Academics examine Vitamin B10 – Birthright’s secret

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-29-12

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University to analyze Taglit-Birthright Israel.

Alexandra Wolkoff (left), Hannah Turner (center)

Photo: Ofer Shimoni

Last week, more than 100 academics gathered at Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies to analyze an unlikely research subject – Taglit-Birthright Israel.

The formal research confirmed what simple observation of this informal process reveals: This “Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education,” as Professor Len Saxe who convened the conference calls Birthright, has succeeded with more than 300,000 young Jews, thanks to the magic of Israel, an Israel they see through their eyes, not through the distorting lens of conflict-obsessed reporters or angry activists.

But Birthright’s success also stems from its humanistic, person-centered educational philosophy. This approach emphasizes “no strings attached” – meaning no ideological or practical demands in return for what Charles Bronfman calls a gift from one generation to the next. It respects all participants, inviting them to launch their own unique Jewish journeys without the traditional guilt trips, while acknowledging the centrality of Israel and of Jewish peoplehood in building modern Jewish identity.

Birthright’s origins were not just countercultural but counterintuitive. This is a program conceived in failure which easily could have failed. It emerged from the panic generated in the 1990s when the National Jewish Population Survey confirmed that intermarriage was becoming mainstreamed in America. The American Jewish future looked grim.

Birthright was the programmatic equivalent of a cardiac defibrillator, trying to give the ailing Jewish community an emergency healing shock as things turned critical. But thanks to its affirmative, open-ended approach, Birthright has gone from being palliative to preventative. Vitamin B10 – 10 days of a collective Birthright experience trip in Israel – is becoming a Jewish rite of passage, an elegant way to start or restart a Jewish journey, not a desperate, defensive measure against assimilation.

Now it looks easy, but it wasn’t. In the 1990s, philosophers like Francis Fukuyama were declaring “the end of history,” as Miles Trentell, the evil advertising executive on the late 1980s, early 1990s TV hit, Thirty-something scoffed that, to modern Americans, history is last week’s People magazine cover.

In 1995, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam published his article (which became a book), “Bowling Alone,” arguing that in a post-collective age, selfish Americans bowled, but not together in leagues as their parents did; this generation bowled alone.

In 1996, the historian David Hollinger’s Postethnic America concluded that Americans were abandoning their tribal connections.

Yet to ahistorical, hyperindividualistic, postethnic Americans – and moderns, because Jews in dozens of countries participate – Birthright offered a sense of the past through Israel’s layers of history, a sense of the group through the peer experience on the bus, and a sense of rootedness through the ethnic, tribal, national Jewish connection.

And participants loved it.

Similarly, Birthright, which the historian Jonathan Sarna notes reflected a new faith in “transformative” educational experiences rather than more normative, less ecstatic “formative” ones, revolutionized assumptions in the Jewish world.

Birthright proved that Judaism could be dynamic and welcoming. Not only has Birthright shown that bold ideas can be game-changers, but it introduced a new, more fluid, more inspiring, less formalistic, less alienating type of Judaism for young Jews to embrace, even without bar mitzvah goodies as bribes.

Birthright proved that Israel could be inspiring and even comforting, a far cry from the embattled, controversial country they see on TV, because not everything is political. And Birthright proved that Zionism, despite its many internal and external enemies, could be cool and relevant.

Birthright reintroduces Judaism to participants as what Rabbi Yitz Greenberg calls “an organizing filter,” a way of understanding the world and themselves. This intense “takeoff” experience “reconnects” young Jews with Jewish tradition, even while acting as what Jeffrey Solomon of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies called a “disruptive technology,” meaning an innovative, unconventional, cutting-edge program.

Birthright Israel’s core educational principles, drafted by one of the greats of modern Jewish education, Professor Barry Chazan, offer a quilted theory – meaning an integrated platform – combining an experiential approach, a culture of values, a culture of ideas, person-centered education, social interactionism and the concept of fun – in a respectful, constructive context which measures outcomes.

It has created a process which respects every participant’s intelligence, independence and integrity – only asking them to participate constructively, then draw their own conclusions.

The central challenge facing modern American Jews is not anti-Semitism, nor is it defending Israel. It is answering such basic questions as “who am I,” “what are my values,” “how do I build a meaningful life” and “where does Judaism fit in”? As chairman of Birthright Israel’s International Education Committee, I confess that the bigger Birthright gets the harder we have to work to help participants answer those questions effectively by staying small, intimate and person-centered.

