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

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.

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Creeping of Anti-Semitism

By Gil Troy, The Mark, 12-1-09
American history author; Professor, history, McGill University.

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When it comes to Israel, there is plenty of legitimate criticism. The problem is that there is so much illegitimate criticism rooted in hatred as well.

Gil Troy on how to keep criticism of Israel kosher

In a recent article for The Mark, John Baglow complains that “the word ‘anti-Semitism’ has lost its original meaning almost entirely, and has become code for criticism of Israel and too-vocal support for the Palestinian people. ”

Alleging that human rights activists fighting Jew-hatred are somehow McCarthyites squelching debate is absurd considering how frequently Israel is criticized, in Israel and abroad, by both Jews and non-Jews. I just wish so much of the criticism of Israel was not distorted, and intensified by anti-Semitic tropes.

The Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Anti-Semitism has not launched some pro-Israel, anti-Palestinian witch-hunt, as Baglow alleges – without evidence. In fact, it’s very easy to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israel and illegitimate criticism rooted in a hatred of Jews.

Let’s start with the easiest case – and a moral test to Israel’s critics. Much Arab criticism of Israel and far too much Palestinian nationalism is interlaced with crass anti-Semitism. Too many Arabs and Palestinians conflate “Israel” and “the Jews.” Hamas’s charter could condemn Israel without invoking a classic, I am sorry to say it, Islamic phrase in Article 7, among other places, quoting “the Prophet” Muhammad saying:

“The Day of Judgment will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Cartoons in the Arab media could caricature Israeli leaders without giving them the hook-noses, fangs, and Shylock sidelocks of Nazi propagandists. And protesters against Israel could make their point without signs lamenting that Hitler did not finish the job. Then there are the attacks on synagogues and Jews in Europe.

Alas, Canada has not been immune from this. Jews did not concoct the charge that the April 2004 firebombing of a Montreal Jewish elementary school was connected to pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel forces. The criminals themselves made the link.

Israel’s critics could distance themselves from these vile expressions but rarely do. And we have learned from the civil rights movement, feminism, and gay liberation, that the moral onus is not on the victim to parse who is criticizing legitimately and who is perpetuating prejudice. If more critics of Israel denounced the anti-Semitism poisoning so much of the Palestinian movement, fueling so much criticism of Israel, there would be no need for Parliamentary inquiries.

More subtly, it is quite easy to distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism, or criticism propelled by anti-Semitic tropes. Every day in synagogues throughout the world, in Israeli newspapers, and, these days, in the halls of power in Washington, DC, Jews and non-Jews, presidents and regular folk, criticize Israeli actions without delegitimizing Israel – which is the clearest red-line to draw. The fact that Israel is singled out for disproportionate criticism, that Israel, alone among the 192 UN member states, has its existence challenged, that so much of the world’s attention is focused on such a small conflict, does not make sense.

Describing the national conflict between Israel and Palestinians as a racial conflict, or claiming that Israel is like South Africa or, even worse, like the Nazis, also does not make sense. Unless, that is, you acknowledge the anti-Semitism that treats Israel, the Jewish state, as the Jew among nations, accused of disproportionate but secret power, undue influence in squelching debate, and nefarious aims and methods in what is a complicated, tragic conflict, then tarred with accusations of “racism,” “apartheid,” and “genocide,” when other countries whose actions would fit those damning indictments far, far better escape notice.

Finally, note another way too many Israel critics reveal an ugly anti-Semitism. We see gays overlooking Muslim homophobia, feminists overlooking Arab sexism, and liberals overlooking Israeli libertarianism in their zeal to bash Israel. We see academics overriding their primary professional obligation to tell the truth and acknowledge the world’s complexity in their rush to caricature Israel in simplistic terms. When (some, not all!) gay activists, feminists, liberals, academics, and others violate their core identities and defining values to malign Israel, they are doing what bigots do – leaving the realm of the logical for the pathological, and only diminishing themselves.

Center Field: Disproportionate, dishonest and discriminatory critics

Israel’s justified, in fact long delayed, military response to the rocket fire from Gaza triggered debate worldwide. Some criticism was reasonable, anguished, sympathizing with a state’s right to self-defense after eight years of bombardment, no matter how intermittent, while questioning the response’s intensity. Alas, much criticism was – dare we say it – disproportionate, dishonest and frequently discriminatory. Shouting at Jews “go back to your ovens” in Fort Lauderdale, vandalizing synagogues in Chicago, smashing Starbucks Coffee windows in London, lacks any ambiguity. The barrage of criticism launched illustrates how quickly condemnation of Israeli actions degenerates into anti-Zionism, which is often a thin veneer for anti-Semitism.

Although calling the response disproportionate implicitly conceded that some response was justified, most critics went further. Critics silent about Muslim murders of fellow Muslims in Gaza, Iraq or Sudan became obsessed with Israel’s “crimes,” no matter how surgical the IDF tried to be. More disturbing, the Mideast conflict’s dysfunctional, polarizing gravitational physics led many who criticized Israel’s actions to idealize Hamas.

