Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel

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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.

“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-28-12

There they go again. Over 600 liberal American rabbis have ignored their usual concerns about religion invading politics, climbed the wall separating church and state, disregarded the feelings of conservative congregants, and joined “Rabbis for Obama.” As I said when criticizing the original initiative four years ago, I do not object to individual rabbis joining “Jewish Americans for Obama” and expressing themselves as Jews and Americans. However, by building this organization around their job titles, they seek to apply their spiritual authority in an inappropriately secular and partisan way.  What’s next: Ministers for Microsoft to counter Apple’s disciples, or Priests for Pilates to bless one particular form of exercise? Just as the Hatch Act barred federal civil servants from campaigning, just as reporters – not columnists – are discouraged from partisan politicking, just as I as a professor would never endorse one slate of student politicians, rabbis as rabbis should refrain from crass electoral politics — and yes, I especially wish such professional restraint constrained the Israeli rabbinate too.

Whereas courage involves risk, these hypocrites-for-Obama took an easy position. A liberal American Jewish rabbi needs little nerve to endorse a liberal Democratic president against a budget-busting, conservative Republican. Liberalism remains American Jewry’s dominant theology, with the Democratic Party the most popular affiliation even as more Jews label themselves religiously “unaffiliated.”  Increasingly, the American Jewish community is filled with evangeliberals – liberals with evangelical zeal. And despite Israel’s general popularity among American Jews, most are more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Therefore, it is annoying that these rabbis choose this cause as the reason for overriding their usual desire to separate politics and religion – while still condemning evangelical ministers or ultra-orthodox rabbis who politick, of course. Instead, we need these rabbis to make other, harder, principled stands collectively.  Those rabbis should do their jobs by confronting their congregants’ sacred cows more directly. How about rabbis for more ethical business practices? Or rabbis for less materialism? Rabbis for cheaper, less luxurious, more meaningful, bar mitzvahs?  Or rabbis for less libertinism? Rabbis for less careerism? Rabbis against family breakup? Or rabbis against excessive reliance on electronics? Rabbis for less toxic gossip, exhibitionism and voyeurism on the Internet? Rabbis for a community which judges people on the depth of their souls or the quality of their mitzvoth not their net worth or charitable giving?  Or let’s get bold. How about rabbis for God? Rabbis for Halacha, Jewish law? Rabbis for Shabbat observance? Rabbis for more Jewish learning? Rabbis for musar — moral living?

But no, better to grandstand, better to play politics with the big shots than to risk roiling American Jews’ famous complacency.

Unfortunately, we see a similar dynamic with much rabbinic intrusion in the Arab-Israeli conflict. All those American rabbis rushing to join the J Street rabbinic cabinet, all those rabbinical students moralizing about Israel’s West Bank and Gaza sins, should scrutinize their own society, their own neighborhoods. To reach the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College from the Philadelphia airport, I drive through miles of urban moonscape, home to tens of thousands of broken lives finding refuge in cheap liquor stores, whittling away endless hours on park benches, before reaching suburban Wyncotte. As a native New Yorker, I notice it less when I visit the conservative Jewish Theological Seminary just below Harlem, but it does seem so much easier to preach about how others should solve intractable inter-group problems without tackling those closer to home.

Moreover, in our era of gotcha politics, it would be naïve for the Rabbis for Obama to expect to be so hallowed that Republicans would ignore an anti-Israel critic who advocates boycotting the Jewish state on their membership list. One of this political season’s buzz words  is “optics” – obsessing about how things look — and it counts for rabbis too. Politicians are often held responsible for their allies, with the test coming from the ugliest and most controversial associations not the many safe and obvious relationships.

Of course, that does not make every Rabbi for Obama “anti-Israel” as critics charge. Sloppiness is not collaboration. Still, as a professor, I try to avoid signing petitions with those who policies I abhor, be they from the left or the right.  Rabbis for and against Obama should beware unwelcome bedfellows too.

This harsh approach some rabbis and rabbinical students take toward Israel has become such an emotional issue for three reasons. First, is what I call the IAF – just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. The Israel-Palestinian conflict is a modern flashpoint that magically escalates discussions into shouting matches, especially among Jews. And in an age of delegitimization, when Iran can host dozens of nations at a non-aligned conference this week while advocating Israel’s destruction, when criticism of Israel often degenerates into demonization, internal Jewish criticism stings intensely – and frequently legitimizes the delegitmizers. Finally, Israel remains the largest, most ambitious, collective Jewish project of the modern age.  The most extreme liberal rabbis are turning into nouveau Haredim, aping the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionism of yesterday and today.

This is not to say that Israel should be beyond criticism from Jews or rabbis. But assessing the optics, sensitive to the fragility of the situation, acknowledging the conflict’s complexity, anticipating how criticisms will be perceived, would calm debates not inflame them.

The backlash against Rabbis for Obama should be instructive. I hope it does not lead to Rabbis for Romney. I hope it does lead to rabbis, especially during their High Holiday sermons, building on positive visions and serious challenges, pushing their congregants spiritually, morally, religiously, rather than pandering to partisan sensibilities, no matter how compelling the heated presidential campaign might be.

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

Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-18-12

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

iEngage Evening Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute Summer 2012 Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem, June 28, 2012, featuring Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone, Gil Troy

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

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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.

This Year, Any Rabbis Afraid to Talk About Israel to their Congregations – Should Quit

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-27-11

Word on the American Jewish street is that Israel has become such a divisive topic that some rabbis stopped giving sermons about Israel.  A rabbi who avoids talking about Israel is like a presidential candidate who ignores the economy; dodging such a central issue eventually drains credibility regarding all subjects.  Any rabbis afraid to talk about Israel to their congregations should quit – and retreat to the university which appreciates tunnel vision.

When a rabbi avoids “Israel” as a topic, the delegitimizing forces who oppose the Jewish state’s existence win.  Israel – they rarely say “Israeli politics” – is divisive when it becomes compulsively politicized. Reducing every conversation about Israel to the Palestinian issue is not just a distortion but a perversion. It internalizes the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel, ignoring the many spiritual, ethical, ideological, intellectual, philosophical, and personal dimensions one can bring to a discussion about Israel without mentioning Bibi Netanyahu or the Palestinians.

The politicization of Israel has become so obsessive, so ubiquitous, that many dismiss conversations about these other dimensions or about Identity Zionism as attempts to evade the “real” issues. Left and right are equally guilty of overly politicizing the Israel conversation. Too many of the Israel-right-or-wrong, love-it-or-leave it crowd seem addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without clamoring about the latest threat to Israel, the Jewish people, and Western civilization itself – we being, of course, the canaries in the coal mine.  On the left, too many of the Israel’s-right-is-all-wrong crowd seem equally addicted to crisis, unable to talk about Israel without bemoaning Israel’s latest misstep – and Israel’s alleged original sin in being born. Viewing Israel through a radical Palestinian lens is like only seeing the US in black and white, as one big racial injustice. Decades of disproportionate attacks against Israel and Zionism have caused this damage, as the unreasonable, one-sided charges eclipse everything else.

Rabbis are teachers. They should educate their congregations about the Land of Israel’s centrality in traditional Judaism as well as the State of Israel’s centrality in Jewish life today. This mission does not require stump speeches for Likud or J Street.  As one who opposed “Rabbis for Obama” for unnecessarily politicizing their pulpits, I want rabbis who engage Israel, talking knowledgeably and passionately about the Jewish state and its potential without dictating their particular peace plan from their plush suburban podiums.

Rabbis are also leaders. Too many complacent, careerist CEO rabbis forget to lead, fearing – as I heard one rabbi admit at a rabbinic convention – that every interaction they have with a congregant might be that Jew’s last interaction with a rabbi. You cannot lead if you constantly seek applause or fear being fired. The great Mussar moralist, Rabbi Israel Salanter taught:  A rabbi who they don’t want to drive out of town deserves no respect; and a rabbi who lets himself be driven out has no self-respect.

Rabbis today must push their congregations toward civility, carving out safe space for fellow Jews to discuss controversial matters, including Israeli politics. The first step toward civility is fostering humility – especially regarding Israel.  So many Diaspora Jews are so sure they know what Israel should do. Admitting uncertainty, acknowledging complexity, approaching Israeli politics modestly while being more open to learning other ideas from Israel could cool tempers, nurture civility and educate effectively.

This new year, as Jews gather in synagogues and look to their rabbis for guidance, I hope the rabbis lead, reframing the conversation about Israel. Rabbis should champion Identity Zionism, explaining that Zionism is Jewish nationalism, a unifying peoplehood platform that can serve as a touchstone for a scattered people with diverse beliefs who remain bonded by a common heritage, homeland, and high ideals. They should learn from a recent Wesleyan graduate, Zoe Jick, that “pro-Israel” is a political term more emphasizing Israel’s actions, while “Zionism” – a term many Americans Jews dislike because it has been delegitimized  – is the broader term denoting “belief in the Jewish national movement.”

We need a Zionist conversation, unafraid of the topic – or the label – exploring the meaning of our dual religious-national base, appreciating the opportunity Jewish sovereignty gives us to live our ideals and build what we at Hartman’s Engaging Israel project call “Values Nation,” pondering the delights and challenges of living 24/7 Judaism in our old-new land. Let’s discuss the social protests –to learn how Judaism balances communal needs with individual prerogative, then apply that knowledge to every Western country’s socioeconomic dilemmas. Let’s analyze the Jewishness of the Jewish state, asking how we moderns express communal values and find meaning in a soul-crushing age. And let’s articulate that sense of familiarity and family many of us feel when wandering around Jerusalem, asking what existential need that satisfies.

I recently asked some fellow Zionists what Zionist message they wish rabbis would give their congregants this Rosh Hashanah. Yoav Schaefer, an American-born former-IDF soldier studying at Harvard, suggested: “Zionism is not a noun.  It is a verb—a living ideal constantly being redefined and re-imagined, an ever-evolving pursuit toward perfection.  It symbolizes optimism and potential, a hope for a better and more just society, the dream of a country that exemplifies the values and aspirations of the Jewish people. “ Iri Kassel, an Israeli who directs the Ben Gurion Heritage Institute, emphasized the inspiring Zionist story of rebuilding the land which instills basic values of belonging, mutual responsibility and activism.  (For more see www.zionistsforzionism.com).

Zionism has always been a movement of bold moves and high aspirations. How tragic that Israel, Zionism’s creation, would turn some rabbis into meek Galut Jews, cowering from conflict. This year, let us hope for more daring vision and bolder challenges from our rabbis – on Israel and other important issues.

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

A Rosh Hashanah lesson

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-15-11

On July 15, Ronnie Cahana, the 57-year-old rabbi of Congregation Beth-El in Montreal’s Town of Mount Royal, suffered a massive stroke in his brainstem. He now lies immobilized in the Montreal Neurological Institute, unable to talk, walk or even wave.

