Romney’s Understandable Views on Palestine

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-21-12

Mitt Romney’s remarks at the Florida fundraiser four months ago were indeed “shameful,” as Peter suggests. It is shameful that presidential candidates sell briefings to donors wherein they disrespect opposing voters and undermine their own publicly stated positions. It is shameful that a culture has developed wherein both Barack Obama, with his “bitter” remarks in 2008, and Romney with his recent, newly infamous “47 percent” riff, obviously feel compelled to explain to people who are investing in their campaigns how others could possibly oppose them. However, most unfortunately, I find it easier to understand Mitt Romney’s pessimism about Palestinian intentions regarding the peace process than to share Peter’s optimism—as articulated in both his recent blog post and his book.

A Palestinian man holds a Hamas flag. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)
A Palestinian man holds a Hamas flag. (Ilia Yefimovich / Getty Images)

As someone who supported the Oslo Peace Process (remember that?) and desperately hopes that his fifteen-year-old son will not have to do anything in the Israeli army in three years that squelches another people’s national ambitions, I genuinely wish that I believed Ehud Olmert’s claim that Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinians are deeply committed to the peace process. But, I confess, I am stuck. I am stuck in the trauma of Yasser Arafat’s turn from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. I am stuck in the trauma of Hamas’s ongoing calls to wipe out Israel and the Jews. I am stuck in the decades-long, worldwide, anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist campaign of too many Arabs and too many Muslims. And I am stuck by the continuing Palestinian campaign to delegitimize Israel, which many (not all) of these supposed “moderates” and peace partners finance, encourage, and frequently orchestrate.

It is too easy to dismiss these as “right-wing” views. Such caricatures absolve Palestinians of too much responsibility and miss the implosion of the Israeli left—precisely because the left failed to acknowledge Palestinian terror and delegitimization. My friend Yossi Klein Halevi states it quite elegantly. He says the Israeli right failed to learn the lesson of the first intifada—that the Palestinians are a people who deserve national self-determination and are not going to disappear or be bought off. They should be respected and they need their own state—for their sake and for Israel’s. But the Israeli left failed to learn the lesson of the second intifada—that too many Palestinians remain committed to Israel’s destruction. They are still trying to refight the 1948 war over Israel’s existence, not just win the 1967 war regarding Israel’s borders.

While Peter blames Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for perceptions that he is not fully committed to peace, he gives Palestinian political culture a free pass. One of the essential lessons of our season of repentance is that we are each responsible for our own behavior, and for the way others see us, too (within limits given that there are bigots in the world, of course). Doubting Palestinians’ peaceful intentions is logical, and certainly understandable, based on history and based on much Palestinian rhetoric, especially the continuing celebration of terrorist murderers as martyrs, as well as the condemnation of Israel as a racist, imperialist, apartheid state—crimes which in the modern world are seen as being worthy of the national equivalent of the death penalty.

While this does not mean that I endorse Romney’s entire analysis, he did use an interesting word that I also believe is unappreciated. Peter perceived Romney’s call for “stability” as code word for creeping annexation. Having spent a lot of time in Israel during the reign of terror ten years ago, I believe that more stability could be the pathway to peace. Stability can be the start of bridge-building and reconciliation, not the end of progress.

I believe the Golda Meir cliché that when Palestinians are more committed to building their state than destroying the Jewish one there will be peace. I have been thrilled to see the first serious attempts at nation-building initiated by Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian prime minister. I have personally met with peace-seeking Palestinian moderates—whose courage demonstrates that they are an often unwelcome, embattled minority in the non-democratic Palestinian Authority culture. And I await new signs that the Palestinians are ready to wean their political culture from the addiction to terror, delegitimization, and demonization, which have proved to be such lethal obstacles to the peace process.

In my forthcoming book, “Moynihan’s Moment,” I show how delegitimization, and Zionism-is-racism rhetoric have encouraged extremism on both sides, and in 1975 helped invigorate settlement expansionism. In this new year, I call on the pro-peace forces, left and right, to fight delegitimization and demonization—of both sides—vehemently and vigorously to improve the climate so that stability can become a launching pad for progress not a dead end.

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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.

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Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.

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Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
 

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

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.

Gil Troy Responds to Yousef Munayyer

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-21-12

The many articles like Yousef Munayyer’s asking just how racist is Zionism echo the classic loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife”?

Supporters of Israel are forced to start backpedaling immediately, and frequently, unthinkingly, defensively, confirm too many unfair assumptions built into the question. I have no need to defend Aaron David Miller or his New York Times op-ed worrying about Israel’s demographics. I am not an Israeli WASP—a White Ashkenazi Sabra with Protekzia (connections), nor am I an American Jewish WASP, a Washington Peace Processor. Moreover, we at the Engaging Israel project of the Shalom Hartman Institute reject the whole Demography of Fear industry. As educators and as activists we believe in inculcating collective values and educating individuals, not in counting which groups at what scale threaten society.

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A young Arab-Israeli holds up the Palestinian flag run as he rides his horse in a Lod village, during a demonstration for “Land Day”, 30 March 2006. (Samuel Aranda / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Still, Munayyer’s use of Millers article to repudiate the Zionist project as racist raises recurring issues that should be addressed.

First, using the terms “racist” and “racism” is inaccurate and inflammatory. The racism charge was launched with great force into the Middle East by Soviet propagandists in the 1970s, particularly with the UN General Assembly’s infamous 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. This was an attempt to charge Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with the most heinous of crimes, crimes that in Nazi Germany, South Africa and the American south—on different scales of course—immorally judged human beings’ worthiness, and sometimes even their rights to live, on the basis of specious biological differences, especially skin color.

