The tragedy of it all — The tragic story of Lee Gabriella Vatkin

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

This is the story of a beautiful, brilliant girl who fell through the cracks and slipped into the dark abyss that is the drug scene in Jerusalem

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post Magazine, 8-18-11

The death last year of Lee Gabriella Vatkin, the 16- year-old daughter of Fiona Kanter and Yehuda Vatkin, traumatized Jerusalem parents and teens. Lee Vatkin was an eighth-generation Jerusalemite on her father’s side, the daughter of the idealistic aliya from London on her mother’s side. She grew up enjoying the best modern Jerusalem had to offer in its tolerant, sophisticated, altruistic, traditional-yet-not-too-dogmatic, South-Central bubble – living in Katamon, attending elementary school in Baka. Yet by the time she reached junior high, the city’s ugly underside, the harsh, drug-perverted, aimless street culture that festers downtown nightly, after the tourists turn in, seduced and killed her.

Vatkin’s tale is a story of Jerusalem’s “magic” bypassing one of its children and turning tragic, creating a perfect storm of institutional breakdown and individual dysfunction, with a dash of evil added.

It is a story of an over-extended, underfunded school system that let a brilliant, creative child fall through the cracks.

It is a story of a hypersensitive girl lured into the dark abyss of central Jerusalem at night, manipulated by her immigrant boyfriend, a petty criminal and drug addict, himself abused by his drunken father.

It is a story of an overextended, undertrained, frequently insensitive and occasionally brutal police force that has lost control of the youth prowling around the city’s downtown core.

It is a story of a desperate mother who warned, “This man is going to kill my daughter” – and no authorities would, or perhaps even could, help her.

And it is a story of that heartbroken mother now crusading to reach other at-risk youth so her daughter’s death at least becomes a constructive warning that saves others’ lives.

Kanter is a civic and cultural consultant, an event organizer and community activist, well-known in Anglo Jerusalem as a social spark plug. She organized Anglo support for Nir Barkat’s mayoral election, and now she is concentrating on Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – her initiative, following her daughter’s death, to raise money for and awareness about at-risk youth.

Lee Gabriella Vatkin was born on February 5, 1994, eight years after her mother immigrated from London. Vatkin has a brother, Matan, now 14, and a sister, Maia, 12, as well as three older siblings from her father’s former marriage.

“Almost from the day she was born, Lee was clearly advanced developmentally,” Kanter recalls. “She started speaking at seven months – and never closed her mouth from then on!” She was also “fiercely independent, always challenging, giving the impression she was the one in charge.”

Extremely bright, creative and artistic, she was an accomplished pianist, drummer and equestrian. She participated in the Ofek supplementary program for gifted children, but was unchallenged the rest of the time, a source of great frustration. After graduating from the Efrata School in sixth grade, she had trouble finding a suitable successor school. The 2007 teachers’ strike hurt her. “From June that year through Hanukka, she barely had a framework; the strike just derailed her,” her mother reports sadly.

She ended up at Leyada, the prestigious school close to The Hebrew University. There, the administrators initiated a pointless power struggle with her over her continued participation in Ofek, which anchored her. “The whole struggle was very damaging to her,” Kanter recalls. “I couldn’t persuade them at Leyada to leave her alone.” In November 2008, administrators told Kanter their school was “not the right framework for Lee,” even though Kanter insists it “is unlawful to send such a message mid-year that they simply don’t want to deal anymore with a student.”

She then chose to attend Ankori, an alternative school on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. That school has “wonderful,” empathetic principals and teachers, Kanter says. But Vatkin exploited the school’s loose framework; her “downward spiral” had begun.

BORED IN school, rebelling at home, she started hanging out downtown. There, her mother insists, she was not part of the heavy drug scene, but she found a community of kids who had fallen through the cracks. “All the experts talk about the various groups – the haredim, the Russians, the Ethiopians,” Kanter explains. “I personally have a different take. Many of the children who are being drawn to the street are super-sensitive, super-intelligent, super-creative and are fearless, feeling they have absolutely nothing to lose jeopardizing their lives by substance abuse and destructive behavior patterns.” Like her daughter, she says, they circumvent the overloaded educational system as the street’s edginess sucks them in, feeling invincible.

Kanter, who supports Sayeret Horim, the Parents Patrol of volunteers who try bringing a friendly adult presence to teenage haunts, loves these street kids – but is disgusted by their behavior. She describes, in both Independence Park and the city center, activities “not suitable to be mentioned in a family newspaper,” that occur as voyeurs encircle young couples, egging them on while obscuring the authorities’ view. And she describes a culture of risk, shamelessness and aimlessness, along with elements of violence, cruelty and selfishness.

In March 2010, Vatkin met a young, charismatic tough who was originally from Azerbaijan, Rauf Zagloff. Zagloff, nearly 21, was well-known to the authorities. “Suffering from his influence, his Anglo ex-girlfriend was eventually whisked out of the country to Montana,” Kanter explains, “to dry out from drugs and other destructive behaviors.”

She and her parents, of course, are the lucky ones in this story On Independence Day that year, Zagloff, “drunk and drugged up to his eyeballs,” threatened Kanter and her young daughter in their own home.

“You are always welcome, but that boy is not crossing my threshold any more,” Kanter told her 16-year-old daughter. But Vatkin was under his sway.

Desperate, Kanter went to the police that same day, begging for help, saying, “This man is going to kill my daughter! What are you going to do?” The police, she charges, are useless.

When they do respond, “they are generally so violent in their dealings with the youth that an insurmountably bad rapport with our youngsters seems to have been created. For a while this year, all police personnel were required to do a night in town, but this seems to have slacked off, probably due to lack of resources and training.”

The police acknowledged Kanter’s desperation, but felt handcuffed by the law, their limited resources and the ambiguity of the threat. Kanter was led to believe she should find ruffians to administer vigilante street justice, but that is not the kind of person she is – although she thought about it seriously enough to realize such actions would make her vulnerable to blackmail from whatever vigilantes she found.

Under Zagloff’s influence, Vatkin’s behavior deteriorated. She was playing her parents, who divorced in 2007, off against each other. “She did not want to be helped. She thought she had all the answers. She thought she was invincible,” her mother says, reciting a heartbreaking haiku of parental powerlessness. “She did not want anybody to guide her or teach her.”

By May, Kanter was “petrified. I was afraid for her life. I was very verbal about it, writing and saying, ‘He is going to kill my daughter.’ And nobody would listen to me. Nobody would help me.

You know that African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Well, the opposite is true, too – it takes a village to lose a child.”

She pauses. “I don’t walk around with resentment,” she says. “But I feel the system let me down. I approached the courts – they wouldn’t give me any grounds [for a case].”

THAT SPRING, Vatkin and her boyfriend moved into an apartment in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood that her father had secured for them, despite Kanter’s objections. Kanter felt her daughter was “losing the ability to judge right from wrong,” but she no longer had control. On June 5, she spoke to her daughter, saying “I won’t judge you, I love you.

Whatever is going on, we can solve, but we need to deal with this.” Vatkin replied, “Ima, I am fine…” Kanter’s voice trails off. “And within three days she was gone.”

On the night of June 7, a known drug dealer and addict found a bag that had been discarded in the compound of the Italian Synagogue. In it were eight vials of methadone, the heroin replacement the government-authorized clinic dispenses to addicts under treatment. “Can you imagine, they give these drug addicts a few bottles at a time, and its street value trades at NIS 100 a bottle,” Kanter complains. The dealer poured the eight vials into a water bottle, then “disguised it” with raspberry syrup.

Shortly thereafter, Lee joined her friends in town, who were sipping the concoction carefully, one bottle cap’s worth at a time. The “friends” later admitted to Kanter that no one had told Vatkin what was in the bottle. Eventually Zagloff “swiped the bottle,” and he, Vatkin and another friend, Menny, walked to their apartment.

At the apartment, Menny reacted badly. At 6:30 the next morning he called his girlfriend – “herself a 17-year-old single mother, from a different fellow,” Kanter says. Rushed to the emergency room, he had his stomach pumped. At 8:30 a.m., Menny called Zagloff, who said everything was fine.

Neither Menny nor his girlfriend thought to alert the authorities, or warn their friends. Vatkin and Zagloff went to sleep – “and never woke up. Methadone acts like heroin, it depresses your system,” Kanter explains. “Lee’s heart stopped.

She was 16 years and four months old.”

By 3:30 p.m., Yehuda Vatkin started looking for his daughter, calling her cellphone repeatedly. He only thought to go to Nahlaot at 11 p.m., where he found her, dead in bed with Zagloff.

A doctor interviewed for the Uvda program, which aired on national television in January, stated that had they been found early enough, they could have been saved. That fact is one of many particular plot twists haunting the grieving mother – along with other outrages, such as the state’s continuing failure to prosecute the drug dealer.

“ONE YEAR ago, my heart stopped when Abba told me he had found you cold and unconscious,” Kanter wrote in an open letter to her daughter, a year after she died. “My soul is crying that I will never hear the sound of your voice again, never see your face, never touch your hair or tickle your back, never again see your smile or hear your laugh.” She admits she spent months looking for her dead daughter: “I was looking for you everywhere, knowing I would never find you. I see a little girl with blond tresses and blue eyes and pray I could turn the clock back. Never in my worst imaginings did I truly think there would be no tomorrow for you.”

While grieving, she did what she does best: mobilize and organize. She has established Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – a play on Lee’s name and Hillel’s teaching in Hebrew, “If I am not for myself, who is for me” – as an umbrella group dedicated to saving youth at risk. Currently she is fund-raising for three projects. The first is Sayeret Horim, which she wants expanded to cover all the wellknown youth hangouts several nights a week. The second is a Facebook initiative created by Shaby Amedi, the wellregarded head of Kidum No’ar, to reach out to youth at risk and their families, providing information, advice, contact numbers and wisdom, 24/7.

