Never Forget, But Forget The Auschwitz Tattoos

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-5-12

Reflecting the modern media’s appetite for ghoulish anomalies, and its particular delight in pathologizing Israel, the New York Times published an article this week about young Israelis tattooing themselves with replicas of their survivor-grandparents’ Auschwitz numbers. Putting aside that other modern media tendency to interview half a dozen renegades and—poof—deem their marginal behavior an instant trend, one generation’s importing the scars of an earlier generation is perverse.

The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)
The former Nazi death camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau is seen on January 27, 2010. (Janek Skarzynski / AFP /Getty Images)

As both a Jew and an historian, I believe in keeping memories alive, never forgetting, and learning the lessons of the past. I worry that, as the survivor’s generation dies off, it will be harder to convey the true horrors Jews endured in the Holocaust. I cherish Elie Wiesel’s work, and as I write this my 12-year-son is spending some of his Sukkot holiday vacation reading Wiesel’s classic memoir “Night.” Moreover, as someone who is not “Gen 2” or “Gen 3,” whose four grandparents made it to American safety and freedom from Russia and Poland by the early 1920s, decades before the Nazi evil, I respect the trauma of the survivors and their descendants. I cannot fathom what bearing such a legacy would be like and am loathe to be judgmental.

Still, perpetuating the Auschwitz tattooing offends me as a humanist, a Jew and a Zionist. As a humanist, I celebrate most survivors’ instinct to insulate their children and grandchildren from history’s horrors. The survivors’ ability to go forward, to build new lives, reflects the extraordinary human capacity to heal, to regenerate, to grow—that is the lesson I embrace and echo.

As a Jew, I appreciate the power of ritualizing memory but through words and more benign deeds, turning the bread of affliction into edible matzah, the bitterness of slavery into horseradish, the tears of the oppressed into salt water. As Jews in particular, we don’t tattoo, we don’t self-flagellate, we don’t self-mutilate. We respect our bodies as holy and whole. I agree with my colleague Peter Beinart, who argues in “The Crisis of Zionism” that while remembering is a sacred act, there is something wrong with a Jewish community that has more Holocaust memorials than functioning Jewish day schools. I fear that with too much money invested in remembering how we died, not enriching how we live, with Jewish college students flocking to Holocaust courses but not courses on modern Jewish ritual or philosophy, we risk violating the Torah’s preaching to “choose life”; Judaism is not a death cult.

Finally, as a Zionist, this deification of trauma appalls me. Zionism was not about holding on to the sufferings of Europe—or the Middle East for that matter—but about transcending them. By returning to history’s stage, Jews were supposed to stop being the victims and feeling victimized. Zionism talked about rebuilding the Jewish body, reconstituting the Jewish body politic, regenerating the Jewish soul, affirming humanist values—not holding onto our hurts so much that we desecrate our bodies to remember our inherited pain.

Two years ago, an 89-year-old survivor Adolek Kohn returned to Auschwitz with some of his children and grandchildren at the urging of his daughter Jane Korman. She shot a video of him and his kids dancing to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Some thought that was in poor taste—I thought it was fabulous. Dancing with the next generation, even at humanity’s gates of Hell, affirms life, keeps Judaism alive and lively, while reinforcing the Zionist mission whereby we achieve our own redemption through self-determination, inner strength, constructive visions, and good works.

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.

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Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-25-12

Warning: this posting contains good news and positive thoughts about Israel, Jerusalem and the Middle East.

So many of the narratives about Israel are so negative, especially in the media, that we often fail to note the poetry of the everyday that comes from living in the Jewish state, or even the most mundane prose of life that shows that things are functioning. What I think of as the Great Israel Disconnect distorts: the gap between the hysterical, judgmental, apocalyptic headlines, and the calmer, happier, more meaningful experiences of most Israelis, most of the time (be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim) is confusing. As a result, some dismiss all the media jeremiads as propagandistic and jaundiced, while others dismiss any positive reports as propagandistic and deceitful.

