I Wish I Could Vote Bibi, But I Can’t

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-11-12

During this difficult moment in history, with Iran rapidly progressing toward nuclear status, with world economies still fragile, and with Western values under attack, Israel needs strong leadership. In the upcoming elections, I would love to vote for Israel’s popular and powerful prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, giving him a clear mandate to lead domestically and diplomatically.  But, like so many Israelis, I will search elsewhere for political redemption and reassurance, knowing just how limited the choice really is.

Netanyahu would have earned my vote if he had exercised the power he has to move Israel forward rather than hoarding it to stroke his political allies. He would have earned my vote if he seemed more committed to making peace with the Palestinians rather than keeping the peace in his coalition. He would have earned my vote if he had maintained that broadening, empowering alliance with Kadima he had ever so briefly, and made some progress in ensuring that Ultra-Orthodox Israelis affirm their responsibilities as citizens instead of just demanding more rights and protecting their entitlements. And he would have earned my vote if he had fired his incompetent, non-Zionist interior minister or his ineffectual, marginalized foreign minister.

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Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press calling for early elections on October 9, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

In short, if Bibi had been the bold leader he often called for in his writings rather than the placeholder I often read about in the press, he would have earned my vote. In his second term, which at this writing looks likely, he needs to be more like his hero Winston Churchill, making history boldly, and less like a Chicago wardheeler, making deals repeatedly.

At the same time, I give Netanyahu credit for keeping the economy stable and productive during one of the most tumultuous financial eras in recent history.  On the whole—and as far as outsiders can tell—he has managed the complicated Iran file effectively, pushing this pressing problem onto the world agenda, leading to sanctions which may actually be working, keeping the pressure—and the peace—so far.  And as the Obama-Palestinian settlement freeze debacle proved, Netanyahu is not the biggest obstacle to negotiations with the Palestinians—Abbas, Hamas and their people are. In fact, Netanyahu has eased conditions in the West Bank, lifted numerous checkpoints, improved security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsed a two-state solution, helping to foster the stability that is a necessary prerequisite for progress in this volatile region.

It is possible that historians may look back on Netanyahu’s years as the start of the Great Reset, when the trauma of the Palestinian betrayal of Oslo and turn to terror needed some quiet, but the range of opinion in Israel began narrowing and coalescing around an acceptance of the hard but necessary compromises a willing, honorable, non-threatening peace partner and process would require. Moreover, I support many of the Zionist values revival initiatives Netanyahu and his education minister Gideon Sa’ar have championed, especially the recommitment to historic sites that tell Israel’s story.

Alas, I am also underwhelmed by the alternatives. I blame Shaul Mofaz for the Kadima coalition debacle more than Netanyahu; I do not understand how he was able to enter and then leave a coalition so quickly. Did Mofaz fail to do his homework before joining or stumble in with no game plan? The Labor Party is a joke, a walking corpse with a proud history but a seemingly limited future. And I could no more vote for Avigdor Lieberman and his party then I could vote for Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich in America. As someone who cast his first political vote for John Anderson in the 1980 showdown between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, I will look at the mini-parties, but I acknowledge that as an act of political cowardice, dodging responsibility for the serious contenders while still fulfilling my civic duty.

In short, like so many voters in so many democracies today, I—and, I fear, most Israeli voters—will not be rushing to the polls, heart pounding, anxious to help my team win. Instead, I and so many others will take a deep breath, hold our noses, and choose what appears at that moment to be the least bad alternative.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Response to New York Times Op-Ed: Avraham Burg’s Blind Spots

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-7-12

Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.

The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a  “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.

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Workers put up an election poster for the left-wing Meretz party reading: “Only Meretz is Great.” (David Silverman / Getty Images)

 

The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”

Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?

Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.

I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.

These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.

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.

Kadima Marches Backwards

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”

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Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

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.

Get Creative For Yossi Falafel

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-17-12

Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a  “red line.”  Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: “He who says 26, doesn’t want true equality.” Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.

Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law on July 16, 2012 (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

 

The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.

Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.

This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.

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: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Haute Couture Histories

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-6-12

 

The Middle East is combustible enough without adding one-sided, incendiary historical accounts to the mix. And yet, again and again, we see what we could call haute couture history—history custom-fitted to the trendy, distorted narrative that confuses cause and consequence, reduces complexity to simplicity, and ignores inconvenient facts to blame Israel as the rigid, bullying, source of Middle East trouble. Two of the latest examples emerged this week in the New York Times, and on Open Zion.

