Celebrating Hadassah’s Activist, Pragmatic, Identity Zionism

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-16-12

Nearly two thousand women have gathered in Jerusalem this week to mark the hundredth anniversary of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization. Jerusalem is not only the Jewish people’s capital, it is the city graced by two Hadassah hospitals, and dozens of other Hadassah blessings. On display this week – and every day — is a celebration of the three words in Hadassah’s subtitle, tapping into: the power of women, the magic of Zionism, and the transformational potential of one, effective organization.

For years now, some have wanted Hadassah to be the WOMEN’S zionist organization – downplaying the Zionism – while others have wanted it to be the women’s ZIONIST organization – downplaying the gender identity. Both extreme factions are wrong. The two together make Hadassah, Hadassah. When Henrietta Szold launched the organization in 1912, women did not have the power or public standing they have today. Hadassah has empowered generations of Jewish women, demonstrating how much women could accomplish, while reflecting a female sensibility in such crucial, life-affirming arenas as health, education, and welfare.

Growing up in the Hadassah-sponsored Young Judaea youth movement, my friends and I in the late 1970s witnessed a world in which women’s leadership was natural not forced. We met powerful role models, who were just doing what they were doing as Zionist leaders, running a multi-million dollar organization, speaking at rallies, meeting with Israeli leaders. The formidable Charlotte Jacobson, the legendary Ruth Popkin, the extraordinary Marlene Post, were all part of a chain of leadership that began with Henrietta Szold, reached fulfillment with Golda Meir, and continues today. The Zionism we absorbed was egalitarian, non-sexist, constructively, easily, healthily feminist.

Hadassah Zionism has also been unique. Hadassah Zionism is broad-based, pragmatic, welcoming, and activist. It is about building bridges and uniting Jews around the idea of a Jewish State, not testing each other for ideological or religious purity on a dozen dimensions. And it is about a purifying, transforming, altruistic activism. Hadassah is not just check writing and fundraising. It is about educating and imagining: educating its members and non-members, while imagining a better world for all through the best medical institutions in the world, top technical colleges, extraordinary programs.

Hadassah Zionism, therefore, especially as exemplified by its two flagship hospitals in Jerusalem, teaches the important Zionist and nationalist lesson – that through peoplehood power, through national pride, through Jewish values, through Zionist commitments you can have universalist achievements, doing a world of good for Jews, Arabs and Christians who live in the Middle East and for humanity through pioneering medical and social service work. For that reason, because through peace and through war, Hadassah has been an oasis of mutual cooperation improving the world, I have repeatedly asserted one of my few powers as an academic and nominated it for the Nobel Peace Prize – only to be disappointed as the relativistic, self-involved Europeans honor Yasir Arafat, Jimmy Carter, and in the ultimate act of self-indulgence, the European Union this year.

For its next 100 years, Hadassah must adjust its mission. It is now evolving away from underwriting the Young Judaea youth movement, giving that important organization the independence it needs. It continues its holy work supporting the Hadassah Medical Organization, epitomized by this week’s opening of the $363 million dollar, high-tech, up-to-date, 19-story, 500-bed Davidson Medical Tower at Ein Karem. But it also should embrace a new cause – fighting the growing values crisis afflicting modern Jewry in general and American Jewry in particular.

Even during these economically perilous times, so many of us are suffering from affluenza, the spiritual influenza that comes from having too much. Symptoms include amnesia regarding enduring values, materialism, lack of motivation, addiction to electronics, weakened commitments, diluted relationships, bouts of depression, epidemics of meaninglessness.

Belonging to the Republic of Nothing, so many sleepwalk through life, wired in to virtual experiences and fake Facebook friends, insulating ourselves from a culture of ideas, of values, of caring, of sacrificing for any principles. If the stereotyped Hadassah Ladies of yesteryear, reeking of character, were characterized by their indomitable spirit, formidable presence, and relentless pursuit of their goal, their children and grandchildren, of the “Whatever” generation, risk being pale shadows of their colorful forbears, rootless, aimless, spineless, amoral, disaffected, passive, disengaged.

Hadassah’s network of 300,000 women cannot only trust their role modeling and their good works to help tackle this problem. They have to, as the Women’s Zionist Organization of America, address this problem boldly, directly, creatively. The must be harbingers of a Zionist values revolution, championing Identity Zionism. They must learn how to inspire their children and grandchildren to inherit their commitments not just their assets, their skill sets not just their bank books, their values not just their valuables.

They should start a conversation immediately, about who they are, what they do, why they do what they do, and why they need the next generation as partners in this holy work. They should explain how much they have done for Israel – and explain how by doing so much for that great country and for the United States, they also did so much for themselves. In so doing, they will reveal the true secret of Jewish communal work, of charitable giving and community building, that the more you give the more you get, the more you invest in good deeds and good works, the greater and grander your life becomes.

John Kennedy got it half right. It is good to ask “what you can do for your country.” But the experience of hundreds of thousands of Hadassah heroines over the years shows that in doing for your country, your people, your community, you also discover all the good that your country, your people, your community can do for you.

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.

Gil Troy Responds to Yousef Munayyer

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

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

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

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

To Rome (from Jerusalem) with love — of nationalism

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-17-12

Visiting Rome reminds us of the magic of cities and the power of nationalism.  Like people, cities have distinct characters. You can no more take the romance out of Rome, than take the Jew out of Jerusalem. While some tourists are cultural scavengers, cannibalizing disjointed elements of rich, integrated civilizations, tourism at its best is holistic and nourishing, stretching visitors to embrace the unfamiliar, the exotic. Hopping across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem to Rome reinforces the deep atavistic understanding that people do best in thick, historically-resonant, values-laden communities, bound by multiple ties, while making their tribalism transcendent.

Of course, the wandering Jew in Rome is a fiddler on the roof, dancing delicately between delight and despair. The proud, historically-conscious Jew takes guilty pleasure in Rome’s grandeur. You don’t need to see the Arch of Titus, which toasts our Temple’s pillaging, to remember how destructive was the power represented in the towering columns that punctuate today’s Rome as frequently and dramatically as potholes popped up in 1970s’ New York.  But like a wounded lover nobly trying to restore lost faith, the Jew must not be imprisoned by past traumas. While honoring our martyrs’ memories and refusing ever again to be helpless, we distort history and risk poisoning our souls if our collective rearview mirror remains only tinged blood-red.

