The 5 Year Disengageversary

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-21-10

While Israel left Gaza smoothly, honorably, the plan itself was idiotic – while other aspects were implements so clumsily the country remains haunted by the disengagement debacles

ON Wednesday, in marking by the Hebrew calendar, five years since the Gaza disengagement, it is easy to forget that stressful episode’s most amazing achievement.  After months of tension, despite hysterical warnings about settler violence, Israeli democracy triumphed.  The world witnessed the tough social bonds uniting and civilizing this seemingly fragile, volatile society as unarmed soldiers escorted unwilling but compliant settlers from their homes.  Everyone played their parts brilliantly on international TV.  Israel’s soldiers upheld the rule of law by displaying the mythic Sabra softness underneath their gruff exteriors, sometimes sobbing with the settlers as homes built with love and sweat were abandoned, then destroyed. And most settlers demonstrated their understanding of democratic citizens’ sacred obligation to protest vehemently but non-violently.  Unfortunately, while Israel left Gaza smoothly, honorably, the plan itself was idiotic – while other aspects were implemented so clumsily Israel remains haunted by the disengagement debacles.

From one angle, Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan from Gaza and four remote West Bank settlements was an elegant, economical solution to a messy problem.  The military and political resources Israel was expending to defend approximately 8000 settlers amid 1.3 million hostile Palestinians drained the state. Soldiers were dying.  Settlers were occasionally maimed and slaughtered.  Gazans seethed.  The world disapproved.

Disproving the current claim that President George W. Bush never pressured Israel, Bush was impatient, demanding progress after years of Palestinian terror and Israeli counterattacks. As a former general, Sharon decided to cut his losses by retreating to a more defensible position.  President Bush rewarded Sharon with an April 14, 2004 letter, supporting Israel’s controversial security fence, denouncing Palestinian terror, and saying that, ultimately, Palestinian refugees should resettle within the new Palestinian state. Moreover, Bush affirmed:  “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

ALAS, this lovely, logical agreement between two friends – the US and Israel – overlooked the inconvenient fact that peace is made between enemies. Moreover, politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Sharon decided to bulldoze ahead with his own plans because, as he said in his April 2004 letter to Bush, he concluded “there exists no Palestinian partner with whom to advance peacefully toward a settlement.” By bypassing the Palestinian Authority, Sharon shortsightedly allowed the more radical Hamas to take credit for the withdrawal – and soon seize control of Gaza.

Justifiably infuriated by Palestinian violence and rejectionism, but characteristically blinded by Israelis’ obsession with the American President’s sensibilities, Sharon forgot to read the region. He made a tremendous concession without extracting a price from Palestinians or trying to influence how the withdrawal would play on their side. He should have made Gaza a gift to Mahmoud Abbas not to the haters of Hamas. Sharon’s folly reflected the Israeli Right’s wrongheaded addiction to blustering and bullying. To succeed, the disengagement plan needed constructive engagement with Palestinian negotiators, and Palestinian society.

In fairness – and quite typically – the Gaza withdrawal also gave the Left an opportunity to demonstrate its characteristic blindspots, including naivete regarding Palestinians. Those who expected the Palestinians to seize the chance to build themselves up rather than once again trying to knock Israel down were disappointed. The American Jewish philanthropists who raised $14 million to buy the settlers’ hothouses and donate them to the Palestinians instantly entered the suckers’ hall of fame. Rather than replicating the settlers’ near miraculous collective achievement of making the Gazan desert bloom, the Gazans trashed hothouses, along with synagogues, houses, and hopes they might be ready to start building the infrastructure and constructive political culture necessary for a functional state. Hamastan soon resulted.

The disengagement also failed by botching the settlers’ resettlement. This “fashla,” like so many Israeli fiascoes these days, took a lot of effort involving multiple parts of society to bungle so completely. Yes, some settlers were in denial and filled out their paperwork belatedly. But they should not be stymied five years later as a result. The dysfunctional Israeli bureaucracy that blights Israel’s school system and other social structures daily was on full display. Planning was poor or non-existent. Money was wasted. Goodwill disappeared, often replaced by bureaucratic brusqueness.