Yet, his mind is intact and his spirit is soaring, and from his hospital bed, Rabbi Cahana is teaching his devoted congregants, his loving family and the rest of us, about the soul’s power and Judaism’s deeper meaning, even when we lose the physical, the material. “I live in a broken place,” he said when stricken, “but there’s holy work to do.”

Rabbi Cahana’s body is in trouble. A ventilator and other tubes do for him what most of us do naturally. Nevertheless, he may be the healthiest – and happiest – person I know. “Emotional paralysis is far worse than physical paralysis,” he preaches. “To live humanly is to believe in the pure and the profound. To live Jewishly… is to choose the blessing over the curse. I choose blessing and feel blessed.”

Before the stroke, this gangly, 6’2 Houston-born rabbi was the least Texan Texan, and the most unconventional Conservative rabbi, I knew – I befriended Ronnie and his amazing wife, Karen, decades ago in the Young Judaea Zionist Youth Movement.

A dazzling personality, both vital and ethereal, as well as a passionate Jew and perpetual seeker, Rabbi Cahana has never done small talk. He makes even the most casual interaction intense and intimate. Watching him with his congregants and his family is wondrous. His “How are you?” is never perfunctory. Rather, it’s a sincere probe, asking whether you’re getting the most out of your life, nurturing fulfilling relationships while benefiting from the kind of profound interaction he enjoys with Judaism and God.

Visiting the bedridden rabbi, you brace for heartbreak and emerge uplifted. He mouths words – or laboriously blinks them out. When no one can read his lips, he closes his eyes, and someone starts reciting “a, b, c…” He opens his eyes at the desired letter. The “Blinkischer Rebbe,” as Karen calls him, blinks out stirring weekly sermons, greeting congregants from his “subterranean world,” urging them to use the blow he sustained to experience life and Judaism in new dimensions.

“I know the end will be good,” this rabbinic Stephen Hawking insists. “I did not lose anything. I gained.”

All summer, Rabbi Cahana has bathed in his extraordinary family’s love and laughter – he and Karen have five fabulous children, ages 14 to 23. Karen says it’s hard to despair when he’s so positive, when he delights in “feeling” every prayer for him, “visiting” with his late father, renewing his relationship to Judaism and God by painstakingly re-learning each mitzvah, bringing new meaning to each commandment.

On Tisha b’Av he fasted, demanding that his feeding tube be shut down. Every weekday morning, he puts on tfillin at the same time his congregants do.

“Finding spiritual paths in the hospital while vulnerable and fragile,” he blinked to them, provides “a great delight of the day… I hear the tone, rhythm, the light banter, music and join you. I know our sounds and I listen to your voices. Our prayers are good and honest, and God looks favourably on the kind.”

Currently, he can only wear the head phylacteries. This, he calls “the most healing of privileges. The retzuot [straps] course through the whole body… from the mind. Crown encircles the cranium. In the holiest of holies, the kesher, which we believe lies contiguously off of Hashem’s holy kesher knot, sits on the brainstem to heal, to repair, to purify the world.”

This year, I witnessed the miracles that can occur despite catastrophic brain trauma after my father took a serious fall and recovered remarkably. Rabbi Cahana has already progressed much faster than the doctors predicted. This Rosh Hashanah – as those who can rally around the Cahana family, bombarding them with the love and support they need – we should also learn from the Blinkischer Rebbe’s teaching.

Let us follow him, temporarily, voluntarily, into the realm of the purely spiritual, the world of the soul, his transcendent universe of pure Jewish thought and emotion. And let us return less complacent and more compassionate, less tense and more intense, less alone and more loving, learning that whatever this next year brings, “the end will be good.”

Rabbi Hartman offers a ‘theology of response’

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-14-11

Although he moved from Montreal to Jerusalem in 1971, Rabbi David Hartman still inspires many Canadians with his warmth, his passion and his brilliance.

Similarly, as his new book makes clear, his experiences as a Montreal rabbi continue to shape him, too. In The God Who Hates Lies: Confronting & Rethinking Jewish Tradition, Hartman continues struggling with some of the dilemmas congregants shared with him. His response has triggered his bold approach to Halachah, Jewish law, as he seeks to “embrace a tradition that embraces a God who embraces life.”

A courageous thinker, Rabbi Hartman runs toward the very conflicts others flee. Struggling with the agunah question, the purgatory a woman suffers when her husband does not give her a signed divorce decree, he recalls one “major modern Orthodox halachic authority” who told him: “This is my personal Akedah,” comparing his frustration over this archaic rule with the test of faith God imposed on Abraham by binding Isaac for sacrifice. “Your Akedah,” Rabbi Hartman snapped. “Is that supposed to bring comfort to the abandoned woman whose life is passing her by?” Rabbi Hartman recoils from “this theological posturing, with its distasteful rhetoric of rabbinic helplessness and suffering.”

As a young rabbi, Rabbi Hartman was so busy encouraging his congregants to observe the commandments he overlooked what he calls “many of Halachah’s darker moral trends.” He tells the story of Peter, a 45-year-old single congregant who fell in love with Susan. Although both were serious Jews, Peter as a Kohen – a priest – was forbidden from marrying Susan, a convert. This reading of Jewish virtue when it comes to conversions, along with, as he puts it, “the systemic moral challenge of feminism,” propelled Rabbi Hartman into a “meta-halachic” search, trying to understand the central principle underlying Jewish law.

Rabbi Hartman regretfully rejects the “theology of halachic permanence” articulated by his beloved teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik. In a powerful chapter asking Where Did Modern Orthodoxy Go Wrong?, Rabbi Hartman critiques Rabbi Soloveitchik’s approach, which freezes Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time” and “the shifting of culture.” Hartman finds the approach “deeply inhuman,” saying, “I must part company with a view of Halachah that takes it out of history and out of human experience…. I do not think that loyalty to and love for this tradition requires exiting history or exiting life.”

Instead, Rabbi Hartman offers what he calls a “theology of response” based on the talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” The “God who hates lies” wants us to respond to our experiences, to our moral sensibilities, as they develop, to “incorporate” them “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Accepting the premise that “reality speaks,” Rabbi Hartman identifies an authentic, historically rooted, Jewish theology that allows Peter to marry Susan because “identity drawn from choice and behaviour” trumps “identify as a biological gift of the God of Israel.”

This morally driven theology will honour as a Jew the Russian-born Israeli soldier who dies fighting for the Jewish people, even if he may have some non-Jewish blood. This person-centred approach is open to honouring women as equal human beings having been “created in the image of God.” And this sensitivity to history reframes the discussion about religion in the sovereign State of Israel by welcoming new moral horizons, as well as a deeper understanding of peoplehood, loyalty, and identity with a Halachah conceived in Jewish powerlessness now applied and adapted to the new reality of Jews having power.

Critics will rush to caricature Rabbi Hartman’s argument as yet another reformer’s appeal. But serious readers of this book will realize that such a dismissal is too facile. This book is “God-intoxicated” – Rabbi Hartman’s phrase – and text-intoxicated, steeped in a passionate, erudite, creative yet reverential engagement with Jewish tradition. Rabbi Hartman is simply too learned to be ignored so easily. He knows his Maimonides and his Talmud, his Tanach and his Tosefos, rooting his humanistic halachic vision in a lively, learned, traditional reading of the sources.

In the 40 years since he left Montreal, Rabbi Hartman has been a revolutionary, doing good in Jerusalem and throughout the Jewish world. This prophet of pluralism, this philosopher who rejects falsehood, this rabbi of reason and reach has now posed a serious challenge to his Orthodox colleagues. It is incumbent upon them to read, respond – and maybe even reformulate, if not reform.

Rabbi Hartman’s heartfelt answer to the heartless rabbis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-5-11

Anyone who doubts the importance of protecting freedom of speech should watch the farce unfolding in Jerusalem over that despicable book Torat HaMelekh, which misreads Jewish texts to justify killing non-Jews during wartime. By summoning the leading rabbis who vouched for the book to deny allegations of incitement, the police gave the book a publicity bonanza. Hundreds of young Yeshiva hooligans protested – sometimes violently. The media confused this defense of the rabbis with a defense of that hateful book, further publicizing it. Meanwhile, rightists wondered why their rabbis get interrogated while leftists advocating terrorism are undisturbed. The police should ignore them all.

Freedom of speech reflects faith in the people along with distrust of the authorities. I trust the people – and the free marketplace of ideas – to reject the book’s ugly lies. And I doubt the Israeli police’s ability to handle this complex halakhic argument effectively.

Silly me. I want the police preventing burglaries, solving murders, untangling traffic, crushing the underworld – while avoiding politics and intellectual life. Especially considering that officers felt compelled to interrogate Avigdor Lieberman the day after he became foreign minister, yet 27 months later the case remains open, I confess to trust issues with the Israeli police – or any police force – regarding delicate political or intellectual matters.

We should remember Natan Sharansky’s “public square test” for healthy democracies, asking if citizens can denounce their government publicly – and even say hateful things – without fearing arrest or bodily harm. We also should remember that in today’s media-ocracy, conflict rules, making this hysterical media circus predictable – and best avoided.

Israel – led by religious Zionists – needs a strong chorus refuting the book. Professor Menachem Kellner of the University of Haifa – a renowned Maimonides scholar who learned at the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva – is one of many religious scholars disgusted by the book. Claiming the authors spend more than 200 pages “misusing Maimonides” to support their “twisted conclusions,” Kellner calls the book biased, “intellectually dishonest,” “seriously anti-Zionist,” guilty of “conceptual confusion” in failing to “distinguish among gentiles, Noachides, and idolaters.” The book makes “the “astounding (and wholly unsupported in the halakhic tradition) assumption that the lives of Gentiles who are not ‘resident aliens’ have no meaning and no legitimacy.” The authors, Kellner concludes, are “either evil, or idiots, or both.”

Rabbi Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director, urged Orthodox rabbis worldwide, especially Israel’s chief rabbis, to denounce the text “as a perversion of Judaism, cloaking itself as an authoritative interpretation of Jewish biblical law.” And the “Twelfth of Heshvan,” a coalition of Religious Zionist organizations recalling the day of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, petitioned the Supreme Court seeking to confiscate the work and arrest the authors. While rejecting these methods, I am glad to see religious forces fighting this evil.

Fortunately, one of the world’s leading philosophers and rabbinic authorities, Rabbi David Hartman, just published a powerful book criticizing the underlying culture which spawned these perversions. Hartman’s concerns are tamer – issues of conversion, women in Judaism, and the need for Haredi and religious Jews to embrace Israel’s great moral potential as a modern Jewish state. But his vision of what he calls a “God-intoxicated Halakha,” Jewish law consecrated by God and tradition yet responsive to the developing wonders of the world God created, implicitly counters the petty, insular, immoral, ideological cesspools where distorted readings of Jewish tradition fester.

