Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

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.

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After Arizona: Israelis, Americans must make democracy work

Israelis should reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned sense.

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 1-11-11

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Photo by: AP

The Tucson, Arizona rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written a book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and- greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the Right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After president John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with his murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.

Campaign became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”

In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.

Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from Left and Right, against George W. Bush and Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-againstme worldview. As a Democrat who supports gun control, Giffords refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

ISRAELIS SHOULD reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course. Most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation.

Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaux we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on election night 2008 when John McCain and Obama spoke so graciously of each other and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

In Israel, leftists and rightists are capable of demagoguery, demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on the margins, tempered by the civility of the McCains and Obamas, too many shrill voices emanate from the Knesset. Israeli politicians seem to scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner.”

Shas rabbis and other haredim should admit that not all internal critics are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is McCarthyism.

No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by day by ourselves.

Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Prof. Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at attention when the mourning siren sounds on Remembrance Day knows that Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together.

POLITICAL PARTIES work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Giffords’ lifework and for our common good.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Center Field: WWHD: What would Herzl do?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-10

In celebrating Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday – he was born May 2, 1860 – it’s easy to despair.

"Holyland" has become shorthand for corruption and cronyism, not religious nationalism. The recent sobering statistics publicized by Professor Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel depict Israel as a blighted nation socially and economically, not a light unto the nations. And the keys to our future, our children, are neglected, crammed into crowded classrooms, frequently taught by underpaid, under-qualified and overworked teachers, while all too often steeped in paganism, materialism, selfishness and aggressiveness.  Looking at the mess, just as some Christian friends ask WWJD – "What would Jesus do" – we should ask WWHD – "What would Herzl do?"

Let’s acknowledge that first, Herzl would say "Wow." Before tackling the problems, he would note all Israel has accomplished. He would remember that his famous prophecy in 1897 predicting a Jewish state within 50 years was too wild to be believed or even admitted publicly – he confessed it to his diary.

Today, despite its challenges, Israel remains a marvel, an Altneuland, old-new land, trying to fulfill modern democratic and liberal values without forsaking tradition while playing it all out in our ancient homeland. Thanks to Herzl and modern Zionism, we revived the Hebrew language, rescued and resettled millions of Jewish refugees, developed a thriving culture, showered the world with technological and scientific innovations, nurtured pockets of idealism and returned the Jewish people to the stage of history.

Alas, some snakes are slithering in our Zionist Eden as well. Corruption, like a cancer, grows wildly and corrodes from within. Our own leaders, who are supposed to look out for us, inspire us, care for us, have turned on us, having sacrificed the public good for their own private gain. The Holyland perversion is just the most egregious example of a "magiya li (I deserve it)" culture, entangled in a spider’s web of insiders who conspire with one another, feeling entitled to take, thus robbing the public not only of money but, even more important, of faith in society and politics.

By contrast, in his utopian novel from 1902, Altneuland, Herzl imagined amateur politicians who avoid partisanship and know better than to "try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work." In Herzl’s world, the "salaried [political] positions are allotted for skill and merit only." And "for filling the honorary positions we have one simple principle: Those who try to push themselves are gently ignored; while, on the other hand we take great pains to discover real merit in the most obscure nooks. We thus make certain that our precious commonwealth will not become the prey of careerists."

We need some amateurs at the helm. We need some reluctant leaders. We need leaders with the modesty of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who fought each other fiercely, but who lived humbly. We need leaders who value values and want to raise standards rather than undermining the law or lowering themselves to line their own pockets.

Just as selfishness seduces politicians, it distorts society. Professor Ben-David points out that the wide gap between rich and poor threatens us economically, as well as socially and ideologically. A thriving consumer society, as well as a just democratic society, needs a strong, middle class base. Cultivating a strong foundation requires a delicate balance. We need not return to the bad old days of stranglehold regulation and oppressive taxation, but there are less heavy-handed ways for the very rich to support the very poor. And, even more important, as Herzl dreamed: "We, in our new society, will not measure people by their wealth. Let us measure our brothers and sisters by their merits."

Underlying these challenges is the educational crisis. We need better institutions for transferring knowledge, honing skills and inculcating values. It is astonishing that a government that calls itself nationalist could be comfortable presiding over such a flawed system. It is depressing that a state founded on communitarian values laced with a strong sense of altruism could be so complacent over the sloppy selfishness that grips so many. It is worrying that a society still requiring a great deal of cooperation could be filled with so many people fearful of being a frier, a fool, that they inject absurd levels of tension and aggression into the most mundane interactions. Nearly everyone I speak to acknowledges Israel’s values crisis – but few seem willing to inconvenience themselves or their children to fix it.

Just as the United States in the 1950s kicked into gear after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Israel today must reboot by reaffirming common values, core ideals, a commitment to community and the common good. As a 19th century romantic nationalist, Herzl understood that through liberal democracies people could mobilize and achieve greatness. As a Jew, Herzl appreciated our rich heritage which we could synthesize with the best of the modern world.

But Herzl’s greatest gift then was as a dreamer, and his greatest role now is to continue challenging us to stretch ourselves and our society. The great leap forward Herzl imagined, and which the Jewish people achieved, should remind us that this society is too young to become a nation of shrugged shoulders and sharpened elbows. We still must roll up our sleeves, link arms and make collective dreams come true, appreciating Herzl’s insight which became cliché – im tirzu ein zo aggadah – if you will it, it is not an impossible dream.

