President Barack Obama: Neither “Best Friend” Nor “Anti-Israel”

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-17-12

A Washington Post editorial on October 16 matter of factly stated the obvious: that President Barack Obama “sought to publicly distance himself from Israel early in his term” and that Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu “have made a mess of their personal relationship.” Both of these statements are quite obvious even to many casual observers of the Middle East. But it contradicts the central claim of many pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrats that Barack Obama has been “Israel’s best friend,” with some even claiming he is the best presidential friend Israel “ever” had.

Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)
Barack Obama shakes hands with Benjamin Netanyahu during a bilateral meeting September 21, 2011 at the United Nations. (Mandel Ngan / AFP / Getty Images)

Both exaggerations emerge from the unhappy overlap between a common Israeli political pathology and a common American pathology. For decades now, the discourse about Israel has been far too hysterical, far too polemical, far too zero-sum. I call this the IAF—just as the Israeli Air Force soars high gracefully, the Israel Agitation Factor escalates tension unreasonably. Too many of Israel’s most ardent supporters brook no dissent, deeming anyone who deviates from their particular political playbook “anti-Israel.” This hawkish defensiveness is partially understandable, given the harsh anti-Israel voices out there, who quickly jump from criticizing an Israeli action to repudiating Zionism and the Jewish State. While being careful to avoid suggesting any moral equivalence between Israel’s overzealous defenders and its genocidal critics, we can acknowledge that such extremism is not helpful, on either side.

Having endured attempts to delegitimize us as Zionists, we should be careful not to delegitimize others. Obama, therefore, is not “anti-Israel,” but he is critical and skeptical about some Israeli policies, which has led him sometimes to be unreasonably hard on Israel.

Unfortunately, admitting that is not only difficult in the hysterical Israeli context, such nuance is no longer welcome in the American political context either.

In the age of the red-blue, right-left, Mitt Romney-Barack Obama polarization, shades of grey are welcome as trashy literature but not in American politics. In my book “Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents: From George Washington to Barack Obama,” I quote New York’s legendary mayor Ed Koch, who challenged voters, saying, “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”

American politics has also too frequently become an all-or-nothing proposition, making the USA the United States of Agita. As Republicans and Democrats twist themselves into ideological pretzels, or stretch further than “The Incredibles’” Elastigirl to accommodate their particular party’s most outlandish positions or politicians, subtlety is lost. Candidates get labeled as pro-this or anti-that, when effective politics or governance often requires a lighter touch, some acknowledgement of complexity.

So, yes, even as the campaign culminates in a down-to-the-wire slugfest, let’s try to restrain ourselves, and avoid extremes. I am waiting for a pro-Israel, pro-Obama Democrat either to admit to voting for Obama despite his Israel position, or to support Obama’s Israel position as measured, complex but not the most enthusiastic support, ever. Similarly, I invite others who condemn some, not all, of Obama’s Middle East policies to join me in repudiating them, complimenting other positions, and calling Obama an Israel-skeptic but not anti-Israel. Let’s reserve that term of opprobrium for Israel’s enemies, who unfortunately earn that ignominious label, far too frequently and enthusiastically, day after day.

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.

I Wish I Could Vote Bibi, But I Can’t

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-11-12

During this difficult moment in history, with Iran rapidly progressing toward nuclear status, with world economies still fragile, and with Western values under attack, Israel needs strong leadership. In the upcoming elections, I would love to vote for Israel’s popular and powerful prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, giving him a clear mandate to lead domestically and diplomatically.  But, like so many Israelis, I will search elsewhere for political redemption and reassurance, knowing just how limited the choice really is.

Netanyahu would have earned my vote if he had exercised the power he has to move Israel forward rather than hoarding it to stroke his political allies. He would have earned my vote if he seemed more committed to making peace with the Palestinians rather than keeping the peace in his coalition. He would have earned my vote if he had maintained that broadening, empowering alliance with Kadima he had ever so briefly, and made some progress in ensuring that Ultra-Orthodox Israelis affirm their responsibilities as citizens instead of just demanding more rights and protecting their entitlements. And he would have earned my vote if he had fired his incompetent, non-Zionist interior minister or his ineffectual, marginalized foreign minister.

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Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement to the press calling for early elections on October 9, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

In short, if Bibi had been the bold leader he often called for in his writings rather than the placeholder I often read about in the press, he would have earned my vote. In his second term, which at this writing looks likely, he needs to be more like his hero Winston Churchill, making history boldly, and less like a Chicago wardheeler, making deals repeatedly.

At the same time, I give Netanyahu credit for keeping the economy stable and productive during one of the most tumultuous financial eras in recent history.  On the whole—and as far as outsiders can tell—he has managed the complicated Iran file effectively, pushing this pressing problem onto the world agenda, leading to sanctions which may actually be working, keeping the pressure—and the peace—so far.  And as the Obama-Palestinian settlement freeze debacle proved, Netanyahu is not the biggest obstacle to negotiations with the Palestinians—Abbas, Hamas and their people are. In fact, Netanyahu has eased conditions in the West Bank, lifted numerous checkpoints, improved security cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis, and endorsed a two-state solution, helping to foster the stability that is a necessary prerequisite for progress in this volatile region.

It is possible that historians may look back on Netanyahu’s years as the start of the Great Reset, when the trauma of the Palestinian betrayal of Oslo and turn to terror needed some quiet, but the range of opinion in Israel began narrowing and coalescing around an acceptance of the hard but necessary compromises a willing, honorable, non-threatening peace partner and process would require. Moreover, I support many of the Zionist values revival initiatives Netanyahu and his education minister Gideon Sa’ar have championed, especially the recommitment to historic sites that tell Israel’s story.

Alas, I am also underwhelmed by the alternatives. I blame Shaul Mofaz for the Kadima coalition debacle more than Netanyahu; I do not understand how he was able to enter and then leave a coalition so quickly. Did Mofaz fail to do his homework before joining or stumble in with no game plan? The Labor Party is a joke, a walking corpse with a proud history but a seemingly limited future. And I could no more vote for Avigdor Lieberman and his party then I could vote for Ron Paul or Newt Gingrich in America. As someone who cast his first political vote for John Anderson in the 1980 showdown between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, I will look at the mini-parties, but I acknowledge that as an act of political cowardice, dodging responsibility for the serious contenders while still fulfilling my civic duty.

In short, like so many voters in so many democracies today, I—and, I fear, most Israeli voters—will not be rushing to the polls, heart pounding, anxious to help my team win. Instead, I and so many others will take a deep breath, hold our noses, and choose what appears at that moment to be the least bad alternative.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Commitments Not Reaffirmed

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 10-2-12

Are there any progressives out there sufficiently committed to the peace process and the two-state solution to criticize Mahmoud Abbas’s speech to the U.N. General Assembly? Abbas’s address once again proved his “moderation” to be a masquerade, as he plunged Palestinians and Israelis into round after round of the delegitimization derby, piling on insults and libels, making it difficult for any self-respecting Israeli government to respond constructively. And the fact that after more than 1,600 words of denunciations and demonization, he claimed to “reaffirm, without hesitation,” his and his people’s commitment to “peace and international legitimacy,” suggested that he was insulting the international community’s intelligence, not just the Israeli “occupier.”

