Building A Broad, Civil Jewish Tent On Israel


By Gil Troy NY Jewish Week, 5-29-12

As the American Jewish community mimics the rest of America with ugly, polarizing political fights, calls for a “big tent” are becoming common. Partisans are pushing back, caricaturing calls for a big tent as lacking in principle or shilling for the status quo. But constructing a big tent that is open enough to welcome disparate voices, yet not so undefined that it has no mooring, takes great skill and vision.

The finesse required was on display earlier this month. AJC Access, the American Jewish Committee’s youth wing, convened a second annual conference with the Reut Institute, an Israeli action-based think tank, to try creating a big, broad, respectful conversation about Israel, left, right and center. Young Jews, mostly aged 25 to 45, from more than 30 countries, participated.

During an intense, four-hour marathon session on “Legitimizing Israel,” I suggested four poles necessary for building a civil Jewish tent when talking about Israel. Like Abraham’s tent, it should be open on all four sides, while nevertheless offering protection.

Start by acknowledging complexity. Despite being a messy muddle, the Middle East seems to invite the most simplistic sloganeering. Yossi Klein Halevi, my colleague at Engaging Israel, a project of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, says that the Israeli right fails by ignoring the first intifada’s lessons — that the Palestinians are a people with rights to self-determination, which must be respected. The Israeli left fails by ignoring the second intifada’s lessons, that Palestinian political culture is possessed by annihilationist impulses. Until Palestinian leaders become more committed to building their own state rather than destroying Israel, peace will remain elusive.

Secondly, we should build identity, mounting what Donniel Hartman of Engaging Israel calls a “Jewish values conversation about Israel.” Last summer, after I wrote two articles critical of J Street in the Jerusalem Post, I nevertheless was invited to address J Street U’s student mission to Israel. Using the Engaging Israel methodology, which entails drilling down to core issues while carving out open, respectful space for dialogue, I hosted the students in my home, and began the conversation by exploring the question of why we need a Jewish state. Having studied fundamentals together, and having forged a broad consensus about Jewish identity that requires expression in state form, we could then start debating borders and tactics with no acrimony.

More broadly, we have to stop only experiencing Israel as a country that needs our support. We have not fully recognized how Israel’s existence enhances Jewish identity worldwide — or how Israel helps solve our existential dilemmas as human beings and as Jews in a stressful, confusing modern world. This kind of Zionism highlights consensus and spotlights values, while ending the constant obsession with Israel’s headaches.

Thirdly, we also must not be afraid to define our community. We should develop “red lines” and “blue and white lines,” meaning ideas we repudiate and principles we champion. Two years ago, a group that I was a part of, ranging from left to right, worked together to define common parameters. The document we produced came easily. We all affirmed our beliefs in Jewish nationalism, Jewish statehood, and mutual respect. And we agreed on red lines, such as not accusing Israel of racism or apartheid, and, more generally, not trying to refight the 1948 war about Israel’s right to exist, rather than the 1967 war about Israel’s borders.

Connected to this is the fourth and final pole, recognition of the toxicity that emerges from the systematic Arab attempt to delegitimize Israel. We are all scarred by living in the age of delegitimization. The Zionist left, in particular, should start getting angry at the delegitmizers, recognizing just how much delegitimizing Israel harms the peace process.

In building this tent, my advice is: acknowledge complexity, because nuance matters; engage Jewish identity issues, because values matter; define our community, because boundaries matter; and condemn the delegitimizers’ toxicity, because words matter.

In concluding the conference, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, eloquently explained why AJC convenes a big tent and cultivates a strong center. “We are more effective, we are more intelligent, we are more credible, when we listen hard to reasoned sides of the complex Israel issue before speaking up,” he said. Harris said the stakes couldn’t be higher, and, simplistic, doctrinal thinking doesn’t help advance the discussion; the argumentative Jewish tent should not an echo chamber, but must embrace civility and mutual respect.

This big tent approach appreciates that, as Harris noted, Israel is both a modern-day miracle and a work in progress. And it recognizes that over the millennia, Jews have created what he calls “the consummate guilt culture,” which is now applied obsessively to Israel. Meanwhile, the Palestinians have developed “the consummate blame culture,” which then preys on us so perfectly. The big tent approach notes the growing shrillness and polarization in American political culture but says, “We can do better.”

Gil Troy is an iEngage Fellow at Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and professor of History at McGill University in Montreal.

‘J Street’ to the Left of me, jokers to the Right…

Center Field: ‘J Street’ to the Left of me, jokers to the Right…

by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-13-09

When one is attacked from both sides, it’s easy to feel virtuous. Having opponents from the far left and the far right does not guarantee you’re a moderate. It simply situates you in what farmers who trusted butter over its artificial modern substitute would have called the “margarine middle.”

Last week I was hit from both extremes. There seems to be a missing “nuance gene” when it comes to Israel. The most reasonable people, the most skilled professionals, somehow find themselves behaving irrationally, talking wildly and acting sloppily when the topic is raised.

