American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time to refute the Israel-Apartheid & Zionism-Racism big lies with subtlety on campus

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-21-12

I had a disorienting experience in New York two weeks ago. I attended a discussion about Israel on campus that lacked hysteria, acknowledged complexity, and advocated nuance. The David Project launched its white paper “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges.” The question mark after “Burning Campus” reflected a growing sophistication in American Jews’ conversation about Israel on campus.
The writers of the David Project’s analysis – with whom I consulted and for whom I wrote the foreword – dared announce that “Campus is largely not a hostile environment for Jewish students.” Actually, Jews are enjoying a golden age in American universities. There have never been so many Jewish students and professors, Jewish studies programs and identity-building experiences.  “Relatively few” of the more than 4000 post-secondary American institutions “have an anti-Israel problem.” Yet, this also is a golden age for Israel-bashing on campus. The study correctly warns that “pervasive negativity toward Israel on key leading American university and college campuses is likely to erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state.”
We cannot be complacent. American university culture welcomes hard left views that trend against Israel. Too many professors commit academic malpractice, preaching not teaching, frequently propagandizing to demonize Israel. Outside class, an aggressive, self-righteous anti-Israel movement intimidates many pro-Israel students and has discouraged pro-Israel forces from using the Z-word – Zionist. This anti-Israel movement will soon launch anti-Israel hate weeks in a dozen or two campuses across North America, perpetuating the New Big Lie that Zionism is racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s racist apartheid.
In A State Beyond The Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, the British journalist Robin Shepherd accurately diagnoses the problem afflicting Israel on campus: All these attacks’ cumulative effect on Israel’s “reputation” is “devastating….  “Consider the words and images with which Israel has in recent years been associated: ‘shitty,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘racist,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleanser,’ ‘occupier,’ ‘war criminal,’ ‘violator of international law,’ ‘user of disproportionate force,’ ‘liability.’ …. No other state in the world is talked about in such terms.” Shepherd’s insight resonates with one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fears after the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism is Racism” resolution when he was America’s UN ambassador in 1975. Moynihan worried that, increasingly, “Whether Israel was responsible,” for particular world problems, “Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.”
While recognizing these dangers, pro-Israel circles – they should call themselves Zionist! – are debating the dangers of overreaction. When Zionists spotlight some anti-Israel conference or hate week, do we highlight activities that otherwise would be ignored? We must choose our battles carefully – although our campus problem partially stems from too many decades of being too passive.
We need jujitsu moves, turning negative forces into positive energies – while telling our story, and offering our affirmative vision. If, as is occurring in nearly fifty campuses this spring, anti-Israel hate week triggers rounds of “Israel Peace Week,” then Israel’s adversaries will be the ones seeing their strategy backfire. Whoever calls themselves pro-peace must learn to be anti-delegitimization. In relationships between countries — as with people — you cannot go into a defensive crouch and an expansive hug simultaneously. Fighting against delegitimization is fighting for the conditions that facilitate peacemaking.
Similarly, let the week perpetuating the Apartheid libel trigger weeks of learning about what Zionism is – a movement of Jewish national liberation – and what it isn’t – racist. Let’s learn what the American civil rights leader Vernon Jordan said in 1975 after the UN’s Zionism is Racism Resolution:“Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” Jordan wrote. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words … can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for anti-Semitism.” Jordan blasted the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination, against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese Blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardic Jews.
Back then, thirty years after the Holocaust, most Americans, left and right, black and white, would never link the word “racism” to anything connected to Zionism or Judaism.  The former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was “[s]hocked because of all people in the world, the Jews have not only have suffered particularly from racist persecution, they have done more than any other people in history to expose and condemn racism…. To condemn the Jewish survival doctrine of Zionism as racism is a travesty upon the truth.”
Further left politically, the anti-poverty activist and Democratic Socialist Michael Harrington joined the chorus of outrage. “If one preposterously charges that Zionism is racist, then so are all nationalisms which joined to condemn it at the U.N.,” Harrington said. “And that is to drain the concept of racism of any serious meaning.” Harrington warned that “By inventing a non-existent racism in Israel, the UN has undermined the effectiveness of mobilizing serious action against the real racism of Southern Africa.” Jean Daniel, a French radical and frequent critic of Israel called this “diabolic idiocy,” which discredited “the Arab cause” and the Third World, “counter-revolutionary and anti-Socialist.”
Since then, the New Big Lie has become a broadly accepted truism despite remaining untrue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. The Soviet-Arab decision to call Zionism racism and compare Israel to South Africa was a clever propaganda move to demonize and ostracize Israel – and Jews.  That the Soviet Union fell, the UN repealed the Resolution in 1991, and Israel made peace with some Arab neighbors shows that history can get better. That this libel outlived its Soviet concocters should spur our fight against this New Big Lie, and for Zionism, with strategy, with nuance, with effective education not just indignation, no matter how justified.

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

Fighting anti-Israel week with historical facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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