Demonstrating this dishonesty in prominent essays in The Washington Post, Guardian and The New York Times, respectively, former president Jimmy Carter, Avi Shlaim of Oxford University and Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University all sanitized Hamas to demonize Israel.

Carter treated Hamas as a peace-loving movement seeking a “comprehensive cease-fire in both the West Bank and Gaza,” ignoring its charter’s vows to destroy Israel. Khalidi defined Israel’s 2009 war aims by unearthing a 2002 comment from Moshe Ya’alon, chief of General Staff at the time, about trying to crush Palestinians, ignoring many more recent, far uglier, Palestinian calls to annihilate Israel. And in a down-is-up essay, wherein Israel’s painful withdrawal from Gaza became an attempt to expand its territory, Shlaim treated Hamas as a democratic movement even though it seized power in a coup by murdering fellow Palestinians.

Shaim wrote of Hamas: “Denied the fruit of its electoral victory and confronted with an unscrupulous adversary, it has resorted to the weapon of the weak – terror.” It is particularly disingenuous for an historian to claim Hamas only “resorted” to terror due to the evil Israelis – as if Hamas had not first used such “weapons of the weak” back in the early 1990s, to sabotage the Oslo peace process.

Despicably, others used Holocaust shorthand to berate Israel. Calling Gaza a “big concentration camp,” as Cardinal Renato Martino, the Vatican’s justice and peace minister, did, or writing in on-line in Spain that “the Machiavellian brain of this entire extermination operation is no different from that which designed Nazi Germany,” crossed the line. For starters, the Holocaust – and other genocides – killed thousands, tens of thousands, millions – dwarfing the Palestinian civilian casualties in the hundreds despite three weeks of war.

Moreover, there is something particularly dastardly about preying on an ethnic group’s historic sensitivities. President Barack Obama will endure much criticism, but if critics make slavery analogies or refer to minstrel shows, their condemnation will be racist. During her campaign, Hillary Clinton and her supporters did not deem attacks on her Iraq war stance sexist. They complained about excessive attention to her clothes, speculation about her grit and other comments invoking stereotypes which historically demeaned women.

MANY OF these anti-Zionist attacks resurrected the historic ghost of anti-Semitic essentialism. When asked about his fellow protester in Florida who shouted at Jews, “You need a big oven, that’s what you need,” one rally organizer initially seemed to disavow the remarks. “She does not represent the opinions of the vast majority of people who were there,” Emmanuel Lopez told Fox News. But Lopez quickly added that “Zionism in general is a barbaric, racist movement that really is the cause of the situation in the entire Middle East.” Lopez, a state coordinator for ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) engaged in classic racist essentialism.

For centuries, critics of Jews have degenerated from criticizing specific Jews’ individual actions to generalizing about Jews and Judaism. Generalizing about Zionism’s essence condemns Jewish nationalism with this age-old anti-Semitic tactic. A sign at a Melbourne rally took this rhetoric further, crying: “Clean the Earth from Dirty Zionists.” You do not need a PhD in Jewish history – or in genocide studies – to see the Hitlerian overtones. Many victims of racism – and most especially the Jews in the Holocaust – were tagged as unclean, thus deserving of extermination, lest the general population be infected.

The ugly inverted rhetoric follows its inexorable logic: accusing the victims of the 20th-century’s most horrific genocide of committing genocide, then essentializing and demonizing their movement for collective national fulfillment, leads to calls for eradication. (It also excuses Iranian calls for Israel’s genocide). Jews have seen this happen too often to be blasé about it, whether the speaker is a Vatican official or a street punk.

Essentialism poisons the environment and corrupts other arenas. In the past 40 years, no Western power has engaged in any major military action that did not trigger massive criticism. However, the broad lynch-mob atmosphere against Israel singularly questions its existence, not just the proportionality of its actions. More than 60 years after the country’s founding, the world still has the Jewish state on probation, seemingly only accepted when it behaves well. Rogue states like Pakistan – an artificial creation carved out of a crumbling British Raj – do not have their existence questioned, while Israel constantly has to justify itself.

It is depressing in the 21st century to see such anti-Semitism, especially among those who designate themselves knights in the fight against racism. But the disproportionate demonization, the idealization of Hamas, the essentialism, the animosity coursing through so much criticism of Israeli actions suggests that the world has yet to heal from one of its most persistent afflictions.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University in Montreal. 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.