“Facebook is their social tool,” Kanter explains. “So let’s try to reach out – and create a dialogue – in a non-judgmental, loving way.” Finally there is the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts’ pathbreaking videotherapy program, which uses filmmaking as form of expression and a constructive outlet. She also wants to create a central resource for referral and raising awareness, so no parent ever flounders as she did.

More broadly, she is pushing for some visionary leadership. “We need to generate more opportunities for our kids to express themselves creatively and productively, to create more regular outlets of challenging sports activities, music and the arts right in the center of town,” she explains.

“The kids are bored and don’t have the funds to sponsor expensive pastimes.

The festivals which abound in Jerusalem today provided by the municipality are nice, but don’t provide a consistent response to the needs of this particular sector of the population. Why are we not finding temporary solutions right now, such as lighting up Independence Park and providing a platform to encourage our youth to channel and focus their energy and natural impulses on more creative solutions, turning it from a literal den of iniquity to a place of positive personal expression?” She asserts that “we don’t need an extra organization, we just need to support projects that work but are underfunded. We are talking over 10,000 kids at risk here. And those are the ones who we know have fallen from the system.

What about the others?” Her daughter, she says, “had a larger-than-life personality. Incredibly funny and marvelously astute. In her circles she was a celeb. The fact that it happened to her, given her powerful personality, shook the kids to their core.” Many of them, during this black year of mourning, have turned to Kanter, supporting her and getting support in turn. “These are not bad kids,” she concludes. “They are just lost. I believe that all these projects can and will effectively reach out to our youth in Jerusalem who are going through such troubled and anguished times.” She offers her e-mail – fionarachelkanter@gmail.com – and an invitation to join her. “Working together will give us the strength to prevent this from ever happening again,” she says.

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Loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths

By GIL TROY Jerusalem Post, 10-13-10 

Talking Peace
Photo by: lior Mizrahi (AP)

We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

Trying to preserve Israel’s Jewish and democratic character by imposing loyalty oaths like the one the Netanyahu government is proposing makes as much sense as trying to solve America’s unemployment crisis by simply declaring the recession over. Words have meaning. They can set tones, define directions, articulate visions, reaffirm core values and, when done right, inspire confidence. But in building national identities – as with managing national economies – changing behaviors trumps pronouncements. 

Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, with its pluralistic population in all its glorious contradictions, depends on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths. We need a renewed covenant between the country’s citizens and its government – not meaningless mouthings targeting Israel’s Arabs.

In an age of multiple identities and mobile populations, all Western democracies struggle, trying to balance patriotism and pluralism, nationalism and cosmopolitanism. Nineteenth-century romantic nationalism found unity in sameness. Countries were built on shared senses of history, community and destiny. The nationalist ideal assumed interlocking, mutually-reinforcing identities. Thus the Englishman would be Protestant, white and British; the Italian would be Catholic, white and Italian.

These nationalists got it half right. The nation-states they created remain our defining political unit. But the Disraelis and Garibaldis of yesteryear would be shocked to see how people of different races, colors, and creeds now share common citizenships. Today, there are British Pakistanis and black Italians.

Human beings are complex – as are the societies we create. We can juggle different feelings, loyalties and identities. Modern democratic nations have to figure out how to inspire some harmony amid the cacophony.

Even in the US, which always had a more diverse population, traditional assumptions of unity now conflict with the attempt to forge a national identity in a teeming, polyglot, multicultural society. Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt would recognize few people in Manhattan today as “typical” Americans. Continuing clashes about illegal immigration, mosques near Ground Zero and persistent African-American poverty demonstrate the messes of modern nation-building .

ISRAELI DEMOCRACY offers its own variation. The Jewish people are entitled to a nation-state like other peoples. The Jewish state – unlike its Middle Eastern neighbors – is democratic. And history’s particularities have created a Jewish state including 1.5 million Arabs, who are neither Jewish nor necessarily excited about the country’s founding Zionist vision.

Israel’s Declaration of Independence promises all citizens civic equality, be they Jewish, Christian, Muslim or atheist; black, white or brown; long-standing Jewish Jerusalemite, Holocaust survivor, Jewish refugee from Arab lands or Arab villager from the Galilee. As with other Western nations, Israeli national identity can be defined enough to have a Jewish character and forge a Jewish public space, but elastic enough to offer full citizenship and rights to, say, a Palestinian who harbors resentment that there even is a Jewish state. Does that create identity confusion, legal contradictions and political tensions? Certainly. But are these problems that cannot be resolved or reasons to view the Jewish nation state as something to be dissolved? Certainly not.

Israel needs a smart, enlightened, citizenship policy to maximize individual rights while working out the complexities of minority groups’ collective rights. Focusing on loyalty acts, not loyalty oaths, would start with the government ensuring that Arab schools are as well-funded as Jewish schools, and that every Israeli Arab feels empowered to live freely and prosper in the Middle East’s one truly democratic state.

Good citizenship and good governance both demand mutuality; in fulfilling its obligations to its citizens, the state also makes demands. We need universal national service, not loyalty oaths. Every young Israeli – male or female, religious or secular, Arab or Jew – should devote a minimum of two years to national service. Considering Arabs’ current sensitivities, we should only compel their service within Israeli Arab political units or institutions. But they should have opportunities to volunteer in venues that serve the entire nation – and that could get young Israeli Muslims, Christians and Jews working together. Such actions would encourage much more social cohesion than any combination of words force-fed down people’s throats.

YES, ISRAEL is being judged by yet another double standard. When Canadian immigrants swear allegiance to the queen, it is charmingly anachronistic. When Americans pledge allegiance to the flag, it is red-white-and-blue patriotic. Yet when Israelis propose loyalty oaths, it becomes oppressive.

Still, while Binyamin Netanyahu’s so-called nationalist government must do more to boost patriotism and Zionism, why start with meaningless, controversial declarations? Why not start fostering pride by fixing the education system, cleaning the streets, fighting crime? Why not create a vision of Zionist civics that includes haredim and Arabs, who frequently use state funds to carve out anti-Zionist collective identities? Nationalism is best nurtured, not dictated; loyalty is best earned, not proclaimed. We need a politics inspiring a sense of mutual obligation, not generating confrontation. We need policies that encourage rather than compel.

The best patriotism is the quiet patriotism of millions of lives well-lived, with citizens appreciating how blessed they are to live where they live, under the government they voted in, in the society to which they freely belong. The loud, aggressive patriotism of bluster and bullying is not just fleeting but counter-productive. Many have argued recently that in an age in which Israel is being delegitimized, headlines about loyalty oaths only make matters worse. I worry about the civic fallout more than the diplomatic fallout. In an age of cosmopolitanism coexisting uncomfortably with nationalism, we accomplish more with the light touch than the heavy hand. We need good citizens not resentful subjects, good government not posturing politicians.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University, and a Shalom Hartman Institute research fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

The double double standard against Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-09

Excerpt from a testimony I will give on Monday at hearings at the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism.

Allow me a personal note – I hate this topic. I take no joy in pointing out the ugly anti-Semitism afflicting our world today. That the problem is so serious it merits an inquiry of Canadian parliamentarians, violates the post-Auschwitz covenant the world made with the Jewish people after the Holocaust – and into which I was born in 1961. This was supposed to be yesterday’s problem, a stale relic of the old world in Europe. And yet, today, in the new world of the Americas, too many (not all) Jews feel tense on campus, especially if they dare to be pro-Israel.

Today, in the New World, my kids – and others – have had to pass through security guards or other elaborate security systems to enter their Jewish day schools, in Westmount, in Cote St. Luc, otherwise among the world’s safest neighborhoods. Today, in the New World, synagogues have been defaced, graves desecrated, people harassed, for the sole crime of being Jewish. So, I thank you for taking the time to explore this problem. I wish you not only Godspeed but real speed. Please complete your work quickly, solve this problem clearly and make your commission and this whole topic irrelevant, anachronistic – an unpleasant ghost from the past – as swiftly as possible.

Alas, it won’t be so easy. Although this commission has not even issued any recommendations, you are being falsely accused of squelching genuine criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians by invoking the powerful pejorative term “anti-Semitism.” Your critics want us to believe that we cannot distinguish between being critical of Israel and anti-Semitic. They hide their ugly bigotry behind some of the noblest impulses in Canada and the world today, namely the fight against racism. Too many anti-Semites today cross the line while obscuring the line, camouflaging rank bigotry, an aggressive Jew hatred, behind a smoke screen of human rights rhetoric.

Israel and Zionism do not deserve special treatment – just equal treatment. The singling out of Israel, the demonizing of Zionism, have all too frequently descended from the realm of the political to the pathological. It is hard to explain the obsession without mentioning anti-Semitism. Anti-Zionists are honest if not consistent. Too many show their true colors, expressing traditional Jew hatred – throwing pennies at Jewish students during the Concordia riots against Binyamin Netanyahu’s speech on campus in 2002, firebombing a Montreal Jewish day school in 2004, targeting synagogues while supposedly “only” criticizing Israel. Anti-Zionists have repeatedly crossed the line despite their rhetorical attempts at delineating the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.

So, no, it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel, to question Zionism. However it is not “just” criticism of Israel, but reeks of anti-Semitism when the criticism is disproportionate – the obsession about Israel continues the West’s historic obsession with “the Jew.” And it is not “just” criticism of Israel, but degenerates into anti-Semitism when Israel is demonized with traditional anti-Jewish tropes, really tics, exaggerating the power of the Jewish lobby, making the Jewish state the one pariah nation, transforming the old big lie of “Christ killer” into the new big lie of apartheid or Nazi-style racist.