 

Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism's most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)
Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)

 

In the few hours before Yom Kippur begins in Jerusalem, it is worth contemplating the magic of that day in the Jewish State, as an indicator of many of Israel’s greatest successes. For starters, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is not really just one “yom” day—despite its name. It is the culmination of a 40-day process that begins as the last month of the year, Elul, begins. Especially in Jerusalem, there is a flowering of Jewish learning as people study texts about forgiveness, piety, the power of prayer, the meaning of life. In the Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) tradition, there are additional “Slichot” forgiveness prayers for an entire month—with some waking up at midnight or at 4 am to recite them; in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition those prayers only begin a week before the Jewish New Year. This week, I had the privilege of participating in Slichot prayers at midnight at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys, which my two sons attend. Experiencing the mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic prayers and rituals was incredibly moving, offering a counternarrative of communal respect and interweaving contradicting the usual focus on ethnic gaps and communal tensions.

Similarly, during a pre-Yom Kippur jog through the Old City, I witnessed a very different Jerusalem than the one I usually read about. I always tell visitors to the city never to walk alone in the Old City. That is a historical spur, not a safety warning. “Walk with someone on your shoulder,” I like to say. “It can be David or Solomon, the kings who built the city, Jesus or Mary for our Christian friends, or an ancestor or relative who never made it here—and whom you are now representing.” In fact, the real hazards I faced—as usual in my jogs—were slippery steps, rocky roads and the occasional bicyclist. In hundreds of jogs through the Old City over more than five years, I have never witnessed an argument, never tasted fear (despite being a hyper-aware and cautious native New Yorker). The only clash I have ever experienced occurred when a young Arab cyclist and I each turned a blind corner and nearly collided. Instead, we ended up in an awkward (but manly!) hug. I like to think of that as a metaphor for what we could achieve, rather than the collisions that we more frequently read about.

As I jog through the Old City, I always imagine myself a human thread, weaving together the past and the present, uniting the different communities, as I traverse a borderless entity. I am neither deaf to Palestinian cries for national fulfillment nor numb to the occasional tensions and pressing issues. But I also see a calm, a functionality, a vitality that is equally palpable, and in fact defines the experiences of most Jerusalemites, which is why the population keeps growing and demands for Israeli citizenship papers from the Eastern (Palestinian) Jerusalem side grow too.

Finally, as Yom Kippur itself begins, I will see—as I have seen repeatedly before—a tremendous display of Jewish unity. Israel turns into one vast spiritual retreat center, as by custom not law cars disappear from the streets, and a deep, elevating spiritual quiet envelops the country. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “approximately two-thirds of Jewish Israelis will fast this Yom Kippur and over 80 percent will use the day either to pray or for general introspection,” blurring the usual distinctions between religious and non-religious. The highlight for many of us in Southern Jerusalem will be the post-Kol Nidre Emek Refaim promenade. After the evening prayers, hundreds of Jerusalemites descend on Emek Refaim, the increasingly fashionable shopping and restaurant boulevard. In a modern equivalent of the Easter Parade, they simply walk—or bicycle—up and down, greeting neighbors and friends, enjoying the liberation from the noise of cars, the burdens of work, and the compulsions of the clock. And—judging by the array of clothing (mostly but not exclusively white) and the happy cyclists pedaling up and down—this is a mix of Israelis, of observant and non-observant, just enjoying the magic.

The Yom Kippur repentance ritual demands that we reconcile with our fellow human beings before we reconcile with God. Note that we are supposed to make our peace with all humans, not just Jews. In toasting the Jerusalem I see—which so frequently unites  Ashkenazic and Separdic, Muslim and Jew, religious and secular, simply in the act of being safe, happy and productive in Israel 2012—I pray that the normalcy I experience will become epidemic and standard, that the reconciliation required will be among peoples not just individuals, and that the only clashes we have next year will end, as mine did, in an awkward (but manly!) embrace.

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.

Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-21-12

Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

The first time I plunged into a swimming pool after my surgery, the water’s buoyancy was liberating. For weeks I had felt leaden, earthbound, extremely fragile, and more anchored by gravity than usual, as my leg healed.  My Jerusalem half-marathon run had ended in excruciating pain and me collapsing with my legs feeling like jelly, the result of a fracture in my femur just below the neck of the bone, meaning the hip socket. One Hadassah hospital emergency surgery later, I had a metal plate, five ugly pins, and an unexpectedly long road of recovery ahead. Five months later, although experts tell me I am ahead of the norm, I still have Trendelenburg’s sign, a fancy name for my persistent limp.

