Israeli democracy needs ‘Sharanskyism’ not ‘Liebermania’


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-26-11

When I studied modern Jewish history in graduate school, one book in particular revolutionized my understanding of Israel – and helps explain Israel’s current democratic predicament — Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. By following the migrations of Russian Jewish ideologues, especially to New York and Palestine, Jonathan Frankel showed their extraordinary influence on the two centers of my life, America and Israel. As modern Israel seeks suitable boundaries for democratic debate amid security threats, Frankel’s insights remind us how the Russians and other immigrant groups molded Israel. Considering that Russian impact, Israeli democracy today needs a big red purge of certain, destructive, Soviet impulses.

Linking the Jewish labor movement in New York with Zionism’s early stirrings in Russia and Palestine, Frankel’s book taught me how Russian Israeli culture is and how Americanized my understanding of Zionism was. I then learned from Melvin Urofsky’s American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, shaped by Louis Brandeis’s marvelous mix of Zionism and American Progressivism. The great American Supreme Court Justice – and Zionist – cast the story of Jewish national liberation in American terms, emphasizing the Jews’ flight from oppression to pioneer a new, enlightened democracy in Palestine. This cocktail helped American Jews view supporting Zionism as an expression of Americanism, not a distraction or a betrayal.

Labeling Israel the Middle East’s only democracy exaggerates geography’s political relevance. Actually, culture counts. How Polish-Russian Jews like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, born into the Czarist Russian Empire, learned to appreciate democracy and implement it in a country filled with immigrants from undemocratic regimes remains one of Zionism’s greatest achievements.

Zionism functioned as a centrifuge, mixing different cultures, ideologies, and values, then incorporating the best of them into this exciting new experiment in Jewish nationalism and state-building. The early Russian pioneers contributed a communal passion that still exists in creative tension with American Zionists’ Brandeisian individualism and liberalism. But while that collectivist zeal frequently elevated Israeli society, most nobly with the Kibbutz movement, it degenerated in Bolshevik hands into Soviet totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin demonstrates that within Russian political culture an authoritarian streak still resists free expression, especially untrammeled criticism, while longing for strongman rule.

That Soviet strain – which we can call in Israel Liebermania, named after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – propels the undemocratic ideas in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, that repressive strain also appeals to a growing number of native Israeli Jews and those in the religious camp who misread Judaism as monolithic rather than disputatious and democratic. Culture is, of course, adaptive and dynamic, neither immutable nor genetic. Many who survived the Soviet regime – and Arab rule – emerged as champions of democratic expression and civil society. Natan Sharansky is only the most famous example of that counter-tradition.

And no culture is problem-free. Modern American political culture, especially the post-1960s progressive variety most American Jews embrace, tends to be highly self-critical, relativistic, and frequently blind to the presence of real enmity or evil. This approach encourages political reform and national self-improvement. But it discourages the necessary moves for self-defense embattled democracies must make while often accepting the narratives of critics and enemies over more patriotic and admittedly self-serving storylines.

Israel needs Sharanskyism rather than Liebermania, a vital democracy that is neither oppressive nor self-destructive. We must welcome Russians’ continuing concerns with high culture, science, and the collective national soul. But we also must purge that lingering Soviet influence – the totalitarian instinct to outlaw free speech we hate rather than refute it, along with the yearning for tough demagogues.

Similarly, Israel should help the United States – and the rest of the West – balance self-criticism with survival. The Zionist instinct toward self-preservation, and the blunt Israeli approach of “Ein Breira,” we have no alternative, serve as important correctives – within limits – to Western prosperity-laced guilt mixed with American “We are the World,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK” diplomacy. As we approach September 11th’s tenth anniversary we should remember that the day America was blindsided by Islamist terrorism – despite years of warnings – Americans turned toward Israel to learn how thriving democracies can fight terror effectively, so that the Constitution would not become “a suicide pact.”

In this struggle for Israel’s soul, Binyamin Netanyahu should lead not waffle. His background is American not Soviet, more Brandeis than Lieberman. As UN Ambassador and in his books, he argued that democracies could preserve core values while protecting themselves. As Prime Minister, he seems too concerned with preserving his coalition not protecting those values. Democratic ideals should be guiding principles he defends passionately – not just easy applause lines when dueling Barack Obama or Mahmoud Abbas.

This is an educational and ideological challenge. North American Zionists, watching this struggle, should not cut and run. Saying “Israel is pushing me away,” as one Huffington Post blogger recently complained, is immature. Here is a noble cause, a delicious struggle, an opportunity for Anglos — and other freedom-lovers — to import our values to shape Israel’s future. In this fight, advocating a ‘Big Red Purge’ challenges those who escaped Soviet tyranny to explore what destructive impulses they absorbed unintentionally. Yelling “McCarthyism” repeatedly, in addition to being historically inaccurate, doesn’t resonate with that audience – and reflects the self-referential elitist bubble encasing Israel’s left.

