Celebrate Israel Legitimacy Month

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-23-12

In our base ten culture, which gives mystical power to anniversary milestones ending in five or zero, this November—in addition to being Native American Heritage Month, National Homeless Youth Awareness Month, National Novel Writing Month, and Lung Cancer Awareness Month—should become “Israel Legitimacy Month,” using two anniversaries to celebrate the legitimacy of the Zionist project. November 2 will mark the 95th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, official British acknowledgement of the need for a Jewish homeland that culminated thirty years later—sixty-five years ago—on November 29, 1947, when the United Nations officially endorsed a Jewish state—and an Arab entity—in partitioning the land of Palestine.

Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)
Jubilant residents celebrate with what would become the Israeli flag after the United Nations decision to approve the partition of Palestine November 29, 1947 in Tel Aviv in the British Mandate for Palestine. (Hans Pins / GPO via Getty Images)

In celebrating, it is important to note how unjust it is that we have to turn what should be simple celebrations into complex justifications. Israel should not have to defend its legitimacy. In a world wherein nationalism remains the central constitutive political force, most nations can enjoy the luxury of having their national rights respected, even taken for granted. But Israel and Zionism have been subjected to a systematic campaign of delegitimization targeting Jewish nationalism and Jews’ ties to their historic homeland, while questioning the validity and viability of Israel itself. We have to risk appearing defensive—even while acknowledging the disproportionate singling out—so as not to be unduly naïve, undereducated, and unprepared.

Moreover, in asserting Jewish national claims and Israel’s legitimacy we need not fall into the mutually exclusive trap and negate Palestinian claims. In a world that tends to give claims of national rights of self-determination the benefit of the doubt, both Jewish claims and Palestinian claims have their own legitimacy and historical pedigree.

The great significance of the Balfour Declaration, issued as a letter by the British Foreign Secretary Lord Arthur James Balfour on November 2, 1917, stems essentially from the power at the time of Great Britain in drawing most of the map of today’s Middle East.   When “His Majesty’s government,” in all its imperial grandeur, looked with favor on “the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people,” the movement that Theodor Herzl had started twenty years earlier to articulate a nearly two-thousand-year-old dream of redemption received international legitimacy. When the British General Edmund Allenby captured Jerusalem five weeks later on December 9, 1917, military might reinforced the diplomatic vision. These moves led to the British mandate over Palestine, a period of stability, prosperity, and population growth for both the Jewish Palestinians and the Arab Palestinians, as they were called at the time. The fact that Jews from Europe and Arabs from the Middle East flowed into the newly flourishing Jerusalem and environs at the time should remind us that borders shifted and people moved—two essential historical insights that shape my openness to compromise on boundaries today.

Alas, during the British mandate, enmity between the two groups built up, along with the two populations and the infrastructure of a Jewish state. Nevertheless, as the historian Efraim Karsh shows in his important book “Palestine Betrayed,” there were also strong, healthy, grassroots relations among many Jews and Arabs.

Karsh’s title reflects his indictment of the Palestinian Arab leadership. The Hitlerite demagogue Haj Amin al-Husseini, and other extremist Arab leaders betrayed their people—and the vision of two peoples living side by side—by fomenting violence and, when offered a partition compromise by the United Nations in 1947, rejecting it outright and calling for Holy War instead.

Yes. I can respect Palestinian claims even while criticizing their leadership for rejecting that compromise—and others. And yes, we should return to the joy of November 29, 1947, when dancing broke out spontaneously throughout the Jewish world to celebrate the new world body’s validation of a Jewish state—even though Jews were also compromising, including accepting the internationalization of Jerusalem, their precious national capital.

Unfortunately, today, 95 years after the Balfour Declaration, and 65 years after the UN Partition plan, too many are ignorant of the history—and too many others purposely distort what happened. History should not offer handcuffs, shackling us to past realities that prevent compromise in the present. But history can teach us that, despite many attempts today to delegitimize Israel, Zionism, and the very notion of Jewish peoplehood, Jewish rights are historically valid, legally legitimate and cause for celebration.

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

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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.