Should Pro-Israel Blue-state Democrats Boycott Obama?

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-29-12

Among the great anomalies of this political season have been the eerie campaign quiet in major American states, along with the refusal to admit that Mitt Romney and Barack Obama differ regarding Israel, as each candidate competes to appear more blue-and-white than the other. In the campaign’s waning days, let’s have some straight talk rather than partisan bluster.

President Barack Obama speaks during the AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images) President Barack Obama speaks during the AIPAC Policy Conference at the Washington Convention Center on March 4, 2012 in Washington, DC. (Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images)

For starters, the Electoral College makes the contest a vote for state votes not popular votes. American culture has become increasingly nationalized, and homogenized. Yet, every four years, first in primaries that give some states disproportionate importance because of their timing, and then in the general election that gives some states disproportionate importance because they happen to be divided, we go suddenly regional.

The blue-state red state phenomenon makes many people in the neglected states feel their votes do not count. But, in the age of the online petition, strategic voting can use the Electoral College insanity to send important messages.

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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.

Debate Prep 2012: For Voters and Candidates

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-2-12

As holiday-weary Israelis wonder whether they will ever be productive again, Americans are preparing to watch their presidential candidates sweat.  Just as Tishrei is holiday-saturation month for Jews, every four years October is debate month in American presidential politics. Tonight, October 3, Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will debate domestic policy in Colorado.  On October 11, their vice presidential running mates, Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, will debate in Kentucky. Five days later on October 16, voters at a town meeting in New York will question the two presidential candidates about any issues and on October 22 – two weeks before Election Day – Obama and Romney will debate foreign policy in Florida.
These debates – which are more like side-by-side press conferences with some exchanges – are usually the political equivalent of military service: long bouts of boredom punctuated by bursts of melodrama.  Usually, they reinforce media narratives and voter impressions. But they have sometimes changed outcomes, particularly in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s aw shucks, “there you go again” dismissal of President Jimmy Carter’s attacks triggered a Reagan surge – and the largest last minute switch in poll results since polling began in the 1930s.
Treating history as an authoritative Tarot Card rather than a subtle source of wisdom, Mitt Romney’s supporters have been touting that ten-point swing as proof that the Republicans will win. The 1980 moment appeals more broadly to Republicans as indication that a gaffe-prone, ridiculed, seemingly out-of-touch former governor can defeat an earnest Democratic incumbent afflicted by a sagging economy, Middle East troubles, and accusations that the twin pillars of his foreign policy are appeasement and apology not power and pride.
The 1980 debate should sober Obama and buoy Romney.  In his recent book, The Candidate: What It Takes to Win — and Hold – the White House, Professor Samuel Popkin, an occasional Democratic campaign adviser, recalls his failure coaching Carter in 1980. Playing Reagan in debate “prep,” Popkin echoed the Republican’s devastating anti-Carter criticisms. Popkin describes the kind of careful criticism Romney should launch against Obama, knowing that if the challenger is too aggressive he looks angry and insolent but if he is too deferential he seems weak and intimidated.  Reagan, Popkin writes, “resorted to more subtle, coded criticisms that were harder to defend against. He appeared respectful of the office and the president, suggesting that Carter was hamstrung by defeatist Democrats in Congress.”  This approach forced Carter to rebut the premise – and plaintively claim he was strong – or the conclusion — by insisting Democrats were not defeatists. “Contesting one point left him tacitly conceding the other,” Popkin writes.
Obama’s caveat is in Carter’s reaction.  Offended and embarrassed by the criticism, Carter ended the session after eleven minutes.  Popkin as Reagan had pierced Carter’s “presidential aura,” unnerving everyone in the room.  Trying to dispel the tension, Carter’s chief domestic policy advisor, Stuart Eizenstat, himself Jewish, resorted to ethnic humor by pointing to Popkin and joking, “You didn’t know Governor Reagan was Jewish, did you?” Popkin, who quickly replied “Well, Governor Reagan is from Hollywood,” realized that many of Carter’s people, including the aggrieved president, were unfamiliar with Reagan’s attacks because the majesty of the presidency insulated Carter from serious criticism or serious study of his challenger.
Of course, in an ideal world the debates would emphasize issue flashpoints not gaffe-hunting.   In Denver, Romney should, Reagan-style, subtly question President Obama as to when he as president will take responsibility for the anemic recovery and lingering unemployment rather than scapegoating his predecessor.  At Hofstra University, Romney should ask Obama to explain to the voters present and the American people how his increasing reliance on the heavy hand of federal regulations and big government does not reflect doubt in the traditional invisible hand of individual entrepreneurial Americans and the markets themselves. And in Boca Raton, Romney should prod Obama on the Arab Spring, asking him at what point he would concede that his policy failed rather than simply dismissing the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the murder of American diplomats in Libya, and other Obama-orchestrated disasters as “bumps in the road.”  In response, Obama should emphasize his successes in halting the economic freefall, his faith in American ingenuity guided by the government’s occasional, competent, and gentle helping hand, and his muscular defense of American interests in hunting down Osama Bin Laden, boosting troops in Afghanistan, and reprimanding Egypt’s president for delays in defending America’s Cairo embassy. Meanwhile, reporters and voters should push both candidates to explain what sacrifices they will demand from Americans, where they will deviate from their party’s orthodoxy, how they will end partisanship, and what bold solutions they have to American debt, demoralization, and decline.
While such substantive exchanges would allow Americans to weigh the candidates’ dueling philosophies and records, it is more likely that the debates’ verdict will pivot around some theatrical moment. Since televised presidential debates began in 1960, when John Kennedy’s aristocratic calm contrasted with Richard Nixon’s sweaty, herky-jerky intensity, style has usually upstaged substance in debate reporting and debate perceptions.
It is too easy just to blame the press – although broadcasters and reporters will be seeking “gotcha” moments when a candidate stumbles and “grand slams” when a candidate dominates. Moreover, American voters respond more to debate theatrics than polemics. The mass reaction reflects one of the realities of modern leadership, which too many academics ignore and editorialists lament:  image rules, style counts, a successful president or prime minister must communicate effectively not just administer smoothly.
This season, as the American campaign peaks and the silliness surges, it will be easy to mock American politics. How lucky Israelis are that in the Jewish state politics is substantive, straightforward, serious, and scrupulous….
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents:  George Washington to Barack Obama,”  his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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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.