We never want to become the “educational McDonald’s” of the Jewish people, mass producing one-size-fits-all fast food-type experiences. Instead, we seek to cultivate a modern, open-air, experiential Beit Midrash (House of Study), wherein each individual may follow the same itinerary, but, in a true I-thou educational interaction, grows in a particular way that works for him or her.

Jeffrey Solomon asked: will Taglit be like Apple or HP – continuing to innovate or so addicted to past success we stagnate.

From the start, Birthright has invested in research, guaranteeing constant and accurate feedback, while yielding results – ably analyzed by Len Saxe and his Brandeis team – proving that the experience encourages Jews to marry each other, raises Israel awareness, deepens Jewish connectedness, and is lots of fun.

Conferences like this one, assembling educators, rabbis, historians, demographers, anthropologists, sociologists, even an economist, will keep Birthright sharp, keep it innovating, even as its essential fuel remains the delightfully combustible combination of Jewish tradition, an open-ended approach, passionate educators, and a generation seeking meaning in life and a more dynamic Judaism than the one their parents introduced to them.

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, he is the chairman of the Taglit-Birthright Israel International Education Committee.

Jews in the Bosom of Father Abraham — and America

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anti-Israel Essay Desecrates Martin Luther King’s Memory but Wins an M.L. King Award

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-22-12

The anti-Zionist blogosphere is celebrating that a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Writing Award to a Jewish high school student who fancies himself a hero for freeing himself from the yoke of supporting Israel. Comparing himself – and his people — to King’s Southern redneck “oppressors,” this junior wrote that, as a pro-Israel Jew, “I was grouped with the racial supremacists. I was part of a group that killed while praising its own intelligence and reason.”
Dietrich College of Carnegie Mellon University chose this essay “Fighting a Forbidden Battle: How I Stopped Covering Up for a Hidden Wrong” to share first place honors in the High School Prose category in its annual competition. This self-important, sloppy screed would have appalled Martin Luther King, who said “When people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews. You are talking antisemitism.” Carnegie Mellon should disassociate itself and Martin Luther King’s noble name from the politicized decision to honor this essay that betrays King’s commitment to fighting bigotry.
Unfortunately, this essay typifies the lazy reasoning and false analogizing clouding much discussion about Israel. The essay begins, Woody Allen style, calling Judaism “a religion that allows those of us who believe in it to feel that we are the greatest people in the world—and feel sorry for ourselves at the same time.” Having caricatured Jews as arrogant yet “self-pity[ing],” the student distorts Israel’s actions in what seems like Operation Cast Lead but he fails to specify. Accusing Israel of “genocide,” he claims Jews described “the situation in shockingly neutral terms,” hiding behind formulations that “it was a ‘difficult situation.’”
Having incorrectly used the G-word – when genocide means slaughtering unarmed millions not firefights that result in limited casualties – he then stretches to suit a King Day competition by introducing the four letter word “race.” He alleges that once, “after a fresh round of killings … I asked two of my friends who actively supported Israel what they thought. ‘We need to defend our race,’ they told me. ‘It’s our right.’”
Most educators would recognize such a pat quotation as overdoing it. I have never met any modern Jew, let alone a Jewish teenager, who talks about defending the Jewish “race” — the Jewish people, maybe.  Race-talk died with Hitler. If the student claimed friends invoked the Holocaust or said something bigoted about Palestinians, I would have winced but found it plausible. This unconvincing, unsourced quotation undermines the essay’s credibility, and the judges’ judgment.
The student describes attending temple.  After a “seventeen-minute cello solo,” during the rabbi’s Q and A, the student asks how he can “support Israel … when it lets its army commit so many killings?” The rabbi supposedly answers:  “It is a terrible thing, isn’t it? But there’s nothing we can do. It’s just a fact of life.”  I hope the rabbi will write in and claim he was misquoted too. However, there are idiot rabbis who answer challenges about Israel with such empty equivocations.
Some critics are blaming the student’s angst on the Israel-is-perfect brainwashing American Jews supposedly receive.  The essay may reflect an opposite problem. The student also claims:  “I was fortunate enough to have parents who did not try to force me into any one set of beliefs.” Too many American Jewish rabbis, educators and parents are so ignorant, so awash in ambiguity, they cannot explain why Israel felt compelled to enter Gaza after unilaterally withdrawing from it but then suffering thousands of rocket attacks. Too many American Jews are too morally confused to detail Israel’s attempts to limit civilian casualties while fighting terrorists cowering behind mosques and hospitals, schoolyards and family compounds.
This essay includes the basic elements of the classic anti-Zionist attack: misreading chosenness as arrogance, charging genocide against Palestinians whose population continues to grow, viewing the conflict as about race not nationalism, analogizing falsely to demonize Israel. Mass-produced in the 1970s, this formula received UN approval after its 1975 “Zionism is racism” resolution.
That a naïve teenager might swallow this Big Lie, given how frequently it is repeated, is not news. That this young Jew will feel so self-righteous, pretending that denouncing Israel is a courageous, countercultural move rather than a politically correct act which eventually wins him a prize, is an old story. What is newsworthy is the way this kind of Israel-bashing risks becoming the conventional wisdom, especially among academics like the Carnegie Mellon judges who swallowed it whole.
Martin Luther King’s family has nothing to do with this desecration of his name. Anyone can make an award and call it anything they like. Tomorrow, I could, on my university stationary, announce the Noam Chomsky-Yasir Arafat Appeasement of Terror awards for sniveling dupes who distort Zionism and libel Jews. But my university would not assign its public relations team to publicize it. I would expect university leaders to distance themselves from such a move, because academics should not implicate their universities in polemics. Similarly, Carnegie Mellon should be embarrassed that this biased, inaccurate essay, with at least one crucial line that is so implausible, dishonors King and perpetuates prejudices.
Using Martin Luther King’s name to spread any form of bigotry is disturbing enough. But to use his name against Israel is particularly dismaying. On March 25, 1968, shortly before his assassination, King called Israel, “one of the great outposts of democracy in the world.”
Meanwhile, Sunday night’s Avi Schaefer memorial Jerusalem symposium “Z-Word: Re-Imagining Zionism,” attracted a sold-out crowd of over 300 students. These students are the real heroes – who will have to fight trendy anti-Zionism, especially on campus. These countercultural Zionist activists, like the late Avi Schaefer, who fought in Israel’s army but also fought for peace, would have made Martin Luther King, Jr., proud.