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)

 

Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on September 27, 2012 in New York City. (John Moore / Getty Images)
 

Before Abbas’s false call for peace, he warned of “the catastrophic danger of the racist Israeli settlement of our country, Palestine.” He used the code words his mentor Yasser Arafat first injected into the Israeli-Palestinian conversation: “racist,” “discriminatory,” “ethnic cleansing,” “siege,” “apartheid,” “terrorism,” “colonial,” etc. etc. Most of these words were purposely imported into the language about the Israel-Palestinian conflict in the 1970s to turn discussion of the conflict from its local particulars to universal condemnations, as a way of linking the Palestinians with all Third World victims of Western powers. Bringing new meaning to the word chutzpah, Abbas then complained about “an Israeli political discourse that does not hesitate to brandish aggressive, extremist positions, which in many aspects and its practical application on the ground is inciting religious conflict.”

By contrast, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech began with an affirmation of Jewish history not a negation of the Palestinians. He segued into his call for “a durable peace with the Palestinians” by talking about a point of common civility: how Israeli doctors treated Palestinian Arabs in Israelis hospitals. Netanyahu did criticize Abbas’s rant by saying: “We won’t solve our conflict with libelous speeches at the U.N.,” but he limited his denunciations of the Palestinian Authority to two sentences, admittedly spending more time than that attacking Iran and Islamism.

This is not to say that Abbas’s speech had no merit and that Netanyahu’s speech was unassailable. It was heartbreaking to hear Abbas’s account of what he called “at least 535 attacks perpetrated” against Palestinians by Israeli settlers “since the beginning of this year.” The Israeli government must have zero tolerance for such criminal behavior, which is legally and morally wrong. At the same time, Netanyahu’s crude cartoon illustrating the Iranian bomb threat was undignified and unhelpful. Domestic critics are mocking Netanyahu’s address as “the Looney Tunes speech”—and such criticism is deserved.

But on the Palestinian issue, one cannot equate the Israeli Prime Minister’s constructive approach with the Palestinian Authority President’s rhetorical howitzers. Of course, that is precisely what the New York Times and others did. Generating the usual fog of moral equivalence, the Times editorial “Talking at Cross Purposes,” acknowledged Abbas’s “exceptionally sharp rhetoric” while excusing it, and noted Netanyahu’s “reference to wanting peace with the Palestinians” while dismissing it as “brief” and insincere.

For peace to be achieved—in fact, for any real progress to occur—all actors in this enduring drama will have to break out of their assigned roles. Palestinians will have to stop playing the victim and demonizing Israel. And those observers supposedly devoted to peace will have to start criticizing, cajoling, inspiring, and reassuring both sides, showing a willingness to condemn Palestinian actions when warranted and even grant compliments to Israel, if warranted.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.

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Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
 

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Response to New York Times Op-Ed: Avraham Burg’s Blind Spots

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-7-12

Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.

The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a  “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.

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Workers put up an election poster for the left-wing Meretz party reading: “Only Meretz is Great.” (David Silverman / Getty Images)

 

The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”

Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?

Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.

I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.

These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

Kadima Marches Backwards

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-24-12

Can you split fog? Apparently you can in Israeli politics, as four Kadima MKs leave their faction to support Likud.

As of this writing—and it being Israeli politics, anything can change–Otniel Schneller, Avi Duan, Arieh Bibi, and Yulia Shamolov Berkovich will be voting with the governing Likud coalition, even though their vague, undefined, ideologically obscure party bolted the coalition last week. This shift has their former Kadima comrades trying to strip them of privileges by appealing to the Knesset House Committee, as Kadima’s leader Shaul Mofaz accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of “pimping” Kadima MKs—although I think he meant seducing.

The defection of the four is only a partial victory for Bibi, who continues to show more enthusiasm for politicking than governing. Had he wooed three more Kadima MKs for a total of seven, he would have triggered an official party split. Now, he has just made a royal political mess. Even some Likud loyalists are unhappy.  “The Likud is not a political garbage can,” Likud MK Danny Danon growled. “We won’t allow slots to be reserved for opportunists who left a sinking ship.”

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Shaul Mofaz (C), Chairman of the Kadima party, arrives for a special faction meeting at the Knesset (Gali Tibbon / AFP / GettyImages)

The irony is that Danon’s “opportunists who left a sinking ship” line could apply to Kadima’s start as well as whaKadima Marches Backwardst now may be its finish.  Many Kadima MKs were former Likudniks who abandoned that party when Ariel Sharon was alive and well and maneuvering politically, seeking support for the disengagement from Gaza.  Kadima became labeled the “centrist” party because it was to the Likud’s “left” on territorial compromise. But the labeling dismayed those of us who seek muscular moderates, politicians deeply committed to the idea of center-seeking.  Kadima’s mock moderates’ entrance into a marriage of convenience with Netanyahu, which has now dissolved, were motivated by expedience, not principle or vision.

Apparently, the Knesset House Committee will reject Kadima’s call to sanction the deserters. But their defection raises fascinating legal questions—is an individual elected to the Knesset or is the party simply authorized to fill a particular slot based on the number of votes it received?  One of the biggest problems with Israeli politics is that Knesset legislators are too beholden to their parties and rarely act as free agents. Israel needs some regional representation and more personal legislative accountability.  The parties are too powerful and individual constituents do not have a real Knesset address for particular problems, adding to the general cynicism and disaffection.

Sometime these kinds of party defections can be part of a helpful ideological realignment. Unfortunately, this spectacle appears to be one more round in a perpetual series of political maneuvers, and seems more destined to discourage than inspire, to alienate rather than activate.  Netanyahu will emerge a little stronger after this round but not strong enough, or courageous enough, to confront the Ultra-Orthodox on the draft issue. The Knesset, alas, continues to be more like a cross between the Chicago City Council and an Arab souk, rather than the suitably sacred yet secularized update to the Sanhedrin the early Zionists envisioned.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Get Creative For Yossi Falafel

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-17-12

Shaul Mofaz’s decision to lead his centrist Kadima party out of Israel’s broad coalition government shows that there is at least one politician left in the Western world who has a bottom line, which he called a  “red line.”  Standing on principle, refusing to delay military or national service to age 26, Mofaz proclaimed: “He who says 26, doesn’t want true equality.” Mofaz’s departure–supported by all but three Kadima Knesset members–spotlights both the ideological fight over the Ultra-Orthodox role in Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s surprising failure to lead.

Using the “E” word–equality–mounts the ideological issue on two pillars. First, Mofaz and Kadima are fighting to make Israel a liberal democracy, which is a collection of individual citizens with equal rights and responsibilities, rather than a democratic republic, which is a coalition of competing groups. The “Haredim” should not have group rights–even though some legal wiggle room respecting their collective sensibilities is in keeping with Israel’s public character and the Zionist vision.

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Ultra-Orthodox Jewish children wear handcuffs as they protest against a uniform draft law to replace the Tal Law on July 16, 2012 (Lior Mizrahi / Getty Images)

 

The second pillar is the “equity” part of equality. Mofaz is playing to the many middle class, non-Arab, non-Haredi Israelis who are tired of being “freirim,” the Hebrew word for suckers. Although the plain-speaking former general is not one for high-falutin’ phrases or philosophy, he is defending one of the modern democratic state’s fundamental building blocks–the Lockean social contract, wherein individuals sacrifice certain rights and take on particular responsibilities, including defending the collective against harm.

