Obama the Idealistic Internationalist versus Romney the Muscular Isolationist

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-23-12

Despite this week’s testy debate, it is difficult to assess any candidate’s foreign policy ideology – let alone how that candidate will act as president. Predicting how a president will function in foreign affairs is as reliable as guessing how first-time parents will act when their children become teenagers – lovely theories succumb to tumultuous unforeseen squalls.

Foreign policy is particularly elusive due to the unpredictability of foreign events, the mushiness in American foreign policy ideologies, and the often-constructive tradition of presidents abandoning their preconceptions once they actually start governing. Barack Obama himself is proof of the haziness here. To the extent that Senator Obama had a foreign policy vision in 2008 as a candidate – when he had as little foreign policy experience as Governor Romney has in 2012 – his presidency has frequently succeeded by forgetting it. As Obama boasts about getting Osama Bin Laden and approving the Afghanistan surge, and as Guantanamo Bay remains open, pacifist leftists are understandably wondering what happened to their anti-war, human rights hero. If Obama is correct that the Republican candidate’s newly moderate domestic policies reflect “Romnesia”; pacifist leftists could mourn many such “Obaminations.”

Still, the two opposing candidates have contrasting foreign policy visions. Essentially, Barack Obama is an idealistic internationalist. Growing up in Hawaii as the son of a Kenyan and a Kansan, living in Indonesia with his anthropologist mother, attending Harvard in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he absorbed a disdain for colonialism, an appreciation for globalism, and a yearning for worldwide cooperation. In 2008, Obama ran to Hillary Clinton’s left on foreign policy, emphasizing his early opposition to the Iraq war, questioning George W. Bush’s war on terror, promising to first try negotiating with Iran, showing great sensitivity to the Palestinians, and questioning Bush’s go-it-alone, my-country-right-or-wrong, might-makes-right swagger.

In fairness, Obama insisted he was not a pushover. His doubts about the Iraq war had to do with that war, not war in general. And he refused to be pegged as a quiche-eating, new age, feminized man who would not know what to do as president if awakened with an emergency call at 3 AM.

The initial Obama foreign policy moves that proved so controversial reflected Obama’s worldview. Making his first foreign call after his inauguration to Mahmoud Abbas, bowing to the Saudi king, exiling the Winston Churchill statue from display in the White House, mollifying Iran, staying silent when the Iranian Green revolution first began, giving his Cairo speech, planning to run a terrorism trial in New York, alienating allies and charming enemies, all stemmed from Obama’s desire to “reset” American relations. He wanted to distance himself and his country from George W. Bush, to build a foreign policy based on cooperation not confrontation, trusting international structures and negotiation not American exceptionalism and unilateralism. In the debate, Obama claimed he “refocus[ed] on alliances and relationships that had been neglected for a decade.”

But Obama has adapted to the demands of running America in 2012. He has kept most of the infrastructure of the war on terror. He has proved steely in okaying drone strikes and hunting down Osama Bin Laden. He has been tough in Afghanistan – having inherited a mess there. And, he has put stopping Iran’s rush to nuclearize on his agenda. In short, blasts of realism reoriented Obama’s idealistic internationalism.

Although he does not admit it, Mitt Romney is probably closer to the Midwestern isolationist tradition than anything else. Nothing in his career – beyond his Mormon missionary work in France – suggests an engagement with the rest of the world, or a faith in the international structures Obama likes. You could hear Romney’s reluctance in his debate statement: “the mantle of leadership for … promoting the principles of peace has fallen to America. We didn’t ask for it. But it’s an honor that we have it.”

Romney is more comfortable with American exceptionalism and insulation than American engagement and multilateralism. However, in our tense, interconnected global village, Romney embraces the more modern, muscular, neoconservative tradition. In short, Romney tends to see America’s involvement overseas as unfortunate, but is comfortable with America asserting itself aggressively both militarily and ideologically abroad, even if that means acting alone. If Romney becomes President, he will have to become more diplomatic and less unilateral than he would like – or than he currently promises.

Regarding the Middle East, while having more Palestinian and pro-Palestinian friends, Obama is also more sensitive to Arab, European, and UN opinion on Israel – although he has resisted the harshest anti-Israel voices there. In addition to disdaining the court of international public opinion, Romney recognizes that anti-Americanism and Islamism help fuel Palestinian terrorism. This makes him particularly hostile to Palestinian nationalism – and far more skeptical about the Arab spring than Obama, who still hopes for redemptive democratic results. So, if Obama wins, Israel does have cause for concern. Especially given the toxic dynamics between Obama and Bibi Netanyahu, chances are good that Obama will pressure Israel for more concessions on the Palestinian issue than many Israelis would otherwise make, and relations regarding Iran will continue to be fragile. Meanwhile, a winning Romney will probably have to adjust and show some sensitivity to Palestinian conc erns to preserve American credibility on the issue – as George W. Bush did when endorsing a Palestinian state.

Ultimately, while tactics may vary, events may intrude, and sparks did fly, the debate left the impression of more convergence than divergence. Both candidates hope to stop Iran, contain China, support Israel, see a flourishing Democratic Arab spring. Even amid this campaign’s enmity, we could hear a helpful reminder that America’s greatest foreign policy victories, including winning World War II and the Cold War, were bipartisan moments uniting the nation not dividing parties.

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

President Barack Obama: Neither “Best Friend” Nor “Anti-Israel”

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-17-12

A Washington Post editorial on October 16 matter of factly stated the obvious: that President Barack Obama “sought to publicly distance himself from Israel early in his term” and that Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu “have made a mess of their personal relationship.” Both of these statements are quite obvious even to many casual observers of the Middle East. But it contradicts the central claim of many pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrats that Barack Obama has been “Israel’s best friend,” with some even claiming he is the best presidential friend Israel “ever” had.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)
Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

Both exaggerations emerge from the unhappy overlap between a common Israeli political pathology and a common American pathology. For decades now, the discourse about Israel has been far too hysterical, far too polemical, far too zero-sum. I call this the IAF—just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. Too many of Israel’s most ardent supporters brook no dissent, deeming anyone who deviates from their particular political playbook “anti-Israel.” This hawkish defensiveness is partially understandable, given the harsh anti-Israel voices out there, who quickly jump from criticizing an Israeli action to repudiating Zionism and the Jewish State. While being careful to avoid suggesting any moral equivalence between Israel’s overzealous defenders and its genocidal critics, we can acknowledge that such extremism is not helpful, on either side.

Having endured attempts to delegitimize us as Zionists, we should be careful not to delegitimize others. Obama, therefore, is not “anti-Israel,” but he is critical and skeptical about some Israeli policies, which has led him sometimes to be unreasonably hard on Israel.

Unfortunately, admitting that is not only difficult in the hysterical Israeli context, such nuance is no longer welcome in the American political context either.

In the age of the red-blue, right-left, Mitt Romney-Barack Obama polarization, shades of grey are welcome as trashy literature but not in American politics. In my book “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: From George Washington to Barack Obama,” I quote New York’s legendary mayor Ed Koch, who challenged voters, saying, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

American politics has also too frequently become an all-or-nothing proposition, making the USA the United States of Agita. As Republicans and Democrats twist themselves into ideological pretzels, or stretch further than “The Incredibles’” Elastigirl to accommodate their particular party’s most outlandish positions or politicians, subtlety is lost. Candidates get labeled as pro-this or anti-that, when effective politics or governance often requires a lighter touch, some acknowledgement of complexity.

So, yes, even as the campaign culminates in a down-to-the-wire slugfest, let’s try to restrain ourselves, and avoid extremes. I am waiting for a pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrat either to admit to voting for Obama despite his Israel position, or to support Obama’s Israel position as measured, complex but not the most enthusiastic support, ever. Similarly, I invite others who condemn some, not all, of Obama’s Middle East policies to join me in repudiating them, complimenting other positions, and calling Obama an Israel-skeptic but not anti-Israel. Let’s reserve that term of opprobrium for Israel’s enemies, who unfortunately earn that ignominious label, far too frequently and enthusiastically, day after day.

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

Memo To The US: Avoid Extremes While Fighting Islamists

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-18-12

With anti-American riots persisting, and the loved ones of the murdered American diplomats and security personnel mourning, the debate about Middle East matters remains polarizing – and depressing.  Two schools of thought dominate, and both are wrong. The first group, the submitters, is too quick to apologize, too quick to appease. The second, even more unappealing group, the bigots, is too quick to demonize, too quick to swagger.   In the long torturous history of the clash between East and West, both extremes err – by negating Western values in a pathetic attempt to woo the East or by perverting Western values in a contemptible expression of contempt for the East.

Unfortunately, too many American diplomats and Obama administration officials are submitters. These are the people who immediately accepted the false rationale blaming the anti-Mohammed video clip as the rationale for the Libyan riots, without noticing that these events were occurring on 9/11 – and that the Libyan “protestors” came well-armed and well-briefed about the Benghazi diplomatic compound.  These Arabist apologists quickly repudiated the now-infamous video, forgetting that citizens in a democracy cannot take responsibility for every ugly way fellow citizens might use freedom of speech – while also forgetting that throughout the Middle East official government organs, especially religious leaders, spew anti-American bigotry.

David Harris, the thoughtful Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, notes that Palestinians have a culture of blame, Jews have a culture of guilt; his insight applies more broadly too.  Especially since the 1960s, the West is perpetually seen as guilty of many sins, while anti-Americanism has become as ubiquitous in the Middle East, as sand, oil, Islam, kaffiyas, and anti-Zionism.   Too many Americans have internalized this detailed indictment of our culture as imperialist, colonialist, and racist.

As Westerners who talk about diversity and tolerance but are surprisingly limited in their imaginations, the submitters tend to believe that every one around the world thinks and acts as they do.  And as rationalists unable to fathom the Arab street’s twisted illogic, too many assume that if we demonstrate our goodwill, if we behave properly, we will reconcile with our Eastern neighbors.  This thinking prompted Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and fed elite America’s enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring. Seeing Arab protestors as incipient Jeffersonians with laptops – without fathoming that they might become Islamist warriors with RPGs – they waxed poetic about the new democracies aborning, abandoned American allies, and condemned Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israelis for daring to doubt, for worrying before celebrating.

Especially at the start of his administration, Obama frequently telegraphed a sense of American guilt. While anti-Americanism existed long before Obama appeared on the national scene, it is fair to ask whether his apologetics – and general hesitancy in leadership – broadcast a dangerous message of American weakness which emboldened the Islamist attackers.

These submitters frequently apologize for and feel superior to the bigots, who tap into longstanding prejudices against anyone who is different, as well as particular Western condescension toward Muslims and Arabs, as pagans and savages.  The reprehensible video clip; the misinformation that the producers were an Israeli with 100 Jewish donors backing him, reflect the bigots’ simplistic, perverse, dog-eat-dog – or more accurately group-fight-group – worldview – how convenient to scapegoat Israelis and Jews.  Moreover, these people think that patriotism is about bluster, xenophobia, and demonization, when democratic patriotism entails pride, moderation and discernment. Mitt Romney has to be wary of stirring these extremists, either directly or indirectly.

In 1975, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was American ambassador to the United Nations, he rejected the State Department culture of guilt and appeasement. He found most American diplomats unprepared for the realities of the new world, where the US was in opposition, a world of blaming America as a way of absolving your own country of responsibility.  Moynihan wanted to hold countries accountable for their rhetoric –- and their UN votes — especially if they received American subsidies.

Moynihan took what other countries said and did seriously, and he wanted to end America’s post-Vietnam self-flagellation spree. His approach thrilled the American people. He became an American pop star, cheered for his stand, beloved for his courage, and won four elections to the US Senate over the next quarter-century. But Moynihan’s approach was too countercultural for a State Department that had internalized the Sixties Counterculture’s values.  He only lasted as Ambassador for eight months, resigning after being undermined by Henry Kissinger’s Machiaevellian moves.

Channeling Moynihan’s defiant defense of American democracy, a proper, patriotic defense of America should include Mitt Romney’s refusal to apologize, with Barack Obama’s sharp reminder to Egypt’s president to act like an ally. It should avoid demonization of Islam, Muhammad, or any Arab country, without apologizing for American values and American freedoms. Countries which accept American help should be expected to accept America as a friend, which includes not having official state organs and nationally-subsidized religious leaders rabblerousing against the US.  Americans have every right to be furious – and should attack this anti-Americanism indignantly and aggressively. American diplomats should confront leaders who use anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism as the stimulant of the Arab masses.  Diplomats must remember their primary mission is to defend their country’s interests and dignity, not make friends at any cost.

