Migrant Mitzvahs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

African Refugees Are Israel’s All-American Dilemma

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-31-12

Israel’s African refugee quagmire is providing the national equivalent of a cardiac stress test.  The challenge has highlighted Israel’s weakest, darkest side, epitomized by the recent anti-immigrant violence in Tel Aviv. But the challenge also spotlights Israel’s strongest, sweetest side, epitomized by mass revulsion against the hooliganism, along with generous efforts such as the internet entrepreneur Yossi Vardi’s success in making Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school a model educational institution for children of refugees from 48 nations.

Given the constant attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, proclaiming what this problem “reveals” about Israel will reveal more about the judge than the judged. More productive is to appreciate the clashing values and seemingly-impossible policy choices involved.

Americanization is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Israel, America’s erstwhile ally, has created its own illegal immigration mess—calling them “undocumented aliens” instead of “illegals” won’t solve the problem. In Israel as in the US, the phenomenon represents a massive social breakdown, mocking the rule of law. Democracies, based on consent of the governed, should not have phantom populations flouting the law, with America’s estimated 11 million illegals constituting 3.5 percent of its 313 million people, and Israel’s estimated 300,000 foreign workers, refugees, and illegal asylum seekers, constituting 3.8 percent of its 7.7 million.  Functioning countries cannot have such porous borders, for security reasons let alone communitarian concerns. But as softhearted democracies—even with their respective blind spots—Israel and America are in a pickle because they will not compete with countries like Egypt in shooting refugees trying to enter illegally.

Both countries also share a dirty little secret—they are addicted to their foreign workers, whatever their legal status. The illegal immigrant mess irritates America’s greatest sore, its racial tensions, with many illegal non-Americans hired as supposedly more reliable and cheaper employees than young African Americans. In Israel, foreign workers replaced Palestinians after Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. More disturbing, relying on Palestinian and foreign labor represents the flip side of Israel as “Start-Up Nation.” It risks becoming another, spoiled “magiya li”—”I deserve it”—capitalist society outsourcing hard labor, and betraying the initial Zionist impulses championing autonomy, self-reliance and manual labor.

Beyond the story’s ugly side—the border breakdowns and advanced capitalist societies relying on non-citizens for “dirty work”—is the beautiful impulse propelling individuals to find liberty and prosperity in desirable democracies.  Immigration, overall, is good for the immigrants and good for the host society, ultimately fostering creativity, energy, and a healthy diversity, even though both the US and Israel have legitimate concerns about preserving social sameness and real worries about diversity’s steep social costs.

As immigrant societies, both Israel and America have long been Fields of Dreams, with most Israelis and Americans today appreciating their own immigrant roots. When the passage from immigrant to citizen is such a central motif in most individuals’ family stories, let alone our national narratives, it is not so easy to ban what Emma Lazarus in 1883 indelicately called “the wretched refuse” from the “teeming shores”—note how America’s ambivalence toward immigration goes way back.

Americans and Israelis should follow two paradoxical policies. Just as David Ben-Gurion famously taught Palestine’s Jews in the 1940s to fight the Nazis as if there were no problems with the British, but to fight the British as if there were no Nazis—both societies should work harder at keeping illegal immigrants out while doing everything possible to welcome those who are already in. Borders should be sealed, treating undocumented outsiders as interlopers. If Israel’s southern fence worked as it should to keep terrorists out, discouraged asylum seekers would look elsewhere. But now, too many get in, also feeding a corrupt no-man’s-land nightmare for them in the Sinai desert of bribery, robbery, and rape.

At the same time, the social cost of having partial ghosts in a democracy, invisible when it comes to getting rights but quite visible when it comes to hiring or scapegoating them, outweighs the practical problems of luring more by treating them humanely. Just as every outsider should be treated cautiously as potentially an illegal immigrant, every insider should be treated generously as a potential citizen. Israel should live by its bighearted vow in its 1948 Proclamation of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” And there must be a national conversation spearheaded by the prime minister and president acknowledging these immigrants’ contributions, admitting—as the tabloid Yediot Achranot noted—that their crime rate is quite low—and affirming that “their” story is “our” story. Seeking salvation, building a better life for this generation and the next, is not just the American dream, it is not just the Zionist dream, it is a compelling worldwide fantasy that so many Israelis and Americans are lucky to fulfill.