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And it is not “just” criticism of Israel, but resonates with the historic anti-Semitism when Israel is the only nation in the world delegitimized.

ZIONISM IS Jewish nationalism, the idea that the Jews are a people, a nation, not just a religion, tied to one historic homeland Israel, even while being spread out and serving as loyal citizens in countries around the world. That in a world where nationalism remains the major vehicle for organizing polities, nation-states, only one form of nationalism – Jewish nationalism – is rejected reflects the deep-seated bias distorting the debate.

And it is not “just” criticism of Israel, but becomes the new anti-Semitism when the BDS – boycott, divestment sanction movement – actually the blacklist, demonize and slander movement – wants to ostracize Israel, again, alone among the nations of the world. The burden of proof is on the blacklisters. They must explain: Why exile democratic Israel from the family of nations, not dictatorships like Libya, Iran, China, Sudan?

Underlying all this is an essentialism familiar to scholars of anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice. People poisoned by hatred denounce the actor not the act. To criticize Israeli actions regarding the Palestinians can be justified, but why leap from criticizing actions to negating Zionism and Israel’s right to exist?

Here is the double double standard. First, Israel is held to an artificially high standard and denounced disproportionately. Then, key groups violate core ideals in their zeal to denounce Israel. Gays overlook Muslim homophobia, feminists ignore Arab sexism, liberals forget Israeli libertarianism, to bash Israel. Academics override their professional mission to tell the truth and acknowledge the world’s complexity by caricaturing Israel in simplistic terms. When (some, not all!) gay activists, feminists, liberals and academics violate defining values – and their own group interest – to malign Israel, they are doing what bigots do, leaving the realm of the logical for the pathological.

ALLOW ME to focus on two practical suggestions for fighting this scourge.

First, within the academic world, we need leadership not censorship. When violence erupts, universities have failed. Professors, as the moral authorities on campus in regular contact with students should step in, from across the political spectrum, and foster civility.

Moreover, academic freedom must be preserved, but professorial bullying over politics is “academic malpractice” and must be stopped. The government can help universities establish procedures teaching students what to do when their own professors fail to act professionally in classrooms.

And second, let us fight anti-Semitism by fighting bigotry all over.

Wouldn’t it be great if this commission generated a Citizenship 2.0 curriculum teaching young people how to fight hatred on the Web – and in general cultivating a sense of citizenship on the Web?

Both these suggestions show that the fight against anti-Semitism is a subset of a broader struggle against hatred. I’m an historian. I know there will always be haters, bigots and, yes, anti-Semites. But I also know that civilization relies on good people who are willing to fight the poison, and not just say no to anti-Semitism, hatred and bigotry, but to say yes to higher ideals of democracy, civility, liberty, as you all have done – and are doing.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. Based on testimony being given Monday at hearings at the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism, consisting of 23 members of Parliament and one senator from all four parties in the House of Commons, held in Ottawa.

Jewish joy in the ghetto needs your help

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 11-12-09

The great financial meltdown of 2008 continues to wreak havoc, causing the great organizational shakedown of 2009. We should take advantage of these hard times to close institutions that only survive thanks to inertia or clever politicking. But we must ensure that worthy organizations aren’t wiped out, too.

Since 2000, Montreal’s student community has been blessed by an amazing institution called the Ghetto Shul. The jarring name – reflecting its location in the neighbourhood bordering McGill University known widely as the student “ghetto” – gives this generation of students a positive association with a word burdened by the scars of our tragic past. But making young students feel good about the word “ghetto” is only one of many ways the Ghetto Shul engages in tikkun olam, or fixing the world. At a crucial time in young Jews’ lives, the Ghetto Shul offers a welcoming, hip, inspiring, warm, Jewish space to pray and play, learn and eat, and sing and dance.

Led by a dynamic husband-and-wife team, Rabbi Leibish and Dena Hundert, the Ghetto Shul helps make Friday night what it has been for centuries – the highlight of the week, the moment to delight in welcoming the Sabbath Queen, with utter joy. Every week, dozens of Montreal students – and 20-somethings – crowd into the shul. Some are observant and lucky they can do Jewish at an institution that has become central to McGill Jewish life. Some are traditional, and might have drifted away from Jewish life at other universities but have been attracted to the shul’s friendly, intense, Kabbalat Shabbat – and it’s all-important Shabbat dinner scene. And some are uncommitted, having grown up without Shabbat dinner and all of a sudden going occasionally, or even regularly, because, believe it or not, it’s fun.

All, as Jews in the modern world, are searching for something. All are blessed and cursed by the dizzying array of choices that today’s world offers, able to be whatever they wish but overwhelmed by so many options and so few anchors. Many, unfortunately, arrive at the Ghetto Shul already Jewishly scarred, having been bored by Hebrew school, narcotized by their staid synagogue back home, or misled by their parents’ sorry example into thinking that Judaism is a thin gruel of ethnic food, juvenile holiday rituals, colourful expressions and simplistic lessons, with one day of fasting a year and a big blowout guaranteed when you turn 13.

The Ghetto Shul is constructively counter-cultural. It’s a place of warm hugs, not awkward handshakes. It’s a place of ecstatic prayer, not polite posturing. It’s a place of substantive spirituality, not superficial guilt-mongering. It’s a place where students feel welcome and at home, but they also feel Jewishly stretched and fulfilled.

Unfortunately, the Ghetto Shul is also a place at risk of closing. If more individuals and more institutions don’t support this amazing institution, it won’t survive, certainly not in the long term. This isn’t a matter of figuring out how to raise money for a year or two. The question here is how does the broader Jewish community ensure that this positive Jewish space grows, that it inspires legions of imitators, and that it helps guarantee Jewish survival in the 21st century.

In the real world, one of the first steps in that process is securing regular funding. A place such as the Ghetto Shul should be flooded with honorary memberships. Alumni, parents, Montrealers, Jews from the rest of Canada and others should step up to pay the $360 annual fee to join the Ghetto Shul. And they should commit to doing so for the next 10 years. This way, Rabbi Leibish, Dina and their devoted student leaders can focus on nurturing their community rather than raising money to stay afloat.

If a small number of people, say 300 or 400, undertook to make this relatively small investment, the payoff would be enormous. These people and others would be contributing to a successful Jewish community that serves hundreds of students and Montreal-area 20-somethings every year, while pioneering institutions rooted in our past, fulfilling us in the present and guaranteeing us a meaningful future.

Education cuts are hasty and shortsighted

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-10-09


In July, 2007, amid much fanfare, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education became the Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education, widely called the Mercaz – Hebrew for “centre.”“The name says what the priorities are,” the Mercaz chair Lou Greenbaum exulted. This spring, less than two years later and amid much less fanfare, the Mercaz was abruptly downsized and thus marginalized, shedding at least 10 full-time jobs.

What happened in Toronto is happening throughout the Jewish world. The last two decades’ gains in Jewish education and identity-building are disappearing as quickly as people’s net worths have plummeted. The legendary Boston Board of Jewish Education recently lost 80 per cent of its funding and will likely close. Birthright Israel, perhaps the most successful Jewish program of the 21st century, has turned away thousands of applicants this year because of limited funds.

These cutbacks are dangerous. Capitalism is cyclical – economic busts are usually followed by economic booms – but education and identity-building are more linear. Opportunities missed are rarely recovered. Children uneducated frequently remain ignorant. Young people turned off are rarely turned back on. Jewish leaders in Toronto and elsewhere can’t afford to be shortsighted. We must continue investing in education and outreach programs that foster Jewish pride and knowledge.

During the last two decades, Jewish education and identity-building boomed. Philanthropic visionaries such as Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman made funding Israel trips, initiating teen programs, and even building Jewish day schools sexy.

They understood – as did many other generous donors and passionate professionals – that anti-Semitism doesn’t pose the greatest threat to this generation of thoroughly North Americanized Jews that it did to the immigrant generation. In fact, Jews today risked being loved to death by intermarriage, especially after having been bored to tears by so many initial encounters in synagogues, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The writer Leon Wieseltier adds that this generation’s great crime is not intermarriage but ignorance – most are extremely educated in secular subjects and appallingly uninformed Jewishly.

These insights – backed by sobering demographic studies – galvanized the community. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 120,000 18-to-26-year-olds on free 10-day trips to Israel, has been the flagship program, generating the most buzz. But Birthright’s success reflected a broader reorientation toward education and identity building, accompanied by massive investments in teachers, teacher training, curricula, programs, infrastructure and central educational agencies such as the Mercaz.

I recall that in Montreal, as we planned our own massive, ambitious “Gen J” program to invest in our kids’ future, Toronto’s 2007 launch of the Mercaz inspired us – and made us feel a tad inadequate. We wondered whether our community could mobilize similar support for Jewish education. At the risk of feeding the Toronto-Montreal rivalry – although all of us should compete regarding who cares most about Jewish education and identity – so far Montreal has kept Jewish education front and centre, despite the economic downturn.

In fairness, Toronto continues to lead North America in providing tuition assistance, fostering quality Jewish day schools, and identity building. Still, shrinking the Mercaz is a big blow. Boards of Jewish education such as the Mercaz serve essential roles in professionalizing teachers, coaching administrators, providing quality control, nurturing reforms and upholding city-wide standards.

“I have always felt that the Mercaz did very important work and made significant contributions to Jewish education in Toronto,” Prof. Martin Lockshin of York University told me via e-mail. “They were, for example, indispensable for us at York in making our Jewish teacher education program work. They also provided indispensible services to many day schools and many teachers, particularly new teachers. I am very worried about how this gap will be filled. From conversations that I have had, I sense that my concerns are shared by many respected educators here in Toronto.”