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.

 

What Israelis can learn from American Thanksgiving

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-23-11

Tomorrow, Americans will celebrate Thanksgiving – a great American invention. As Americans from coast to coast sit down and dig in, eating their turkey and stuffing, their cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie, Israelis should contemplate the holiday’s broadmindedness. This is the all-American day, when blacks and whites, Jews and non-Jews, immigrants and natives, act in concert, bonding as one nation.
Thanksgiving’s magic lies in each individual’s memory, ritual, experiences. For me, Thanksgiving is about schlepping into a cold, windy Manhattan with my parents to see Macy’s Thanksgiving day parade – shivering from the cold and with delight, while watching supersized-balloons of Superman and Underdog, Popeye and Bullwinkle J. Moose waft down Broadway.  It’s about defrosting in the apartment of my Aunt Jennie and Uncle Lenny, clambering around with my brothers as the grownups crowd around a table extending the length of their Bronx apartment, from their dining room into their living room. It’s about braving the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as a college student, sitting on the highway from Boston to New York, now blocked by one massive traffic jam as millions rush to make it for the command performance which is the Thanksgiving meal. It’s about the sweet smell of American success as we gather around successively larger dining room tables in my uncle’s successively more magnificent houses, sharing our accomplishments, thrilled that America is so welcoming to us Jews.
My Thanksgiving is about mounds of my Aunt Lenore’s chestnut stuffing vacuumed off the plate, cases of my Uncle Irv’s Beaujolais Nouveau drained dry. It’s about the sticky sweetness of the melted marshmallows atop my mother’s sweet potato casserole, the alluring smell of the turkey as my father carved it so expertly. And it’s about my late grandparents’ desperate delight in seeing their children and grandchildren gather year after year, pleased we were all “tugetha” – Newyawk speak for together – but fearing that once they died these reunions would stop – which they did.
If the charm lies in these intimacies, the grandeur comes from the simultaneity. We were all doing it at once as Americans.  Our turkeys might be kosher, and our tables might lack a big ham, but despite our ethnic idiosyncrasies, our religious peculiarities, we never felt so American as when we gathered together to ask the Lord’s blessing in synch with our neighbors on Thanksgiving Day.
Christmas is too Christian.  July Fourth substitutes finger-menacing fireworks for the finger-lickin’ turkeys. Thanksgiving has a purity, a universality, a magnanimity, a ubiquity epitomizing America at its best. The overflowing Thanksgiving cornucopia embodies America’s abundant blessings of openness, acceptance, fluidity, civility, and stability in the world’s shining example of a society delivering liberty and prosperity. Other countries have festivals to give thanks, but American Thanksgiving stands out in its ecumenicism, its welcoming embrace, whether or not you begin it by saying grace.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s idea when he signed the first proclamation creating a uniform Thanksgiving Day on the last Thursday of November, 1863. The United States was fighting a bloody Civil War. Different states had celebrated at different times for decades. Lincoln wanted to devote one day to toasting the good despite all the bad, celebrated “as with one heart and one voice, by the whole American people.”
Thanksgiving’s charms evoke the many, magical communal moments punctuating Israel’s calendar. There is a national magic and grandeur to Rosh Hashanah’s mass joy and massive heartburn, Yom Kippur’s stillness and piousness, Chanukkah’s lights and lightheartedness, Purim’s costumes and chaos, Passover’s cleaning and cuisine, Yom HaShoah’s sorrow and solemnity, Yom HaZikaron’s sadness and supportiveness, Yom Ha’atzmaut’s bliss and barbecues. But none of these fabulous festivals which enrich Israeli life involve all Israelis. Twenty percent of the population, the Arab twenty percent, takes the days off but few Israeli-Arabs partake in these national celebrations.