My previous blog, “Israel’s self-hating Jews,” which condemned Ariel Mayor Ron Nachman for blaming the Obama settlement freeze idea on the president’s “Jew boy” advisers, triggered numerous attacks against me for daring to question the mayor’s horrific choice of words. You would have thought Mayor Nachman was the holy Reb Nachman of Breslav, given his devotees’ intensity. My critics refused to acknowledge that using such language – when trying to convince a State Department delegation, no less – was crude, rude and self-defeating.

Nachman’s followers took an attack on him as an attack on them, on Israel, on the Jewish people and on truth itself, while perceiving it as a deluded defense of Obama’s foreign policy, despite my criticisms of the administration’s Israel strategy.

Most disturbingly, they felt completely justified using offensive, racist language to describe fellow Jews with whom they disagree, thus undercutting those of us who have been forced to spend far too much time fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, racism, and ethnic stereotyping of all kinds.

These rhetorical bomb-throwers confirmed every liberal caricature of the aggressive, self-righteous, my-way-or-the-highway settlers – but characteristically blamed me for helping to perpetuate that stereotype.

Let me say regarding the “Jew boy” issue what I say when anti-Semites masquerading as “mere” anti-Zionists compare Israelis to Nazis. Intelligent people can find a rich choice of words to convey disdain without resorting to cheap, ugly, inflammatory anti-Semitic language that reveals the critics’ own prejudices. It is particularly obnoxious and foolish to call Obama advisers who happen to be Jewish “Jew boys” and accuse them of dictating his policy. It absolves non-Jews like George Mitchell, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama himself of any responsibility. It perpetuates the myth of undue Jewish influence on American administrations, be they right or left. It only alienates potential allies.

At the same time, looking to the Left, I read The New York Times Magazine’s portrayal of J-Street, “The New Israel Lobby,” which defines itself as “pro-peace,” as if other Jewish political organizations were not.

This love letter masquerading as serious journalism read more like this new organization’s PR release than a piece written by the usually thoughtful, critical journalist James Traub, whose work I have long respected. As Shmuel Rosner noted in his blog, Traub failed to interview even one person “on the record” criticizing the new lobby.

Most disturbing, however, was the crude caricature of the pro-Israel community underlying Traub’s analysis. Traub pitted his heroes, the progressive, modern, post-Woodstock, charmingly American, Bohemian, Obamanian J-Street lobbyists against the villains of his piece, the old-fashioned and hopelessly anachronistic, Holocaust-obsessed paranoids running the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), who play to Jews’ “ancestral impulses.”

“This is the world that shaped the mainstream American Jewish groups,” Traub writes, describing the ADL’s Abraham Foxman’s birth in Poland, the ZOA’s Morton Klein’s birth in a displaced persons camp, and the enduring post-Holocaust obsession with “eternal vigilance” and “marketing” a sense of “besetting peril.”

There was nowhere in this dualistic universe for someone like Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, who campaigned for Bill Clinton and Al Gore in 2000, and who, being in her mid-forties, is younger than Foxman or Klein, yet founded “The Israel Project.”

Or the elegant, diplomatic, non-Holocaust obsessed head of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, who was twenty in 1969, Woodstock summer, and eloquently defends Israel as a liberal democracy.

Or, for that matter, the hundreds of thousands of even younger, hipper Jews in their 20s or 30s who have visited Israel through Birthright Israel and neither bashed Israel during the Gaza War as J Street did, nor reek of herring and the Holocaust the way Traub implied most Israel supporters do.

J-Street, President Obama, and, apparently certain New York Times reporters must understand that supporting Israel is not a psychosis, and not necessarily expansionist. Imposing “settlement freezes” and caricaturing Zionism as only being about the Holocaust ignores the central problem for many of us in the genuine middle.

Millions of peace-loving Israelis and American Jews supported Oslo but saw it feed Palestinian terror that killed over a thousand innocents. Millions even supported the Gaza disengagement, but then saw Hamas launch thousands of rockets into the Negev. Those of us in this genuine middle take seriously the vicious, exterminationist anti-Semitic rhetoric among the Palestinians, in the Hamas Charter and in the Arab media because we have seen what happens when you don’t.

Until those who fancy themselves “pro-peace” figure out how to acknowledge that pain and point the Palestinians and the Arabs toward real change, they will fail to sway that peace consensus among Israelis and Jews that has always opted for compromise and a shot at reconciliation. Call us the “twice-burned” in the middle – refusing to indulge in “Jew boy” rhetoric and not obsessed with the Holocaust.

Our historical memories are much shorter. We are justifiably worried about Palestinian terrorism, Hamas extremism, the Islamist culture of martyrdom, and the continuing calls for Israel’s destruction. We desperately await reassurance – from the Palestinians, their Arab allies and their Western enablers.