The story of Rome and Jerusalem, like the Jewish story overall, is not just about Jews confronting non-Jews but about Jewish and non-Jewish collaboration, consonance, and creativity.  Martin Goodman’s 2007 book, Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations, ends tragically but starts happily.  “At the beginning of the first millennium CE both cities were at the peak of their prosperity and grandeur, each famous throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond,” Goodman writes. “They were two cities with a culture partly shared, from the gleam of ceremonial white masonry in the summer sun to acceptance of … the influence of Greek architecture and philosophy.”

Seventeen hundred years later, the two cities epitomized the old-new power of Europe’s romantic nationalist resurgence. In Rome and Jerusalem: The Last National Question, Karl Marx’s colleague Moses Hess pivoted from universalist socialism’s false cosmopolitanism toward the Jewish nationalism that Theodor Herzl later called Zionism.   Nationalism was roiling Hess’s Western world in 1862, as Europeans began what Daniel Patrick Moynihan called “matching” various peoples with particular states. That year, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s “Iron and Blood” speech helped unify Germany; Giuseppe Garibaldi tried and failed to incorporate Rome into modern Italy; while Abraham Lincoln was struggling to quash Southern separatism and redeem American nationalism.

“On the ruins of Christian Rome a regenerated Italian people is arising,” an inspired Moses Hess wrote.  Returning to his own people after “twenty years of estrangement,” Hess rejoiced, “Once again I am sharing in its festivals of joys and days of sorrows, in its hopes and memories. I am taking part in the spiritual and intellectual struggles of our day.” Hess was not retreating to the ghetto but reawakening a more natural, authentic, organic self. He derided the “really dishonorable Jew” who is “ashamed of his nationality,” no matter how many “beautiful phrases about humanity and enlightenment … he uses so freely to cloak his treason.” Hess’s renewed communal sentiment empowered and enlightened.  He hailed “the thought of my nationality, which is inseparably connected with my ancestral heritage, with the Holy Land and the Eternal City, the birthplace of the belief in the divine unity of life and of the hope for the ultimate brotherhood of all men.”

Hess made the classic nationalist move, which is often unappreciated in our age of faux-cosmopolitanism. He repudiated the thinness of the universalist’s righteous-sounding but hollow “we are the world” postures while reveling in the thickness of the Jewish nationalist’s ambition to redeem his people and then the world. He understood that the pathway toward uniting Rome and Jerusalem in constructive collaboration was for the Italians to renew Rome and for the Jews to renew Jerusalem. Only by triggering a “national renaissance” rooted in their authentic collective selves could these communities tap into the necessary energies to be the best they could be.

Last month, 150 years later, the New York Times columnist David Brooks, explaining New Jersey rocker Bruce Springsteen’s continuing success worldwide, wrote:  It makes you appreciate the tremendous power of particularity. If your identity is formed by hard boundaries, if you come from a specific place, if you embody a distinct musical tradition … you are going to have more depth and definition than you are if you grew up in the far-flung networks of pluralism and eclecticism, surfing from one spot to the next, sampling one style then the next, your identity formed by soft boundaries, or none at all.” Echoing Hess, Brooks pleaded:  “Don’t try to be everyman…. Don’t try to be citizens of some artificial globalized community. Go deeper into your own tradition. Call more upon the geography of your own past. Be distinct and credible.”

In that spirit, nationalist scientists tapped into their individual and collective power in discovering the “God particle.” Israeli newspapers emphasized Israel’s role; Italian newspapers proclaimed “Italians help.” Canadians and Indians were equally boosterish – deservedly so.  Like religion, nationalism can build or destroy. National pride need not descend into chauvinism; it can be harness to achieve universal goods.

Zionism offers Jews the opportunity to mine the geography of our own past and enjoy our own national pride. The Zionist draws intimate strength from Jerusalem and respectful inspiration from Rome, appreciating Rome’s deep roots and broad vision, while understanding that the same collective power that so long ago built a majestic Colosseum to last, can be tapped today to help individuals find meaning and countries solve their most pressing problems.

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.

American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-26-12

I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”

Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.

American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message.  American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state.  The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.

Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.

Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.

Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides.  A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.

Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.

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

Call me a proud ‘Zionist firebrand’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

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

One-Note History: A Response to Yousef Munayyer

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

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By Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 6-10-12

Gil Troy: Learning from Jabotinsky: Finding the Glory in Jewish Life

Prof. Gil Troy, iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute, discusses the lessons to be learned from Vladimir “Ze’ev” Jabotinsky, a Zionist leader often associated with the “right,” but whose idea of bringing “hadar” – glory and beauty – to Jewish life – applies to today. Recorded June 10, 2012, Jerusalem, Israel.

Gil Troy: Speech at the Young Judea Year Course 2011-12 Closing Ceremony

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Gil Troy’s speech at the YC 2011-12 Closing Ceremony

Building A Broad, Civil Jewish Tent On Israel

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By Gil Troy NY Jewish Week, 5-29-12

As the American Jewish community mimics the rest of America with ugly, polarizing political fights, calls for a “big tent” are becoming common. Partisans are pushing back, caricaturing calls for a big tent as lacking in principle or shilling for the status quo. But constructing a big tent that is open enough to welcome disparate voices, yet not so undefined that it has no mooring, takes great skill and vision.

The finesse required was on display earlier this month. AJC Access, the American Jewish Committee’s youth wing, convened a second annual conference with the Reut Institute, an Israeli action-based think tank, to try creating a big, broad, respectful conversation about Israel, left, right and center. Young Jews, mostly aged 25 to 45, from more than 30 countries, participated.

During an intense, four-hour marathon session on “Legitimizing Israel,” I suggested four poles necessary for building a civil Jewish tent when talking about Israel. Like Abraham’s tent, it should be open on all four sides, while nevertheless offering protection.

Start by acknowledging complexity. Despite being a messy muddle, the Middle East seems to invite the most simplistic sloganeering. Yossi Klein Halevi, my colleague at Engaging Israel, a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says that the Israeli right fails by ignoring the first intifada’s lessons — that the Palestinians are a people with rights to self-determination, which must be respected. The Israeli left fails by ignoring the second intifada’s lessons, that Palestinian political culture is possessed by annihilationist impulses. Until Palestinian leaders become more committed to building their own state rather than destroying Israel, peace will remain elusive.