So WWHD? Herzl would counter modern Israeli’s epidemic cynicism with his appealing can-do Zionist idealism. "No philosopher’s stone, no dirigible airship is needed," Herzl’s main character preaches. "Everything needful for the making of a better world exists already. And do you know, man, who could show the way? You! You Jews! …  You could make the experimental land for humanity. Over yonder, where we were, you could create a new commonwealth. On that ancient soil: Old-New-Land!"  

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

 

 

Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

By Gil Troy, MyJewishLearning.com

In one of the funnier–but more absurd–appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.  

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: “And I know you’re saying, like, ‘Oh my god, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.’ Yes, that’s true, but you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa.” 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web’s street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people “who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties.”

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution–and a reaction to the 1960s’ politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the “neoconservatives” were a loose collection of disproportionately–but not exclusively–Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left’s politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These “neocons,” as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan’s 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb’s classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Jews still remain liberal — with some exceptions

Since Reagan’s presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee’s 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman’s stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic–although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set’s aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed “Red State” versus “Blue State” phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about “Red Jews” and “Blue Jews”–not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain’s support among Jews only peaked at 31% –and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain’s most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama’s most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama’s pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate.  

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on “The economy, stupid,” And many Jews supported Obama’s proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.

Is America Ready For A Maimonidean Moment?

by Gil Troy The New York Jewish Week, June 27, 2008

 

Both presumptive presidential nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, have repudiated George W. Bush’s leadership style. Both have vied for the center, and promised to lead from the center. Unknowingly, they are channeling the approach of the great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon. With any luck, the next president will help the United States achieve a Maimonidean moment — it is long overdue.
Maimonides synthesized the biblical warnings against excess and Greek models of balance to chart the “Golden Path.” Writing in the 1100s, Maimonides described this Golden Mean geometrically, urging individuals to calibrate their behavior by placing themselves equidistant from their warring impulses. Defining wisdom as moderation, Maimonides said individuals needed to seek midpoints in their emotions, appetites, personal relations, and business lives.In a democracy, politics should have that kind of balance, that kind of temperance. Ultimately, democracies rely on good will to survive. Let’s face it. The basis of democracy, consent of the governed, is a fiction. Those of us born into the democratic system did not give our consent. The democratic regime has been imposed on us. We are free to vote for our leaders (or not vote). This gives us input into our leaders; it does not give our consent to the government.

The system works so well and provides so much freedom that we ignore this problem. Still, historically, one of the keys to American success has been a political culture whose strong tendency to moderate conflict is led by center-seeking presidents. George Washington’s civility, Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalism, Franklin Roosevelt’s incrementalism, Harry Truman’s consensus-building, Dwight Eisenhower’s consensus-culture, John Kennedy’s romanticism, and Ronald Reagan’s patriotism all played to — and reinforced — the great American middle. Barack Obama is correct. America is more united culturally and politically, and Americans are more inconsistent than media emphasis on red versus blue or cosmopolitan bicoastals versus Western and Southern rednecks would have us believe.

Sadly, this moderate, bipartisan spirit, rooted in a reasonable but romantic nationalism, has been lacking lately. Democrats love to blame George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Fox News, and the shrill partisans of the right led by Bill O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh. Republicans love to blame the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, James Carville, Moveon.org, and the shrill partisans of the left led by Al Franken, Bill Maher, and Keith Olbermann. The polarizing enmity is so great that when critics lament the generalized hyperpartisanship, many liberals and conservatives object to the false equivalence, convinced that only their opponents are unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the American Jewish community has become encased in its own polarizing set of stereotypes. Enemies of Israel, eager to implicate Israel in the Iraq war fiasco and transfer some of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity to the Jewish state, have caricatured all of Israel’s Jewish supporters as neoconservatives.  At the same time, right-wingers frequently caricature the American Jewish community as a collection of mushy-headed liberals, hopelessly nostalgic about the ‘60s, convinced that all of America’s domestic problems can be solved by a Great Society-type implementation of the prophet Isaiah’s teachings.

There is some truth behind both caricatures. Although support for Israel remains impressively bipartisan, George W. Bush’s intense support for the Jewish state, along with the modern unholy anti-Zionist alliance between many leftists and Palestinians, has fed perceptions that conservatives support Israel. Similarly, the American Jewish community has long been liberal and deeply tied to the Democratic Party. But given Israel’s overwhelming popularity among American Jews, and the perception of support for Israel as conservative, can the American Jewish community still be considered liberal?
Rather than fueling the partisan epidemic, American Jews should use this overstated contradiction to help hasten America’s Maimonidean moment. As supporters of Israel —and targets of the global Jihadists — American Jews are particularly sensitive to the dangers of terrorism. Just as Jews from the left in the 1960s and 1970s recognized the abuses of Soviet Communism faster than others because of the Soviet Jews’ plight, Jews today should be especially wary of the global dangers facing all Americans. Some liberal authors including Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that liberals should lead the fight against Islamism, that it is a mistake to let opposition to President Bush blind liberty-lovers to Islamic fundamentalism’s dictatorial dangers. At the same time, as descendants of so many who have suffered oppression, and as proud heirs to the biblical tradition, American Jews are also particularly sensitive to the needs of the unfortunate.
After too many years of partisanship, we need to build a new center by defeating the Islamist scourge and, at the same time, advancing social justice. As both nominees vie for the center, American Jews should push from both the left and the right for more compromise, more civility, less polarization and less demonization. Our great rabbi Maimonides can indeed help heal America, and return Americans to the paths our greatest presidents followed. 

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His book “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books) was just published.