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.

Jerusalem Day Belong to All Israelis, not just “Settlers”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-22-12

The lecturer at the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem this Sunday looked like your typical, distinguished, Tel Avivi secular scientist, with an impressive position and a delicious enthusiasm for his “lovely” chemical results.  Further perpetuating the stick-figure impression of him as another far-left, Israel-bashing, Europe-worshipping, Ha’aretz-reading, Chardonnay-sipping post-Zionist, post-patriot, was his personal trajectory, from a secular kibbutz in the Galilee to three years as a post-doc in Geneva to a named chair at the Weizmann Institute. Meanwhile, across town, thousands of white-shirted, tzizit-wearing, big-kippa-clad “settler types” were assembling for their mass march to the Old City. Clearly, in the stereotypes that drive so much public conversation about Israel – inside and outside the country – the National Religious crowd would celebrate Jerusalem Day zealously, and the secular scientist would ignore it or wince if it were mentioned.

Yet Professor Reshef Tenne, the Drake Family Professor of Nanotechnology, began his lecture on “Inorganic Nanotubes and Fullerene-like Nanoparticles” by saluting “Yom Yerushalayim,” Jerusalem Day. He spoke movingly about having been a young soldier who fought in the Old City, helping to liberate the Kotel, the Western Wall. He remembered his many friends who died during the battle. It was “holy work,” he proclaimed, emphasizing the importance of a united Jerusalem being accessible to all Jews, given its centrality to the Jewish soul as the Jewish people’s capital.

Meanwhile, news coverage suggested that the way to celebrate the reunification of Jerusalem 45-years-ago is to shout anti-Arab slogans and sing songs ending in “ay-yi-yi-yi” incessantly. Photos in Ha’aretzYediot Achranot, and this newspaper all left the impression that Jerusalem Day was only for fanatics, and only for men.  But you don’t have to be rightwing or religious to love Jerusalem or rejoice in Israel’s 1967 victory – and religious rightwingers are not necessarily fanatic fundamentalists.  The secular left should not sacrifice joint custody of this important moment, and let the religious right monopolize the celebrations.

That was the power of Naomi Shemer’s Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold. She debuted that song during the tense days of May, 1967, when Gamel Abdul Nasser had united Egypt, Jordan and Syria under his military command, and was threatening to destroy the Jewish State. The PLO’s founder Ahmad al-Shuqayri anticipated Israel’s “complete destruction” predicting “practically no Jewish survivors.”

With reserve soldiers digging out graves in public parks, anticipating up to 10,000 deaths, Israelis felt embattled and alone. Impatience with the plodding civilian leadership had Israelis speculating that when a waiter asked Prime Minister Levi Eshkol whether he wanted tea or coffee, Eshkol answered, tentatively, “half of both.”

Shemer’s Jerusalem anthem captured the longing for a united city, the bitterness in the ongoing division, and the romantic Zionist hopes the old-new city stirred. After the lightning quick, sweeping victory, the song captured the war’s miraculous, redemptive nature. As secular Israelis sang it, they heard the historic, nationalist affirmation in her lyrics; as religious Israelis sang it, they heard the religious resonances — but all were singing the same song with the same melody, united in patriotic love for Jerusalem.

Jerusalem Day has become Six Day War Awareness Day – and therein lies the tension. Increasingly, the Left considers the 1967 War as the War Israel Won in Six Days but Lost Since. This narrative, which blames Israeli settlements for perpetuating Middle East tensions, misses the many ways the Six Day War gains still protect Israel’s existence.