Secondly, we should build identity, mounting what Donniel Hartman of Engaging Israel calls a “Jewish values conversation about Israel.” Last summer, after I wrote two articles critical of J Street in the Jerusalem Post, I nevertheless was invited to address J Street U’s student mission to Israel. Using the Engaging Israel methodology, which entails drilling down to core issues while carving out open, respectful space for dialogue, I hosted the students in my home, and began the conversation by exploring the question of why we need a Jewish state. Having studied fundamentals together, and having forged a broad consensus about Jewish identity that requires expression in state form, we could then start debating borders and tactics with no acrimony.

More broadly, we have to stop only experiencing Israel as a country that needs our support. We have not fully recognized how Israel’s existence enhances Jewish identity worldwide — or how Israel helps solve our existential dilemmas as human beings and as Jews in a stressful, confusing modern world. This kind of Zionism highlights consensus and spotlights values, while ending the constant obsession with Israel’s headaches.

Thirdly, we also must not be afraid to define our community. We should develop “red lines” and “blue and white lines,” meaning ideas we repudiate and principles we champion. Two years ago, a group that I was a part of, ranging from left to right, worked together to define common parameters. The document we produced came easily. We all affirmed our beliefs in Jewish nationalism, Jewish statehood, and mutual respect. And we agreed on red lines, such as not accusing Israel of racism or apartheid, and, more generally, not trying to refight the 1948 war about Israel’s right to exist, rather than the 1967 war about Israel’s borders.

Connected to this is the fourth and final pole, recognition of the toxicity that emerges from the systematic Arab attempt to delegitimize Israel. We are all scarred by living in the age of delegitimization. The Zionist left, in particular, should start getting angry at the delegitmizers, recognizing just how much delegitimizing Israel harms the peace process.

In building this tent, my advice is: acknowledge complexity, because nuance matters; engage Jewish identity issues, because values matter; define our community, because boundaries matter; and condemn the delegitimizers’ toxicity, because words matter.

In concluding the conference, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, eloquently explained why AJC convenes a big tent and cultivates a strong center. “We are more effective, we are more intelligent, we are more credible, when we listen hard to reasoned sides of the complex Israel issue before speaking up,” he said. Harris said the stakes couldn’t be higher, and, simplistic, doctrinal thinking doesn’t help advance the discussion; the argumentative Jewish tent should not an echo chamber, but must embrace civility and mutual respect.

This big tent approach appreciates that, as Harris noted, Israel is both a modern-day miracle and a work in progress. And it recognizes that over the millennia, Jews have created what he calls “the consummate guilt culture,” which is now applied obsessively to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have developed “the consummate blame culture,” which then preys on us so perfectly. The big tent approach notes the growing shrillness and polarization in American political culture but says, “We can do better.”

Gil Troy is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.

Gil Troy: March of the Living Canada 2012 Mini Israel Ceremony: Keynote Address, Lay Down Your Arms

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March of the Living Canada 2012 Mini Israel Ceremony, Gil Troy Keynote, Lay Down Your Arms

Every year, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, thousands of students march from Auschwitz to Birkenau honoring the memories of six million Jews and so many other innocent people murdered in the Holocaust. The students then travel to Israel, where a week later they celebrate Israel’s Independence Day.
These scenes are taken from the 2012 Canadian March of the Living ceremony held on April 25th, 2012, at Mini-Israel, marking the transition from Yom Hazikaron (Israel’s Remembrance Day) to Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel’s Independence Day).

This segment includes the keynote speeches from Gil Troy, Professor of History at McGill University. He was introduced by Michael Soberman, National Director, Canada Israel Experience.

Celebrating Israel’s six great achievements

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-25-12

Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.

Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness.  Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem.  And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”

Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.

The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you — and they are.

My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.

First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.  People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people.  Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.

Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.

Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.

Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election — meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election — uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent.  In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.

This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too.  Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.

And finally, reviving Hebrew.  In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.

As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets — let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.

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

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The genius behind Tel Aviv’s towers

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By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 4-2-12

In Tel Aviv on March 22, hundreds of Israelis gathered at Israel’s Tel Aviv Exhibition-Gardens to honour the great Israeli-Canadian entrepreneur David Azrieli.

At 90 years young, David still dazzles, making his mark in business and philanthropy. The man who brought the indoor mall to Israel – and coined the term for it, kanyon – continues to initiate projects while setting new standards in charitable giving in Canada and Israel.

David is of that extraordinary Holocaust generation that not only survived, not only thrived in the New World, but improved it. Born in Poland in 1922 as David Azrylewicz, he escaped into Russia, survived getting shot, and eventually took the land route into Palestine, aided by another legendary figure, Moshe Dayan. After studying at the Technion, he fought during the War of Independence, travelled abroad and arrived in Canada in 1954. While working as a melamed, a Hebrew-school teacher, he entered the wild world of real estate. One of those successful, hardworking, driven, visionary tycoons who makes it look easy – but outlasted many others who failed – he built an empire in Canada, the United States and Israel.

Along the way, David also built a beautiful family with his amazing wife, Stephanie, and four extraordinary children – my prejudice as a family friend shines through – while giving back as a community leader, heading the Canadian Zionist movement for many years. David has always proudly proclaimed himself a Zionist, embodying the Zionist values of self-reliance, forward-thinking and constructive action. An avid art collector, David is now applying his endless energy and broad vision to the world of charitable giving. News reports when the Azrieli Group in Israel went public estimated that he and his family may contribute one billion dollars to his foundation.

Successful philanthropy requires spending money intelligently, not just giving it generously. Two of the Azrieli Foundation’s signature projects prove that the insight that made David Israel’s Master Builder is now helping him to become the Jewish world’s Great Strategic Giver. In 2001, he published his memoirs, with his co-author and daughter, Danna Azrieli, as One Step Ahead: David J. Azrieli (Azrylewicz): Memoirs, 1939-1950. The experience proved so meaningful for him and his family that he decided to help others produce quality memoirs, too. The Azrieli Foundation Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program now humanizes the Holocaust victims “one story at a time,” allowing survivors without David’s resources to share their legacy with their heirs.