Rabbi Hartman’s “meta-Halakhic” approach spurns modern Orthodoxy’s rigidity, as articulated by Hartman’s beloved mentor, Rav Joseph Soloveitchik. Hartman rejects Soloveitchik’s “theology of halakhic permanence” for freezing Jewish law “permanently and uniformly in place,” ignoring “the passing of time,” neglecting “the shifting of culture,” and sometimes snubbing Jews the rabbis originally discounted, especially women and converts. Hartman believes that The God Who Hates Lies – the book’s title – would never want halakha taken “out of history and out of human experience.”

Instead, Hartman builds his “theology of response” on the Talmudic teaching not to “ascribe false things to God.” Having created humans in His own image, God wants us to “incorporate” experiences, moral imperatives, new insights “into our spiritual and ritual lives.” Mixing human needs and moral development into the midrash’s “living waters” of tradition will create a more vital, humane, and authentic halakha.

Hartman seeks this individually and collectively, excited as he is by the theological possibilities offered by the great political revolution of re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in Israel. He wants to explore the “religious significance of Israel’s experiment in building a total Jewish society.” And he wants an “Israel where we could witness the ethical spirit of Torah manifested in a sovereign Jewish society.”

Hartman’s relationship to God is intense, personal. His book brims with passion while being embedded in substance. Religious and non-religious Jews should answer his call. This is one formidable Jew whose Judaism throbs with the sensuality of Yehudah HaLevi, the rigor of Maimonides, the depth of the Vilna Gaon, the wisdom of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the moral “musar” of Israel Salanter — leavened and actually more fully realized by the liberalism of John Stuart Mill, the idealism of Martin Luther King, the humanism of Betty Friedan – many of whose ideas, of course, stemmed from the Bible.

Alas, this important, challenging, spiritually-stretching and rich text is not making headlines. I would prefer to see Israelis debating Rabbi Hartman’s grand ideas than those of the hateful little rabbis. I would prefer to see Israel, Zionism, and Judaism judged by Hartman’s pluralism and openness than by the provincial Yeshiva hooligans swarming the Supreme Court. While I am sure his publisher and the Shalom Hartman Institute he founded – where I have a research fellowship – have a publicity plan, maybe someone knows an overzealous police captain who wants to ban the book, and help it sell?

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

Treat antizionist Rabbinic students like the Four Sons

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-20-11

Word on the street – at least Jerusalem’s byways – is of anti-Zionism spreading in liberal rabbinic programs, especially in rabbinic year-in-Israel training programs. Most rabbinic students are either pro-Zionist or neutral. Yet a loud anti-Zionist minority seems to be setting the tone regarding Israel, making implicitly anti-Israel, one-sided, encounters with Palestinians a don’t-miss component of every aspiring rabbi’s year, mourning what the Palestinians call “the nakba,” catastrophe – meaning Israel’s creation in 1948 – and intimidating the majority with politically correct self-righteousness.

Recently Rabbi Daniel Gordis condemned this phenomenon in these pages. Among the outrages he publicized was one rabbinic student’s birthday party in a Ramallah bar – resulting in Facebook photos of young-rabbis-to-be merrily posing in front of Jihadist posters emblazoned with slogans urging Palestinian victory and Jewish misery. The birthday boy replied, 1970s-style saying “I’m OK. You’re OK.” “When I visit a place like Ramallah…,” he wrote, “I read, see and hear things that make me feel uncomfortable. There are also many places in Israel where I feel uncomfortable as a liberal Jew, a Zionist and an American. Feeling uncomfortable is not an invitation to disengage, close myself off or stop listening…”

The statement while increasingly commonplace is shocking. The student suggests some sources of alienation while offering a cartoonish moral calculus. Many liberal – i.e. non-Orthodox – rabbinical students justifiably resent the Rabbinic establishment’s fascist hold on Israeli Judaism – I don’t use that f-word lightly. I say to these students what I say to alienated Israeli and American Jews – we must not legitimize fanatic rabbis by surrendering, letting them define Israel or Judaism.

The students’ statement treats America as the new Promised Land, dismissing Israel as too illiberal, too nationalist, too foreign, too messy. These Americanists, if you will, never delegitimize America because of its flaws but are quick to abandon Israel. They are the new Hareidim, albeit liberal, shaved and rainbow-clad, mistakenly letting religion eclipse people-hood, letting spirituality trump community.

Underlying it is this moral numbness, comparing the “discomfort” resulting from an overbearing rabbi – or an Israeli military overreaction – with a Palestinian cult of terror the Ramallah posters celebrate, which has maximized anguish on both sides and repeatedly undermined chances of peace.

Especially during Passover, it is tempting to deem students like this “Rasha,” wicked, and “Hakeh et sheenav” – hit ‘em in the teeth, rhetorically. But that approach is counterproductive. That is why I don’t mention the student’s name. We need educational processes encouraging students to experiment intellectually, recognizing that one student’s question – or answer – usually represents many other students’ too.

We should treat these students – and all students, even those who have internalized the Ivy League sneer singling out Jewish nationalism meaning Zionism as the only illegitimate form of nationalism – as the Haggadah treats the wise son. They are struggling with ideas, even if they are challenging. We should update Israel curricula, and people-hood platforms, explaining Jewish nationalism and Jewish sovereignty in more sophisticated ways while creating more opportunities for questions, criticism, dialogues which clarify and empower.

But as the wise ones mature from students to leaders, they will have to acknowledge three facts. Like it or not, Israel is now the world’s largest Jewish community. Two, Israel, for all its faults, is enduring a particularly vicious assault. And three, communal leaders are paid to uphold communal consensus points. The traditional revulsion against Jews who violate Shabbat in farhesia – publicly – extends to rabbinic students who wear t-shirts proclaiming themselves anti-Zionists in an age of delegimitization when Jewish leaders’ attacking Israel feed a worldwide assault on Israel’s right to exist.

Moreover, this scrutiny the anti-Zionist rabbinic students may now feel is basic training for the nit-picking, second-guessing, and role-modeling of rabbinic life.

Of course, every Jew, like every individual, is entitled to free thought, free expression. But all communities operate with certain norms. “There are things a Jewish community shouldn’t be doing, like serving a bacon cheeseburger on Yom Kippur,” Andrew Apostolou, a Washington DC Jewish Community Relations Council member explains. Apostolou’s postulate should get young rabbinic students – and synagogue hiring committees – thinking about what core ideals rabbis should support — because the ideas are valid and mainstream.

The lessons of the two additional sons can help too. Thinking about “She-eynu yodeh leshol,” the one who does not ask, should encourage us to stir the pot, to pose tough questions. Not enough Jews today ask “why do we need a Jewish state,” “how does Israel sovereignty enhance the Jewish religion,” “how does a Jewish state avoid theocracy” – thereby missing the opportunity to define boundaries between Jewish peoplehood or nationhood and Jewish ritual or spirituality.

Finally, the father’s embrace of the simple son, understanding he must define the educational interaction, should challenge Zionists to change educational approaches. We should embrace all young learners visiting Israel. Why not have a Bakka-Encounter – with the various Anglo-heavy synagogues in Southern Jerusalem doing more to encourage members to host young student visitors to Jerusalem? But rather than just trusting the magic of the perennial kosher-wine-lubricated debate about which challah tastes best, why not prepare some guidelines, some questions?

These Shabbat dinner and lunch encounters could become more meaningful if hosts were encouraged – openly not secretly – to share their stories of why they came to Israel, explaining why they stay. Some coaching could embolden hosts and guests to share more openly, to address questions which might prove inspirational, enlightening, constructively confusing – even to the Americanists.

I admit, I find some stories of anti-Zionist student excess appalling. But I blame much of this on the previous generation of parents and educators who failed to convey a compelling and complex Zionist narrative. Like Danny Gordis, I am eager to engage the educational debate, not to demonize or squelch but to stimulate and stretch the students’ vision – and our own.

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

Purim 2011: Making History Better in a Topsy-Turvy World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011

Purim 2011 was a time of Nahafochu, of complete turnarounds, as the world seemed particularly topsy-turvy. In the Arab world, the popular revolts continued to surprise dictators and democrats, as even Syrians started protesting.  In Israel, the parental smiles amid the Purim celebrations masked continuing heartbreak about the Itamar massacre, with the two butchered Fogel parents along with their three martyred children becoming national icons.  And in Japan, a country famed for its earthquake preparation and general efficiency, the unexpected earthquake-Tsumani wallop exposed human sloppiness and nature’s awesome powers.

 

Nahafochu has two meanings, as these events confirm.   As a descriptive term, it teaches that humans occasionally confront dizzying revolutions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, like the happy, sudden switch Jews experienced, flipping from being Haman’s target to the King’s favorites. But as a prescriptive term, Nahafochu teaches not to be passive when history happens to us. We should transform reversals into potential gains as Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ communal fasting did. 

The Arab upheaval has triggered many transformations. Just weeks ago, Israel advocates’ lamenting about the lack of rights in the Arab world usually were ignored. Back in those days of –another Purim concept  — Ad Lo Yada –inability to distinguish good from bad, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped lead the UN Human Rights community. Hosni Mubarak was a cherished American ally, the keystone to Middle East peace and stability. Many academics, not just the London School of Economics toadies, begged gifts from Libya and other dictatorships.

 

Suddenly, mainstream world opinion started caring about Arab civil liberties. But rather than acknowledging that pro-Israel advocates were right or wondering how so many Western dupes were so numb to Arab rights and dignity for so long, the Ad Lo Yada relativistic crowd bashed Israel as anti-democratic. Yet Israelis’ guilty fears that these popular uprisings might not yield peaceful democracies are justified.  The conventional wisdom ignores how Hamas and Hezbollah are the Arab street’s monstrous spawn,  the Moslem Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt, and the way some populist Arabs call their perceived enemies “Jew, Jew” or
otherwise link opponents to Israel.

 

At the same time, by focusing on military intervention the West is misguided.  Wherever possible, citizens of a particular country should decide whether and how to remove their dictators.  The world should react when a Muammar Gaddafi starts slaughtering his own people –but only as a last resort, although preferably without dithering for too long.  The best way democratic outsiders can help is by cultivating true democracy inside the Arab world. Cold War programs that nurtured democratic infrastructure in Eastern Europe should be resurrected, expanded, exported, translated into Arabic and applied intelligently. Visionaries like Natan Sharansky, who recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, understand this as the West’s greatest gift to give.  After decades of enabling Arab autocracy, democrats should enable true Arab democracy, respecting rule of law, mutual rights, basic civil rights, civil society, and a functioning free market, not just votes. That would be a constructive Nahafochu.

