Beware ‘HIsraesteria’: Friends’ and foes’ hysteria over Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-14-12

The unfortunate drift to theocracy continues. Recently, religious leaders in the army wanted to read a letter at prayers denouncing a policy shift that so infuriated them, they wrote: “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” Initially, high ranking officials did not want the letter read to religious troops because it “could be misinterpreted as a call to civil disobedience within our nation’s military ranks.” Cooler heads prevailed. Even as the army brass conceded that the letter’s “dissemination … as part of a religious service was not a matter for Army review,” the fundamentalists eliminated that one line and distributed it from their military pulpits.
Had this brouhaha occurred in Israel, with rabbis as the “religious leaders” and settlers as the “religious troops,” renewed warnings of Israel becoming like Iran – as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged recently – would have trumped the happy news of compromise. But this news came from the Catholic News Service. It refers to Catholic opposition to the Obama administration’s plan to force Catholic institutions with non-Catholic workers to pay for abortions and contraception under Obamacare. President Obama ultimately relented, and will allow outside insurance providers to cover those services. Before that, as part of a nationwide campaign of rage, Catholic military chaplains distributed the harsh letter from the Archbishop for the Military Services – minus the offending line.
While the issue aroused passions in the US, this military power struggle raised no worries about America turning theocratic. Although some bloggers shrieked that Obama was destroying religious freedom, few Americans feared the republic was imperiled. For Israel, the incident is doubly instructive. First, it reminds us that Israel is not the only democracy navigating complicated religion and state issues, it is not the only democracy with a religious infrastructure embedded within its armed forces, and it is not the only democracy still working out core identity issues through values’ clashes.  Democracies are disputatious; important rights frequently collide. Such tensions, even painful dilemmas, are signs of life not forebodings of death.
A second lesson is that there is a particular hysteria — call it “hIsraesteria” — surrounding discussion of many issues in Israel. “HIsraesteria” afflicts friends and foes of the Jewish state. For Israel’s supporters, it manifests itself in constant anxiety, reducing Zionist hopes into perpetual fears, viewing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people. In fairness, the hysteria is sometimes justified. Israel has real enemies, with deep enmity, who seek to exploit any weaknesses. And Israel is a young country with an immature democracy, a democracy frequently tested by war, terror and espionage, populated by millions raised in undemocratic political cultures, especially Russia and the Arab world.
Israel’s enemies use “hIsraesteria” to try furthering their goal of delegitimizing the Jewish State. With Israel the one country in the world on probation – the one country whose legitimacy seems contingent on “good,” meaning compliant, behavior, critics quickly jump from criticizing Israel to repudiating it. Critics love pathologizing Israel’s day-to-day problems, magnifying the common conflicts any democracy might experience into some epoch-making, dream-tarnishing, weakness-inducing immoral mess. And “hIsraesteria” often leads Israel’s critics to caricature Israel’s friends, treating Zionists as heavy-handed bigots.
Two weeks ago, I endured such caricaturing, when I was attacked in the Harvard Crimson, based on a lecture I gave three months earlier and a Jerusalem Post article I wrote about it the next day. The irony is that I reported good news – that I had been warmly, respectfully received at Harvard. Emphasizing that, to show how we can have productive, open-minded campus conversations about Zionism, Israel, and Jewish identity, I mentioned that “on too many campuses” – emphasizing some not all—pro-Israel or Zionist speakers have been “harassed.”
Caricaturing my argument, trying to set me up as a straw man – or a Zionist bogeyman – a student radical on campus pole-vaulted past my words claiming, Troy “relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that ‘pro-Palestinian’ means ‘anti-Semitic.’” In the article, I never used the term “anti-Semitic”—I mentioned “anti-Zionist forces.” Moreover, I have acknowledged repeatedly in writing that many people are pro-Palestinian or critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. The student distorted my “assumptions” and my “writing” with no evidence but with a clear purpose:  to set herself up as open-minded and enlightened while caricaturing me – and by implication all Zionists – as petty and prejudiced. The title of the article “What Anti-Semitism?” treated modern Anti-Semitism as an exaggeration, the pathetic fantasy of extremist minds, as she supposedly proved it didn’t exist by falsely claiming I said it existed where I didn’t say it existed — then not finding it there.
I rebutted the charge quickly but was left wondering about this Jewish student’s motivation, and the broader phenomenon. This spring, on too many campuses – again, some not all – pro-Palestinian forces will mount an anti-Israel week. Central to the charge will be the erroneous, offensive comparison between Israeli security policies and the systematic racism of the old Apartheid state in South Africa. This modern libel is another form of “hIsraesteria,” making an exaggerated claim – insulting to Jews because it libels the Jewish state and insulting blacks because it hijacks the experience of those who genuinely suffered in South Africa.  Just as false analogies diminish the Holocaust, they diminish Apartheid, which legally typed people by skin color.