The absence of 20 percent of the population does not invalidate these national festivals. The majority culture in a democracy can mount mass celebrations enacting majority rituals and expressing majority ideals. But it would be great if the Arab sector embraced Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, or another holy day, perhaps making the Yitzhak Rabin’s memorial day a day for uniting all Israelis.
American Thanksgiving should inspire Israelis to nurture more national rallying points, more communal bonding moments that remind Israel’s Arabs and Jews of their common values and intertwined fates as Israeli citizens. All Israelis should have a broader appreciation of Israeli Arab celebrities such as the singer Mira ‘Awad, the soccer star Walid Badir whose 83rd-minute goal let Israel tie France in 2006, Salim Joubran the Supreme Court justice who judged Moshe Katzav, the comedian and writer Sayed Kashua of the sitcom “Avoda Aravit,” the former general Yusef Mishlab, the Hebrew poet and successful diplomat, Reda Mansour. The educational ministry should focus more on what Americans call “civics,” creating a common language and common values to unite the four school systems – an absurd number for a small country – so that young Arabs, religious Jews, ultra-Orthodox Jews, and secular Jews can share more not less.  Arabs should volunteer for national service to demonstrate their participation in the social compact. And politicians should devote more resources to eliminating discrimination, nurturing civility, facilitating unity, and cultivating a common discourse.
This kind of bonding, this search for new social glues that transcend the familiar divides, will not be easy. Communal moments and touchstones are not easily mass produced or conjured. But history teaches that change sometimes occurs for the better. When Abraham Lincoln started the first national Thanksgiving, Americans were slaughtering one another en masse. But he believed in his nation. This notion of seeking one covenant of, by and for the people should inspire and bond modern Israelis, uniting Arabs and Jews.

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 History of American Presidential Elections.”

How can Jews be ‘Orthodox’ without living in Israel?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-11

I just experienced a classic American Jewish cultural phenomenon – the deluxe, kosher-for-Passover hotel. For eight days, a New Jersey hotel became a Yiddishe Club Med, mostly for the tzitzes-and-snood set. Consuming mounds of flanken, schools of gefilte fish, cartons of matzoh, our spirits soared. Our hearts gladdened. Our waistlines expanded. Our arteries clogged. Yet it seemed a great inversion has occurred. The Torah does not just dictate what to eat but where to live. Although to some traditional commentators the mitzvah, commandment, of living in Israel outweighed all other mitzvoth combined, the behavior of many Orthodox Jews today suggests that many trifling mitzvot trump living in Israel. I wondered: How can Jews be “Orthodox” without living in Israel? Rather than singing so passionately about “Next Year in Jerusalem,” why don’t they simply make it happen?

I regret being ungracious because the experience was beautiful. The seders enabled far-flung families to reunite, consecrate the moment, and reinforce their bonds by embracing enduring values while reenacting meaningful rituals. And this time, someone else did the dishes.

In creating this temporary, luxurious, Jewish village, the guests expressed that characteristically Jewish need to consecrate a Jewish space. Living in Jewish time is not enough – which is why Golden Ghettos have sprung up worldwide. The contrast between the temporary kosher zone we rented in Central Jersey and the chametz-filled Newark Airport we encountered upon leaving was striking. Part of this year’s seder magic came from our parallel experiences in our artificial Jewish space: hearing the echoes of Dayenu resounding through the hotel’s halls; peeking into other family seders; noting who wore white kittels and who did not, who prepared shtick for kids and who did not, who continued past midnight and who did not, while all singing from the same hymnal, er, Haggadah.