Similar empathy and creativity is being used to fight the problem of high school dropouts in Israel. When briefed about the challenges of keeping kids in school, David asked the critical question – when do we lose them? He discovered that most high school dropouts are “born,” if you will, in the frustrations of junior high. As a result, the Azrieli Institute for Educational Empowerment has created a network of community centres in Be’er Sheva and elsewhere that assist young, overwhelmingly poor learners early in the educational process, so they can feel good about themselves entering high school.

Beyond the headlines, I have had the pleasure of knowing David as a loving family man, a warm presence, a sophisticated analyst, a probing conversationalist. Sixteen and a half years ago, when I was far more familiar with his reputation as a tough businessman than with his gentle scholarly soul, my wife – who grew up with his daughters – and I introduced him to our oldest daughter, who was about four months old then. David zeroed in on her, engaged her with his delighted smile, whipped out a camera, snapped off a roll of pictures, popped the film out of camera and gave it to us.  I had simply never seen a 74-year-old gush so much over a baby, nor had anyone simply handed me a roll of film like that before – in the pre-digital era, it was simply not done.

Whenever I drive into Tel Aviv, I am entranced by the three tall, sleek towers David built, which have become, surveys tell us, among Israel’s most defining icons. I marvel at their modernity, at the pioneering spirit behind them, at the constructive, entrepreneurial Zionism they epitomize. And I cherish the private moments my family and I have shared with the genius behind the towers, a modern-day David demonstrating the same reach, ambition and joyous abandon for which that great ancient king was known.

iEngage: Hartman Summer Internship: Continuing the Jewish Mentorship Tradition

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By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 3-22-12

The new bestselling tell-all memoir by Mimi Alford, the 19-year-old Monica Lewinsky of the John Kennedy White House, who detailed her 18-month-long affair with JFK, has once again made the phrase “White House intern” a mark of shame rather than a badge of honor. More broadly, the internship, a lovely, often life-changing rite of passage, is the latest sacred cow under attack.
 
Reductionist radicals who only view society through the prism of power as exploitative, have assailed internships as providing organizations with free labor, giving rich kids a form of affirmative action, because only they can afford internships, and muscling out workers who need the paying jobs. These attempts to pathologize what for many young people and organizations is a constructive win-win, mentorship growth opportunity, overlooks an essential Jewish value which internships epitomize, the beauty of learning by doing.
 
This summer, we at the Shalom Hartman Institute hope to have a tikkun, repairing the breach by creating the right kind of internship.
 
Despite being the People of the Book, Jews have a profound, historical, even theological appreciation for the educational osmosis that occurs when a talented young person shadows a worthy role model. Two of the greatest Biblical leaders were first nurtured as interns. Joshua was, we learn in Numbers 11:28, “the attendant of Moses from his youth.” In his role as Moses’ assistant, protege and shadow, Joshua received the ultimate opportunity, the most intimate look at the greatest moment for Moses and the Jewish people – the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Exodus 23:13 says, “Moses rose up and Joshua, his attendant.” In both cases the Hebrew root of the word shin-resh-taf speaks of service, of ministering, of intense devotion.
 
Similarly, the great prophet Samuel was an intern to Eli at Shiloh. Although that career choice seemed to have been made for him by his Jewish mother ­- an action that became so common it became a staple of American popular culture – Samuel 1, 3:1 says “the boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli.”
 
Although statistics are unreliable, the world capital of internships may be Washington, DC. Every summer, America’s hot, muggy capital attracts swarms of young, fresh-faced college and post-college students, eager to work for senators, representatives, government agencies, NGO’s, thinktanks, authors, and, most coveted of all, the president, at least symbolically, in the White House. These earnest, dressed-for-success young men and women have their own hangouts, their own rental patterns, their own group rituals. Some can afford not to work for money, but others will hustle as waiters or in other capacities at night to finance their daytime dream-job. Each one ends up with an individualized experience that can range from frustrating grunt work to what feels like profound, holy work, as it did to Samuel and Joshua.
 
The Zionist movement has long treasured the ideal of peer leadership, not for cheap labor but for ideological purity. The combination of role-modeling and on-the-job training has empowered generations of Jewish leaders in Israel and abroad. Peer leadership reinforces the traditional Jewish value of learning by doing with the Zionist commitment to self-reliance, authenticity, and returning to history.
 
A successful internship depends on the intern – but it also depends on the mentor. A successful internship flourishes as what the philosopher Martin Buber called an “I-Thou” relationship, not as an “I-it.” An “I-it” internship throws at the young person a pile of unappealing work that no one else wants to do. An “I-Thou” internship requires investment from the mentor, who models an approach to work and to the mission behind the work, so that even filing and answering correspondence can feel important. Not everyone who has an uncompleted to-do list can handle an intern. The “I-Thou” mentor takes the time to pass on a suitable project that stretches the intern, that teaches the intern, that builds a relationship – many of which last for decades.
 
This year, at the Shalom Hartman Institute, we are launching an iEngage Shalom Hartman Summer Internship that we hope will model how to train young people, in the same way we hope our iEngage project will model a new way to talk about and appreciate Israel. The three critical elements in building what we hope will be lasting relationships with a cadre of talented young people every year are: study in the morning, learning about the foundations of Judaism together, with each other as hevruta, as learning partners, with top Hartman scholars, work in the afternoon on the Engaging Israel project, either working closely with one of the EI scholars on a particular research project or working in small groups on some of the projects the EI team has identified as essential next steps in our educational mission, and finally, a commitment in the following school year to host one EI Hartman program on campus, to put the learning to work.
 
Beyond that, we expect our interns to breathe in the atmosphere of the city of Jerusalem and this think tank over the summer – enjoying many free lunches – as rabbis, scholars, ministers, teachers, philosophers, and activists gather on the Hartman campus in Jerusalem and do what we hope the interns will do – work together, think together, laugh together, bond together, and learn together. Click here for more information on the iEngage internship program.

