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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.

 

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Shabbat + Humus = A New Zionist Vision

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-1-11

On Sunday night, February 27, more than 200 people, mostly “gap year” students who will attend North American colleges next fall, jammed into the Yad Ben Zvi Institute’s headquarters in Jerusalem. In the simple hut, once the Israeli president’s official greeting hall, over a dozen speakers honored Avi Schaefer’s memory by Re-imagining Israel on the North American Campus (livestreamed here). Schaefer was a Brown University student from Southern California who survived three years of volunteering in an Israeli combat unit only to be killed by a drunk driver last year.  He championed Israel at Brown – while befriending Palestinians – insisting that advocacy and empathy are not contradictions. When he died, the Brown campus was festooned with Israeli flags in his memory. For four hours Sunday evening this extraordinary 21-year-old’s spirit permeated that historic hut – challenging a new generation to find personal and Jewish fulfillment by becoming Zionist thinkers and doers, speaking about Israel from their hearts, in their language, through their networks.

In truth, the conversation often was sobering. MK Einat Wilf’s intelligent overview put this “new mutation” of anti-Zionism into historical perspective. The Arab effort to destroy Israel evolved from trusting military force between 1948 and 1973, to economic boycotts and “international terrorism,” which all failed. Today’s “intellectual assault” is “no less” threatening than “physical danger,” Wilf warned, because “Israel was an idea before it was a country…. If this idea of the Jewish people’s right to a homeland is undermined, the fundamental vision of Israel” as a Jewish state “is undermined.” 

The noted author Yossi Klein Halevi, from the Shalom Hartman Institute, analyzed how “anti-Zionism” has “restored respectability to anti-Semitism.” Defining anti-Semitism as “the tendency of a given civilization to identify the Jew with precisely what that civilization considers its most loathsome qualities,” he showed that making Israel, the collective Jew, the “arch violator of human rights … corrected the aberration of Nazism.” Classical anti-Semitism masqueraded as a benign force fighting bad Jews until Nazism’s evil destroyed that illusion. Modern anti-Zionism, blessed by Jewish shills, rehabilitates this historic hatred, going beyond legitimate debate over the outcomes of 1967, meaning Israel’s boundaries, to rejecting the results of 1948, treating Israel’s existence as criminal.

Speakers proposed solutions too. The Reut Institute’s Daphna Kaufman recommended the Restoring Sanity petition which distinguishes between legitimate criticism and delegitimization (Full disclosure: I helped write it and we used the name before Jon Stewart did). For those seeking to repudiate the upcoming anti-Israel week falsely peddling the Apartheid libel, encouraging debate about the petition – and collecting signatures – are easy first steps. Aviva Raz-Shechter from the Foreign Ministry described how students successfully “delegitimized the delegitimizers” at Durban II. Ilan Wagner of the Jewish Agency moderated an important panel emphasizing individual students’ power to change campus dynamics through thoughtful, constructive, sincere activism, as part of a broader quest to build positive Jewish identity.

This “Power of One” idea is the theme of Stand With Us, which co-sponsored the event with the Avi Schaefer Foundation through the effective organization of the educational consultant Dr. Elan Ezrachi.  And Mark Regev, representing the Prime Minister, spoke movingly, endorsing Avi’s message of empathy in advocacy and true love in patriotism – a mature love acknowledging that “Israel isn’t perfect” while working to make it “better.”

Summarizing the event, as the only professor there, I reassured the students that most North American campuses are not aflame. In fact, this is a Golden Age for Jews on campus – there have never been so many Jewish professors and students, so many Jewish Studies programs and strong Hillels. That it is also a Golden Age for campus Israel-bashing requires subtlety. If students come ready to fight they risk forgetting to learn and misreading their campus’s political culture.  So, yes, the Campus Jihad inflames some campuses. And the Academic Jihad turns most Middle Eaststudies courses into anti-Israel propaganda exercises, helping make Zionism politically incorrect on campus. But most students succumb to the careerist snoozefest, ignoring politics. Hysterics won’t cure these leaders of tomorrow of the anti-Israel poison; appropriate, tempered, democracy-loving, proactive strategies will.

Ultimately, the evening’s message was best articulated by Avi Schaefer in an opening video, echoed by his twin brother, Yoav Schaefer, who also volunteered in the IDF.  Yoav Schaefer described his brother’s “deep idealism,” noting how Avi used his credibility as a soldier and his personal humility to inject humanity into a conflict that too frequently polarizes.  By “listening deeply to others,” Avi helped change the tone at Brown. One Palestinian friend in the video thanked Avi for “helping me unclench my fist” – an impressive achievement in today’s atmosphere.

Avi’s secret lay in respecting Palestinians but not forgetting to respect himself, his people, our story. He understood that Judaism is not just a religion. The Jewish people constitute a nation – and like other nations deserve to express our national rights in our homeland. Avi spoke passionately about Shabbat and about humus. He loved wandering Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s home base, wishing people “Shabbat shalom” and feeling normal, understood, accepted. And he loved the little things, including Israel’s national foods.

Young Jews should follow Avi’s example, creating their own Zionist vision rooted in some of our most profound religious traditions and national expressions – like Shabbat – while delighting in the fun details that make a place feel like home. And they should build this Zionist identity not to score points, not to defeat anti-Semites, but to forge the kind of rich, fulfilling human identity, Avi’s parents Rabbi Arthur and Laurie Gross-Schaefer clearly gave him. In so doing, as a bonus, today’s students – tomorrow’s Zionist thinkers — will rise to Yoav Schaefer’s challenge and “build for Avi the world he would have built for us.”

Gil Troy 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, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com