Mofaz’s move once again makes a mockery of all the Churchillian aspirations that Benjamin Netanyahu writes about in his books, casting the Israeli Prime Minister as more Chicago ward heeler than courageous statesman. Netanyahu’s deferral to Ultra-Orthodox sensibilities is curious. Ideologically, he is more of a liberal nationalist in the Menachem Begin-Ze’ev Jabotinsky tradition, and has blocked many of the more undemocratic and anti-libertarian moves proposed by some of his more authoritarian coalition colleagues. But on this issue of Haredi service his pusillanimous silence has been disappointing and self-defeating. If Netanyahu mimicked Mofaz and grew a backbone on this issue, he could not only calm the broad Israeli center, he could all but guarantee his re-election.

This issue demands more creativity and bolder leadership. For example, Netanyahu could demand all Haredim take on service as responsible Israeli citizens, while allowing a marriage exemption. This would protect the principle but give many Haredim, who marry young, an out that might be more palatable to the Israeli version of Joe Six Pack–call him Yossi Falafel–who in Israel too would be married to a soccer mom. Netanyahu could also pressure the Haredi rabbis, taking advantage of the hierarchies within the community. And, for someone who is so proud of his silver tongue, he could try addressing the people, articulating core principles, proposing a decent compromise, and affirming the kind of national vision so many Israelis yearn to hear from a heroic leader who does not fear his coalition members and does not succumb to Ultra-Orthodox threats.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute 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.

Haredi draft dodging is an individual crime

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-3-12

 
The Keshev Committee seeking to replace the unconstitutional Tal Law which protected most Ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews from Israel’s universal draft has imploded, apparently due to tensions regarding potential personal sanctions on draft-dodging Yeshiva students. Haredi Knesset members reportedly threatened “all out war” if Ultra Orthodox 18-year-olds are drafted along with their Israeli Jewish peers. These extortionist threats are despicable while imposing group-think and rejecting individual rule of law here is unacceptable.

I am not anti-Haredi, but I am pro-liberal democracy. I respect the Ultra-Orthodox lifestyle.  I appreciate the challenge of maintaining their traditional values and rituals amidst modernity’s seductions.  The children of my Haredi friends serve in the army. I have written in The New Republic and elsewhere rejecting what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel project call the Demography of Fear, and I abhor the rampant stereotyping caricaturing this segment of Israeli society.  Threats of a Haredi demographic takeover of Israel are exaggerated — and the attendant hysteria is demonizing.  But democracy entails more than consent of the governed expressed through mass voting rights.  Every Israeli citizen should have individual rights and responsibilities – even as certain group indulgences occasionally have to be granted too, but under extreme circumstances, and as infrequently as possible.

In the spirit of compromise, I accept different educational systems for Haredi children and Israeli Arab children, even as it offends my Zionist sensibilities and strains Israeli democracy. As a realist, I understand that Israeli Arabs should not be drafted and that a small symbolic group of Haredi Jews may hold onto their community’s historic draft exemption. But every young Israeli should be compelled to serve in the army or complete national service as an individual obligation to the nation, with some getting rare free passes for compelling reasons.

And yes, the need to insulate Israeli Arabs from the complexity of Israel’s military conflict with their Arab cousins is compelling, especially if Israeli Arabs take on national service.  By contrast, the claim that Haredi draft dodging defends Israel by maintaining the Lord’s good graces through Torah study is an absurd fig leaf – despite my veneration for the Torah and traditional Judaism.

In Israel today, 114,000 students learn in government-funded Torah institutions. Even if all 54,000 full-time yeshiva students exempted from military service under the Tal Law enlisted immediately, approximately 60,000 full-time, government-subsidized Torah scholars could still provide the divine protection they believe their studies deliver. These scholarly masses are joined by tens of thousands of others, in Jerusalem and elsewhere, who are shaping the extraordinary Torah study renaissance occurring today throughout Israel.

Modern Israel 2012, particularly Jerusalem, has a scale and intensity of learning that rivals the historic Babylonian Talmudic academies of Sura and Pumbedita, Maimonides’ Egypt, the Baal Shem Tov’s Poland, or the Gaon’s Vilna. I am not daring to suggest that we have greats to equal those gedolim, those giants – I cannot judge. But I acknowledge the great work so many serious Jews and the Israeli government have done to revive Jewish learning on a mass scale after the Holocaust. And I resent the implication that this vast, impressive Torah study effort is so fragile it will collapse or fail to achieve its holy mission, if Haredi 18-year-olds do not serve in the army as other Israeli youngsters do.

More profoundly, this Haredi exemption is based on a misreading of Jewish history, the Bible, and, dare I say it, the Torah and Talmud too.  Jews were rarely Spartans reveling in blood and violence to celebrate our values. Jews have long been reluctant fighters, who understood, however, that we could not shirk our duties when history imposed the burden of fighting on us.  The Bible is filled with famous fighters who defended Israel and the Jewish people, including David and Joshua, Barak and Gideon. Less well known are Biblical figures such as Benayahu ben Yehoyada and Adino HaEtzni, King David’s fierce warriors – like lions, who were leading Torah scholars of their generation.

In the Torah, Deuteronomy 20 exempts from military duty cowards as well as willing soldiers who did not yet dedicate their homes, enjoy the fruits of their vineyards, or marry their betrothed. Yet, the Mishnah in Sotah 8:8 rules that an obligatory war overrides even those exemptions for males over 20. Maimonides himself in the Mishnah Torah writes that anyone who could save a fellow Jew yet fails to do so violates Leviticus 19:16: “You shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed” (Hilchot Rotzeach 1:14), while the standard codification of the Shulchan Aruch in Orach Chaim (329:6) justifies desecrating the Sabbath to save lives if the community is attacked.Haredi draft dodging implicitly accepts the anti-Israel position that Israel’s wars are not obligatory.

A frustrated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has declared, “Let us take the reins and bring about a solution.” I would love to see Bibi grow a backbone on this crucial issue – and then use it for solving other problems as well. Netanyahu’s wall-to-wall coalition gives him the power to make historic changes. He can revise the basic Israeli social contract, emphasizing individual rights and responsibilities, with just enough group protection to acknowledge Israel’s special status, unique history, and fragile constellation of constituent groups. But he should not succumb to political blackmail. Israel should draft Haredim as individual citizens and proud Jews. The Jewish people must reject a medieval, misleading, and misanthropic reading of our Bible, our heritage, our history, and our unfortunate burden today, wherein too many of us must send our precious children into the army, not because we delight in violence but because we know the consequences of cowering, dodging, and shirking this most painful yet noble of responsibilities.

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,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

Abbas the Masquerading Moderate Caricatures a Hellish Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-28-12