There is a perverse reversal in the Middle East today.  Americans should be the ones rallying on 9/11 against their enemies—because they were victimized.  Americans should be demonstrating angrily against the outrageous attacks against their representatives in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere. Fortunately, overall the tradition of national self-restraint holds, even as marginal loudmouths like the Reverend Terry Jones spew hatred. Neither submitting meekly nor succumbing to racism, Americans should continue resisting this constant, systematic assault, championing democracy, American values with a proud, constructive, strategic but strong, don’t tread on me approach.

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

Nuke-Washing Iran

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-7-12

For more than six decades, the fight against nuclear proliferation has been a central concern of the left. From J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 1940s to Helen Caldicott in the 1980s, proclaiming “No Nukes” has been an easy way in for the “Yes We Can” crowd. The 2008 Democratic platform, envisioning  “a world without nuclear weapons,” reflected Barack Obama’s deep yearnings, and the left-leaning academic milieu from which he came.

Given that, it is surprising—and dismaying—that the fight to block Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons has not stirred progressive passions. Such things are hard to quantify, but it has not been a popular issue on the left. The level of activism pales in comparison to1980s’ standards. There has been no 700,000-person demonstration in Central Park, no prime time apocalyptic television movie like the ABC 1983 blockbuster “The Day After,” no push like the one from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)

 

Here we seem to have a case of nuke-washing (or radioactive cleansing, as it were), with two possible explanations. First, just as Palestinians who target Israelis are often called “militants” when their al-Qaeda comrades who target Americas or other innocents are “terrorists,” threatening Israel does not generate the same outrage as threatening other countries. The Non-Aligned Movement farce that played out in Teheran last week, not only undercut the Obama administration’s salutary push to isolate and sanction Iran, but it made countries like India complicit in Iranian war-mongering when their delegates  did not object to the rhetorical targeting of Israel. Similarly, on campus and in other progressive centers, Israeli checkpoints for security trigger many more protests than Iranian plans for weapons of mass destruction.

My late grandfather would have sighed and said, “Jewish life is cheap.” But it’s a culture of blaming Israel, demonizing Zionism, and romanticizing Palestinians that gives Israel’s enemies a free moral pass in too many quarters. Israel’s controversial policies regarding the Palestinians have created a popular construct that delegitimizes the Jewish state (and the entire Zionist project) well beyond the confines of the Holy Land.

The concept of “pinkwashing,” for example, had to be developed to overcome progressive cognitive dissonance. How could a country that has been so demonized, whose very essence has been deemed corrupt and evil, be so much more enlightened than its neighbors on that core value of the left, equal rights for the LGBT community? Simple: turn that genuine expression of Israeli democracy and human rights into a propaganda ploy by the supposedly sinister, all-power Israeli Hasbara manipulators and lobbyists.

The second explanation reflects a broader historical phenomenon. Since the 1960s, the culture of Western self-flagellation has created an outrage gap, exaggerating any Western, liberal democratic imperfections while excusing many serious Third World crimes. We saw this in the 1970s, when the UN was silent for years regarding the genocide in Cambodia, occupying its time instead branding Zionism as racism and bashing the U.S. as colonialist. We saw this in the 1980s, when the left-wing “no nuke” protests in Europe and the U.S. focused much more on American proliferation than Soviet expansionism and weaponry. This culture of self-blame purports to be anti-racist, but actually reflects liberal condescension and its own imperialist arrogance. Rather than holding every country to the same moral standard, all too often dictatorial enemies of the United States get a free pass—especially those from the Third World.

While the myopic left long excused the sins of others, there was a more muscular, less hypocritical progressive tradition in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that vigorously fought dictators and international outlaws. As our own Peter Beinart wrote in his 2006 book, The Good Fight, “antitotalitarianism” once sat “at the heart of the liberal project.” It was the Henry Wallace—George McGovern—Michael Moore counter-tradition that “preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”

Barack Obama arrived in the Oval Office in 2009, frequently sounding like he was a standard bearer of that purist, pacifist, appeasing counter-tradition. Yet in his steely determination to hunt down al Qaida terrorists with drones, and in his cool-headed approval of the plan to take down Osama Bin Laden, Obama often took the tougher approach, though still with a liberal outlook. Whether he will be equally strong with Iran remains to be seen.

Of course, the “no nukes” crowd will be quick to talk of a nuclear-free Middle East, sweeping Israel into the push against Iranian nuclear proliferation. Here, too, the nuke-washers will reflect a double standard. Israel’s weilds its presumed decades-old nuclear power quietly, as a democracy accountable to its people. The Iranian theoocracy, which threatens the United States, not just Israel, cannot clam the same restraint or accountability to its citizens.

I challenge my colleagues and this generation of the left: stand strong and shout “No Iranian Nukes.” Obama committed himself to non-proliferation, and to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons, but he needs the support of progressives, and liberals at home and among the international community.

There could be an immediate peace payoff if the protests take off. Mass protests against Iranian nuclear proliferation might help make sanctions work, might rein in the Iranians, and might make Israel feel less embattled and less compelled to defend itself militarily, even possibly unilaterally against what the Iranians’ own rhetoric has suggested could be an existential threat to the Jewish state and other democracies.

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

How Many Democrats Booed Jerusalem at the DNC?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-6-12

When the Democrats restored the Party’s now traditional affirmation of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, there were so many noes that the move required three attempts to be accepted. Eventually, the plank was pushed through, albeit ham-handedly, to boos from a loud minority. That display of hostility in the Democratic lovefest, as well as the initial desire to drop the Jerusalem plank from the Party platform, tells a tale about an internal Democratic debate—and possible shift—that pro-Israel Democrats are desperately trying to cover up.

No matter how many glowing New York Times op-eds Haim Saban writes, no matter how many pro-Israel speeches Robert Wexler gives, no matter how many times they channel Pravda by hitting the same talking points about Barack Obama’s love for Israel, Democrats cannot ignore the elephant—er, over-sized donkey in the convention hall. Like it or not, the Democratic Party is becoming the home address of anti-Israel forces as well as Israel skeptics. And Democratic support is flagging, with a 15-point gap between Republican support for Israel and Democratic support. I believe strongly that support for Israel should be a bipartisan bedrock—and with more than 70 percent of Americans supporting Israel that foundation remains strong. The new partisan disparity is between an overwhelming 80 percent of Republicans and a still solid 65 percent of Democrats.

obama-aipac

J. Scott Applewhite / AP Photo

 

I have criticized the Republicans for trying to make supporting Israel a wedge issue through demagoguery. But Democrats should not deny that they are also helping to make Israel a wedge issue by hosting those who are hostile to Israel and then covering it up dishonestly.

As an observer, not a pollster, I perceive four different factions within the Democratic coalition regarding Israel. The largest probably remains the I-love-Israel and I-love-America AIPAC Democrats. These are pro-Israel, pro-Israeli-government liberals, who have no problem being progressive domestically and supporting Israel enthusiastically, especially since 9/11 and the Palestinian wave of terror reinforced their understandings of the shared values, interests, and needs of the United States and Israel.

A growing faction, which is probably louder and sounds more influential than it actually is statistically, is the “Tough Love,” anti-settlement, J-Street Democrats. These people are deeply pro-Israel, but also deeply hostile to the Netanyahu government, deeply sympathetic to the Palestinians, outraged by the settlements, and convinced that Israel needs to be pressured—not coddled—for there to be peace. Barack Obama has fluctuated between those two positions as president—and there is a disparity of 50 percent to 25 percent in Bibi Netanyahu’s favorability ratings among Republicans versus Democrats.

Before his presidency, Obama also flirted with a third faction, which was probably the main source of the booers—enhanced, I would guess, by some J-Streeters who are incredibly sensitive to the Muslim-Arab “optics” (meaning how American actions look to the Muslim and Arab world), yet incredibly insensitive to the Jewish-Zionist “optics” (meaning how American actions look to Israel and Israel’s supporters). Members of this third Jimmy Carter-Jesse Jackson, Israel-Apartheid, Zionism-racism faction are ardently pro-Palestinian, hostile to Israel—not just its government—and disappointed with Democratic support for Israel. Nevertheless, they are far more disgusted with Republican positions on just about anything, which is what keeps them Democrats.

Finally, and we Israel junkies tend to ignore them, are the “whatever”-John Edwards Democrats. Never forget that many Americans are like John Edwards, they just do not care that much about this issue. I am sure that Edwards said the “right” things about Israel so he would get the votes he sought, but he never took leadership, never embraced the Jewish State, and was probably just phoning it in, as my students say.

I will admit, the Jerusalem issue is somewhat of a red herring. It is, like the abortion issue domestically, more symbolic than real—the chances of an American embassy in Jerusalem during the next four years, whoever wins, are about as unlikely as the chances of a reversal of Roe v. Wade that would ban abortions. But these symbolic issues count in politics, showing core values, broadcasting an identity, and often indicating where a party is heading.

Under Obama, there has been a drip-drip-drip, a steady draining of general Democratic support for the pro-Israel community. Moreover, Obama’s failure to visit Israel after his Cairo speech, his testy relationship with Netanyahu (for which both are responsible), his fumbling on the settlement issue (which gave the Palestinians a new excuse to avoid negotiations), the post-Biden trip blow-up which could have been more astutely handled, his failure just recently to distance himself from General Dempsey’s insulting remarks about a possible Israeli airstrike, as well as this unnecessary Jerusalem platform plank brouhaha, suggest a certain tone-deafness on the Israel file, at best, and a hidden animus, at worst. At a time when those of us who wish to avoid an Iran-Israel war understand that the Israeli government needs reassurance that the United States is completely behind Israel, these kinds of misfires are dangerous.

In the Party, J-Street Democrats have too often been either a stepping stone for Democrats seeking to distance themselves from their AIPAC comrades or, frankly, a cover for a deeper anti-Israel hostility. Just as in 1991, William F. Buckley confronted Pat Buchanan’s anti-Israel and anti-Semitic prejudice on the right, pro-Israel Democrats need to confront the Jimmy Carter-Jesse Jackson faction’s anti-Israel and occasionally anti-Semitic animus from the Left. If they continue simply uttering denials, offering the same laundry list of Obama’s pro-Israel moves, claiming Obama is the most pro-Israel president ever, they risk losing both their credibility—and their dominance in a party that was the party of such champions of Israel as Harry Truman and John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson and Hubert Humphrey, Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy, Henry Jackson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

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

Carter Is Worse Than Clint

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-4-12

Bill Clinton was smart enough to keep Jimmy Carter, the Herbert Hoover of the Democratic Party, away from the 1996 Democratic National Convention; Barack Obama should have been equally wise. Instead, the ex-president will give a video address to Democratic delegates in Charlotte tonight, with the convention chair declaring Carter “one of the greatest humanitarian leaders of our time and a champion of democracy.” Not quite.

Throughout his 1992 campaign, then-Governor Clinton feared being branded ”another Jimmy Carter,” and proclaimed ”Jimmy Carter and I are as different as daylight and dark.” The Democrats’ invitation to Carter is as reckless as the Republicans’ invitation to Clint Eastwood. But if “Dirty Harry” undermined Republican dignity by trash-talking to an empty chair, Sanctimonious Jimmy has repeatedly threatened Democratic credibility by standing on a wobbly platform, kowtowing to dictators, and reminding voters of the modern era’s greatest Democratic presidential failure.

begin-carter-sadat-openz
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Jimmy Carter and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat at Camp David in 1978 (Bill Fitz-Patrick / Jimmy Carter Library)

Between 1977 and 1981, Jimmy Carter inherited a country that was worried and left it demoralized, an economy that was sagging and left it limping, a foreign policy that was floundering and left it failing. Under his watch, Iran fell, inflation soared, and “malaise” became the buzzword of the moment, as Americans feared their power and prosperity were disappearing forever. Jimmy Carter helped spawn the Reagan Revolution, serving so usefully as the pathetic, impotent set-up man to Ronald Reagan’s vigorous, upbeat “Morning in America” routine.