“Rabbis for Obama” Blur Church and State Unreasonably

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defending Sheldon Adelson’s Support for Mitt Romney

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-7-12

In the myopic world of American partisan politics, Democrats are attacking Mitt Romney for daring to take money from Sheldon Adelson, the casino king who organized last week’s fifty-thousand-dollars-a-pop Jerusalem fundraiser and has pumped over ten million dollars from his own pocket into the presumptive Republican nominee’s campaign. But the Romney critics protest too much. “Everyone loves a witch hunt as long as it’s someone else’s witch being hunted,” says the contemporary novelist and prominent ex-Mormon Walter Kirn. These same Democrats are silent when big wigs pump big money into their own favorite candidates’ campaigns.

The attacks on the Romney-Adelson alliance emphasize three major objections. First, Columbia University’s Thomas Edsall wondered in the New York Times this week how Romney, a devout Mormon whose religion abhors gambling, could take money earned from gamblers. Romney should “tell us how he reconciles the values he says he stands for with the basis on which Adelson’s fortune is built,” Edsall preached. Next, Edsall and others have snickered that Romney should be embarrassed to take so much money from Adelson, considering that this billionaire first prolonged Romney’s primary agony by pumping so much money into Newt Gingrich’s campaign.  Finally, the huge amount of money Adelson is spending offends critics, as they scream about plutocrats distorting our politics.

True, in an ideal world, only virtuous endeavors would earn money and the only donors would be saints. In this paradise, alliances would never shift, politicians would always be consistent, and money would be irrelevant to American politics — rather than its lifeblood. But in the real world, donations to very honorable causes often flow in from the rough and tumble universe of business; realists support different candidates as a broad political field narrows; and the American political system has become exceedingly dependent on major fundraisers.

Of course, the dilemmas about money and politics are not new. Decades ago the New Deal humorist Will Rogers joked that “a fool and his money are soon elected,” while the often witty, too frequently twisted novelist and commentator Gore Vidal, who died this week, defined a democracy as “a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

Since Andrew Jackson’s presidential campaign in 1828 — probably the first million-dollar-campaign in American history — so much money has been invested in elections because so much rides on them.  And in a freedom-oriented country like the United States, with ironclad constitutional guarantees protecting free speech, it has been – and will continue to be – difficult to keep money out of politics, just like it proved impossible to keep the Olympics pure from the taint of lucre or commercialism.

The hypocrisy in this debate has more levels than a seven-layer cake. Four years ago, as Republicans screamed about George Soros’s ill-gotten gains, as they protested that billionaire’s outsized impact on the 2008 campaign, few Democrats agreed – or spoke up. And even this year, as Barack Obama seeks to raise funds for what could be the first billion-dollar presidential re-election campaign, I have heard of no restrictions on money coming from casino owners, liquor barons, cigarette manufacturers, producers of Hollywood filth, hedge fund managers, overcharging lawyers, or Wall Street Bankers.

Let’s face it, to most of his critics, Sheldon Adelson’s great crime is supporting the wrong guy, Mitt Romney rather than Barack Obama. Billionaires who support your candidate are altruists doing their civic duty; billionaires who support your opponent are power-hungry bums throwing their financial weight around. The rules stink, but Soros and Adelson have the right to play by those rules, and we usually honor wealthy people who divert some of their resources from personal indulgence to public service.

