Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

meretz-openz
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.

Israel Beyond The Political

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Honoring the Alchemy of Education: Israel’s Honorary Doctorates

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

What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.

Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.

The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate.  Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them.

Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform.  Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research — about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.

In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.

At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.”  Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”

Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.

Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.

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.

When Canadian Comedy Confronts Palestinian Enmity, Israeli Democracy Wins

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-5-12

Seven Canadian comedians on a goodwill tour sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs walked into East Jerusalem’s Legacy Hotel Friday night. They put on a raunchy, funny show, showering the crowd with dirty words – and descriptions of dirtier actions. But, as the tour organizer Mark Breslin explains, “while we thought we might get into trouble over the darker stuff we do about sex, death, and bodily functions, that’s been no issue. It was one word, one word, that got everybody up in arms. And that word was ‘Israel.’”

The MC that night – the comedians rotate while touring – was Sam Easton, a 32-year-old with a delightfully boyish exuberance. A joke he told the next night was “My name is Sam. In Hebrew, it’s Shmuel, or Shmulik. My brother is Tom. Does that mean his Hebrew nickname is Tushlik?’” Following, what the energetic comedienne Nikki Payne notes, was standard comedian protocol, he started by saying “’Hello – insert town or country here’ – and that’s when the trouble began.”

“It just took seven seconds,” Sam said, days later, still reeling. “I’ve never seen anyone blow it in seven seconds. I said ‘man, what a beautiful country, we are having such an incredible time here in Israel.’” The Palestinian audience objected, with hissing and calls of “Palestine.” Someone shouted “Israel shouldn’t exist!” “From the comedian’s standpoint,” Easton recalls dejectedly, “I made it extremely difficult for the comics who were coming on after me, I dug such a big hole for them, they couldn’t climb out.”

Easton, an innocent whose harsh treatment violated the Middle Eastern tradition of hospitality toward strangers, apologized. “This is a very confusing city,” he said, “I am sorry if I insulted or offended anybody.” Hecklers yelled he should learn more about his audience before performing.

The next performer, Jean Paul, a silky-smooth, Trinidad-born, Torontian, also offended the audience –with a mild joke. “What does a polite Israeli magician say?” he asked. The answer: “To-DAH!” (not tada…)  Afterwards, three young Westerners called him “very offensive, very insensitive.” “It’s a cute joke about Israel, it’s harmless,” he replied.

“It’s not harmless, you don’t know the culture of the people,” one responded. Another accused this black man of being “racially insensitive.”  “Sometimes people in thinking that they are helping, are not helping,” the softspoken comedian says. “It seemed like there was an agenda here. They came out to scold. These weren’t Palestinians or Israelis, these were white people trying to tell me they were offended on behalf of others.”

Meanwhile, Rebecca Kohler, a thoughtful comedienne, filled with probing questions about the Middle East situation, was “accosted in the bathroom,” Paul reported, and told to remove her Canada-Israel flag pin.

Perhaps most outrageous, Mark Breslin encountered hostility from “two tables of Canadian diplomats” there.  “One of them, an army guy, said something like, ‘well, you know it was a good show, but Israel stole the land.’” Breslin thought “that was kind of shocking coming from a diplomat, who should be neutral.”

Breslin, famous for founding Yuk Yuk’s (pictured above), Canada’s largest chain of comedy clubs, and for discovering Jim Carrey decades ago, believed the critics “could have been more forgiving, shown more tolerance. We weren’t trying to make a political statement, there was just a little bit of ignorance on our part.”  Remembering having been told that people don’t perform in East Jerusalem, and “we said we will,” he now sighs, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

These Canadians did the standard Israel tour, visiting the Western Wall, Masada, and Yad Vashem.  “It’s the most wonderfully intense trip I have ever taken,” Nikki Payne said. “I think the place is beautiful, the people are beautiful – I love their fiery spirit,” Jean Paul reports. Both he and Sam Easton liked Tel Aviv, but “loved Jerusalem.” “When we left Jerusalem my first instinct was: ‘I want to get out of this intense tense city,’” Easton reports. “And in Tel Aviv I realized that that is what makes Jerusalem one of the most incredible cities in the world.”

Easton can’t get the “images from the Holocaust museum” out of his head. Breslin reports that these comics, “who are famous for making snappy comments and talking nonstop were absolutely silent on the bus afterwards.” Easton was particularly affected because this was a roots trip for him. His grandfather was Jewish but intermarried and was pressured by the priest who officiated at his wedding to renounce Judaism. “My mom is so proud it means to much to her that I am here,” Easton said. Thinking of his last 72-hours in the country, he reports, “I might need my whole life to debrief, after everything I’ve experienced.”

In East Jerusalem, Easton did not “blow” anything; the rude Palestinians did. Once again, Israeli democratic openness defeated Palestinian totalitarianism. A gracious response explaining the Palestinians’ position without humiliating their guests would have worked. But Palestinian public culture cannot tolerate such flexibility – even as off-the-record events, private interactions, life itself, invite more malleability. The brittle, aggressive reaction, echoed by Canadian diplomats violating their mission to be honest brokers, let alone defend democracy, reinforced by white people calling a proud black man “racist” when the conflict is national not racial, lost their audience, the visiting comics.

Meanwhile, Israelis did what they do best – greeting these visitors with warmth, enthusiasm, and an uncensored, uninhibited love of life. Israel’s freewheeling democratic culture feeds cultural creativity, political vitality, and comedy.  These cultural contacts, these personal contacts, in rich, nourishing, liberating contexts, work; they reinforce shared democratic values, and build friendships. That is the serious lesson these comics –and their many fans back home — should learn from this Middle East adventure, soon to be featured in a documentary.

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 in the 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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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.