Reading the news, you would think that Mahmoud Abbas’s real first name is “The Moderate” and Benjamin Netanyahu’s real last name is “the Extremist.”  Googling the words “Abbas” and “Moderate” yields 4.47 million hits, while “Netanyahu” and “Moderate” get 2.53 million hits. “Abbas” and “Extremism” yield 2.45 million hits while “Netanyahu” and “Extremism” produce 12.8 million. Although Googling is a gross indicator, it seems that the media is at least twice as likely to dub Abbas a “moderate” rather than Netanyahu, while Netanyahu is accused of “extremism” five to six times more frequently than Abbas is.
Yet sheer repetition of an assertion is not enough to make it true. Mahmoud Abbas is to moderation what moldy oranges are to penicillin. If purified properly, the product could be healing; but as it now stands, it is putrid and possibly toxic.
Rather than responding positively to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Bar Ilan speech and President Barack Obama’s multiple attempts to restart the peace process, Abbas the Masquerading Moderate has been the Great Obstructionist, far more accommodating of his Hamas rivals than his American bankrollers. Admittedly, his touch is lighter and less lethal than his predecessor Yassir Arafat. And thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, many Palestinians have been doing what they most need to do, which is building an independent, stable Palestine rather than trying to destroy neighboring Israel.
But again and again Abbas has been Dr. No – blocking progress when Netanyahu implemented a settlement freeze, and now demanding a settlement freeze as one of his many preconditions for negotiation. So far, the settlement freeze demand is President Barack Obama’s most memorable contribution to the Middle East, an amateurish gift to Palestinian obstructionists, made-in-America. Every time Abbas demands a settlement freeze, he further undermines the most pro-Palestinian president since Jimmy Carter.
This week, Abbas traveled to Doha to participate in an “International Conference on Jerusalem,” with representatives from 70 countries.  Anti-Zionist discourse in that part of the Middle East was as ubiquitous as Muzak is in elevators in the Midwest, intensified by the added volatility of the Jerusalem issue, with a dash of anti-Americanism thrown in. Among the many presentations caricaturing Zionism as racism and Israel as an apartheid state, one activist, Ken Isley, introduced himself as “an American” then added:  “no one is perfect.”
When Abbas spoke, rather than injecting a note of responsibility into the proceedings, providing a reality check, he joined the anti-Israel pile on.  He claimed Israel wants to “carry out continued excavations that threaten to undermine the Al-Aqsa Mosque, in order to extract evidence that supports the Israeli version of Judaism.” He said Israelis wanted to “Judaize” the city and “were preparing models of what they call the Temple in order to build on the ruins of Al Aqsa.”
Any one of these three incendiary ideas would earn an extremist street “cred” as a flamethrower. Few Israelis are proposing a Third Temple. Claiming “the Jews” wish to replace the Al-Aqsa Mosque with their own structure is a demagogic call for Arab rioting in Jerusalem and elsewhere.  Second, mischievous phrases like “the Israeli version of Judaism” and “what they call the Temple,” try to rob Jews of our history, our legitimacy, our nationality. Abbas’s words echo longstanding Palestinian claims that Judaism is a religion with no peoplehood component, that the Temple never existed, and that the whole Zionist, meaning Jewish nationalist, project is a fraud.
Finally, Abbas’s allegations about “Judaizing” Jerusalem ignore the fact that Jerusalem is already Jewish and Muslim and Christian. Abbas’s implication, that Jews are engaged in ethnic cleansing, would require us to characterize modern Israelis as incompetent not just evil. Today’s Jerusalem has 800,000 residents, including 268,000 Arabs. In the nearly 45 years since the 1967 Six Day War, the Arab population has grown by 200,000, and many Arabs today appreciate their Israeli rights and services. The number of Arab Jerusalemites granted Israeli citizenship quadrupled from 2006 to 2010. If Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing, Israelis would have to admit to being the worst – meaning the most ineffectual — “ethnic cleansers” in history, having triggered a population increase due to higher quality of life including more freedom.
Once again, Abbas missed an opportunity to play the statesman. He overlooked Jerusalem’s potential as a platform of unity welcoming the religiously minded, the spiritually seeking, the historically attuned, the peace loving. He played the Jerusalem card, riling his audience, and alienating Israelis. That he nevertheless passes for a moderate, demonstrates just how extreme other Palestinian voices are, such as Hamas, and just how indulgent world opinion is when it comes to coddling the Palestinians.
In the last few weeks I have greeted four groups of non-Jews visiting Jerusalem. All of them were struck by how peaceful, how functional, the real Jerusalem is, rather than the terrifying Jerusalem of the headlines they expected. Jewish lore teaches about the heavenly Jerusalem – Yerushalayim Shel Ma’alah – and the earthly Jerusalem – Yerushalayim Shel Matah. There is a third Jerusalem in play too – Yerushalyim Shel Gehennom – the Hellish Jerusalem. This is the construct of reporters and political activists who only see the violence, the hatred, the ugliness without acknowledging the loveliness or the sheer normalcy for the overwhelming majority of the city’s residents, the overwhelming majority of the time.
Propagandists use the deep emotions the Heavenly Jerusalem stirs to further anger people while painting their distorted portrait of the Hellish Jerusalem. True moderates acknowledge complexity, see multiple dimensions, using the messiness of life to humanize and compromise rather than polarize. By ignoring the earthly Jerusalem, the mundane Jerusalem, day-to-day Jerusalem, Mahmoud Abbas once again failed to live up to his press clippings – disproving so many policy makers’ false perceptions of him as a peacemaker.

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.

No, Israel Isn’t Turning into an Iran-Style Theocracy

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, The New Republic, 2-2-12

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews—who epitomize the stereotypical Jew—makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim—and their leaders—are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us—we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization—and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Fellow.

 

iEngage: Who is Afraid of the Big Bad Haredi Wolf?

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, iEngage — Shalom Hartman Institute, 2-1-12

 
The reddening of Israel, dismissing the Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, Republican project, increasingly foreign to cultured, blue-state Democrats, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis – haredim – as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true?  Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.
 
Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while maintaining gender distinctions. The debate about TV and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture continues infiltrating into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.
 
While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Statistics are elusive. But communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series. Simani Sheilah – question marks – evoking the modern epidemic of doubt, debuted last year. It tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, abruptly confronting modernity. 
 
The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic – and inspiring – example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the Palestinian terror campaign, dispatching the ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.
 
One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks, which spawned two leading social service organizations. Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.
 
In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works – and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews – who epitomize the stereotypical Jew — makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”
 
More broadly, liberal, secular, Westerners’ condescension toward religious people kicks in. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”
 
Haredim – and their leaders — are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.
 
Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper: “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.” Still, in such a hierarchical community, which grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. 
 
In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us – we are all here to stay.”
 
Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a stable media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.
 
This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization – and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.
 
The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership.
 
The pathologies of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. Needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.
 
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments. 
 
Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

We don’t need Noam Shalit’s sunshine patriotism in politics

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-10-12

Gilad Shalit is home and, we all hope, recovering.  Apparently his father, Noam Shalit, has not fully recovered from the experience.  It seems he so liked the status of what we should now call celebritus erroneous– celebrity by tragic mistake – that he has decided to exploit it and plunge into politics.

So many Israelis were justifiably torn by the one-for-1027 Shalit deal.  On the one hand, Shalit’s homecoming was an extraordinary moment, a symbol of Israel at its best.  The nation acted as one small family in welcoming Gilad home, delighting in his freedom, respecting – as best we could – his privacy.  In most countries, a single hostage would have been ignored or not redeemed.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that if you save one life you save the world — that position was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s intimacy, Israel’s Jewishness, Israel’s idealism, Israel’s solidarity – and Israel’s vulnerability.

And that, of course, was the flip side.  Shalit’s homecoming was fraught with potential danger, the fears that these 1027 terrorists, feeling vindicated, would return to their criminal ways, the concern that Hamas was once again getting a gift from the Israeli government it did not deserve, the fear that in saving one life, so many others would actually be lost.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that we should not pay exorbitant ransoms so we don’t encourage the practice of kidnapping – the lopsided swap was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s frustration, Israel’s fear, Israel’s anger, Israel’s dividedness – and Israel’s vulnerability.

Moreover, the families of those killed, maimed or traumatized by some of the 1027 terrorists were asked to forego their own desires to see justice served and accept a deal to save Gilad Shalit’s life – and help the nation move on.

This calculus of terror is difficult to fathom.  These choices Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others had to make are truly excruciating.  We should direct our anger where it belongs at the terrorists, the Palestinian culture of terror, and the world culture of appeasement that foments these crimes and places Israel in such terrible binds.

