Finding Members Of The Tribe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

During a Sukkot week excursion to London, my family and I were repeatedly Bageled—American Jewish slang for when a fellow Jew who has figured out you are Jewish, makes the Jewish connection, usually using insider language—a shanah tovah here, a shabbat shalom there. We also, inevitably, crossed paths with many Israelis and therefore coined another expression. To Crembo is to start speaking Hebrew to an Israeli whom you have overheard using the Jewish people’s old-new mother tongue. (Crembos are a distinctive Israeli treat, only served in the autumn and winter, offering mini-mountains of vanilla crème sitting on a cookie base encased in a thin layer of chocolate).

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

The New West End Synagogue is pictured in Bayswater, West London on March 3, 2009. (Leon Neal / AFP / Getty Images)

Bageling and Cremboing are particularist peoplehood moments, moments when we break through the usual armor of anonymity we carry around with us in public and click with another human being. But while we can affirm our common humanity with just about anybody—and when traveling do that too—Bageling and Cremboing capture the particular joy we share when we discover what we called an “MoT” when growing up in New York—a member of the tribe.

A central tenet of Zionism is that Judaism is not just a religion; Jews are a people, a nation, with ties to a particular homeland. Especially in elite progressive circles, the validity of Jewish nationalism is often challenged. At a recent brainstorming session about how to revitalize Zionism, I recommended inviting Jews to take Zionism personally, meaning to create a nationalist vision that works for them. One progressive deemed my words “nationalistic” and therefore “right wing.” The attack prompted me to quote Barack Obama, Bill Clinton and other leading progressives about the joys of patriotism—joys which politically effective liberals know they cannot renounce.

But my progressive colleague was reflecting the trendiest of thoughts which are an obstacle in discussing Zionism.  Many elite American Jews, in particular, are enthralled by a faux cosmopolitanism, a belief that universalism is good; nationalism is bad, with Jewish nationalism somehow getting the brunt of the critique. If we are to nurture a new, revitalized Zionist discourse for the 21st century—an Open Zion if you will—we must confront this distaste for Jewish particularism and this false god of universalism, which has been luring Jews for over two centuries now.

Fortunately, leading thinkers are tackling both these tigers. In his massive new volume, “From Ambivalence to Betrayal: The Left, the Jews and Israel,” Professor Robert Wistrich of Hebrew University shows how the negation of Jewish nationalism—singled out among all nationalisms—and this Jewish craving for universalism have been building blocks of the left, and of leftist anti-Semitism (not just anti-Zionism). My friend Daniel Gordis’s new book, “The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness Is Actually Its Greatest Strength” celebrates Israel as a model of particularism, a beacon for the 21st century, showing how having a deep, multidimensional, vital national identity leads to personal satisfaction, communal cohesion, and good deeds individually and collectively. Gordis argues, convincingly, that the Arab Spring and the Palestinian national movement will succeed best if Arabs try mastering and mimicking the Israel model, combining a democracy tolerant of diversity with a proud particularist national-religious culture, rather than trying to recreate the American “tower of babel,” which Gordis, the sociologist Robert Bellah and others show often leads to individual rootlessness, loneliness, and alienation. And the legendary Chief Rabbi of the United Kingdom, Sir Jonathan Sacks, has declared that he will dedicate the rest of his career to bridging the gap between Jewish particularists and universalists—challenging Orthodox Jews to emerge from their intellectual bubbles and embrace what Western thought offers while challenging universalist Jews to emerge from their own constrained virtual reality and appreciate what having a rich, traditional Jewish identity can offer as well.

Gordis, Sacks and others are standing on the works of other great modern thinkers, especially Michael Walzer, Michael Sandel, and Charles Taylor, who teach that nationalism is a neutral tool, able to help or hurt, and that human beings crave community and most often thrive as anchored communitarians not alienated individualists.