My physiotherapist — like his colleagues among the most patient, fastidious, generous-minded and far-seeing of our species — recommended I try swimming. Still using a cane, I hobbled to the Jerusalem Pool, with its fabulous long lanes. I felt great, as my arms propelled me forward, my feet splashed happily in the water, and I enjoyed some exercise that wasn’t formal, repetitive, torturous physiotherapy for the first time since my injury.

This summer, during a three week family vacation in the Laurentian mountains northwest of Montreal, I kept swimming. Whenever I plunged into our lake, the greater resistance in the water due to the currents surprised me. And I was struck by the contrast between the pool’s artificial sterility, with its clear chlorinated water and its brightly colored floor, versus the lake’s delicious mysterious muck, with all the natural particles floating around as you swim.

Feeling stronger, I decided I wanted to swim across the lake, a daunting project I had never attempted in twenty years of summer visits there. My wife swam it annually and quite effortlessly, as I happily kayaked alongside for safety. As a New York City kid, I am not from the water-people or the jocks. I never undertook an athletic challenge when young — my schoolyard status came from mastering baseball statistics not running, jumping, or swimming.

It was a bizarre twist of fate – perhaps a punishment from the gods for defying my sedentary destiny – that the first time I had undertaken a major athletic challenge, the marathon, I somehow ended up injured.  I therefore approached this lake-crossing with trepidation. If my first big challenge ended in the hospital, where could that next one take me?

Fortunately, on the day I decided to cross the lake, I was not alone. My fifteen-year-old joined me, and we each had an escort – my twelve-year-old and ten-year-old kayaked alongside us, armed with floatation devices.

I started strong.  My rhythmic stroke-stroke-stroke-breath, stroke-stroke-stroke breath crawl, created a soothing, symphony of sounds in the water. But about two-thirds of the way across, having considerably lengthened my route by veering off course, my heart started pounding faster. The shore was looking mighty far away.

With each stroke-stroke-stroke breath, I thought of the water’s primal pull. We get to enter another world so easily, without having to launch into space, with no real equipment necessary. Our sages, who made immersion into the mikvah, the ritual bath, a central mitzvah, taught that from water comes salvation, and that when a person immerses completely in the water, it replicates death. Afterwards, it is as if a pure, reborn creature emerges.

Recovery from trauma, be it physical or mental, is a form of rebirth, as is repentance itself. My Shalom Hartman Institute friend and colleague Yehuda Kurtzer, in his fascinating, thought-provoking new book “Shuva: The Future of the Jewish Past,” calls his chapter on repentance: “returning as reimagining.” Kurtzer writes that “moments of rupture enable us to strategically identify what to take with us and what to leave behind, to become whole with the past as we move into a transformed future.” As the most powerful beings on the planet, humans have the capacity to write and rewrite their lifestories.

This dance between death and rebirth, injury and recovery, sin and repentance, rupture and reimagining, is central to the new field of “Resilience studies” introduced in “Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back” by Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy. The book teaches that resilience of all kinds – personal and collective, economic and political, social and systemic — reflects what the child psychologist Ann Master calls “ordinary magic.”  This is not about heroics but about using commonplace skills of adapting to new circumstances. Resilience, ultimately entails “preserving adaptive capacity,” being able to change circumstances, to heal from wounds, to strengthen muscles, to change course, to repair relationships, to adapt to new economic conditions, to innovate new technologies, and, perhaps most challenging for us humans, to apologize or forgive.

This “ordinary magic” is essential in this new month of Elul. Building toward the Days of Awe, Jews impose on themselves a period of rupture, repentance, recovery and rebirth, which requires resilience and strengthens it.

Heart pounding, arms churning, legs kicking, I actually picked up the pace and made it to shore – just as my son arrived. We all sat on what we have dubbed “Mud Island,” playing with the natural sludge, absorbing the sun, enjoying our triumph.