In the Times, Thomas Friedman, writing about Israel’s relations with Egypt’s new rulers, perpetuated the year-plus long allegation that Israel feared Egyptian democracy “because it was so convenient for Israel to have peace with one dictator, Mubarak, rather than 80 million Egyptians.” Friedman then caricatured Israel as a collective court Jew, replicating a medieval pattern of relying on alliances with the powerful over healthy relationships with the people. This tall tale treats Israel’s unhappy acceptance of reality as along standing Jewish ideal. In 1979, when Israel returned all of the Sinai to Egypt for the hope of peace, Israelis believed it would be a true, full peace. The cold peace that emerged was a blow to a central collective Israeli fantasy that needs to be acknowledged when trying to understand Israeli fears about a peace deal with the Palestinians. And yes, by 2011, a cold peace with Mubarak appeared to be better than no peace with the Muslim Brotherhood. But Friedman’s column would have been deeper and more accurate, had he confronted the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty’s messy past.

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Israeli Premier Yitzhak Shamir (1st-r), facing Haidar Abdel Shafi (1st-l), the head of Palestinian delegation across the table 30 October 1991 in Madrid, listens to the inaugural speech of the Middle East Peace conference by Spanish Premier Felipe Gonzalez. (David Ake / AFP / Getty Images)

Similarly, Gershom Gorenberg described the late Israeli premier Yitzhak Shamir in harsh terms as a heartless, unbending extremist, “who damaged the cause of Jewish independence to which he was dedicated.” Gorenberg’s dyslogy—the opposite of eulogy—throws in the mischievous fact that Shamir’s Lehi underground group “was the last twentieth-century organization to identify proudly as a terror group.” This semantic aside reinforces Gorenberg’s recent book’s tendency to overlook Islamist and Palestinian terrorism. I am sure the relatives of all those who died at Munich and Ma’alot, at Kiryat Shmona and in the Twin Towers, will find comfort in the notion that Yasir Arafat, Osama Bin Laden and their henchmen preferred the label “freedom fighter” to terrorist.

More disturbing was Gorenberg’s failure to admit that Shamir was also the Prime Minister who decided not to retaliate against Iraqi Scuds during the first Persian Gulf War, to help preserve George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam Hussein’s pillaging of Kuwait. And while Gorenberg justifiably criticizes Shamir for opposing the Camp David accords with Egypt and blocking cabinet approval of the London Agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein, Shamir did not block the Madrid Conference, which emerged as a critical symbolic step on the road to Oslo. Here too, a more nuanced assessment of Shamir’s role, including his ambivalence about Madrid, would have yielded a richer but less polemical portrait.

Gorenberg says of Shamir: “His mind was not changeable.” Neither, it seems are Gorenberg’s or Friedman’s minds, even when including all the facts would tease out richer, more multi-dimensional, but less reproachful portraits.

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: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

 

Haredi draft dodging is an individual crime

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-3-12

 
The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.

I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.  I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions.  The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society.  Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated — and the attendant hysteria is demonizing.  But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights.  Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.

In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.

And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service.  By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.

In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.

Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.

More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too.  Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us.  The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.

In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.

A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution.” I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.

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

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.

Don’t change Hatikvah just add a stanza

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.

 

We don’t need Noam Shalit’s sunshine patriotism in politics

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-10-12

Gilad Shalit is home and, we all hope, recovering.  Apparently his father, Noam Shalit, has not fully recovered from the experience.  It seems he so liked the status of what we should now call celebritus erroneous– celebrity by tragic mistake – that he has decided to exploit it and plunge into politics.

So many Israelis were justifiably torn by the one-for-1027 Shalit deal.  On the one hand, Shalit’s homecoming was an extraordinary moment, a symbol of Israel at its best.  The nation acted as one small family in welcoming Gilad home, delighting in his freedom, respecting – as best we could – his privacy.  In most countries, a single hostage would have been ignored or not redeemed.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that if you save one life you save the world — that position was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s intimacy, Israel’s Jewishness, Israel’s idealism, Israel’s solidarity – and Israel’s vulnerability.

And that, of course, was the flip side.  Shalit’s homecoming was fraught with potential danger, the fears that these 1027 terrorists, feeling vindicated, would return to their criminal ways, the concern that Hamas was once again getting a gift from the Israeli government it did not deserve, the fear that in saving one life, so many others would actually be lost.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that we should not pay exorbitant ransoms so we don’t encourage the practice of kidnapping – the lopsided swap was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s frustration, Israel’s fear, Israel’s anger, Israel’s dividedness – and Israel’s vulnerability.

Moreover, the families of those killed, maimed or traumatized by some of the 1027 terrorists were asked to forego their own desires to see justice served and accept a deal to save Gilad Shalit’s life – and help the nation move on.