If failing to engage Palestinians constructively around the disengagement reflected the Right’s recklessness, failing to settle the unsettled settlers reflected the Left’s negligence. Those seeking further withdrawals needed to make this small-scale disengagement succeed. Those who empathize with Israel’s enemies needed to sympathize with fellow Israelis too. The dovish Left should have welcomed these settlers enthusiastically, creating a model of smooth reintegration into Israel proper rather than the cautionary tale of personal trauma, bureaucratic woe and mass social insensitivity that followed. Instead, the Left’s disgust for settlers helped create a new obstacle to future peace agreements.

Five years later, a trail of traumatized former residents, the rain of Kassam rockets, the ongoing kidnapping saga of Gilad Shalit, the need to launch Operation Cast Lead, the Gaza blockade, and the resulting international condemnation all seem to be the poisonous fruit from the tree Ariel Sharon planted with George W. Bush’s blessing. This pessimistic narrative overlooks the fact that Ariel Sharon stopped Israel’s bleeding in the Gaza Strip. His main mandate was to end the wave of Palestinian terror menacing Israel when he took office. He helped Israel win what experts deemed an unwinnable war. He demonstrated, yet again, Israeli determination and flexibility, Israel’s willingness to compromise and pay high prices for the sake of peace.

The 2005 disengagement provides a window onto Israel, 2010. It is a country threatened by vicious enemies and a hypocritical world, with a shortsighted Right locked in destructive combat with an equally shortsighted Left, too frequently led by slobs. Yet, both day-to-day and when under unprecedented historic pressures, Israelis and the society they have created ultimately prove themselves better, more resilient, and more moral than even they themselves expect.

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,” he is also the author of “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” He can be reached at

Center Field: WWHD: What would Herzl do?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-28-10

In celebrating Theodor Herzl’s 150th birthday – he was born May 2, 1860 – it’s easy to despair.

"Holyland" has become shorthand for corruption and cronyism, not religious nationalism. The recent sobering statistics publicized by Professor Dan Ben-David of the Taub Center for Social Policy Studies in Israel depict Israel as a blighted nation socially and economically, not a light unto the nations. And the keys to our future, our children, are neglected, crammed into crowded classrooms, frequently taught by underpaid, under-qualified and overworked teachers, while all too often steeped in paganism, materialism, selfishness and aggressiveness.  Looking at the mess, just as some Christian friends ask WWJD – "What would Jesus do" – we should ask WWHD – "What would Herzl do?"

Let’s acknowledge that first, Herzl would say "Wow." Before tackling the problems, he would note all Israel has accomplished. He would remember that his famous prophecy in 1897 predicting a Jewish state within 50 years was too wild to be believed or even admitted publicly – he confessed it to his diary.

Today, despite its challenges, Israel remains a marvel, an Altneuland, old-new land, trying to fulfill modern democratic and liberal values without forsaking tradition while playing it all out in our ancient homeland. Thanks to Herzl and modern Zionism, we revived the Hebrew language, rescued and resettled millions of Jewish refugees, developed a thriving culture, showered the world with technological and scientific innovations, nurtured pockets of idealism and returned the Jewish people to the stage of history.

Alas, some snakes are slithering in our Zionist Eden as well. Corruption, like a cancer, grows wildly and corrodes from within. Our own leaders, who are supposed to look out for us, inspire us, care for us, have turned on us, having sacrificed the public good for their own private gain. The Holyland perversion is just the most egregious example of a "magiya li (I deserve it)" culture, entangled in a spider’s web of insiders who conspire with one another, feeling entitled to take, thus robbing the public not only of money but, even more important, of faith in society and politics.

By contrast, in his utopian novel from 1902, Altneuland, Herzl imagined amateur politicians who avoid partisanship and know better than to "try to live by spouting their opinions instead of by work." In Herzl’s world, the "salaried [political] positions are allotted for skill and merit only." And "for filling the honorary positions we have one simple principle: Those who try to push themselves are gently ignored; while, on the other hand we take great pains to discover real merit in the most obscure nooks. We thus make certain that our precious commonwealth will not become the prey of careerists."