That is not what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict pivots on a set of national and ethnic distinctions which most of the world is more comfortable making. In a world of nation states that are frequently built on ethnic and tribal differences, we acknowledge that membership in one group or polity can affect the distribution of certain rights among human beings.  We also acknowledge that one valid role of a nation state is to preserve, affirm, and transmit a culture and certain collective values, not just to protect individuals.

Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:

A. Certain countries, particularly the United States and Canada, live by a from of civic nationalism, which focuses more on the relationship between individuals and the nation, although even in those two countries the rise of multiculturalism has led to discussion, awareness and sometimes even assigning of group rights.

B. Most countries represent a form of ethnic nationalism, using some vision of solidarity as the foundation for national unity and seeking to celebrate certain ethnic values in the nation’s public space.

C. Most Arab countries are on the high end of the scale of ethnic sensibility and the low end of the scale reflecting social tolerance, diversity, or fluidity.

D. Israel is a hypbrid. Israel’s Declaration of Independence establishes it as a Jewish state but also articulates civic aspirations, offering all its “inhabitants” equal rights.

Yes, there is a tension between the desire to keep Israel as a Jewish state—whatever Jewish means—and its civic aspirations. But all democracies navigate key tensions such as the tug of war between majority rule and minority rights. Just because two goods or two rights are in tension, it does not mean that one should negate the other.

Tragically, many critics use Israel’s civic, democratic aspirations as truncheons against the Jewish state, without noticing the exclusivity and rigidity of so many other countries, neighboring and otherwise.

I want Israel to keep pushing in both directions. I want Israel to be democratic, welcoming, broad-minded, giving all its citizens full rights and dignity. I also want Israel to be an ideal Jewish state, celebrating and redefining Jewish culture, embodying and enriching Jewish values, epitomizing and stretching the best Jewish ideals. Categorical “ahas” like Munayyer’s, implicitly saying, “you see, I told you the Zionist project was worthless” don’t help.  We need to fight the ethnocentrism that is an unfortunate byproduct of ethnic pride—especially at a time of ethnic and national conflict.

I am appalled by the “lynch” of Arabs in Zion Square, the racist rabbis of Tzfat, the yahoos who do not appreciate Israel’s delicate and diverse democratic dance. But to defeat them, we need a more nuanced, open, sophisticated and forgiving dialogue that seeks to find the right balance, forge the Golden Path, so that Israel can be what its founders wanted it to be a democratic Jewish state, protecting Jews, preserving Jewish tradition, opening up Jewish life and embracing all its inhabitants. Achieving that goal requires better education, clearer ideologies, sharper visions—and a constructive push for values neither counting one group of citizens as the “good” kind or repudiating the Zionist project itself.

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.

 

Boycott Hamas — But Foster Palestinian Moderation

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-17-12

This is the first in a series of articles that will answer the question of how to deal with Hamas.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon part of it,” Part III, Article eleven of the Hamas Charter reads. “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad,” says Article fifteen. And then it goes wacky, invoking the Protocols of Zion, targeting “Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like,” making it clear that, as Article twenty-eight teaches “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

Those who pressure Israel to mollify Hamas want Israel to appease an unrelenting, paranoid, anti-Semitic, Jihadist movement committed to Israel’s destruction and ideologically opposed to compromise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that “words matter.” And the words in founding charters matter the most. They reflect an entity’s character, its highest aspirations, its most cherished self. To ignore those words—and those ideas—is to disrespect the organization, let alone delude oneself.

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Palestinian Hamas premier in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya gestures in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City on August 6, 2012 during a protest against five gunmen who killed 16 Egyptian guards. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Moreover, Hamas has never renounced, never regretted, never apologized for, the many civilian deaths resulting from its suicide bombing campaign against the Oslo peace process. Moreover, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza resulted in repeated rocket fire from Gaza, an area now controlled by Hamas. Hamas dictates how women should dress and what children should learn yet pretends that its dictatorial rule somehow runs out when it comes to a government’s most basic responsibilities, which include maintaining order internally and determining how it acts externally.

At the same time, Israel must live in the real world, a world in which Hamas controls Gaza, and a world in which Palestinian assaults against Israel are repeatedly ignored or excused away. What to do?

As long as Hamas continues to live by its charter, as long as rocket fire and terrorist incursions continue to come from Gaza, Israel should maintain its policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. I would go even farther and let Egypt take responsibility for all deliveries, all electricity, all hospitalizations. If Gaza had no border with Egypt, Israel would have a moral obligation to keep some goods and services flowing. But a country has no moral obligation to a sworn enemy when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to its south.

At the same time, Israel should acknowledge its own historic failures in building up moderates in the Palestinian camp—and learn how to avoid giving extremist groups like Hamas the oxygen they need to grow. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates. And yes, they are justified in being frustrated that Israel frequently responds to the violent extremists more than the reasonable moderates.

The Gaza disengagement should have been part of an exchange with moderate forces in Fatah, giving them a victory rather than allowing the Hamas murderers to take credit.  Israel should continue building economic, political, and security infrastructure in the West Bank, continue its Benjamin Netanyahu-implemented policy of lifting checkpoints there, continue to make it clear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will be better off if they push their leaders toward more moderation rather than veering toward the extremism imposed on their Gazan cousins.