As an ex-President, Carter has done some good, setting an example of public service—not private gain—and fighting disease in Africa, just as he had some presidential accomplishments, notably brokering the Camp David Peace Accords. But ex-President Carter spent too much time running for the Nobel Prize, playing a role more suited to the President of Europe than an American ex-President by catering to the Continent’s appeasement instincts. Carter seemingly never met a dictator he did not like, palling around with Yasser Arafat, Kim Jong Il, Fidel Castro, and the Chinese oligarchs, hugging Hamasniks, while toadying to Syria’s late dictator Hafez al-Assad in person and print—one chapter in Carter’s infamous book on the Middle East mostly rehashed his meetings with Assad, making the Syrian strongman seem like a likeable, peace-seeking fellow.

Of course, that book achieved the most notoriety because of its inflammatory, inaccurate, insulting title: “Palestine: Peace not Apartheid.” In the book, Carter did not even bother making the case against Israel on those grounds, barely mentioning the word or adducing evidence. And when pressed, he innocently claimed he was not accusing Israel of racism or piling on with the demonizers against the Jewish State; to him, “Apartheid” meant apartness. As I wrote then, using the Apartheid label without seeking to impute racism would be like calling Carter a redneck and claiming it referred only to his tanning habits. Anyone unaware of the term’s resonance is not the Middle East expert Carter purports to be.

Barack Obama has tried to be the Democratic Reagan—healing America economically and transforming it ideologically—not Jimmy Carter redux, weakening America abroad and flailing economically at home. Obama has sought to demonstrate that he is not just pro-Israel, but he is sensitive to Israeli sensibilities. And Obama has worked to push American foreign policy beyond Carterite apologetics or Bushesque saber-rattling. Just as Repulicans did not feature former President George W. Bush at their convention last week in Tampa, Democrats could have not invited Carter. Instead, they handed Republicans a gift by honoring Carter at the convention, giving this presidential has-been center-stage when others such as Clinton did not. The Carter lovefest shows insensitivity to the buzzword of this year—the optics—not just with Israel but with American voters.

Just when Barack Obama must inspire Americans away from taking an “ABO”—Anybody but Obama—tack, it is counter-productive and self-destructive to highlight the prim, brittle, holier-than-thou, more-left-than-the-American-mainstream, far too European-oriented politician. As a candidate in 1980, Carter lost ten points in the polls just days before Election Day when Republicans took up the motto “ABC”—Anybody but Carter. That’s exactly how Ronald Reagan won.

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

Don’t Make Israel a Wedge Issue in 2012

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-4-12

In his acceptance speech, the Republican nominee Mitt Romney charged that “President Obama has thrown allies like Israel under the bus.”  Beyond its vulgarity – stirring fears of statecraft by cliché – the statement is inaccurate and mischievous. “Under the bus” implies that Barack Obama has abandoned Israel, when the reality is more complicated. It also suggests Israel has suffered a catastrophic flattening blow, which is false. The throwaway line is yet another partisan attempt to make Israel a wedge issue in American politics, when support for the deep, enduring friendship between the United States and Israel should remain a bipartisan bedrock, a common foundation for each party’s foreign policy.

Public discourse about Israel, from friends and foes, is too hysterical. Many of Israel’s supporters have been so traumatized by the disproportionate attacks against Israel, the demonization of Zionism, the anti-Semitism underlying some criticism of Israel, and the existential nature of threats from Iran and others, that they exaggerate other critics’ hostility and the Jewish State’s vulnerability.

Not every criticism of Israel threatens Israel’s existence. Not every critic of Israel’s policies is “anti-Israel.” Barack Obama buys the pro-Israel’s Left tough-love toward Israel approach to solving the Palestinian problem and he occasionally offends Israeli sensibilities, including foolishly inviting Jimmy Carter to address the Democratic National Convention. Obama unfairly scapegoated Israeli settlements while excusing or overlooking Palestinian obstructionism. He broadcasts disdain for Benjamin Netanyahu while going wobbly sometimes on Mahmoud Abbas. He snubbed the Jewish State by not visiting it, visiting Buchenwald as compensation. He has not disavowed the hostile comments of the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staffs, Gen. Martin Dempsey, that he will not “be complicit” if Israel strikes Iran – and has unfairly fed the perception of Israelis as being too aggressive when he should be tougher on Iran.

Still, Obama is not “anti-Israel.” He stood strong for Israel when Egyptian mobs overran Israel’s Cairo embassy, defended Israel in the UN, and strengthened US-Israeli military cooperation in key areas too.

Calling someone who supports Israel’s right to exist yet criticizes its policies “anti-Israel,” foolishly emboldens the delegitimizers. It suggests more people are anti-Israel than actually are. Israel “love it or leave it” talk makes Israel seem more fragile and hostile to criticism than it is. It mirrors and reinforces the Is-crits’ tendency to escalate discussion about Israel’s policies from constructively debating government policies to pathologically questioning the country’s very existence.

Unfortunately, there are enough anti-Israel Iranians, Palestinians, and, I regret to say, Progressives, who question Jew’s basic rights to national self-determination. We should repudiate those Arafatian Ahmadinejads and their fellow travelers, not a president who takes some positions I reject but are within the mainstream spectrum of Israeli, Jewish and American opinion.

This panicky, histrionic, all-or-nothing, debate about whether Obama is “pro” or “anti” Israel overly sentimentalizes and politicizes the American-Israeli friendship. This tendency goes back to 1948, when Eddie Jacobson lobbied President Harry Truman, his old army buddy and business partner, to support the emerging Jewish State. But sentiment rarely dictates statesmanship. Truman supported the Jewish State for many sound political and geopolitical reasons too. These included the 1948 election race, common values, seeking to solve the “Jewish problem” after the Holocaust, a desire for democratic allies in the Middle East as the Cold War heated up, and — as the historian and diplomat Michael Oren detailed in his authoritative Power, Faith, and Fantasy:  America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present – American presidents’ longstanding bipartisan commitment to Zionism.

Since 1948, that friendship has flourished, and transcends any individual, even America’s president. As the Republicans’ 2012 platform reads, “Our starting point must always be our special relationship with Israel, grounded in shared interests and shared values, and a clear, strong fundamental commitment to the security of Israel, our strongest ally in the region and its only established democracy.” Oops. That is the Democrats’ 2008 platform.  The Republicans wrote: “The security of Israel is in the vital national security interest of the United States; our alliance is based not only on shared interests, but also shared values.”

This language overlap shows that the American-Israel friendship is not precariously perched on artificial Astroturf, imposed by some powerful lobby or buffeted by changing presidential whims. Rather, the American-Israel alliance is natural, deep-seeded, sprouting from the grassroots and mutually beneficial to both countries.

Polls, political statements and policies indicate that Israel remains extremely popular among most Republicans and Democrats. The Republicans have a Pat Buchanan anti-Israel isolationist wing while the Democrats have a Jesse Jackson anti-Israel radical left wing, proving that, like the globe itself, the political world is round; at the extremes the zanies meet.

Unfortunately, since the far Democratic Left deemed almost anything George W. Bush embraced as toxic, too many radical Democrats have branded Israel a right-wing, neoconservative project. Not enough pro-Israel Democrats have confronted their far left peers’ neo-conning of Israel. Someone with impeccable leftwing credentials should expose the underlying prejudices of the new anti-Zionist Left, just as the iconic conservative William F. Buckley confronted Pat Buchanan’s anti-Israel, anti-Semitism on the Right in 1991. Democrats should admit that too many anti-Israel voices have found a welcoming home in their party.

Nevertheless, American political parties are broad umbrella coalitions. No candidate can be responsible for everyone sitting in one particular tent. While pro-Israel Democrats should purge their extremists, pro-Israel Republicans should avoid overly politicizing the Israel file. Making Israel a wedge issue, caricaturing Obama as “anti-Israel,” is untrue and counter-productive.

Let’s debate the candidates’ proposed policies and strategies. Let’s avoid loyalty oaths, denunciations, and recriminations. And let’s insist that the 2012 winner stop Iran’s nuclearization, for America’s safety not just Israel’s.

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

Learning from Obama’s gay marriage wobble

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-15-12

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me.

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me. For a president of the United States to back into such a monumental announcement reflected weakness, not strength, diminishing the man, the message and the office. Even as gay activists and Democrats try spinning Obama’s wobbly stand as heroic, newly-energized prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not learn leadership lessons from his “frenemy.”

Netanyahu must start leading on key issues rather than skirting them as he has been doing, or playing it too cute by half as Obama just did.

This twist in the gay marriage saga began on Meet the Press, when Vice President Foot-in-mouth, aka Joe Biden, proclaimed when asked directly: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

Biden is lucky he is a Democrat. He is windier, wordier, less disciplined than Dan Quayle, but because Biden’s views are more in synch with many reporters – as on this issue – he has largely been spared the ridicule he deserves. Biden opposed the Osama bin Laden raid, then called it the most “audacious” military operation in “500 years.” He greeted Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, the Congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head, upon her return to Congress by saying, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me.” He once was caught on microphone dropping “the f-bomb” after introducing the president in the White House.

This time, even Obama admitted that Biden got “a little over his skis.” Nevertheless, by midweek, on Wednesday May 9, the president followed the vice president by acknowledging in an ABC interview that “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue” and “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that – for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that – I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

As befit the interview format and America’s confessional culture, Obama justified the decision personally, not ideologically.

Hoping the issue could be “worked out at the local level,” he dodged the Constitutional and national policy questions. He spoke instead about “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” about gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or – sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” and about his daughters Malia and Sasha – “they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples” who shouldn’t be “treated differently.”

In a pathological tell, wherein you accuse your opponent of doing precisely what you are doing as you do it, Obama then started attacking Mitt Romney’s inconstancy, which Obama called “one of his Etch-a- Sketch moments.” Obama was echoing a Republican spokesman’s Bidenesque characterization of the adjustments Romney will make while transitioning from the primary campaign to the general election. If the traditional definition of chutzpah is killing your parents then pleading for mercy as an orphan, Obama’s chutzpah entails calling Romney an Etch-a-Sketch leader while shaking and redrawing his gay marriage stance in his boobish vice president’s tailwind.

Great leaders evolve. They shift their positions, rethink strategies, adjust their tactics and even, sometimes, reexamine core convictions, as Richard Nixon did with his diplomatic breakthrough to China, and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement.

But my mother taught that if you are going to do it, do it right.

John Kennedy’s civil rights stance evolved. The tentative politician who tried dodging the black equality issue in January 1960 became a statesman who confronted it eloquently on June 11, 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the president proclaimed in what became hailed as his Civil Rights speech. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Obama, instead, bequeathed to American history an unmemorable conversational announcement elicited by a reporter that had all the poetry of a gas bill, while triggering back stories about Biden’s subsequent make-up meeting with Obama, and Democratic election advisers’ fury over Biden’s blabbing.

Learning what not to do from Obama, Netanyahu should mobilize his expanded, empowered coalition to change Israeli history boldly and clearly. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been part stealth leader, part ward boss. His greatest accomplishments have included quietly blocking undemocratic legislation and tending his weak, fractious coalition. Now, he should stop treading water.

Rather than simply maneuvering in the Knesset he should start addressing the nation about tough issues. He should frame the upcoming debate over the Tal Law as a broader opportunity to redraw Israel’s social contract, emphasizing the special rights haredim and Arabs will enjoy while also emphasizing their communal responsibilities.

He should confront the anti-Zionist rabbinate and carve out more civic space for marriages, births, easy conversions and divorce.

He should not wait for another round of social protests before seeking a new balance that shows the world how to preserve Israel’s impressive prosperity while securing the social safety net without making middle class taxpayers feel like “freiers” (suckers).

And he should continue showing that with both the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel will determine its own destiny, neither held hostage to enemies’ whims nor handcuffed by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Westerners.

When Kennedy became president, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned that only the difficult decisions ended up in the Oval Office. Leading entails choosing between competing goods – or bads. In the US and Israel, sister democracies, we should give our leaders a break, understanding the complex challenges they face. And they should give us what we crave – clearer, more muscular, more principled statesmanship.

The writer 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 will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

Jews in the Bosom of Father Abraham — and America

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-16-12

Imagine, if you can, an American Jewish nightmare. What would American Jewish voters do if a presidential candidate they considered good for the country was bad for the Jews – or Israel? Would they vote as “good Americans,” judging governing philosophy, domestic policy preferences, and personal character, or would they act as single-issue voters?