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

The Jerusalem Studio School Pioneers Art Zionism

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-31-12

A remarkable community of artists from across the United States is rallying around a Jerusalem art school, demonstrating this small school’s outsized importance in the world of figurative painting and art education. Top American artists donated nearly three dozen paintings for a February 21 auction at New York’s Steven Harvey Fine Arts Projects to help the Jerusalem Studio School (JSS), an art school founded in 1998 that ran a deficit for the first time ever last year due to an incompetent, spendthrift CEO. The outpouring affirms the important artistic and educational vision of the art school’s founder, Israel Hershberg.  The broad embrace – like the school itself – demonstrates another platform for supporting Israel, Art Zionism.
“You know, I usually fall for the siege mentality,” says Hershberg, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Austria to two Holocaust survivor parents in 1948 before ending up in Brooklyn. “But this really restores my faith in humanity. You have all these artists, many non-Jewish, coming to help. And non-Jewish buyers, who have started buying in the pre-auction (at www.jerusalemstudioschool.wordpress.com), saying ‘I am so happy to support a school in Jerusalem.’”
The generosity represents a tremendous, intercontinental vote of confidence in Hershberg himself, a leading figurative painter whose works can be found worldwide, be it in the Israel Museum, the Marlborough Gallery in New York which represents him, the National Gallery of Art in Ottawa or the Imagawa Contemporary Art Collection in Osaka Japan. Raised in Israel until he was nine, but trained as an artist in the dazzling New York scene of the 1970s, Hershberg and his artist wife Yael Scalia moved to Israel in 1984, where they raised six sons.
In addition to his world-class paintings, which bring a colorful clarity to everything from a cow’s tongue to a chameleon, and an absolute poetry to his landscapes, Hershberg has a strong, countercultural vision of what a good art education entails. Appalled by the sloppy indulgence in much of the art world valuing trendiness over inner need, tradition, or refinement, Hershberg is delightfully old-fashioned. He believes art students should learn by being in conversation with the great masters, with the great artists who preceded them.  He teaches his Master Class students by having them draw from the human form and transcribe masterworks, trusting that once they master the skills and a full command of pictorial language, they can soar ahead on their own. And they have. Over fourteen years, the school has taught hundreds in its master class and evening classes. Today, those students carry on the great tradition of figurative painting, teaching others, working with top galleries, even displaying their own work in museums.
“We have sown the seeds of an actual visual culture that never existed here before,” Hershberg explains. “There was no painting that was perceptual or observational or representational that was engaged in a serious dialogue with the masters of the past.  Originally, Israeli art was a way out of doing that, stifled by the ethos of ‘Want of Matter’” – the stark, naive, once-dominant Israeli art movement – “and all a reflection of that chasm.” When Hershberg established the JSS, he explains, for the “first time Israel had a school that was steeped in visual culture – with a pedagogical culture of teaching. No one had that kind of training before, it was practically taboo here.”
This bold approach and quality results have generated enthusiastic endorsements worldwide. Artists praise it as “one of the best schools for art, anywhere,” and “the real deal.” The realist painter and blogger Larry Groff, from San Diego, said that learning from Hershberg “was a profound experience and opened up whole new directions for my work.”
The word “Jerusalem” is an essential part of this Studio School’s identity.  It is a national institution, suited to the nation’s capital, drawing Israeli students from across the country, from Mattat in the Upper Galilee to Beersheba in the south, many supported with generous scholarships. It is an important part of the century-long story of Zionist rebirth, which included an artistic and aesthetic renewal, with an annual landscape marathon that every year draws a leading artist from abroad to coach the students as they paint on-site in Jerusalem, the Jerusalem of today and the Jerusalem of old. And it is a typically Israeli symphony of clashing symbols somehow harmonizing with each other in this old-new land, this special-normal place, including the school’s majestic Hall of Casts, 32 plaster replicas of classical sculptural masterpieces situated in its humble home in industrial Talpiot across from the dreary Hadar mall. “We want to acknowledge Jerusalem as a world class cultural center, not Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem has the rich past, the associations,” Hershberg says. “New York is always ‘go’; Paris, Rome, Jerusalem, these classical cities are ‘on pause,’” allowing people to absorb, to experience, to remember.
In supporting the school, where my wife Linda is a student and a new board member since the recent administrative reforms, she and I appreciate the opportunity to practice what she calls “Art Zionism.” Too much of today’s conversation about Israel obsesses about conflict, crisis, challenges. In doing its thing, in expressing Israel Hershberg’s vision, in teaching young Israelis how to be great artists, in putting Jerusalem on the map in the conversation about what great art is and what quality art education should be, the JSS offers a safe, non-political, thoroughly normal and yet exceptional platform for supporting Israel – and beautifying the world. Zionism dances between the past and the present, the old and the new, the cutting-edge and the traditional, the mundane and the profound. The Jerusalem Studio School helps point the way to a new conversation and appreciation about what Zionism is — and can be.

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.

iEngage: Field of Dreams and Reality: Toward a Balanced Zionist Vision

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 11-8-12

Healthy nations, like healthy individuals, have dreams, ambitions, defining ideals. Democracies are dream factories, where the “ought” – the model society we hope for – inspires individual and collective achievements. In the United States, the “American Dream” shapes personal ambitions, while noble principles such as liberty, democracy, justice, and equality shape America’s greatest communal accomplishments. These collective aspirations create the high standards by which the world judges any democracy’s behavior, and by which citizens in a democracy should judge themselves. They also steer democracy’s self-corrective mechanisms, its remarkable capacity for peaceful reform.
 
All governments and societies are imperfect and must balance national ideals with difficult realities, the “ought” and the “is.” Achieving equilibrium often proves particularly vexing when it comes to Israel. Both the expectations people have of the country and the problems facing it seem overwhelming. Today, at their most extreme, many supporters of Israel are so dazzled by the idea of a Jewish State that they only judge Israel by the “ought,” its noblest dreams, failing to admit any faults in the “is.” Alternatively, extreme critics only judge Israel by the “ought” of artificially high standards that no state under attack can achieve, forgetting then to acknowledge any good that there “is.”
 
Usually, among most Jews, the dialogue about Israel is more nuanced. But contemplating the extremes can encourage thinking about a more tempered discussion, exploring how Israel as it is and how Israel as it ought to be can form the basis for a healthier engagement with Israel. Even if Israel’s high ideals court great disappointment or invite unfair criticism, Israel must keep striving, as both a Jewish state and a Western democracy. Israel should remain engaged with the “ought” – the country it hopes to become – in order to improve the “is,” the country it currently appears to be. A renewed Zionism based on a mutually satisfying relationship between Diaspora Jews and Israel requires a recalibration between the “ought” and “is.”
 