There is an expression in Arabic and Hebrew—sikin b’sikin—one dagger sharpens the other. That has been the dynamic, in many ways, for the last few decades. Surprisingly, right now, there is a bit of a respite, with moderates like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building their state not targeting their neighbors—and Israel is responding in kind. It is fashionable to complain about the current stalemate without seeing how much better off the region is in 2012 than it was in 2002, when violence reigned.  Heavy-handed moves like boycotts, blockades and bombings are easy to implement; creative diplomacy and visionary statesmanship are harder to pull off—but more necessary than ever.

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.

Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-3-12

Mitt Romney’s recent Israel trip proved yet again that a political gaffe is a politician caught in the act of telling the truth. True, his comment that “culture makes all the difference” when comparing the Israeli and Palestinian economies was too broad—all politicians should learn never to use words like “all” and “never.” But the media firestorm his comments evoked, and Saeb Erekat’s predictable charge that Romney made a “racist statement,” mixed together two topics about which it seems impossible to have a textured, subtle, mature conversation these days: the Middle East and the impact of culture.

For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

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Palestinian girls walk home from school inside the refugee camp of al-Fawar in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, the Middle East had its own Great Inversion as Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.

Underlying these complex phenomena, which had many causes, manifestations, and subtleties, was a defining ideological and intellectual struggle. By 2000, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published an anthology “Culture Matters” as a rallying point for David Landes and other culture-oriented colleagues. Romney’s remarks should be understood in the context of this ongoing debate and ideological power struggle. His analysis reflects his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a central critique of Barack Obama’s worldview.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As the scholar-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Culture matters—but politics matters too.

So no, it is not helpful to shut down every conversation about the impact of culture by shouting “racist.” And yes, it is absurd to see the same people who generalize so broadly about Israeli culture and character take such umbrage at generalizations about Palestinian character. The Middle East will not progress until Palestinians can look at their culture critically, and see how worldviews that emphasize victimization, accept authoritarianism, impose sexism, celebrate terrorism, and squelch individualism are destructive. It is more than true that many Palestinians, partially due to their contact with Israelis, are more entrepreneurial and democracy-minded, than many other cultures we could easily name. But Israelis—and Palestinians—both have to take responsibility and step up to progress.

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.

Leaving The Language Of Conflict

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-11-12

Showing a remarkably Israeli insensitivity to international public opinion—or is it a charmingly Zionist assertion of independence?—the Levy Committee, chaired by the retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, has declared settlements legal and what is broadly called the “occupation” of the West Bank not a classic occupation under international law. The predictable Pavlovian reaction has Right Wing settlers calling for more settlement and Is-crits internally and externally condemning these rapacious, racist, imperialist colonialists.

Following the script, here on Open Zion Hussein Ibish called the Levy Report “The Anti-Balfour Declaration.” After making the subtle, clever argument that the Israeli government has to decide whether it wants to use the legal status of occupier to justify military measures and treat them as temporary or treat the territories as permanent extensions of Israel, with all the resulting democratic and demographic headaches, Ibish succumbs to the kind of moralistic rhetorical exaggeration that makes discussions about Israel and Palestine so combustible. Brandishing the A-word, apartheid, he writes: “When systematic ethnic discrimination is intended to be maintained rather than temporary, it is a crime under international law. Although Israel is not a signatory to the treaty, this is how the Statute of Rome, which outlines the work of the International Criminal Court, defines Apartheid.”

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An Israeli father and his child play on swings in Kfar Etzion (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)

Ibish links to the Rome Statute—sounds pretty authoritative. But when I pursued the link to Article 7 2 (h), I discovered that “The crime of apartheid” means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Apartheid was an abhorrent system of racial discrimination which is not the same as ethnic discrimination. Moreover, the Israel-Palestine mess is not at all about race, much less about ethnic issues, and much more about a national conflict.

Palestinians see themselves as a separate nation. Most Israelis post-Oslo learned to acknowledge that national identity. The separation on the West Bank acknowledges Palestinians’ distinct national identity, mirrors their own desire to be apart from Israel, and often reflects security complexities. Moreover, many of us who endorse a two-state solution do so precisely because we respect those national differences.

So, as everyone mans—persons?—their usual battle stations, it is worth commenting on the toxicity of the debate and how the rigid categories and hysterical terms so many use to describe the Middle East threaten a two-state solution. Sweeping generalizations treating all the settlements as one, rigid binary categories like “legal” or “illegal,” even the word “occupation” implying that there is a clear provenance to this oft-conquered and redrawn land, are all obstacles to peace and reconciliation—as are inaccurate, inflammatory cries of “racism” and “apartheid.” They go to the ontological—Israel’s essential character—rather than the transactional—Israel’s actions.

Distinguishing between some settlements and others, rather than speaking about them as “the” settlements, explains why a thriving suburb so close to Jerusalem like Gush Etzion, with its tragic history of being destroyed by Jordanians on the eve of Israel’s Declaration in 1948, is well within the “peace consensus,” consistently supported by at least 70 percent of Israelis, as opposed to a hilltop outpost, conceived in revenge, surrounded by Palestinians. If critics drop words like “legal” or “illegal”—especially considering the British Mandate of 1922 which was never abrogated but allowed Jews to settle in the area of historic Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean—they can stop thinking of Israel as an international criminal and view the country as a potential peace partner. If we can end the occupation preoccupation, with its harsh, inflexible reading of the ever-changing boundaries in the Middle East, we can accept land swaps, improvise, and focus on present demographic realities rather than past claims or slights.