Returning back, I flew, er, swam briskly. I wish I had emerged from the water, fully cured, with no sign of that darned Trendelenburg, but real life is not Hollywood. Still, I return from vacation strengthened,  refreshed, recovering, and ready to plunge into our powerful season of ritualized yet, if you do it right, very real rupture, repentance, reimagining, and rebirth. And I look forward to spawning a year of more meaning and humility, of more goodness and greatness, of revitalized relationships and more fully realized ideals. Happy Elul.

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 is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

Opening Open Zion: Response to Raphael Magarik

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-2-12

Raphael Magarik’s response to my criticism about imbalance in Open Zion’s conversation about Israel was thoughtful and thought-provoking.  Raffi caught me. I said that my “quick survey of the first 320 posts of this Website, shows nothing about regular, everyday life in Israel—or Palestine for that matter.” I should not have written “nothing.”  “Remarkably little” would have sufficed. The few pieces he mentioned barely amount to one percent of Open Zion’s output. I did not catch those few roses because they were well hidden behind a thicket of thorns.

Moreover, I did not just call for a discussion of the “poetry of the everyday”–I called for an acknowledgment of the “thoroughly normal” too. And this is where Magarik lost me. He wants to write about what he deems “urgent: the occupation, anti-democratic legislation, African refugees.” I have written about these topics too. I am not afraid of discussion or debate, criticism or condemnation. I love the fact that Israel’s President Shimon Peres perpetually praises the Jews’ “dissatisfaction gene.” I appreciate the post-Auschwitz confidence that allows Jews to speak in essentialist terms, knowing that most reasonable people won’t take it literally and characterize the Jews in racial terms, as well as the message–question, doubt, struggle, push.

 

Gaza-beach
Palestinian children play on the beach iin the Mediterranean port of Gaza, June 2012. (Mohammed Abed / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But Magarik ignored essential parts of my argument. Noting that my percentages were off still dodges the argument about proportionality. Too much whine will make this website lose balance and has destroyed the Israeli left’s credibility.

Surveys showing that most countries judge Israel harshly result from the systematic campaign of delegitimization against Israel, which is reinforced by the Is-crits’ tendency to harp so much on the negative that reality gets distorted. So while readers  may mourn the death of Israel’s democracy after reading my close friend Don Futterman’s piece, the “Old Familiar Tunes of Suppression,” it is journalistically and politically significant that, the same weekend his lament appeared, I got snared in Saturday night Tel Aviv traffic because the protests were not suppressed–just hours after spending time with Don and his lovely family on Tel Aviv’s beach.

This lack of proportionality affects coverage of the Palestinian side as well. We do not hear about the “thoroughly normal” in the West Bank or Gaza because that would undermine the perpetually hysterical narrative that Nazifies Israel and fuels Alice Walker’s ostracize-Israel gang. I confess, when I visited al Quds University this year I was struck by how familiar, how student-y, how normal the environment was. Similarly, the opening of the Gaza Mall in 2010 refuted the sick, false narrative of Gaza as the world’s “largest concentration camp.”  Unfortunately, when discussing this messy, complex conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, even academics who usually delight in complexity frequently resort to simplistic sloganeering. It is much easier to “solve” the problem, or at least pontificate about it, by reducing it to stick figures, with evil Israelis oppressing noble, virtuous Palestinians.

The conflict has been so intractable because it is so multi-dimensional, so thorny. Those of us who seek solutions should provide the nuance, the sophistication, the discernment that is often lacking from both sides of the great divide. That is my hope for Open Zion–and that was my motivation in writing my post.

Israel Beyond The Political

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 6-27-12

Just days ago the mighty Jerusalem Raiders lost 3 to 1 in the do-or-die Israel Association of Baseball championship game to the Bet Shemesh Chili Peppers. The Raiders—a little league team with players ranging in age from 11 to 14—played their last game on the historic Gezer field, with a fabulous view of Tel Gezer—the archaeological site of the first positively identified Biblical city. The night before, the Audrey Delisse Ballet studio had mounted a full two-hour production of Coppelia with over fifty ballet dancers ranging in age from 3 to 17. That event took place in Jerusalem’s Masorti High School, one of the flagship schools of the thriving TALI educational movement—dozens of schools not in Israel’s religious system committed to teaching about Zionism, Judaism and democracy. Full disclosure: my eleven-year-old son alternated between pitching, catching and playing outfield on the Raiders as my fifteen-year-old coached, and both my ten-year-old and seventeen-year-old daughters danced in Coppelia.