A great irony of American Jewish history is that most people, Jews and non-Jews, consider Jews single-issue voters who always place Jewish interests first– even though voting patterns suggest otherwise. Long before the age of Barack Obama, American Jews have been far more passionately pro-choice than pro-Israel. For most, their liberalism has always trumped their Zionism at the voting booths, because so many blur their identities as Jews and Democrats.

Of course, one of American Jewish history’s great blessings is that Jews have rarely faced such an unhappy, Hobson’s Choice. Support for Israel has been a bipartisan tenet for decades, while the United States has welcomed Jews warmly overall.

And yet, despite American Jewish history’s generally happy demeanor, this sense of vulnerability persists. The anxiety partly stems from the community’s reputation as being more particularist than patriotic. Moreover, the opening contrast was unfair – single-issue voting is as “good,” as “American” a political choice as voting for a candidate’s philosophy, policies, or personality.

People fascinated by these questions, and by American Jews’ enduring ambivalence about power, will particularly enjoy reading Jonathan Sarna’s new tour de force, When General Grant Expelled the Jews. An award-winning-historian at Brandeis University and chief historian of the new National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, Sarna begins his short compelling book about Grant’s General Orders No. 11, promulgated in 1862, with this “central conundrum of Jewish politics” from Ulysses S. Grant’s 1868 presidential campaign. Most Jews at the time believed that the late Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party was best suited to lead the country. But some hesitated to choose Grant as Lincoln’s successor, given Grant’s involvement in what might be the most outrageous act of anti-Semitism in American history, the banning of Jews “as a class violating every regulation of trade” from Tennessee during the Civil War.

Sarna’s book – which he wrote while on sabbatical in Jerusalem, where I was lucky enough to befriend him – provides good news cubed. First, this “worst” act of American anti-Semitism was mild, and quickly rescinded. Second, by the time Grant ran for president six years later in 1868, he had repeatedly done tshuva – repented – for what his own wife Julia called “that obnoxious order.” And third, Grant worked so hard to undo this stain on his honor that, Sarna writes, as president, he relied on a prominent Jewish advisor, “appointed a series of Jews to public office, attended a long, tedious synagogue dedication – staying until the end — and had aides help save “persecuted Jews in Russia and Romania.” “General Orders No. 11 marked a turning point in American Jewish history,” Sarna argues. “Paradoxically, Ulysses S. Grant’s order expelling the Jews set the stage for their empowerment.”

A great historian at the top of his game, Sarna cannot resist telling the story of General Orders No. 11 with all its traditional melodrama, while helping the reader retain enough skepticism in case the tale’s most colorful aspects were embroidered. The irresistible story has one Prussian immigrant who settled in Paducah, Kentucky, Cesar Kaskel, defending the Jewish people against expulsion – the smuggling by some Jews had endangered them all — by lobbying the President of the United States. What Sarna subtly calls “the oft-quoted report” claims Abraham Lincoln responded grandly, Biblically:

“And so the children of Israel were driven from the happy land of Canaan?”

Kaskel responded: “Yes, and that is why we have come unto Father Abraham’s bosom, asking protection.”

“Father Abraham” then replied, “And this protection they shall have at once.”

The kind of broad-minded historian who uses small incidents to make sweeping points effectively, judiciously, Sarna turns the book into a celebration of American exceptionalism. And his ending is not just “happy” but downright poetic. Grant’s transformation from the General who expelled “Jews as a class,” Sarna writes, “to a president who embraced Jews as individuals – reminds us that even great figures in history can learn from their mistakes.” Sarna finishes, powerfully: “In America, hatred can be overcome.”

That finale makes the book most suited for this season – and for the excellent “Jewish Encounters” Series, a Shocken-Nextbook collaboration, so ably edited by the novelist and essayist Jonathan Rosen. These gems sparkle because, as with Sarna’s book, they take a small moment, or one theme, and in a short, punchy, readable monograph, illuminate bigger, important, dimensions of the Jewish experience.

Sarna’s salute to America captures American Jewry’s optimistic mood today — despite the epidemic political nastiness, despite the lingering economic troubles, despite the looming threats to the American dream. American Jews are feeling good about themselves – as further exemplified by the extraordinary New American Haggadah that leading American Jewish novelists, journalists, and essayists produced this year. In fact, whereas most Israelis and Zionists have learned not to indulge in Shlilat HaGolah – negation of the Diaspora – we are starting to see a new, arrogant, Shlilat Zion – an American Jewish condescension toward Israel as world Jewry’s perpetual headache, viewing America as the Jews’ Promised Land

Sarna’s Grant book focuses on the story’s happiest elements – the public dimensions. An earlier work of Sarna’s, American Judaism, highlights the more ambiguous, fraught, private American Jewish religious story – a story of assimilation, for better and worse. The more humbling assessment that follows reminds us, as we prepare to celebrate Israel’s 64th birthday, that the relationship between American Jews and Israelis should be mutual. Each side benefits when the other thrives.

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

Obama Neither anti-Israel nor the most pro-Israel President, ever, really, really…

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-13-12

Although we need calm, smart, nuanced, conversation about Israel and its challenges, an epidemic of stupid has broken out on the subject. On the right, many refuse to admit that President Barack Obama can believe in Israel’s right to exist even if he dislikes some Israeli policies or Israel’s prime minister. Instead, extremists call Obama anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. The blogger Pamela Gellar said Obama was “wet-nursed on Jew-hatred” in Indonesia.  The left is equally idiotic. Last fall, a New York Magazine cover story proclaimed Barack Obama Israel’s “first Jewish President,” echoing the African-American novelist Toni Morrison’s foolish, borderline racist, characterization of Bill Clinton as “the first black President” because he was “born poor,” loved “junk food” and suffered as his “unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution.” Apparently, in his forthcoming book, Peter Beinart also calls Obama “a Jewish President.” Last week, Thomas Friedman proclaimed Obama “Israel’s best friend,” wondering in the New York Times whether Obama “is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.” As the Republican presidential campaign proves, political hysteria these days is not limited to the Israel file. Two unfortunate modern political phenomena are reinforcing each other, creating this scourge of rhetorical exaggeration when talking about Israel.
The first is the broader problem of political polarization in American politics – and other democracies. With the hysterical blogosphere, hit-and-run talk radio, trash-talking media outlets, and my-way-or-the-highway extremist politicians, too many people try making too many issues make-or-break, zero-sum choices.  Partisan aggression trumps consensus building. Viewing politics through a Democratic-Republican or left-right prism distorts. As New York Mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Yet, AIPAC can host 13,000 Jews and non-Jews, blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans at its policy conference but rather than marveling at the broad consensus supporting Israel and complimenting this extraordinarily impressive bipartisan organization, with, if anything a liberal bent because of American Jewry’s liberal tendencies, it has become fashionable to call AIPAC “right-wing.”
Similarly, in hailing Obama, Thomas Friedman only blamed the Republicans for politicizing the Israel issue, making it a “wedge issue” to play for Jewish support.  Friedman was half right. Some Republicans have demagogically tried to make supporting Israel exclusively their partisan domain. But the other half of the story involves the way the Democratic Party has made itself vulnerable on the issue, thanks to the unfortunate spread of leftist anti-Zionism. The Democratic Party is emerging as the home of the loud minority of anti-Israel voters and politicians, from former President Jimmy (Israel = Apartheid) Carter to Virginian Congressman Jim (blame the “Israel lobby” first) Moran. The Democratic Party remains the home of passionate pro-Israel politicians, and is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Still, ignoring the Democratic left’s growing Israel problem, like claiming Obama as the most enthusiastic pro-Israel President ever, on the planet, strains credibility.
The other phenomenon distorting the debate is the systematic, four-decade-old campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. The Soviet propagandists who characterized the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a racial struggle, casting this regional fight between neighbors as an imperial, colonial power-grab by the Jews, still haunt us, 21 years after the Soviet Union fell. We see the Soviets’ posthumous victory, the Arab world’s continuing enmity, and the collaboration of the radical left, in demonizing Israel, singling out Israel, obsessively focusing on Israel, and constantly attacking Israel’s right to exist. That kind of pummeling does damage. Opponents magnify minor Israeli missteps into major sins, trying to justify their assault. In response, too many pro-Israel activists become too thin-skinned, too quick to assume that a criticism is condemnation and condemnation is repudiation – because they often are.
For a politician like Barack Obama, the delegitimizers make life easier and harder. On the one hand, they set the “pro-Israel bar” ridiculously low. Of course Obama is “pro-Israel,” because he vows “we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism” and insists that Israel deserves to exist in peace. Moreover, Obama has endorsed the idea of a Jewish state passionately, poetically, embracing the romance of Zionism, riffing, in his 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, about “the incredible opportunity” that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And,” he added, making it personal, “obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”  But delegitimization complicates Obama’s relationship with Israel, because his clear sympathy for the Palestinians, his hostility to Israel’s post-1967 borders, his disdain for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his occasional obtuseness on Israel’s valid security fears mark him as a critic, in a world where too often Israel’s critics become Israel’s enemies – even as the first “Jewish President” school of thought condescends toward Israel by suggesting it needs tough love to save Israel from itself.
Asking whether Obama is pro-Israel or anti-Israel is immature and reductionist. The more important question is “have Obama’s Middle East policies succeeded”? So far, he has failed to reassure many Israelis of his support, which is needed to create the atmosphere for the kinds of concessions he wants from Israel. He created a new obstacle to negotiations by bungling the settlement freeze issue, practically forcing the Palestinians to embrace a new precondition. He has bristled repeatedly in Netanyahu’s company. And he has dithered on Iran, cold-shouldering the 2009 Green Revolution and now seeming more worried about an Israeli strike against Iran than a nuclear Iran. That does not make him anti-Israel; only naïve and ineffectual. This is not an issue of loyalty but competence.

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.

Hillary’s Iraneous/Erroneous View of Israel: Undiplomatic and Offensive

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-13-11

Last week, rather than mounting some constructive diplomatic offensive, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton simply was undiplomatic and offensive. In the Obama Administration’s latest insult to the Jewish State, Clinton compared democratic Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South.  Secretary Clinton claimed the walkout of some Israeli male soldiers when some female soldiers started singing paralleled life in Iran.  She also claimed the informal, illegal, gender segregation on some Jerusalem buses evoked Rosa Parks, who refused to sit in the back of the bus. Beyond confusing individual lapses with state practices, Clinton demonstrated Middle East discourse’s broken barometer.  Somehow, when talking about Israel, too many people exaggerate wildly, caricaturing Israel crudely – and delighting the delegitimizers.