As a sensual, 24/7 religion, involving tastes, smells, sounds, and as the religion of one historic people, Judaism functions best in a Jewish space. But suburban New Jersey is not our natural habitat; the land of Israel is, being the Jewish people’s historic homeland. That is why the Bible made Judaism a homeland-based religion. That is why so many commandments are bound up in the land. That is why the exile was so painful for millennia. And that is why – at two of the most popular, profound Jewish religious moments – ending Yom Kippur and climaxing the seder – we sing “Next Year in Jerusalem.”

I am not a Zionist fanatic. I understand why non-Orthodox Jews, especially those who do not take the Torah literally or believe in God, might live elsewhere, even if they acknowledge the upside of Jewish sovereignty, even if they love Israel. And these secular Zionists, of course, are the minority. Most American Jews have never visited Israel. They love the land they were lucky enough to be born in. As modern Jews they easily balance their Jewish and non-Jewish selves outside Israel. Most have no problem supporting Israel without ever living in Israel. I applaud Zionism for maturing beyond its original negation of the Diaspora. I particularly love the United States and Canada, being grateful for the welcoming home these two, safe, flourishing, prosperous democracies provide to millions of Jews.

But Orthodox Jews are, well, Orthodox! Anyone who feels commanded to live fully as a Jew should acknowledge Israel’s centrality in that mission. Moreover, Orthodoxy seems to be particularly rigid these days, with fanatic rabbis turning ritually autistic, blurring minor and major commandments, demanding blind observance to all religious dictates equally, passionately, fully. The traditional seventy fences placed around each mitzvah risk becoming seventy prison walls, with the most restrictive interpretation triumphing.

This rigidity is often curmudgeonly. Before Passover, the New York Times’ front page covered the quinoa controversy. Many Ashkenazi Jews have embraced this South American grain during Passover to expand their gastronomic repertoire. Yet some rabbis have banned it, although it was unknown in Biblical times, in what seems to be this Ashkenazi compulsion to disdain anything new and make Passover another trial to endure.

Given that, how do so many rigidly pious Jews ignore the commandment to live in Israel? How do they reconcile this contradiction? And why do their rabbis, who hector them about the most minor kashrut questions, avoid this subject in sermons?

My mother, despite being Jewish, teaches that “guilt is a wasted emotion.” I do not raise this question to make Orthodox Jews feel guilty. I acknowledge how deeply Zionist the Orthodox community is, having made the pre-college year studying in Israel a given for most Orthodox youth. But this mass violation of the commandment to settle the land, in an era when the land is accessible and appealing albeit challenging, demands debate.

A fuller discussion might help religious Jews see other compromises they make too. That recognition might encourage the often-ignored Jewish value of humility, which could improve relations with less-Orthodox Jews. This humility could encourage greater flexibility on minor matters such as micro-bugs in lettuce as well as major matters such as conversions and the need to consider compromising with Palestinians, who actually live in the land of Israel and whose own nationalist longings should be respected – if they choose to be peaceful and recognize Jewish nationalism.

At its worst, Orthodoxy today risks making Judaism into what traditional Christian critics claimed it was – a pots-and-pans religion obsessed with form not substance, more concerned with superficialities than spirituality. Three decades ago, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin had the guts to read Torah in his Manhattan synagogue, follow its dictums and move to Israel with a small committed minority. Are other rabbis at least brave enough to broach the subject with their congregants? Or are these supposedly Orthodox rabbis and their professedly pious followers actually reformers, having magically made the Israel-based mitzvoth optional?

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

American Jews should demand Pollard’s freedom

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-20-10

What many long suspected has been confirmed. Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger targeted America’s Jewish spy from the 1980s, Jonathan Jay Pollard, to teach Israel a lesson. One of Weinberger’s assistant secretaries of defense, Dr. Lawrence Korb, recently wrote a letter to President Barack Obama saying: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

As members of Congress circulate a demand for Pollard’s release after nearly 25 years in captivity, as American Jews once again agonize, as speculation grows about using Pollard’s release as a figleaf to allow Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to extend the settlements’ building moratorium, justice remains AWOL. Pollard should not be freed as part of a deal but as part of a settlement, wherein the American government atones for abusing his rights. The presidents who could have released him, the national security types who insisted on jailing him, as well as the Americans and Israelis who failed to redeem him, should all hang their heads in shame. The hero of the moment, Dr. Korb himself, should explain his quarter-century delay before doing the right thing. While we dithered, Jonathan Pollard has languished in jail.