On a more basic level, my family’s British experience was enhanced because all our Bageling and Cremboing paid off.  Stumbling in as wandering Jews, we were hosted magnificently at the St. John’s Wood Synagogue, welcomed and honored at the services, invited to meals in the synagogue’s sukkah and in a private home, and made to feel absolutely special. As two of my children and I spontaneously became the 17th, 18th and 19th guests at an Israeli’s table at the end of the holiday, I went up quietly, apologetically, to our hostess, offering to drink a quick l’chaim and run. “Of course not,” she said, “it’s Simchat Torah—and you are welcome.” And, of course, she and her family would be welcome in our home too, with bagels, crembos—and even the kind of four course meal we were lucky enough to enjoy with them, our fellow MoTs.

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

Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rx Elul: Returning, Recovering, Repenting and Reimagining

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism is Racism.” 

Israelis and Americans converge and diverge in summertime mourning

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-24-12

In traveling this week from Israel to the United States, my family and I visited two wounded countries, recoiling from different faces of the evil that bedevils our world. Last week, Israel’s chofesh hagadol, grand summer vacation, was ruined by the terrorist who destroyed an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. Days later, the `”Joker” gunman who shot up a Colorado movie theatre during the Batman premiere, assaulted all Americans who usually enjoy such leisure pursuits without fearing violence, and without the security guards who have become ubiquitous wherever Israelis gather in large numbers. As these two nations united in mourning, certain differences also emerged, as Israelis lamented external dangers, and Americans confronted internal threats.

Both sister democracies, both proud peoples, rallied around their scarred citizens, and shared communally in the individual anguish and anger, which for some will remain forever. Israelis kept on repeating the story of the 42 year old who finally became pregnant after years of trying, of the two sets of best friends off on a summer lark killed by what was probably an Iranian and Hezbollah operative.  Americans – including President Barack Obama who visited Aurora, Colorado – talked about “Stephanie,” the 21-year-old who, with no military training, put her finger on the bullet wound in her friend Allie Young’s neck, to stanch the bleeding, and refused to flee the theatre, despite her friend’s pleas to save herself.  Both survived.

Some of us read such stories obsessively, trying to personalize the horror beyond the statistical death tolls of six here, twelve there. We seek stories of everyday heroism to inspire ourselves and, in my case, share with my children, in our own attempt to vanquish the evil. Others simply turn away, finding the grief too overwhelming.

Beyond this range of human reactions, each story propelled each society onto a different political, ideological, and existential search for meaning. For Israelis, this was one of those nightmarish moments which brought back all the pain from the wave of Palestinian terror that destroyed the Oslo Peace Process a decade ago. The unique Israeli infrastructure of logistical and emotional support that kicks in with its organizational array from Zaka to Mada, the media memes and themes, all stirred emotions that are constantly roiling just below the surface of the Israeli body politic, which still suffers from collective post-traumatic stress syndrome following Palestinian terrorists’ amoral assault on basic human hopes and assumptions ten years ago. Even more disturbing, we again saw the international double standard at work, as UN officials condemned the “bombing” without using the t-word, terrorist, and even the US helped host a UN-based counter-terrorism conference that excluded Israel.  These insults left Israelis feeling abused by the terrorism death cult flourishing among Palestinians, Iranians, and Islamists, and abandoned by a world that often enables such violence yet somehow blames Israelis even when citizens simply trying to enjoy themselves at a beachside resort are targeted.

Americans struggled with different traumas, as the newspapers told the story of an honors science student turned mass murderer while authorities tallied up the 6000 rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, and high capacity “hundred round drum magazine” that this homicidal maniac purchased with just a few clicks of his computer.  Two of the most beautiful byproducts of American nationalism, the Constitution and the Internet, helped yield horrifically ugly results.

More profoundly, as Americans asked “why?” many resurrected the question from the 1960s – is ours a “sick society?” With faith lost in Wall Street, Capitol Hill, the Oval Office; with relationships disposable, values contingent, optimism lagging, and the economy still flagging, many Americans are scared. If America had the right leaders, such violence could provide a much-needed wakeup call. Alas, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have shown that kind of skill or vision this year.

