Learning from Obama’s gay marriage wobble

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-15-12

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me.

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me. For a president of the United States to back into such a monumental announcement reflected weakness, not strength, diminishing the man, the message and the office. Even as gay activists and Democrats try spinning Obama’s wobbly stand as heroic, newly-energized prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not learn leadership lessons from his “frenemy.”

Netanyahu must start leading on key issues rather than skirting them as he has been doing, or playing it too cute by half as Obama just did.

This twist in the gay marriage saga began on Meet the Press, when Vice President Foot-in-mouth, aka Joe Biden, proclaimed when asked directly: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

Biden is lucky he is a Democrat. He is windier, wordier, less disciplined than Dan Quayle, but because Biden’s views are more in synch with many reporters – as on this issue – he has largely been spared the ridicule he deserves. Biden opposed the Osama bin Laden raid, then called it the most “audacious” military operation in “500 years.” He greeted Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, the Congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head, upon her return to Congress by saying, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me.” He once was caught on microphone dropping “the f-bomb” after introducing the president in the White House.

This time, even Obama admitted that Biden got “a little over his skis.” Nevertheless, by midweek, on Wednesday May 9, the president followed the vice president by acknowledging in an ABC interview that “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue” and “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that – for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that – I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

As befit the interview format and America’s confessional culture, Obama justified the decision personally, not ideologically.

Hoping the issue could be “worked out at the local level,” he dodged the Constitutional and national policy questions. He spoke instead about “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” about gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or – sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” and about his daughters Malia and Sasha – “they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples” who shouldn’t be “treated differently.”

In a pathological tell, wherein you accuse your opponent of doing precisely what you are doing as you do it, Obama then started attacking Mitt Romney’s inconstancy, which Obama called “one of his Etch-a- Sketch moments.” Obama was echoing a Republican spokesman’s Bidenesque characterization of the adjustments Romney will make while transitioning from the primary campaign to the general election. If the traditional definition of chutzpah is killing your parents then pleading for mercy as an orphan, Obama’s chutzpah entails calling Romney an Etch-a-Sketch leader while shaking and redrawing his gay marriage stance in his boobish vice president’s tailwind.

Great leaders evolve. They shift their positions, rethink strategies, adjust their tactics and even, sometimes, reexamine core convictions, as Richard Nixon did with his diplomatic breakthrough to China, and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement.

But my mother taught that if you are going to do it, do it right.

John Kennedy’s civil rights stance evolved. The tentative politician who tried dodging the black equality issue in January 1960 became a statesman who confronted it eloquently on June 11, 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the president proclaimed in what became hailed as his Civil Rights speech. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Obama, instead, bequeathed to American history an unmemorable conversational announcement elicited by a reporter that had all the poetry of a gas bill, while triggering back stories about Biden’s subsequent make-up meeting with Obama, and Democratic election advisers’ fury over Biden’s blabbing.

Learning what not to do from Obama, Netanyahu should mobilize his expanded, empowered coalition to change Israeli history boldly and clearly. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been part stealth leader, part ward boss. His greatest accomplishments have included quietly blocking undemocratic legislation and tending his weak, fractious coalition. Now, he should stop treading water.

Rather than simply maneuvering in the Knesset he should start addressing the nation about tough issues. He should frame the upcoming debate over the Tal Law as a broader opportunity to redraw Israel’s social contract, emphasizing the special rights haredim and Arabs will enjoy while also emphasizing their communal responsibilities.

He should confront the anti-Zionist rabbinate and carve out more civic space for marriages, births, easy conversions and divorce.

He should not wait for another round of social protests before seeking a new balance that shows the world how to preserve Israel’s impressive prosperity while securing the social safety net without making middle class taxpayers feel like “freiers” (suckers).

And he should continue showing that with both the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel will determine its own destiny, neither held hostage to enemies’ whims nor handcuffed by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Westerners.

When Kennedy became president, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned that only the difficult decisions ended up in the Oval Office. Leading entails choosing between competing goods – or bads. In the US and Israel, sister democracies, we should give our leaders a break, understanding the complex challenges they face. And they should give us what we crave – clearer, more muscular, more principled statesmanship.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

Purim 2011: Making History Better in a Topsy-Turvy World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011

Purim 2011 was a time of Nahafochu, of complete turnarounds, as the world seemed particularly topsy-turvy. In the Arab world, the popular revolts continued to surprise dictators and democrats, as even Syrians started protesting.  In Israel, the parental smiles amid the Purim celebrations masked continuing heartbreak about the Itamar massacre, with the two butchered Fogel parents along with their three martyred children becoming national icons.  And in Japan, a country famed for its earthquake preparation and general efficiency, the unexpected earthquake-Tsumani wallop exposed human sloppiness and nature’s awesome powers.

