Obama the Idealistic Internationalist versus Romney the Muscular Isolationist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Romney’s Understandable Views on Palestine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nuke-Washing Iran

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Many Democrats Booed Jerusalem at the DNC?

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

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

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

obama-aipac

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carter Is Worse Than Clint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t Make Israel a Wedge Issue in 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending Sheldon Adelson’s Support for Mitt Romney

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Migrant Mitzvahs

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

“52% of Israeli Jews agree,” the Times of Israel headline cried: “African migrants are ‘a cancer.’” The subhead continued that the poll also “establishes a direct correlation between racist attitudes and religiosity.”  While sobering themselves, these findings about bigotry will of course feed other bigotry, with the ever-more-popular “Israel is racist” and “religious people are yahoos” memes leading the way.

The polls indicate a problem that Israel has—which Israel shares with many Western democracies, including the U.S. The same day the Times of Israel publicized its immigration survey finding, the CBS News Political Hotsheet pronounced: “Most Americans think Arizona immigration law is ‘about right,’” with 52 percent of Americans approving the controversial law requiring Arizona law enforcement officials to check citizenship status aggressively.

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An African migrant stands as a right-wing protestors walk past holding Israeli flags and banners during a demonstration against African migrants in Tel Aviv. (David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images)

Immigration is a blessing and a curse, a welcome engine for creativity, entrepreneurship and growth as well as a dramatic social disruptor.  Even immigrant-friendly societies such as the US and Israel have long histories of resisting newcomers. The United States has NINA—No Irish Need Apply signs in windows—in its past; Israel has “sabonim”—calling Holocaust refugees “soap”—in its. The anxiety over immigrants is partly rational, partly atavistic. Immigrants sometimes compete for jobs, commit crimes, upset social order.

Furthermore, they always represent change. The great liberal icon Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, worried about the different mores, customs, sensibilities, and attitudes toward democracy immigrants would bring.  His fears do not invalidate the power of the Declaration of Independence, just as some polls, and a series of ugly incidents do not justify branding Israel as a racist society—especially when most Israelis and most of Israel’s political leadership denounced the recent hooliganism.

This problem is educational—citizens have to learn that immigration benefits society, that immigrant pathologies are not more prevalent only more visible because immigrants stand out, and that, regardless of the pragmatic payoffs, welcoming the less fortunate into free, more prosperous societies is a democratic “mitzvah” in the fullest sense of the word, a commandment, an obligation, a good deed.

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

Learning from Obama’s gay marriage wobble

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-15-12

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me.

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me. For a president of the United States to back into such a monumental announcement reflected weakness, not strength, diminishing the man, the message and the office. Even as gay activists and Democrats try spinning Obama’s wobbly stand as heroic, newly-energized prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not learn leadership lessons from his “frenemy.”

Netanyahu must start leading on key issues rather than skirting them as he has been doing, or playing it too cute by half as Obama just did.

This twist in the gay marriage saga began on Meet the Press, when Vice President Foot-in-mouth, aka Joe Biden, proclaimed when asked directly: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

Biden is lucky he is a Democrat. He is windier, wordier, less disciplined than Dan Quayle, but because Biden’s views are more in synch with many reporters – as on this issue – he has largely been spared the ridicule he deserves. Biden opposed the Osama bin Laden raid, then called it the most “audacious” military operation in “500 years.” He greeted Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, the Congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head, upon her return to Congress by saying, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me.” He once was caught on microphone dropping “the f-bomb” after introducing the president in the White House.

This time, even Obama admitted that Biden got “a little over his skis.” Nevertheless, by midweek, on Wednesday May 9, the president followed the vice president by acknowledging in an ABC interview that “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue” and “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that – for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that – I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

As befit the interview format and America’s confessional culture, Obama justified the decision personally, not ideologically.

Hoping the issue could be “worked out at the local level,” he dodged the Constitutional and national policy questions. He spoke instead about “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” about gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or – sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” and about his daughters Malia and Sasha – “they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples” who shouldn’t be “treated differently.”