The financial crisis is forcing Jewish communities worldwide to clarify their priorities, abandon unnecessary projects and focus on initiatives that work. Such retrenchment, while always painful and involuntary, can be constructive, resulting in more focused and effective communities. But hasty and thoughtless cutbacks can be particularly destructive, dooming this generation to ignorance and apathy.

Gil Troy: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

Center Field: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-8-09

I felt no shame about Madoff or Israel’s actions in Gaza. But reports of my fellow Jews’ cravenness made me cringe. Many American Jews are reeling from a series of blows to their standing as America’s model minority. Following autumn’s economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff confessed to his $50 billion scam, the Gaza war triggered new waves of anti-Semitism and now Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu seems poised to lead a conservative Israeli government. The disappointment of America’s mostly liberal Jews in Bibi’s resurgence is compounded by worries about how the conservative Netanyahu will get along with the liberal US President Barack Obama, especially because each thinks he is the smartest man in the room. All this fretting suggests many American Jews are much less secure in their Promised Land than most admit.

Yes, it is logical to lament American Jews’ financial straits individually and collectively, to despair at Madoff’s evil in robbing charities along with individuals, to find the vicious backlash against Israel’s justified actions alarming and to worry about American-Israeli relations. But shame is the unfortunate emotion escalating these reasonable concerns into collective anxiety.

The New York Times has described Americans Jews’ embarrassment, suggesting Madoff’s crime reflected some communal moral failure. Moreover, the article explained, “Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image.”

Novelist Nathan Englander told The Forward that Madoff’s crime “really raises up for me this primal thing of,  ‘This is the kind of thing that looks bad in a general Jewish way.’ It gave me that ‘circle the wagon’ mentality that I don’t have very often.” I confess I feel no shame about Madoff, Israel’s actions in Gaza or Bibi’s rise. Or at least I felt no shame until I read about American Jewish embarrassment. In the Times, one rabbi discussing Madoff mentioned the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for “an embarrassing shame.? This disgrace, we learned, was stirring anti-Semitism.

The full expression the rabbi should have taught is a shanda fur die goyim, something which embarrasses Jews in front of non-Jews. The rabbi probably was nervous about using the word goyim with the Times’s reporter, given that the term is often perceived as setting Jews up as superior to non-Jews. Actually, the phrase reflects Jews’ historic insecurity. “Shanda fur die goyim” evokes the image of Jews perpetually on probation, with our people only tolerated as long as we are on our best behavior or perform some salutary social function.

Perhaps I have spent too much time in Israel, where, alas, there are plenty “shandas fur die yiddin”: Jews acting disgracefully in front of their fellow Jews. From cruel mobsters who strut around Netanya, occasionally mowing down civilians while rubbing out rivals, to settler hooligans menacing Palestinians and IDF soldiers, to the corrupt prime minister (for life?) who has overstayed his welcome, Israel has its share of scoundrels.

But brazen behavior triggers the correct reaction – outrage not embarrassment, condemnation not cowering.  The Zionist idea was that in our own country Jews would behave normally – sometimes heroically, sometimes despicably – without being on probation. True, as nationalists, we mourn our people’s losses, celebrate successes and regret any of our people’s sins. But the leap from condemning a fellow citizen’s crimes or excesses to worrying that a fellow Jew’s sins or unpopularity may lead to a backlash against me personally, descends from the realm of normal national solidarity to the wandering Jew’s pathological insecurity; never at home, never at peace.

The American Jewish community’s cravenness is particularly shocking considering that so many Jews star in the great American success story. In a twisted way, Madoff’s fraud demonstrates how accepted Jews are in America today. The extent of Madoff?s reach – and damage – from his Palm Beach country club to the secretive sanctums of Swiss banks, from the board of Yeshiva University to the shores of Abu Dhabi, shows that in today’s globalized economy, successful Jews can do business anywhere.

Fears that Madoff’s crimes or Israel’s actions cause anti-Semitism imputes to anti-Semites a logic they lack. Too many of us have spent too many centuries trying to figure out what we did wrong to encourage anti-Semitism. This search focuses on the wrong actors in the play. Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jew, but of the anti-Semite, as Jean-Paul Sartre taught.

Anti-Semitism reflects the anti-Semites’ twisted cosmology, not the Jews’ sins; it is an irrational hatred, not a rational response belonging to the world of cause and effect.

When Nicholas Leeson’s trading losses broke Barings Bank in 1995, no English people worried that his sins would reflect on their own integrity. Allen Stanford?s recent $8 billion fraud triggered no discussion about his religion. A rational assessment of the Madoff scandal would note how much this criminal harmed Jews, and how quickly Jews condemned the man and the underlying materialism, undermining the notion that “the Jews” perpetuated some crime against humanity. (By contrast, consider how Islamist terrorists perpetuate crimes in Islam’s name, yet few Muslims denounce them.)

An honest appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would identify this as a national conflict with religious overtones, but the ones making it a religious war are mostly the Islamic jihadists. And a fair assessment of Bibi Netanyahu’s record in dealing with Bill Clinton’s administration would note his pragmatic streak; many right-wingers thought he was too accommodating during the 1998 Wye River Summit.

Bernard Madoff’s sins are his sins, not the Jewish people’s. And even when Jews debate Israel’s actions or Bibi’s policies, Jews are far too settled in America, and America’s ties to Israel run too deep, to justify so much skittishness. Ultimately, the Madoff story is as much a quintessential American tale of the man on the make as it is a Jewish story. Madoff is a criminal, not a shanda, while Israel’s actions have been necessary and moral, not disproportionate or shameful.

The shanda is still feeling so wobbly in a land that has been so welcoming.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

Gil Troy: Olmert disses the Diaspora – and the Jewish People

Center Field: Olmert disses the Diaspora – and the Jewish People

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-4-09

In an unfortunate temper tantrum as his administration peters out, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert reportedly erupted at a recent Cabinet meeting when a respected think tank report made the rather obvious point that Israel’s corruption scandals are demoralizing the Jewish people. The occasion was the annual presentation of an assessment of the Jewish people, prepared by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an independent think tank based in Jerusalem, subsidized by the Jewish Agency.

“This is none of Diaspora Jewry’s business and none of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute’s business,” Olmert shouted when his Justice Minister Dan Friedmann passed him a note pointing out that the report mentioned Israel’s “ongoing corruption problem.” “On what basis do you conclude this?” he asked, echoing Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky debacle. “I haven’t been charged with anything yet; these are only suspicions. And former president [Moshe] Katsav” – whom the report also cited – “has also yet to be indicted.”

In this one tirade, Olmert mocked the many speeches he has given to fawning Diaspora audiences about the unity of the Jewish people. He made it clear that he views the relationship with Jews abroad as a one way street – he will take their cash (legally or illegally) but does not care for their opinions, unless they are adoring. Moreover, he implied that Israelis are not part of the Jewish people. An assessment of the Jewish people includes millions of Israelis, who are even more disgusted by the corruption than their Diaspora brethren.

Olmert’s anger, and the Justice Minister’s role in stirring the pot, suggests that this subject had not been broached in the Israeli cabinet – and that Israel has lamentably embraced the Clintonesque standard of I’m-honorable-if-I’m-not-indicted. Fortunately, the writers of the report were willing to speak truth to power – and the JPPPI’s Executive Director, Avinoam Bar-Yosef, held his ground. “I unequivocally stand behind the things that were said,” Bar-Yosef, a well-respected former columnist for Maariv and the Jerusalem Post, told Ha’aretz. “There is no doubt that in the annual assessment of the situation of the Jewish people, the corruption affairs cannot be ignored. This is very disturbing to Jewish communities – that seven people who hold some of the highest offices in the land are suspects or on trial.?

Olmert also objected to a claim in the report saying Diaspora Jews viewed the Second Lebanon War as a failure. “What are you talking about?” the Prime Minister barked.  “I can bring military experts who will prove that the war brought us great achievements. Who appointed you? Why are you sticking your nose into these matters, and on what basis do you draw these conclusions? “Here, too, one would hope that Israel’s leaders did not have to wait for the JPPPI report to hear about this widespread – but clearly debatable – belief.

As Israel forms a new government, this episode offers three important lessons. First, Diaspora Jews are neither lemmings nor suckers. They deserve to be respected and heard. Diaspora Jews should know their place, especially on security matters and boundary issues, given that only Israelis serve in the army, pay Israeli taxes, and vote. But the days of the Israeli superhero simply collecting accolades and checks from Jews abroad have ended. No initiatives the outgoing Prime Minister or the incoming Prime Minister could launch to improve Israel-Diaspora relations would be as valuable as encouraging more mutuality and more respect in both formal and informal interactions, among all Jews. And yes, the state of the Israel-Diaspora relationship is somewhat contingent, like everything else, on Israel adhering to the country’s core ideals.

Second, Israel’s leaders are indeed the leaders of the Jewish people – and should behave accordingly. Being entrusted with the mantle of Jewish leadership is a privilege that should elevate, not an opportunity to degenerate. Bibi Netanyahu should set high standards not just for his cabinet, but for the entire Knesset. Israel’s leaders need to have sustained debate about how the culture of corruption is a cancer, undermining faith in Israeli democracy at home and abroad. Leaders can set standards, starting with their own behavior, continuing with zero tolerance for corruption among their closest associates. For too long, too many Israeli leaders, especially, Ariel Sharon, Moshe Katzav, and yes, Ehud Olmert, have telegraphed a sense of “magiya li,” I deserve special treatment. The results ruined their repuations, cut short the Katzav and Olmert tenures, while demoralizing the Jewish people.