Students and professors should make their rebuttal – without succumbing to the hysteria.  It is much better to invest, as so many are, in building an Israel Peace Week, than to get too mired in shadowboxing against false charges, made by hysterics. Let us not forget. Overall, Israel is thriving – that should be our headline and inoculate us against “hIsraesteria.”

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.

Advertisements

Fighting anti-Israel week with historical facts

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 2-9-12

As some universities brace for the annual spring round of anti-Israel weeks, which falsely accuse Israel of the great crimes committed by South African apartheid racists, we must put this absurdity in historical perspective. For starters, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is a national one, not a racial one. The false comparison between what happens in the Middle East today with what non-whites experienced under South Africa’s apartheid regime, dishonours the suffering blacks in South Africa endured. Anyone who perpetuates the big lie accusing Israel of practising apartheid or claiming that Zionism is racism is simply passing on Soviet propaganda that has outlived its maker. In that spirit, let’s contemplate the African-American community’s response in 1975 to the United Nations General Assembly resolution claiming that Zionism is racism.

The day after the resolution passed, on Nov. 11, 1975, the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the umbrella group of 32 leading American Jewish organizations, organized a noontime “rally against racism and antisemitism” in Manhattan. Many blacks attended the rally, and three important African-American leaders spoke: Percy Sutton, a famous lawyer and politician; Clarence Mitchell, a veteran NAACP official, and the activist Bayard Rustin. Many in the black civil rights community resented the Arabs hijacking their language and sloppily misapplying it to the Middle East.

“Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” wrote Vernon Jordan, the then-40-year-old president of the National Urban League. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words like ‘forced busing,’ ‘law and order,’ and others, can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for antisemitism.” Jordan, a Southern-born lawyer, based his case against the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardi Jews.

One African-American speaker in particular, Bayard Rustin, stole the show. Born in 1912, a Communist during the Great Depression, a pacifist and draft resister during World War II, a gay activist long before it was safe to be one, and a labour union organizer, Rustin coached his friend, Martin Luther King, Jr., in Mahatma Gandhi’s ethos of non-violence. Rustin believed in “social dislocation and creative trouble.” Nicknamed “Mr. March,” Rustin helped organize the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, meeting Daniel Patrick Moynihan shortly thereafter on the civil rights circuit. Rustin worked closely with Jews, championing Israel as a democratic sentry surrounded by Middle East dictatorships. Rustin knew how much Jews wanted black support for Zionism in refuting the UN’s racism charge, and he happily provided it.

Rustin considered the resolution “an insult to the generations of blacks who have struggled against real racism.” In his newspaper column, he described the “incalculable damage” done to the fight against racism when the word becomes a “political weapon” rather than a moral standard. Rooting anti-Zionism in the ugly intersection between traditional antisemitism and the Arab desire to eradicate Israel, Rustin quoted Rev. King, a strong supporter of Israel, who said:  “when people criticize Zionists, they mean Jews, you are talking antisemitism.”

Rustin and others also feared distraction from the anti-apartheid fight. Before the vote, 28 African-American intellectuals appealed to the General Assembly to bury this “extraneous issue.” The scholars warned that a taint of antisemitism around the broader mission “will heavily compromise African hopes of expunging apartheid from the world.”

Given his roots in the labour movement, Rustin resented the Arabs’ hypocrisy, considering their traditional contempt for black labourers. At the rally, Rustin noted Arabs’ historic involvement in the African slave trade. “Shame on them!” he shouted.  “[They] are the same people who enslaved my people.”

Tall and handsome, with his Afro sticking up and looming over his high forehead, Rustin ended his speech by bursting into song, singing Go Down Moses. As thousands of New Yorkers, black and white, Jewish and non-Jewish, joined in shouting “Let my people go,” the black and Jewish experiences reached a harmonic convergence.

We need to learn our history. We need to learn the facts. We need to fight the apartheid libel with the truth.

And we need to challenge Palestinians to devote a week to celebrating their own nationalism rather than focusing on destroying Israel and denigrating Zionism.

Let’s mobilize against anti-Israel week

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-7-10

We historians don’t predict the future – the past is foggy enough. But allow me one prediction. Within weeks, the Jewish world is going to be in high dudgeon, outraged at the Anti-Israel Week activities on campuses across North America. And, judging by the past, and the current situation as far as I know, we will shift into temporary crisis

mode, reacting and overreacting, flailing about with little discipline, little coordination, little strategy, little tactical gain, but much frustration.