In a pathological tell, wherein you accuse your opponent of doing precisely what you are doing as you do it, Obama then started attacking Mitt Romney’s inconstancy, which Obama called “one of his Etch-a- Sketch moments.” Obama was echoing a Republican spokesman’s Bidenesque characterization of the adjustments Romney will make while transitioning from the primary campaign to the general election. If the traditional definition of chutzpah is killing your parents then pleading for mercy as an orphan, Obama’s chutzpah entails calling Romney an Etch-a-Sketch leader while shaking and redrawing his gay marriage stance in his boobish vice president’s tailwind.

Great leaders evolve. They shift their positions, rethink strategies, adjust their tactics and even, sometimes, reexamine core convictions, as Richard Nixon did with his diplomatic breakthrough to China, and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement.

But my mother taught that if you are going to do it, do it right.

John Kennedy’s civil rights stance evolved. The tentative politician who tried dodging the black equality issue in January 1960 became a statesman who confronted it eloquently on June 11, 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the president proclaimed in what became hailed as his Civil Rights speech. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Obama, instead, bequeathed to American history an unmemorable conversational announcement elicited by a reporter that had all the poetry of a gas bill, while triggering back stories about Biden’s subsequent make-up meeting with Obama, and Democratic election advisers’ fury over Biden’s blabbing.

Learning what not to do from Obama, Netanyahu should mobilize his expanded, empowered coalition to change Israeli history boldly and clearly. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been part stealth leader, part ward boss. His greatest accomplishments have included quietly blocking undemocratic legislation and tending his weak, fractious coalition. Now, he should stop treading water.

Rather than simply maneuvering in the Knesset he should start addressing the nation about tough issues. He should frame the upcoming debate over the Tal Law as a broader opportunity to redraw Israel’s social contract, emphasizing the special rights haredim and Arabs will enjoy while also emphasizing their communal responsibilities.

He should confront the anti-Zionist rabbinate and carve out more civic space for marriages, births, easy conversions and divorce.

He should not wait for another round of social protests before seeking a new balance that shows the world how to preserve Israel’s impressive prosperity while securing the social safety net without making middle class taxpayers feel like “freiers” (suckers).

And he should continue showing that with both the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel will determine its own destiny, neither held hostage to enemies’ whims nor handcuffed by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Westerners.

When Kennedy became president, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned that only the difficult decisions ended up in the Oval Office. Leading entails choosing between competing goods – or bads. In the US and Israel, sister democracies, we should give our leaders a break, understanding the complex challenges they face. And they should give us what we crave – clearer, more muscular, more principled statesmanship.

The writer 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 will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

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.

Extremists Try Trumping Centrists in the Republican Primaries — and Israel too

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-17-12

“I used to feel badly about the Israeli political system,” an Israeli friend of mine recently said. “But after watching this American campaign, I feel much better.” After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As with the Israeli political system, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.
Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.” But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.
This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.
Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.
Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile.
The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that, despite the condescending judgment of so many American liberals regarding Israel’s supposed “Iranization,” both Israel and the US face parallel predicaments. In both countries a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitans moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.
In the US, Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In Israeli terms, Tsfon Tel Aviv – The People’s Republic of Northern Tel Aviv – as a state of mind, not limited to a geographic space –differs dramatically from Settleristan, regardless of on which side of the Green Line Israel’s more fundamentalist voices fall.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation. In American terms, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.
So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.
Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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.