The territories remain an important bargaining chip, an essential safety zone, and an historic part of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, that could, in peace, be shared by all those who love this land. Takeoffs and landings are safe at Ben Gurion airport because terrorists cannot fire rockets from the West Bank at commercial jets. Moreover, fighting about settlements and the territories shifts much of the debate from Israel’s existence to Israel’s boundaries. I support territorial compromise – but only with those who accept Israel’s right to live.

The 1967 victory also started weaning Egypt from its destructive desire to destroy the Jewish State, ended Syria’s bombardment up north, and liberated Jerusalem – whose Jewish holy sites the Jordanians systematically desecrated.

“Israel made a big mistake in succeeding in 1967,” George Will quips. “This was when the Left decided it liked victims; it still does.”

Even in today’s Israel of harsh headlines, petty politicians, and polarized positions, we should remember the power of the Zionist center, and the widespread idealism that still characterizes Israel, making the Start-up Nation what we at the Engaging Israel Project at the Shalom Hartman Institute call a Values Nation too. The Zionist center is broad and deep; narrowing it out or thinning it out distorts reality.

Jerusalem Day, like Jerusalem, Israel’s history, the blue-and-white flag, Hatikvah, the Zionist idea, should never be the private property of one political or religious faction. These are treasured national assets, held in trust from one generation to the next, part of our common heritage. Americans learned this lesson when both Bill Clinton in 1992 and Barack Obama in 2008 ran upbeat patriotic campaigns as liberals who respected faith, flag, and family. That is what constructive, romantic, liberal nationalism is all about – using the sense of community, safety and idealism that comes from a functioning, idealistic, democratic nation state to stretch the individual and fulfill communal ideals. That is part of the Zionist message. That is part of Israel’s mission. And that is part of the reason why, I and so many others from across the religious and political spectrum, joined Professor Tenne, his heroic now-graying comrades, and their families, in celebrating Jerusalem Day, for Jerusalemites, for Israelis, for Jews, for genuine peace lovers, as a grand moment not an Israeli miscalculation.

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.