But on the eve of that extraordinary, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime, all blue-and-white-all- the-time kind of day, Noam Shalit lost me.  Days before his son came home, but once it was, as they say, a done deal, Shalit was photographed restoring the Israeli flag on the roof of his family home.  Apparently, he had taken it down two years earlier in frustration with the government’s inaction on his son’s file.  It was the wrong gesture by the wrong man at the wrong time.

With that one photo, Noam Shalit lost me – and many others.  Just when he was appealing to all Israelis to be patriotic, and accept the barely acceptable, when he needed the grieving families of terror victims to accept their country’s action, right or wrong, Shalit risked appearing to be what Thomas Paine called “a sunshine patriot,” essentially not asking what he could do for his country but judging his country only by what it did for him and his family.

Had he taken Bibi Netanyahu’s picture down two years ago and restored it that day, I would have said “fine.”  We judge politicians by what they have done for us lately. But in lowering, then raising the flag, Shalit suggested his patriotism was contingent, his love of Israel depended on whether the government served his needs.  That made him appear ungracious when he was pulling the patriotic card on others – and makes him unsuitable to enter politics.  Rather symbolizing  “Eretz Yisrael HaYaffa,” the beautiful Israel of rolling Galilee hills, casual, shoulder-shrugging, we-shall-do-what-it-takes patriotism, and warm, values-rich homes, the gesture suggested the ugly, “magiya li” post-Zionist culture, the “I deserve it” guy – or gal – who grabs aggressively, voraciously, with a sense of entitlement rather than humility.

I am sorry to say, that if he makes it that far, Noam Shalit will encounter many greedy politicians in the Knesset who epitomize the “magiya li” approach.  But until that moment on the roof, Noam Shalit and his family to me had always embodied the lovelier ideal – and his statement in explaining his motivation in entering politics, hoping to tap the idealism he encountered during his family’s quest, reflects his desire to be seen that way.

I know it is very difficult to judge a family that has endured the trauma the Shalits endured – and still suffer.  And I held my fire when I first saw the photograph, during Gilad Shalit’s euphoric homecoming.  But in leveraging his celebrity status from his son’s kidnapping into a political career, Noam Shalit has made his actions, statements and gestures during the Gilad Come Home campaign fair game – and this gesture deserves condemnation.

It is also unfortunate that Noam Shalit is willing to sacrifice his iconic apolitical status in a country that desperately needs national heroes untainted by the particularly ugly way Israelis play politics.   “In some ways it seems he fell in love with the camera. It changes the whole context of the story, the way you perceive all the characters,” says G., 28. He is an American oleh who served in the armored corps from March 2006 to August 2007, “a couple of drafts after Gilad” and shared officers in common, but had “deeply mixed feelings” about the exchange itself.

Israel, of course, is a free country, and the Shalit exchange came with no strings attached to the family, no demands that they behave any better or worse than anyone else.  And there is a deep democratic yearning for redemption from citizen politicians, leaders who were thrust into the spotlight, and rose to the occasion.  But the Shalit episode is still so fresh, emotions remain so raw, worries persist, that Noam Shalit’s timing as well as the decision itself deserve scrutiny.  This frank welcome, of course, will provide the initiation he needs into his new career.

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.

When Dads Are Barred from their Daughters’ Basketball Games – Improvise Reasonable Accommodations

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-12

On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina — at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament.  The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.”  Other offended parents mobilized.  Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left).  At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership.  Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum.  If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets.  Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension.  I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin.  Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”

American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
 

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.

The Zionism-Racism lie lives – 20 years after the UN’s repeal

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-11

Last week, Ha’aretz’s publisher Amos Schocken joined the chorus prematurely mourning “the elimination of Israeli democracy” – although articles like his in his hyper-critical newspaper prove Israel’s democratic vitality daily. Exaggerating further, he accused Israel of practicing “apartheid.” This libel is inaccurate and inflammatory. Tragically, it appeared just before an important anniversary that should not be overlooked – the United Nations’ repeal of its odious Zionism is Racism resolution twenty years ago on December 16, 1991.
A clever polemicist, Schocken appeared more subtle than the average Israel-basher by acknowledging a “difference” between South African apartheid “and what is happening in the territories.” Nevertheless, he found “points of resemblance.” He defined apartheid as “the undemocratic system of discriminating between the rights of the whites and the blacks, which once existed in South Africa.” But he discussed “discrimination” in the West Bank without offering any evidence regarding the offense which made apartheid apartheid, defining people systematically, legally, by skin color.
In a world which abhors racial distinctions but organizes itself around many distinctions between different national groups, justifying the apartheid accusation requires proving a racial dimension. Schocken could have charged “discrimination” – which is devastating enough to a democracy. Using the demonizing word “apartheid” linked him to the Big Lie delegitimizing the Jewish state by calling Zionism racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The apartheid charge gussies up the Zionism-racism lie with sincere concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but both blood libels share common origins, carrying the putrid stench  of Soviet totalitarianism’s rotting corpse.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet and Arab propagandists concocted the Zionism-racism charge to ostracize the Jewish state by identifying it with racist South Africa and Rhodesia. This “Big Red Lie,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it, also echoed Nazi views of Jews as a “race.” Trying to racialize Zionism, to South Africanize Israel, to demonize the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the UN’s General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, calling Zionism racism.
Moynihan, serving as America’s UN Ambassador, saw the resolution as an attack on democracy and decency.  And he recognized the genocidal implications of accusing Israel of the one international crime punishable by national death. Comparing Zionism to Nazism and white supremacism wished the same fate on Israel that befell Nazi Germany and – eventually – apartheid South Africa. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, denounced the Hitlerite anti-Semitism shaping the resolution, targeting the collective Jew rather than individual Jews.
Both Herzog and Moynihan believed “words matter” and ideas count. When Herzog became Israel’s president in 1983, he and now-Senator Moynihan began campaigning to repeal the resolution. Everyone said that no General Assembly resolution was ever repealed – although Spain joined the UN in 1950 despite an earlier resolution prohibiting its membership.
Herzog and Moynihan persisted. In 1985, Israel’s UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a conference demanding repeal. Netanyahu explained the resolution’s potency, noting “there is no worse epithet in today’s lexicon than ‘racist,’” the word is “the modern version of ‘Christ killers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘usurers,’ and ‘international conspirators.’”
Moynihan, a Democrat, cooperated with the Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, who ultimately secured the repeal. The Jewish community mobilized, uniting grassroots protests with effective organizational advocacy. And history happened. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The liberated Eastern European countries endorsed repeal. Following a courageous intervention by Elie Wiesel, who pointedly asked the Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk how come no one in Kiev opened up a door to save even one child as thousands marched to their deaths toward the forests of Babi Yar in 1941, Kravchuk rejected this “resolution born out of bitter ideological confrontation.” The Czech President Vaclav Havel needed no coaching, saying: “I didn’t approve of it then; I don’t approve of it now.”
Unfortunately, despite the repeal, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Big Red Lie refuses to die. “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid accusation have become central memes in modern politics. A meme, “something imitated,” is an idea popularized in a culture through repetition. Israel’s enemies have used these two Killer Memes to make their assault on Israel’s existence constant and cumulative. The Zionism-Racism claim integrates one criticism with the next; the apartheid allegation treats every Israeli misstep as a crime against humanity.
No one involved in Middle East matters, least of all Ha’aretz’s erudite publisher, can claim to be ignorant of the significance of validating the Apartheid-Racism memes. Intentionally or not, in the internet age, Ha’aretz is an important link in the chain of delegitimization that often starts with its incendiary coverage and ends with the Boycott Israel-Kill the Jews crowd feeling vindicated. That realization should never stop Schocken or others from truth-telling. But it should caution them against sloppy rabble-rousing.
Schocken should get a taste of those democratic prerogatives he defends so eloquently. The Jewish Agency, the Federations, the Israeli government, the universities, should stop taking out those ridiculous, expensive front page ads in the English Ha’aretz welcoming this group or that board to Israel — and explain why the gravy train stopped. Charity dollars should not be wasted in such vanity enterprises anyway — especially if they subsidize spreading these modern blood libels.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Jewish organizational world, and the Jewish people should celebrate December 16. We should toast the American-Israeli friendship, America’s bipartisan cooperation on this issue, Zionist activism, and the welcome defeat of Soviet totalitarianism that produced the victory. Our students should learn that sometimes Israel’s advocates, Zionism’s champions, democracy’s defenders, can win. And all Israelis, from across the political spectrum, should learn they have a treasury of words and historical comparisons to use during vigorous democratic debate. However, using the Zionism-Racism and Apartheid memes assaults the truth and encourages Israel’s deadliest enemies.
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 Challenge of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: Zionism is Racism, the Rise of Reagan and the Fall of the UN.”