In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the modern philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that we frequently underestimate the importance of honor—and dishonor—in facilitating reform and making the world a better place. Those who have been systematically delegitimizing Israel with false charges of racism and condemning “the Occupation” as illegal should acknowledge that dishonoring Israel makes compromise less likely—countries and individuals tend to hunker down not take expansive risks when under assault. In fact, Israel proved most willing to compromise in the early 1990s, after the UN repealed its odious Zionism is racism resolution in 1991.

While I believe that Israel’s control over the West Bank has legal and historical validity, the Levy Report argument is distracting and incendiary. I start by assuming that in the area of historic Palestine—however you define it—borders shifted and populations changed. Given that two peoples are in love with the same land, they must negotiate and compromise, aware of their history but not handcuffed by it, acknowledging past slights without adding to them, while concentrating on pragmatic demographic and geographic realities.

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: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Call me a proud ‘Zionist firebrand’

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By Gil Troy, The Canadian Jewish News, 6-22-12

A blogger on the Maclean’s magazine website has deemed me a “Zionist  firebrand” – and it was most assuredly not intended as a compliment. “Firebrand” is Canadian for extremist, fanatic, a most non-academic and far too aggressively American combatant in the Middle East wars.

My crime, apparently, was writing a “fiery” defence of a delegation of Canadian comedians who were heckled in east Jerusalem. Their crime, apparently, was mentioning the word “Israel” in front of a group of Palestinians in east Jerusalem.

The story begins in Toronto, when Mark Breslin, the founder of the Yuk Yuks chain of comedy clubs, decided he wanted to help the Jewish state. “I could write a cheque,” he explained to me, “but so could a dentist.” He wanted to use his particular skills as a comedian and an entertainment entrepreneur to help Israel.

He therefore decided to lead a delegation of six young talented comedians to Israel on a goodwill tour, which took place in June and was sponsored by Canada’s Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs. In the spirit of a good comedian, who knows no boundaries – geographic or verbal – and abhors censorship, when he heard that few comedians play east Jerusalem, he volunteered to bring his troupe there.

The comedians appeared in east Jerusalem on a Friday night and ran into trouble immediately. Within seven seconds, Sam Easton was heckled. In typical comedians’ style of acknowledging the site of their gig, Easton, the MC for the evening, had begun by saying, “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

People hissed and booed. They shouted out “Palestine.” At least one person shouted that Israel doesn’t deserve to exist. The next comedian, Jean Paul, also was attacked for telling an innocuous joke – what does a polite Israeli magician say? TO-dah!  Some westerners in the audience called Jean Paul, a black man, “racist” for making the joke. Some Canadian diplomats attending told Breslin that Israel “stole” Palestinian land.

My supposedly “fiery” response involved chiding the Palestinians for forgetting the Middle East tradition of welcoming strangers and suggesting that this kind of Palestinian intolerance and rudeness made Israeli democracy look good.

The Canadian comedians were innocent non-combatants. We should not become so inured to conflict that we accept the politicization of every evening and every innocent joke. So, yes, if defending these kind comedians, who meant no harm, makes me a “Zionist firebrand,” I will wear that designation proudly. And if defending the Jewish state makes me “fiery” and non-academic, I accept those labels too.

But it’s worth exploring the underlying subtext here. At work is the delegitimizers’ delegitimization of the legitimizers. Part of the systematic strategy to attack Israel, isolate Israel, read Israel out of the community of nations, involves making the very act of defending Israel illegitimate. If any defence of Israel, no matter how innocuous, is labelled extreme, the defence of Israel is undermined. And using the term “Zionist” pejoratively, in a world that increasingly demonizes the movement for Jewish national liberation, makes the attack more dismissive.

These attacks often have a chilling effect, putting defenders on the defensive. If I were untenured, or more sensitive, I might be intimidated – which was the intention. Instead, I wear the attacks as a badge of honour – and call out the attackers for their methods. I am a Zionist – not merely an anti-anti-Zionist. And I make no apologies for my passion, even as I back it up with evidence and reason.

On a deeper level, this incident offered a classic example of the pathologization of Israel. If every trip to Israel becomes controversial, if every conversation about Israel becomes headache-inducing, we lose and the anti-Israel forces win. The true, important, resonant headlines about the comedians’ mission to Israel had nothing to do with their rude treatment in east Jerusalem. These comedians loved Israel – they loved the spirituality of Jerusalem, the normalcy of Tel Aviv, the Israelis’ indomitable spirit. They laughed and learned from the Dead Sea to Masada, from the ancient tunnels of Jerusalem’s Western Walls to the chic shops of Tel Aviv’s Kikar Ha’atzmaut.

In short, as the boyish, charming, exuberant Easton said: “Man, what a beautiful country. We are having such an incredible time here in Israel.”

So will other visitors, both Jews and non-Jews.

This column appears in the June 28 print issue of The CJN

One-Note History: A Response to Yousef Munayyer

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-19-12

One of the most moving Jewish prayers begins by saying, “MiPnai Chataeinu Gilinu MeArzenu,” we were exiled from our land, because of our sins. The prayer captures the humility of the Jews in exile, and explains a fundamental force that propelled the Zionist movement. Some Jews, overwhelmed by the sins of fraternal hatred that destroyed the Second Temple in 70 CE, preached passivity, awaiting Messianic redemption.  Others, fearing national paralysis but nevertheless humbled, reacted and acted.