These thoroughly normal moments—despite their dramatic settings—are worth mentioning because thoroughly normal moments should be part of any “new conversation about Israel, Palestine and the Jewish future,” which this Website aspires to launch.  Celebrating the poetry of the everyday in Altneuland, the Jews’ Old New land, is not dodging “the subject”—it should frequently be The Subject. And yet, a quick survey of the first 320 posts of this Website, shows nothing about regular, everyday life in Israel—or Palestine for that matter. I have not read anything that would prepare me for the extraordinarily ordinary and delightful student-faculty interactions I experienced when I visited Al Quds University in Abu Dis or the easy interactions between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim patients and staffers I saw when I was hospitalized last month with a running injury at Hadassah Hospital.

We need to celebrate the normal because it was one of Zionism’s great dreams and is one of Zionism’s greatest achievements. The Jewish people were so marginalized, ostracized, and persecuted in both Europe and the Arab world for so many centuries that many doubted the comfortable, casual interactions that characterize modern Israeli life today would be possible to foster.

And, yes, there is a political dimension here too. Palestinian propagandists have succeeded in making people believe that Israel and the Palestinian territories are a perpetual warzone. Stories of ordinary life on both sides of the divide, instances of easy interaction, even cooperation and friendship, between Jews and Palestinians, threaten the dominant distorted narrative. The venom of an Alice Walker, who does not want her novel The Color Purple translated into Hebrew, but would not block the book’s distribution in Syria or Saudi Arabia, is partially due to this pathologization of everyday life in the Holy Land.

Let me be clear, this is not some guilt-inducing, call for Open Zion to be “responsible”—with all the complexities inherent in such a word regarding any blog or journalistic endeavor. This simply is a call for Open Zion, and others writing about the Middle East, to be more accurate.

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.

My temporary visa to the land of the disabled

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By Gil Troy, Montreal Gazette, 4-30-12

It was the kind of big, fancy cocktail party I attend rarely enough that I enjoy the occasion. I was looking forward to this one because, in addition to liking the honoree and his family, there were half a dozen friends whom I rarely see amid the 1,500 guests, just enough to make for an interesting evening.

Yet as soon as I arrived, I wanted to leave. I felt nervous, vulnerable, endangered. For the first time in my life, I entered a crowded room full of partying people enjoying themselves and not really thinking about who they might bump into – literally – while I was hobbling on crutches.

Less than a week before, I had been soaring, running in the Jerusalem halfmarathon while on academic leave in Israel this year. Running with thousands of people with this ancient city as the backdrop was magical. Unfortunately, an undiagnosed and improperly healed fracture from a bicycle accident two years before turned into a stress fracture, and I collapsed at the 20.5-kilometre mark of the 21-kilometre race. I ended up with emergency surgery, a plate, and five screws in my femur two days later.

Ironically, both the bike accident and this stress fracture resulted from a health kick. For decades I had a sedentary professorial lifestyle that resulted in no hospital runs. I started jogging and occasionally biking with dramatically mixed results – weight and blood pressure down, heart rate excellent – but two sports injuries.

Fundamentally, I am fine. This setback is temporary. But my two crutches – the low-forearm kind, not the painful under-the-armpit type – offer a visa to the world of the handicapped. In this alternate universe, innocuous settings like cocktail parties can feel dangerous, and so many actions that most of us take for granted must be thought through and planned out, or sometimes skipped because the extra effort is not worth it.

As I am still in post-op recovery, I frequently fall into an unusually deep sleep. Whenever I awake, I assume I am fine and can stand – until I see those darned crutches. Hobbling about with them invites sympathetic stares, stopped cars when I cross the street, and far too much discussion when I socialize.