Liar, liar, the Israel discourse is on fire…

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-15-11

There we go again. President Barack Obama grouses about Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being a pain, after President Nicholas Sarkozy of France calls Netanyahu a “liar.” Many pro-Israel partisans then condemn Obama as “anti-Israel.” Meanwhile, when the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) request that the “US-Israel friendship … never be used as a political wedge issue,” critics accuse them of trying “to stifle debate on US policy toward Israel.”

We need a little subtlety, even in our hysterical age. America’s President can dislike Israel’s Prime Minister without hating the State itself. And we can – and should — vigorously debate that President’s Middle East policy without being sidetracked by questioning his basic support for a Jewish state or turning the deep bond uniting America and Israel into a divisive flashpoint. When Prime Minister Jean Chretien detested President George W. Bush, Canada and the US remained best friends.

We come by this hysteria honestly. The rise of Fox News and the Internet have reduced political communication to short tweets and shrill blogs.  Moreover, the Israel debate often escalates into a high-stakes confrontation, because the stakes are so high. Israel is surrounded by enemies who have found the one country whose destruction you can champion and whose citizens you can target without sacrificing your own standing in the world.

Decades of delegitimizing Israel has victimized us all. Wherever we stand politically or religiously, whether we are Jewish or not, Zionist or not, religious or secular, pro-Israel or anti-Israel, left or right, pro-settlement or anti-occupation, our understanding of Middle East issues has been distorted by the systematic 63-year-old campaign against Israel’s right to exist.  No other country has endured such an ideological assault – frequently backed by deadly attacks. No other country remains on probation more than six decades after its founding. No other country has so many issues, be they major or minor, elevated from discussions of particular policies or actions to existential tests questioning whether it deserves to survive.  No one is immune to this ugliness. The assault poisons the perspectives of even the most “pro-Israel” activists.

The polluted atmosphere surrounding Israel, generated by Arabs and anti-Zionist collaborators, creates its own dense, highly combustible, ideological smog, which clouds perceptions and makes Israel discourse inflammatory. The first major distortion is that the blame-Israel-all-the-time-no-matter-what approach gives Israel’s enemies a free pass.  In the latest impasse, the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, who, has long outlived his mandate, has been playing Dr. No. He is the one, again and again, who has said “no” to negotiations, “no” to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, “no” to President Barack Obama’s entreaties not to bypass give-and-take in search of unilateral UN freebies. And yet, much of the world, peering in through a polluted prism, deems Benjamin Netanyahu the obstructionist in chief.  Whatever the fuller exchange was between Nicholas Sarkozy and Barack Obama, their “Blame Bibi” bonding moment reflects this spoiled ideological environment.

The second major distortion is this abrupt, zero-to-sixty emotional jump when discussing Israel – among detractors and supporters. Israel’s critics frequently morph into Israel’s enemies as they one-sidedly blame Israel, exaggerate Israel’s flaws, and elevate minor errors into capital crimes. The intense microscope the world focuses on Israel magnifies small imperfections into justifications that enemies already predisposed to hate it use to demand its destruction or that more naïve observers use for abandoning the Jewish state. Amid this relentless barrage, Israel’s defenders have trouble distinguishing friend from foe, valid criticism from hysterical, existential attack. Israel’s extreme critics shirk responsibility for the damage their fanaticism has caused the peace process and the natural, self-critical process every democracy needs to reform.  Subtleties get lost. Lines get drawn. Tempers flare. The status quo calcifies.

Barack Obama’s Israel policy warrants scrutiny – and deserves criticism. He has been unduly harsh on Israel, wrongly biased in his excessive criticism, naively blind to Palestinian recalcitrance, unfairly hostile to Bibi Netanyahu, generally insensitive to Israeli fears, foolishly hamhanded in singlehandedly creating this whole settlement freeze precondition to negotiation, contemptibly weak in dealing with the Arab world, depressingly clueless in misreading the Islamist storm threatening the Arab spring, cruelly passive back in 2009 when Iran’s Green Revolution first erupted, and singularly inept in managing the Middle East. But I would not call him anti-Israel. I reserve that term for people, like Jimmy Carter, unlike Barack Obama, who do not believe in the idea of a Jewish state, are blatantly anti-Zionist, compare Israel to South Africa’s despicable, departed apartheid regime, or attack Israel verbally, ideologically or physically.

Therefore, it is important in this 2012 presidential campaign to debate Obama’s Middle East policies, learn from his mistakes, and test his rival to see if any improvement can be expected, in orientation, conception, or execution. It is fair to raise the awkward question of why the Democratic Party, once the party of pro-Israel stalwarts like Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Henry Jackson, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, still the party of Ed Koch, Bill Clinton, Charles Schumer, Barbara Boxer, has become the home of the vicious, genuinely anti-Israel minority on Capitol Hill and across the United States. And it is reasonable to ask Republicans to help voters distinguish between supporting Israel existentially and handling the Middle East effectively.

So, yes, the ADL and the AJC are A-OK, support for Israel should remain bipartisan without becoming a wedge issue. But Barack Obama’s Israel policy should be debated—he certainly has not earned a free pass – as should the question of how the party which enjoys the uncompromising loyalty and bountiful generosity of the vast majority of American Jews can so comfortably house the hard anti-Israel left as well. A tent that broad just might need some architectural restructuring.

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,” his latest book is “A History of American Presidential Elections.”

Saving “Private” Schalit – and the Defenseless Jewish State

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-18-11

Gilad, his father Noam, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Barak.

The Israeli consensus is clear. The deal to free Corporal Gilad Schalit is bewildering: absurd, lopsided, heartbreaking, terrifying, as well as inspirational, humane, necessary, and ultimately rational. Much of the discussion has emphasized the Jewish and Zionist values shaping Israel’s commitment to every individual soldier. But these are Western democratic values too. Hollywood teaches that in moral democratic armies, soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives to save comrades. In Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” most of Tom Hanks’ unit dies bringing home a soldier who lost all his brothers in battle. And “The Great Raid” tells the true story of soldiers in World War II’s final days, dying to free prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March, demonstrating that Americans never abandon imprisoned troops.