Creative Dissatisfaction
 
The State of Israel was conceived by a playwright, Theodor Herzl, who coined the slogan: ”If you will it, it is no dream,” and set into motion the political process that culminated in 1948. Israel is not just an Altneuland – an old land renewed – but a dream-come-true land. The Jewish return to the Promised Land, after nearly 2000 years of yearning, in the form of a functioning state committed to traditionally Jewish and modern democratic ideals, was one of the twentieth century’s great redemptive stories. And the founding of Israel, imbued with the idealism of the halutz and the kibbutz, the pioneer and the communal farm, cast the Jewish state as a model nation for the world.
 
As a people, too, Jews are addicted to the “ought.” Our Torah offers practical pathways toward creating an ideal world. Our foundational texts speak of pursuing justice, treating neighbors graciously, honoring strangers. Our national anthem is “Hatikvah,” the hope. We end every Seder with the aspiration “next year in Jerusalem,” thinking perhaps of aliyah, or at least of a renewed Jerusalem, be it a rebuilt capital in the Middle East, a celestial city, or even a new Middle East entirely. The cycle, repeated again and again throughout Jewish history, of facing oppression and then being redeemed – or at least surviving – demanded a capacity to reach for the “ought,” dreaming about a better world, while coping with the “is,” no matter how ugly the actual world was at a given point in time.
 
As Jews, we are constantly searching for how we and our homeland can stretch, can improve. The search creates a culture of intense criticism, passionate arguments, and, sometimes, deep disappointment. But it also cultivates a politics of high ideals, magnificent aspirations, and great achievements. We have seen Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, Arab lands, the crumbling Soviet Union, distressed Ethiopia become productive citizens of a sovereign state. We have seen peace treaties signed, technologies developed, economic benchmarks surpassed, which the experts never thought would happen. We have seen Jewish values applied creatively to modern situations.
 
Jews have forged a modern democracy rooted in the ancestral homeland, whose citizens live by the Jewish calendar. Israelis have synthesized Western law with Jewish law, revived the Hebrew language, and pioneered a dynamic new Israeli culture. Israel has shared agricultural and medical technologies with Third World countries. We as a people have not only survived amid difficult conditions, we have thrived. Without an addiction to the “ought,” a constant search to improve individually and collectively, our “is” would not be as good as the “is” is today.
 
In building a Zionism for the 21st century, Jews should take this “ought” talk more personally. Belonging to a people, a nation, helps individuals envision the future and change the present by mobilizing communal resources and sharing skills. In Israel and the Diaspora, many Jews use this “peoplehood platform” to fix the world, to be a vehicle for fulfilling personal and communal ideals. We can see Jewish idealism in the ways Jews lead philanthropically, in Israel and the Diaspora, giving money to a variety of causes, “Jewish” and “secular.” In May 2006, at the Save Darfur rally in Washington, DC, Jewish students, wearing Jewish organizational T-shirts while demonstrating for oppressed Sudanese, showed they understood how to advance universal ideals through Jewish values and affiliations. Likewise, in March, 2011, Israelis helped stricken Japanese earthquake and Tsunami victims through IsraAID’s skilled search-and-rescue teams. These young Israeli army veterans also proved they could help humanity via their national identity.
 
As Israel’s president, Shimon Peres has eloquently invoked national ideals in ways that none of the recent, pedestrian prime ministers have. Peres frequently celebrates Jews’ “dissatisfaction gene.” He calls it “the greatest thing about Judaism,” explaining that “a Jewish person cannot be satisfied . . . The minute he is satisfied he begins to be non-Jewish. Dissatisfaction is the source of creation. All the time, because we were oppressed, we were small, we couldn’t sit down and have a glass of wine.”
 
Ultimately, the Zionism we must develop today is an aspirational Zionism. The generation of our parents and grandparents helped found the state. The task of Israeli or Diaspora Zionists, is to correct its problems and fulfill its many ideals. We need to continue to see – in utilitarian terms – Zionism as a useful vehicle. This struggle to improve the Jewish state enlists Jewish individuals as active players in a grand enterprise. And, if we succeed, not only will we find individual fulfillment, improve Israel’s quality of life, make Israel a model nation, and use our Zionist platform to help humanity, we will also redeem the ideals of nationalism and religion. If we can show that creating a democratic Jewish state is not a futile quest to resolve an incompatible contradiction but rather an opportunity to apply values from our rich religious tradition while expressing our deep national spirit, we can teach the world – and ourselves – a valuable lesson.
 
It will not be easy. Too many Westerners today, some Jews included, have bought into a faux cosmopolitanism, caricaturing both nationalism and religion as xenophobic. And too many Westerners today, including an increasingly vocal minority of Jews, only see Zionism as xenophobic rather than temperate or constructive. Jews who have a stake in Israel, however, have an opportunity – and a responsibility – to show that nationalism can mobilize collective power for good and not just polarize. We have to prove that our religion can root us in the quest for universal justice, not just derail us into superstition and self-absorption. In fact, our rich Jewish tradition, brought to life in a thriving, modern, democratic nation-state, can be a framework for finding individual meaning and achieving universal good for the world.
 
Luftmenschen No More
 
This constant quest to improve the Jewish homeland creates a culture of high ideals and grand aspirations while risking a politics of harsh criticism and intense disappointment. Overemphasizing the “ought” can backfire. If expectations about the Jewish state are too high, there is a risk of forgetting that governments are imperfect vehicles, run by imperfect people making tough decisions. In such a situation, many outsiders make their support for the state contingent on its fulfillment of some ideal, rather than its inherent right to exist.
 
We must be clear in our thinking, especially at a moment when various international forces are aiming to delegitimize Israel, assailing Israel’s very right to exist. We should never invoke the “ought” to justify Israel’s existence out of some sense of virtue as defined by others, but should instead feel challenged and inspired to embrace the aspirations of the Jewish Zionist mission. Israel does not beg the world for the right to exist because we Jews claim to be uniquely noble. We do not accept our national rights on probation, contingent on good behavior. In viewing the “ought” not as a question of legitimacy but of destiny, not as a question of Israel’s right to exist but of what to do with that right, we can enjoy the great opportunities liberal nationalism and Zionism afford. Becoming a “Start-Up Nation” was not necessary to justify Israel’s existence, but being a “Start-Up Nation” is one of many ways the world benefits from the fulfillment of Zionism.  
 