When I am using the crutches, my hands are helping me walk and can’t do much else. Even breakfast is an ordeal, although I can now grasp the big orangejuice container with my fingertips while gripping the crutches with my fist. What was once an easy, automatic morning routine now requires three laborious round trips: yogurt and OJ from fridge to table; glass, bowl and spoon from cabinet to table; and cereal from pantry to table. Of course I could ask my wife or children, who have been extraordinarily helpful. But when you ask for so much so frequently – because everything is always in the wrong room or on the wrong floor – you also want to do something yourself.

My breakfast trial is repeated morning, noon and night. Getting dressed, showering, fetching the newspaper – each action requires too much planning, too much strain, too much improvisation. After two weeks of this, I should feel cranky. Yet I am more often humbled and awestruck.

I am humbled because I know my visa will lapse soon and I will return to “normal.” I have friends with permanent passports to this challenging world of the disabled. Some have always lived there, while two friends in particular are learning to cope with dramatically more limited and more lasting limitations. All I need to do is remember their predicaments – or those of countless others – and my drops of self-pity transform into tidal waves of empathy for them and their families.

Moreover, while as a historian I am more the rationalist than the mystic, my visit to this demanding, draining world has made me awestruck by the miracles of the everyday. We take for granted our health, our functioning, the many things we do instinctively, automatically. Our brains process so much and orchestrate so many actions hour by hour, flawlessly, and our bodies co-operate magnificently. I would wish my experience on no one. But I want to share with everyone my new-found appreciation for what most of us do have, for what most of us can do.

In modern society, despite all we have materially, technologically and politically, we are enduring epidemic levels of unhappiness, discontent and psychological distress. The therapy business is booming; we consume psychotropic drugs by the warehouse-full. I have long believed in Vitamin P: perspective. We need to view our concerns, challenges, worries and fears in a broader context. North Americans should see their problems – as pressing as they may feel them to be – in comparison to the poverty and the sanitation and safety challenges that most humans in Africa and Asia endure.

And those of us lucky enough to be healthy – and I still define myself as belonging to that happy club – should appreciate the simple joys of getting breakfast, going to work, being able to play, and living the basic miracle of life.

Meanwhile, my sojourn in the land of the disabled has helped teach me that those with physical limitations also find joy and meaning in the important things of life – relationships, ideas, values, achievements – despite their challenges.

Celebrating Israel’s six great achievements

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-25-12

Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.

Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness.  Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem.  And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”

Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.

The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you — and they are.

My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.

First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.  People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people.  Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.

Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.

Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.

Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election — meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election — uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent.  In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.

This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too.  Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.

And finally, reviving Hebrew.  In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.

As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets — let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.

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.

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-10-12

“Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy”