This calculus of terror is difficult to fathom.  These choices Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others had to make are truly excruciating.  We should direct our anger where it belongs at the terrorists, the Palestinian culture of terror, and the world culture of appeasement that foments these crimes and places Israel in such terrible binds.

But on the eve of that extraordinary, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime, all blue-and-white-all- the-time kind of day, Noam Shalit lost me.  Days before his son came home, but once it was, as they say, a done deal, Shalit was photographed restoring the Israeli flag on the roof of his family home.  Apparently, he had taken it down two years earlier in frustration with the government’s inaction on his son’s file.  It was the wrong gesture by the wrong man at the wrong time.

With that one photo, Noam Shalit lost me – and many others.  Just when he was appealing to all Israelis to be patriotic, and accept the barely acceptable, when he needed the grieving families of terror victims to accept their country’s action, right or wrong, Shalit risked appearing to be what Thomas Paine called “a sunshine patriot,” essentially not asking what he could do for his country but judging his country only by what it did for him and his family.

Had he taken Bibi Netanyahu’s picture down two years ago and restored it that day, I would have said “fine.”  We judge politicians by what they have done for us lately. But in lowering, then raising the flag, Shalit suggested his patriotism was contingent, his love of Israel depended on whether the government served his needs.  That made him appear ungracious when he was pulling the patriotic card on others – and makes him unsuitable to enter politics.  Rather symbolizing  “Eretz Yisrael HaYaffa,” the beautiful Israel of rolling Galilee hills, casual, shoulder-shrugging, we-shall-do-what-it-takes patriotism, and warm, values-rich homes, the gesture suggested the ugly, “magiya li” post-Zionist culture, the “I deserve it” guy – or gal – who grabs aggressively, voraciously, with a sense of entitlement rather than humility.

I am sorry to say, that if he makes it that far, Noam Shalit will encounter many greedy politicians in the Knesset who epitomize the “magiya li” approach.  But until that moment on the roof, Noam Shalit and his family to me had always embodied the lovelier ideal – and his statement in explaining his motivation in entering politics, hoping to tap the idealism he encountered during his family’s quest, reflects his desire to be seen that way.

I know it is very difficult to judge a family that has endured the trauma the Shalits endured – and still suffer.  And I held my fire when I first saw the photograph, during Gilad Shalit’s euphoric homecoming.  But in leveraging his celebrity status from his son’s kidnapping into a political career, Noam Shalit has made his actions, statements and gestures during the Gilad Come Home campaign fair game – and this gesture deserves condemnation.

It is also unfortunate that Noam Shalit is willing to sacrifice his iconic apolitical status in a country that desperately needs national heroes untainted by the particularly ugly way Israelis play politics.   “In some ways it seems he fell in love with the camera. It changes the whole context of the story, the way you perceive all the characters,” says G., 28. He is an American oleh who served in the armored corps from March 2006 to August 2007, “a couple of drafts after Gilad” and shared officers in common, but had “deeply mixed feelings” about the exchange itself.

Israel, of course, is a free country, and the Shalit exchange came with no strings attached to the family, no demands that they behave any better or worse than anyone else.  And there is a deep democratic yearning for redemption from citizen politicians, leaders who were thrust into the spotlight, and rose to the occasion.  But the Shalit episode is still so fresh, emotions remain so raw, worries persist, that Noam Shalit’s timing as well as the decision itself deserve scrutiny.  This frank welcome, of course, will provide the initiation he needs into his new career.

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.

When Dads Are Barred from their Daughters’ Basketball Games – Improvise Reasonable Accommodations

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-12

On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina — at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament.  The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.”  Other offended parents mobilized.  Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left).  At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership.  Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum.  If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets.  Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension.  I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin.  Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. 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.”

Israeli democracy needs ‘Sharanskyism’ not ‘Liebermania’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-26-11

When I studied modern Jewish history in graduate school, one book in particular revolutionized my understanding of Israel – and helps explain Israel’s current democratic predicament — Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. By following the migrations of Russian Jewish ideologues, especially to New York and Palestine, Jonathan Frankel showed their extraordinary influence on the two centers of my life, America and Israel. As modern Israel seeks suitable boundaries for democratic debate amid security threats, Frankel’s insights remind us how the Russians and other immigrant groups molded Israel. Considering that Russian impact, Israeli democracy today needs a big red purge of certain, destructive, Soviet impulses.