The Zionism-Racism lie lives – 20 years after the UN’s repeal

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-11

Last week, Ha’aretz’s publisher Amos Schocken joined the chorus prematurely mourning “the elimination of Israeli democracy” – although articles like his in his hyper-critical newspaper prove Israel’s democratic vitality daily. Exaggerating further, he accused Israel of practicing “apartheid.” This libel is inaccurate and inflammatory. Tragically, it appeared just before an important anniversary that should not be overlooked – the United Nations’ repeal of its odious Zionism is Racism resolution twenty years ago on December 16, 1991.
A clever polemicist, Schocken appeared more subtle than the average Israel-basher by acknowledging a “difference” between South African apartheid “and what is happening in the territories.” Nevertheless, he found “points of resemblance.” He defined apartheid as “the undemocratic system of discriminating between the rights of the whites and the blacks, which once existed in South Africa.” But he discussed “discrimination” in the West Bank without offering any evidence regarding the offense which made apartheid apartheid, defining people systematically, legally, by skin color.
In a world which abhors racial distinctions but organizes itself around many distinctions between different national groups, justifying the apartheid accusation requires proving a racial dimension. Schocken could have charged “discrimination” – which is devastating enough to a democracy. Using the demonizing word “apartheid” linked him to the Big Lie delegitimizing the Jewish state by calling Zionism racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The apartheid charge gussies up the Zionism-racism lie with sincere concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but both blood libels share common origins, carrying the putrid stench  of Soviet totalitarianism’s rotting corpse.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet and Arab propagandists concocted the Zionism-racism charge to ostracize the Jewish state by identifying it with racist South Africa and Rhodesia. This “Big Red Lie,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it, also echoed Nazi views of Jews as a “race.” Trying to racialize Zionism, to South Africanize Israel, to demonize the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the UN’s General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, calling Zionism racism.
Moynihan, serving as America’s UN Ambassador, saw the resolution as an attack on democracy and decency.  And he recognized the genocidal implications of accusing Israel of the one international crime punishable by national death. Comparing Zionism to Nazism and white supremacism wished the same fate on Israel that befell Nazi Germany and – eventually – apartheid South Africa. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, denounced the Hitlerite anti-Semitism shaping the resolution, targeting the collective Jew rather than individual Jews.
Both Herzog and Moynihan believed “words matter” and ideas count. When Herzog became Israel’s president in 1983, he and now-Senator Moynihan began campaigning to repeal the resolution. Everyone said that no General Assembly resolution was ever repealed – although Spain joined the UN in 1950 despite an earlier resolution prohibiting its membership.
Herzog and Moynihan persisted. In 1985, Israel’s UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a conference demanding repeal. Netanyahu explained the resolution’s potency, noting “there is no worse epithet in today’s lexicon than ‘racist,’” the word is “the modern version of ‘Christ killers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘usurers,’ and ‘international conspirators.’”
Moynihan, a Democrat, cooperated with the Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, who ultimately secured the repeal. The Jewish community mobilized, uniting grassroots protests with effective organizational advocacy. And history happened. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The liberated Eastern European countries endorsed repeal. Following a courageous intervention by Elie Wiesel, who pointedly asked the Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk how come no one in Kiev opened up a door to save even one child as thousands marched to their deaths toward the forests of Babi Yar in 1941, Kravchuk rejected this “resolution born out of bitter ideological confrontation.” The Czech President Vaclav Havel needed no coaching, saying: “I didn’t approve of it then; I don’t approve of it now.”
Unfortunately, despite the repeal, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Big Red Lie refuses to die. “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid accusation have become central memes in modern politics. A meme, “something imitated,” is an idea popularized in a culture through repetition. Israel’s enemies have used these two Killer Memes to make their assault on Israel’s existence constant and cumulative. The Zionism-Racism claim integrates one criticism with the next; the apartheid allegation treats every Israeli misstep as a crime against humanity.
No one involved in Middle East matters, least of all Ha’aretz’s erudite publisher, can claim to be ignorant of the significance of validating the Apartheid-Racism memes. Intentionally or not, in the internet age, Ha’aretz is an important link in the chain of delegitimization that often starts with its incendiary coverage and ends with the Boycott Israel-Kill the Jews crowd feeling vindicated. That realization should never stop Schocken or others from truth-telling. But it should caution them against sloppy rabble-rousing.
Schocken should get a taste of those democratic prerogatives he defends so eloquently. The Jewish Agency, the Federations, the Israeli government, the universities, should stop taking out those ridiculous, expensive front page ads in the English Ha’aretz welcoming this group or that board to Israel — and explain why the gravy train stopped. Charity dollars should not be wasted in such vanity enterprises anyway — especially if they subsidize spreading these modern blood libels.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Jewish organizational world, and the Jewish people should celebrate December 16. We should toast the American-Israeli friendship, America’s bipartisan cooperation on this issue, Zionist activism, and the welcome defeat of Soviet totalitarianism that produced the victory. Our students should learn that sometimes Israel’s advocates, Zionism’s champions, democracy’s defenders, can win. And all Israelis, from across the political spectrum, should learn they have a treasury of words and historical comparisons to use during vigorous democratic debate. However, using the Zionism-Racism and Apartheid memes assaults the truth and encourages Israel’s deadliest enemies.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenge of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: Zionism is Racism, the Rise of Reagan and the Fall of the UN.”