 

Many Ad Lo Yada morally-comatose Westerners continue to misread the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. The Itamar massacre again highlights the cancer of violence corroding the Palestinian national soul – and constituting the greatest obstacle to peace. The civilized world should repudiate the Itamar murder or murderers who stabbed to death the five Fogel family members, including three-month-old Baby Hadas. The world should recoil at the incitement which produced these baby-killers – while also condemning those Palestinians who welcomed home the murderers that night. The pictures of the blood-soaked mattresses suggest that anyone involved in those murders returned drenched in blood and sweat, reeking of death. Welcoming an obvious murderer is a criminal act of collaboration; celebrating homicide with candies is unconscionable.

 

But now too many are accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of raising the incitement issue to avoid peace talks. In fact, Nahafochu, the opposite is true. If Palestinian political culture cleansed itself of its death cult, if the world restrained expressions of Arab anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and delegitimization of Israel, border questions and other issues could be dispatched quickly. In Israel, those who believe in settling the entire land of Israel at any price are a small, loud, minority. These ideologues find reinforcement in the pragmatic majority which justifiably fears the Palestinian violence, Palestinian demonization, Palestinian incitement that the Oslo peace process unwittingly fed rather than cured by trusting Yasir Arafat. Western leaders combating incitement, Palestinian visionaries taking responsibility to wean their people of violence  – for the sake of their own souls — would transform the Middle East, making peace a procedural question rather than an existential  challenge for most Israelis.

 

Amid this tragedy, all this complexity, it is easy to read the Japanese catastrophe as an invitation for passivity, a prompt to despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Tsunamis, earthquakes, and radioactive releases, this terrifying intersection where acts of God meet the mistakes of man.  But we cannot ignore the acts of godliness among so many people, in the Tsunami of love enveloping the Japanese, and the impressive international efforts to avert the feared nuclear meltdown.

 

A story circulating in Israel this week told of Rami Levy, the little guy from the Mahane Yehudah market who established a supermarket empire, showing up daily at the Fogel shiva, filling the refrigerator in the mourners’ home. At one point, he supposedly told a relative, get used to me, I will do this every week until the youngest surviving Fogel child – a 2-year-old – turns 18.

 

This Purim in particular teaches us that Nahafachu is prescriptive.  We cannot avert every catastrophe.  We can turn any catastrophe – Rami Levy style – into an opportunity to overcome challenges, assert our common humanity, help others, and change history for the better.

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

My soviet seder from hell

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-25-10

Twenty-five years ago, in April 1985, I had the seder from hell in the world’s largest prison – the Soviet Union. My friend Danny and I landed just before Passover in Novosibersk, emboldened after meeting in Moscow with the legendary Yuli Kusharovsky, a man the KGB secret police targeted for teaching Hebrew. Seeing his and his fellow “refuseniks'” courage, watching them carve out meaningful Jewish lives amid great oppression, made us confident we would complete our mission to make seder with Jewish professors fired because they applied to emigrate to Israel. Alas, we were wrong.

In those bad old days, a new Soviet premier, Mikhail Gorbachev, had just emerged. We assumed he was no better than his dictatorial predecessors. Anatoly Sharansky’s name was on everyone’s lips, but we were sure it would be years, if ever, before he would be freed. Kushavorvsky and others seemed particularly worried about their heroic young friend Yuli Edelstein, recently jailed on false charges and ailing in prison. Many feared he would not survive.

From Novosibersk, in the heart of Siberia, we traveled 20 kilometers to Akademgorodok, the academic suburb. We approached an apartment building, laden with matzot and other gifts, ready to swoop down as heroic angels from America and the Jewish people on the professors who awaited us. In Moscow, we had knocked on doors, said “Shalom Aleichem,” then been embraced by strangers who instantly became brothers. But here a menacing man sporting a huge Russian fur hat blocked us. We said we had come to visit a friend. He said, “This building is not for ‘foriginers,'” comically mispronouncing the word with a hard g. We insisted, but he was adamant – and intimidating.

Devastated, we returned to our hotel just before the holiday – with no seder, no seder plate, only the first-time understanding in our American-charmed lives of what it meant to feel unfree. Scrambling, we improvised a seder plate. Finding an egg in the hotel’s breakfast room, we charred it using the cigarette lighters we carried to burn the messages we wrote each other when we wished not to be overheard. The “shank bone” was kosher salami brought from New York, ripped to look rectangular, not circular. Karpas, the green vegetable, was fittingly, dried fruit, because there was no spring in still-snow-covered Novosibersk – nor any sense of renewal. We made charoset from the dried fruit and some nuts – an awful concoction tasting more like mortar than my grandmother’s sweet mush. But we hit a wall with marror, the bitter herbs. Finally, we realized we were so bitter about how the Communists treated our fellow Jews and human beings we needed no more marror at the table.

During this, the smallest, most pathetic, depressing, homesick seder of my life, never before had the words and rituals so resonated. When we said shebechol dor va’dor, that in every generation enemies rise up to try knocking us down, we instinctively raised our voices and looked up, not at the Lord above, but at the KGB microphone we assumed was hidden in the ceiling vent; during the trip we were followed frequently and would be detained once.

The feast of freedom, the human yearning for freedom, took on tremendous meaning for me in the pathetic hotel room at what felt like the end of the earth. Still, I lacked faith. I did not believe the redemption the Haggadah promised would come. The names of Sharansky and other heroes had been etched in the bracelet on my wrist – and in my heart – for so long, I assumed they would stay there forever, just as every academic expert I knew assumed the Soviet Union would last. I never believed that within a few years Sharansky, Edelstein and other Prisoners of Conscience would be freed, the Soviet Union would crumble, a million former Soviet Jews would live in Israel, our national homeland, or that today, I, a kid from Queens, would serve so casually on Jewish community committees with these giants.

From this celebration of freedom in the land of the unfree, I learned that Jewish tradition is renewable. In every generation we experience the ancient rituals differently, even as we connect to each other and our proud past. In 1985, I considered the Soviets the modern Egyptians. Today, I read the four sons as mapping out modern Zionist challenges, with the Wise Ones – from Left, Right and Center asking “what are our principles,” “who are we,” “who will we be”; the Wicked Ones disdainfully disassociating themselves from our collective Zionist project, saying “yucch”; the Simple Ones mystified by the craziness swirling around Israel and Zionism today, simply saying “duh,” and, the vast majority at least, not being able – or not even bothering – to ask.

From this little taste of oppression – which lasted only three weeks and was blunted by the power of the precious American passport tucked safely in my money belt – I learned that history is correctable. I never thought the Soviet Union would fall even as I witnessed the beginning of its end. Similarly, a few years ago, many of us thought Palestinian terror would never end – and were so dumbfounded when it petered out we never even mounted the victory celebration Israel deserved for smashing Yasser Arafat’s terrorist infrastructure.

And from my Siberian Seder I learned that peoplehood is redemptive. We have great power in our solidarity as a people, as a nation. My membership in the collective enterprise called the Jewish people sensitized me to Soviet oppression when many of my professors were still enthralled by Communism and appalled by America. Moreover, by belonging to the Jewish people I had a small role in the great historical movement which resulted in Communism’s collapse.

For too many of us, the seder is a rote ritual, done on automatic pilot to discharge some family and ancestral obligation. May this seder instead be like my Soviet seder in hell was – ironically, a seder of renewal and relevance, part of a great historical correction, a seder of redemption.

Gil Troy 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. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Can we stop being so polite about anti-Semitism?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-17-09

On Wednesday, 490 parliamentarians, diplomats, government officials, activists, academics, community leaders and clerics from 50 countries gathered at the Knesset for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ two-day Global Forum against Anti-Semitism.

While unhappy about missing two days of Hanukkah vacation with my kids, having attended two previous Forums I know I am going to enjoy myself. I will meet interesting, insightful idealists, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who care about fighting injustice. I will reunite with friends from the earlier conferences. We will eat lavish dinners, listen to compelling presentations, and hopefully make useful suggestions. Still, I will feel guilty. Fighting anti-Semitism should neither be so much fun nor so routine.

I understand that an event hosting dignitaries must be elegant, and the Foreign Ministry under the leadership of Aviva Raz-Shechter and her under-funded Department for Combating Anti-Semitism do a great job hosting. But as we politely follow academic and diplomatic protocols at our sessions and cocktails, I will occasionally think of a beheaded Daniel Pearl, a tortured Ilan Halimi, rotting in their graves.

Daniel Pearl, a 39-year-old, Stanford educated Wall Street Journal reporter, was kidnapped and slaughtered, his head cut off and his body hacked into ten pieces by Islamists in Pakistan in February 2002. Ilan Halimi, a 23-year-old French salesman, was kidnapped in January 2006 by an anti-Semitic gang, tortured for three weeks, then dumped with burns on 80 percent of his body, which he did not survive. I will also remember the hundreds of Israelis murdered by Palestinian suicide bombers perverted by the torrent of harsh anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli images emanating from Palestinian mosques, Palestinian leaders and the Arab media. And I will recall Elie Wiesel’s teaching during the Palestinian terror wave that sometimes, the most rational response to evil is anger.

Anger is the active ingredient in the success of movements, be it Civil Rights, feminism, gay liberation, anti-Communism, Soviet Jewry or Zionism itself. When successfully channeled, anger can put oppressors and moral slobs on the defensive, adjust common language patterns, heighten people’s sensitivities and change history.

For starters, we should shake up and wake up the Jewish community, teaching that fighting the New Anti-Semitism requires going beyond business as usual. The Jewish world has been stymied because too many feel guilty about the false charge that Jews squelch criticism of Israel by crying “anti-Semitism.” This charge is particularly ludicrous considering the intense criticism leveled against Israel in Israel, the Jewish world and the world over, along with the stunning lack of self-criticism within the Arab world. One rarely hears criticism of the lack of Arab or Muslim self-criticism while Jews and Israelis are constantly criticizing themselves, while also criticizing themselves and being criticized for not being critical enough.

The New Anti-Semites go far beyond reasonable criticism of Israel. The BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement is guilty of Exclusivity – meaning singling Israel out – and Essentialism – meaning attacking Israel’s existence, not Israeli policy. Both are marks of bigotry. Nevertheless, recently the Board of the San Francisco Jewish Federation could not bring itself to approve this resolution:

The S.F. Jewish Federation will not support events or organizations that defame Israel. Nor will it support organizations that partner in their events with individuals or groups that call for boycotts, divestment or sanctions (BDS) against Israel.”

In fairness, the Board condemned the BDS movement (what the Toronto Federation has rechristened the blacklist, demonize and slander movement), but this clearer resolution failed.