Here is one of the Schalit trade’s absurdities. Had soldiers died trying to free Gilad Schalit, the fallen soldiers’ families would have experienced more intense personal anguish, but Israeli citizens – and terror victims – would have endured less mass anguish. In 1975, Americans hailed the Mayaguez raid even though 18 Marines died saving 39 Merchant Marine hostages from Khmer Rouge Cambodian kidnappers. In 1994, Nachshon Wachsman’s death, along with the death of two soldiers in the failed rescue attempt, was terribly upsetting but not communally unsettling.

This bloodless deal bringing Schalit home with no casualties is unnerving because it violates the norms of international engagement. The exchange’s utter disproportionality, 1 = 1,027, feeds fears of equally disproportionate future costs. During the Cold War, American-Soviet prisoner exchanges were more balanced – Natan Sharansky was freed in a four for five deal.

Underlying this unease is the unhappy realization, once again, that for Israel the rules are different. Whereas, once, observers would have used this lopsided equation to say Arabs care about each prisoner only 0.00097371% as much as Israelis care about theirs, today it seems that critics only see Israel as 0.00097371% justified in using force. Israel is supposed to be the geopolitical equivalent of a monk, defying nature, overriding its protective impulse. Israel is always on probation, with its legitimacy contingent on good behavior and passive resistance, no matter how evil the instigation.

The world, it seems, wants a defenseless Jewish state. A defenseless Jewish state would not incarcerate the mass murderers at a Sbarro pizzeria or a Passover Seder. A defenseless Jewish state would not risk the lives of Egyptian soldiers, even if it meant not firing at Palestinian terrorist attackers. A defenseless Jewish state would not retaliate against the Hamas thugs ruling Gaza, even though their dictatorial control makes them responsible for the terrorists operating there. A defenseless Jewish state would not object to Mahmoud Abbas bypassing the compromises negotiations entail, seeking yet another biased, inflammatory UN declaration. A defenseless Jewish state would not inconvenience the Arab world’s Western appeasers.

A defenseless Jewish state, of course, would be an overrun Jewish state, but, these days, taking responsibility for the implications of your political posturing is passé.

A country’s right of self-defense is as basic as an individual’s right to be free. For nearly two millennia, Jews could not defend themselves. Centuries of oppression followed, resulting in the Holocaust in Europe, and, ultimately, mass expulsions from the Arab world. Yet in only doubting one country, Israel, when it defends itself, world opinion is reverting to the traditional status quo, trying to keep Jews defenseless.

As the leader of a mature democratic state which makes tough decisions and defends itself, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes his citizens some straight talk. He and the Israeli leadership must stop lying and claiming that “Israel does not negotiate with terrorists.” Israel negotiates and caves in again and again. When states countenance dishonesty they lose credibility, be it with unenforced speeding laws, epidemic zoning violations, or repeatedly-crossed redlines. Israel needs a new doctrine, based on reality not on fantasy posturing.

Also, Netanyahu must explain the deal’s timing. The message he conveyed to Palestinians, yet again, is that Israel rewards violence like kidnapping but not peaceful, albeit obnoxious, diplomatic maneuvers. Netanyahu’s actions suggest he sees both Abbas and Hamas as equally extreme. If not, why boost the radicals having just stymied those reputed to be moderates at the UN? Finally, Netanyahu should call on President Barack Obama to explain, after Israel releases 1027 convicted terrorists, why can’t the United States, for goodwill, release Jonathan Pollard, who has served longer than any other spy ever convicted for espionage benefiting an American ally.

Hamas propagandists delude themselves that Israel’s sentimental attachment to Gilad Schlait, and every other citizen, indicates weakness. Dictators always underestimate the morale democracies draw from acting morally. Terrorists can kidnap, rocket, murder but they cannot kill ideas. They cannot kill the Zionist idea that the Jewish people deserve a state. They cannot kill the Western idea that nation-states like Israel are valid entities with rights to self-defense. And they cannot kill the Jewish idea of individual dignity which values every one of us, treating none as sacrificial pawns.

Israel draws strength from these powerful ideas. And these are the ideas embodied today in the young man with deepset eyes who endured five years of suffering, now enjoying his freedom.

Israelis have no choice but to continue defending themselves. A defenseless Jewish state is a dead Jewish state. This Jewish state, learning from history, aware of its responsibilities, will do what it takes to protect its citizens, be they sitting in cafes or held hostage by murderers. At the same time, this Jewish state will remember that seeking peace and living well are the best ways to repudiate the murderous rejectionists who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist and mock its defining humane Jewish, Zionist, and Western values.

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,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

End Price Tag Terrorism – and their Culture of Lawlessness

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-4-11

During these ten days of repentance, when Jews should reflect on past sins to avoid future ones, some extremist hooligans chose instead to sin anew.  “Price tag” terrorists burned a mosque in the northern Israeli village of Tuba Zangria, graffiting the messages “price tag” and “revenge” nearby.  I am proud that members of the special police task force recently formed to fight these extremists reportedly arrested some suspects already.  I am also proud that a furious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an equally indignant President Shimon Peres, condemned the attack.  We all must combat these Price Tag Terrorists, repelling them from our midst, shunning them socially, repudiating them ideologically, while insisting the government hunt down and punish these felons, to stop this madness immediately.

Price Tag Terrorists — and they fit the definition of terrorists, making political points by violently attacking civilian and symbolic targets — have struck before, targeting other mosques, vandalizing army jeeps, and harassing leftwing activists. In condemning these crooks, we must reject the culture of lawlessness festering in the West Bank. Too frequently, political crimes Israeli Jews commit there are overlooked or under-investigated.  Such crimes of intimidation and the double legal standards must end.

There is no wiggle room morally here.  These price tag assaults are an affront to humanity, democracy, Judaism, Zionism, and Jewish history. The perpetrators are not heroes.  Their actions are not legitimate, explainable, or defensible. Too many of us have fought too hard against terrorism – demanding moral clarity from the PA, the UN, the EU, and other terrorist enablers — to pussyfoot.  Just as we enumerate our sins in plural on Yom Kippur, taking responsibility communally, we are all particularly diminished, we are multiply ashamed, we are additionally demeaned because these madmen believe they are acting in our name – and enablers encourage that delusion.

Burning a mosque – or any religious institution – is a particularly inhumane act. Houses of worship traditionally have been places of refuge, neutral sites, benefiting everyone.  We need sacred spaces and shared sanctuaries, common areas of respect. I want synagogues to be specially protected.  I gladly respect mosques and churches in return.

Price tag vigilantes assail the core democratic values consecrated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These thugs violate Israel’s commitment to equal rights and mutual respect for all religions, while ignoring the people’s voice.  Taking the law into their own hands, these outlaws bypass democracy, defy the government, insult voting citizens and civil society, acting like traitors not patriots.

These hooligans may as well eat pork on Yom Kippur while driving in their cars and blasting the radio – they have already flouted Judaism so flagrantly, why put on a show of piety? Rather than dressing in white on Yom Kippur they should dress in ash black and blood red, representing the destruction they have brought upon innocents and the shame they bring upon as all.  If they call themselves “religious,” their rabbis should renounce these heinous acts and twisted souls.

Moreover, we who cherish tradition must emphasize that ethics come before ritual, personal morality trumps public piety, to stop the masquerade of criminals hiding terrorist acts – or other crimes –behind yarmulkes and kosher food, prayer books and Bibles.  Our rabbis must remind us – and we, alas, occasionally must remind them – that you cannot be a good Jew –by any interpretation or denomination – without being a good person first. During these ten days of repentance, we must reconcile with other people before reconciling with God.