Awareness of national sins, of collective imperfections, helped make most Zionists pragmatists. They were trying to fix a problem—the problem of statelessness—and were willing to compromise to achieve their goal. Most dramatically, in 1947 David Ben-Gurion led his people to accept what the Peel Commission had acknowledged was a proverbial half loaf—a partition of the Jewish homeland into Jewish and Arab parts, with Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s geographic heart and soul, internationalized. This compromise preceded other compromises, including the 1979 Camp David treaty with Egypt, the various Oslo Accords of the 1990s, and the Gaza Disengagement of 2005—all of which involved withdrawing from territory for the hope of peace.

 

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Kemal Arekat (l), former leader of Futuwa movement, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, commander of Palestinian Arab forces in Jerusalem (c) and Kassem Rimawi (r), leader of Palestinian Arab Party 16 February 1948 during the offensive against Jews in Palestine. (AFP / Getty Images)

 

By contrast, the dominant Palestinian narrative has long been about the sins of others leading to their exile and suffering. In “Blaming the Victim” Yousef Munayyer once again offers such an account of his people as blameless, claiming that any suggestion of Palestinian responsibility is “ahistorical,” condescending, and, invoking the accusation du jour, a reflection of “racism.”  Setting up a straw man—or straw passage—he targets his enemies with his own improvised quotations, writing, “‘Those Arabs had a chance to make a deal by accepting the 1947 UN Partition,’ the narrative often goes, ‘but they chose war and thus deserve whatever befell them.'” Munayyer’s characterization drains the nuance from the discussion and turns an assessment of historical responsibility—losing wars you trigger does have consequences—into a condescending moral judgment.

Then, trying to cleanse Arabs of responsibility and blame the Jews he writes: “Given the discussion of ‘population transfer,'”—again undocumented—”Palestinian Arabs knew that the Jewish state might very well act to remove them from its territory to solidify its demographic control.”Here, using historical slight of hand with no proof, he implicitly accuses Israelis of a pre-crime, speculating that the Jews “might very well act.” Finally, reversing historical causation, he makes the Arab military attack on Israel a justified reaction rather than an aggressive invasion when he writes, again without evidence, “The influx of refugees pouring into Arab states pushed those governments into a war they were neither prepared for nor really desired.”

This account ignores the well-documented research of historians such as Efraim Karsh who in Palestine Betrayed (2010) presents a nuanced, multidimensional perspective. Karsh explains that some Palestinians had strong ties with Jews, some accepted the partition compromise, but that extremist leaders such as Hajj Amin Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, betrayed their people by being so uncompromising. (And Karsh’s portrait is far from “monolithic,” mocking another Munayyer complaint which is undermined by Munayyer’s own sweeping claim that “the native Palestinians opposed” partition—as if all acted as one).

Rejecting the Palestinian claim that Palestinians were passive pawns, Karsh quotes Radio Baghdad in May 1948 that “Fright has struck the Palestinian Arabs and they fled their country.” The Palestinian leader Musa Alami admitted in 1949 that his people “were told that the Arab armies were coming, that the matter would be settled and everything return to normal.”

Most damning, Karsh dares introduce complexity into the story by noting that after 1948, many Palestinians blamed their Arab brethren not the Jews. Sir John Troutbeck the pro-Arab head of the British Middle East office in Cairo, reported in June 1949 that the Gaza refugees “Express no bitterness against the Jews,” but “speak with the utmost bitterness of the Egyptians and other Arab states.” Many told Troutbeck: “we know who our enemies are.” He concluded, the Gaza refugees “have no quarrel with the Jews.” He explained: “they have lived with the Jews all their lives and are perfectly ready to go back and live with them again.”

Johnny one-note history is anathema to a two-state solution. The dominant, monolithic woe-is-us, we-were-“ethnically-cleansed” Palestinian narrative undermines any spirit of pragmatism or compromise in a demand for absolute “justice” rather than a search for a subtle solution. Many Israelis have spent over two decades now arguing about their history, acknowledging the messiness of the past, the complexity of the conflict, the dual claims of two people in love with the same land. Parallel Palestinian discussions, acknowledging some of their sins and miscalculations too, would help lay the ideological and conceptual groundwork for the kinds of compromises they—and the Israelis—will have to accept for peace to be achieved.

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

When Canadian Comedy Confronts Palestinian Enmity, Israeli Democracy Wins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Exaggerating the Refugee Problem: Response to Lara Friedman’s Open Zion Post “Legislating the Refugee Problem”

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-29-12

The situation in the Middle East is complicated enough without inflammatory oversimplifications. Lara Friedman’s post “Legislating the Refugee Problem,” should be called “Exaggerating the Refugee Problem.” Unfortunately, supposedly pro-Palestinian discourse is rife with such destructive distortions, which undermine the push for a two-state solution.

Friedman charges  that “Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), a Tea Party member… introduced legislation supporting Israeli annexation ‘of Judea and Samaria’—aka, the West Bank.” Following the link she provides, H.RES.394 is called “Supporting Israel’s right to annex Judea and Samaria in the event that the Palestinian Authority continues to press for unilateral recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations.” One can still oppose the law, but understanding it as potential Congressional pushback to counter a unilateral declaration by Palestinians fills out the narrative.

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Colombian supporters of Israel demonstrate to back Colombia’s position of not to vote the recognition of a Palestine statehood by the UN, at Bolivar Square in Bogota in October 2011. (Felipe Caicedo / AFP / Getty Images)

Beyond telling half the story, Friedman loves appearing horrified by the mundane. She is outraged that, when serving in the House, Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, “made going after UNRWA—the UN agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees—a pet project.” What did this evil man do? She reports: “His efforts have focused on demanding audits and imposing ever-increasing demands for UNRWA accountability as a condition for U.S. funding.” Demanding audits? Seeking accountability? It is indeed shocking when modern legislators stop posturing and start doing their jobs by providing Congressional oversight. But those efforts should be applauded, not condemned.

