American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
 

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.

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Israeli democracy needs ‘Sharanskyism’ not ‘Liebermania’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-26-11

When I studied modern Jewish history in graduate school, one book in particular revolutionized my understanding of Israel – and helps explain Israel’s current democratic predicament — Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. By following the migrations of Russian Jewish ideologues, especially to New York and Palestine, Jonathan Frankel showed their extraordinary influence on the two centers of my life, America and Israel. As modern Israel seeks suitable boundaries for democratic debate amid security threats, Frankel’s insights remind us how the Russians and other immigrant groups molded Israel. Considering that Russian impact, Israeli democracy today needs a big red purge of certain, destructive, Soviet impulses.

Linking the Jewish labor movement in New York with Zionism’s early stirrings in Russia and Palestine, Frankel’s book taught me how Russian Israeli culture is and how Americanized my understanding of Zionism was. I then learned from Melvin Urofsky’s American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, shaped by Louis Brandeis’s marvelous mix of Zionism and American Progressivism. The great American Supreme Court Justice – and Zionist – cast the story of Jewish national liberation in American terms, emphasizing the Jews’ flight from oppression to pioneer a new, enlightened democracy in Palestine. This cocktail helped American Jews view supporting Zionism as an expression of Americanism, not a distraction or a betrayal.

Labeling Israel the Middle East’s only democracy exaggerates geography’s political relevance. Actually, culture counts. How Polish-Russian Jews like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, born into the Czarist Russian Empire, learned to appreciate democracy and implement it in a country filled with immigrants from undemocratic regimes remains one of Zionism’s greatest achievements.

Zionism functioned as a centrifuge, mixing different cultures, ideologies, and values, then incorporating the best of them into this exciting new experiment in Jewish nationalism and state-building. The early Russian pioneers contributed a communal passion that still exists in creative tension with American Zionists’ Brandeisian individualism and liberalism. But while that collectivist zeal frequently elevated Israeli society, most nobly with the Kibbutz movement, it degenerated in Bolshevik hands into Soviet totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin demonstrates that within Russian political culture an authoritarian streak still resists free expression, especially untrammeled criticism, while longing for strongman rule.

That Soviet strain – which we can call in Israel Liebermania, named after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – propels the undemocratic ideas in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, that repressive strain also appeals to a growing number of native Israeli Jews and those in the religious camp who misread Judaism as monolithic rather than disputatious and democratic. Culture is, of course, adaptive and dynamic, neither immutable nor genetic. Many who survived the Soviet regime – and Arab rule – emerged as champions of democratic expression and civil society. Natan Sharansky is only the most famous example of that counter-tradition.

And no culture is problem-free. Modern American political culture, especially the post-1960s progressive variety most American Jews embrace, tends to be highly self-critical, relativistic, and frequently blind to the presence of real enmity or evil. This approach encourages political reform and national self-improvement. But it discourages the necessary moves for self-defense embattled democracies must make while often accepting the narratives of critics and enemies over more patriotic and admittedly self-serving storylines.

Israel needs Sharanskyism rather than Liebermania, a vital democracy that is neither oppressive nor self-destructive. We must welcome Russians’ continuing concerns with high culture, science, and the collective national soul. But we also must purge that lingering Soviet influence – the totalitarian instinct to outlaw free speech we hate rather than refute it, along with the yearning for tough demagogues.

Similarly, Israel should help the United States – and the rest of the West – balance self-criticism with survival. The Zionist instinct toward self-preservation, and the blunt Israeli approach of “Ein Breira,” we have no alternative, serve as important correctives – within limits – to Western prosperity-laced guilt mixed with American “We are the World,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK” diplomacy. As we approach September 11th’s tenth anniversary we should remember that the day America was blindsided by Islamist terrorism – despite years of warnings – Americans turned toward Israel to learn how thriving democracies can fight terror effectively, so that the Constitution would not become “a suicide pact.”

In this struggle for Israel’s soul, Binyamin Netanyahu should lead not waffle. His background is American not Soviet, more Brandeis than Lieberman. As UN Ambassador and in his books, he argued that democracies could preserve core values while protecting themselves. As Prime Minister, he seems too concerned with preserving his coalition not protecting those values. Democratic ideals should be guiding principles he defends passionately – not just easy applause lines when dueling Barack Obama or Mahmoud Abbas.

This is an educational and ideological challenge. North American Zionists, watching this struggle, should not cut and run. Saying “Israel is pushing me away,” as one Huffington Post blogger recently complained, is immature. Here is a noble cause, a delicious struggle, an opportunity for Anglos — and other freedom-lovers — to import our values to shape Israel’s future. In this fight, advocating a ‘Big Red Purge’ challenges those who escaped Soviet tyranny to explore what destructive impulses they absorbed unintentionally. Yelling “McCarthyism” repeatedly, in addition to being historically inaccurate, doesn’t resonate with that audience – and reflects the self-referential elitist bubble encasing Israel’s left.

Israel is a young country still forming. Our challenge, our opportunity, amid all the surrounding threats, is to ensure that Israel fulfills its core Zionist vision, becoming a model state that welcomes immigrants from different cultures, culling the best of what they bring, while retaining democratic and Jewish values. Making that effort succeed can be one of the great adventures of modern life, injecting, as Jonathan Frankel’s Russian thinkers did, a touch of prophecy into everyday politics.