We need some amateurs at the helm. We need some reluctant leaders. We need leaders with the modesty of David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, who fought each other fiercely, but who lived humbly. We need leaders who value values and want to raise standards rather than undermining the law or lowering themselves to line their own pockets.

Just as selfishness seduces politicians, it distorts society. Professor Ben-David points out that the wide gap between rich and poor threatens us economically, as well as socially and ideologically. A thriving consumer society, as well as a just democratic society, needs a strong, middle class base. Cultivating a strong foundation requires a delicate balance. We need not return to the bad old days of stranglehold regulation and oppressive taxation, but there are less heavy-handed ways for the very rich to support the very poor. And, even more important, as Herzl dreamed: "We, in our new society, will not measure people by their wealth. Let us measure our brothers and sisters by their merits."

Underlying these challenges is the educational crisis. We need better institutions for transferring knowledge, honing skills and inculcating values. It is astonishing that a government that calls itself nationalist could be comfortable presiding over such a flawed system. It is depressing that a state founded on communitarian values laced with a strong sense of altruism could be so complacent over the sloppy selfishness that grips so many. It is worrying that a society still requiring a great deal of cooperation could be filled with so many people fearful of being a frier, a fool, that they inject absurd levels of tension and aggression into the most mundane interactions. Nearly everyone I speak to acknowledges Israel’s values crisis – but few seem willing to inconvenience themselves or their children to fix it.

Just as the United States in the 1950s kicked into gear after the Soviets launched the Sputnik satellite, Israel today must reboot by reaffirming common values, core ideals, a commitment to community and the common good. As a 19th century romantic nationalist, Herzl understood that through liberal democracies people could mobilize and achieve greatness. As a Jew, Herzl appreciated our rich heritage which we could synthesize with the best of the modern world.

But Herzl’s greatest gift then was as a dreamer, and his greatest role now is to continue challenging us to stretch ourselves and our society. The great leap forward Herzl imagined, and which the Jewish people achieved, should remind us that this society is too young to become a nation of shrugged shoulders and sharpened elbows. We still must roll up our sleeves, link arms and make collective dreams come true, appreciating Herzl’s insight which became cliché – im tirzu ein zo aggadah – if you will it, it is not an impossible dream.

So WWHD? Herzl would counter modern Israeli’s epidemic cynicism with his appealing can-do Zionist idealism. "No philosopher’s stone, no dirigible airship is needed," Herzl’s main character preaches. "Everything needful for the making of a better world exists already. And do you know, man, who could show the way? You! You Jews! …  You could make the experimental land for humanity. Over yonder, where we were, you could create a new commonwealth. On that ancient soil: Old-New-Land!"  

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.



Gil Troy: Happy 100th Young Judaea

Center Field: Happy 100th Young Judaea

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-9-09

One hundred years ago today, 50 activists meeting in New York established Young Judaea, which became America’s largest Zionist youth movement. The movement’s centennial occurs in rough times. Hadassah, its generous sponsor since 1967, is cutting back. Membership is down. Many consider youth movements outmoded in the Internet era, and Zionism itself passé.

Nevertheless, Young Judaea’s glorious history illustrates why the movement must not die. We need Young Judaea to thrive as an altruism incubator, a community builder, an identity enhancer, providing an inspiring model of 24-7 Judaism while molding a Zionist response to today’s challenges.

I first entered the “Z-House,” Zionist House, Young Judaea’s Queens regional headquarters in 1975. I was a very serious, very square 14-year-old, sporting Poindexter glasses, dragging a big black briefcase as a schoolbag. Young Judaea liberated me from being so conventional and conformist. Unlike many movement friends, I liked my parents, my synagogue, my Jewish day school education. Still, the movement added edge, zest, passion, wrapped up with many of the best friendships I would ever make – and still enjoy.

AS REGIONAL LEADERS and through the movement’s senior camp, Tel Yehudah, my friends and I joined a nationwide network of people who cared about Israel, Judaism, and the world. We believed ideas counted. We believed Arik Einstein’s song “you and I will change the world.” We debated issues constantly, from the morality of playing American rock music or using blow dryers in a Zionist camp to the compatibility of a Jewish state with universal values.