 

Nahafochu has two meanings, as these events confirm.   As a descriptive term, it teaches that humans occasionally confront dizzying revolutions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, like the happy, sudden switch Jews experienced, flipping from being Haman’s target to the King’s favorites. But as a prescriptive term, Nahafochu teaches not to be passive when history happens to us. We should transform reversals into potential gains as Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ communal fasting did. 

The Arab upheaval has triggered many transformations. Just weeks ago, Israel advocates’ lamenting about the lack of rights in the Arab world usually were ignored. Back in those days of –another Purim concept  — Ad Lo Yada –inability to distinguish good from bad, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped lead the UN Human Rights community. Hosni Mubarak was a cherished American ally, the keystone to Middle East peace and stability. Many academics, not just the London School of Economics toadies, begged gifts from Libya and other dictatorships.

 

Suddenly, mainstream world opinion started caring about Arab civil liberties. But rather than acknowledging that pro-Israel advocates were right or wondering how so many Western dupes were so numb to Arab rights and dignity for so long, the Ad Lo Yada relativistic crowd bashed Israel as anti-democratic. Yet Israelis’ guilty fears that these popular uprisings might not yield peaceful democracies are justified.  The conventional wisdom ignores how Hamas and Hezbollah are the Arab street’s monstrous spawn,  the Moslem Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt, and the way some populist Arabs call their perceived enemies “Jew, Jew” or
otherwise link opponents to Israel.

 

At the same time, by focusing on military intervention the West is misguided.  Wherever possible, citizens of a particular country should decide whether and how to remove their dictators.  The world should react when a Muammar Gaddafi starts slaughtering his own people –but only as a last resort, although preferably without dithering for too long.  The best way democratic outsiders can help is by cultivating true democracy inside the Arab world. Cold War programs that nurtured democratic infrastructure in Eastern Europe should be resurrected, expanded, exported, translated into Arabic and applied intelligently. Visionaries like Natan Sharansky, who recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, understand this as the West’s greatest gift to give.  After decades of enabling Arab autocracy, democrats should enable true Arab democracy, respecting rule of law, mutual rights, basic civil rights, civil society, and a functioning free market, not just votes. That would be a constructive Nahafochu.

 

Many Ad Lo Yada morally-comatose Westerners continue to misread the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. The Itamar massacre again highlights the cancer of violence corroding the Palestinian national soul – and constituting the greatest obstacle to peace. The civilized world should repudiate the Itamar murder or murderers who stabbed to death the five Fogel family members, including three-month-old Baby Hadas. The world should recoil at the incitement which produced these baby-killers – while also condemning those Palestinians who welcomed home the murderers that night. The pictures of the blood-soaked mattresses suggest that anyone involved in those murders returned drenched in blood and sweat, reeking of death. Welcoming an obvious murderer is a criminal act of collaboration; celebrating homicide with candies is unconscionable.

 

But now too many are accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of raising the incitement issue to avoid peace talks. In fact, Nahafochu, the opposite is true. If Palestinian political culture cleansed itself of its death cult, if the world restrained expressions of Arab anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and delegitimization of Israel, border questions and other issues could be dispatched quickly. In Israel, those who believe in settling the entire land of Israel at any price are a small, loud, minority. These ideologues find reinforcement in the pragmatic majority which justifiably fears the Palestinian violence, Palestinian demonization, Palestinian incitement that the Oslo peace process unwittingly fed rather than cured by trusting Yasir Arafat. Western leaders combating incitement, Palestinian visionaries taking responsibility to wean their people of violence  – for the sake of their own souls — would transform the Middle East, making peace a procedural question rather than an existential  challenge for most Israelis.

 

Amid this tragedy, all this complexity, it is easy to read the Japanese catastrophe as an invitation for passivity, a prompt to despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Tsunamis, earthquakes, and radioactive releases, this terrifying intersection where acts of God meet the mistakes of man.  But we cannot ignore the acts of godliness among so many people, in the Tsunami of love enveloping the Japanese, and the impressive international efforts to avert the feared nuclear meltdown.

