Why Can’t We Talk About Culture?

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-3-12

Mitt Romney’s recent Israel trip proved yet again that a political gaffe is a politician caught in the act of telling the truth. True, his comment that “culture makes all the difference” when comparing the Israeli and Palestinian economies was too broad—all politicians should learn never to use words like “all” and “never.” But the media firestorm his comments evoked, and Saeb Erekat’s predictable charge that Romney made a “racist statement,” mixed together two topics about which it seems impossible to have a textured, subtle, mature conversation these days: the Middle East and the impact of culture.

For centuries, a triumphalist narrative dominated Western civilization. Europeans, Americans, and Australians took great pride in their culture as the cause of their political stability, widespread freedoms, economic success, overall sophistication, and world power. Unfortunately, that narrative fed an arrogance that encouraged some of the Western world’s great sins, including racism, colonialism and imperialism. Following World War II, and particularly during the 1960s, there was a welcome backlash against these Western crimes.

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Palestinian girls walk home from school inside the refugee camp of al-Fawar in the West Bank town of Hebron. (Hazem Bader / AFP / Getty Images)

 

But this salutary revolution, like so many revolutions, overstepped, and resulted in the Great Inversion. Many Western elites, who once believed their civilization could do no wrong, started believing their culture could do no right. Simultaneously, the Middle East had its own Great Inversion as Israel went from being perceived as a country that was above reproach to being broadly considered a country that was beneath contempt. This new Western phenomenon of self-criticism, built on a strong Jewish orientation toward internalizing guilt, was easy prey for an equal and opposite Third World and Arab orientation toward assigning blame.

Underlying these complex phenomena, which had many causes, manifestations, and subtleties, was a defining ideological and intellectual struggle. By 2000, the political scientist Samuel Huntington published an anthology “Culture Matters” as a rallying point for David Landes and other culture-oriented colleagues. Romney’s remarks should be understood in the context of this ongoing debate and ideological power struggle. His analysis reflects his understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is a central critique of Barack Obama’s worldview.

As always, the truth lies somewhere in the middle. As the scholar-Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan explained, “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Culture matters—but politics matters too.

So no, it is not helpful to shut down every conversation about the impact of culture by shouting “racist.” And yes, it is absurd to see the same people who generalize so broadly about Israeli culture and character take such umbrage at generalizations about Palestinian character. The Middle East will not progress until Palestinians can look at their culture critically, and see how worldviews that emphasize victimization, accept authoritarianism, impose sexism, celebrate terrorism, and squelch individualism are destructive. It is more than true that many Palestinians, partially due to their contact with Israelis, are more entrepreneurial and democracy-minded, than many other cultures we could easily name. But Israelis—and Palestinians—both have to take responsibility and step up to progress.

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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Celebrating Israel’s six great achievements

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-25-12

Rumor has it that mellowness comes with age. Golden agers are who they are. When Brian Mulroney was Canada’s middle-aged Prime Minister during the 1980s, he recalls being more thin-skinned, much less at peace with himself, than his elderly American colleague, President Ronald Reagan.

Alas, as Israel hits 64, it lacks the tranquility that should be accompanying its age. Lately, our national leaders have demonstrated a surprising skittishness.  Israel’s Interior Minister feels compelled to ban an aging German blowhard whose great work dates from 1959, after he writes a pathetic propagandistic poem.  And the Prime Minister, who never bothered sending an ardent Zionist like me a letter, feels compelled to write a letter chiding troublemakers who tried swooping into Israel on their “Flytilla.”

Of course, I take the forces trying to delegitimize Israel seriously. I share Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s fury at their hypocrisy, self-righteousness, and double-standards. I see the harm they cause at universities, in the media, and among gullible anxious-to-be-loved-by-the-goyim Jews. Singling Israel out, questioning Israel’s right to exist, this continuing assault on Zionism as racism, are all outrages – and constitute strategic threats to Israel, especially because they encourage and reinforce the even greater threats from Israel’s hostile neighbors.

The writer Cynthia Ozick was correct. In the 1970s she said Jews are not paranoid but narapoid. That is when you think people are out to get you — and they are.

My issue, however, is tactical. Just as I tell friends damaged by difficult childhoods that “living well is the best revenge,” therein lies Israel salvation too. As we celebrate Israel’s birthday, we should ignore Gunther Grass and the mindless anti-Zionist mob. Instead, we should toast 64 miraculous years, focusing on six extraordinary achievements, one for each decade.

First, re-establishing Jewish sovereignty in the Jewish homeland.  People mocked Theodor Herzl in 1897 when he predicted the creation of a Jewish state half a century later – he was off by only one year. The “wandering Jews” were considered the ultimate stateless people.  Coming home, establishing a state – and keeping it thriving, not just surviving – is one of the twentieth century’s great miracles, now continuing into the twenty-first.