In fairness, Senator Kirk expanded his mission. He is challenging the accepted UNWRA definition of Palestinian refugees while questioning UNWRA’s overall bias against Israel—although again, Friedman’s links show that Kirk is not proposing an aid cutoff for impoverished Palestinians, which, if mentioned would have made him sound much less Scrooge-like.

Senator Kirk has a point. The Palestinians have long enjoyed extra protection and indulgence from the UN, and especially the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, UNWRA, first established in 1949. In those days, the world was awash in refugees. There were as many as 40 million European refugees after World War II, and another 14.5 million after the Indo-Pakistan partition plan. Over the next decade, 850,000 Jews from Arab lands would also become refugees, driven out by anti-Semitic fury following Israel’s creation.

UNWRA defines a Palestine refugee as “any person whose ‘normal place of residence was Palestine during the period 1 June 1946 to 15 May 1948 and who lost both home and means of livelihood as a result of the 1948 conflict.’” That makes sense. Whatever caused the displacement—and the historiographical battle rages as to how many fled voluntarily and how many were driven out involuntarily—six hundred to seven hundred thousand Palestinians ended up homeless after the 1948 war. They deserved international assistance. But UNWRA then adds a twist: “Palestine refugees are persons who fulfil the above definition and descendants of fathers fulfilling the definition” [italics added]. Now, we need George Orwell.

Pop Quiz: What do you call “descendants” of European refugees, Indian refugees, Pakistani refugees, or Jewish refugees from the post-1945 or post-1948 turmoil? Answer: Citizens of their respective lands. The classification “refugee” is a transitory one not an enduring identity willed from one generation to the next—except when we come to the question of Palestine and we see the world’s investment in perpetuating the problem.

This perma-Palestinian-refugee status prolongs the Middle East conflict. I respect Palestinian national identity and endorse a two-state solution. Moreover, I endorse a right of return for the original Palestinian refugees. This incendiary issue could be defused if UNWRA kept to the historic definition and treated Palestinians like all others. Palestinians could become citizens of their new state, once created. The remaining 30,000 or so original Palestinians displaced 64 years ago, could be welcomed back in Israel or compensated. Palestinians could get a symbolic victory of great import to them without threatening Israel or trying to undo six and a half decades of history.

UNWRA’s categorizing inflation reflects its systematic anti-Israel bias. Over the years, UNWRA schools have preached anti-Israel hatred, UNWRA’s director has demagogically attacked the Jewish state, and UNWRA has been part of a network of UN institutions that prolong the conflict by encouraging Palestinian extremism and maximalist demands.

The Zen notion that less is more also applies to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Less encouragement of Palestinian radicalism would facilitate more progress toward a two-state solution. If the Palestinian goal is creating a Palestinian state and not destroying the Jewish one, being pro-Palestinian must undergo a redefinition which focuses on advancing that goal rather than feeding destructive, maximalist fantasies.  Friedman, UNWRA and so many other undiscriminating cheerleaders are playing the role of enablers, perpetuating Mideast dysfunction rather than providing the perspective and tough love good friends sometimes need.

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

Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-10-12

“Let Gunter Grass visit Israel – and encounter democracy”