Since Jonathan Pollard’s arrest in November 1985, most American Jews have wanted to forget all about him. Until Bernard Madoff, Pollard was the undisputed black sheep of the American Jewish family. If Madoff’s swindle brought to life the anti-Semitic caricature of the greedy Jew, Pollard embodied the treasonous Jew, the untrustworthy Jew, the dual-loyalty Jew. Despite the community’s affinity for lost causes, few have dared buck America’s national security establishment to defend the most infamous Jewish Judas since the 1950s’ Ethel and Julius Rosenberg Atomic spy case. Such blaring silence for so long demonstrates a dismaying insecurity about Jews’ place in America.

It makes sense that in 1985 most American Jews wanted to see Pollard jailed. Pollard broke the law when he passed secret navy intelligence documents to Israel. No patriotic American can countenance such behavior – even if the documents went to an ally. Yet even at the time, in denouncing Pollard’s “despicable” and “shameful” acts so vehemently, Jews seemed overly anxious to demonstrate their loyalty at Pollard’s expense.

American Jews got their wish.  Pollard was punished, severely. In March, 1987, as part of a deal intended to keep his then-wife Anne Henderson Pollard from jail, Pollard plead guilty to “conspiracy to commit espionage.” His plea spared the government from the risk of spilling more secrets at trial. Yet despite the plea bargain, and swayed by a blistering pre-sentencing memorandum from Secretary of Defense Weinberger, Judge Aubrey Robinson threw the book at both Pollards. Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment; his wife, who was never accused of stealing secrets, was sentenced to five years.

Pollard is no hero. But should Jews ignore the compelling cries for fair, proportionate justice simply because Pollard embarrasses us? Pollard does not deserve special treatment because he is Jewish, but neither does he deserve undue retribution. He is entitled to the same crusade the ACLU might mount for a murderer who, while guilty, does not deserve the death penalty.

When Pollard was arrested, many American Jews were furious because his actions supposedly made all Jews suspect. Since 1985 many Jews have endured more extensive investigations when being considered for security clearances; Israelis have faced more obstacles collaborating in defense-related American industries too. That one person could cause so much damage is mind-boggling. But does this say more about Pollard’s crimes or about Jews’ status in America?

If one rogue can threaten an entire community’s standing, something is wrong. Is that all it takes to derail the Jewish campaign to be America’s model minority? Are Jews merely tolerated, not accepted? American Jews’ reaction to the Pollard case evoked 1950s America, when first-generation greenhorns struggled to prove that Jews could be “a credit to our race and to our country.” Back then, Judge Irving Kaufman presided over the Rosenberg Atomic espionage case determined to rehabilitate Jews’ reputation. Millions of success stories later, American Jews should feel more secure. The many accomplishments, the deep patriotism, should refute the ancient dual loyalty libel.

American Jews do not live at the indulgence of Polish Nobleman patrons or a Russian Czar. American Jews do not enjoy civil rights as long as they sacrifice their Jewish identities, as their ancestors in “enlightened” Germany and “emancipated” France did. Jewish freedom is not contingent on anyone’s good will or on communal good behavior, but stems from inherent rights, “regardless of race, color, or creed.”

The American dream invites all citizens to sit at the table as equals. The American Jewish neurosis compels Jews to act like model dinner guests terrified of being banished from the dining room. Ironically, American Jews’ shame concedes too much to Jonathan Pollard and to anti-Semites – maybe Jews don’t feel as at home as they claim to in the Diaspora.

American Jews should be free, strong, proud, and comfortable enough to demand Jonathan Pollard’s release – unconditionally.  This one individual does not reflect on the community but his continued imprisonment does reflect badly on American justice. If Jews lack that comfort, if Jews cannot apply the same standards to this one unfortunate Jew that they do to others the courts mistreat, then maybe American Jews should realize that they too are imprisoned, by delusions and fears. Ironically, by defending this spy, by arguing that Jonathan Pollard has been punished enough, Jews can demonstrate loyalty to America, and to the fundamental fairness that makes America, America.