I confess, I have a soft spot in my heart for Sheldon Adelson. We have never had a real conversation, but as chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel international education committee and as a Jewish citizen, I admire his extraordinary generosity in contributing tens of millions to Taglit, financing the first Israel trips of thousands of young Jews, aged 18 to 26 by now. I have heard him speak movingly about his own father’s inability to make it to Israel because he was too poor, and the thrill Adelson has in telling so many young people, “Welcome to Israel.” Other donations he and his wife Dr. Miriam Adelson have made, including to Yad Vashem and their local Las Vegas Jewish community, have impressed and inspired me and many others.

It is also clear to me that Mitt Romney did not support Israel, recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital, endorse a strong, defiant stance against Iran, or question the economic impact of growing up in a sexist, repressive, authoritarian, anti-capitalist Palestinian culture, because he was following the money. In fact, it seems that Adelson’s money followed the politicians’ lead. The Adelson donation reflects a convergence of Romney’s and Adelson’s views, not any kind of deviation by Mitt Romney of any core principles.

The American democracy which gave the world the phrase “all men are created equal” should not be swayed by individuals who can give presidential candidates a bundle.  But democracies reflect the will of the people and the nature of the culture. The American people have not been sufficiently outraged by this perennial problem to tackle the constitutional or political restrictions. Moreover, the well-financed candidate does not always win, as Mitt Romney is currently learning when assessing public opinion polls.

It is unfair to caricature Sheldon Adelson as a nefarious figure seducing candidates and the American people. Just the opposite. We should praise him as a role model, re-investing some of the money he has made back in his community, his highest ideals, and his country.

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

What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

Gil Troy: Struggling With Jewish Power

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By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 4-25-12

Gil Troy, a Fellow of the Engaging Israel Project at Shalom Hartman Institute, talks about how, in the context of the current US presidential election, Jews in the US and in Israel must come to grips with power.

Extremists Try Trumping Centrists in the Republican Primaries — and Israel too

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-17-12

“I used to feel badly about the Israeli political system,” an Israeli friend of mine recently said. “But after watching this American campaign, I feel much better.” After months of debating, fundraising, positioning, posturing, and polling, America’s Republican candidates are finally facing the voters – with Election Day still nearly ten months away. As with the Israeli political system, there is much to mock. But despite its flaws, America’s electoral system is working, managing a complicated, intense, continent-wide conversation among millions of voters seeking a leader.
Admittedly, the Iowa-New Hampshire con is absurd, with two, small, unrepresentative states starting the voting process earlier and earlier so they can be first in the nation. Both political parties foolishly enable this childish behavior. And yes, the Republican debates often seem more like Bart Simpson versus Sponge Bob than Abraham Lincoln versus Stephen Douglas. The most memorable moment so far from hours of talking by America’s aspiring chief executives has been Texas Governor Rick Perry’s excruciating “brain freeze,” when he could not remember the third federal agency he wanted eliminated, culminating with his now infamous “Oops.” But this year, especially, the electoral system is not the issue – the frustrations come from the historical context and the candidates themselves.
This election comes at a particularly unhappy moment in American life. The economy has languished for nearly four years.  As during all recessions, Americans fear the downturn is permanent, forgetting the business cycle’s resilience while losing faith in their economy and themselves. The last decade has been clouded by fears of terrorism and the petty harassments at airports and elsewhere from living in a lockdown society. Americans overlook George W. Bush’s greatest achievement, which is a non-achievement — there were no successor attacks on American soil to the 9/11 mass murders. The war in Afghanistan still festers, the withdrawal from Iraq was joyless, even Barack Obama’s triumph in greenlighting the daring operation that killed Osama Bin Laden, brought only temporary relief. It was the dulled enjoyment of a chronically ill patient who had a rare, good day, not the long-sought healing or closure.
Meanwhile, Barack Obama’s upbeat, historic, transformational, “Yes We Can” candidacy has bogged down in the muck of amateur-hour governing, producing a weary, spasmodic, sobering, “Maybe We Can’t” presidency. Obama has now appointed his third-and-a-half chief of staff in three-years. Most recently, the now-retiring chief of staff William Daley shared duties, after his first demotion, with Pete Rouse.
Amid this depressing context, the Republicans promising to rescue America have been more empty suits than white knights, super-cranks not superheroes. The front-runner, Mitt Romney, has been a Ford Escort-kind of candidate, competent enough but not exciting, rolling along smoothly yet frequently stuck in neutral. He has yet to generate the kind of excitement Jimmy Carter in 1976, Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Bill Clinton in 1992 each needed to unseat an incumbent president.  Different Romney rivals have successively zoomed ahead sporadically only to crash, sputter, or run out of gas.
Underlying the theatrics and personality questions is a serious referendum about the Republican Party’s character. Romney appears to be the most reasonable, presentable, electable candidate. Voters looking for an anybody-but-Obama candidate should rally around Romney, as the Republicans’ best chance to recapture the White House.  The other candidates – especially now that Jon Huntsman quit – are ideologues, representing doctrinaire strains within the Republican Party.  Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, in particular, hold fringe views.  In a general campaign, Democrats and the media would easily caricature either as yahoos, while Newt Gingrich remains an unguided conversational missile.
The surges of the Santorum and Paul campaigns demonstrate that, despite the condescending judgment of so many American liberals regarding Israel’s supposed “Iranization,” both Israel and the US face parallel predicaments. In both countries a growing gap separates fundamentalist provincials and cosmopolitans moderates. The extremes are diverging, submerging the center.
In the US, Ron Paul’s libertarianism and Rick Santorum’s fundamentalism epitomize the reddest of the red state sensibility, which is deeply alien to the New York-California East Coast-West Coast blue state sensibility.  In Israeli terms, Tsfon Tel Aviv – The People’s Republic of Northern Tel Aviv – as a state of mind, not limited to a geographic space –differs dramatically from Settleristan, regardless of on which side of the Green Line Israel’s more fundamentalist voices fall.  In an age of niche media – to each his or her own Facebook page and shrill corner of the Blogosphere — members of each social, cultural, political fragment in a society can have their own echo chamber. As they whip each other into self-referential frenzies, and as the headline-driven media amplify their shouts, they drown out the increasingly silent majority, making it harder to forge a common, constructive social, cultural and political conversation. In American terms, the primary campaigns in particular favor the shrill partisans. General election campaigns often help candidates find the center as they woo swing voters.
So let the games begin. As the Republicans battle it out, it will be interesting to see whether Mitt Romney’s safe, lowest common denominator politics wins, or Republicans turn to an edgier, pricklier candidate. And as Republicans pummel one another, President Barack Obama will be watching from the sidelines but trying not to get sidelined.  Hovering above the fray is nice but Obama cannot afford to be too removed – he is too vulnerable and risks irrelevance.
Republicans seek a new Reagan –a Republican upstart who unseated President Jimmy Carter in 1980.  Democrats should be hoping for 1996 Redux, when a flawed, unpopular Democratic incumbent, Bill Clinton, was blessed by an even more flawed, less popular Republican challenger, Bob Dole. For Obama, even winning by default will represent an historic, and possibly redemptive, achievement, as Clinton learned.