Occupy Wall Street: Preoccupied with PC Posturing

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-8-11

Last week, I occupied Wall Street. Okay, I only jogged around Zuccotti Park, and talked to some people. I figure, though, that if tent encampments housing hundreds of people popping up here and there can be exaggerated into a mass movement that reporters claim has changed the American conversation, I can turn my short visit into an “occupation.”

The true story about “Occupy Wall Street” is how preoccupied the media is with a marginal movement. In 1962, the historian Daniel Boorstin coined the term “pseudo-event” to describe made-for-the-cameras events, which barely stand alone without the klieg-light-induced boost. Similarly, this movement is more of a con than a conquest of capitalism, more of a charade than a parade of reforming game-changers. Their slogan, “we are the 99 percent,” is inaccurate – more like .0000000009 percent.

When I visited, at 8:30 AM one morning, and saw masters-of-the-universe in their powersuits photographing the squatters, I wanted to shout, “Turn around! You, the supposed bystanders, the passers-by, are the real story.” Wandering around Wall Street on a weekday morning thousands of people stream by, going to work. Their energy, their diverse styles, their different tasks, their props – wired into their iPods, armed with their Starbucks – tell the real story of modern America. Passing the cops and the drivers, the security guards and the security analysts, the secretaries and the stock brokers, the real people who make the city work, I felt they would save America. Amid the many worker-bees paying their bills, digging out of debt, sending their kids to college, are the few queen bees, the future Steve Jobses working maniacally to innovate, rather than “chilling” in a park.

There’s an awkward sociological reality to the Occupy Wall Street movement. The “occupy” tent encampments’ free food, available tents and the cool buzz of the mostly young slacker-protestors have attracted street people. Homeless people have rights, too, of course. But many are mentally ill. They enhance the impression of marginality, injecting an air of randomness as well. At “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy DC” at McPherson Square in Washington, DC, which I also visited, the real victims of this troubling, lingering recession seemed missing – the single moms trying to feed two or three kids on Walmartized jobs, meaning minimal wages with artificially limited hours to ensure no benefits; the middle-aged, once-middle-class dads who lost their jobs and are not even being considered for others because they are too experienced, too expensive, and at the age of forty plus, too old, no matter how fit; the retirees who could live off interest rates of four and five percent but suffer when they hover between zero and two percent.

“Occupy Wall Street’s” lack of focus also weakens it. We know what the movements for feminism, environmentalism, pro-life, pro-choice, free Palestine, or Zionism are about. These protestors barely know what they are against and have no idea what they stand for. Their answer to this FAQ – frequently asked question — is to affirm 1. “We must be accountable to ourselves” and 2. “Our government must be accountable to us and corporations must be accountable to the government.” I agree. Now what?