Center Field: The GA should not be remembered as another bad date between American Jews and Israelis

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-08

The General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities brought over 2500 of America’s most generous Jews to Israel for a conference in mid-November. Unfortunately, the warm feelings many participants experienced have been upstaged by a controversy that continues nearly two weeks later. “GA largely ignored by Hebrew press,” a Jerusalem Post headline proclaimed on November 21. The article quoted Yediot Aharonot’s Diaspora reporter characterizing the GA as “one big kiss-up to rich people. American Jews are not authentic; they’re obsessed with money; there’s something annoying about them.” Echoing the nastiness, one of America’s top Conservative Jewish leaders sneered: “Israelis speak Hebrew, but many live lives devoid of Judaism. Just closing your schools on Shavuot is not the totality of Judaism.” What should have been a great bonding moment risked becoming another bad date between American Jews and Israeli Jews.

The Diaspora Affairs reporter’s caricature of American Jewry was particularly unfortunate considering who comes to the GA. In an era when most wealthy American Jews are ungenerous or support non-Jewish causes, the GA represents the altruistic remnant still donating much time and money to help the Jewish people in North America, Israel, and throughout the world. Walking the GA’s exhibition hall is simultaneously inspiring and stressful. It is moving to see how many different wonderful Jewish charities there are – and overwhelming to imagine how difficult it must be to decide which to fund.

The leading Conservative Jew’s contempt for Israeli Judaism was equally outrageous. Just as he would bristle at the many who define his movement by the most superficial Conservative Jews, who show up three-times-a-year and for the occasional Bar Mitzvah, flummoxed by the Hebrew and ignorant of Judaism, he should know better than to perpetuate the stereotype of the ignorant Israeli Jew. Non-religious Israeli Judaism is different than non-religious American Judaism – but in so many ways more substantive, rooted, integrated, learned. Moreover, while too many secular Israeli Jews are too distant from traditional Judaism, these contemptuous remarks ignore the Jewish renaissance taking place among non-religious Israeli Jews. When he next visits Israel on his movement’s tab, this leader should visit the Shalom Hartman Institute, and see the halls filled with supposedly secular Israeli teachers and army officers, attending advanced seminars brimming with Jewish content, which the participants then share with hundreds of others. He can visit the Hebrew Union College library, where an informal Bet Midrash involving dozens of supposedly secular but extremely erudite Jews meets regularly, discussing Tanach and Talmud in a sophisticated Hebrew most American Rabbis would have trouble understanding.

He can visit – and perhaps have his movement fund more generously – the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem, the educational center of Israel’s Masorati – Traditional – movement or various Masorati congregations. In addition to granting 750 advanced degrees in Jewish studies during the last two decades, Schechter houses the TALI Education Fund, which teaches dynamic, pluralistic Judaism to 30,000 students in nearly 200 supposedly secular public schools and pre-schools throughout Israel. Closer to home, this leader should heed the expansive words of the Jewish Theological Seminary’s Chancellor, Arnold Eisen, who marked Israel’s sixtieth anniversary by vowing “we will do all we can to make sure that by the seventieth, Israelis and American Jews will be more closely related to one another and appreciative of the parallel paths on which they are seeking to build Jewish communities and revitalize Jewish tradition.”

It is time to move beyond these tiresome clichés of the boorish rich American Jew and the boorish “goyish” Israeli. We should sentence all the arrogant Israeli reporters who mocked American Jews and the thin-skinned American Jewish leaders who took the bait to a ten-day birthright Israel mifgash[ encounter]. One unexpected birthright bounce from the free ten day trip to Israel for Diaspora Jews between the ages of 18 and 26 has been the mifgashim, encounters, with Israeli peers. The Israelis learn that not all Jews from abroad are rich; the Jews from abroad appreciate their new Israeli friends’ experiences, especially since most of the mifgashim are with Israeli soldiers. The IDF’s Education Unit loves this program. Most soldiers return with a greater appreciation for Jewish peoplehood, more proud of their own country, more focused on their mission. I once heard soldiers speaking after their encounter with a Montreal birthright group. The soldiers’ unit had been hit hard in Gaza – after a powerful bomb killed some of their buddies, the survivors had crawled in the sand, retrieving scattered body parts. One soldier said, “I always thought I was just defending my home. Now, I realize I am defending my people.”

These are the sentiments we need to foster, avoiding games of ideological and sociological one-upsmanship that mostly reveal the respective combatants’ insecurities. Five years ago, the last time the GA met in Jerusalem, thousands of supposedly spoiled North American Jews arrived, despite the wave of terror Israel was enduring. The climax of that GA was a march from the Binyanei Ha’uma Convention Center down Jaffa Road, ending in the midrecheov, the center of town, so everyone could patronize the all but abandoned restaurants and stores there. As the GA participants marched down the streets, hundreds of Jerusalemites cheered, waved, and cried. The merchants and restaurant owners downtown were downright giddy.

