, money, energy in denigrating Israel rather than building anything constructive for Palestinians, or anyone else, for that matter. Israeli culture is improvisational – demonstrated particularly by the ingenuity of the IDF and the creativity of high tech entrepreneurs. Those same skills should be deployed in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy, but with humor, not a heavy hand. We should mock our enemies – because their positions are laughable and because ridicule is such an effective tool on the net.

We must go global and virtual in Israel advocacy, not because of anti-Israel week but because we have a great story to tell. And in the virtual world millions can take the lead in celebrating Israel. For too long, Israelis have sat on the sidelines, watching their brothers and sisters flounder in the Diaspora, or, even worse, allowing a small minority of Israelis to fuel the fires of anti-Zionism abroad, giving Israel and particularly Israeli universities a bad name. But today, Israelis and non-Israelis can work together – or at least in parallel – broadcasting a pro-Zionist message while ridiculing and undermining our enemies.

In a country that must engage its youth in more nationalistic, values-oriented projects, and at a time when parents lament how much time their kids spend on the computer, here is a great challenge for the country’s high schools and universities. The anti-Israel forces wish to wipe Israel off the map and demonize Zionists as the “New Nazis.” If we fail to fight back, they will continue poisoning the discourse around Israel, especially on campuses and in Europe. Let young Israelis learn enough history to defend themselves and their country effectively on the Internet. Let this be a great virtual contact point, building relations between Israeli and Diaspora youth.

Wouldn’t it be great if next year, the anti-Israel forces canceled their annual festival of nihilism because the push-back they triggered simply wasn’t worth it? Now that’s a strategic goal worth pursuing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.