We were blessed with extraordinary madrihim, leaders, who took our ideas seriously while making education and activism fun. To single out some risks slighting many. Still, I appreciate how my witty, wry, delightfully-tortured, super-smart club leader Greg Musnikow; my reedy, exuberant, deeply intellectual and compellingly spiritual camp unit head, Steve Copeland; and the gruff, charismatic, hard-hitting, fast-talking, substantive but endlessly entertaining pied piper of Tel Yehudah, Mel Reisfield, each shaped me as a thinker, an educator, a Jew, a Zionist, an historian, a human being, a friend, even a parent decades before I married.

The movement gave us a community, what we call today a platform, for learning, leadership, identity-building, social-activism, maturing experiences and fun. I still quote insights I learned at camp about the clash between tradition and modernity in the 1800s that created Zionism and shaped today’s world. I remember the first time I took 40 campers hiking, suddenly realizing I was in charge and personally responsible for their safety.

AS JUDAEANS, we translated our formal and informal Jewish learning into vital modes of Jewish living, rooted in our history and traditions, influenced by Western values and sensibilities, enlivened by song and dance, perpetual laughter and occasional tears. We fought to free Soviet and Ethiopian Jews, to defend Israel and save the environment, to help kids with special needs and remember the needy, all through the movement. Amid this serious work, we bonded. We questioned and quarreled, paired off and broke up, giggled and pranked. We lived large.

These experiences taught us that Zionism was more than pro-Israelism, that Zionism was not just the Jewish national liberation movement reestablishing our homeland but was a vehicle of individual liberation fulfilling big dreams, personally and collectively, Jewishly and universally. Our Zionism was subversive. It began by critiquing American Jewry and modernity, repudiating the materialism, vulgarity, emptiness and ignorance warping so many Jewish – and American – institutions. We examined the Jewish community, American life, Israel itself, as they were – and said, “We expect more, we demand more”: more justice, more ethics, more intimacy, more safety, more dynamism.

As general, nonpartisan, pluralistic Zionists, we valued klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, over the partisan rivalries plaguing the Jewish world and Israel. Most Judaeans were liberal and nonobservant. Nevertheless, we observed Shabbat publicly, served kosher food exclusively and prayed daily. This openness enabled religious and nonreligious Jews, liberals and conservatives, to talk together and, of course, argue together.

ALTHOUGH THE MOVEMENT did not save the world (yet), it produced extraordinary alumni. So many movement graduates went into helping-professions, communal leadership, intellectual pursuits, that if ex-Judaeans established a church, it would be called “Our Lady of the Social Workers and the Educators, the Community Leaders and Philanthropists.”

I could boast about my superstar friends in America and Israel, describing their impact on campus and in communities, in the music business and the coffee business, in virtually creating the Israeli environmental movement while keeping the Zionist flame burning in both countries. I could boast about how the movement kibbutz, Ketura, unites religious and secular Israelis, keeping kibbutz ideals alive today, thriving as a community based on altruism not selfishness.

But my Judaean friends’ greatest collective accomplishment is the honorable, ethical lives they lead, their rich Jewish family lives, the noble values they fulfill daily. A recent Hadassah survey showed – surprise, surprise – that movement alumni were much more likely to marry Jewish, light Shabbat candles, contribute to community, move to Israel. I can add that my Judaean friends are much less likely than others to divorce, neglect their children, indulge in pathological drug and alcohol use, forget their obligations to others, even as many personally prosper.

With Israel established and thriving, Soviet and Ethiopian Jews freed, American Jews feeling thoroughly at home, many pronounce Zionism irrelevant. But Israel still needs defending and perfecting, and American Jews desperately need education and inspiration. Young Judaea’s constructively communal countercultural sensibility, its vision of Zionism as a moral system and source of hope, is needed now. The Birthright Israel identity-building revolution through Israel experiences of the last decade reflects a Judaean sensibility applied on a mass scale. Young Judaea never was and never will be a mass movement. But the movement could nurture a committed cadre of this next generation’s Zionist dreamers and doers – as it has been doing for the last hundred years.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He divides his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.