Although these crooks – along with some extremist reporters –fancy themselves “extremist Zionists” – they are deeply anti-Zionist.  While dishonoring Zionist values, confirming the world’s worst prejudices about Zionism, they also betray the movement’s essential character. There is no room in the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl, the proud Zionism of Zeev Jabotinsky, the Labor Zionism of A.D. Gordon, or the religious Zionism of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook for burning mosques – or attacking soldiers, harassing dissidents, destroying olive groves, or any other Price Tag Terrorist crimes.  Such villainy is not why a Jewish State was created. Nor does this Jewish state need such behavior to be protected.

Jewish history teaches that those in the majority must limit their power and respect minority rights, avoiding abuses like these Price Tag crimes. We should be proud that despite centuries of provocations, even under hellish circumstances, Jews usually maintained their moral compasses.  Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie “Inglorious Basterds” was so offensive because he missed that essential historical lesson. In depicting Jews during Hitler’s era as vengeful mass murderers themselves, he posited a moral equivalence between victimizer and victim. Historically, we resisted that temptation – and have chided Palestinians and their supporters who claim their grievances forced them to become suicide bombers.  Today, we should continue following our ancestors’ glorious example not Tarantino or Palestinian perversity.

We are all moral actors, we all have moral choice. Palestinian terrorists choose to commit mass murder – justifiably earning moral opprobrium. Vigilante Price Tag Terrorists choose to commit their crimes – also earning contempt, although their milder crimes of arson, graffiti, and harassment are not comparable to murder.  Many of us have long wanted the Palestinian masses to condemn crimes committed in their names.  We must do the same, as Israelis are doing, refusing to be blinded by false communal solidarity or shoddy self-pitying logic. Rabbis and right-wingers should take the lead, given that previous suspects emerged from their communities.

We should help rebuild that mosque – and embrace the traumatized citizens of Tuba Zangria. We should protect the political activists who were harassed.  And we should demand that the same laws against violence apply to all under Israel’s jurisdiction, ending this outrage wherein Price Tag Terrorists overlook the price we all pay for their crimes.

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,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com

Gates, Ingrates and Israel: America’s Indispensable Ally

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-13-11

Last week, a zinger landed in Jerusalem from Washington, DC, the land of the leakers. Jeffrey Goldberg of Bloomberg News reported that former Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates had denounced Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to President Barack Obama, as “ungrateful.” Gates reportedly “stated bluntly that the US has received nothing” from Israel, despite “the many steps the administration has taken to guarantee Israel’s security” – and no one present on Obama’s National Security team disagreed. If a “gaffe” means a politician caught in the act of telling the truth, such “leaks” are more like precision guided missiles, with specific targets and exact timing.

The message was clear: the Obama Administration resents squandering so much political capital by opposing the Palestinian play for statehood. In return, Obama and his team expect payback from Israel – while also wishing to humiliate their nemesis, Bibi Netanyahu. Unfortunately, once again the Obama Administration misread the power dynamics in today’s world, unfairly impugned Netanyahu, inaccurately maligned Israel itself, and gave Israel’s enemies a gift they do not deserve. Throughout years of distinguished public service, Robert Gates never uttered a memorable phrase. But the anti-Israel crowd will be crowing about Israel, the supposedly “ungrateful ally,” for decades to come.

Legend incorrectly credits President Harry Truman with saying: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog,” while foreign policy’s defining cliché has long been that “nations have no friends or enemies, only interests.” Although rooted in common values and a deep friendship, the Israeli-American alliance flourishes thanks to common interests and mutual need. The United States will abandon allies when convenient – as the Shah of Iran and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt learned, painfully. The US is resisting the Palestinian attempt to dodge negotiations by prematurely declaring independence because Washington fears more Middle East tumult. With Egypt teetering, Turkey acting out, Saudi Arabia untrustworthy, Iran ascendant, America needs a strong, stable Israel. The dangers of Palestinian chaos or a Hamas takeover are too great to trust inflammatory gestures at the biased, ineffectual UN.

While Secretary Gates is correct that Bibi Netanyahu should have handled his last visit to Washington more diplomatically, Bibiphobia – irrational, obsessive hatred of Israel’s Prime Minister – is now epidemic, in Washington, among American Jewish elites, and in world capitals. This Monday’s New York Times editorial defied rules of logic and good writing by claiming “Both sides share the blame [for a stalled peace process] with Mr. Obama and Arab leaders” but immediately added: “(we put the greater onus on Mr. Netanyahu, who has used any excuse to thwart peace efforts).” If a student wrote this I would X it in red and write: “CONTRADICTORY — do you want to blame Netanyahu or everyone, be clear!”

Moreover, Elliott Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor for Global Democracy Strategy under President George W. Bush, deftly debunked the Gates critique, remembering Gates using similar language, blasting Israel as “ungrateful,” in 2007, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was peace processing actively. This recollection derails the Blame Bibi forces. Gates’s complaints, Abrams notes, “are not new and should not, in fairness, be attributed to recent developments or blamed on Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

As we commemorate 9/11, it is shocking to hear an American leader deem Israel ungrateful – rather than an indispensable ally nurturing a mutual friendship, which has entailed occasional sacrifice too. If Gates sought to chide ungrateful allies, America certainly has its share. Most Third World nations, like Egypt, have long cashed American checks, but trashed American values. Saudi Arabia spawned and bankrolled the 9/11 Islamist ideology. And Europeans have embraced anti-Americanism (along with anti-Zionism) as one of the few acceptable prejudices in the PC EU.

By contrast:

In the 1960s, Israel humiliated Soviet allies and thwarted Soviet foreign policy in the Six Day War – when America badly needed a big Cold War win like that to balance out its own Vietnam failure.

In the 1970s, after the Yom Kippur War, Israel taught the American military invaluable, real-time lessons for countering Soviet weaponry, then shared captured equipment – after having sustained devastating losses when the war began by not attacking pre-emptively because America requested restraint.

In the 1980s, Israel destroyed Iraq’s Osirak nuclear reactor, initially infuriating Ronald Reagan’s Administration – but ultimately earning gratitude worldwide for keeping Saddam Hussein nuke free.

In the 1990s, Israel refrained from retaliating after Saddam bombed Tel Aviv with Scud missiles – again sacrificing strategic interests to advance American interests, in this case preserving President George H.W. Bush’s broad coalition against Saddam to free Kuwait in the first Gulf War.

Most recently, since September 11, Israel has been a steadfast partner, coach, guinea pig, friend, helping America fight its multifront war against shadowy Islamist terrorists – who, unlike some Western elites, see the harmony of values and convergence of interests linking two great friends, the State of Israel, and the United States of America. Israeli anti-terror techniques have saved the lives of many soldiers formerly under Secretary Gates’s command, as they trained in urban warfare techniques and learned how to defuse roadside bombs with Israeli colleagues. And Israelis are among the most pro-American people in the world.

Last Friday night, as Egyptian mobs menaced six Israeli security guards, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called President Barack Obama – and Obama demanded the Egyptians avert a tragedy. Israel should, of course, be grateful for Obama’s intervention, which was, characteristically, another noble gesture that also served America’s interest. A Cairo bloodbath would have roiled the world. This is the model Americans and Israelis have followed for decades – looking out for each other and building an ideal friendship, forged in core ideals sustained by a unity of purpose and mutual payoffs, a perpetual win-win. For that, both Americans and Israelis should be … grateful.

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 currently completing his sixth book about American history. giltroy@gmail.com