Even sophisticated players like Hillary Clinton only see Israel through hysterical headlines; they have no clue what really happens. When she visits, Clinton and other dignitaries should go beyond the usual Y2K package – Yad Vashem, the Knesset, and the Kotel, the Western Wall — to experience the real Israel, a dynamic, chaotic, pluralistic, modern democracy which is no Iran.
Had Clinton visited Israel last week, she would have witnessed the intense debate surrounding the latest round of proposed Knesset laws. She would have heard Attorney General Yehudah Weinstein vow that, even if it passed, he would never defend the law limiting foreign government donations to NGOs before the Supreme Court. Golda Meir’s spirit lives: Israel’s incredibly activist Supreme Court is headed by a woman, as are the Kadima and Labor opposition parties. Hearing the din, Clinton could give Israeli democracy the highest grade in Natan Sharansky’s public square test – Israelis denounce the government publicly, shrilly, very regularly, without suffering government harassment.
Last week, Clinton also would have read about Israel’s former President Moshe Katsav going to jail. Beyond learning that in this democracy no one is above the law, she could compare the punishment Israel’s president received for imposing himself criminally on women, with the way a recent American president she knows well dodged punishment for similar crimes – although I doubt she would “go there,” as they say in shrink-speak. As a social reformer before she became an undiplomatic diplomat, she would be more likely to take interest in the “Torani” block where Israel’s most famous new convict now lives. Inmates wake up at 4:30 AM to study Jewish texts all day. These Jewish jailbirds are participating in a fascinating experiment to fight recidivism with Judaism. This is the kind of old-new, Jewish-modern synergy that characterizes life in the Jewish state.
In that spirit, Clinton could have accompanied her Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, who appeared at the opening of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies’ impressive new $8.5 million Jerusalem campus. Professor David Golinkin, Schechter’s president, says this center for pluralistic Jewish studies programs has a “very simple” mission, “to teach our tradition in an open-minded and embracing fashion to millions of Israeli Jews,” which includes pioneering work empowering women in Judaism. “The Schechter Institute’s programs in Jewish Studies, along with its affiliates — the interdisciplinary M.A. degree programs, the Rabbinical Seminary, the TALI network and the Midreshet Yerushalayim — all provide alternative and innovative models of social action and promote respect for the diversity of spiritual expression,” Ambassador Shapiro said, impressed by the pluralistic programs, which teach 40,000 Israelis annually. “These programs reinforce the ideals of tolerance and inclusiveness that are essential to both Israel and the U.S.”
Two nights later, Hillary Clinton could have heard the Israeli pop icon David Broza in concert. Even a casual listener could discern the symphony of sounds and influences – the echoes of bluegrass and salsa, of rock and folk – blended into his uniquely Israeli beat. Broza – who days later was in Dohar attending a UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum with 2500 other civil society activists – told me from Qatar that this Jewish cosmopolitan mix is what makes Israel so artistically exciting for him. “It’s like eating kabob with ketchup,” Broza exclaimed, “Israel is the most cosmopolitan young, vibrant, and open-minded society I have ever seen. We can dance the debka while [the American blues legend] John Lee Hooker is playing in the background.”
Broza believes that “because it’s bizarre it’s often misunderstood.” Israelis are “somebody.” They instinctively understand that “without an identity they are lost. Historically, in the Diaspora, we Jews always maintained our identity, our rituals, our tradition, our learning – that was our strength.” And now, “When you reinvent yourself you put all the elements in the pot and what you get is a new persona.”
“I don’t think Hillary Clinton sees this Israel,” Broza speculated. “All she meets is the political box, and the rhetoric. She misses the light side of people.”
Broza is correct. Hillary Clinton and so many others, miss Israel’s light side, its spiritual side, its seeking side. They don’t hear what the Schechter campus’s architect, Ada Karmi-Melamede, calls the “harmonious music of learning that flows through the halls of Schechter,” what Broza calls “my own cocktail of sounds” which he draws from “the source,” his home, Israel.
The week ended with an Israeli scientist Daniel Shechtman collecting his Nobel Prize for Chemistry in Stockholm. When Shechtman discovered quasicrystals in 1982, the famous scientist Linus Pauling scoffed: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.” Those of us who know the rich, complex truth about Israel are equally isolated, often similarly mocked. We may not get Nobel Prizes for sticking to the truth, but we will enjoy other, sublime awards: the ability to delight in Israel’s cultural cosmopolitanism, as David Broza does; the opportunity to pioneer old-new expressions of Judaism, Zionism, democracy, as the Schechterites do, and the satisfaction of being right, even if it makes us unpopular.

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.

Liar, liar, the Israel discourse is on fire…

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-11

There we go again. President Barack Obama grouses about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a pain, after President Nicholas Sarkozy of France calls Netanyahu a “liar.” Many pro-Israel partisans then condemn Obama as “anti-Israel.” Meanwhile, when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) request that the “US-Israel friendship … never be used as a political wedge issue,” critics accuse them of trying “to stifle debate on US policy toward Israel.”

We need a little subtlety, even in our hysterical age. America’s President can dislike Israel’s Prime Minister without hating the State itself. And we can – and should — vigorously debate that President’s Middle East policy without being sidetracked by questioning his basic support for a Jewish state or turning the deep bond uniting America and Israel into a divisive flashpoint. When Prime Minister Jean Chretien detested President George W. Bush, Canada and the US remained best friends.

We come by this hysteria honestly. The rise of Fox News and the Internet have reduced political communication to short tweets and shrill blogs.  Moreover, the Israel debate often escalates into a high-stakes confrontation, because the stakes are so high. Israel is surrounded by enemies who have found the one country whose destruction you can champion and whose citizens you can target without sacrificing your own standing in the world.

Decades of delegitimizing Israel has victimized us all. Wherever we stand politically or religiously, whether we are Jewish or not, Zionist or not, religious or secular, pro-Israel or anti-Israel, left or right, pro-settlement or anti-occupation, our understanding of Middle East issues has been distorted by the systematic 63-year-old campaign against Israel’s right to exist.  No other country has endured such an ideological assault – frequently backed by deadly attacks. No other country remains on probation more than six decades after its founding. No other country has so many issues, be they major or minor, elevated from discussions of particular policies or actions to existential tests questioning whether it deserves to survive.  No one is immune to this ugliness. The assault poisons the perspectives of even the most “pro-Israel” activists.

The polluted atmosphere surrounding Israel, generated by Arabs and anti-Zionist collaborators, creates its own dense, highly combustible, ideological smog, which clouds perceptions and makes Israel discourse inflammatory. The first major distortion is that the blame-Israel-all-the-time-no-matter-what approach gives Israel’s enemies a free pass.  In the latest impasse, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who, has long outlived his mandate, has been playing Dr. No. He is the one, again and again, who has said “no” to negotiations, “no” to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “no” to President Barack Obama’s entreaties not to bypass give-and-take in search of unilateral UN freebies. And yet, much of the world, peering in through a polluted prism, deems Benjamin Netanyahu the obstructionist in chief.  Whatever the fuller exchange was between Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, their “Blame Bibi” bonding moment reflects this spoiled ideological environment.

The second major distortion is this abrupt, zero-to-sixty emotional jump when discussing Israel – among detractors and supporters. Israel’s critics frequently morph into Israel’s enemies as they one-sidedly blame Israel, exaggerate Israel’s flaws, and elevate minor errors into capital crimes. The intense microscope the world focuses on Israel magnifies small imperfections into justifications that enemies already predisposed to hate it use to demand its destruction or that more naïve observers use for abandoning the Jewish state. Amid this relentless barrage, Israel’s defenders have trouble distinguishing friend from foe, valid criticism from hysterical, existential attack. Israel’s extreme critics shirk responsibility for the damage their fanaticism has caused the peace process and the natural, self-critical process every democracy needs to reform.  Subtleties get lost. Lines get drawn. Tempers flare. The status quo calcifies.

Barack Obama’s Israel policy warrants scrutiny – and deserves criticism. He has been unduly harsh on Israel, wrongly biased in his excessive criticism, naively blind to Palestinian recalcitrance, unfairly hostile to Bibi Netanyahu, generally insensitive to Israeli fears, foolishly hamhanded in singlehandedly creating this whole settlement freeze precondition to negotiation, contemptibly weak in dealing with the Arab world, depressingly clueless in misreading the Islamist storm threatening the Arab spring, cruelly passive back in 2009 when Iran’s Green Revolution first erupted, and singularly inept in managing the Middle East. But I would not call him anti-Israel. I reserve that term for people, like Jimmy Carter, unlike Barack Obama, who do not believe in the idea of a Jewish state, are blatantly anti-Zionist, compare Israel to South Africa’s despicable, departed apartheid regime, or attack Israel verbally, ideologically or physically.

Therefore, it is important in this 2012 presidential campaign to debate Obama’s Middle East policies, learn from his mistakes, and test his rival to see if any improvement can be expected, in orientation, conception, or execution. It is fair to raise the awkward question of why the Democratic Party, once the party of pro-Israel stalwarts like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, still the party of Ed Koch, Bill Clinton, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, has become the home of the vicious, genuinely anti-Israel minority on Capitol Hill and across the United States. And it is reasonable to ask Republicans to help voters distinguish between supporting Israel existentially and handling the Middle East effectively.

So, yes, the ADL and the AJC are A-OK, support for Israel should remain bipartisan without becoming a wedge issue. But Barack Obama’s Israel policy should be debated—he certainly has not earned a free pass – as should the question of how the party which enjoys the uncompromising loyalty and bountiful generosity of the vast majority of American Jews can so comfortably house the hard anti-Israel left as well. A tent that broad just might need some architectural restructuring.

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 “A History of American Presidential Elections.”

Gates, Ingrates and Israel: America’s Indispensable Ally

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-13-11

Last week, a zinger landed in Jerusalem from Washington, DC, the land of the leakers. Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News reported that former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Barack Obama, as “ungrateful.” Gates reportedly “stated bluntly that the US has received nothing” from Israel, despite “the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security” – and no one present on Obama’s National Security team disagreed. If a “gaffe” means a politician caught in the act of telling the truth, such “leaks” are more like precision guided missiles, with specific targets and exact timing.

The message was clear: the Obama Administration resents squandering so much political capital by opposing the Palestinian play for statehood. In return, Obama and his team expect payback from Israel – while also wishing to humiliate their nemesis, Bibi Netanyahu. Unfortunately, once again the Obama Administration misread the power dynamics in today’s world, unfairly impugned Netanyahu, inaccurately maligned Israel itself, and gave Israel’s enemies a gift they do not deserve. Throughout years of distinguished public service, Robert Gates never uttered a memorable phrase. But the anti-Israel crowd will be crowing about Israel, the supposedly “ungrateful ally,” for decades to come.

Legend incorrectly credits President Harry Truman with saying: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” while foreign policy’s defining cliché has long been that “nations have no friends or enemies, only interests.” Although rooted in common values and a deep friendship, the Israeli-American alliance flourishes thanks to common interests and mutual need. The United States will abandon allies when convenient – as the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt learned, painfully. The US is resisting the Palestinian attempt to dodge negotiations by prematurely declaring independence because Washington fears more Middle East tumult. With Egypt teetering, Turkey acting out, Saudi Arabia untrustworthy, Iran ascendant, America needs a strong, stable Israel. The dangers of Palestinian chaos or a Hamas takeover are too great to trust inflammatory gestures at the biased, ineffectual UN.

While Secretary Gates is correct that Bibi Netanyahu should have handled his last visit to Washington more diplomatically, Bibiphobia – irrational, obsessive hatred of Israel’s Prime Minister – is now epidemic, in Washington, among American Jewish elites, and in world capitals. This Monday’s New York Times editorial defied rules of logic and good writing by claiming “Both sides share the blame [for a stalled peace process] with Mr. Obama and Arab leaders” but immediately added: “(we put the greater onus on Mr. Netanyahu, who has used any excuse to thwart peace efforts).” If a student wrote this I would X it in red and write: “CONTRADICTORY — do you want to blame Netanyahu or everyone, be clear!”

Moreover, Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy under President George W. Bush, deftly debunked the Gates critique, remembering Gates using similar language, blasting Israel as “ungrateful,” in 2007, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was peace processing actively. This recollection derails the Blame Bibi forces. Gates’s complaints, Abrams notes, “are not new and should not, in fairness, be attributed to recent developments or blamed on Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

As we commemorate 9/11, it is shocking to hear an American leader deem Israel ungrateful – rather than an indispensable ally nurturing a mutual friendship, which has entailed occasional sacrifice too. If Gates sought to chide ungrateful allies, America certainly has its share. Most Third World nations, like Egypt, have long cashed American checks, but trashed American values. Saudi Arabia spawned and bankrolled the 9/11 Islamist ideology. And Europeans have embraced anti-Americanism (along with anti-Zionism) as one of the few acceptable prejudices in the PC EU.

By contrast:

In the 1960s, Israel humiliated Soviet allies and thwarted Soviet foreign policy in the Six Day War – when America badly needed a big Cold War win like that to balance out its own Vietnam failure.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel taught the American military invaluable, real-time lessons for countering Soviet weaponry, then shared captured equipment – after having sustained devastating losses when the war began by not attacking pre-emptively because America requested restraint.

In the 1980s, Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, initially infuriating Ronald Reagan’s Administration – but ultimately earning gratitude worldwide for keeping Saddam Hussein nuke free.

In the 1990s, Israel refrained from retaliating after Saddam bombed Tel Aviv with Scud missiles – again sacrificing strategic interests to advance American interests, in this case preserving President George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam to free Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

Most recently, since September 11, Israel has been a steadfast partner, coach, guinea pig, friend, helping America fight its multifront war against shadowy Islamist terrorists – who, unlike some Western elites, see the harmony of values and convergence of interests linking two great friends, the State of Israel, and the United States of America. Israeli anti-terror techniques have saved the lives of many soldiers formerly under Secretary Gates’s command, as they trained in urban warfare techniques and learned how to defuse roadside bombs with Israeli colleagues. And Israelis are among the most pro-American people in the world.