As my children and I prepare to observe the Ninth of Av, commemorating the two holy temples’ destructions, while visiting Washington DC this weekend, I see a similar parallelism. When I am in Jerusalem, during the endless summertime fast, I feel our enemies’ oppression most intensely, as I contemplate the litany of horrors that have stricken the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, culminating in the Holocaust.  When I am in Washington, I think more about exile than oppression. What little anti-Semitism there is in America is so mild compared to the European and Arab variations, the American Jewish experience has been so darned positive overall, that it is hard to feel targeted in the land of the free.  What kind of an exile is it, when it has become so voluntary, and so delightful?

In fact, I usually have serious problems with Tisha Ba’av.  I do not know whether it is more absurd to mourn so intensely in rebuilt and reunified Jerusalem or in the proud, free capital of the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish superpower in history, which is populated by Jews who live there happily and thrive.  While I recall the story of the soldier in Napoleon’s army, who impressed the great emperor by mourning his people’s loss from 2000 years earlier so intensely – “this is an eternal people,” Napoleon supposedly said — I frequently fear all this breast-beating about our past traumas invites neurosis.

Then Bulgaria happens. And Aurora happens.  Following both crimes, my Tisha Ba’av this year will be particularly resonant. I will mourn the losses the Jewish people have sustained from unreasoning, often broadly enabled, anti-Semitism. And I will appreciate the opportunity to root my children and myself in a more enduring story of loss and rebirth, in a deeper set of values which includes memory, which can anchor the soul, even if the result is occasional anguish and perpetual mourning programmed into our calendar.

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

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-3-12

When I was young, the Bizarro back-of-the-book feature in Superman comics fascinated me. In the mirror-image Bizarro universe, Superman was ugly and mean, while words’ meanings were reversed. “Bad” meant “good” in Bizarro talk – long before my Boston friends taught me that “wicked” could mean cool. These days, when I hear the Blame Israel First crowd’s relentless criticism of Israel, I often feel I have stumbled into that back-of-the-book Bizarro feature. Some of the criticisms are valid, but they end up exaggerated and distorted.

That, ultimately, explains the failure of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is too smart and too much of an insider to make baseless complaints.  But he goes too far repeatedly, magnifying Israel and the Jewish community’s flaws until they are, Bizarro-style, unrecognizable, grotesque. Thus, typically, he cannot simply criticize Israeli policies on the West Bank or toward Israeli Arabs. He has to echo the trendy “racism” and “apartheid” rhetoric. He views the mutually fraught relations between two competing national groups, Arabs and Jews, through the distorting lens of “anti-Arab racism.” And manipulatively invoking his South African roots to sharpen the moral condemnation, he equates “occupation” with “apartheid,” despite being unable to find in Israel any of the formal racial distinctions which defined South African apartheid.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has popularized the term “dog-whistling” to mean using “coded ambiguous language” to telegraph bigoted positions.  The “racist” and “apartheid” accusations send subliminal messages to the Left of demonization and delegitimization, without having to go that far explicitly.  Why this keeps on happening with Israel, why the compulsive need to turn an imperfect state worthy of some criticism into a Bizarro grotesquerie raises the discussion about Israel’s critics from the normal to the pathological – revealing more about them and their need to feel morally superior by picking on what Bernard Lewis calls “the fashionable enemy” than about the Jewish State.

Similarly, Beinart caricatures American Jewry and American Zionism as imprisoned in a state of “perpetual victimhood.” I share his concern with the unfortunate American Jewish tendency to invest more in Holocaust memorials than in day schools, and criticize those Israelis and Zionists who are too obsessed with the Holocaust. Still, Zionism is not only about victimization. A more triumphalist American Jewish narrative and Israeli narrative are at play simultaneously – with a much richer Jewish and Zionist conversation than the woe-is-me cliché reading of Jewish holidays, “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

One book unintentionally offering a tikun, a healing counter to Beinart’s bile, is a sophisticated discussion of the Jewish laws of conversion recently published by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis. Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, celebrates the rich, delightful mishmash of modern Jewish identity. Rabbi Ellenson is the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. Rabbi Gordis – a friend of mine – studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and lives an Orthodox lifestyle. Together, these two scholars analyzed Orthodox readings of the conversion question.