Raped anglo teen brutalized by the system yet redeemed by strangers

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-9-12

Three years ago, coverage by Ya’akov Lapin, followed by some columns I wrote, alerted the Jerusalem Post community to an abomination that occurred in northern Israel. Police arrested an American immigrant teenager in Karmiel for urinating on a lawn in late November, 2009. One police officer beat him in the police car. Two others beat him at the police station. Then, accusing him of possessing hashish, the police had him remanded to the Kishon prison. There, this seventeen-year-old boy was raped repeatedly in his cell by three fellow prisoners, who pierced his ear with a metal wire to mark him as their sex slave. By the time a private attorney Amir Meltzer helped release “S,” just a few days later, a boy’s life was ruined and a family’s Aliyah dream had turned into an ongoing Israeli nightmare.
When I first spoke to the family, they were bereft, feeling lonely, abused and abandoned by the State they had loved so much when they first moved from Miami in 2006.  Fortunately, the broader Jerusalem Post community responded, and showed these people Israel’s other side — what I consider Israel’s true side. Angels from Ra’anana swooped down and brought the family food for Shabbat, week after week. MK Isaac Herzog, at the time a government minister and a regular Post reader, helped. MK Yohanan Plesner jumped in when I met him by chance at a Taglit-Birthright Israel event and pleaded for assistance. A legendary former politician who insists on anonymity virtually adopted the family, aiding generously psychologically, economically, politically. Many others contributed time, money, and expertise, helping the family navigate the medical system and the legal system as their son sought to recover, and sought some justice.
Nothing could undo the damage done. Nevertheless, the community showed that while horrible things may happen in Israel, as in every other country, this special place has a neshama, a soul, that seeks to heal those wounds.
Last October, the three rapists finally were sentenced, after their trial had dragged out, seemingly interminably. Just last week, the cop who beat “S” in the police car was convicted — because an honorable police officer who witnessed the beating testified. The two bullies who beat this boy in the station house with no witnesses and no video camera were exonerated. Still, knowing how difficult it is for any state to convict rogue police officers, the family members felt some closure, some relief.
Then this week, abruptly, “S” stumbled on some news that reopened his wounds. Speaking to the Haifa prosecutor, wondering why the convicted rapists had not yet paid their fines, the victim discovered that their convictions were now on appeal. No one had informed the family of this unsettling fact. No one explained adequately just what is occurring, what the brutes’ chances of success are, and what the next steps are.
“We feel deceived by the whole system,” Lior, the victim’s stepfather, told me on Monday. “We felt a certain amount of comfort. We really did think this was over and suddenly, we are suffering again.” “S” has not slept for the last three nights. He is now experiencing flashbacks again. Lior continues, “He fears these animals will track him down and take revenge on him. Now we feel totally deceived by everybody. All it would have taken was a simple phone call to inform us, to help us understand.” “S’s” mother, Ruthie, adds: “I’m so disappointed, so disgusted. Those animals.…”
Despite all they have endured, this family still believes in Israel and the Zionist dream. Part of what fuels their fight is the desire to make sure no one else ever suffers as they have. Thanks to their efforts, video surveillance has been put into the Kishon prison, and the prison system is more vigilant, especially regarding juveniles. They are now demanding greater sensitivity to victims, some kind of victims’ rights infrastructure — and want some thought given to the special problems immigrants face when victimized by what Lior calls “crimes of this magnitude.” They also want video cameras in all police interrogation rooms. More immediately, they want answers, reassurance, support.
The old cliché that justice delayed is justice denied applies to both the accused and to victims. If the Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, can be investigated for over a decade, if trials regarding violent cases can stretch out for years, and be opened again so easily by aggressive defensive attorneys, the system is broken. The justice system must also crack down aggressively on police violence while taking better care of victims. And the medical system also needs fixing, for apparently it is incompetent when dealing with male rape victims.
Remarkably, these wonderful people also still have their souls intact. In the talkback to the Jerusalem Post article about the police conviction, “S” wrote: “Hello I’m ‘S.’ I would like to thank every one for all your support: the Jerusalem Post, people that followed my story, my friends, and most of all, my family. You have all been a great deal of help during [these] difficult times.”
Moreover, his mother, Ruthie, told me that in the days after her son’s brutalization, when she was so angry at God she did not want to light the Shabbat candles, and she kept on asking “why, why, why did this happen to my precious son,” her elderly Holocaust survivor father offered some wisdom. “Take the word lamah,” Hebrew for why, “and add a ‘shin,’” the first letter of her son’s name. “What do you get,” he asked, “’shlemah,’ wholeness.”
The members of this family should not have to heal and become whole on their own. Whoever we are, however we can, we must help.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism.”

Don’t change Hatikvah just add a stanza

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-1-12

The venerable Jewish newspaper, the Forward, is pushing for a new Israeli national anthem. Since February, when Supreme Court Justice Salim Jubran, an Israeli Arab, stood respectfully but silently during the playing of the national anthem, the newspaper has been stirring the issue. For Israel’s 64th birthday, the paper unveiled a new version of the old national hymn, sung by Neshama Carlebach, who then performed it at the Jerusalem Post conference in New York.  I never liked editorial Judaism and I dislike editorial Zionism.  Hatikvah has its own integrity and should not change. But, coming from a tradition wherein the short prayer service has grown and grown and grown, I endorse adding a new stanza.

Those of us who love singing Hatikvah – or any national hymn – should appreciate the emotions a great anthem stirs. The music, the lyrics, and the collective power of singing in unison, root us in a romantic past, bond us to our present-day polity, and inspire optimistic feelings about the future. Hatikvah is particularly poignant, given the long exile of most (not all) Jews from Israel and our miraculous return.

Being an Israeli Arab is hard enough, juggling clashing cultures and loyalties. We should not deprive Israeli Arabs of that kind of bonding, affirming experience. By adding more inclusive verses without damaging the original, we can all benefit in the kind of win-win the Middle East desperately needs.