A popular YouTube parody at www.collegehumor.com, which my kids love, has a youngGerman named Gunter Granz working in an American office, refusing to shake his Jewish co-workers’ hands, assuming all their fathers are rich bankers, and humiliated by Germany’s World War II misdeeds – because if only Hitler had not made the country so vulnerable with the long supply lines in Russia, he would have won. Meanwhile, in the real world, the German novelist Gunter Grass talks about Israel, the Jewish state, in equally absurd ways, bordering on parody. Grass should be mocked, refuted, confronted. But Israel’s Interior Minister is wrong. Rather than banning the author, Israel should welcome him – showing Grass a real democracy in action rather the bogeyman he targeted.
Grass’s poem “What Must Be Said” throbs with the false bravado and self-righteousness of the laptop warrior against Israel. There is this conceit, among Israel’s critics, that, somehow, by joining the international pile-on against Israel they are being brave, breaking the silence, saying what must be said, when they actually are being conformist, acting in vogue, echoing clichés.Especially in Europe, and most especially in Grass’s leftist circles, attacking Israel – or the US — is as natural, and as imaginative, as grumbling about high gasoline prices or low book advances.
Among Western radicals, prejudice against Israel and the US is the last legitimate bigotry, the only hatred acceptable in polite circles. As Richard Wolin explains in The Seduction of Unreason:  The Intellectual Romance with Fascism from Nietzsche to Postmodernism, America has long functioned as European thinkers’ Schreckbild, image of horror.  Israel, what those lovely Iranian mullahs call, Little Satan, is now similarly targeted, in a move reeking of anti-Semitism that also feels natural to European elites. Attacking each country’s essential character transcends anger at specific policies, often confusing cause and effect. The French philosopher Jean-Francois Revel notes that the same critics attack America as “unilateralist” and “imperialist” when it intervenes internationally but then call Uncle Sam “isolationist” when it does not.
Similarly, Grass colors within the lines, slavishly following the bash-Israel formula.  His critique is one-sided, exaggerated and hysterical. Iran can threaten to “wipe out” Israel but Grass and his ilk accuse Israel of threatening Iran, of endangering “The already fragile world peace.”  Such “wonderful illogicality” suggests not “rational analysis” to Revel but “obsession.”
I agree with Grass when he writes in his leaden, clumsy poem: “I am tired of the hypocrisy/ Of the West; in addition to which it is to be hoped/That this will free many from silence,/That they may prompt the perpetrator of the recognized danger/ To renounce violence….”  We just differ in our threat assessments and our definitions of hypocrisy.  I am more outraged by charlatans like Grass who cannot criticize Third World dictators and human rights abusers, and whose fight against nuclear proliferation mysteriously lost steam when the oil-rich Iranians decided they desperately needed what, an alternative energy source? And when it comes to trusting one country to act responsibly, I bet on Israel’s democracy over Iran’s mullocracy.
Grass sees the Middle East as a “Region occupied by mania” with Israelis and Palestinians living “cheek by jowl among enemies.” Beyond not wanting to deploy state power against an aging, irrelevant blowhard whose great achievement, The Tin Drum dates to 1959, before I was born, I believe Israel has nothing to hide. Grass should visit Israel now during Passover.
I wish he could have wandered, Seder night, like the spirit of Elijah the Prophet did, from house to house, watching a society stop, gather in groups of friends and relatives, to contemplate questions of justice and injustice, slavery and freedom. I wish he could visit the country’s parks and historic sites, seeing many of the same families now enjoying Israel’s natural beauty and historical grandeur as backdrop. I wish he could frolic in Sakhne, which attracted as many as 1500 people a day this Passover, and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl” splashing in the water, enjoying the mini waterfalls. I wish he could inspect the wards of Hadassah Hospital or work out in the YMCA gym in Jerusalem and see Arabs and Jews “cheek by jowl,” living together, working together, playing together. I wish he could wander through the Old City and speak to those Palestinian-Israelis who have worked so hard to get Israeli citizenship, asking why those papers are so precious to them.
And I wish he could meet the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of refugees from his native Germany, who survived the sadism of the Waffen SS Grass joined and then lied about, to see the lives they have made for themselves. Those monuments to the human spirit are more impressive than any monuments to the dead at Yad Vashem.
And yes, let him get political and visit the territories. Let him visit the Palestinian photographic art exhibits in Jaffa and elsewhere Israelis attend, and seek parallel expressions of sympathy for Israel, artistic or otherwise, in the Palestinian territories.  Let him visit Sderot, or my cousin’s Kibbutz, Nirim, to see how Hamas in Gaza chose rocket-launching over nation-building when given the opportunity to do what it wished after Israel withdrew in 2005 –nearly seven years ago already! –and then the Islamists seized power. And let him meet victims of Palestinian terror, learn about their missing limbs – or missing family members – and unravel why Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian leadership turned from peace talks to suicide bombs.
Israel has nothing to hide – and would botch it if it tried. Democracy begins in conversation. Freedom thrives from exposure. Let Grass come visit Israel and learn. Then, let him make Tehran his next stop, if he dares.

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.

“How Do You Say Moderate in Palestinian? Wasatia”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-7-12