Center Field: A pornographic approach to violence

A response to the criticism over the Montreal Gazette Op-Ed “A moment of moral clarity

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?” I asked in a recent Montreal Gazette op-ed, responding to Israel’s hostage exchange with Hizbullah. I noted that “depending on the tone, this question becomes an attempt to clarify, or an expression of outrage. Stated calmly, ‘How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?’ can be a factual question – such as the one that faced Lebanese leaders this week as they proceeded to celebrate the freeing of Samir Kuntar from an Israeli prison, where he had been held since 1979 for murdering four-year-old Einat Haran, her father Danny Haran and a policeman. Stated angrily, ‘How do you welcome a child murderer as a hero?’ is the question Israelis are asking – and the rest of the civilized world should be asking, too.”

The article was titled “A moment of moral clarity.” I lamented decades of relativistic and self-flagellating propagandizing blinding Westerners from distinguishing between civilized and barbaric behavior whenever Westerners were in the right. Nevertheless, I insisted, the prisoner exchange illuminated the differences between the Lebanese and Palestinians who celebrated a child killer and the many Israelis who mourned the deaths of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

I concluded: “We want to side with the country that moves heaven and Earth to bring its boys home, to protect its citizens; not with the country of bloodthirsty mobs deifying cowards who smashed the skull of a four-year-old girl with a rifle butt on a lovely Mediterranean beach. We learn about a people by observing whom they love and whom they hate. Joy is fleeting and often triggered by base instincts. Sometimes collective anguish is a sign of moral strength, not national weakness.”

INEVITABLY, THE gravitational physics of the Middle East conflict kicked in and the article triggered a backlash. Shortly after the article appeared, the leading headline in the Gazette‘s “Letters to the Editor” section proclaimed “Troy overlooked the deaths in Lebanon.” The letter-writer said I ignored the hundreds of Lebanese and Palestinian children Israel killed since 2000 “in contrast to the 123 Israeli children who have died since 2000. Clearly, Israel does not celebrate life and certainly does not share Canadian values as Troy would have us believe.” Another letter, headlined “Israel is also unjust,” blasted Israel’s “illegal occupation of Palestinian and Lebanese territories.”

These reactions proved my point. Rushing to indict Israel, the critics ignored the obscene spectacle of the Kuntar homecoming. They missed the essential moral difference illustrated by Israel’s heartbreaking “hostage” exchange. Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev were reluctant citizen-soldiers, compelled to defend their country. Whatever violence they unleashed while serving – or whatever violence Israel unleashed after they were ambushed – never triggered any street festivals. Treating violence as a necessary last resort is very different than celebrating violence as proof of national self-worth. It would be immoral if Israelis refused to defend themselves, considering the assaults they endure. It would also be immoral if Israelis delighted in the deaths of any innocents, be they children or adults.

Yes, dead is dead. An individual is no better off being killed by an errant shell than being slaughtered in a targeted terrorist attack. But the rules of war distinguish between the two incidents, emphasizing not just the killers’ intentions but their reactions to the deaths.

We can and should debate how much Western soldiers, including Israelis, ignore the consequences of their actions. But there remains a huge moral gap between the ethical imbroglios of the Israeli soldier forced to fight and the canonization of violence that has overwhelmed Palestinian culture.

HERE THEN is the Palestinians’ great moral blind spot – and the chief sin of their uncritical fans. The Palestinian approach to violence has become increasingly pornographic – meaning focused on arousal. Initiating violence for effect rather than to defend oneself or advance strategic goals, seeking carnage to stimulate national pride, is a particularly twisted and sterile form of warfare. We have become too used to terrorism, too inured to its nihilistic nature. We risk losing our capacity for outrage as we observe and rate the constant attempts to choreograph just the right dance of death that will destroy the most, generate maximum news coverage, strike the greatest terror in Israeli hearts. Terrorists turns cafes into targets, and bulldozers – vehicles for building – into weapons of destruction not realizing the destructive force such actions unleash in their own society, and their own souls.

Addicted to the drama, lazily sticking to the established plot lines, reporters focus on how much these “operations” succeed or fail – the greater the damage the greater the success. But these journalistic narratives overlook what this pornographic approach to violence does to a people’s collective soul. We are who we worship. A society that deifies child killers and rampaging bulldozer operators, a culture of martyrdom that venerates the violent, is a nation destined to fail, not to build.

This addiction to terrorism has derailed the Palestinian national movement, poisoning what it touches. The Palestinian soul has been curdled by repeatedly toasting the brutality of a Samir Kuntar, the thuggishness of the bulldozing maniacs Husam Taysir Dwayat and Ghassan Abu Tir. The evidence is obvious but obscured by political correctness. Watching Gaza fritter away the opportunity the disengagement offered, seeing it develop into a hellacious slum rather than develop; observing the West Bank’s stagnation; witnessing the violence Hamas and Fatah forces unleash against each other – all illustrate the perils of this kind of pornography.

Alas, the false prophets of false equivalence, the cheerleaders for the cheerless, the mass enablers of Palestinian violence, would rather overlook the evidence. Instead, they do what they do best – bash Israel – targeting those who dare defend Israel in print and, most important, in uniform.

The writer, a professor of history at McGill University, is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His most recent book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, has just been published by Basic Books.