Linking the Jewish labor movement in New York with Zionism’s early stirrings in Russia and Palestine, Frankel’s book taught me how Russian Israeli culture is and how Americanized my understanding of Zionism was. I then learned from Melvin Urofsky’s American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, shaped by Louis Brandeis’s marvelous mix of Zionism and American Progressivism. The great American Supreme Court Justice – and Zionist – cast the story of Jewish national liberation in American terms, emphasizing the Jews’ flight from oppression to pioneer a new, enlightened democracy in Palestine. This cocktail helped American Jews view supporting Zionism as an expression of Americanism, not a distraction or a betrayal.

Labeling Israel the Middle East’s only democracy exaggerates geography’s political relevance. Actually, culture counts. How Polish-Russian Jews like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, born into the Czarist Russian Empire, learned to appreciate democracy and implement it in a country filled with immigrants from undemocratic regimes remains one of Zionism’s greatest achievements.

Zionism functioned as a centrifuge, mixing different cultures, ideologies, and values, then incorporating the best of them into this exciting new experiment in Jewish nationalism and state-building. The early Russian pioneers contributed a communal passion that still exists in creative tension with American Zionists’ Brandeisian individualism and liberalism. But while that collectivist zeal frequently elevated Israeli society, most nobly with the Kibbutz movement, it degenerated in Bolshevik hands into Soviet totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin demonstrates that within Russian political culture an authoritarian streak still resists free expression, especially untrammeled criticism, while longing for strongman rule.

That Soviet strain – which we can call in Israel Liebermania, named after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – propels the undemocratic ideas in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, that repressive strain also appeals to a growing number of native Israeli Jews and those in the religious camp who misread Judaism as monolithic rather than disputatious and democratic. Culture is, of course, adaptive and dynamic, neither immutable nor genetic. Many who survived the Soviet regime – and Arab rule – emerged as champions of democratic expression and civil society. Natan Sharansky is only the most famous example of that counter-tradition.

And no culture is problem-free. Modern American political culture, especially the post-1960s progressive variety most American Jews embrace, tends to be highly self-critical, relativistic, and frequently blind to the presence of real enmity or evil. This approach encourages political reform and national self-improvement. But it discourages the necessary moves for self-defense embattled democracies must make while often accepting the narratives of critics and enemies over more patriotic and admittedly self-serving storylines.

Israel needs Sharanskyism rather than Liebermania, a vital democracy that is neither oppressive nor self-destructive. We must welcome Russians’ continuing concerns with high culture, science, and the collective national soul. But we also must purge that lingering Soviet influence – the totalitarian instinct to outlaw free speech we hate rather than refute it, along with the yearning for tough demagogues.

Similarly, Israel should help the United States – and the rest of the West – balance self-criticism with survival. The Zionist instinct toward self-preservation, and the blunt Israeli approach of “Ein Breira,” we have no alternative, serve as important correctives – within limits – to Western prosperity-laced guilt mixed with American “We are the World,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK” diplomacy. As we approach September 11th’s tenth anniversary we should remember that the day America was blindsided by Islamist terrorism – despite years of warnings – Americans turned toward Israel to learn how thriving democracies can fight terror effectively, so that the Constitution would not become “a suicide pact.”

In this struggle for Israel’s soul, Binyamin Netanyahu should lead not waffle. His background is American not Soviet, more Brandeis than Lieberman. As UN Ambassador and in his books, he argued that democracies could preserve core values while protecting themselves. As Prime Minister, he seems too concerned with preserving his coalition not protecting those values. Democratic ideals should be guiding principles he defends passionately – not just easy applause lines when dueling Barack Obama or Mahmoud Abbas.

This is an educational and ideological challenge. North American Zionists, watching this struggle, should not cut and run. Saying “Israel is pushing me away,” as one Huffington Post blogger recently complained, is immature. Here is a noble cause, a delicious struggle, an opportunity for Anglos — and other freedom-lovers — to import our values to shape Israel’s future. In this fight, advocating a ‘Big Red Purge’ challenges those who escaped Soviet tyranny to explore what destructive impulses they absorbed unintentionally. Yelling “McCarthyism” repeatedly, in addition to being historically inaccurate, doesn’t resonate with that audience – and reflects the self-referential elitist bubble encasing Israel’s left.

Israel is a young country still forming. Our challenge, our opportunity, amid all the surrounding threats, is to ensure that Israel fulfills its core Zionist vision, becoming a model state that welcomes immigrants from different cultures, culling the best of what they bring, while retaining democratic and Jewish values. Making that effort succeed can be one of the great adventures of modern life, injecting, as Jonathan Frankel’s Russian thinkers did, a touch of prophecy into everyday politics.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com