Israel is a young country still forming. Our challenge, our opportunity, amid all the surrounding threats, is to ensure that Israel fulfills its core Zionist vision, becoming a model state that welcomes immigrants from different cultures, culling the best of what they bring, while retaining democratic and Jewish values. Making that effort succeed can be one of the great adventures of modern life, injecting, as Jonathan Frankel’s Russian thinkers did, a touch of prophecy into everyday politics.

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


Gil Troy: Center Field: Tzipi: Don’t do an Al Gore

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-16-09

In one of the few charming moments in Israel’s bleak election campaign, an Israeli rocker who called himself “Tzipi Livni Boy” rapped a love song to Tzipi Livni. It was called “Tagidi Li Ken” – tell me “yes.” Who knew so many others would echo that cry for the Kadima leader after the election?

Many Israelis from across the political spectrum – and many of us who care deeply about the future of Israel and the Jewish people – are begging Tzipi Livni to please say “yes” to joining a coalition with Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu and the Likud. There are, admittedly, many valid reasons for Livni to say “no.” She has insisted on a rotating premiership, considering that her centrist Kadima party won one more seat than Bibi’s right-wing Likud. She has demanded Netanyahu endorse a two-state solution, so that she does not find herself representing a government whose policies she rejects.

But even if Netanyahu rebuffs those demands – and reports suggest he has agreed to relinquish the premiership to her after three years – Tzipi Livni must say “yes” to his invitation and remain Israel’s foreign minister. This would keep Netanyahu’s government from lurching too far right while preventing the alienating farce to the Western world of Israel Beiteinu chairman Avigdor Lieberman becoming foreign minister. In calmer times and in a less dysfunctional system, being an effective opposition leader would be enough to put the brakes on Netanyahu, who was weakened by an abysmal showing in the election. But with so much power concentrated in Israel’s cabinet and in internal coalition politics rather than broader Knesset dynamics, if Livni stays out of the government, her oppositional darts will be about as effective as spit-balls against tanks.

Livni can help manage the two most critical files in Israel’s foreign affairs directory: relations with the United States and Iran. The recent images of Livni palling around with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton illustrated the personal warmth she can inject into this critical alliance. Everyone knows what is coming down the pike. Israel’s relations with Barack Obama’s administration will endure enough strain. Having Livni as Israel’s public face will help alleviate tensions, as will the ability to describe Israel’s government as centrist, pragmatist or even torn – rather than right-wing, racist, or irredentist.

The deeper, more substantive reason has to do with the biggest threat to Israel’s survival, Iran. Despite the Palestinian conceit – and the growing left-wing assumption – that solving the Palestinian problem is the key to Middle East peace, or even world peace, Iran’s rush toward nuclear power is a much bigger problem, for Israel, the US and the West. Left and Right in Israel and the US should agree on this issue. Limiting nuclear proliferation used to be a core value for leftists – until their strange and growing inability to criticize anything Muslims do kicked in. Even if Iran never uses the bomb, Iran has a thirty-year track record as a global troublemaker, funding, training and coordinating terrorists. A nuclear Iran will be more aggressive, more of an outlaw. If the existential threat to Israel in 1967 could encourage a National Unity government joining Levi Eshkol and Menachem Begin, the Iranian threat should be sufficient to unite Livni, Netanyahu – and Labor’s Ehud Barak as Defense Minister.

Some supporters have encouraged Livni to stay out of the coalition, invoking Al Gore’s example. It is worth learning from Gore – as a cautionary tale. Gore, like Livni, had that heartbreaking, frustrating experience of attracting the most votes in the 2000 presidential campaign, yet not winning the desired office. Just as that “democratically-elected” Hamas government of thugs in Gaza teaches that true democracy requires more than elections, democratic rules sometimes deprive the biggest vote-getter of power. True, Gore won an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize while his rival George W. Bush ended up with eight years of headaches and historically low public opinion ratings. But Bush changed history, for better or worse; Gore became a footnote.

When Gore lost, he could have functioned as an effective alternative to Bush – and a strong brake on Bush’s administration. The American system does not encourage power-sharing in the executive, like Israel’s does. But in the modern media world, Gore could have led the Democrats aggressively, emphasizing Bush’s limited mandate, forcing occasional compromises and running in 2004. Instead, for the first few years after his loss, Gore went into a kind of public exile, mourning his misfortune. His recent emergence as what President George H.W. Bush once mocked as “Ozone Man” has helped raise environmental awareness. Still, all the celebrity accolades count little compared to what Gore could have and should have accomplished.

Tzipi Livni faces a similar career and historical crossroads. She can help her country in some of the ways she promised her supporters she would, even as foreign minister. It will be exasperating to serve as Bibi’s second banana – as maddening for her as it must be for Hillary Clinton to be Barack Obama’s secretary of state. But her country needs her. Her people need her. The world needs her.