Last Friday night, as Egyptian mobs menaced six Israeli security guards, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called President Barack Obama – and Obama demanded the Egyptians avert a tragedy. Israel should, of course, be grateful for Obama’s intervention, which was, characteristically, another noble gesture that also served America’s interest. A Cairo bloodbath would have roiled the world. This is the model Americans and Israelis have followed for decades – looking out for each other and building an ideal friendship, forged in core ideals sustained by a unity of purpose and mutual payoffs, a perpetual win-win. For that, both Americans and Israelis should be … grateful.

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,” he is currently completing his sixth book about American history. giltroy@gmail.com

Obama should be happy not sober on his 50th Birthday

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-2-11

Barack Obama turns fifty this Thursday, August fourth. Both he and his country appear battered these days, as Obama’s White House recuperates from the bruising debt ceiling showdown and the United States remains stuck combating two wars along with one long-lasting recession. But the progress Obama and America have made since 1961 is extraordinary — and should remind Obama, along with other doubters, that it is premature to count out America.

The United States into which Barack Obama was born in 1961 was deeply segregated due to an endemic, seemingly unchangeable racism, and profoundly scared due to an implacable, seemingly indestructible foe, the Soviet Union. Just days before young Obama’s birth, on July 25, President John F. Kennedy addressed the nation about the growing showdown in Berlin, warning that the United States would go to war, even nuclear war if necessary, to stop the Soviets from overrunning West Berlin. Nine days after Obama’s birth, on August 13, the Soviets began building the wall dividing Berlin which would symbolize the Cold War stalemate for the next three decades.

Obama was also born into a world still shell-shocked by World War II and the Holocaust – in Israel, Adolph Eichmann’s trial for crimes against humanity was winding down. Demographers count Obama as a Baby Boomer, part of the population explosion and surge in family building that began in 1946 when more than 16 million American GIs began demobilizing. And it is sobering to compare America’s family stability, traditional values, and communal interconnectedness in 1961 with today’s age of disposable relationships, indulgent impulses, and self-involvement.

Still, Obama is not a classic Baby Boomer, like Bill and Hillary Clinton. He was too young to watch Howdy Doody as a child, too young to draft-dodge or fight in Vietnam, too young to march for Civil Rights, too young to lie about having been at Woodstock – in 1969 he was nine. Instead Obama, and his wife Michelle, watched the Brady Bunch when they were kids — it was Michelle’s favorite show — and came of age politically during Ronald Reagan’s 1980s.

Becoming an adult in the Reagan era – Reagan became President in 1981 when Obama was 20 – Obama learned from liberalism’s excesses in the 1960s. In his book Audacity of Hope, Obama shows a sensitivity to cultural forces that his politically-obsessed Baby Boomer elders lacked. He saw the failures of the Great Society, economically, politically, culturally. He learned the limits of liberalism and Big Government, discovering that politics cannot shape everything, that culture, tradition, patriotism, religion, community matter. Yet, as a product of the politically correct 1980s – and by the late 1980s Harvard Law School at the height of PC-mania — Obama absorbed a series of assumptions that continue to color his worldview.

Domestically, the intense opposition to Ronald Reagan caricatured the Republican Party as the party of greed, corporate America as more irresponsible than innovative, and white male culture as bitter and bigoted. Regarding foreign policy, the fights against nuclear proliferation, South African apartheid, and Reagan’s policies in Central America, crystallized biases against American power and in favor of the Third World, even as Reagan’s military resurgence helped bankrupt the Soviet Union, leading to America’s victory in the once-seemingly unwinnable Cold War.

This mishmash of impulses, recoiling from classic Sixties liberalism and the Reagan counter-revolution, explains some of the paradoxes and blind spots in Obama’s presidency so far. He can infuriate his liberal allies by accepting budget cuts, and by championing moderation, because he saw in 1980, 1984, and 1988 how addictions to liberal orthodoxy killed Democratic presidential prospects. But by blaming the financial crash on corporate greed and Republican deregulation, without acknowledging Democratic culpability in demanding easy access to mortgages, he could fill his team with Clinton-era retreads who helped trigger the crisis, and, when pressured, resorts to a politics of petulance and finger-pointing that belies his more moderate impulses.

In dealing with the world, his PC-politics explain his apologias for America’s alleged sins, his unconscionable preference for an illusory engagement with Mahmound Ahmadinejad rather than bravely endorsing freedom when Iranian dissidents first rebelled, his instinctive sympathy for the Palestinians, his inexplicable dithering on the Syrian file, and his penchant for disappointing American allies. At the same time, he learned enough from Reagan’s assertiveness, and was traumatized enough a decade ago during September 11th, that he has given the kill order when confronting pirates at sea, intensified the technique of assassination by drone aircraft, reinforced America’s presence in Afghanistan, and hunted down Osama Bin Laden unapologetically.

The poet T.S. Eliot called the years between fifty and seventy “the hardest” because “You are always being asked to do things, and yet you are not decrepit enough to turn them down.” For the next year and a half, and possibly for the next five and a half years, Barack Obama will be asked to do heroic things, daily, lacking the luxury of refusing most requests.

When he started campaigning for the Presidency, had he anticipated how devastated the US economy would be, he would have shorted the market. Instead, he has had a much tougher slog in office than he ever anticipated. As he passes his personal milestone, and anticipates his re-election campaign, he should reflect on all the changes America has experienced in his brief lifetime. In particular, Communism’s defeat, and racism’s retreat, along with the dazzling array of technological miracles Americans engineered, should remind him of America’s extraordinary adaptability, steering him toward a more Reaganite faith in the American people and American nationalism, and away from his current, Jimmy Carteresque doubts about Americans and their ability to continue to prosper and to lead the world.

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

How do you solve a problem like Obama…

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-7-11

I understand Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s instincts to confront President Barack Obama. Obama’s blaming Netanyahu while absolving the Palestinians is unfair. Obama’s ignoring Israel’s many concessions, Netanyahu’s movement toward a two-state solution, and the improved ground conditions under Netanyahu, is unacceptable. Obama’s humiliating Netanyahu with cold shoulders one trip, and pre-emptive speech strikes another trip, is ungracious. And Obama’s overlooking that Israelis feel burned, having watched Oslo’s concessions produce Palestinian terrorism, the Lebanon withdrawal fuel Hezbollah’s ascendance, and the Gaza disengagement yield a rain of rockets, is unfathomable.

If Netanyahu or anyone else in the pro-Israel community could prophesize that Obama will not get re-elected, the current strategy would make sense. But Obama still looks stronger for November 2012 than any Republican wannabes. Because Israel might face a President Obama until January 2017, with four final years unconstrained by re-election hopes, it is foolish to try embarrassing or circumventing him.

Netanyahu must remember that American foreign policy hinges on one individual, the President. Pro-Israel forces should not call this president anti-Israel, when he endorses “a secure Israel… as a Jewish state and the homeland for the Jewish people.” Barack Obama may be America’s most pro-Palestinian incumbent president (Jimmy Carter is the most pro-Palestinian ex-president). Obama absorbed the politically correct atmosphere of Harvard Law in the late 1980s, along with the academic disdain and his preacher’s hatred for Israel in Chicago in the 1990s. But chariness is not hostility, especially in today’s universe of Israel-bashing world leaders. Labeling Obama anti-Israel is inaccurate, insulting and risks making him so.

How, then, do you solve a problem like Obama? Seeking subtlety, remember that the last two Presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, while now considered “pro-Israel,” each clashed with Israel. Clinton, like Obama, craved a comprehensive Middle East peace, struggling with an Israeli Prime Minister named … Binyamin Netanyahu. Clinton hosted the arch-terrorist Yasir Arafat more times than any other foreign guest. Similarly, when the Palestinians first returned to terrorism, George W. Bush’s Secretary of State, Colin Powell, regularly characterized Israel’s reactions as “too aggressive,” feeding the “cycle of violence.”

Eventually, Palestinian extremism transformed both Presidents. In 2000, Clinton blamed Arafat for unleashing the violence. Days before Clinton left office, Arafat visited the White House yet again, calling the President a “great man.” Clinton lashed back: “No, I’m not. On this I’m a failure, and you made me a failure.”

Two years later, in January 2002, Arafat tried bluffing George W. Bush, denying any involvement with Iran’s Karine-A arms shipment – contradicting clear proof. “Arafat lied directly to Bush,” one official reported. “No one does that, least of all someone who’s already on probation,” it being four months after September 11. Lawrence Kaplan in The New Republic described Bush’s disgust: “As a result, Arafat has accomplished what Ariel Sharon never could. He has aligned the United States and Israel more closely than at any time since the Reagan presidency.” Three months later, in April 2002, Bush backed Israel’s counter-offensive against Palestinian terrorism.

Never stop your enemy when he is harming himself. Considering that Mahmoud Abbas rejected Ehud Olmert’s generous territorial offer, why should Netanyahu hinder progress? Without sacrificing national self-respect, without accepting historical lies, Netanyahu should position himself as Obama’s ally in seeking peace. Netanyahu should emphasize his already stated openness to negotiations – including the proposed Paris talks. He should highlight his embrace of a two-state solution. And he should minimize disagreements with the President. Trust the Palestinians to reject the peace plan, while hoping they might be ready to make peace.

While Israel reveals its true character and defining consensus by pursuing peace, the pro-Israel community should follow the AIPAC strategy emphasizing American support for Israel as bipartisan. Calling the President or the Democrats anti-Israel, making Israel a wedge issue, is self-defeating. Anti-Israel Democrats should feel marginalized, not validated by seeing a polarizing, frontal assault on the President. Most Americans are pro-Israel. The party dynamics should reflect that happy reality.

The political dynamics must change from Bibi versus Obama to the Palestinians versus peace. Netanyahu made his stand, garnered his American applause, and reaped his domestic popularity bonanza. Now he needs damage control.

Words count. No one should attack “Obama’s 1967 border plan,” but the Palestinians’ all-or-nothing border plan. When the Palestinians encourage delegitimization of Israel, we should quote Obama saying “efforts to delegitimize Israel will end in failure.” When the question comes as to who should show up at a peace parley, Israel should declare its willingness to negotiate and quote the President, asking the “Palestinian leaders” for “a credible answer” to the question “how can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist.”

Words count. Still, American politics remains a contact sport. Pro-Israel donors should withhold their donations to Obama’s re-election, not because Obama is “anti-Israel” but because he has been ineffectual in unfairly burdening Israel. We should continue explaining historically why the Palestinians are lying when they claim they accepted the 1947 partition, and are hindering peace when they try freezing time by demand a right to return for descendants of refugees or consecrate the improvised 1949 armistice borders. Better to target these Palestinian positions, destructive Palestinian actions, the PA’s continuing incitement to evil, Hamas’ exterminationist charter, Hezbollah’s mad dash for missiles, and Iran’s genocidal aims, while leaving the President out of range.

Essentially, the pro-Israel community should trust the truth, emphasizing Israeli willingness to compromise, Palestinian addiction to rejectionism and violence, along with the broad, bipartisan pro-Israel American consensus. This upbeat, subtle approach may deprive Israeli voters of displays of macho bravado. It may not provide Diaspora supporters a kick in the Zionist adrenals. But it just might work.

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

Dueling diplomacy: Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-11

In the latest diplomatic slap down pitting the President of the United States against the Prime Minister of Israel, Israel lost – as did both leaders. Barack Obama looked like an amateurish bungler, roiling a region which needs calm while once again pouring cement onto three Palestinian positions which need softening– the 1967 borders, the “right” of return and the continuing refusal to negotiate. Binyamin Netanyahu may have looked less foolish – and looked less petulant in their dueling White House soliloquies – but he did more harm. This debacle was avoidable, but Bibi’s boo-boo triggered Barack’s backlash.

Watching Obama’s State Department speech was like reading a bad undergraduate paper. The first part, regarding the Arab spring, was too vague. The second part, on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, was too specific. Obama seemed unprepared. He did not sound ready to articulate an Obama Doctrine that can guide American action as the Arab world changes. Beyond endorsing democracy and peace, Obama neither explained his previous reactions nor offered clear guidelines for future actions. Meanwhile Obama’s Dictate for Israeli-Palestinian progress felt rushed, not properly previewed to prevent squabbles, struggles, then backpedals. The brouhaha over his endorsing 1967 borders with swaps, and the fear he fed the Palestinian delusion that the “right” of return is achievable, were both avoidable. But, like a harried undergraduate producing a pointless paper just to be on time, Obama had his own deadline. He hurried to pre-empt Netanyahu’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress.