Since the Oslo peace process hopes disappeared amid the blasts of suicide bombings, peace-loving Israelis have searched vainly for Palestinian moderates – or signs of moderation. Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to unite with Hamas, and probably sideline his constructive Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, prove just how relative the term “moderate” can be.  There must be more to Palestinian moderation than not being the violent Islamist radicals of Hamas.
In 2008, I published a book calledLeading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents”, insisting that moderates are not wimps.  When rooted in bedrock principles and pragmatic sensibilities, moderation becomes more than a will o’ the wisp, ever-shifting, relative term. Many of America’s most successful presidents, beginning with George Washington, were muscular moderates, open to differing views but not hostage to them, tempering principle with pragmatism, blessed with vision, molding consensus.
I did not know that a year earlier, a Palestinian academic, Dr. Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, had published his own moderation manifesto, called Wasatia.”  Derived from the Arabic word “wasat” for “middle of the road,” it means “’middle ground’, ‘centrism,’ ‘balance,’ ‘moderation, ‘justice.’” Dajani traces the idea to the Koranic verse:  “And thus We have created you a mid-ground nation…. Thus have We made of you an Ummatan Wasatan (justly balanced).”  Dajani belongs to a leading Palestinian Jerusalemite family, keepers of the keys to King David’s tomb for over eight centuries. A radical in the 1970s, while then earning two doctorates in the United States he embraced American values of democratic consultation, conciliation, and consensus.
Dajani rejects the Islamist view that extremism is the best way or the most authentic Islamic way. He quotes the Prophet Mohammed saying, “The best way to run affairs is through moderation.” Wasatia, Dajani explains, “is the first Islamic movement to advocate achieving peace and prosperity through the promotion of a culture of moderation that would lead to walking away from the current climate of religious and political extremism that is escalating fear and violence.  Wasatiareclaims the moderate centrist position — that balance, between love and hate, between friendship and enmity, between despair and hope, which will lead the Middle East out of chronic conflict and despair.”
Blending Koranic verses extolling “the virtues of middle ground, coexistence, democracy, and tolerance,” advocating a two-state solution, Dajani and his fellow moderates, including his brother Dr. Munther Dajani Daoudi, seek to establish “a tolerant, democratic society at home through fostering a culture of moderation” in religion and politics. These peace-seeking moderates proclaim publicly, boldly, that “Wasatia welcomes the day when Palestinian children no longer are exposed to a literature of incitement, hate and violence, and instead grow up in a rich culture where they can co-exist in peace, prosperity and harmony.”
In his book, Mohammed Dajani repudiates the Koranic “misinterpretations and misquotes that call for enmity, terrorism, and violence” as being “openly inconsistent and incompatible with the core values of Islam, as stipulated in the text of the Holy Koran itself, notably, love, mercy, pluralism and freedom of religion.” Emphasizing the common values uniting Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and Western civilization, the Dajanis work tirelessly to “reverse this trend through education and training workshops to provide leaders of the community with the knowledge and skills to take part in building bridges of political, cultural and religious understanding in order to play a more positive role in society.”  They want “to activate the role of religious leaders as peace builders, and to create platforms for the engagement with the civic society.  The goal is to make religion become part of the solution rather than remain part of the problem.”
Both Dajani brothers teach at Al-Quds University. While aware that young people are “vulnerable to extremist ideologies,” they see their students responding to their ideas, especially through the American Studies program which Mohammed Dajani chairs. They run a successful three-way parallel partnership involving Tel Aviv University, Al-Quds, and Oberlin College students, building a network of young believers in democracy, moderation, and coexistence, with a shared vocabulary rooted in the best of the American experience – even as we watch an American presidential campaign emphasizing extremism and idiocy over moderation and balance.
Thanks to Marvin Krislov, the President of Oberlin College, I recently met Mohammed Dajani. We rendezvoused in the Roladin café in the new Mamila Mall near Jaffa Gate. As we shared our mutually reinforcing dreams of moderation – for America and the Middle East – the legendary Israeli singer and peace activist David Broza’s “Tachat HaShamaim” (under the heavens), played in the background, giving the meeting an added blessing. Dajani told me that in his master’s seminar last semester, different students read different chapters from my book, presenting the particular model of presidential leadership that emerged from each chapter that inspired them, along with the associated American value. I was deeply moved to think that this book, written with a focus on the United States, might have resonance in the complicated Middle East.
In times of radicalism,” Mohammed Dajani writes, “being moderate is revolutionary.” My experiences with the Dajanis and their students reassured me that there are some revolutionary moderates. Nevertheless, we need more, including on the Israeli side. I am dismayed that Israelis have done little to encourage these moderates and to reciprocate. Both the Gaza disengagement and the recent Gilad Shalit deal boosted Hamas radicals, intentionally or not. The international community should do more to finance these moderates – where are the Europeans, with all their rhetoric, when they have a chance to do some good? For years, Israelis have complained that Palestinians lacked this moderate force. Now, when we see moderate sprouts that can be nurtured, we must mobCenter Field: “How Do You Say Moderate in Palestinian? Wasatia”

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.

Harvard Crimson: Response to an inaccurate attack by Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14

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By Gil Troy, Harvard Crimson, 2-3-12

My skin is itchy—Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14 in her February 1 article “What Anti-Semitism?” set me up as a straw man. I now have to deny her accusation that I was making an accusation I never made, while noting that had I made that accusation with just a little more subtlety­—she herself admits it would be justified.

Korn attacked an article I wrote about my talk about Identity Zionism at Harvard last semester, so there is no ambiguity, the written record is clear. I described the warm, intelligent reception I received at Harvard, noting that “on too many campuses” – and I italicized “too many,” emphasizing some but not all—pro-Israel or Zionist speakers have been “harassed.”

Caricaturing my argument, she wrongly suggests I contrasted Harvard with everywhere else. She ignores the article’s intention of encouraging civil discussion about Zionism. And she pole vaults past my words claiming, Troy “relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that ‘pro-Palestinian’ means ‘anti-Semitic.’” In the article in question, I never used the term “anti-Semitic”—I mentioned “anti-Zionist forces.” Moreover, I have acknowledged repeatedly in my writing that many people are pro-Palestinian or critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. Korn distorts my “assumptions” and my “writing”—with no evidence.

What I have said, repeatedly, although not in that article or that talk, is that Israel’s critics, including Palestinians and their allies, have a moral obligation to distance themselves from those pro-Palestinian activists who are anti-Semitic. I have challenged them to condemn the anti-Jewish stereotypes in the Arab press resurrecting Hitlerian caricatures when attacking Israel, and to repudiate those extremists who engage in Jew-hatred when championing Palestinians.

Of course, not everyone who is pro-Palestinian is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. But many pro-Israel speakers have been disrupted on campuses, including Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, and there have been documented incidents of anti-Israel protestors waving placards denouncing Jews, wishing Hitler had “finished the job” or  throwing pennies at Zionists. Even Korn admits that, “some advocates for Palestinian rights are undoubtedly anti-Semitic.”

Finally, again without documentation, she says she is “assured by others” that “across the globe” the “arguments for economic sanctions on Israel do not stem from deep-seated anti-Semitism.” Here, she at least pretends to adduce proof by inserting a hyperlink. But her “evidence” is an article about the problem of falsely making accusations of anti-Semitism. The article says nothing about the worldwide anti-Israel boycott movement – which has some activists who are anti-Semitic, who deserve condemnation.

How odd. Korn feels compelled to allege falsely that I invoked anti-Semitism to then minimize claims of anti-Semitism by others even though she acknowledges that some pro-Palestinian voices are anti-Semitic. This exhausting tryout for the apologetics Olympics, cut off from the truth, minimizing the serious problem of anti-Semitism which does exist, suggests a moral blindness and animus that are unworthy of the Crimson and of Harvard.

 

Gil Troy ’82, Ph.D. ’88

Professor of History

McGill University

 

Gil Troy ‘82 is a Professor at McGill University in Canada.