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.

Center Field: Say No to Rabbis for Obama

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-17-08

Now that the American election is over and this will not seem to be a partisan attack, it is time to ask whether it was appropriate for hundreds of rabbis to launch an unprecedented organization, “Rabbis for Obama.” The organization’s founding letter, which over four hundred rabbis signed, said: “We join together as rabbis who believe that Barack Obama is the best candidate of the United States, and we do so in the belief that he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.”

This initiative constituted a clear attempt to give a rabbinic hechsher – stamp of approval — to Barack Obama. There is nothing wrong with a rabbi, as an American citizen, choosing to endorse a candidate. But there is something unseemly about rabbis pooling their theological and spiritual authority as rabbis to boost a particular politician.

For starters, this kind of politicking seems remarkably insensitive to congregants who may support a rival candidate. Congregations hire rabbis for their pastoral skills not for their political stands. For rabbis to join together, as spiritual leaders, in the service of a politician is to try transferring authority granted by congregants in one realm into another realm. Taking this kind of stand with other rabbis seems to risk importing political conflict from the streets into the synagogue.

Usually when rabbis, professors, and corporate leaders sign advocacy advertisements, they put in the boilerplate admonition that the institutional affiliation is for identification purposes. This posture is a constructive charade. It at least acknowledges the questions of propriety surrounding the action and attempts to defend the institution and all its members from being defined by its leader’s actions. Rabbis for Obama did the opposite, trying to build credibility based on the collective power all these rabbis derived from their institutions and their congregants. Like it or not, they implicated their congregants in their actions.

It is difficult to see the issue clearly, especially now, with Obamania in full swing. Undoubtedly, these rabbis are feeling vindicated, heroic – and happily anticipating invitations to four, maybe even eight, annual White House Chanukkah parties.

But what if 400 rabbis had come out in favor of California’s Proposition 8, advancing the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage? Theologically, the rabbis would have been on stronger ground, considering that the Bible actually addresses questions of homosexuality (but has nothing to say about Barack Obama’s strengths or weaknesses). And what if most of those rabbis had been ministering to overwhelmingly liberal congregations or congregations filled with gay couples? If offended congregants tried firing any of these rabbis against gay marriage would any of the Rabbis for Obama have been willing to defend them?