Second, offering a welcoming Jewish home to Holocaust survivors, refugees from Arab lands, and other oppressed Jews while preserving civil liberties and free immigration for all. Since 1948, Israel has absorbed over three million immigrants, as its population has grown to nearly eight million. To Israel, today’s refugee is tomorrow’s citizen; Palestinians are the only people who have been able to convince the UN that refugee status can be inherited. And in a clear repudiation of the accusation that Zionism is in any way racist, Israel has accepted black, brown, and white refugees. Skin color is irrelevant, with nearly 80,000 Ethiopian Jews constituting the only welcome migration I know of involving Black Africans to a mostly white country.

Third, returning the Jews to history, transforming Jews’ image from the world’s victim to actors on history’s stage, with rights and responsibilities. The traditional European caricature of the Jew – oppressed, depressed, broken-down, sniveling – has changed. Israelis are known as strong, exuberant, proud and free. With power comes dilemmas. Israel, like all countries, has its weaknesses, makes mistakes. But Israel, like all great democracies, has powerful self-correcting mechanisms, including free elections, a vibrant press, a strong judiciary, free thinking intellectuals, and an open, self-critical culture.

Fourth, building a western-style capitalist democracy with a strong Jewish flavor. In 2009, 3,416,587 Israelis voted in the Middle East’s eighteenth free national election — meaning Israel’s 18th Knesset election — uniquely involving Muslims, Christian and Jews. Real GDP growth in 2011 was 3.7 percent; America’s growth that year was 1.6 percent.  In this year’s social protests, a strong Zionist spirit infused this collective, innovative attempt to tackle central dilemmas about wealth and welfare bedeviling the entire Western world. And because the Jews are a people, when we talk about a Jewish state, it is not a theocracy, but a liberal national democracy, with a uniquely Jewish accent.

This leads to, fifth, the dynamic old-new Jewish culture making Israel a central force in revitalizing Jewish secular and religious life in the Jewish homeland and abroad while serving as a bastion of Western culture too.  Israel is a modern Western country with a “very high” quality of life, ranking 17th of 187 in 2011 on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. Jerusalem, in particular, is a living laboratory for modern Judaism, with fascinating intellectual and spiritual expressions bubbling up weekly – and imported throughout the Jewish world. More broadly, surveys estimate that 98 percent of Israeli Jews have a mezuzah on their front door, 85 percent participate in a Pesach seder, and 71 percent light Hanukkah candles, as they live in a Jewish space by Jewish time.

And finally, reviving Hebrew.  In 2010, Israeli publishers published 5432 Hebrew books, reflecting Israel’s literacy rate of 97.1 percent, and its world ranking as fortieth in number of books published by a country 97th in population size. The daily experiment of making Hebrew a living language continues. This year, I learned how to spell “You Tube” in Hebrew and to pronounce Google as Israelis do, Goo-gell. And in a quaint genuflection toward our Biblical roots, I learned that the way to say pigs-in-a-blanket (mini hot dogs wrapped in a bun), in Hebrew is “Moshe beTeva,” Moses in a basket.

As the smell of burned flesh wafts over the land –because most Israelis celebrate their national day with barbecues not pigs in blankets — let us hope for a 65th year of mellow, of peace, with the delegitimizers struck dumb, and Israelis living well, not for revenge but to express our good fortune and great fulfillment.

The writer 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 will be Moynihan’s Moment:  The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

Center Field: Diaspora-Israel relations as bad date

Jerusalem Post, July 27, 2008

The results of the third annual Survey of Contemporary Israeli Attitudes toward World Jewry commissioned by the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem are in, and once again we can proclaim: Israel-Diaspora relations remain less fraternal than we like to believe – and more like a bad date than we really acknowledge. Just as North American Jews are convinced that Israelis need us more than we need them, Israelis believe we need them more than they need us. In this survey, focusing on the Israeli side of the equation, most Israeli Jews – 76 percent – believed it is safer to live as a Jew in Israel than in the Diaspora, while 43 percent believed the State of Israel rather than the local Jewish community was more responsible for fighting anti-Semitic outbreaks in the Diaspora.

These results reveal a condescending Israeli approach to Diaspora Jews as weak, embattled, incapable of self-defense, and dependent on Israeli super-heroes to save them. These attitudes would be more offensive if they were not matched by the too-prevalent Diaspora view of Israelis as weak, embattled, poor cousins needing Diaspora donations – and impassioned letters to the editor – to survive. In fact, both communities are far stronger, more independent, and in some ways more interdependent than most Jews on either side of the Atlantic realize.