Nevertheless, this resolution should be tabled at every major Jewish organization as part of a broad campaign repudiating BDS. And we should be clear. This is not a “Free speech” question or an attempt to muzzle debate over Israel. The resolution opposes subsidized speech, using Jewish community dollars, which like all charitable funds are sacred, to finance harsh blacklist proponents attending Jewish film festivals or mounting borderline-anti-Semitic plays.

Second, the fight against anti-Semitism, against blacklisting and for Israel begins at home, in the homeland. Israelis can be the most effective ambassadors in the fight against BDS – this fight for survival should transcend most political divisions and harness the kind of ingenuity Israelis bring to more conventional battlefields. Israelis must understand that, despite their “Start-up Nation” Hi Tech inventiveness, if the European Union boycotts Israel, the economic impact would be devastating. The threat is real – but is dismissed and usually seen, unfortunately, through a left-right prism.

Moreover, Israeli critics of Israeli policy must understand that in an age of instant communication, what they say “within the family,” echoes throughout the world. Israel’s harshest critics quote Israelis incessantly. No Israelis should be forced to change their politics, no matter what opponents would choose to do. But ALL Israelis should watch their language, understanding that false Nazi/Apartheid/Racism analogies feed Israel’s enemies, who wish to exterminate the state. There is a rich bank of historical analogies and words Israeli critics can use to criticize Israel. They must learn how harmful the Nazi and Apartheid analogies are and how they are used against Israel’s right to exist.

Third, we need a “Let Israel Live” anti-BDS campaign, built on the style of the Soviet Jewry movement, mounting a legal but in-your-face grassroots attempt to delegitimize Israel’s delegitimizers. We should shout down Iranian diplomats for representing a country with genocidal designs on Israel. We must confront Saudi, Egyptian and Palestinian diplomats when their official news organs spread harsh anti-Semitic caricatures. We should put left-wing BDSers on the defensive, showing how Essentialism and Exclusivity perpetuate prejudice, particularly traditional anti-Semitic patterns.

Last week, in Ottawa, during a break in testimony at the hearings of the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism, I confronted some pro-boycott union officials. I asked why they attacked what one of their resolutions called (ungrammatically) “the apartheid nature of the Israel state” rather than making specific criticisms of Israeli labor policy in the territories, as the union president had done during testimony. One of the activists admitted they were distancing themselves from the apartheid formulation because “it wasn’t effective.” Not “effective” means generating too much pushback.

Pushing back isn’t polite and it isn’t always nice. For all our justifiable anger, it should be channeled strategically, constructively. And, yes, when necessary, we should put on suits, eat nice meals, and build coalitions with dignitaries. But while networking, let’s remember the ugly realities that demand fixing not because “the Jews” demand it but because justice does.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

This Hannukkah, Let’s Teach Our Children How to Give

By Gil Troy, 2009

For the last few years I have lamented that Jews were preparing to celebrate Hanukkah, our festival of lights, during a particularly dark period. I am happy to say that this year was actually pretty good. Yes, the Iranian nuclear threat – to the United States not just to Israel – still looms. Yes, the crash, recession, and Madoff scheme crushed many individuals – and charitable foundations that do holy work. Yes, the high unemployment rate in the United States is a reminder of the misery many individuals are experiencing even during this holiday season. Yes, Islamic extremists declare war on the West, yet many Westerners, deny and dither, afraid to respond too assertively. And yes, Palestinian rejectionists get a free pass in the world court of public opinion while Israel is condemned for engaging in self-defense.

Still, today, the markets have recovered and what was supposed to be the “worst economic crisis since the Great Depression” may turn out to be simply part of the historical, boom and bust cycle of capitalism. More important, Israel ’s counter-offensive in Gaza worked. The good people of Sderot and the Western Negev seem set to celebrate their quietest Hanukkah in years. Even Mahmoud Abbas admitted this year that the West Bank is thriving, deviating from the Western narrative claiming the Palestinians are suffering under the world’s worst conditions. And while the shadow of terror still darkens the planet, with the families mourning the slaughtered soldiers of Fort Hood joining a long worldwide list of families stricken by this blight, the West and Israel endured far fewer attacks than the dark days of 2001, 2002, and 2003.

So we should celebrate this year, mindful of the troubles and appreciative of all our blessings.  Rejoicing in past victories helps put our current challenges in perspective, reminding us that we have suffered before, and not just survived but thrived. Moreover, with terrorists still trying to rob innocents of any joy, and any semblance of a normal life, observing holidays becomes yet another act of defiance, a leap of faith asserting our commitment to stick to the everyday.

Nevertheless, even as we celebrate, it behooves us to reassess the meaning of the holidays, thinking about how we observe them. Now is the time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish renewal, finding the joy in Judaism, not just the “oy.” Such a reevaluation is particularly necessary in the case of Hanukkah, a holiday whose meaning has changed over the years.

While Hanukkah’s basic plot line has remained unchanged for almost two millennia, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. The central themes we associate with Hanukkah, of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; for centuries the Rabbis dwelled on the miracle of the oil. When the Zionist revolution a century ago reevaluated Judaism, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about the anti-Semites who hated us and the Rabbis who taught us. The Maccabees were home-grown heroes, rooted in Israel ’s ancient soil, and willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, and their freedom. In that spirit, before World War I, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity for giving not receiving, donating the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin, to the Zionist cause.

At the same time, the other great twentieth-century Jewish revolution, the rise of North American Jewry, also transformed Hanukkah. As with Passover, the theme of “freedom” resonated in the land of liberty, giving the ancient Jewish holiday a contemporary American flavor. But, even more important, the quirk of scheduling, as well as the anthropological linkage to another winter-solstice festival of lights, made for the gift-giving frenzy we see today.

As a delightful holiday of dedication, Hanukkah has long been child-centered. Traditionally, Jewish communities used Hanukkah to rededicate themselves to their children’s Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study.

In the modern world, this festival of gelt-giving and of lights became the popular Jewish response to Christmas envy, the malady that seized many a Jewish household each December. In fact, with eight nights, and thus eight opportunities for gift-giving, Hanukkah became a way for Jews to trump their Christian neighbors.

Tragically, both Hanukkah and Christmas have become “Festivals of Consumption,” in the late historian Daniel Boorstin’s apt phrase. A minor sweetener to facilitate Torah study has become the major focus of the holiday, even as this traditionally minor holiday has become a major highlight on the North American Jewish calendar.

Once again, then, we have a chance this year to rededicate Hanukkah, and ourselves, to reorient the holiday. It is time to rejuvenate the holiday by making it a highpoint on our tzedakah calendar, our schedule of giving, while teaching our children about generosity not just materialism. It is not realistic, nor necessary, to declare a gift-giving ban. Most of us, thankfully, do not have to choose between self-indulgence and good works. Moreover, to set up false choices by being too austere, defeats the educational purpose behind the gelt-giving. But is it too much to ask for this year, that every family, every school, every Jewish institution, every Hanukkah get-together carve out some time to think about others who are less fortunate, others with whom we should share our good fortune? Is it too much to ask that as we teach our children the joy of receiving gifts from loved ones we also teach them the joy of giving gifts to strangers?

The smallest of gestures can teach this most important of lessons. During the traditional Hanukkah grab bag, one additional toy can be thrown into the hopper, and that toy can be designated for a child in need. Similarly, children awash in presents could be asked to give one old toy and one new toy to tzedakah. Relatives from far away who are going to send Hanukkah checks can be encouraged to allocate part of their gift to a charity of the children’s choice, or parents and children can agree on a certain percentage of all gifts to be donated. Even more important, acts of loving kindness, good deeds, should be encouraged so we go beyond many Jews’ tendency to assume that the only way to help others is materially.

This Hanukkah, of all Hanukkahs, why not take advantage of the eight nights, the eight candles, to designate our thoughts, our prayers, and our gifts of time, talent, and money in the following directions:

On the First Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Victims of Palestinian Terror, the casualties of the recent Second Lebanon War and Gaza operation, and most especially the still-traumatized citizens of Sderot and the Western Negev, hoping to bring a little light into their lives: Just because a story fades from the headlines does not mean trouble has disappeared. Families of the murdered still miss their loved ones, year after year. Terrorists have slaughtered more than 1000 people in Israel since 2000, and maimed thousands more. Hezbollah killed nearly 150 others, soldiers and civilians, Jews and Arabs, during the summer of 2006. Thousands of Kassam rockets have rained down on the good people of Sderot and the Western Negev .  We must adopt families of the victims, embracing them, supporting them, befriending them, sending both love and money. We should still focus on helping out the people of Sderot, who endured so much for so long. The Hesder Yeshiva there has proven to be an essential force for community building there, doing good and holy work. Another way to make a strong stand of solidarity with the citizens of Sderot is through http://sderotmedia.com/?cat=5

Also, support Camp Koby, a magical summer camp that works with survivors of terror, healing sons and daughters, brothers and sisters of victims.

On the Second Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to Gilad Shalit, honoring his heroism and that of his family. On June 25, 2006, Gilad Shalit, a 19-year-old with a shy smile, was kidnapped by Hamas near Gaza . His pain – and his families’ suffering – is our pain. Our worlds will not be complete, our holidays not fully joyous, until he comes home – and we have not done enough for him. His family shares a unique bond of anguish with the families of Ron Arad, Zachary Baumel, Zvi Feldman, and Yehuda Katz, who have been missing since the 1980s. Buy Gilad’s book “When The Fish and the Shark first Met.” Write your representatives demanding information and action. For more information, including a petition to sign, visit  http://www.habanim.org/en/index_en.html or add your wishes to http://giladshalit.blogspot.com/

On the Third Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Children of Israel , who deserve to live in freedom, free of fear: Israeli society has proved itself remarkably resilient, but even before the global financial crisis began there was far too much poverty in Israel . The gap between the rich and the poor is growing greater than ever.  We must be proactive not just reactive, thinking about how to help improve the quality of Israeli life. One lovely initiative is the Jade Bar Shalom Books for Israel Project, an attempt to get new and slightly used English books sent to Israeli schoolchildren to help compensate for budget cutbacks. Since July 2005, over 41 tons of donated English literature and reference books have been delivered to over 200 of Israel ‘s Jewish, Druze, Bedouin, Christian, Bahai, and Muslim public schools.

On the Fourth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Institutions of Israel, the well-oiled infrastructure which keeps the society functioning: Even as we champion new initiatives, we need to continue supporting agencies that have laid the foundation for the Jewish state, and help make it thrive. To name only a few, Hadassah continues to modernize Israeli medical facilities, the Magen David Adom (Israeli “Red Cross”) serves all people in Israel under trying circumstances, the Jewish National Fund continues renewing the land, the United Jewish Communities launched a special Israel Emergency Fund to rebuild in the north and in Sderot. To honor their heroic services to the citizens and soldiers up north during the 2006 war, make sure to support Rambam Hospital in Haifa as well, as part of the rebuilding effort, which continues.