The Republican Speaker of the House must be delighted with the trap he sprang on the Democratic president – using Bibi as bait. John Boehner drew the President into this mess, which probably alienated more Democratic donors, forced Obama to massage his Thursday remarks on Sunday, and sparked a distracting firestorm which can only damage the President.

When Republican leaders invited him to address Congress, Netanyahu probably considered this a great coup. Bibi would have one of the world’s greatest stage sets to show off his oratorical talents, while outmaneuvering Obama and fellow Israel-skeptics before pro-Israel Republicans.

But Netanyahu overlooked the defining rule of gravity in Israel-America relations – in any confrontation between the President and the Prime Minister, Israel loses. With the United States the superpower and Israel the lonely little guy, Israel’s dependence on American friendship is too great. An Israeli Prime Minster may succeed in tweaking a particular policy, but only by draining the reservoir of presidential goodwill. So when, as happened Thursday, an Israeli Prime Minister yells at the American Secretary of State, just before a major presidential address, Israel loses. When the Prime Minister denounces presidential proposals before visiting the President, Israel loses. When the President stews as the Prime Minister lectures him, albeit eloquently and indirectly, Israel loses. And when the President sits at a joint press appearance, with his hand placed protectively over his body and under his chin, telegraphing mistrust of the Prime Minister, Israel loses.

Once Obama said what he said, Bibi had to say what he said. But Obama said what he said because Bibi was going to say what he wanted to say to Congress. With a president like Obama, who instinctively blames Israel as the obstacle to peace, the less attention he pays to the region, the better. Netanyahu made his ritualistic visit to AIPAC a big deal by accepting the Congressional invitation. Predictably, the New York Times headline “OBAMA PRESSES ISRAEL TO MAKE ‘HARD CHOICES’,” resulted.

Not all exchanges hurt Israel. Obama disapproved of delegitimizing Israel and said the Palestinians must explain how to work for peace while working with Hamas, whose charter advocates Israel’s destruction. And there is value in the vigorous debate that erupted about what peace can look like, and how to use history as a helpful guideline, not an incendiary device.

Barack Obama believes that to support Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, he must free Israelis from today’s status quo prison, reinforced by comfortable complacency and existential fears. That goal explains why he focuses on the millions of Palestinians living under Israeli control, yearning for real statehood and full civil liberties. But as America’s most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter, Obama also must free the Palestinians from their nostalgic prison reinforced by lingering longings and deadly hatreds. He must tell them that time does not stand still, that they must dream more about their future state rather than deliriously demanding or violently planning a return to 1967 or 1947. Yet, somehow, Obama’s finger points more easily and wags more vigorously at Israeli caution than Palestinian obstructionism, rejectionism, and violence.

The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by acknowledging that borders shifted and populations moved, particularly in historic Palestine. Only fools or fanatics claim that borders were ever perma-marked. We cannot undo history. We must move forward, from 2011, trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random moment in historical time, demography and the current status quo should be our guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity, and some history, but not too much. And being realistic entails dealing with the current president effectively. In assessing this week’s errors, hopefully Bibi Netanyahu will learn that not to provoke the President, and that scoring debating points only goes so far.

When Israelis and Americans squabble, Palestinian rejectionists rejoice. This spring’s great outrages are not Obama’s proposals or Netanyahu’s hesitations, but Fatah’s new friend in Hamas, Egypt’s new unreliability as a peace partner, Iran’s continuing rush to nuclear power, and the Arab world’s continuing war against Israel’s existence, aided by the left’s useful idiots. These common enemies, along with enduring common values, should keep America’s President and Israel’s Prime Minister cooperating, whatever tactical quibbles may arise.

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

Obama Offered Two Speeches in One — Neither Worked

By Gil Troy

Despite the talk about “Obama’s Mideast speech” Thursday, I actually heard two separate addresses. In the first, President Barack Obama offered vague nostrums about the “Arab spring,” best summarized in three words: Democracy is good. Obama transitioned awkwardly to the second speech, about Israelis and Palestinians, saying: “Let me conclude by talking about another cornerstone of our approach to the region, and that relates to the pursuit of peace.” In this section, the professorial president turned from airy abstractions to problematic particulars. Although it was impossible to predict America’s next move in the Arab world from the speech’s first part, we now know exactly how an Israel-Palestine peace treaty would look if Obama could dictate it and those annoying people who live there would just follow.

Sophisticated cinema buffs will have identified the inspiration for the “Democracy is good” quotation – that frat house classic, “Animal House.” In the fictitious campus where the movie’s hijinks occur, the founder’s statue features the empty motto “Knowledge is good.” Of course it is, and so is democracy – for many of the reasons Obama identified. But I defy anyone, based on that speech, to explain why Obama abandoned Hosni Mubarak in Egypt rather quickly, attacked Muhammar Qaddafi very definitively, and dithered with Bashar al-Assad, only abandoning him quite recently. Moreover, can anyone predict Obama’s next move based on this speech or identify just what principles will guide him?

Having failed the tests of consistency and retroactivity, Obama’s words also lacked clarity. The biggest conundrum he faces as various Arab allies face popular revolts, and as other Arab countries potentially face Islamist revolts, is how he balances America’s interest and ideals. Obama identified “core interests,” including “countering terrorism and stopping the spread of nuclear weapons; securing the free flow of commerce and safe-guarding the security of the region; standing up for Israel’s security and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace.” He endorsed finding “mutual interests and mutual respect.” But how to balance all those factors is difficult. I have no idea how to do that, which is why I am happy not to be president. But, as a voter, I have no idea how Obama plans to do it either.

Finally, and surprisingly, Obama’s words lacked legs. Not one phrase seems likely to resonate. And judging by the Franklin Roosevelt majestic, memorable, “four freedoms” standard, Obama’s “universal rights” are mushy and forgettable. Compare Roosevelt: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, freedom from fear – with Obama – “And these rights include free speech, the freedom of peaceful assembly, the freedom of religion, equality for men and women under the rule of law, and the right to choose your own leaders -– whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus, Sanaa or Tehran.” The “Yes We Can” poet of 2008, has become the technocratic cataloguer of 2011, forgetting basic rules like the power of parallelism in rhetoric.

Not surprisingly, Obama’s more specific and pointed Israel-Palestine peace plan has attracted the most attention – and controversy. Here, by being too specific, Obama once again complicated future negotiations. As President of the United States, dealing with understandably nervous allies in an explosive region, he had a moral obligation to reconcile his proposal with his predecessor’s plans, acknowledging if he was deviating from an earlier consensus while upholding commitments earlier Presidents have made.

Yet, in discussing Hamas, Obama ignored the conditions the Quartet of the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations embraced – requiring the Palestinian government to recognize Israel, renounce violence and honor past agreements. Asking Palestinians to find a “credible answer to the question … How can one negotiate with a party that has shown itself unwilling to recognize your right to exist” is a start – but lacks the specifics Obama’s predecessor and allies endorsed.

Even more problematic was his call for “the borders of Israel and Palestine” to “be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” These words not only seem to contradict George W. Bush’s vow to Ariel Sharon based on decades of American policy, but the deification of 1967 boundaries lacks historical nuance in a region obsessed with nuance and history.

The logical starting point in advocating a two-state solution comes by acknowledging that in the region particular borders shifted and populations moved. Anyone who talks about people frozen in place for centuries or borders as if they were permamarked on a map is either a fool or a fanatic. Bible-based Israelis must admit that the boundaries of Biblical land of Israel, varied, just as passionate Palestinians must admit that the boundaries of Palestine-Israel in the twentieth-century alone shifted repeatedly.

We cannot undo history and we must move forward, from 2011, trying to minimize disruptions to populations while maximizing satisfaction on both sides. Rather than trying to freeze one random moment in historical time, demography and the current status quo should be our guides, tempered by sensitivity, creativity, and a touch but not too much historicity. Obama’s overlooked line about the “growing number of Palestinians [who] live west of the Jordan River,” explains why each of the two clashing people should have a state. Peace will work if it passes the test of what Obama called populism, working logically for many people today, not at some random point from the past.

Obama did speak beautifully about “a choice between hate and hope; between the shackles of the past and the promise of the future.” Alas, this speech did not do enough to buttress the forces of hope over hate, and by feeding the 1967 obsession, Obama himself was too shackled to one unhelpful perspective on the past.

Can Obama recognize the ‘Nakba’ nakba?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-17-11

Center Field: The harsh realities of the Middle East have contradicted President Barack Obama’s fanciful notions.

Obama and Netanyahu
Photo by: REUTERS

President Barack Obama came to town riding on a series of assumptions about the Middle East. But the region’s harsh realities have contradicted his fanciful notions. Demanding a settlement freeze increased Israeli mistrust and Palestinian extremism. The “Arab spring” proved that the Palestinian problem was not the keystone to Middle East progress, or world peace. This week’s Nakba Day violence revealed that Israel’s existence since 1948, not its occupation since 1967, remains the Palestinians’ target. Obama must recognize that this “Nakba” nakba – the Palestinians’ catastrophic reading of Israel’s founding as a catastrophe – damages peace prospects. Yet again, Palestinians seem more committed to destroying Israel than building their own state.

Although outsiders cannot tell Palestinians to ignore their anguish over Israel’s founding, Nakba Day is a new, post-Oslo, 1990s phenomenon. Yasser Arafat inaugurated the day in 1998. It feeds Palestinians’ worst instincts – freezing time, distorting history, wallowing in victimhood, dodging responsibility, vilifying Israel, treating the conflict as a zero-sum game. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s New York Times op-ed on Monday epitomizes these vices with ahistorical lies claiming that “shortly” after the 1947 UN Partition declaration, “Zionist forces expelled Palestinian Arabs to ensure a decisive Jewish majority in the future state of Israel, and Arab armies intervened.” Reversing chronology and causation, Abbas ignores that Palestinians rejected the partition plan; that many Palestinians fled voluntarily; and that Arab armies attacked as Israel became a state, not because of any Israeli action.

Yet the Palestinians have snookered the world, seeking a free pass for violence, incitement, delegitimization, exterminationism and intransigence. World leaders function as the great enablers of Palestinian dysfunction, rationalizing Palestinians’ political culture of negation and hatred while according them special treatment – including treating their refugee status as hereditary, whereas tens of millions of other refugees from the 1940s have settled down.

Every president must make post-inauguration adjustments, replacing outsiders’ presumptions with the insider’s perceptions. Obama’s Middle Eastrelated rigidity is not some idiosyncratic shortcoming. He is imprisoned in a groupthink reading that is popular and resistant to reality.

Too many elite Americans mistakenly compare the Palestinians’ struggle for statehood with African-Americans’ struggle for civil rights (when most Europeans hear “occupation,” they think Nazi or Soviet, which is even more inaccurate and problematic). In his Cairo speech, by reminding Palestinians that American blacks rarely resorted to violence, despite “suffer[ing] the lash of the whip as slaves and the humiliation of segregation,” Obama made the comparison. Condoleezza Rice was more explicit, equating her childhood miseries in the segregated South with Palestinian suffering, while comparing Abbas to Martin Luther King, Jr.

This analogy is sloppy, perverse, yet irresistible to many Americans who usually view the world through homemade prisms, with the civil rights movement looming as a compelling, heroic and digestible historical standard.

Additionally Palestinian propaganda has pushed this comparison for decades. The UN’s New Big Lie in 1975 labeling Zionism racism implicitly cast the Palestinians as noble blacks and the Israelis as oppressive rednecks.

The false analogy distorts the story into one of racial oppression, not national conflict. This reading sanctions Palestinian violence, given our abhorrence of racial tyranny.

Perpetuating the Nakba treats Israel’s very founding as its original sin, like slavery is America’s original sin, which had to be undone violently by Civil War. This falsehood also views Palestinians as passive, less responsible players, feeding into a modern liberal condescension empowering those perceived as white rather than those labeled black (ignoring the light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis).

By contrast, recognizing the Palestinian- Israeli conflict as a national conflict – linked to the Arab-Israeli conflict – restores balance. It makes Palestinians responsible for their choices. It highlights their power, as part of the broader Arab assault against Israel, which, unlike the Civil Rights movement, threatens Israel, seeking its destruction. Understanding this fight as a national struggle among more evenly-balanced forces also explains Israeli sensitivity to Palestinian rhetoric. Calling Israel’s founding, its very existence, a catastrophe delegitimizes Israel and dehumanizes Israelis, justifying violence against this supposed disaster of a state.