Finally, one of the great challenges any government faces is to avoid being imprisoned in a bubble of its own delusions, perpetually inflated by its own sycophants. Leaders in a democracy need honest feedback, they must hear what the people are thinking. Think tanks such as the JPPPI perform an essential function, stepping back, providing analysis and perspective. JPPPI’s researchers and leaders should be applauded for breaking through the Olmert Cabinet’s isolation, letting Israel’s leaders hear what they needed to hear, not just what they wanted to hear. A real leader, a class act, would have invited Avinoam Bar Yosef back for more frank overviews rather than berating him. Then again, a real leader, a class act, would not have succumbed to the many temptations that brought down Olmert’s government in the first place.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem and is the author of Why I am A  Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Mumbai “Blowback” – terrorists miscalculated again

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-10-08

Islamist terrorists are no doubt celebrating the Mumbai mayhem, convinced they triumphed somehow by turning luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish community center into killing fields. And in the media’s pathological patter – shaping too many Westerners- defensive defeatism – talk of the “militants'” “successful operation” feeds these triumphalist delusions. In fact, once again, the terrorists miscalculated. Their depraved actions triggered another “blowback.” India’s three days of terror boosted George W. Bush‘s legacy, strengthened Barack Obama‘s fortitude in combating terrorism, embarrassed  many Indian Muslims, highlighted the ugliness of Islamist anti-Semitism and triggered worldwide sympathy for the victims. Strangers united to mourn the spiritually-inclined American father and daughter shot in a hotel, the altruistic Montreal doctor and social worker slain on vacation, the lovely Lubavitch Jewish couple murdered in their outreach center, and the dozens of good citizens of India who suffered the most from these thugs.

Suddenly, following these attacks, the terrorists’ least favorite president, George W. Bush is seeing the first uptick in his standing in months. Many people are noting one of the great anomalies of Bush’s administration. Perhaps his greatest achievement is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must acknowledge albeit grudgingly that he deserves credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.  Subsequent atrocities in London , Madrid , Bali, Jerusalem , and now Mumbai – among many others – suggest that the terrorists kept trying.

In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that as of this writing all of North America has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that at least some of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

President-elect Barack Obama‘s decisions to keep Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State reflect Obama’s own realization that the terrorist threat is serious. So far, the apologetic appeasers who occasionally advised him during the campaign have not joined his official family. As one of the two Senators from New York State when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a deep, heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, the videotape al Qaida recently released, wherein one of their leaders used an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but clearly caught Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, illustrated that this nasty problem is not disappearing – and that an underlying, obnoxious ideology unites these murderers who strike at Westerners, Jews, and democrats wherever possible.

The fact that in a sea of tragic stories, the siege of Mumbai’s Chabad Lubavitch house stood out also helped thwart the Islamist terrorists’ goals. These terrorists seek to isolate Jews, to make others recoil from Jews in fear. But the slaughter of simple, defenseless, idealistic, giving people targeted because they were Jewish triggered a massive outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel , Chabad, and Jews. That Islamist ideology is equally intolerant of a black president, of Jewish do-gooders, of Western tourists, makes the lines in the sand very clear. Those of us appalled by these acts – and, make no mistake about it, in the terrorists’ sights — must rally together. We should not only be united when we are being hunted by maniacs who have caught us by surprise; we must unite to eradicate this evil, putting minor differences aside to meet this great moral challenge.

As the civilized world rises up and repudiates these acts, Muslims must share the outrage. These Islamist terrorists claim they are performing their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-democratic acts in the name of Islam. By contrast, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan , wrote a poignant article in Tuesday’s New York Times denouncing the terrorists and noting that he is a victim too – terrorists murdered his wife last year. In India , Muslims have asserted their Indian nationalism – and their humanity – by refusing to bury the terrorists in Muslim ceremonies and condemning the killers’ brutality. If hundreds of millions more Muslims stood up in outrage, embraced Moshe the two-year-old son of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the murdered Chabad couple, repudiated  the terrorists for trying to hijack their religion – and whenever possible spit these people out from their communities, the Islamist terrorist problem would disappear.

We have, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan mourned in a different context, defined deviancy down. We have grown too accustomed to the racist rantings of al Qaida brigands, to the murderous rampages of Islamist terrorists, and to the silent and thus implied consent of too many of their co-religionists. The eloquence of President Zardari, the outrage of the Mumbai Muslims, are balanced out by the cant of so many others who scream “Islamophobia” anytime someone condemns Islamist terrorism or notes Muslim complicity in anti-semitism, racism or sectarian violence. These Mumbai massacres pose another moral challenge to all of us, those who are targeted and those who are standing idly by. Now is the opportunity to rise up, to mourn those martyred, repudiate the murderers, then take individual and collective responsibility to ensure that this will be the long-awaited, long-overdue turning point in the war against terror.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel , Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book is “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”

Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Charity dollars are holy dollars

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities is meeting in Jerusalem with the world reeling from the economic meltdown. More than 2,500 powerhouse leaders gathered, planning to celebrate Israel’s 60th anniversary. Instead, the participants are sobered, dreading the cutbacks they will have to impose on so many worthy recipients in Israel and abroad. Hopefully, before these generous trendsetters of the Jewish world limit gifts to the needy, they will discuss how they can make their organizations – and their own lifestyles – leaner.

A villa with a pool. An ethos...

A villa with a pool. An ethos of good work must replace the culture of perks.

As we emerge from this age of excess so many of us have enjoyed, we should acknowledge how we started treating luxuries as necessities. In the ever-escalating spending spiral that typified this era, the art of austerity succumbed to the lure of luxury.

Consider one minor but representative example: Many foundation executives, federation officials and university administrators regularly travel business class and stay at first-class hotels on their organization’s tab. Leaders of non-profits once traveled modestly and even lived relatively humbly to demonstrate their virtue and their fiscal prudence. Today, professionals join laypeople in consuming conspicuously, somehow trying to show the charitable leader’s ability to play in the big leagues. As a donor who flies economy class between Israel and North America, both when I pay my way and when a non-profit invites me to speak, I am appalled that charitable institutions pay the airlines’ absurd business-class markups.

An ethos of good works must replace this culture of perks. Charity dollars are holy dollars. Just as US government officials fly economy to demonstrate respect for the taxpayers’ dollars, charitable leaders in the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds should show their reverence for donors’ dollars at home and abroad. And if laypeople traveling on the Jewish people’s business followed suit – maybe directing the money they otherwise would have frittered away back toward their favorite charities – they would generate the moral momentum we need.

Belt-tightening is never fun and is rarely sought. But if it is happening anyway, better to ride the wave than be walloped by it. In the 1970s, president Jimmy Carter preached a sourpuss, gloom-and-doom message, essentially saying, “Get used to it, the good times are over.” If he is wise, President-elect Barack Obama will preach an uplifting, redemptive message, essentially saying, “Let’s cut back until the good times return, but discover the good once we have to give up some goodies.”

THE JEWISH world is long overdue for a broader conversation about our spending priorities and what values they reflect. Most of us realize we have lost our moorings, although, typically, we see it more clearly in others or in our children, than in ourselves. Whenever I speak to North American audiences, criticizing our distorted me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, buy-buy-buy, now-now-now world, people nod their heads in agreement.

Most of us know that there has to be more to life than catching the latest sale in the mall, aping the latest popular culture trend, worshiping the latest hot celeb. Yet, somehow, we appear powerless against the mighty materialism of the modern mass media, as we succumb to its siren call. The humility even wealthy Jews were once famous – and a little distrusted – for has been replaced by the garishness enlivening so many modern caricatures of American Jews.

Many of our young people reflect both extremes. They luxuriate more intensely in modern excesses while denouncing the hypocrisy of organized Jewry more angrily. Many condemn the disconnect between the modesty of our tradition and the vulgarity of our lives – and our institutions. It is particularly painful to see so many Jewish high schools fall prey to this. Over the years I have had dozens of heartbreaking conversations with disillusioned graduates – or angry dropouts – from the Jewish day school system. Most reported how the cancer of careerism, the pathologies of peer pressure and the fascism of modern fashion mocked the Jewish values their teachers taught. In universities and birthright groups I repeatedly encounter the walking wounded, young idealists who were badly bruised by the snide, snippy judgments they endured in a Jewish school, camp or synagogue.

Of course, these afflictions are epidemic in modern capitalist consumer culture and reflect our people’s remarkable collective success. But in mastering modern society too many of us became seduced by it. And as Israel develops, the epidemic of excess afflicts Israelis too. The stoicism of the halutzic pioneering generation that built Israel and the immigrant generation that made it in America is equally passé – and sorely missed on both sides of the Atlantic.

OUR ZIONIST and Jewish traditions both offer out of our morass of materialism. The Zionist emphasis on collective responsibility balances the extravagances of the “I” with contributions to the “us.” Similarly, Jewish teachings about God and the people redirect human energies from getting to giving, from what is fleeting and superficial to what is eternal.

These messages are particularly welcome now, when many people are struggling with a diminished self-worth because of a shrunken net-worth. The markets delivered the devastating shock. Our mutually reinforcing Zionist and Jewish traditions can provide the therapy.

This summer, I spoke to UJC’s young leadership cabinet. It met, I admit, in a luxurious resort. But to save money – and to welcome future leaders from a wider ranger of income groups – it convened in Scottsdale, Arizona in July – the sweltering off-season. The deeply discounted hotel rates did not diminish the participants’ fun, and may have further fueled the impressive idealism and generosity they displayed. These are the kind of models we should follow in our communal lives and our personal lives – not only because we need to, but because we want to.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

By Gil Troy, MyJewishLearning.com

In one of the funnier–but more absurd–appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.  

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: “And I know you’re saying, like, ‘Oh my god, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.’ Yes, that’s true, but you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa.” 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web’s street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people “who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties.”