A popular YouTube parody at www.collegehumor.com, which my kids love, has a youngGerman named Gunter Granz working in an American office, refusing to shake his Jewish co-workers’ hands, assuming all their fathers are rich bankers, and humiliated by Germany’s World War II misdeeds – because if only Hitler had not made the country so vulnerable with the long supply lines in Russia, he would have won. Meanwhile, in the real world, the German novelist Gunter Grass talks about Israel, the Jewish state, in equally absurd ways, bordering on parody. Grass should be mocked, refuted, confronted. But Israel’s Interior Minister is wrong. Rather than banning the author, Israel should welcome him – showing Grass a real democracy in action rather the bogeyman he targeted.
Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” throbs with the false bravado and self-righteousness of the laptop warrior against Israel. There is this conceit, among Israel’s critics, that, somehow, by joining the international pile-on against Israel they are being brave, breaking the silence, saying what must be said, when they actually are being conformist, acting in vogue, echoing clichés.Especially in Europe, and most especially in Grass’s leftist circles, attacking Israel – or the US — is as natural, and as imaginative, as grumbling about high gasoline prices or low book advances.
Among Western radicals, prejudice against Israel and the US is the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable in polite circles. As Richard Wolin explains in The Seduction of Unreason:  The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, America has long functioned as European thinkers’ Schreckbild, image of horror.  Israel, what those lovely Iranian mullahs call, Little Satan, is now similarly targeted, in a move reeking of anti-Semitism that also feels natural to European elites. Attacking each country’s essential character transcends anger at specific policies, often confusing cause and effect. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel notes that the same critics attack America as “unilateralist” and “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally but then call Uncle Sam “isolationist” when it does not.
Similarly, Grass colors within the lines, slavishly following the bash-Israel formula.  His critique is one-sided, exaggerated and hysterical. Iran can threaten to “wipe out” Israel but Grass and his ilk accuse Israel of threatening Iran, of endangering “The already fragile world peace.”  Such “wonderful illogicality” suggests not “rational analysis” to Revel but “obsession.”
I agree with Grass when he writes in his leaden, clumsy poem: “I am tired of the hypocrisy/ Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped/That this will free many from silence,/That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger/ To renounce violence….”  We just differ in our threat assessments and our definitions of hypocrisy.  I am more outraged by charlatans like Grass who cannot criticize Third World dictators and human rights abusers, and whose fight against nuclear proliferation mysteriously lost steam when the oil-rich Iranians decided they desperately needed what, an alternative energy source? And when it comes to trusting one country to act responsibly, I bet on Israel’s democracy over Iran’s mullocracy.
Grass sees the Middle East as a “Region occupied by mania” with Israelis and Palestinians living “cheek by jowl among enemies.” Beyond not wanting to deploy state power against an aging, irrelevant blowhard whose great achievement, The Tin Drum dates to 1959, before I was born, I believe Israel has nothing to hide. Grass should visit Israel now during Passover.
I wish he could have wandered, Seder night, like the spirit of Elijah the Prophet did, from house to house, watching a society stop, gather in groups of friends and relatives, to contemplate questions of justice and injustice, slavery and freedom. I wish he could visit the country’s parks and historic sites, seeing many of the same families now enjoying Israel’s natural beauty and historical grandeur as backdrop. I wish he could frolic in Sakhne, which attracted as many as 1500 people a day this Passover, and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl” splashing in the water, enjoying the mini waterfalls. I wish he could inspect the wards of Hadassah Hospital or work out in the YMCA gym in Jerusalem and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl,” living together, working together, playing together. I wish he could wander through the Old City and speak to those Palestinian-Israelis who have worked so hard to get Israeli citizenship, asking why those papers are so precious to them.
And I wish he could meet the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees from his native Germany, who survived the sadism of the Waffen SS Grass joined and then lied about, to see the lives they have made for themselves. Those monuments to the human spirit are more impressive than any monuments to the dead at Yad Vashem.
And yes, let him get political and visit the territories. Let him visit the Palestinian photographic art exhibits in Jaffa and elsewhere Israelis attend, and seek parallel expressions of sympathy for Israel, artistic or otherwise, in the Palestinian territories.  Let him visit Sderot, or my cousin’s Kibbutz, Nirim, to see how Hamas in Gaza chose rocket-launching over nation-building when given the opportunity to do what it wished after Israel withdrew in 2005 –nearly seven years ago already! –and then the Islamists seized power. And let him meet victims of Palestinian terror, learn about their missing limbs – or missing family members – and unravel why Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership turned from peace talks to suicide bombs.
Israel has nothing to hide – and would botch it if it tried. Democracy begins in conversation. Freedom thrives from exposure. Let Grass come visit Israel and learn. Then, let him make Tehran his next stop, if he dares.

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.

Hillary’s Iraneous/Erroneous View of Israel: Undiplomatic and Offensive

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-13-11

Last week, rather than mounting some constructive diplomatic offensive, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton simply was undiplomatic and offensive. In the Obama Administration’s latest insult to the Jewish State, Clinton compared democratic Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South.  Secretary Clinton claimed the walkout of some Israeli male soldiers when some female soldiers started singing paralleled life in Iran.  She also claimed the informal, illegal, gender segregation on some Jerusalem buses evoked Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Beyond confusing individual lapses with state practices, Clinton demonstrated Middle East discourse’s broken barometer.  Somehow, when talking about Israel, too many people exaggerate wildly, caricaturing Israel crudely – and delighting the delegitimizers.