We know Jews unite during times of crisis – and love to bicker when calm returns. GA participants and organizers should know better than to consider Israel’s media a reflection of Israeli sentiment. And any Israelis who followed this controversy should also be wise enough to dismiss the foolish, thin-skinned responses of defensive Americans. The world’s challenges today are too great – and the bedrock of unity we share is too solid – to allow the narrow, provincial voices on either side of the Mediterranean to prevail.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

From the center: Why are Republicans guilty of tokenism – while Democrats produce historic breakthroughs?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, many Americans cheered his historic breakthrough. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man for president. Even many Obama opponents transcended partisanship to celebrate this extraordinary – and hopefully healing – achievement.

Republican vice presidential...

Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Photo: AP

Yet the next day, when John McCain designated Alaska’s young governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, Democrats cried: “tokenism.” Democrats said McCain’s was manipulating the many American women mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a setback in their quest to break the ultimate “glass ceiling” of the White House. Even many Republicans squirmed at McCain’s crassness.

Yet there seems to be a contradiction. Why are Republicans deemed guilty of tokenism when they promote women or blacks, while Democratic “diversity” promotions are hailed as historic breakthroughs? Obamaniacs have a simple answer. They claim that Barack Obama – and Hillary Clinton – are both qualified to be president and Sarah Palin is not. Moreover, Democrats say that Obama did not run on his race, and Clinton did not run on her gender, but that Palin was picked solely because she is female.

BOTH SIDES of the story are more complicated. The 44-year-old Palin, indeed, is a first-term governor of a marginal state, but the 47-year-old Obama is a first-term US senator, so he lacks any serious executive experience. And while Obama did not run on his race alone, he would not have won the primaries without African-Americans’ nearly-unanimous support.

Similarly, Palin’s gender factored into McCain’s equation in choosing her, but so far she has been more useful in solidifying his right-wing evangelical base. Moreover, the older Democratic women who disdain Palin rejoiced in 1984 when Walter Mondale nominated the inexperienced Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Partisanship and ideology feed this hypocrisy. Just as Democrats charged tokenism when President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an anti-affirmative action African-American to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious that Palin is pro-life. She is so pro-life she did not abort her fifth child, even though she knew he would be born with Down syndrome. Now Palin seems to be encouraging her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to get married and keep the love child. These anti-abortion bona fides thrilled the Christian right, and have already improved the Republican Convention dynamics for McCain.

Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. Whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. Republicans are usually quicker to disdain tokenism, yet they frequently make strategic choices based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Democrats worship “diversity” as a core ideal, but too frequently that means a rainbow of men and women representing different races, religions, ethnicities, all marching in ideological lockstep, never tolerating diversity of thought too. How supporting abortion became so central to the women’s movement is an interesting historical question for another time, but to many women, a female pro-life vice president is as unacceptable as an anti-Zionist Jewish president would be to Jews.

AMERICAN JEWS are as inconsistent on this score as any other group. Jews crave acceptance as “normal” Americans while taking particular naches in every Jewish political appointee, in every American Jewish success. American Jews want non-Jews to accept them as Americans, without noticing that American Jews vote for their own kind disproportionately and often help each other out generously.

A popular if possibly apocryphal story about America’s first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when president Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the president, saying that when president Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.

In Israel, too, the politics of ethnicity and gender can get intense – and inconsistent. Moshe Katsav delighted in his role as a successful Sephardi role model, then immediately – and falsely – played the racism card when his despicable behavior created a scandal. And Tzipi Livni’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the legacy of Golda Meir reflects her complicated juggling act among being treated like “one of the boys,” tapping into some “girl power” and staying true to her Revisionist anti-Golda roots.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to win a congressional seat, ran for president in 1972. She insisted : “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not a candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America…” Alas, if anyone remembers Chisholm today, it is because of her race and gender.

Still, hers is an admirable formula. And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement, appreciate his impressive abilities independent of his race, yet also welcome this breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. Similarly, as long as Sarah Palin appears more like Al Gore than Dan Quayle, she should be hailed as an impressive individual and a leading pioneer.

We need a little constructive hypocrisy on this issue. People should rise and fall on their merits, but in this imperfect world, if they bring their subgroup a little more pride and standing, that is an added bonus.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.