On the Fifth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to taking back the night, to undoing some of the evil that was done this year. We can through our good deeds exorcise some of the bad deeds that have been done.  In that spirit, donate to UN Watch which has been a powerful force calling attention to the hypocrisy of the human rights community when it demonizes Israel .  Alternatively, to remember the good people the Islamic terrorists in Mumbai killed just over a year ago, support your local Chabad house showing that we, too, will target them, but with love.

On the Sixth Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to our Local Jewish Community, renewing our collective ability to help us renew ourselves and our own Jewish identities: Even while fighting fires abroad, we need to keep our home fires burning, as it were, by supporting our local synagogues, schools, Federations, agencies. In the Diaspora and in Israel , if we do not create welcoming, exciting models for Jewish identity, we will raise a new generation of Hellenists not Maccabees.  This Hanukkah is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to Jewish education, on all levels, for young and old alike. We all need to be engaged in lifelong learning, the more formal, the better, the more time-intensive the better.  More broadly, let us challenge ourselves by asking not only how much money am I willing to donate, but how much time am I willing to volunteer this coming year?

On the Seventh Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to neighbors in need, bestowing gifts on neighbors who are suffering and to non-Jewish friends and causes, understanding the power of affirming our common humanity, and helping one another:: Most of us live in cities marked by huge disparities between haves and have-nots. Those of us who have should take the time to help those who have less, both Jews and non-Jews, seeing what we can do to make sure that none of our neighbors go to bed hungry, cold, or lonely, that none of our neighbors are deprived of the joy of celebrating this season.  Wherever we stand on the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan , we should all stand united in support of the American troops, those idealistic, vulnerable, heroic knights in Kevlar willing to risk so much. Creative ways of supporting the troops include buying pre-paid calling cards so soldiers can call their loved ones for free or sending messages of support.  Given the seasonal coincidence between Hanukkah and Christmas, we have a lovely chance to make Christmas and Hanukkah wishes harmonize, as we celebrate Hanukkah by helping neighbors celebrate Christmas. The crisis in the Darfur region of Sudan demands our action and our outrage. Let us not stand by idly, complaining of others’ inactions, yet not doing anything ourselves. The American Jewish World Service has been a particular leader in this, combining education, advocacy and intelligent giving.

On the Eight Night of Hanukkah, let us dedicate ourselves to the Power of Teaching, of Leading Our Children by Example: If every night, we channel our children’s charitable impulses, giving a guided tour of the possibilities of giving, on this, the last night of Hanukkah, let us ask our children to take the first baby steps in this world of responsibility and great satisfaction, by asking them to pick a charitable deed, a mitzvah for someone else they plan on doing.

The time and resources are limited; the work is great – and overwhelming. Yet our sages teach that it is not upon us to complete all the work, nor are we free to evade it. No one should feel guilty for failing to carve out a charitable moment every one of the eight nights – yet no one should feel free to ignore this challenge completely.

For decades now, kids have greeted each other every morning of Hanukkah with the question: “What did you get last night?” This year, perhaps, we can also teach our children to ask: “What did you give?”

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, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

 

The crime: Illegal enveloping in a tallit

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-26-09

Just days after, in all probability, the first Jew since the oppressive Soviet Union collapsed was arrested for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah, the outrage has dimmed. We have moved on to the next headline. But the Israel Police’s obnoxious overreaching at the Western Wall last week was outrageous. The arrest of Nofrat Frankel in the women’s section of the Wall, and, if reports are correct, the fact that she was held in custody for two-and-a-half hours, insults all Israelis who believe in the rule of law and freedom of religion, no matter how religious or non-religious.

What charge did the police consider while holding her – illegal enveloping in a prayer shawl? Premeditated praying? Unlicensed layning (reading of the Torah)? Now, the police claim they detained her for her own safety. But someone detained for her own safety would be held for two-and-a-half minutes at the Jaffa Gate police station, far from the Wall. Moreover, when extremist hoodlums attacked Elazar Stern, the IDF’s human resources chief, and his family, at the Wall following the Gaza disengagement four years ago, the police showed they know the difference between protecting and arresting someone.

Yes, the situation is complicated. I would not encourage my daughters to parade in a tallit and carry a Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall, just as I would not encourage my sons to walk onto the women’s side, despite the fact that for centuries Jews prayed at the wall, with men and women mingling freely. I support the compromise whereby women and mixed groups of men and women can pray at the Southern Wall – under Robinson’s Arch, while the Western Wall Plaza follows the protocols of an Orthodox synagogue.

I believe the egalitarians got the better deal. I was bar mitzvahed at the Wall, and remember my mother and grandmother straining to watch. My daughter read Torah on the Thursday before her bat mitzvah under Robinson’s Arch, and we all enjoyed an equal view. Moreover, the Western Wall plaza is sanitized, cleansed of its rocky, rubble-y history to accommodate thousands. The Southern Wall area feels more authentic, historic, with debris from the destruction 1900 years ago seemingly frozen in mid-fall. The compromise works – although freer access to the Southern Wall, and a greater effort by non-Orthodox Jews to visit this equally holy site would validate it more – even though I appreciate the current limited number of visitors preserves the shrine’s charm.

It is unfortunate but understandable that Judaism’s holiest site divides rather than unites. Both sides must remember that we are the product of our history, of the warring ideologies that still have not found a uniform resolution of the profound conflict between tradition and modernity. Still, while I would counsel Nofrat Frankel to respect the Orthodox side of the Wall, I remain appalled that the police used one of the state’s ultimate powers – the power to suspend a citizen’s freedom – when Frankel simply was asserting one of her inherent freedoms, that of religious expression.

Last spring, when Cambridge police arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates after an unfortunate confrontation, the president of the United States himself stepped in and asserted leadership. After first addressing the issue in a hasty, unproductive way, Barack Obama invited Gates and the Cambridge police officer who arrested him for a healing beer at the White House. Race flummoxes Americans as much as religion flummoxes Israelis. As the first African-American president, and Gates’ friend, Barack Obama had particular insight and empathy. In Israel’s fractured political system, with too many small parties holding the government hostage, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – or any other leader – did not dare to wade into last Wednesday’s mess.

This dodge is triply unfortunate. On religious questions and other issues, Israel badly needs the kind of moral leadership the President of the United States – of either party – frequently provides. Israelis must encourage their leaders, both through substantive political reform and a more subtle mandate, to tackle controversial issues and lead. Moreover civility cannot be assumed in a polyglot democracy with people originating from dozens of different countries, with varying political cultures. Civility must be cultivated. Political leaders can either serve as noxious weeds in the democratic garden or, when really effective, Miracle Gro.

Finally, the questions of religious freedom, separation of church and state, respect for women in Judaism, loom large in Israel-Diaspora relations – particularly among the most engaged non-Orthodox North American Jews. Rather than alienating them through foolish police actions, Israel should be working with them to establish strong multi-generational, cross-Atlantic ties.

Perhaps, then, with the Prime Minister shirking his duties to lead, the mediation should be left to the capable Diaspora Affairs Minister, Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein is a mensch, an observant Jew, with a commitment to religious freedom cemented by time in Soviet prisons. Perhaps he can reconcile both sides.

Meanwhile, the police officers – all along the chain of command – responsible for this stupid, outrageous arrest should undergo American-style sensitivity training – with a Jerusalem twist. I would sentence them, among other educational undertakings, to a Shabbat or two at Jerusalem’s egalitarian synagogues, a short walk from their Jaffa Gate headquarters. Let them experience the joyous, skilled, female-led singing at Shira Chadasha during kabbalat shabbat, the easy equality among tallit-clad women at Moreshet Avraham or Kol HaNishma, the expert women’s Torah readings, especially by bat mitzvah girls, at a growing number of Orthodox synagogues such as Yedidya. Perhaps, rather than just learning that women wrapped in prayer shawls and carrying Torahs should never be arrested, these officers might be inspired to embrace the model of dynamic, committed, pious joyous, egalitarian Judaism Nofrat Frankel was defending – and so many Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews find so meaningful.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave 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.

Birthright Israel as an Rx to ‘Israel Exhaustion’

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-25-09

 

Although life in Israel is, overall, delightfully safe and calm these days, these are sobering times for the pro-Israel community abroad. Israel-bashing is all the rage in the Arab world, in European salons and at the UN. It is also becoming an increasingly popular pastime on campuses and even among some “progressive” American Jews, who confess to “Israel exhaustion.”

Smart analysts like Rabbi Daniel Gordis, author of Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, point to structural and ideological shifts that explain why so many more young Jews throw up their hands in exhaustion rather than raising their voices in unison not just to defend Israel, but to celebrate Israel.

“The issue isn’t Israel, or utopia,” Gordis recently wrote in The Jerusalem Post. “It’s America, and the ‘I’ at the core of American sensibilities.” Challenging the community for “basically doing nothing” Gordis concluded: “Try to list the serious Jewish educational enterprises addressing this challenge, asking how American Jewish education can counter America’s unfettered individualism, or what Israel could do to help. Can you name even one? Neither can I.”

Although I have never played poker with my friend and role model Rabbi Gordis, I will see him, and raise him, on his analysis. Not only do too many North American Jewish enterprises fail to counter American individualism, careerism and materialism – too much North American Jewish life fosters individualism, careerism and materialism. We need think-tanks analyzing this problem, educational, communal and religious institutions countering the problem, and the entire community embarking on a twelve-step program to end our collective addiction to the modern paganism of selfishness, individuation, acquisitiveness, hyper-ambition and greed.

Yet we must do this subtly, moderately, because North American individualism, careerism and materialism are also keys to North American Jewish liberty, creativity and vitality. To get the right balance, to find the right mix, we must blend in Jewish values, spirituality, textual learning, an appreciation of history, Zionist passion, a love of Israel, the power of community and the sheer fun of living Jewish, loving Jewish, doing Jewish.

Fortunately, the day school movement in North America has flagship schools, including Akiva School in Montreal and Gann Academy in Boston, that are succeeding with this North American Jewish recipe.  Moreover, modern Jewry and the pro-Israel community have an ace in the hole: Taglit-Birthright Israel, the single most successful Jewish communal innovation of the last decade (probably longer, but it is only ten years old). Birthright Israel exhilaration counters the Israel exhaustion of the blame-Israel-firsters, the my, my, my, now, now, now individuation of the all-American me-firsters, and the “whatever” alienation of the too-cool-to-be-Jewish, Jewish hipsters.

Birthright Israel’s free ten-day trips to Israel invite Jewish students to press the reset button on their Jewish experiences, their Israel connection, their Zionist identities, their personal worldviews and individual paths. Birthright participants engage Israel through sites and delights, not through politics and problems. They learn to appreciate the power of community, Jewish and otherwise, because – in the spirit of the Minyan, Jewish communal prayer – they get a free ticket to join 40 others on this journey, not simply to backpack across Israel alone. And they are welcomed not hectored to continue, to pursue their own Jewish journeys. The “no strings attached” promise of birthright – meaning no demands for payback, financial or ideological – reflects  the program’s educational openness, integrity and effectiveness – contrary to caricatures from the left for being too heavyhanded and from the right for being too namby-pamby.