 

A story circulating in Israel this week told of Rami Levy, the little guy from the Mahane Yehudah market who established a supermarket empire, showing up daily at the Fogel shiva, filling the refrigerator in the mourners’ home. At one point, he supposedly told a relative, get used to me, I will do this every week until the youngest surviving Fogel child – a 2-year-old – turns 18.

 

This Purim in particular teaches us that Nahafachu is prescriptive.  We cannot avert every catastrophe.  We can turn any catastrophe – Rami Levy style – into an opportunity to overcome challenges, assert our common humanity, help others, and change history for the better.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

Gil Troy: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

Center Field: A living advertisement for Zionism’s redemptive power

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 5-18-09

I applaud American reformers’ push to improve the Jewish Agency’s governance and purge politics from the selection of its chairman. But today’s political appointee is the right man for the job. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s nomination of the legendary human rights activist Natan Sharansky to be the Jewish Agency’s chairman is a gift to the agency and the Jewish people. After a lifetime of serving not just the Jewish people but humanity, Sharansky should not have to ask anyone for votes. Those of us who care about Israel, Zionism and the Jewish future should beg him to serve.

The Jewish Agency is at an awkward moment in its proud history. It was established on August 11, 1929, fulfilling the 1922 League of Nations Mandate for Palestine proposing a “Jewish agency” representing world Jewry to help establish “the Jewish National Home… in Palestine.” In 1948, the actual state superseded this proto-state. Today, with that historic mission accomplished, the agency promotes aliya, Jewish-Zionist education and Israel-Diaspora partnerships.

Most Jewish Agency employees I meet are extraordinary. Be they working for Partnership 2000 to partner 250 Diaspora communities with 50 Israeli regions, serving in the World Zionist Organization or developing MASA to bring young Jews for sustained periods of work or study in Israel, they are idealistic, passionate, visionary. Unfortunately, they work for a bureaucracy with a terrible reputation.

I have met the occasional Jewish Agency hack who sends a staffer ahead to check that he has a microphone to address two dozen people. Then, having wasted staff resources, this apparatchik – with a rumored penchant for expensive travel – alienates all the young, enthusiastic Zionists he addresses with his dismissive arrogance. As a result, when many people pass Jewish Agency headquarters in Jerusalem they imagine hearing the ticktock, ticktock of bureaucrats marking time and the clink, clink, whirl, whirl of good money flushing down the drain.

To me, the building pulsates with the energy of the Zionist mission. It is rooted in Jewish history, throbbing with idealists, and like Israel itself, a key to our salvation as Jews and human beings. Just as Israel’s occasional mistakes should not define Zionism, the occasional pen pusher should not tarnish the agency’s reputation.

DURING THESE difficult times, with the Jewish Agency seeking more of two key “M”s – money and a focused mission – Natan Sharansky can save it, while using this platform to revitalize Zionism. Just because Sharansky’s story is familiar, we should never take for granted the miracle he not only lived through but shaped. When I visited the Soviet Union in 1985, Sharansky had been imprisoned since his March 1977 arrest on trumped-up charges. Few of us imagined that within a year he would be free and that within a few years, the Soviet Union would implode.

Gil Troy: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

Center Field: American Jewish anxiety:Why so wobbly?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-8-09

I felt no shame about Madoff or Israel’s actions in Gaza. But reports of my fellow Jews’ cravenness made me cringe. Many American Jews are reeling from a series of blows to their standing as America’s model minority. Following autumn’s economic meltdown, Bernard Madoff confessed to his $50 billion scam, the Gaza war triggered new waves of anti-Semitism and now Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu seems poised to lead a conservative Israeli government. The disappointment of America’s mostly liberal Jews in Bibi’s resurgence is compounded by worries about how the conservative Netanyahu will get along with the liberal US President Barack Obama, especially because each thinks he is the smartest man in the room. All this fretting suggests many American Jews are much less secure in their Promised Land than most admit.

Yes, it is logical to lament American Jews’ financial straits individually and collectively, to despair at Madoff’s evil in robbing charities along with individuals, to find the vicious backlash against Israel’s justified actions alarming and to worry about American-Israeli relations. But shame is the unfortunate emotion escalating these reasonable concerns into collective anxiety.

The New York Times has described Americans Jews’ embarrassment, suggesting Madoff’s crime reflected some communal moral failure. Moreover, the article explained, “Jews are also grappling with the implications of Mr. Madoff’s deeds for their public image.”