I know of a congregation which fired its rabbi when she opposed gays’ ordination in the Conservative movement. Members of the congregation felt blindsided because the rabbi had not informed them beforehand of the stand she was going to take. And the congregants were particularly distressed because the rabbi’s opposition created an insurmountable barrier between her, as a theological leader, and a lesbian couple in the congregation.

This is not a free speech issue. The rabbis could have joined a Jews for Obama or Citizens for Obama group with no questions asked. This is, however, a separation of church and state issue. While separation of church and state, constitutionally, only refers to avoiding government support or control of particular religions, American Jews have been in the forefront of the movement to insulate politics from religion as much as possible. It is particularly hypocritical for liberal Jews, who have spent years railing against Evangelical Christians who blur the line between church and state, to now indulge in the same conceit, deploying God in the service of political power.

In fact, Rabbis for Obama clarifies what most liberals mean when they object to religion intruding on politics – they usually mean religion advancing the wrong political positions. Liberals appalled by the right-wing Moral Majority in 1980, did not criticize the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr., for so brilliantly applying his spiritual powers to advance the Civil Rights revolution. King obviously did a world of good, and would not have been as effective as just a social activist. But the perpetual abuse of rabbinic authority for cheap political gains in Israel offers proof that, acknowledging the King exception, it is best for rabbis to be a bit more discrete when playing politics.

In our cynical but careerist world, the credibility we derive from our professional standing is a potent yet fragile commodity. At a time when so many congregants are among what we could call the Jewishly vulnerable – not as solid in their identities as their parents and grandparents were – rabbis have to be particularly careful to preserve their authority. With all due respect to the historic nature of the 2008 election, and Barack Obama’s undeniable charismatic appeal, it seems a shame that hundreds of leading American rabbis chose to set this kind of precedent. American Jewish leaders need all the credibility they can muster – and they need to focus their energies as much as they can on the many Jewish issues bewitching the community, leaving politics for their leisure hours without muddying their professional, spiritual, pursuits.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Montreal. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today,  his latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

From OJ to Barack

By Gil Troy, THE JERUSALEM POST, Nov. 6, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Democratic presidential...The outpouring of emotion when Barack Obama clinched his presidential victory Tuesday night was thrilling. Little more than a decade ago, when O.J. Simpson was found innocent of two murders, cameras recorded cheering blacks and morose whites, illustrating a split-screen America.

On this extraordinary night of national reconciliation, the cameras showed blacks and whites crying together, laughing together, celebrating together, and hoping together in a tableau of healing. You would need a heart of stone not to be moved by watching the joy that swept America – but you need a head of straw not to worry about just how Obama will succeed. His calls for unity will only last if he understands that he must govern using the same expansive and moderate tone his speech set. Barack Obama’s stance on Israel will be one of many test cases to see just what kind of president this eloquent, talented, but still untested and inexperienced young man will be.

While exit polls confirmed that Obama’s victory was driven by what Bill Clinton’s people in 1992 called “the economy, stupid,” a range of foreign policy challenges will haunt the administration. The top priorities, of course, are the two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan along with the possible nuclear threat from Iran.

In addition to having to walk gently but firmly in these hornets’ nests, Obama is going to have to walk gingerly around his various campaign statements – and the intense desires of many of his supporters.

In Iraq his promises may prove to be a particular albatross. Calls for pullouts and exit timetables are effective counterpunches in a campaign, especially when the situation looks disastrous. But such specific vows become straitjackets when governing, especially when the situation has improved so dramatically – thanks to that surge that someone named John McCain pushed so effectively.

Obama’s Israel policy will also present interesting dilemmas for the rookie president between politics and governance. Fears that Barack Obama will sell Israel down the river in an expression of fealty to Rashid Khalidi or other Palestinians he befriended over the years are exaggerated.

Obama has made too many strong, sincere, pro-Israel statements, and has too many pro-Israel supporters, donors, and aides for this to be a serious issue. Among many others, the man who helped Bill Clinton coin the phrase “Shalom Chaver,” Rahm Emanuel, will be Obama’s Chief of Staff. Moreover, it would take more than a first-term president with his eye on re-election to shatter the rock-solid relationship between Israel and the United States.

A more valid concern, especially for those from the center and right, is that Obama, like Bill Clinton, may risk killing Israel – or too many Israelis – with kindness. Obama may have a bit too much of a naïve, “We are the world” view of foreign policy for the brutal, dishonest, realpolitik of the Middle East. His closest foreign policy advisers seem to be a mix of “even-handed” Zbigniew Brzezinski types and Oslo-architect Dennis Ross types.

Moreover, one of the demands Iran has made as a precondition for negotiations will be an abandonment of America’s support for Israel. Whether this stiffens Obama’s spine, as it should, or leads to a cooling toward the Jewish state, may be a first, relatively early test, of Obama’s direction.