So far, the handbills distributed offer a smorgasbord of lefty concerns. It’s green. It’s queer. It’s very, very PC – politically correct. It’s a politics of postures and gestures more than one of policies and ideas. Occupy DC lists 16 “guidelines” starting with: “Respect each other, each other’s stuff and space.” It makes the important, poignant point, rule number 5, that “we consider working class police officers part of the 99%,” so they are not instinctively seen as the enemy. Rule number 10 is “Don’t assume anyone’s gender. When possible go with gender-neutral pronouns and nouns such as friend/comrade instead of brother/sister.” The movement often seems like those free-associating, earnest, PC political message boards, that sprout like weeds on campuses, brought to life – only garbed in layers of ill-fitting clothing and reeking of body odor.

Alas, Jews, and especially Zionists, do not make it onto the lengthy list of protected groups – insulated from any criticism — by the prevailing PC sensibility. It’s unfair to accuse OWS of anti-Semitism. The movement is too diffuse to turn a few errant signs or some offensive loudmouths into a statement. But at Occupy DC, the African-American guy who was ranting about the 9/11 conspiracy, inevitably, predictably, denounced Zionists, their power, their “apartheid” state, and the “Uncle Tom in the White House” who supports Israel. I am quite sure, that in this same special space which encourages gender-neutral pronouns, the friends/comrades would not tolerate pejorative language about any other group, or a racist slurring of President Barack Obama’s name in any other context. Yet this has emerged as the great leftist blind spot — insensitivity about anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism too often gets a free pass.

In DC, when I spoke to an organizer, he asked me where I was from. “Jerusalem” I answered – curious to see his response. He smiled. “You guys had those great protests,” he said, “sorry to hear how expensive housing is.” “Yes,” I responded, “those protests had a huge middle class base” –he insisted ODC did too.

This interaction made me doubly proud. After years of scarring from the delegitimization battles, it was nice to see Israel inspiring leftists again. And, yes, Israel’s protest movement also has to figure out Act 2, to solve that difficult post-Cold War conundrum of how we develop a thriving capitalist economy with some seichel, some social justice, some soul without socialism. But Israel’s protests are not pseudo-events. They are broad, middle-class, open, inviting, mainstream, real – and politically formidable – something Occupy Wall Street, despite all the media hype, has yet to become.

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.”giltroy@gmail.com

Lessons from Osama’s blood-spattered biography

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-2-11

As President Barack Obama sought the right tone in announcing Osama Bin Laden’s death – not too triumphal, not too cerebral — Americans took to the streets, celebrating the news. They were frustrated, having waited nearly a decade to capture al Qaeda’s terrorist mastermind. Still, Osama must have suffered, fleeing from cave to cave. In many ways, that punishment imposed on Osama paralleled the punishment he tried imposing on the civilized world. The terrorist wants millions to feel perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, constantly endangered. The man constantly on the lam is perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, and constantly endangered.

Osama Bin Laden fancied himself the preacher-terrorist, a Jihadist firing off religious fatwas one minute and RPGs the next. He emerged unwittingly as a teacher-terrorist. His blood-splattered biography taught the world important lessons, including:

We cannot escape history: Too many Americans awoke the morning of September 11, thinking that we were enjoying a holiday from history. The Soviet Union had fallen. The Dow Jones was rising. Electronic gadgets were proliferating. Serious thinkers and superficial commentators were feeding this notion that Americans transcended history – using “history” as a euphemism for troubles.

Al Qaeda terrorism abruptly ended America’s post-Cold War idyll, highlighting even a super-power’s vulnerability in the modern world. But the post-9/11 assumptions that this mass trauma would make American society more serious proved as false as the September 10th assumptions that peace and prosperity would last forever or that anyone could get a free pass from the various forces large and small which accumulate and shape us — which we then call history.

We can defeat terrorism: Even before September 11, but certainly when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the conventional wisdom imputed far too much power to terrorists. These big bangs in New York and Washington, as well as the latest wave of Palestinian terror that had started a full year earlier in Israel, seemed to be harbingers of perpetual attacks. But two leaders who were not afraid to be hated, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, showed that the old cliché was true – the best defense is a good offense. Just reacting to terrorist attacks was not enough; pushing back militarily, hunting terrorists down, keeping them on the defensive, was the best way of preventing future attacks. Terrorists have trouble planning attacks on the run or under bombardment.