Two important conclusions emerge. First, Ellenson and Gordis have uncovered a wide array of Orthodox responses, sensitive to social conditions, political realities, and changing times, while rooted in the Halacha, the law.  These findings prove that Judaism is complex, fluid and flexible, refuting the distorted ultra-Orthodox perspective which pretends there is one unchanging and always hyper-rigorous interpretation.

The second conclusion more directly repudiates Beinart’s victimization claim. In analyzing Israeli religious responsa, Gordis and Ellenson discovered that “their attitudes toward conversion have been palpably affected by the return of Jewish statehood…. Some clearly understood their roles as public policymakers and not merely as halakhic decisors.” The Jewish return to statehood is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has triggered the revival of Hebrew, the creation of a new culture, fascinating improvisations in secular law and Jewish law. To miss how that fosters a positive new Jewish identity, inspiring Jews in Israel and abroad, is to focus on the Crisis of Zionism so much you miss the Opportunity of Zionism. Seeing Israel as one big Yad Vashem, one big Holocaust memorial, overlooks the Wall and the malls, the nature and the technology, the vitality and the creativity, in short, Israeli life at its fullest.

The Passover holiday similarly resists caricature. Only focusing on Pharaoh and slavery misses more than half the holiday. Passover is not just about the bread of affliction and the paschal sacrifice, it is the Festival of Freedom and the Holiday of Spring. The four cups of wine start with leaving Egypt and delivery from slavery, then build to a redemptive promise and a nation-building process. Stopping with the victimization would be like celebrating Thanksgiving by remembering the Pilgrims’ cold winter but forgetting the turkey and sweet potatoes.

Unfortunately, anyone aware of Jewish history feels the pain of centuries of persecution. This month, we have fresh graves in Israel of young Jews once again killed in Europe for being Jews – this time, in Tolouse, France. And this seder marks the tenth anniversary of the nightmarish Passover of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber destroyed the Park Hotel seder in Netanya.

My late grandfather used to shake with rage during “shfoch chamatcha,” the “pour out your wrath” prayer after the Seder meal, denouncing our oppressors. But he would tremble with joy just minutes later when singing the final round of seder songs. That ability to laugh and sing, to live and build, is an essential Jewish trait that has animated Zionism for decades. Those who only see the hurt, without seeing the healing, are the Bizarros of today.  I, for one, wish my grandfather were around to pour out his Polish-honed wrath on them too.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