So Tzipi, listen to the siren call of “Tzipi Livni Boy” and millions of others. Please say “yes,” pushing for as good a coalition deal as you can get, making it clear what red lines would indeed compel you and your partners to leave Bibi’s cabinet. But, most important, work on a strategy that maintains Israel’s warm relations with the US and helps stop Iran from becoming a nuclear threat.

Gil Troy: Center Field: A Yom Kippur for the Left

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-11-09

Regardless of who ends up as prime minister after what seems to be emerging as the Israeli equivalent of the George W. Bush-Al Gore deadlock of 2000, Election Day 2009 was “a Yom Kippur for the Left,” as one Meretz activist called it. The once-dominant Labor Party and once-rising Meretz Party have both been humiliated. The elections’ three winners, Tzipi Livni, Binyamin Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, all launched their careers from the Right, while Lieberman’s aggressive campaign demonizing Israeli Arabs set the election tone.

As Israel’s critics around the world and at home mourn this “rightward shift” and the rise of the “ultra-nationalist” Lieberman, as they fret about dimming prospects for a two-state solution, instead of further demonizing the country they should apologize, in the true spirit of Yom Kippur. The rightward shift resulted from the failure of the Left’s ideas at home – and the betrayal by liberals from around the world.

Israelis have turned rightward because the failure of territorial concessions has been compounded by a broken covenant with the world. For decades liberal critics pounded two ideas into Israelis’ heads. The first was that if the country withdrew from the territories it conquered in 1967, Palestinians – and the rest of the Arab world – would make peace. The second, related, assumption was an implicit compact that whatever security risks Israel took by ceding territory would be compensated for by the world’s friendship.

TRAGICALLY, NEITHER the Oslo peace process nor the Gaza disengagement produced the desired results. In fact, many Israelis feel that the more they risked for peace, the more they suffered from those risks, the greater was the world’s disapproval. Of course, Israel is not blameless. But whatever missteps it made pale in comparison to the three tragic truisms now dominating the political consciousness: Oslo’s concessions resulted in terrorists murdering more than 1,000 people; disengaging from Gaza resulted in thousands of missiles raining on the South; and both times, when the country finally defended itself, the worldwide chorus of denunciation was so intense it fanned the flames of anti-Semitism.

It may be a reflection of living in a small, embattled democracy surrounded by autocrats and terrorists demanding your destruction, but Israelis are particularly sensitive to world opinion. Moreover, the mainstreaming of rhetoric that “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and that Jews are “apes and monkeys” is particularly painful for a people still healing from the Holocaust. True, talking about “the world’s” attitude vastly oversimplifies. But the shorthand works, considering how monolithic the criticism seems to be and how lethal previous rhetoric proved to be.

IT IS PARTICULARLY demoralizing to see how anger at Israel’s behavior absolves Palestinians of responsibility – and seems to sanitize terrorism. “The world” should denounce Palestinians for harming the possibility of a two-state solution, first in turning away from negotiations and toward terrorism in September 2000, then again for choosing to build Gaza into a base for launching Kassams rather than a model for a future state. “The world” should be furious at Hamas’s rise, with the Islamists once again murdering supposed infidels while killing or maiming fellow Muslims who dare to disagree. “The world” should demand Palestinians change their culture of martyrdom, taking some historic responsibility for their failures to compromise.

“The world” should note that Israel’s Arabs fueled Lieberman’s campaign against them by applauding demagogic leaders like Azmi Bishara who spew hatred against the Jewish state. Instead, Palestinians’ crimes or excesses are tolerated and rationalized; “the world” gives Palestinians a free pass.

AGAINST THIS BACKDROP, it is remarkable that so many remain willing to risk for peace, that so many former rightists like Tzipi Livni and Ehud Olmert now champion the two-state solution. Even Lieberman is open to territorial compromise. This willingness reflects how ingrained the culture of peace is. For all the talk we hear about the “rightward shift,” Kadima, Livni’s centrist party, seems to have won the most votes. The estimated Right-Left breakdown in the Knesset of 64 to 56 remains quite balanced – and Israel remains the only liberal country in the Middle East, judging by its commitment to equality, to democracy, to social justice, of sensitivity to women, to homosexuals, to racial diversity.

Over the next few weeks, as politicians use the votes they earned to bargain like peasant merchants at a Middle Eastern shouk, world opinion should note the subtleties amid the crudity. No matter what the ruling coalition’s constellation, no matter who leads, the country will still seek a true peace.

While its critics will always look – almost exclusively – at the cards it holds and scrutinize whatever it does, Palestinians will remain far more in control of their destiny than their enablers admit. If Palestinians want a state – and want peace – they need to build a political culture devoted to nation-building, not martyrdom. And if leftists want to see progress in the Middle East, they must push for Palestinian reforms while rebuilding the world’s covenant with Israel.

Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and thus renewal. Perhaps this “Yom Kippur of the Left” will lead to a new Middle East dynamic that replaces the “bad Israel, blameless Palestinians” paradigm with one of mutual responsibility leading to mutual trust, with gradual steps toward stability, not headlong rushes into one-sided blame games.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is 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.