Restoring historical balance and moral accountability would also restore mutuality. Imagine the outrage if Israeli leaders spoke about Palestinians the way leading Palestinians speak, write, teach, preach and broadcast about Israel. Imagine the scandal if Israel ever proposed, let alone adopted, anything paralleling the Hamas Charter’s anti-Semitic and genocidal wording. Note that this month, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is volunteering new concessions, Abbas is embracing Hamas terrorists.

Jews’ culture of acute self-criticism juxtaposed against the Palestinians’ culture of self-righteous condemnation creates absurd imbalances. While Jews, mired in guilt, agonize over how to validate detractors like the playwright Tony Kushner, who spread Palestinian lies alleging Israel committed sins like “ethnic cleansing,” Palestinians, in their enforced no-criticism zone, feel their biased accusations are justified, yet again dodging any responsibility. Similarly, minor Israeli abuses are treated as major human rights crimes; major Palestinian abuses are ignored.

The multi-dimensional war between Israelis and Palestinians includes a clash of narratives. As America’s story-tellerin- chief, Obama can shape a narrative that brings the parties closer – or divides them further. Obsessing about Israel’s settlements, exaggerating the conflict’s international significance, excusing Hamas’s genocidal rhetoric, or encouraging the “Nakba” nakba intensifies Palestinian intransigence and Israeli insecurity.

Obama must affirm that “threatening Israel with destruction – or repeating vile stereotypes about Jews – is deeply wrong, and only serves to evoke in the minds of Israelis this most painful of [Holocaust] memories while preventing the peace that the people of this region deserve.”

He said that in Cairo. Now, Obama should show he means it, by insisting that all parties, especially the Palestinians, end incitement, stop demonizing others and learn to preserve their own national stories, including tales of woe, without using words that reveal a collective desire to destroy those whose trust you need to achieve peace.

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

Lessons from Osama’s blood-spattered biography

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-2-11

As President Barack Obama sought the right tone in announcing Osama Bin Laden’s death – not too triumphal, not too cerebral — Americans took to the streets, celebrating the news. They were frustrated, having waited nearly a decade to capture al Qaeda’s terrorist mastermind. Still, Osama must have suffered, fleeing from cave to cave. In many ways, that punishment imposed on Osama paralleled the punishment he tried imposing on the civilized world. The terrorist wants millions to feel perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, constantly endangered. The man constantly on the lam is perpetually harassed, everywhere targeted, and constantly endangered.

Osama Bin Laden fancied himself the preacher-terrorist, a Jihadist firing off religious fatwas one minute and RPGs the next. He emerged unwittingly as a teacher-terrorist. His blood-splattered biography taught the world important lessons, including:

We cannot escape history: Too many Americans awoke the morning of September 11, thinking that we were enjoying a holiday from history. The Soviet Union had fallen. The Dow Jones was rising. Electronic gadgets were proliferating. Serious thinkers and superficial commentators were feeding this notion that Americans transcended history – using “history” as a euphemism for troubles.

Al Qaeda terrorism abruptly ended America’s post-Cold War idyll, highlighting even a super-power’s vulnerability in the modern world. But the post-9/11 assumptions that this mass trauma would make American society more serious proved as false as the September 10th assumptions that peace and prosperity would last forever or that anyone could get a free pass from the various forces large and small which accumulate and shape us — which we then call history.

We can defeat terrorism: Even before September 11, but certainly when the World Trade Center towers collapsed, the conventional wisdom imputed far too much power to terrorists. These big bangs in New York and Washington, as well as the latest wave of Palestinian terror that had started a full year earlier in Israel, seemed to be harbingers of perpetual attacks. But two leaders who were not afraid to be hated, President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, showed that the old cliché was true – the best defense is a good offense. Just reacting to terrorist attacks was not enough; pushing back militarily, hunting terrorists down, keeping them on the defensive, was the best way of preventing future attacks. Terrorists have trouble planning attacks on the run or under bombardment.

Islamists – and eventually the Palestinians — also suffered from their own, often-overlooked, version of blowback. Suicide bombings of office buildings and cafes, buses and bar mitzvahs triggered mass revulsion. The terrorists lost what little romance they cultivated in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing to be barbarians who hurt their own cause. Ten years later, Al Qaeda has nothing to show for its spectacular mass slaughter in 2001; even Hamas is more likely to deny a terrorist attack than take “credit” for it.

Islamism is evil: Prior to 9/11, the statement was doubly problematic. Many of our greatest thinkers recoiled from such judgmental proclamations, especially concerning any non-Western phenomena. The crime of 9/11 was so dastardly it shocked many — not all — back into a language of good and evil, right and wrong. And, as politically incorrect as it may be, many recognized that this fight was not just against a tactic – terrorism – but an ideology – Islamism.

Islamism is a Jihadist, holy war-oriented, perversion of Islam, rooted in some Koranic teachings, but ignoring others. Despite their fury against Bin Laden’s brutal Islamism, few Americans attacked Arab-Americans or Muslim-Americans. George W. Bush deserves tremendous credit for repudiating such bigotry. American-Arabs and Muslims also helped themselves. Most are neither Islamists nor Jihadists. The nineteen hijackers were foreign infiltrators not homegrown terrorists. And anyone who examined America’s Arab and Muslim population saw law-abiding citizens, many of whom sought refuge in the United States from this fundamentalist fanaticism.

Israel is not the problem: Bin Laden’s own words demonstrated his hatred for the West, and for America’s military presence in Saudi Arabia. He only redirected his Jihad toward Israel after 9/11, in a bid for popularity. As with this year’s Arab Spring, the facts from the Middle East disturbed the conventional wisdom in the West. Nevertheless, so many supposed experts continued buying Palestinians’ propaganda line that solving their conflict is the keystone to world peace, when their future is not even the central regional challenge.

Democracies are resilient: September 11 resulted from a dramatic American intelligence failure. Following September 11, Americans feared terrorism would triumph. President Bush made many, significant mistakes – or, as Republicans preferred to say it, mistakes were made. Yet, like Londoners in the 1940s, or Jerusalemites in the 2000s, Americans showed a grit and a grace, a unity and a sense of community, a softness in their hearts and a toughness in their spirits, that ultimately defeated the terrorists and healed the country, even as over 3000 families, friendship circles, neighborhoods, communities continue to cope with unfathomable losses.

Presidencies often converge: For all their differences in tone, style, and ideology, Presidents Bush and Obama have responded in remarkably similarly ways to their respective presidencies’ biggest crises. Bush looked downright Democratic in turning on the stimulus spigot to spend America out of its economic trauma. Obama has looked downright Republican in assassinating America’s enemies whenever and wherever he can. Perhaps, it is worth ratcheting down the rhetoric, just a bit, and understanding that responsible democratic leaders often have more limited options than it seems, and that responsible leaders often act responsibly, regardless of ideology.

Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda isn’t. These and other lessons should bring some moral clarity and communal grit to the fight. Seeing problems clearly and in proportion does not make them disappear, but does make them more manageable.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGillUniversity 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

Center Field: A detox program for haters

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-16-11

(Center Field Column: Dear President Obama: How could somebody slaughter Baby Hadas?)

Dear President Obama,

The murders of Uri and Ruth Fogel, along with Yoav, 11, Elad 4, and Baby Hadas, raise an elemental question. “How could somebody do something like that?” my children asked.  Mr. President, as a father of young daughters, and a peace-seeking statesman, you also must answer that question.

To reply properly we should ask who the victims were – or more accurately who they appeared to be. The Hamas thugs in Gaza who celebrated this slaughter see them as “Jews” and “Zionists.” According to the Hamas Charter, the Fogels deserved to die by being born Jewish, by being Israeli.  Such Hitlerite anti-Semitism pollutes mosques and the Arab media, prompting calls by Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Muslim Brotherhood, and others to “wipe out” Israel. America’s boycott of Hamas reflects your understanding that interacting with these people is futile unless they repudiate this genocidal ideology – which often targets Westerners too.

In the West, too many people view the Fogels as “settlers,” meaning evil Jews and Zionists.  As such, CNN reported their murder as a “terror attack” – in quotation marks — while other media outlets called the murders “militants,” “extremists,” even “intruders” but  not terrorists. If the t-word is reserved for targeting innocents, somehow these victims were guilty. When a deranged man slaughtered 6 people and shot another 13 including Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, Arizona, many media outlets immediately politicized the event, blaming the Tea Party. You wisely refrained from that rush to judgment. When Palestinians murder, many of those same institutions rush away from judgment, decontextualizing the event, insulating Palestinian political culture from the crime.

Defining the Fogels only as “settlers” dehumanizes them. It comes from blaming this multi-dimensional, century-long, two-sided conflict on settlements.  Someone can advocate withdrawing from territory, including the Fogels’ village of Itamar, without believing this fable. In fact, more peace-loving Israelis should emphasize Jews’ legal rights to the disputed territories, thereby demonstrating their willingness to sacrifice land for peace. In focusing so much anger on Israel’s settlements, you have helped distort the conflict, absolving Palestinians of too much responsibility

The Fogel massacre occurred during that intellectual abomination “Israel Apartheid Week.” On campuses, which should be centers of complex, critical thought, pursuing truth, hotheads accused Israel of “genocide” – although the Palestinian population has nearly quadrupled since 1967 – and of “apartheid” and “racism” when this is a national conflict.  Exaggeration, distortion, obsession, and perversion of core values signify political fanaticism and bigotry.  When such simplistic sloganeering and dehumanizing rhetoric becomes epidemic on our comfortable campuses, it is not surprising that it metastasizes into murder in the Middle East.

These Israel-bashers affix “apartheid” and “racist” as all-purpose adjectives to any Israeli action, disconnected from true meanings. The South Africa analogy treats Israel as so reprehensible it should collapse. The Soviet Union and Arab rejectionists invented this racism and apartheid libel in the 1970s, when trying to expel Israel from the UN.

As a skilled wordsmith you know that words can heal or kill, words can elevate or desecrate. If you seek Middle East peace, shouldn’t you try harder to demand that Palestinians use words that promote peace rather than fostering baby-killing?

Having read the White House condemnation of this “heinous crime,” recalling your empathy – as a parent – when you visited Sderot, stirred by your defining Zionism as an “incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves,” and a believer in your “Yes We Can” humanism, I am sure you mourn the Fogel family as fellow humans. But mourning is not enough. If you believe that hatred is not instinctive but instilled — which is what I guess you would tell your daughters – you also must believe in stopping the hate-mongering. That the US, by subsidizing the PA, even indirectly bankrolls this incitement should disgust you – and prompt dramatic actions.

Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israelis should not have to raise this issue — the Roadmap requires “All official Palestinian institutions [to] end incitement against Israel.” The international community should combat Palestinian incitement independently, vigorously. The US, EU, and UN should start funding the two independent organizations, MEMRI and Palestinian Media Watch which track Palestinian incitement, and impose sanctions when the PA glorifies murderers, the PA Culture Ministry finances events spreading the Israel-Apartheid libel, and when Palestinian media, mosques or schools preach hatred.

You have tremendous power. Your pressure has curtailed construction in the settlements, making the settlements such an issue that Israel responded to the terror attack with new settlement housing starts, to punish the Palestinians. You must put similar pressure on the Palestinians to reform their political culture as a precondition to further progress.

By using the presidential bully pulpit to fight Palestinians’ bullying culture, you can foster an atmosphere conducive to peace.  Israelis cannot compromise when families are being slaughtered or their very rights to exist are attacked. After decades of worshiping Yasir Arafat and other terrorists in their guerilla culture, Palestinians need help detoxifying their political culture. The pressure you exert can help builders like Salam Fayyad defeat the destroyers.

You can also score political points domestically by showing you understand that terror emerges from a perverted political culture and you know how to combat that.

The answer you give your daughters, the answer I gave my kids, and the answer you teach the world should be the same. Before a human being slits a baby’s throat, the hatred must be taught, a soul has to be poisoned. We must teach the opposite lesson, humanizing one another, so that everyone sees every child as a potential friend not a future enemy to murder. Those who fail to teach that lesson should feel your wrath.

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,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com