Islamists – and eventually the Palestinians — also suffered from their own, often-overlooked, version of blowback. Suicide bombings of office buildings and cafes, buses and bar mitzvahs triggered mass revulsion. The terrorists lost what little romance they cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing to be barbarians who hurt their own cause. Ten years later, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its spectacular mass slaughter in 2001; even Hamas is more likely to deny a terrorist attack than take “credit” for it.

Islamism is evil: Prior to 9/11, the statement was doubly problematic. Many of our greatest thinkers recoiled from such judgmental proclamations, especially concerning any non-Western phenomena. The crime of 9/11 was so dastardly it shocked many — not all — back into a language of good and evil, right and wrong. And, as politically incorrect as it may be, many recognized that this fight was not just against a tactic – terrorism – but an ideology – Islamism.

Islamism is a Jihadist, holy war-oriented, perversion of Islam, rooted in some Koranic teachings, but ignoring others. Despite their fury against Bin Laden’s brutal Islamism, few Americans attacked Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans. George W. Bush deserves tremendous credit for repudiating such bigotry. American-Arabs and Muslims also helped themselves. Most are neither Islamists nor Jihadists. The nineteen hijackers were foreign infiltrators not homegrown terrorists. And anyone who examined America’s Arab and Muslim population saw law-abiding citizens, many of whom sought refuge in the United States from this fundamentalist fanaticism.

Israel is not the problem: Bin Laden’s own words demonstrated his hatred for the West, and for America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia. He only redirected his Jihad toward Israel after 9/11, in a bid for popularity. As with this year’s Arab Spring, the facts from the Middle East disturbed the conventional wisdom in the West. Nevertheless, so many supposed experts continued buying Palestinians’ propaganda line that solving their conflict is the keystone to world peace, when their future is not even the central regional challenge.

Democracies are resilient: September 11 resulted from a dramatic American intelligence failure. Following September 11, Americans feared terrorism would triumph. President Bush made many, significant mistakes – or, as Republicans preferred to say it, mistakes were made. Yet, like Londoners in the 1940s, or Jerusalemites in the 2000s, Americans showed a grit and a grace, a unity and a sense of community, a softness in their hearts and a toughness in their spirits, that ultimately defeated the terrorists and healed the country, even as over 3000 families, friendship circles, neighborhoods, communities continue to cope with unfathomable losses.

Presidencies often converge: For all their differences in tone, style, and ideology, Presidents Bush and Obama have responded in remarkably similarly ways to their respective presidencies’ biggest crises. Bush looked downright Democratic in turning on the stimulus spigot to spend America out of its economic trauma. Obama has looked downright Republican in assassinating America’s enemies whenever and wherever he can. Perhaps, it is worth ratcheting down the rhetoric, just a bit, and understanding that responsible democratic leaders often have more limited options than it seems, and that responsible leaders often act responsibly, regardless of ideology.

Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda isn’t. These and other lessons should bring some moral clarity and communal grit to the fight. Seeing problems clearly and in proportion does not make them disappear, but does make them more manageable.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. 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

Cultivating democracy, Reagan- and Sharansky-style

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-8-11

Photo by: Ronald Reagan Library/White House photo
Israelis usually know notFormer US president Ronald Reagan and Sharansky to let fear of the future cloud the present. All peace-loving democrats should celebrate the potential inherent in Egypt’s popular uprising. As the ones who taught the world about going from slavery to freedom by leaving ancient Egypt, Jews would love to see modern Egypt teach the Arab world about going from enslavement under dictators to the freedom that flourishes in peaceful, popular democracies.

Democracy is delicious. Those who enjoy civil rights, live in states that empower the people, see leaders rotated regularly, and have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our privileged club.

THIS WEEK, two anniversaries remind us of the essential link between freedom and democracy. February 6 marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.

When many intellectuals were too dazzled by communism to recognize its crimes, Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. Shocked, one leading American historian labeled his 1983 address the worst presidential speech ever. Reagan never understood how people so smart could be so dumb – and arrogant – as to assume that people suffering under communism did not yearn for freedom.