A Purim “Nahafochu” Reversal: Let’s Reach Out to Christians

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-6-12

Our first year in Jerusalem, I heard that neighborhood kids were ringing the doorbell of the local church, then cursing into the intercom. I was appalled. We did not establish a Jewish state to do to “them” what “they” did to us – but to model different behavior. That Purim, my family and I delivered Mishloach Manot – Purim treats – in costume — to our neighborhood nuns. We were, I admit, a tad uncomfortable when we rang the bell outside their imposing door.  We were stretching, unsure what the reaction would be.
Greeting us in German-accented Hebrew, the nuns welcomed us warmly.  It seemed as if they never interacted with their neighbors.  They knew the Purim ritual but never had received Hamantaschen. That Easter, we received painted eggs and chocolate. That Rosh Hashanah, we delivered apples and honey. That Christmas, we received little Santas and more chocolate.  We now have a ritualized gift exchange four times a year.
I think of our little family “tikun,” our minor attempt to repair a breach, whenever I hear stories about this disgusting phenomenon of some – note the word some – ultra-Orthodox Jews spitting at priests and Seminary students in the Old City. While it is hard to know how widespread a phenomenon it is, we must have zero-tolerance for such appalling behavior. It violates a central commandment from the Torah, Vayikra Leviticus 19, to “treat the stranger who sojourns among you as the native.”
But objecting is not enough. Israelis must demand that the perpetrators be caught, prosecuted aggressively, and jailed for assault. We must determine which communities are teaching such anti-humanistic, anti-Jewish and anti-Christian ideas and pressure their leadership to follow the true Torah teaching. Moreover, each of us should make our own “tikun,” reaching out to Christians in Jerusalem and elsewhere, welcoming them somehow, reassuring them that this pathological minority of hooligans does not represent Israelis or Jews.  Here, our guiding principles should be, how do we want to be treated outside Israel? What do we expect from Christians when a synagogue is defaced, a kippah is knocked off a head, an anti-Semite barks out a hurtful curse like “Dirty Jew”?
Purim has emerged as one of the great Israeli holidays (he writes after fighting off the crowds at the local toy store cum costume shop).  It highlights the culturally invigorating opportunities that arise from establishing a majority Jewish culture in our homeland. With school cancelled, the weather improving, and masquerades charming young and old alike, it is a rare Scrooge who does not participate in Purim. The streets fill with happy kids wearing costumes – and delivering treats, not demanding them to avoid some “trick.” The range of hamantaschen fillings is dazzling, from the Troy family favorite – chocolate – to halva.  And the spectrum of venues for megillah readings is impressive, from private homes to grand synagogues.
While all societies need the occasional Mardi-Gras style release, and the value of a good shtick should never be underestimated, these rituals transmit important values and narratives.  There is, for example, a jump in serious charitable giving as modern Israelis fulfill the ancient tradition of “matanot le’evyonim,” gifts to the poor.  While formal philanthropic opportunities for giving in Israel abound, Israel also has a broad network for personal giving to the poor, which helps thousands without generating tax receipts or donor recognition plaques. It is also worth thinking about the deeper question too, after a summer of social protest, namely, how to develop a capitalist society that maximizes freedom and opportunity for all, while minimizing the suffering for some that inevitably results.
This Purim, with the Iranian nuclear threat climbing higher on the geopolitical agenda, with Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, Obama administration officials and critics, all meeting at the massive AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, and with President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meeting again for one of their periodic, awkward encounters, the Purim lessons are resonating, left and right. In fact, Netanyahu handed Obama a megillah – a Purim scroll.
Given Esther’s role in subverting Haman’s plans, the modern Zionist message of Jewish self-reliance, emphasizing the need for Jews to identify the enemy, highlighting the greater risks we as a minority face in the world, warning of the risks of complacency amid existential threats, all ring true. But, ultimately, Esther and Moredechai had to convince Ahasuerus that Hamanidejad, er, Haman, posed a threat to the kind of king he wanted to be, and the kind of kingdom he wanted to lead. If we only learn from the Purim story that “goyim” are bad like Haman and Amalek, we miss learning how to befriend non-Jews, whom we still need, even with a sovereign Jewish state.
While in the Diaspora, knowledgeable Jews talk about “adloyada,” celebrating until we cannot distinguish between Mordechai the good and Haman the bad, savvy Israelis talk about “nahafochu,” let’s reverse things. With the Iranian threat looming, with an American President who lacks a clear, constructive foreign policy vision, we cannot afford to indulge in “adloyada” confusion or relativism when assessing world threats, especially from Iran. But we need more “nahafochu.” The Zionist revolution achieved two clear “nahafochus,” from powerlessness to power and from minority to majority status. Israelis need a “nahafochu” with our Christian neighbors, actively protecting and reassuring them. Jews needs a “nahafochu” with our Christian friends, emphasizing our common values and interdependence, especially with American Christians. And Israel needs a “nahafochu” with its enemies –seeking to turn the tables on them – hopefully by fomenting internal tension that helps the regime implode but being prepared, if all alternatives fail, to defend Israel – and democracies throughout the world, including the “Big Satan,” the United States, which Iranian radicals constantly threaten too.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

The Magic of Keeping Kippot On in Europe

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-27-11

On our trip to Spain this Hanukkah, my two sons debated whether they should wear their kippot openly, as they usually do, or cover them with baseball caps. The ensuing family debate stirred many compelling Jewish identity dilemmas. Ultimately, their decision worked for them and us.  Wandering around Christmas-time Barcelona with their kippot naturally, proudly, perched on their heads added Jewish magic to our family vacation.

As an American and a Jew I have long been ambivalent about Europe. As an American, I often feel judged by Europeans as a loud, crude, grasping cowboy.  In return, I confess, I can be a bit judgmental myself, wandering around Venice, Florence or other sites, dazzled by their medieval majesty, but wondering, “what have they done lately?” Of course, as a Jew I am all too aware of what some Europeans did lately, both six decades ago with the Holocaust and most recently with their New anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism. Yet, as a Jew I also acknowledge how modern Judaism benefited from its creative symbiosis with Europe. I feel positive resonances of Jewish history throughout Europe, even the relatively Jew-free zone called Spain. And, as a human, I appreciate how much of the cultural, intellectual, and ideological forces I most cherish in Western civilization bear Europe’s imprint.