Many American Jews take this sort of mission in America for granted. It is rare to see any Americans use America’s failure to create a perfect”New Order of the Ages” – in Latin, Novus ordo seclorum, the words that appear on the one-dollar bill – as proof that the United States should not exist or is illegitimate. It has been argued that Israel suffers from a variation of “The Beauty Myth.” Just as feminist author Naomi Wolf warned that the constant images of supposedly perfect models make many women feel perpetually inadequate, the Zionist Beauty Myth creates artificially high expectations about what the Jewish State should be. It’s a recipe for disappointment and even repudiation.
 
Alternatively, focusing exclusively on the “ought,” always seeing Israel or any country as a work in progress, also risks deferring judgments so far into the future that we avoid important issues in the “is.” When you have a sovereign government, good intentions and big dreams are not enough. Results count. For example, Israel has been a world leader in articulating a doctrine of “Tohar HaNeshek,” “the purity of arms.” In teaching soldiers in a democracy under attack how to defend themselves while preserving their souls, to fight hard without losing their moral compass, Israel’s guidelines often exceed world norms. Writing in the New Republic in the aftermath of the 2009 Gaza war, the Israeli philosopher Moshe Halbertal noted that unlike international law, Israel’s military code demands that “soldiers assume some risk to their own lives in order to avoid causing the deaths of civilians.” But simply having a nicely developed idea is not enough – it must be implemented on the battlefield.
 
Zionism brought Jews back to history. Returning to real time, to political power, meant no longer being free-floating Luftmenschen, living in the “maybe” – it meant taking responsibility, confronting reality. Beyond that, classical Zionist thought is ambivalent on this question of what the character of the state should be. Theodor Herzl is best known for seeking normalcy. The famous story of his founding the Zionist movement in reaction to the Dreyfus affair, when waves of anti-Semitism cascaded through “enlightened” France, emphasizes a defensive quest to establish a state like all states, so that Jews could be like all other peoples.
 
But that narrative misses the liberal idealism that shaped European – and American – nationalism in the 1800s. Herzl himself was not just a defensive Zionist, he saw the great creativity and social good that national fulfillment could accomplish. As he wrote in his famous tract Der Judenstaat (“The Jewish State“), in 1896: “We shall live at last as free men on our own soil, and in our own homes peacefully die. The world will be liberated by our freedom, enriched by our wealth, magnified by our greatness. And whatever we attempt there for our own benefit will redound mightily and beneficially to the good of all mankind.” This kind of utopianism informed much of the Zionist conversation among the many different schools of Zionist thought established in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Clearly, the Jewish idea of “normal life” remained – and remains – wrapped up in getting as close as possible to creating a heaven on earth in one’s personal and collective lives.
 
Therefore, Israel should not stifle difficult conversations, or postpone needed reforms, even if it is an embattled state facing ugly situations while ennobled by lovely dreams. Zionism rebelled against waiting for the Messiah. The “ought” must be a daily spur to judge the “is” and make it better, not a ticket to perpetual absolution. Israel’s Declaration of Independence promised that the Jewish State “will ensure complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex; it will guarantee freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture.” Those are impressive aspirations, especially considering that they were made with five Arab armies and Palestinian irregulars attacking as the state was declared in May 1948. But Israel must deliver. It can only solve the conceptual conundrum – can a state be Jewish and democratic? – with what Israelis call “facts on the ground.” We cannot wait for peace – we cannot hide behind Palestinian enmity – to justify failure in this realm. If Arab citizens enjoyed full political rights in Israel, in a climate of zero-tolerance for discrimination, with equally good and well-financed schools and infrastructure, Israel’s standing with its Arab neighbors and the world probably would improve – as would, even more important, Israel’s own sense of national virtue.
 
Toward a Values Nation
 
Every day in Israel, the “is” and the “ought” collide, or else two “oughts” seem to be clashing. Many of Israel’s defining ideals are in tension with one another; Israel’s leaders often seem to be making difficult choices balancing one pressing need against the next. Some of these are unique to Israel’s character, such as the tension between being a Jewish state or a democratic state. Some of these are typical of modern democracies, such as the tension between private property and social welfare, or between national security and civil liberties. Israel’s peculiar positioning in a violent neighborhood makes the choices harder, as Israelis seek peace and self-preservation, or want to welcome persecuted refugees but fear the Jewish majority being engulfed by refugees from the Sudan.
 
Contrary to the polarized rhetoric in the Knesset and in the media, we should distinguish between seeing what the Israeli scholars Alexander Yakobson and Amnon Rubinstein, in their book Israel and the Family of Nations (2008), call “a tension between two legitimate values” and alleging “a fundamental incompatibility.” Acknowledging the tension between Zionism’s civic and ethnic impulses, between Israel’s aspirations to express the will of the majority and protect the full political rights of the minority, is not the same as claiming these are contradictions. Just as there are tensions between liberty and equality – but North Americans do not choose one to the exclusion of the other – “the Jewish and democratic character of the state can create tensions and practical dilemmas,” Yakobson and Rubinstein explain, without compelling a false choice between one or the other. They argue that valuing minority rights over the majority’s choice – exclusively – would be “denying the right of the Jewish people to national independence. This denial is in itself an assault on the principle of equality.”
 
To govern – and to vote – is to choose. When two “oughts” collide, neither leaders nor citizens can simply delight in argument and disputation for their own sake – a Jewish pastime since antiquity – or call out “teiku,” the Talmudic acronym that means “stalemate.” The moderate is more willing than the partisan to acknowledge the validity of different positions, but true, effective, muscular moderation still entails choosing one principle over another when necessary. For example, many Modern Orthodox Jews are prepared to defend the belief that when democratic values and traditional halachic law clash, democratic values should prevail. (Please note the language: this is not “democracy” versus “Judaism,” because democracy is a Jewish value too.) Similarly, many such Jews favor life over land, and are ready to compromise on Jews’ historic claims to some parts of the land of Israel in the pursuit of a true peace.
 
No formula can resolve the tension between yearning for the “ought” and confronting the “is.” Israel’s noble aspirations should not be used to sidestep difficult questions about its ugliest faults; but Israel’s faults should not be used to ignore equally important discussions about its achievements and aspirations. With apologies to Hillel, if we don’t deal with the realities, and sometimes compromise, who are we? If we remain mired in reality and don’t stretch, what are we?
 