Novelist Nathan Englander told The Forward that Madoff’s crime “really raises up for me this primal thing of,  ‘This is the kind of thing that looks bad in a general Jewish way.’ It gave me that ‘circle the wagon’ mentality that I don’t have very often.” I confess I feel no shame about Madoff, Israel’s actions in Gaza or Bibi’s rise. Or at least I felt no shame until I read about American Jewish embarrassment. In the Times, one rabbi discussing Madoff mentioned the “shanda factor,” using the Yiddish term for “an embarrassing shame.? This disgrace, we learned, was stirring anti-Semitism.

The full expression the rabbi should have taught is a shanda fur die goyim, something which embarrasses Jews in front of non-Jews. The rabbi probably was nervous about using the word goyim with the Times’s reporter, given that the term is often perceived as setting Jews up as superior to non-Jews. Actually, the phrase reflects Jews’ historic insecurity. “Shanda fur die goyim” evokes the image of Jews perpetually on probation, with our people only tolerated as long as we are on our best behavior or perform some salutary social function.

Perhaps I have spent too much time in Israel, where, alas, there are plenty “shandas fur die yiddin”: Jews acting disgracefully in front of their fellow Jews. From cruel mobsters who strut around Netanya, occasionally mowing down civilians while rubbing out rivals, to settler hooligans menacing Palestinians and IDF soldiers, to the corrupt prime minister (for life?) who has overstayed his welcome, Israel has its share of scoundrels.

But brazen behavior triggers the correct reaction – outrage not embarrassment, condemnation not cowering.  The Zionist idea was that in our own country Jews would behave normally – sometimes heroically, sometimes despicably – without being on probation. True, as nationalists, we mourn our people’s losses, celebrate successes and regret any of our people’s sins. But the leap from condemning a fellow citizen’s crimes or excesses to worrying that a fellow Jew’s sins or unpopularity may lead to a backlash against me personally, descends from the realm of normal national solidarity to the wandering Jew’s pathological insecurity; never at home, never at peace.

The American Jewish community’s cravenness is particularly shocking considering that so many Jews star in the great American success story. In a twisted way, Madoff’s fraud demonstrates how accepted Jews are in America today. The extent of Madoff?s reach – and damage – from his Palm Beach country club to the secretive sanctums of Swiss banks, from the board of Yeshiva University to the shores of Abu Dhabi, shows that in today’s globalized economy, successful Jews can do business anywhere.

Fears that Madoff’s crimes or Israel’s actions cause anti-Semitism imputes to anti-Semites a logic they lack. Too many of us have spent too many centuries trying to figure out what we did wrong to encourage anti-Semitism. This search focuses on the wrong actors in the play. Anti-Semitism is not the problem of the Jew, but of the anti-Semite, as Jean-Paul Sartre taught.

Anti-Semitism reflects the anti-Semites’ twisted cosmology, not the Jews’ sins; it is an irrational hatred, not a rational response belonging to the world of cause and effect.

When Nicholas Leeson’s trading losses broke Barings Bank in 1995, no English people worried that his sins would reflect on their own integrity. Allen Stanford?s recent $8 billion fraud triggered no discussion about his religion. A rational assessment of the Madoff scandal would note how much this criminal harmed Jews, and how quickly Jews condemned the man and the underlying materialism, undermining the notion that “the Jews” perpetuated some crime against humanity. (By contrast, consider how Islamist terrorists perpetuate crimes in Islam’s name, yet few Muslims denounce them.)

An honest appraisal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would identify this as a national conflict with religious overtones, but the ones making it a religious war are mostly the Islamic jihadists. And a fair assessment of Bibi Netanyahu’s record in dealing with Bill Clinton’s administration would note his pragmatic streak; many right-wingers thought he was too accommodating during the 1998 Wye River Summit.

Bernard Madoff’s sins are his sins, not the Jewish people’s. And even when Jews debate Israel’s actions or Bibi’s policies, Jews are far too settled in America, and America’s ties to Israel run too deep, to justify so much skittishness. Ultimately, the Madoff story is as much a quintessential American tale of the man on the make as it is a Jewish story. Madoff is a criminal, not a shanda, while Israel’s actions have been necessary and moral, not disproportionate or shameful.

The shanda is still feeling so wobbly in a land that has been so welcoming.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, was recently published by Basic Books.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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