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution–and a reaction to the 1960s’ politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the “neoconservatives” were a loose collection of disproportionately–but not exclusively–Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left’s politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These “neocons,” as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan’s 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb’s classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Jews still remain liberal — with some exceptions

Since Reagan’s presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee’s 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman’s stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic–although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set’s aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed “Red State” versus “Blue State” phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about “Red Jews” and “Blue Jews”–not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain’s support among Jews only peaked at 31% –and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain’s most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama’s most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama’s pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate.  

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on “The economy, stupid,” And many Jews supported Obama’s proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.

Our Exotic Grandparents

By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, September 4, 2008

Some of us belong to a secret society in North America . Although we look like everybody else and pass for normal, we share an unspoken bond, a hidden birthmark, which imparts an enduring sense of otherness. In the Jewish community, our numbers are dwindling, although they are replenished regularly. We are the League of People with Exotic Grandparents.

Not so long ago, almost every North American Jew had one — an immigrant parent or grandparent with a thick accent and foreign manners, comically clueless about the American way of life. Today, as the heroic generation of Eastern European immigrants that built the American Jewish community dies out, our third and fourth generation Americanized children lack this living link to the past. Moreover, many with exotic parents or grandparents are embarrassed by them.

To be fair, being ashamed of “greenhorn” elders is a longstanding North American – and Jewish – tradition. It is a staple of the American dream literature of yesteryear wherein the plucky hero rises up from impoverished surroundings and displaced, overworked and impotent parents. But, today, watching a thoroughly assimilated, frequently privileged “Millennial” squirm at the foreignness of his or her forbears, it is the youngster who appears impoverished.

I feel blessed by my intimate association with my late Polish-born maternal grandfather who lived to be 100 years old, and by my Romanian-born in-laws. My wife and I, and, now, our children, are lucky to have that visceral connection with European Jewry’s lost world. In fact, this connection only makes us more American, more Canadian, for what could be more all-American than the immigrant experience of building a life in the New World ?

Living in Montreal has connected me far more intensely – and intimately – to this immigrant generation. Growing up in New York , most of my friends’ parents were American-born, products of the Eastern European migration that began in the 1880s and ended with the immigration restrictions of the 1920s. Most of my Jewish peers had parents who spoke a flawless – if New-York-inflected — English. In Montreal – where the Jewish community grew substantially after the Holocaust, I met more peers with immigrant parents, meaning our children can join the League of People with Exotic Grandparents. Of course, many of the immigrants are Sephardic and, yes, grandparents like my parents – and parents like my wife and me – can pass on Jewish identity just fine, thank you very much. Still, those heavily-accented European refugees add a delicious spice, a deeper sense of ethnic connection, and often a more tragic but dramatic and inspiring history.

I recently addressed a leadership conference for Jewish leaders 45 and younger. Some participants bemoaned what they called the today’s “non-Jewish Jews.” I usually avoid this phrase, as being too judgmental, too final, too heavy-handed. But I knew exactly what these young leaders meant.

The lures of America and Canada are so great, it is easy to “pass” as “normal,” to become North American pagans. Whereas previous generations of Jews struggle to join the social mainstream, our peers – and certainly our juniors – join effortlessly. In fact, it often takes a lot more work, a lot more gumption, to “do Jewish.” It is hard to follow tradition in a world of the here and now. It is hard to believe in God in a society that mocks believers. It is hard to embrace abstractions in a culture of consumerism and materialism.

Yet, who are if we have no memory, no links to the past, no guidance from our heritage? What kind of people are we if we abandon core beliefs because they are not fashionable? And what will become of us if we lack deeper values, transcendent visions, soaring ideals?

Our exotic grandparents help remind us of another world, of a rich past, of our tribal connection. They happily left that world because of its rampant anti-Semitism and epidemic poverty. And even in their hamhanded way, they embraced the American and Canadian way of life. As their heirs – whether or not we ever met that generation – we need to honor their sacrifices, appreciate their achievements, and champion their legacies, even as we delight in the broad acceptance we feel in this most welcoming corner of the world.

From the center: Why are Republicans guilty of tokenism – while Democrats produce historic breakthroughs?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, many Americans cheered his historic breakthrough. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man for president. Even many Obama opponents transcended partisanship to celebrate this extraordinary – and hopefully healing – achievement.

Republican vice presidential...

Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Photo: AP

Yet the next day, when John McCain designated Alaska’s young governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, Democrats cried: “tokenism.” Democrats said McCain’s was manipulating the many American women mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a setback in their quest to break the ultimate “glass ceiling” of the White House. Even many Republicans squirmed at McCain’s crassness.

Yet there seems to be a contradiction. Why are Republicans deemed guilty of tokenism when they promote women or blacks, while Democratic “diversity” promotions are hailed as historic breakthroughs? Obamaniacs have a simple answer. They claim that Barack Obama – and Hillary Clinton – are both qualified to be president and Sarah Palin is not. Moreover, Democrats say that Obama did not run on his race, and Clinton did not run on her gender, but that Palin was picked solely because she is female.

BOTH SIDES of the story are more complicated. The 44-year-old Palin, indeed, is a first-term governor of a marginal state, but the 47-year-old Obama is a first-term US senator, so he lacks any serious executive experience. And while Obama did not run on his race alone, he would not have won the primaries without African-Americans’ nearly-unanimous support.

Similarly, Palin’s gender factored into McCain’s equation in choosing her, but so far she has been more useful in solidifying his right-wing evangelical base. Moreover, the older Democratic women who disdain Palin rejoiced in 1984 when Walter Mondale nominated the inexperienced Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Partisanship and ideology feed this hypocrisy. Just as Democrats charged tokenism when President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an anti-affirmative action African-American to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious that Palin is pro-life. She is so pro-life she did not abort her fifth child, even though she knew he would be born with Down syndrome. Now Palin seems to be encouraging her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to get married and keep the love child. These anti-abortion bona fides thrilled the Christian right, and have already improved the Republican Convention dynamics for McCain.

Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. Whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. Republicans are usually quicker to disdain tokenism, yet they frequently make strategic choices based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Democrats worship “diversity” as a core ideal, but too frequently that means a rainbow of men and women representing different races, religions, ethnicities, all marching in ideological lockstep, never tolerating diversity of thought too. How supporting abortion became so central to the women’s movement is an interesting historical question for another time, but to many women, a female pro-life vice president is as unacceptable as an anti-Zionist Jewish president would be to Jews.

AMERICAN JEWS are as inconsistent on this score as any other group. Jews crave acceptance as “normal” Americans while taking particular naches in every Jewish political appointee, in every American Jewish success. American Jews want non-Jews to accept them as Americans, without noticing that American Jews vote for their own kind disproportionately and often help each other out generously.

A popular if possibly apocryphal story about America’s first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when president Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the president, saying that when president Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.

In Israel, too, the politics of ethnicity and gender can get intense – and inconsistent. Moshe Katsav delighted in his role as a successful Sephardi role model, then immediately – and falsely – played the racism card when his despicable behavior created a scandal. And Tzipi Livni’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the legacy of Golda Meir reflects her complicated juggling act among being treated like “one of the boys,” tapping into some “girl power” and staying true to her Revisionist anti-Golda roots.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to win a congressional seat, ran for president in 1972. She insisted : “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not a candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America…” Alas, if anyone remembers Chisholm today, it is because of her race and gender.

Still, hers is an admirable formula. And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement, appreciate his impressive abilities independent of his race, yet also welcome this breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. Similarly, as long as Sarah Palin appears more like Al Gore than Dan Quayle, she should be hailed as an impressive individual and a leading pioneer.

We need a little constructive hypocrisy on this issue. People should rise and fall on their merits, but in this imperfect world, if they bring their subgroup a little more pride and standing, that is an added bonus.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Defending a Jerusalem oasis

Jerusalem Post, Gil Troy’s Center Field, August 10, 2008

The battle to save Baka and the German Colony is a skirmish in a long -overdue struggle. Center Field

Jerusalem’s German Colony is an architectural jewel a magnificent urban oasis offering historic houses soothing visual harmony intimate settings and even the sound of birds chirping amid the hurly burly of Israel’s capital. Neighboring Baka while less sculpted is also delightful offering an equally alluring sense of community. While the Emek Refaim cafes serving both neighborhoods attract crowds Baka and German Colony residents are also blessed by a friendly not-yet-overdone shopping strip along Derech Beit Lehem

Alas – surprisingly tragically foolishly – the delicate urban ecology of the German Colony Baka and Beit Lehem shops is now endangered. And the threat comes from civil servants who should be committed to preserving such urban gems.

In launching the light rail system Jerusalem’s bureaucrats plan to divert as many as 1 0 cars an hour from Derech Hebron to Derech Beit Lehem. Private cars will be banned from Remez Street near the old train station so huge buses can whisk commuters downtown from the outlying neighborhoods. But independent traffic engineers have confirmed what any intelligent person can see – this well- intentioned but poorly thought out automotive invasion will turn Beit Lehem into what one resident calls “the autostrada and bring urban blight to these lovely neighborhoods. The result will be traffic snarls, constant noise, polluted air, impossible parking, ruined shops, plummeting property values and, most disturbing, hundreds of pupils walking to the areas’ schools every weekday morning and afternoon

HAVING HAD the privilege of living in the German Colony since last July, and having regularly escorted my children back and forth to their schools, I have watched in horror as this fiasco develops. I have seen the work crews install the infrastructure for traffic lights and turning lanes, despite the municipality’s promise last year to freeze the plan. I have seen a small, noble group of concerned citizens try to alert their neighbors, while others flail about trying to get heard by someone in the vast urban bureaucracy. Last March, launching my own test of Jerusalem’s supposedly responsive bureaucracy, I contacted the authorities regarding this dumb plan. Identifying myself as an occasional columnist, I sought an official comment. I’m still waiting.