Still, for now, all this is in the realm of speculation. As the records of George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and all of their predecessors show, the presidency one imagines or promises is rarely the presidency one experiences or provides. Remember how George W. Bush was going to focus mostly on domestic policy, governing as a compassionate conservative? Remember how Bill Clinton was going to be a Mr. Clean restoring faith in government and avoiding the insider politics of the Beltway?

For now, then, let us all join the great Barack Obama love-in. Let us celebrate the kind of country America is – a country that can correct its mistakes, heal its wounds, and elect a black man president. Let us honor the impressive talents that brought this self-described skinny guy with a funny name to the heights of American politics, defeating first the formidable Clinton machine then the Republican juggernaut. And let the people inspired by HaTikvah not be cynical about this new harbinger of hope. Let us hope that the hope unleashed last night can be converted into a powerful governing force that revitalizes the United States of America – for America’s sake, for Israel’s sake, and for the world’s sake.

Israel irrelevant in campaign – as it should be

By Gil Troy , THE JERUSALEM POST, Nov. 3, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

If we could devise some kind of objective “Friend of Israel” test, all but the most blindly partisan Democrats would agree that Senator John McCain has a longer, deeper, more meaningful relationship with Israel than does Senator Barack Obama – and fewer advisers who seem very critical of Israel. Even controlling for the difference in age or Senatorial tenure, it is clear that McCain has been a more consistent and enthusiastic Israel supporter.

This does not negate Obama’s pro-Israel record or even mean that McCain would necessarily be a “better” president for Israel. Determining what kind of president is good for Israel is an even more complicated matter than quantifying different levels of friendship. But it seems quite clear that John McCain has been a steadfast friend who has stood up for Israel repeatedly.

Moreover, most fair observers can imagine that if McCain’s church contemplated a boycott of Israel or if his pastor had denounced Israel, McCain would have been more likely to take a stand, whereas Obama was silent in both situations, which he actually faced.

Still, American Jews and America’s many non-Jewish Zionists should not vote for McCain because of his Israel stand. There are many other valid reasons to vote McCain – and many valid reasons to vote Obama. But there are many other bigger issues in this election than support for Israel, especially considering that both candidates have vied to emphasize their respective pro-Israel stands.

The first thing I wrote about this election back in 2007 still holds true: ultimately, especially during these difficult times, the best president for Israel – is the best president for America.

All the hand-wringing about Israel’s irrelevance in the American election is inappropriate. There are many other more valid indicators reflecting the disturbing distance growing between American Jews and the Jewish state. In this election, even the most ardent Zionist should take a broader perspective.

The general debate about whether or not to carry on with George W. Bush’s policies, the financial meltdown of the markets, the continuing war against terror and the specific questions about what to do regarding Iraq and Iran are much bigger issues than America’s continuing support for Israel, which seems assured with both a Democratic and Republican administration.

As – let’s be honest – America’s controversial but reliable client state – what Israel most needs now is an effective, thriving, America. Canadians used to say that when the American economy sneezes, Canada catches a cold; with Israel, if America is fighting a cold, Israel risks a serious illness.

Israel will do best with an America that can solve its economic problems, improve its diplomatic standing, and stay dominant militarily. Americans need reassurance. They need a plan to avoid a prolonged recession. They need effective leadership able to fight Islamic terror, stabilize Iraq, restrain Iran – and manage North Korea, Russia, China, and a host of other unanticipated world hotspots.

Let us play out the fears bluntly. If Barack Obama is a great president, it will be great for Israel, whether or not he squeezes Israel to make more territorial concessions than most Israelis like (but some Israelis believe are absolutely necessary).

And if John McCain is a terrible president, he will be disastrous for the world, including Israel, even if he never pressures Israel on anything. Of course, the McCaniacs’ fear is that Barack Obama will be Jimmy Carter redux, and will be a terrible president who proves hostile to Israel. The Republicans also paint the most optimistic scenario, a great president McCain who also proves to be a great friend to Israel.

Given the sobering conditions America faces it will be hard for the next president to achieve greatness – although the contrast with George W. Bush may give him a great boost. And the dynamics of the American-Israel friendship will be more driven by other events than presidential prerogatives. Besides, this business of predicting friendship and support is a tricky one. George W. Bush entered the White House with a minimal track record regarding Israel. Few can question his obvious, enthusiastic support for the Jewish state as president, but there is a raging debate in the United States and Israel about whether Bush’s friendship was good for Israel or not.

Of course, many pro-Israel oriented voters argue that support for Israel is a test case, that a candidate’s stand on Israel reflects his approach to foreign policy. That too, however, is very different than basing one’s decision on the candidate’s Israel stand. In fact, this election offers an opportunity for yet another repudiation of the Walt-Mearsheimer anti-Israel lies.