Our enemies – and yes, they are our enemies – have been planning this Israel hate-fest for a year, if not longer. One Israel-bashing Web site declares: “Mark your calendars – the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will take place across the globe from the 1st to the 14th of March 2010!” True, a “week” usually lasts only seven days; our adversaries count days as sloppily as they recount the past. These Israel-libelers claim 40 cities will participate – 12 in Canada alone – mostly on campuses. Rather than dithering then scrambling, we must plan – in fact, planning should have started months ago.

David Olesker, the director of JCCAT, the Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training, warns that before planning tactical responses, we must clarify our strategy. “Where do we want to be in five years, where are we going with our arguments and advocacy?” he asks, noting how rarely pro-Israel advocates think about the big picture, although our adversaries do.

Thinking strategically, the pro-Israel community should remember “Three P’s.” First, Push back, but push back intelligently, remembering our target audiences. We will rarely sway with mere facts someone who has swallowed the apartheid libel and drunk the anti-Israel Kool-Aid. Our target is wavering Jewish students and the vast uninformed and uninterested middle. We should play off the radical demonizers, making them look extreme and foolish as we demonstrate our informed commitment, our enlightened passion, the rightness and righteousness of our cause.

Second, Position Israel better as a modern democracy fighting terror, sometimes forced to make unhappy decisions like other countries. The truth is our friend. Israel has compromised – and seen withdrawals from territory and other concessions “rewarded” with violence. Until critics deal with that, they are simply Israel-bashing with no real commitment to peace. And speaking of peace, let’s call the libelers’ bluff. Those who falsely accuse Israel of practicing racist, South African-style apartheid, are essentially saying Israel is so odious that, like that regime, it should not exist. How can such a libelous, historically misinformed attack advance the peace process?

Third, be Proud of Israel as an extraordinary old-new land, one of the great successes of the twentieth century, now leading the way technologically in the twenty-first century. Just as the US is not only defined by its racial troubles, and Canada not only defined by its linguistic tensions, Israel is not just about the Palestinians. It was the central conceit of Yasser Arafat and his terrorist henchmen to make every conversation about Israel revolve around them – and it worked. In taking back the narrative, we should jump to a different track, not always talking about Israel in the context of defending Israel or justifying its existence but celebrating Israel, delighting in Israel’s achievements, pluralism, values, democracy and historically redemptive role.

Tactically, as we wait for the latest initiatives rumored to be in the works in North America and Israel to help galvanize and centralize pro-Israel sentiment, we should mobilize the Jewish Netroots. Let us put out a call to the pro-Israel blogosphere for an approach defined by the “Three H’s.”

For starters, we must be Horizontal, understanding that today’s informational, ideological and political playing field is vast, chaotic and democratic. Students, bloggers and activists should speak their minds, display their passions, forge their own relationships with Israel and express their pride as effectively, as creatively, as widely, as they can.

This more horizontal approach must be Hip, singing, rapping or tweeting a new song of Zion, one that is relevant, resonant, inspirational, conversational, internalized among millions of pro-Israel and pro-democracy activists, rather than dictated from above or simply inherited from our ancestors.

And finally, we should not be afraid to be Hysterical¸ to laugh among ourselves while mocking the heavy-handed propagandists who build their entire ideology on negation – investing time, money, energy in denigrating Israel rather than building anything constructive for Palestinians, or anyone else, for that matter. Israeli culture is improvisational – demonstrated particularly by the ingenuity of the IDF and the creativity of high tech entrepreneurs. Those same skills should be deployed in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy, but with humor, not a heavy hand. We should mock our enemies – because their positions are laughable and because ridicule is such an effective tool on the net.

We must go global and virtual in Israel advocacy, not because of anti-Israel week but because we have a great story to tell. And in the virtual world millions can take the lead in celebrating Israel. For too long, Israelis have sat on the sidelines, watching their brothers and sisters flounder in the Diaspora, or, even worse, allowing a small minority of Israelis to fuel the fires of anti-Zionism abroad, giving Israel and particularly Israeli universities a bad name. But today, Israelis and non-Israelis can work together – or at least in parallel – broadcasting a pro-Zionist message while ridiculing and undermining our enemies.

In a country that must engage its youth in more nationalistic, values-oriented projects, and at a time when parents lament how much time their kids spend on the computer, here is a great challenge for the country’s high schools and universities. The anti-Israel forces wish to wipe Israel off the map and demonize Zionists as the “New Nazis.” If we fail to fight back, they will continue poisoning the discourse around Israel, especially on campuses and in Europe. Let young Israelis learn enough history to defend themselves and their country effectively on the Internet. Let this be a great virtual contact point, building relations between Israeli and Diaspora youth.

Wouldn’t it be great if next year, the anti-Israel forces canceled their annual festival of nihilism because the push-back they triggered simply wasn’t worth it? Now that’s a strategic goal worth pursuing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.