Fortunately, there are enough engaged residents to launch a grassroots campaign. Recently, some locals led by Itay Fishendler and Jonathan Kalman started raising money and awareness to save their community. They understand that to fight an indifferent city hall they will need a comprehensive campaign of public protest, attracting supportive media coverage. This is especially necessary because the bureaucrats are surprisingly gung-ho about this project despite the feared fallout. This campaign has been fully co-ordinated with the local community center and the head of the community council. These urban heroes can be contacted at bakaa.s.o.s@gmail.com

IF MORE neighbors weighed the pending threat to their quality of life and property values against what many of them spend on renovations, they would flood the activists with cash.

Frankly, residents have yet to respond as generously as they should with their time, passion, and money. Still, in other neighborhoods threatened by equally ridiculous plans the locals do not even have the resources to fight.

This debacle-in-the-making reveals a deeper problem. The legendary American politician Tip” O’Neill famously said “all politics is local.” O’Neill understood that although citizens in a democracy judge their government on the big things such as defending the country and managing the economy the little things also loom large. Unfortunately in Israel the national issues are overwhelming the entire political system is too centralized. The residents of the German Colony and Baka – along with Israelis from Metulla to the Negev – miss the local representation that makes so many other democracies function. If city councils and the Knesset had some locally selected district-based representatives at least one national politician and one local politician could represent grievances effectively passionately independently. In this case two leaders – each beholden to the people – would wake up every day wondering how to preserve protect and defend Baka and the German Colony.

TRUE A locally based system risks people shouting Not In My Back Yard and ignoring broader community concerns. But in a functional democracy the local and the national balance each other in an ultimately constructive dance. All too often in Israel the big overwhelms the small. We see this when traffic engineers arrogantly impose harmful plans on neighborhoods. We see this when educational bureaucrats prevent parents from raising money in a particular school to lower student-teacher ratios or block principals from doing what is best for their students.

The battle to save Baka the German Colony and the Beit Lehem shopping district is then a small skirmish in a long-overdue struggle. Israel desperately needs a more responsive political system along with more responsive responsible officials at all levels. These public servants would understand that democracies – like the threatened neighborhoods – are delicate ecosystems requiring thoughtful tending.

Center Field: Diaspora-Israel relations as bad date

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

The results of the third annual Survey of Contemporary Israeli Attitudes toward World Jewry commissioned by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem are in, and once again we can proclaim: Israel-Diaspora relations remain less fraternal than we like to believe – and more like a bad date than we really acknowledge. Just as North American Jews are convinced that Israelis need us more than we need them, Israelis believe we need them more than they need us. In this survey, focusing on the Israeli side of the equation, most Israeli Jews – 76 percent – believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, while 43 percent believed the State of Israel rather than the local Jewish community was more responsible for fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks in the Diaspora.

These results reveal a condescending Israeli approach to Diaspora Jews as weak, embattled, incapable of self-defense, and dependent on Israeli super-heroes to save them. These attitudes would be more offensive if they were not matched by the too-prevalent Diaspora view of Israelis as weak, embattled, poor cousins needing Diaspora donations – and impassioned letters to the editor – to survive. In fact, both communities are far stronger, more independent, and in some ways more interdependent than most Jews on either side of the Atlantic realize.

Fortunately, the survey uncovered a strong shaft of light bursting forth from this gloom. Nearly half the Israelis surveyed approved of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent announcement, shifting Israel-Diaspora policy away from promoting mass Aliyah. Instead, Olmert’s welcome move sought to improve Jewish education in Jewish communities, emphasizing Hebrew, Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish values, and strengthening the links between world Jewry and the State of Israel. This is a marvelous mutual agenda. Aside from Hebrew, which in Israel is thriving, Israeli Jews would also benefit by learning more about their culture, heritage, ethics, and fellow Jews. The failures of the Israeli educational system in most of these areas are as dismaying as the failures of the Diaspora Jewish educational system in these realms.

Prime Minister Olmert was right to first emphasize Hebrew. Hebrew remains the key to Jewish learning, offering entrée to two of the most fundamental Jewish experiences: attending synagogue and visiting the State of Israel. Of course, one can do either without knowing Hebrew, but mastering the language allows Jews to approach prayer in a more knowledgeable fashion and to approach Israel as insiders not outsiders, as brothers and sisters coming home not tourists visiting an exotic locale. It is lamentable that so many of this generation of Diaspora Jews have distanced themselves from Hebrew. Even many of the finest Jewish day schools in North America no longer emphasize Ivrit, fearing that their students will not be able to appreciate Judaism’s relevance if filtered through a “foreign language.” The rest of the world is appreciating the value of knowing multiple language – yet our parents and educators are spurning a great mind-expanding opportunity, fearful that their “bubbelehs” (all of whom during their bar and bat mitzvahs are hailed as geniuses) somehow won’t be able to cope with the second language.

Although the Israeli school system does a good job teaching Hebrew, both the religious and secular schools are far less effective in teaching a love of Judaism. Too much of the religious education emphasizes dos and don’ts rather than whys; too much of the secular system approaches Jewish studies as a laborious requirement to be endured rather than a blessed opportunity to be enriched.

Mutual salvation is possible here. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews would benefit from a joint Jewish renaissance, a new commitment throughout the Jewish world to learning from each other about our past and our present to guarantee a more dynamic future. In this  — and so many other realms – birthright Israel has shown the way. The program offering free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews has a “Mifgash,” requirement, wherein young Israelis – and now, frequently Israeli soldiers – join the trips for a significant part. The initial motivation was to give Diaspora Jews a more authentic link to Israel; most of the Israelis who have participated have ended up experiencing their own reawakening. The Israeli Army Education branch has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the program, seeing how it makes most Israeli soldiers absorb a keen sense of peoplehood, a newfound love of Judaism, and a deeper understanding that they are not just defending their homes but the Jewish people’s homeland. These successes reinforce Olmert’s essential insight – by taking responsibility for teaching Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews will jumpstart their own process of becoming responsible and knowledgeable Jews.

Inevitably, much of the energy in developing this new chapter of Israel-Diaspora will focus on formal education – which certainly needs reforming. In the spirit of the Zionist youth movements that helped establish the state, informal education will also get attention. But in order for this renaissance to resonate most broadly, we need to think of a whole other dimension – that of popular culture, perhaps the most influential force in young Jewish lives today, be they in the Diaspora or in Israel.

Recently, I looked for some Hebrew books on Israeli history in a Jerusalem bookstore. “We don’t really have much of a selection,” the saleswoman said. “Really, in Barnes and Noble in New York there are shelves full of American history works for kids,” I replied. “We’re not just that patriotic,” the saleswoman replied with a world-weary sigh, despite being barely 25. This exchange illustrates the formidable challenge we face. We need to learn from American Girl, this extraordinary marketing colossus that has brilliantly fused inspiring stories from America’s past, the contemporary search for some “Girl Power” role models, and the crassest form of commercialism. We need to create a Hebrew-English Jewish Harry Potter, perhaps situated in Temple Times, plumbing the mysteries of Judaism in a delightful, compelling way. We need to mimic Disney, which so cleverly blurs shameless entertainment with education about science, history, geography.

This is not an endorsement of watered-down Judaism, whereby we create a pop Judaism as meaningless as the rest of modern popular culture. Rather, this is a call for an invigorated Jewish atmosphere, in Israel and the Diaspora, that harnesses the power of popular culture to redirect our youth, on both sides of the Atlantic toward meaningful interactions with our profoundly rich civilization. But just as Olmert’s strategy recognizes that we will only see a rise in Aliyah after we have seen a resurgence of education, we will not see that educational resurgence, until we get more young Jews to consider embracing their heritage, their people, their faith as their fundamental anchors in this tempest-tossed and trend-obsessed world.

A moment of moral clarity

As Lebanese leaders cheer return of a child-murderer, Israel mourns its two soldiers

Montreal Gazette, July 18, 2008
 
GIL TROY
Getty Images

 

Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.
CREDIT: Paula Bronstein, Getty Images
Lebanese citizens cheer the release of five prisoners and the return of the bodies of 199 Lebanese.

How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?

Depending on the tone, this question becomes an attempt to clarify, or an expression of outrage. Stated calmly, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” can be a factual question – such as the one that faced Lebanese leaders this week as they proceeded to celebrate the freeing of Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, where he had been held since 1979 for murdering 4-year-old Einat Haran, her father Danny Haran, and a policeman.

Stated angrily, “How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” is the question Israelis are asking – and the rest of the civilized world should be asking, too.

On the night of April 22, 1979, Kuntar, working with three other terrorists, took Danny and Einat hostage, marching them to the Mediterranean beach after seizing them in their home in the coastal city of Nahariya. After shooting Danny in front of his daughter, then drowning him to make sure he was dead, Kuntar turned on Einat. Swinging his rifle butt, he smashed the 4-year-old’s head against the rocks, until she too died.

Adding to the horror, Einat’s mother, Smadar, hiding in a crawl space, accidentally smothered 2-year-old Yael Haran while trying to stifle her whimpering.

Any civilized court of law would hold the attackers responsible for the toddler’s death, too. Judging by the euphoria in Lebanon and in the Palestinian territories this week, by the terrorists’ barbaric, topsy-turvy immoral logic, the additional carnage enhances Kuntar’s heroic status.

Of course, this kind of language is terribly impolite. We Westerners are not supposed to call ourselves “civilized” and deem others “barbaric.” For decades now we have been told that such terms are too judgmental, too culturally-determined, too imperialistic, too arrogant.