As president, Reagan helped free another freedom fighter, Natan Sharansky, from the gulag 25 years ago, on February 11, 1986. While Reagan faced condescending professors, Sharansky had to resist the KGB. These days, when many criticize Israel for being too worried about its peace with Egypt to cheer the democratic revolution, the world should remember that since 1986, Natan Sharansky has been preaching, from Israel, that Arabs deserve democracy – defying the conventional wisdom even as it mocks him, George W.

Bush and others for demanding that.

Not surprisingly, today, when historical memories get wiped out with a click of the ‘refresh’ button, Israel’s critics are busy rewriting history. The bash-Israel crowd, dismayed that those pesky Arabs again had other concerns beyond the Palestinians, nevertheless used the Egyptian crisis to attack Israel. Now they criticize it for making peace with dictators – as if it could choose some democratic Egyptian leader as a peace partner.

Turn back the clock three decades. Had Israel rejected the media darling Anwar Sadat because he was a dictator, the world would have condemned it. Today, these critics want Israel to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas – another aging autocrat – and the deadly dictators of Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin’s realist teaching that you only make peace with your enemies has an unspoken Middle East corollary – where strongmen reign, you can only make peace with dictators, although not with those who promise to obliterate you.

The media herd has missed another inconvenient nuance, failing to understand that popular is not necessarily democratic. The New York Times ran one article after another reading like Muslim Brotherhood press releases. On February 4, Nicholas Kulish’s Valentine claimed that the Brotherhood’s “actual members… come across as civic-minded people of faith.”

Roger Cohen gushed that “the Middle East has evolved…

Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s,” adding gratuitously and disproportionately: “Democracies can coexist with politically-organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates.”

Apparently, these cheerleaders have never read the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna’s harsh exhortations to “prepare for jihad, and be lovers of death.” These deluded democrats overlook the Brotherhood’s Nazi roots, which produced Hamas terrorists, not Turkish economists. And perhaps most important of all, these simpletons have overlooked democracy’s essential foundations.

Yes, democracy involves not having dictators. And yes, democracy can arise after popular revolts. But even orderly elections can spawn dictators and demagogues, violent societies and civil-rights violators. Civil society’s gossamer threads must restrain government’s blunt power. Citizens in a democracy need basic rights, essential protections and fundamental dignity, not just an occasional trip to a voting booth.

IN GRADUATE school, we debated whether colonial America’s fluidity, mobility and prosperity – unlike Europe’s feudal rigidity – nurtured its democracy. I learned then – and we learned again from watching disasters in Gaza and elsewhere – that you don’t build democracy from the (headless) top down, you build it from the ground up.

Ronald Reagan understood this when he funded institutions like the Voice of America to cultivate a vibrant political culture of openness, tolerance and dissent in communist lands. Natan Sharansky understood this when he championed building factories and investing in Gaza and the West Bank, even as Palestinian terrorists murdered Israelis. Even many Islamist groups understand this when they woo the masses by feeding, teaching and employing them before recruiting them.

Unfortunately, elite American reporters do not seem to grasp this concept, with their suddenly impatient calls for immediate change and their inability to see that democracy must be groomed and grown. In the musical South Pacific, set during World War II, the wise Emile de Becque asks a hotheaded American sailor: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” We know the Egyptian rebels are against Hosni Mubarak, but what are they for? Are they for women’s rights, gay rights, Jews’ rights, Coptic Christians’ rights, human rights? Are they for allowing different ideas to flourish, for listening to their opponents, for resolving conflicts peacefully, for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are they for establishing a prosperous, stable middle-class so democracy can flourish? Are they for a new democracy built citizen by citizen, institution by institution, social good by social good? Rather than being paralyzed by fear or naively deluded, Israel, America and the world should do whatever is possible to plant the necessary democratic seeds, so the answers become “yes,” even “yes we can.”

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 Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com