Ultimately, however, a meaningful 21st century Zionism must be aspirational. Pragmatism is not enough. Israel cannot just be the embattled state, nor should it only settle for being the Start-Up Nation. In helping make Israel become a “Values Nation,” Zionism will build on that ambition-feeding dissatisfaction that Shimon Peres calls uniquely Jewish, and it will seek to give gifts to humanity, as Herzl dreamed. But even if we falter, in trying to save the world we save our souls. If the Jewish community can replace a growing culture of corrosive, selfish, and passive cynicism with an uplifting, communitarian, and altruistic Zionism, we will help reorient Israel for the better.
 
In returning Zionism to our communal field of dreams, instead of limiting our horizons to the toughest problems, we also have the opportunity to welcome a wider range of voices into the Zionist conversation. Engaging Jews around the world in a debate about why we need a Jewish State in the 21st century – and just what that state should be like – is more inviting for them than old-fashioned recruitment, the call to salute the Israeli government’s policies in combating anti-Israel forces. Dreaming about Israel as a Values Nation – and planning how to get there – moves beyond defending Israel the embattled state, creating the foundation for a deeper, more satisfying relationship. In short, reinvigorating the conversation about what Israel “ought” to be, can bring more people in for a look at what Israel “is” and how it can grow, trusting the Jewish people’s marvelous redemptive resilience and every healthy, functional democracy’s self-renewing, self-correcting reform impulse.

Harvard WhoDunit: How to foster a civil, substantive, satisfying Zionist conversation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-1-11

The standard narrative about Zionism on campus today is one of crisis and conflagration, of academic propagandizing and intellectual hooliganism, of Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed. Unfortunately these problems occur too frequently on too many campuses. We must be intolerant of the intolerant, confronting professors and students who violate academic ideals by committing academic malpractice in the classroom, bullying at student events, or distorting the truth in books and articles. But we should not overreact or exaggerate. Every day on many campuses, especially in North America, a civil, substantive, satisfying discussion about Israel and Zionism takes place.

On Monday, October 31, Harvard Hillel invited me to speak about “Building Identity Zionism: Envisioning a Positive, Liberal, Big-Tent Identity Zionism for the Twenty-first Century.” Frankly, I expected a small turnout – and was ready for a seminar-style exchange among a dozen or so thoughtful students. I also wondered whether there would be “fireworks.” Nevertheless, I prepared for the talk I wanted to give – emphasizing modern Zionism’s ideological meaning to Jews today – but thought about how to keep the discussion focused if hostile anti-Zionist forces tried hijacking it.

I had two surprises. First, the lecture hall was quite full – I didn’t count because I was speaking but it could have been as many as fifty people, undergraduates and graduate students, including a senior Israeli diplomat touring North America. I considered that a great turnout for an event billed as ideological not confrontational – conflict, or the anticipation thereof, draws many more in. The second surprise was unpleasant. As I began, a friend whispered: “Two Palestinians students just entered with signs they plan to wave at some point to disrupt your talk.”

I looked into the crowd and saw students, with a smattering of “grown ups.” It was not obvious who the hostiles were – even as I maintained eye contact with the audience during the talk. But I followed my plan. I lectured with a PowerPoint presentation ( available here) for half the time, reserving a solid 45 minutes for questions and comments.

My message was simple. I argued that not every conversation about Israel should be about “The Conflict,” just as every conversation about the United States cannot be about racial strife and every conversation about Canada cannot be about linguistic tension. And I insisted that talking about the meaning of Zionism for us today, in Israel and the Diaspora, asking how this exciting project called Israel answers our deepest needs, addresses our existential concerns, fulfills our souls, expresses our values, is not a sidestep. I am not dodging the real conversation – this is it, I said.

In fact, we all should recognize that wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we are children of the age of delegitimization. We have so internalized the “Israel as problem” mode of discourse that we are too quick to run to our battle stations rather than listen to our muses. Singling out of only one country, Israel, for attack, only questioning its legitimacy, its right to exist, robs us of the opportunity to appreciate how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, to dream about how to perfect it, and to tolerate a range of opinions about what it should be. We need a big tent that accepts all those who believe in a Jewish state as Zionists, encouraging the kind of free exchange universities and all democratic movements should relish. And we need a hyphenate Zionism, a passionate Zionism that fuses strong ideological visions with equally strong commitments to a Jewish state, providing updated versions of the Labor-Zionism, Revisionist-Zionism, Religious-Zionism, Cutural-Zionism that animated the Zionist movement a century ago.

Underlying all this is an understanding that as Jews we belong to a people as well as sharing a common religion, and that as a people we can find our fullest ideological expression with sovereignty in our national homeland. To be is to belong, I insisted, justifying national identity in general. I am not arrogant to say that Zionism is the only way. But it is one way to get traction in this world and make our tribalism transcendent. I also talked about the obstacles facing this ideological conversation – including the pulls of the “I” in the age of the iPod and iPad when Zionism is about “us.” I insisted that they have to be the builders, thinkers, and visionaries to make Zionism relevant, inspiring, effective.

The questions and comments were superb, showing that the audience embraced the message. Students said they rejected youth group graduates’ “canned,” Israel-right-or-wrong Zionism and anti-Zionists’ “nihilistic” rejectionism. They wondered how to avoid feeling neutered as American Zionists, understanding they are not citizens of Israel yet want to contribute. They worried that some segments of Israeli society envision a very different Israel than one they would find acceptable. They asked about triggering a parallel Zionist conversation among young Israelis and about how to confront campus anti-Zionism when it does appear. And they asked about me and my struggles, what it was like working within the university while adopting these controversial positions.

I walked away extremely impressed with these thoughtful, passionate, committed young idealists, who assured me that the typical Israel conversation at Harvard was about Israel and Zionism not about the conflict or the Palestinians. And, by the way, at some point the Palestinians left the room, quietly, respectfully. They had the intellectual integrity to realize that their prepared disruption did not fit the talk and would have made them look foolish – a stance not all their comrades always adopt.

So here is the answer to the Harvard Whodunit – we had a serious conversation about the meaning of Zionism, thanks to smart, idealistic students – and the enduring power of the Zionist dream.

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