Polls suggest that the American Jewish community will vote three to one in favor of the Democrat with a more limited pro-Israel track record than his opponent. As we watch American Jews and non-Jewish Zionists choose the president who is best for America, we can once again refute the libels that Israel somehow holds American foreign policy hostage or that Jews vote their narrow parochial interests rather than fulfilling their broader patriotic duty to vote for the best president possible on all fronts.

Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A bipartisan, multilateral, muscular approach to Iran

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Although conflict fuels political campaigns, election contests also illuminate the political consensus. It is as important to understand where candidates agree as to see where they disagree. In the second, foreign-policy-oriented debate between the two presidential nominees, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama demonstrated that they both agree that Iran threatens America and the world.

“And our challenge right now is the Iranians continue on the path to acquiring nuclear weapons, and it’s a great threat,” one of the nominees said. : “It’s not just a threat — threat to the state of Israel. It’s a threat to the stability of the entire Middle East.” His rival proclaimed: “We cannot allow Iran to get a nuclear weapon. It would be a game-changer in the region. Not only would it threaten Israel, our strongest ally in the region and one of our strongest allies in the world, but it would also create a possibility of nuclear weapons falling into the hands of terrorists.” Only the most devoted partisans could identify which nominee made which statement – and only the most devoted partisans could find a basis anywhere in those statements for them to clash. Obama’s earlier stated willingness to negotiate without preconditions haunts him. But this question of preconditions is a skirmish about tactics not a war about fundamentals.

Tragically, this broad American consensus against Iran’s going nuclear is undermined by European ambivalence – and cravenness. The latest reminder came from Germany’s Ambassador to Iran who allowed his military attaché to attend an Iranian military parade in Teheran last month. The parade featured the usual calls to destroy Israel – and America.

Anticipating November 5, the day AFTER the election, Americans must start emphasizing these points of bipartisan agreement, to accelerate what will be a necessary healing process. Anticipating January 20, 2009, Inauguration Day, Americans must start thinking about the consensus the new president can count on – along with the strategic threats he will face.

The Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. just released a noteworthy report offering a blueprint for the next president to follow in approaching Iran. (Full disclosure – I am a Visiting Scholar at the Center but did not work on the report). Available here the report is essential reading for the two candidates, their advisors, and every concerned Westerner. Deeming a nuclear weapons-capable Iran “strategically untenable,” the report says that, whoever wins the presidential election will have the “formidable task” of forging an effective bipartisan policy within the United States – along with a muscular multilateral policy abroad.

Balancing adeptly between scholarship and strategy, the report analyzes Iran’s past and present while presenting a thoughtful, integrated approach to nudge that country toward a more peaceful future. The new president will have to mix diplomatic, informational, and economic strategies, reinforced by possible military options. The task force, headed by former Senators Chuck Robb and Dan Coats, guided by the project director Dr. Michael Makovsky, advocates European cooperation, predetermined timetables for negotiation, and formidable, effective sanctions. Oil remains at the heart of the issue. America will have to consider blockading first Iran’s gasoline imports, then its oil exports, if negotiations fail. Calling for a “comprehensive strategy” and “vigorous execution” – both of which have been sorely lacking – these experts deem the military option “feasible” but a “last resort.” To be strong enough to avoid going military, and ready to launch if necessary, America has to build better alliances and pre-position military assets in the region immediately.

The scariest conclusion estimates that once Iran had an “adequate supply of low-enriched uranium” — which it might acquire within a year or possibly sooner — Iran could then enrich 20 kilograms of highly enriched uranium in “four weeks or less,” thus becoming “nuclear-weapons capable.” The most reassuring call is for “leverage building,” the process whereby America and her allies find just the right pressure points to avert this potential strategic disaster. “[I]t is not too late for sanctions and economic coercion to work,” the authors insist. “Despite near record oil prices, Iran’s economy remains weak. While the United States, its European allies, and the United Nations have imposed some sanctions on Teheran, each has a range of more biting economic tools at their disposal.”

Although the authors pull their political punches in true bipartisan spirit, the current administration’s failures haunt the report. The initial mishandling of the Iraq war emboldened Iran and undermined confidence in a military option, if it becomes necessary. Moreover, the 2007 National Intelligence Estimate that underestimated Iran’s commitment to going nuclear lessened pressure on this rogue regime. Still, charting a bipartisan and multidimensional approach for the next president is the best way to progress, without bogging down in partisan recriminations.

Israel’s position in this remains awkward. Iran frequently lambastes Israel as the easiest – and closest — Western target. If the United States and Europe negotiated with Iran seriously, substantively, Teheran would try to make Israel’s policies – and Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities – central issues that would strain an already fragile alliance. And the possibility that Israel will choose to strike Iran remains the “wild card” in this deck – and a compelling incentive for America to solve the problem.