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

Gil Troy: Center Field: Conservative Rabbis should foster Zionism before pushing Aliyah

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-24-09

At its recent annual convention in Jerusalem, the Conservative Movement’s Rabbinical Assembly launched a campaign to boost Aliyah – immigration to Israel. The slogan “A Call to Action – Putting Aliyah on the Map,” illustrated that Aliyah barely ranks on American Jews’ agenda. With 399 Conservative North American olim (immigrants) in 2008, this campaign has nowhere to go but up. But trying to boost Aliyah among American Jews is like trying to encourage virtuosity among music ignoramuses. The goal, while noble, is out of reach. Before pushing Aliyah, the Conservative Movement should stimulate a more pressing conversation about what Israel and Zionism can mean to American Jews.

Pushing Aliyah usually alienates American Jews – and has distorted attitudes toward Israel and Zionism. Although when I speak about Zionism I neither push Aliyah nor negate the American Jewish community’s validity, questioners frequently accuse me of both. So many speakers before me have pitched Aliyah so aggressively, that as soon as I mention “the Z word” the already alienated questioners become defensive. Actually, many American Jews reject Aliyah as a goal. For them, it is like trying to sell ham in a synagogue.

Moreover, I have experienced particular hostility from some Conservative rabbinical students who bristle during their mandatory year studying in Jerusalem, because of the religious politics. Angry at Israel’s parallel Masorti movement for rejecting gay rabbis, alienated by the fact that a woman cannot feel comfortable wearing a kippah or a tallit publicly in Jerusalem, they yearn for their promised land of Southern California or the Upper West Side. I often respond that many share their contempt for some not all Israelis’ intolerance and oppose the Israeli rabbinate’s authoritarianism. But just as no rabbi wants congregants judging Judaism by the parts that least speak to them, we should not judge Israel by the aspects that most bother us. Still, I worry about how some of these future leaders will teach Israel to their congregants, let alone respond to perceived “pressure” for Aliyah from their movement.

Too many heavy-handed Israelis make matters worse. Coming from a command-and-control culture, too many Israeli speakers have barked too many orders to too many American Jewish audiences, regarding how to think, where to live. Ham-handed American Jewish tour operators are also guilty. One student recalled A.B. Yehoshua haranguing her and her young peers on her first Israel trip. Yehoshua negates the Diaspora as a valid Jewish home – except when it comes to collecting lecture fees from there. American celebrity worship blinded the organizers to the damage Yehoshua’s Israel-or-bust message might cause.

A healthy, constructive approach to Zionism would start by addressing some of the central contradictions between America’s cosmopolitan dream of liberation from Old World traditions and the Jewish commitment to ritual, history, faith, tradition. American Jews also try reconciling love for two Promised Lands, Israel and America.

Zionist thinkers from the past can help. Ahad Ha’am conceived of Israel as a center for Jews without negating Diaspora Jewry. Judge Louis Brandeis was a great American and a great Zionist who explained that being American frequently means maintaining a different ethnic, religious and even national identity. Mordechai Kaplan posited Jewish peoplehood as a touchstone for Jewish unity, Jewish pride in Jewish civilization, and Jewish equilibrium between modern seductions and the call of the past.

We also must stop seeing Israel through the lens of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It was Yasser Arafat’s central conceit to make almost every conversation about Israel be about the Palestinians. Just as every conversation about America is not about race, so, too, we need a broader multi-dimensional relationship with Israel.

Even more important, we must stop treating Israel and Zionism as the Jewish people’s central headaches and start seeing both as potentially redemptive forces. We need new Zionist thinkers relating to today’s challenges, and today’s Israel. A New American Zionism should begin by critiquing the American Jewish community – and the modern condition. Just as European Zionists in the 1890s built an ideologically-diverse, Israel-based response to their central challenges of anti-Semitism and the fallout from industrialization, modern American Zionists should explore how Zionism can solve today’s problems.

Learning from Israel, building a communal, peoplehood-oriented, Israel-based identity to counterbalance assimilation, alienation, media-sated materialism, excessive individualism, post-modern cynicism, will establish a richer relationship with Israel.

Engaging Israel in many different ways will also revitalize American Jewish Zionism. The Conservative Movement would have much more impact if it dedicated itself to teaching Hebrew, opposing American Jews’ drift away from the Jewish people’s language. A Hebrew revival can open gateways to Israeli culture, professional exchanges, intellectual ties, more emotional and personal bonds. More Hebrew speakers would embrace the key formula for future American Jewish vitality: 2 DW = 1 il, meaning the cost of two Disney World trips for most could yield one Israel trip. Birthright Israel’s happy experiences teach that more interactions with Israel and Israelis, especially in Israel, would not only orient more American Jews toward Israel, it would spark an American Jewish revival by importing more Israeli energy, creativity, chutzpah, and pride. And, of course, we need a spirit of true mutuality – a more robust friendship would benefit Israelis, Israeli Judaism, and Israeli Zionism.

All these approaches will advance American Jews up what the legendary educator Mel Reisfield calls “the ladder of Zionist achievement.” Aliyah is most appealing when it bubbles up naturally, from powerful Israel trips, inspiring experiences with Israelis, and, alas, still in this world, the occasional Diaspora-based trauma, be it anti-Semitism or another alienating force. Once a Zionist revival makes Aliyah a possibility, then the practical help the Conservative Rabbis offered will prove beneficial. But, as with most ideological and educational initiatives, first lay the proper groundwork – and do whatever damage control is required – before rushing ahead.