At the risk of making more trouble, while I believe in an equal Israeli-Diaspora partnership, the question of Israel’s national anthem is an Israeli issue. Hatikvah still works beautifully as the Jewish people’s anthem, as a Zionist anthem, which should not change and which should be the New York-based Forward’s primary concern. Hatikvah evokes the hope for a return that persisted through millennia of exile.

Rendered in the plural, it reinforces the Jewish people’s unity and collective spirit, our strong sense of history, community, continuity. And it acknowledges the primacy of the dream to be a free people, in our land of Zion, whose capital, then and now, is Jerusalem.

Because Israel remains a Jewish state, a Zionist state, it should preserve the entire historic Hatikvah. The Forward’s language columnist, Philologos, suggested changes in what the Forward called the “problematic words.”  “Nefesh yehudi” becomes “nefesh yisra’eli”, turning “the soul of a Jew” into “the soul of an Israeli.” And the eye no longer “looks for Zion,”  “le-tsiyon,” but toward our country,” “l’artseynu.” The Jews’ 2000-year hope simply becomes “ancient,” and it apparently is more politically correct to rhapsodize about the place where “David encamped” than Zion and Jerusalem.

Philologos is no philistine, writing sensitively that Hatikvah spontaneously became the Zionist anthem soon after an 1878 Hebrew poem by Naphtali Herz Imber was set to music in 1886, and it has the patina of historical memory and associations that only time can produce. A Jewish soul indeed stirs to it in a way that no substitute could evoke.” I agree. And while I acknowledge that national anthems are written in pen not etched in stone, I support historical and ideological continuity.  Too many people, especially older Holocaust survivors, still get teary-eyed at the playing of this anthem with these words to mess with its magic.

So let us add a stanza celebrating one of the great miracles of the last six and a half decades, the establishment of Israel, in all its complexity, which includes an Arab minority constituting twenty percent of the population. This minority votes freely and has representatives in the Knesset, on the Supreme Court, and in most Israeli institutions. That stanza should have an Israeli sensibility more than a Jewish one. That stanza could toast the Israeli soul and “our country.” That stanza should echo Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, which brilliantly balances a particularly Jewish appeal with a universal civic sensibility embracing all of Israel’s inhabitants as equal citizens.

It is too complicated, writing in English, to start rewriting Hatikvah, which should be in Hebrew. But if the first historic stanza has four lines with four key ideas, so, too, should the second. The current Hatikvah emphasizes yearning, Zion, a two-thousand-year-old hope, and being a free people in the land of Zion. My second stanza would start with the idea of building a new country in the land of the Bible. It would then celebrate this altneuland – old new land – honoring Theodor Herzl’s language – as inviting many different people to become citizens and create a new culture.  It would end affirming that we will fulfill our hopes, realize our dreams, by tending a free democracy, a state of Israel in the land of Israel.

Israelis and Zionists cannot boast about how welcoming Israel is to its Arab minority without stretching to accommodate Israeli Arabs.  More broadly, the social contract between Israeli Arabs and their fellow Israeli citizens needs renewing. Israeli Arabs should accept national service – starting by devoting a year to working in their own communities – to demonstrate their stake in society. And the Jewish majority, while still retaining the state’s distinct Jewish character, should acknowledge Israeli Arabs as a central part of Israel’s story and national character.

The Canadian national anthem has an official English version, an official French version, and an unofficial mixture of the two. In Canada, I used to watch in fascination as different people mouthed their preferred version, while still feeling a part of a collective as they sang along to the same music. What better metaphor can there be for the delicious tension one lives as a liberal nationalist in a democracy:  you put your own particular individual brand on life as a citizen, while knowing just when it is necessary and useful to belt out a common tune.

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.

No, Israel Isn’t Turning into an Iran-Style Theocracy

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By Gil Troy, The New Republic, 2-2-12

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews—who epitomize the stereotypical Jew—makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim—and their leaders—are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us—we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization—and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Fellow.

 

What Israelis can learn from American Thanksgiving

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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