We have been so sensitized and issues have become so relativized many of us have lost our moral bearings. We have to call Kuntar a “militant,” a “fighter” but not a “terrorist.” We are supposed to explore Kuntar’s motivations.

And besides, whatever his motives, we are expected to excuse his crimes by pointing to equally heinous Western sins, or the religious-cultural-nationalist foundations for his actions.

And yet, occasionally, illuminating moments of moral clarity shine through the haze of amoral theorizing that emanates from our finest campuses, that is disseminated by our most technologically sophisticated media. We all witnessed such a moment this week with Israel’s heart-breaking prisoner exchange.

As the two coffins bearing the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser arrived in Israel from Lebanon, the nation of Israel plunged into mourning. These two young men became the entire country’s collective children. Strangers who had never met either of them wept bitterly, sharing the pain of the family and the friends, remembering other losses, fearing more tragedies in the future.

By contrast, the massive celebrations in Lebanon for Kuntar and four other terrorists revealed not only the thuggery of Hezbollah but the descent of Lebanon itself. Rolling out the red carpet for a murderer, dispatching the country’s top leaders to greet someone who crushed a 4-year-old’s skull, declaring a national day of celebration, revealed just how thoroughly the Lebanese leadership had succumbed to the brutal sensibilities of Hassan Nasrallah and his Hezbollah terrorists.

At first glance, it is easy to conclude that the country that is mourning lost this week and the country celebrating won. In fact, Israel won a great moral victory. Israel showed why Westerners should and will support the Jewish state, empathize with the Jewish state, identify with the Jewish state.

We want to side with the country that moves heaven and Earth to bring its boys home, to protect its citizens; not with the country of bloodthirsty mobs deifying cowards who smashed the skull of a 4-year-old girl with a rifle butt on a lovely Mediterranean beach. We learn about a people by observing whom they love and whom they hate. Joy is fleeting and often triggered by base instincts. Sometimes collective anguish is a sign of moral strength, not national weakness.

“I’m proud to belong to those who love and not to those who hate,” Ofer Regev said while eulogizing his brother Eldad. Israelis should be proud of this moment of moral clarity – and wary of enemies with such distorted value systems. Israel’s – and the West’s – enemies are wrong.

A nation that risks so much even just to bring two corpses home, a country that celebrates life not death, is not only a worthy ally – but a dangerous adversary when provoked.

Gil Troy teaches history at McGill University.

© The Gazette (Montreal) 2008

Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.

Obama gets Zionism – why don’t our youth?

Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, 03 July 2008 

True, at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., the most powerful American politicians tell some of the most powerful American Jews exactly what they want to hear.

True, at the meeting in June, Barack Obama overstated his commitment to a united Jerusalem, and then backtracked, causing great controversy. True, during the heat of a presidential campaign, anything one says that is positive about one candidate is perceived to be an endorsement of him, regardless of the writer’s intent. Still, it’s worth focusing on Obama’s remarkable riff about Zionism – and challenging Jews in the United States and Canada to learn at least this from America’s Democratic presidential nominee.

Early on in his address, Obama recalled the influence of a Jewish counsellor of his at a summer camp the young Barack attended in the early 1970s. Obama said:  “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story.”

There are three powerful ideas embedded in this short paragraph. Obama offers a compelling “holy trinity” if you will, explaining some of the ways Jews have maintained our identity for thousands of years, despite adversity. Obama talks about “faith, family and culture.” He speaks about one’s “spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity.” I could add history, the land, and tradition as well. I talk about national and historical identity, too. But what’s important is that Obama recognizes Judaism’s multi-dimensionality. Judaism is not “just” a religion. Jews are a people sharing a common past, certain cultural traits, enduring family values, a binding faith, an interconnected fate in the present, and, we hope, an inspiring and glorious future.

Second, in this speech and elsewhere, Obama talks about the common modern quest for roots, for an identity. He understands that there’s more to life than making money and spending money. True success, true fulfilment, comes from knowing who you are – having a deep, enduring, historical identity.

Both the United States and Canada are remarkable countries, welcoming immigrants throughout the world. But both countries, particularly with today’s modern consumerist popular culture, encourage a kind of historical amnesia, a disconnect from our Old World past. True, Canada is officially multicultural and more sensitive to those concerns than the United States, but the lure of the “I,” of the here-and-now of modern culture, overrides those rhetorical and ideological differences, enticing all of us to jettison our historical identities.

Finally, Obama appreciates the value of having a homeland as an anchor, as a repository of our past, our values, our story – and our future. We need to imagine sometimes what it must have been like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were cut off from that homeland. We need to imagine sometimes what it must be like for kids like the young Obama, who, while welcomed into the American heartland, know that they are different, know that they have another identity and wish to reconcile it all.

We need to ask, “Do we always remember to keep our homeland – the homeland of Israel – ‘at the centre of our story’ as modern Jews?” Have too many of us, in the comforts of North America, forgotten how lucky we are to have Israel as an identity anchor? How many of our well-educated, sophisticated 40-year-olds speak as eloquently as Obama did about the power of the Zionist idea historically – and to us personally? And if Obama is willing to say “Yes we can” to our Zionism, how come so many of our youth are not?

Is America Ready For A Maimonidean Moment?

by Gil Troy The New York Jewish Week, June 27, 2008

 

Both presumptive presidential nominees, John McCain and Barack Obama, have repudiated George W. Bush’s leadership style. Both have vied for the center, and promised to lead from the center. Unknowingly, they are channeling the approach of the great Jewish philosopher, Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon. With any luck, the next president will help the United States achieve a Maimonidean moment — it is long overdue.
Maimonides synthesized the biblical warnings against excess and Greek models of balance to chart the “Golden Path.” Writing in the 1100s, Maimonides described this Golden Mean geometrically, urging individuals to calibrate their behavior by placing themselves equidistant from their warring impulses. Defining wisdom as moderation, Maimonides said individuals needed to seek midpoints in their emotions, appetites, personal relations, and business lives.In a democracy, politics should have that kind of balance, that kind of temperance. Ultimately, democracies rely on good will to survive. Let’s face it. The basis of democracy, consent of the governed, is a fiction. Those of us born into the democratic system did not give our consent. The democratic regime has been imposed on us. We are free to vote for our leaders (or not vote). This gives us input into our leaders; it does not give our consent to the government.

The system works so well and provides so much freedom that we ignore this problem. Still, historically, one of the keys to American success has been a political culture whose strong tendency to moderate conflict is led by center-seeking presidents. George Washington’s civility, Abraham Lincoln’s pragmatism, Theodore Roosevelt’s nationalism, Franklin Roosevelt’s incrementalism, Harry Truman’s consensus-building, Dwight Eisenhower’s consensus-culture, John Kennedy’s romanticism, and Ronald Reagan’s patriotism all played to — and reinforced — the great American middle. Barack Obama is correct. America is more united culturally and politically, and Americans are more inconsistent than media emphasis on red versus blue or cosmopolitan bicoastals versus Western and Southern rednecks would have us believe.

Sadly, this moderate, bipartisan spirit, rooted in a reasonable but romantic nationalism, has been lacking lately. Democrats love to blame George W. Bush, Karl Rove, Fox News, and the shrill partisans of the right led by Bill O’Reilly, Anne Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh. Republicans love to blame the Clintons, both Hillary and Bill, James Carville, Moveon.org, and the shrill partisans of the left led by Al Franken, Bill Maher, and Keith Olbermann. The polarizing enmity is so great that when critics lament the generalized hyperpartisanship, many liberals and conservatives object to the false equivalence, convinced that only their opponents are unreasonable.

Unfortunately, the American Jewish community has become encased in its own polarizing set of stereotypes. Enemies of Israel, eager to implicate Israel in the Iraq war fiasco and transfer some of President George W. Bush’s unpopularity to the Jewish state, have caricatured all of Israel’s Jewish supporters as neoconservatives.  At the same time, right-wingers frequently caricature the American Jewish community as a collection of mushy-headed liberals, hopelessly nostalgic about the ‘60s, convinced that all of America’s domestic problems can be solved by a Great Society-type implementation of the prophet Isaiah’s teachings.

There is some truth behind both caricatures. Although support for Israel remains impressively bipartisan, George W. Bush’s intense support for the Jewish state, along with the modern unholy anti-Zionist alliance between many leftists and Palestinians, has fed perceptions that conservatives support Israel. Similarly, the American Jewish community has long been liberal and deeply tied to the Democratic Party. But given Israel’s overwhelming popularity among American Jews, and the perception of support for Israel as conservative, can the American Jewish community still be considered liberal?
Rather than fueling the partisan epidemic, American Jews should use this overstated contradiction to help hasten America’s Maimonidean moment. As supporters of Israel —and targets of the global Jihadists — American Jews are particularly sensitive to the dangers of terrorism. Just as Jews from the left in the 1960s and 1970s recognized the abuses of Soviet Communism faster than others because of the Soviet Jews’ plight, Jews today should be especially wary of the global dangers facing all Americans. Some liberal authors including Paul Berman and Peter Beinart have argued that liberals should lead the fight against Islamism, that it is a mistake to let opposition to President Bush blind liberty-lovers to Islamic fundamentalism’s dictatorial dangers. At the same time, as descendants of so many who have suffered oppression, and as proud heirs to the biblical tradition, American Jews are also particularly sensitive to the needs of the unfortunate.
After too many years of partisanship, we need to build a new center by defeating the Islamist scourge and, at the same time, advancing social justice. As both nominees vie for the center, American Jews should push from both the left and the right for more compromise, more civility, less polarization and less demonization. Our great rabbi Maimonides can indeed help heal America, and return Americans to the paths our greatest presidents followed. 

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. His book “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents” (Basic Books) was just published.