The Birthright trinity of land, history and people leavened with friendship, a family feeling, 24/7 intensity, and fun exposes Jewish students, on the cusp of adulthood, to an Israel they never read about in the newspapers and, I regret to say, often a quality of Jewish life they never experienced back home. The timing is perfect. Students 18 to 26 are making the life-decisions about career, quality of life, and love that will shape who they are for the coming decades. Moreover, the tone is just right. Clearly, birthright has a pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, pro-Zionist perspective. But smart educators know that today’s youth cannot be bullied or guilt-tripped into believing or belonging. Despite all the troubles, slanders and terrorism of the decade, 220,000 Jewish students have participated, with the overwhelming majority thrilled, and many returning to their communities ready to be the passionate Jews – and Jewish leaders – of tomorrow.

And yet, in a reflection of stunning, unconscionable, communal myopia, not every student who applies can go on Birthright. The Jerusalem Post reports that this winter alone, “more than 13,000 young, mostly unaffiliated Jews from around the world were turned away” due to lack of funding, and that “80% of wait-listed birthright applicants never reapply.” Here a program with a proven track-record responds to the great communal challenge of our time by inspiring young Jews, yet somehow not enough individual Jews and communal institutions have decided to fund it yet.

My parents report that among their “golden age” peers, grandparents are always saying how “wonderful” Birthright is. I wonder, do any of them decide therefore to take some responsibility and send another deserving youngster – or 40 on a bus – or 100 from a community – as thanks? People love to ask Birthright’s founders Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt “how can I ever repay you?” Bronfman and Steinhardt probably are too polite to answer: “by donating generously to send others.”

Birthright began as an act of guerilla philanthropy – as Messrs. Bronfman and Steinhardt rushed ahead, before all the proper committees met, before all the Jewish communal protocols were followed – and they succeeded. This act of guerilla philanthropy should now be rewarded – when the crunch is on – with a massive display of grassroots giving. People should give what they can, raise more from others, and demand that their Federations increase support. And no one who reads this essay can ever say, “no one ever asked me to help” – I just did.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He just became the voluntary Chairman of the Taglit-Birthright International Education Committee.

Slichot, Leonard Cohen, the joy of Succot

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-8-09

With Israel best known for generating headlines about its troubles, its joys are too frequently overlooked. To be in Israel for “the hagim,” the High Holidays, including Sukkot, is a blessed, underreported privilege. From the shanah tovah greetings everywhere to the antacid commercials responding to bouts of holiday overeating, the holiday spirit is pervasive. But this is not simply the Jewish version of the Christmas season three months early. It is striking to an outsider how seriously so many Israelis take the Yamim Noraim, truly making them Days of Awe.

Especially in Jerusalem, the engagement with repentance feels ubiquitous. In North America, the ten days of penitence frequently divide into three holy days (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) and seven scrambling-to-catch-up-at-work days. In Israel, many people carve out the time for spiritual reflection, following the journey from self-evaluation to redemption our ancestors mapped out for us.

Affirming the Zionist idea that returning to the land would make us whole as a people, the spirit is in the air; the spirituality has a geography to it too. School kids hum Adon HaSlichot, the Lord of Forgiveness, a multi-stanza piyyut, poem, as they scamper about. High school students have all-night tours in the neighborhoods around Jerusalem’s Machaneh Yehudah market, culminating in pre-dawn “slichot” penitential prayers, as the magic of the night and the romance of the place enhance the prayers’ power. And for people of all ages, there are classes galore, in schools and synagogues, in community centers and private homes.

My twelve-year-old son, starting this year at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s High School, had one such all night marathon. It began at 11 o’clock with a class for parents, too. Surprisingly, impressively, my son’s teacher immediately engaged the bleary-eyed parents who showed up. The class began with a contemporary Ehud Manor-Matti Caspi song, “Slichot,” about the challenges of seeking forgiveness and the mutuality needed for it to work.

“I don’t know what to say, I didn’t want to hurt you,” the song begins, sounding like a typically sappy pop-cult lament. But, as the teacher’s literary, historical, and spiritual tour de force demonstrated, the song echoes the Talmud, the 12th century rabbi Maimonides, and Israel’s Nobel Prize winning novelist, S.Y. Agnon. Even more impressive than the teacher’s mastery of the sources was the sincerity of his engagement with the process, with these spurs for each individual to use this highly ritualized collective time to make personal, challenging adjustments.

The next night, my wife and I joined fifty thousand others at the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear Canadian music legend Leonard Cohen. The 75-year-old graduate of Montreal’s Herzliah High School fit right in with Israel’s addictive, characteristic, old-new mix. Cohen’s entrancing three and a half hour performance culminated with his invoking Birkat HaKohanim, the priestly blessing.

Still, as moved as I was by Cohen’s wry, impish, sensitive provocative worldview, as fascinated as I was to see how he transformed his Jewish learning and his own spiritual wanderings into popular poetry for the masses, his message was jarring. “Who by Fire” updates the stirring Unetanah tokef prayer, a High Holiday highlight. Inspired by the terrifying “Who shall live, who shall die,” riff, Cohen asks, “who in her lonely slip, who by barbiturate… who in mortal chains, who in power/ And who shall I say is calling?” A Jewish prayer affirming God’s power, and prescribing “repentance, prayer and righteousness” to “avert the severe decree” becomes a modern mirror of alienation and hedonism, tempered by a dash of social criticism. Unetaneh tokef, “We Shall Ascribe Holiness to this Day,” affirms order, virtue, and authority in the world; Leonard Cohen’s “Who by Fire” ascribes randomness to this universe.

Nevertheless, Cohen’s karma proved contagious. After the concert, as thousands pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I did not hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar.” As we traveled back from Cohen’s world to the Jerusalem bubble – unsure which is real, which is right – we hit traffic jams at 1 a.m. – as hundreds thronged the streets, taking last-minute penitential tours of Machaneh Yehudah, Nachlaot, the Old City.

It all peaked with Yom Kippur, which concentrated the collective power of millions engaging with God, engaging with themselves, repenting, changing, fixing the world. The atmospherics outside again enhanced the piety, literacy, authenticity, intensity of the experiences inside the synagogue. Leaving the Kol Nidre prayers into the silence of a world without cars – in the center of the city – is amazing, as is the warm, communal feeling, as people promenade up and down normally hazardous streets like Emek Refaim. With the bicyclists and the pedestrians taking over the city, religious and secular mingle freely, easily, sharing the delight in the voluntary ban on driving in the Jewish people’s capital on the Jewish people’s holiest day.

The holiday season culminates now with Succot. The oft-neglected holiday in the Diaspora – with people desperate to return to work – is a national holiday here, with all schools closed. Succot blossom everywhere, lovely unexpected flowers jutting out of the urban concrete jungle. With camping trips and mass priestly blessings at the Wall, soap box car races, all day learning fests, and a 70,000-person Jerusalem parade featuring Christian Zionists from all over the world – Succot truly becomes zman simchateinu, “the holiday of our joy.”

Few moderns can relate to our ancestors’ joy during the harvest. But as meaning-seeking creatures, with all of us on some path trying to understand what life is all about, Succot’s joy derives from its proximity to Yom Kippur. Having grappled with eternal questions, struggled to improve our souls, what better way to assert our humanity and our Jewishness than through celebration? And for those of us in Israel, how lucky we are to experience this all at the point of origin, our ancient homeland, and in sync with so many others. Such joy, such spiritual satisfaction may not make headlines, but it makes life worth living.

How to defend, and delight in, Judaism and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-17-09


As an academic, I like that my work year and the Jewish New Year begin together. As Jewish professors, administrators and students return to campus for a new academic year (and as some start afresh on their academic adventure), we should set some goals for effective pro-Israel advocacy and satisfying Jewish living.These truly are the best and the worst of times on campus for Jews. There have never been so many Jewish students and staffers, or so many Jewish studies programs and vital Hillels. Unfortunately, this Golden Age is also an era of systematic demonization of Israel on campus. The challenge here is to keep perspective. Our delight in the comfort Jews have in the academic world should not blind us to the ugliness of the anti-Israel assault. Our bitterness at the attacks’ toxicity should not sour us on the joys of academic life. Neither complacency nor paranoia works. We must celebrate Israel as well as defend Israel. We must focus on Jewish life and not let our enemies set the agenda.

In forging an effective campus strategy to defend and delight in Judaism and Zionism, consider the following guidelines:

• Israel’s culture is vital and infectious, an appealing mix of the East and the West. We should change the stereotype of “Israel the warrior state.” Students – and professors – should see the Israel that Madonna recently saw, the Israel of a modern rock beat and of ancient wisdom, the Israel of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

• Never attack academic freedom, but never tolerate educational malpractice. I wholeheartedly support professors’ freedoms to draw whatever conclusions they can from their assessment of evidence, but I reject the way too many professors abuse their podiums. If a professor refuses to air opposing views, mocks students who disagree, or turns the lecturer’s stand into a political soapbox, students should document it carefully, get corroborating witnesses, ask the professor to stop and contact administrators, parents, alumni and community leaders if the complaints are ignored.

• Let’s delegitimize the delegitimizers. For too long, we have allowed those using the “racism” and “apartheid” slanders to carry the day. We must be proactive, pointing out that singling out Israel, rationalizing Palestinian terrorism, drawing false analogies with the evil South African regime and making libelous comparisons to Nazis puts Israel’s critics in league with Arab anti-Semites and outdated Soviet propagandists. The moral onus is on them to prove they are not anti-Semitic or abetting anti-Semitism by distancing themselves from the exterminationists and hate-mongers.

• Don’t fear the Z-word. Too many Jews on campus have internalized the critics’ lies and fear using the word “Zionism.” Those who have visited Israel on Birthright Israel or other programs should learn that Zionism is another name for all those warm glowy feelings they have about Israel – that sense of peoplehood and appreciation for a Jewish state.

• We need a big-tent Zionism. Our anger at the unreason of too many of Israel’s accusers shouldn’t shut our minds down. We should welcome a wide spectrum of opinions and voices, making it clear that we can disagree graciously about settlements, boundaries, strategies, even values, without demonizing or delegitimizing. There is a rich Israeli and Jewish tradition of dissent that should not be squelched. Only when people start attacking Israel disproportionately, inaccurately and with the language of those who seek its extermination should we react strongly. Beyond that, our Jewish centres should be centres of creative, vital and diverse thought and argument.

• Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing or singing or learning or praying or enjoying…). Outside the closed Dolphinarium, the Tel Aviv disco where a terrorist – later glorified by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat – slaughtered 21 teenagers and wounded 120, a simple monument promises defiantly: “Lo nafseek lirkod (We won’t stop dancing).” Our enemies cannot defeat us or demoralize us.

Universities should be centres of Jewish revival, places where students and professors discover the spiritual, intellectual, ideological depth of the Jewish experience. We should embrace Judaism, engage Israel, learn Torah, appreciate Jewish civilization and never, ever stop singing and dancing. Shanah tovah.

Judge MASA by its Programs not its Promotions

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-15-09

These days, image often seems to be everything. Fortunately, in education, substance still counts. As the brouhaha surrounding MASA’s ill-fated advertising campaign “Lost” peters out, let’s turn the notoriety generated into an opportunity to learn about this under-appreciated program. In truth, the ad campaign’s heavy-handed apocalyptic tone contradicted MASA’s usually warm, inviting, upbeat approach.

MASA, Hebrew for journey, is more of a clearinghouse run by the Jewish Agency and the Israeli government, helping thousands of young Jews attend more than 160 long-term programs in Israel, for a semester or a year. MASA subsidizes the programs, while offering administrative, programming and — on good days – marketing expertise. The idea built on birthright israel’s tremendous success. A ten-day birthright trip offers an exciting, sweeping taste of Israel, a smorgasbord of travel delights. MASA invites participants to enjoy a longer, more focused meal.

EARLIER THIS month, seeking to encourage Israelis to invite their Diaspora relatives to join one of its programs, MASA launched an expensive advertising campaign.  Melodramatic television ads featured “Lost” posters seeking young people with obvious Jewish names in different languages, representing the supposed 50 percent of Diaspora Jewish youth who assimilate annually (absurdly distorting a controversial statistic). The railroads in the background reminded some critics of Holocaust movies. For others, the posters evoked the heartbreaking photos New Yorkers posted after 9/11. Still others resented the implication that the forces of assimilation were kidnapping young Jews. MASA wisely pulled the ads.

The “Lost” campaign does not accurately reflect MASA’s programs – and diverted hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars to Israel rather than to the Diaspora, where they are really needed. Alas, the ads reflect one constant theme in Israeli conversations about Diaspora Jewry. Israelis often simultaneously idealize and scorn Diaspora Jewish life, treating America especially as “the golden medina” and “the land of the lost.” Even as Israelis salivate about America’s riches – and mimic each new fad – they exaggerate the dangers of anti-Semitism and assimilation. All Diaspora Jews in this caricature appear rich, spoiled, happy, but Jewishly at risk or, as the MASA ad shrieked, lost.

But let’s be honest. This is the way many Diaspora Jews themselves talk about Diaspora Jewry – and have long talked about the Jewish people. In his 1948 essay “The Ever-Dying People,” Simon Rawidowicz observed that “the world makes many images of Israel” – meaning the Jewish people — “but Israel makes only one image of itself, that of a being constantly on the verge of ceasing to be, of disappearing.”

In fairness, most Diaspora Jews are less blunt than Israeli Jews and know that this generation must be wooed not hectored. But the “Lost” ads should be studied as artifacts of the constant “what about the young people” breast-beating endemic throughout the Jewish world.

NEVERTHELESS, we should learn from the way most MASA programs function rather than the way the Jewish Agency tried marketing MASA. MASA followed Birthright, Chabad, and others in seeking the joy in Judaism not the “oy.” Birthright taught that you inspire more modern Jews by inviting them on a Jewish journey rather than the traditional guilt trip.

To get some perspective on the controversy from MASA educators and participants, I called my friend Danny Hakim. Hakim is a two-time world silver medalist in karate, and managing director of  the Budokan Martial Arts and Fitness Program sponsored by MASA, the Jewish Agency, the Maccabi World Union and the JCCA. I reached him at Nitzana, by the Egyptian border, launching his MASA program with a five-day extreme sports program in the desert.  “Our program offers a five-month odyssey that will strengthen your body, mind, and spirit while giving you self-defense skills, confidence in general and confidence in your Jewish identity,” Hakim explained. “This experience will serve you for a lifetime.”

Reflecting MASA’s usually soft touch, Hakim originally called the program “the Martial Arts and Israel Leadership Program,” but changed “Israel leadership” to “fitness,” to attract students “from the periphery of the Jewish community.” This year participants arrived from Sweden, France, the UK and the US.

Jason Berman of Westfield, New Jersey, a 22-year-old Penn State University graduate, just arrived on his first overseas trip. Berman studied ancient history in college while studying karate. The martial arts program seemed custom-made for him – as so many MASA programs seem to the participants they attract. “I wanted to visit Israel, I wanted to do intensive martial arts, I was happy to study the history of Jewish heroes,” Berman reported. Having studied Greek and Roman history he “was thrilled to see real ruins, finally.”

He continued: “This has been all I could have hoped for… I just went on a short camel ride. I could see these old ancient buildings from 2000 years ago and we are just scratching the surface.”

David Hankin, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, was equally enthusiastic. They are teaching us “focus and balance,” he said. While noting that he, too, had only arrived a week ago, he volunteered: “The program is not at all overbearing…. It has a very free feel to it.”

This, then, is the MASA its marketers should highlight. At its best MASA serves as a kind of matchmaker, linking young Diaspora Jews with programs that fit their interests in the Jewish homeland, demonstrating a hip, customized, welcoming, fluid, open-ended Zionism. Participants thrive by following their own rhythms, forging their own life plans.

“I’m really hoping to develop myself,” Jason Berman said, “to identify who I am; it’s definitely open-ended” – precisely as effective 21st century Jewish identity programs – along with their ad campaigns — should be.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Center Field: Taliban Judaism does not work in modern world

Originally published in the Jerusalem Post as:

Radicals Aren’t Necessarily More Authentic

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-09

Once again haredim held massive, violent demonstrations over the opening of a parking lot on Shabbat near the Old City. Somehow, some bizarre rabbinic dispensation allows haredi radicals to launch their own unholy war on Shabbat, desecrating it by rioting. Other controversies regarding conversion and appointing Zionist chief rabbis for Jerusalem feed perceptions of a “religious-secular” divide.

Parking lot riots. Taliban Judaism does not work in the

modern world. PHOTO: Ariel Jerozolimski

Actually, the push for a Zionist chief rabbi proves this is not a religious-secular issue but a clash pitting violent haredi radicals against patriotic Zionists. In this struggle, Orthodox Jews from around the world and Religious Zionists in Israel must stand strong. Those two (overlapping) communities must send a clear message to the haredi radicals, saying “back off.” The message must be reinforced by religious Zionists fighting for quality of life in the State of Israel as ardently as many fight for every inch of the Land of Israel and by Orthodox Jews threatening to cut off donations to all haredi institutions if haredi violence persists.

It is difficult to quantify how much money flows from Orthodox Jews abroad to haredi institutions here, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is considerable. Imagine if those legendary Orthodox Jewish visitors who love to visit yeshivot in Mea She’arim and ask how much it costs to feed the kids lunch, then donate a week of lunches, changed their tunes. What if they said, “We would love to donate, but first reassure us that your community had nothing to do with the recent violence.”

What if others specifically targeted those rabbis and yeshivot who have been acting like hooligans and cut off the money spigot from Brooklyn and the Five Towns, from Paris and London, from Melbourne and Cape Town? This money message should accompany a moral message from rabbis and leading authorities throughout the Diaspora and Israel. Rabbinic authorities with impeccable religious pedigrees must denounce haredi extremists.

LEAVING THE FIGHT to so-called “secular” Israelis exacerbates tensions. Alternatively, if religious and non-religious Jews stood together in this struggle, even while agreeing to disagree on other issues, it would reduce Israel’s growing polarization, wherein a Right-Left divide on security increasingly parallels a religious-secular divide regarding lifestyle, philosophy, pluralism and tolerance.

Orthodox and religious Zionist rabbis who are so pure of heart they dismiss all this as “politics” and beneath them ignore the conflict’s religious dimensions. Anyone who prays for the State of Israel, says Hallel, the prayer of thanksgiving, on its birthday, or speaks about it as a “redemption” or “salvation” cannot stand idly by while hooligans threaten “to set the whole country… on fire.”

Moreover, for decades now religious Zionists and Orthodox Jews have been in denial about how much harm religious extremists do to those of us laboring to bring the masses of alienated Jews back to Judaism.

Taliban Judaism does not work in the modern world. The all-or-nothing, command-and-control approach of the haredim and (I am sorry to say) of much of the Israeli rabbinate alienates millions. Awash in freedom, most Jews today have to embrace Judaism voluntarily. This is not an argument for watering down Judaism. Rather, it is an argument for focusing on its essential positive messages, as the Lubavitcher Rebbe taught, and avoiding desecrations through violence or political coercion.

UNFORTUNATELY, TOO many Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists are not just bystanders to haredi and rabbinic extremism but enablers. Too many fear the extremists. This cowardice comes from a brand of religious one-upsmanship extremists the world over have mastered. People from the center, no matter how passionate or pure, end up having their credentials questioned by the ayatollahs in religion and the commissars in politics. Too many modern Orthodox Jews and religious Zionists act insecure when amid their more radical brethren.

Radicals are more radical, not necessarily more authentic. Nevertheless, modern Orthodox families in North America send their kids (as well as their cash) to “learn” in yeshivot that are far to their Right. We also see Diaspora communities held hostage on matters of kashrut certification by the most extreme forces. In Israel, the mainstream religious voices refuse to take on the violent haredim.

Fortunately, some heroes have emerged. In Jerusalem, Rachel Azaria of Hitorerut-Yerushalmim (the Wake-up Jerusalemites party) has been an important force for change. A religious Zionist activist, Azaria led an insurgent grassroots campaign and ended up on the city council. She and her party have organized demonstrations demanding a Zionist chief rabbi for Jerusalem. They support Mayor Nir Barkat’s attempts to find a compromise on the Shabbat parking lot issue that will serve non-religious Jews seeking to visit the capital on Israel’s one full weekly day off.

Others, like the Tzohar rabbis, have sought to be, as their slogan celebrates, a bridge between the two worlds, giving non-religious Israelis more user-friendly rabbis when marrying, divorcing and celebrating a circumcision or bar mitzva. In North America, Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future has run programs training Israeli rabbis in the kind of pastoral duties too many neglect because they are deployed by the Chief Rabbinate and not beholden to congregants.

Still, in the face of haredi violence, the religious story has been much more one of the “silence of the (kosher) lambs.” Orthodox and religious Zionist cowardice does tremendous harm. We need mainstream religious rabbinic authorities in Israel and the Diaspora to confront the haredi bullies and repudiate violence, especially on Shabbat, with words and deeds.

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 and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.

Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.