As a modern Jew I also have my issues with kippa-wearing. Reared as an achievement-oriented Queens-boy in 1970’s New York, I was raised to fit in. Fitting in was America’s great welcoming gift to us, the European Enlightenment’s promise finally fulfilled in the New World. Fitting in was also the key to getting ahead, the Holy Grail for all us middle class wannabes — and a kippa did not fit the plan. It was always about standing out.

Blessed with a name like Gil Troy, I could get great service at Greek restaurants – balancing out all the jokes about whether my mother was Helen-of…. and, joy of joys, I sometimes was even mistaken for a WASP. When I was a teaching assistant at Harvard in the 1980s, a real White Anglo-Saxon Protestant who like me had a last name that also can function as a first name, said to me: “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard nowadays.” Putting on my thickest “New Yawk” accent, I retorted: “even fewer than ya think!” Enjoying my malleability, I joined the kippa-ba-kis, the kippa-ever-present-in-the-pocket, crowd — keeping it rolled not folded to avoid telltale creases, but ready to don it for religious ceremonies and in more 24-7-like Jewish contexts.
By contrast, my two sons have a delightfully healthy and natural relationship with the kippa. They wear it all the time. Whereas their dad might feel uncomfortable if “caught” wearing it in the “wrong” context, outside the Jewish bubble and frankly in more secular Jewish contexts too, they feel uncomfortable if they don’t wear it. My son Yoni, now 14, started wearing a kippa fulltime when he decided at the age of four that he was “awthodox.” He didn’t have his “r”s yet but he had his theology intact. For Aviv, 11, it has always been a part of his daily uniform, like wearing a shirt and pants.
We visited Italy in October 2001 just weeks after 9-11 and at the height of Arafat’s war of terror.  In those tense days, when people told us we were crazy even to fly, our hosts in Italy were so uncomfortable, they did not want Yoni wearing his kippa under his baseball cap, lest he somehow be exposed. I felt terrible having to explain to my four-year-old and his six-year-old sister about anti-Semitism and terrorism, initiating them into the ancient Jewish neurosis based in the reality of unfair targeting and enduring vulnerability.
Ten years later, the day we left for Spain, I received an email singling it out as Europe’s most anti-Israel country last year. I told my kids. We had a short to-cap-or-not-to-cap debate. But the boys decided quickly and definitively that they were who they were. They would do the Jewish Full Monty in Spain without cowering behind a Yankee logo.
I am thrilled to report that their kippot served as a friend magnet, bringing out the best in Barcelonans and serving as a homing signal for fellow Members of the Tribe. Aviv did feel stared at once or twice but, the first time, he said “I stared right back, and their super-gelled hair was much weirder than my kippa.” The second time, he just imagined them wondering, “Hey, what are you doing here? We thought we got rid of you in 1492.”
“You see the kippa’s magic,” Yoni said. “It made us new friends. It  attracted one rapper who rapped to us about Jewish-Christian friendship, two mah nishmas -whats up -from non-Jews, three chag sameachs from Jews, and four Israelis who said ‘hi.”” Yoni also noted that, thanks to their kippot, we were able to steer a French family who asked us, to the kosher market.
The Zionist revolution promised normalcy. My sons and I experience normalcy differently. To me, normalcy is the ability, after centuries of ghettoization, to blend in, to pass, to be accepted. To them, normalcy is the ability, despite the enduring curse of anti-Semitism, to stand out, but to feel completely at home about their uniqueness.
Not all European adventures for kippa-wearers end happily. But the few disasters make the headlines while the many magical moments don’t. When I told Aviv that Yoni found the kippot magical, he corrected me – “they are not magical, they are holy.” Then, pushing his dad, he asked: “After this, maybe you’ll consider wearing one all the time too?”

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