Fortunately, the survey uncovered a strong shaft of light bursting forth from this gloom. Nearly half the Israelis surveyed approved of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s recent announcement, shifting Israel-Diaspora policy away from promoting mass Aliyah. Instead, Olmert’s welcome move sought to improve Jewish education in Jewish communities, emphasizing Hebrew, Jewish culture and heritage, Jewish values, and strengthening the links between world Jewry and the State of Israel. This is a marvelous mutual agenda. Aside from Hebrew, which in Israel is thriving, Israeli Jews would also benefit by learning more about their culture, heritage, ethics, and fellow Jews. The failures of the Israeli educational system in most of these areas are as dismaying as the failures of the Diaspora Jewish educational system in these realms.

Prime Minister Olmert was right to first emphasize Hebrew. Hebrew remains the key to Jewish learning, offering entrée to two of the most fundamental Jewish experiences: attending synagogue and visiting the State of Israel. Of course, one can do either without knowing Hebrew, but mastering the language allows Jews to approach prayer in a more knowledgeable fashion and to approach Israel as insiders not outsiders, as brothers and sisters coming home not tourists visiting an exotic locale. It is lamentable that so many of this generation of Diaspora Jews have distanced themselves from Hebrew. Even many of the finest Jewish day schools in North America no longer emphasize Ivrit, fearing that their students will not be able to appreciate Judaism’s relevance if filtered through a “foreign language.” The rest of the world is appreciating the value of knowing multiple language – yet our parents and educators are spurning a great mind-expanding opportunity, fearful that their “bubbelehs” (all of whom during their bar and bat mitzvahs are hailed as geniuses) somehow won’t be able to cope with the second language.

Although the Israeli school system does a good job teaching Hebrew, both the religious and secular schools are far less effective in teaching a love of Judaism. Too much of the religious education emphasizes dos and don’ts rather than whys; too much of the secular system approaches Jewish studies as a laborious requirement to be endured rather than a blessed opportunity to be enriched.

Mutual salvation is possible here. Both Israelis and Diaspora Jews would benefit from a joint Jewish renaissance, a new commitment throughout the Jewish world to learning from each other about our past and our present to guarantee a more dynamic future. In this  — and so many other realms – birthright Israel has shown the way. The program offering free trips to Israel for young Diaspora Jews has a “Mifgash,” requirement, wherein young Israelis – and now, frequently Israeli soldiers – join the trips for a significant part. The initial motivation was to give Diaspora Jews a more authentic link to Israel; most of the Israelis who have participated have ended up experiencing their own reawakening. The Israeli Army Education branch has become an enthusiastic cheerleader for the program, seeing how it makes most Israeli soldiers absorb a keen sense of peoplehood, a newfound love of Judaism, and a deeper understanding that they are not just defending their homes but the Jewish people’s homeland. These successes reinforce Olmert’s essential insight – by taking responsibility for teaching Diaspora Jews, Israeli Jews will jumpstart their own process of becoming responsible and knowledgeable Jews.

Inevitably, much of the energy in developing this new chapter of Israel-Diaspora will focus on formal education – which certainly needs reforming. In the spirit of the Zionist youth movements that helped establish the state, informal education will also get attention. But in order for this renaissance to resonate most broadly, we need to think of a whole other dimension – that of popular culture, perhaps the most influential force in young Jewish lives today, be they in the Diaspora or in Israel.

Recently, I looked for some Hebrew books on Israeli history in a Jerusalem bookstore. “We don’t really have much of a selection,” the saleswoman said. “Really, in Barnes and Noble in New York there are shelves full of American history works for kids,” I replied. “We’re not just that patriotic,” the saleswoman replied with a world-weary sigh, despite being barely 25. This exchange illustrates the formidable challenge we face. We need to learn from American Girl, this extraordinary marketing colossus that has brilliantly fused inspiring stories from America’s past, the contemporary search for some “Girl Power” role models, and the crassest form of commercialism. We need to create a Hebrew-English Jewish Harry Potter, perhaps situated in Temple Times, plumbing the mysteries of Judaism in a delightful, compelling way. We need to mimic Disney, which so cleverly blurs shameless entertainment with education about science, history, geography.

This is not an endorsement of watered-down Judaism, whereby we create a pop Judaism as meaningless as the rest of modern popular culture. Rather, this is a call for an invigorated Jewish atmosphere, in Israel and the Diaspora, that harnesses the power of popular culture to redirect our youth, on both sides of the Atlantic toward meaningful interactions with our profoundly rich civilization. But just as Olmert’s strategy recognizes that we will only see a rise in Aliyah after we have seen a resurgence of education, we will not see that educational resurgence, until we get more young Jews to consider embracing their heritage, their people, their faith as their fundamental anchors in this tempest-tossed and trend-obsessed world.