Bipartisanship is easily hailed and just as easily ignored, especially during an increasingly ugly election campaign. This report reminds us that the most serious challenges any nation faces transcend party. All Americans suffer from the stock market woes just as they are equally threatened by a nuclear Iran. Without ignoring partisan differences, without reducing complex issues to apple-pie generalities, America’s leaders have to lead away from partisan recrimination and toward national action. These kinds of bipartisan reports on these kinds of transcendent, existential national issues are helpful reminders of all that unites Americans – and useful roadmaps toward the kinds of strategies needed during this precarious time.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Where were Obama the dreamer and McCain the war hero?

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-08

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama and Republican candidate Sen. John McCain face off during a presidential debate in New York last week.
Photo: AP

Americans want to believe that debates elevate our candidates. As we anticipate each presidential debate, we resurrect the legend of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas nobly debating the great issues of the day in pre-Civil War Illinois. Television, that great modern mythmaking machine, feeds the grandiose expectations, even if the names of Lincoln and Douglas are rarely evoked.

And the sets, drenched as they are in patriotic imagery, festooned as they are with eagles and banners, quite literally set the stage for the candidates to achieve political immortality. Of course, there is a counter “Gotcha” tradition of seeking the knockout blow, the cutting remark, the effective counter-jab. Modern debates have been defined more by quick thrusts of a sharp elbow than by sweeping statesmanlike visions.

What seems so memorable about these three presidential debates in 2008 is that they were simply not memorable, neither grandiose nor cutting. It is hard to identify one central idea, one dramatic moment, one defining soundbite that will be replayed repeatedly – or even remembered. Moreover – and more disturbing for both candidates – the debates seemed to banish both candidates’ better selves. In four-and-a-half hours of debates, it was hard to detect many traces of Barack Obama the dreamer or John McCain the war hero.

By contrast, the national conventions – although often dismissed as anachronistic – allowed the two candidates to present themselves as they hope to be known, and remembered. John McCain ended his rather pedestrian Republican National Convention address with a moving memoir about how his years as a prisoner-of-war helped him discover community, nationalism, the reliance of one individual on another. It was hard to walk away from watching the speech without appreciating McCain’s heroism, humility, and humanity, whether or not you agreed with his policies.

Alas, during the debates, the heroism has been on hold. McCain has been – as he was most notably in this third debate – more prickly than patriotic, more choppy than smooth, more of a worried candidate in search of a persona and a strategy than a centered demigod who knows who he is and what he represents. In his opening remarks on Wednesday tonight, he chose yet again to bash Wall Street and Washington – without at all suggesting that Main Street Americans had also joined in the profligacy. Again and again, his remarks seemed more calculated for political advantage than motivated by a constructive patriotism.

Similarly, despite encouragement to be more down-to-earth and less lofty, Barack Obama delivered an acceptance address at the 2008 Democratic Convention in Denver that was dramatic enough to remind supporters of his extraordinary 2004 Democratic National Convention debut. The grand stadium setting, and the historic nature of his ascension as the first black major party nominee, created another “Yes We Can” moment in a near-miraculous and quite meteoric rise to the top of American society.

Unfortunately, the Barack Obama on display in the debates frequently seemed too sober to dream, too cool to be a poet, too programmed to inspire. To Obama’s good fortune, his calm served his cause – it made him look unruffled, reliable, presidential. But it suggested that if Obama wins, it will feel more like a victory by default than a clear, personal triumph or a mandate for much of anything. He has kept his more electrifying, inspirational self carefully bottled, preferring to let McCain – and the Republicans – stumble. His great achievement in the fall campaign has been his buoyancy, his professionalism, his steadiness. Americans are yearning, however, for some inspiration, some encouragement, some ebullience.

While the first debate did reassure, demonstrating that both these candidates were competent and idealistic men of character, the overall effect after three debates diminished them both. Like weary boxers in the fifteenth round, the two candidates fought each other to a draw – and at this point, the tie helps Obama the front-runner in most polls.

But after weeks now of devastating economic news, with foreign policy challenges in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and elsewhere still looming, it is legitimate to miss Obama the dreamer and McCain the hero.

This campaign, more than most, requires candidates offering vision and reassurance. Still, with any luck – and in keeping with the rhythms of American politics – the buildup from Election Day to Inauguration Day will allow whoever wins to resurrect his better self as Americans rally around their new leader and turn to him to fulfill their dreams ever so heroically.

Playing the partisan

By  Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-23-08

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Clinton addresses the...

Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to attend the major rally called for Monday September 22 in New York against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance is outrageous – as is the organizers’ subsequent decision to disinvite Sarah Palin.

Back in August, Senator Clinton had agreed to attend. She abruptly pulled out this week because the Republican nominee Sarah Palin also agreed to appear. This move suggests that Senator Clinton hates Governor Palin and the Republicans more than she hates Iran’s Ahmadinejad, despite his sexism, homophobia and advocacy of genocide.

The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event “nonpartisan.”

But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.

Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes.

Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.

The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians.

The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.

The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art.

In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.