Even sophisticated players like Hillary Clinton only see Israel through hysterical headlines; they have no clue what really happens. When she visits, Clinton and other dignitaries should go beyond the usual Y2K package – Yad Vashem, the Knesset, and the Kotel, the Western Wall — to experience the real Israel, a dynamic, chaotic, pluralistic, modern democracy which is no Iran.
Had Clinton visited Israel last week, she would have witnessed the intense debate surrounding the latest round of proposed Knesset laws. She would have heard Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein vow that, even if it passed, he would never defend the law limiting foreign government donations to NGOs before the Supreme Court. Golda Meir’s spirit lives: Israel’s incredibly activist Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as are the Kadima and Labor opposition parties. Hearing the din, Clinton could give Israeli democracy the highest grade in Natan Sharansky’s public square test – Israelis denounce the government publicly, shrilly, very regularly, without suffering government harassment.
Last week, Clinton also would have read about Israel’s former President Moshe Katsav going to jail. Beyond learning that in this democracy no one is above the law, she could compare the punishment Israel’s president received for imposing himself criminally on women, with the way a recent American president she knows well dodged punishment for similar crimes – although I doubt she would “go there,” as they say in shrink-speak. As a social reformer before she became an undiplomatic diplomat, she would be more likely to take interest in the “Torani” block where Israel’s most famous new convict now lives. Inmates wake up at 4:30 AM to study Jewish texts all day. These Jewish jailbirds are participating in a fascinating experiment to fight recidivism with Judaism. This is the kind of old-new, Jewish-modern synergy that characterizes life in the Jewish state.
In that spirit, Clinton could have accompanied her Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who appeared at the opening of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies’ impressive new $8.5 million Jerusalem campus. Professor David Golinkin, Schechter’s president, says this center for pluralistic Jewish studies programs has a “very simple” mission, “to teach our tradition in an open-minded and embracing fashion to millions of Israeli Jews,” which includes pioneering work empowering women in Judaism. “The Schechter Institute’s programs in Jewish Studies, along with its affiliates — the interdisciplinary M.A. degree programs, the Rabbinical Seminary, the TALI network and the Midreshet Yerushalayim — all provide alternative and innovative models of social action and promote respect for the diversity of spiritual expression,” Ambassador Shapiro said, impressed by the pluralistic programs, which teach 40,000 Israelis annually. “These programs reinforce the ideals of tolerance and inclusiveness that are essential to both Israel and the U.S.”
Two nights later, Hillary Clinton could have heard the Israeli pop icon David Broza in concert. Even a casual listener could discern the symphony of sounds and influences – the echoes of bluegrass and salsa, of rock and folk – blended into his uniquely Israeli beat. Broza – who days later was in Dohar attending a UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum with 2500 other civil society activists – told me from Qatar that this Jewish cosmopolitan mix is what makes Israel so artistically exciting for him. “It’s like eating kabob with ketchup,” Broza exclaimed, “Israel is the most cosmopolitan young, vibrant, and open-minded society I have ever seen. We can dance the debka while [the American blues legend] John Lee Hooker is playing in the background.”
Broza believes that “because it’s bizarre it’s often misunderstood.” Israelis are “somebody.” They instinctively understand that “without an identity they are lost. Historically, in the Diaspora, we Jews always maintained our identity, our rituals, our tradition, our learning – that was our strength.” And now, “When you reinvent yourself you put all the elements in the pot and what you get is a new persona.”
“I don’t think Hillary Clinton sees this Israel,” Broza speculated. “All she meets is the political box, and the rhetoric. She misses the light side of people.”
Broza is correct. Hillary Clinton and so many others, miss Israel’s light side, its spiritual side, its seeking side. They don’t hear what the Schechter campus’s architect, Ada Karmi-Melamede, calls the “harmonious music of learning that flows through the halls of Schechter,” what Broza calls “my own cocktail of sounds” which he draws from “the source,” his home, Israel.
The week ended with an Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman collecting his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in Stockholm. When Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982, the famous scientist Linus Pauling scoffed: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Those of us who know the rich, complex truth about Israel are equally isolated, often similarly mocked. We may not get Nobel Prizes for sticking to the truth, but we will enjoy other, sublime awards: the ability to delight in Israel’s cultural cosmopolitanism, as David Broza does; the opportunity to pioneer old-new expressions of Judaism, Zionism, democracy, as the Schechterites do, and the satisfaction of being right, even if it makes us unpopular.

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.