Let’s use Sukkot to reconsecrate links to Israel


By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 9-27-12

The holiday of Sukkot needs a makeover, at least in the Diaspora. Known traditionally as Hechag, The Holiday, for its primacy and passion, Sukkot is neglected in North America. Partially this is due to holiday burnout – Jews are exhausted after feasting on Rosh Hashanah and fasting on Yom Kippur. But partially this is due to no longer appreciating this holiday’s delightful and meaningful messages.

Sukkot is one of the Shalosh Regalim, the three walking or pilgrimage festivals, delineated in the Torah. These three important holidays brought Jews from all over the country to Jerusalem, bearing their first fruits and sacrifices. All three holidays emphasized the centrality of Zion in Jewish life. They linked Jewish religious obligations with a sense of Jewish national belonging. And they taught us to be humble before the Lord while delighting in earth’s bounty.

Sukkot, with its temporary booths, was about the Jewish people’s journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. It emphasized the transience of material attachments amid the permanence of lasting anchors. It emphasized the perpetual search for home, for rootedness, for anchors, learning how to grow and stretch by feeling rooted yet searching for more.

All these are important themes for us today. We should renew Sukkot by using it as a holiday to showcase the importance of Israel in our lives and to rethink what it means to live in a world with a Jewish state.

We can start by learning from Israel on this one. In Israel, Sukkot is widely observed and universally beloved. It’s the magical culmination of the holiday season. School vacation injects a festive air and guarantees festivals galore – even though some harried parents are stuck managing the kids while having to work. The weather is often glorious, with the heat of summer lifting, just as in Canada signs of winter begin accumulating. And sukkot – temporary huts – sprout out of Israeli buildings and sidewalks, appearing as quickly and dramatically as shovels after the first Canadian snowstorm of the season.

Many non-religious Israelis enjoy building sukkot because of the agricultural associations – it’s a harvest holiday. Others enjoy the Zionist associations, with its hands-on expression of homecoming. And others simply enjoy the sheer fun of it, the creativity in the building and decorating. I’ve seen extraordinary sukkot on many kibbutzim made of palm fronds suspended by string. While they need 2-1/2 more solid walls to adhere to Jewish law – some have them – they capture the richness, the green-ness and the dance between transience and permanence that are so central to the holiday.

In making Sukkot a forum for celebrating and reconsecrating our relationship with Israel, we should start with the sukkot, the huts, themselves. By decorating them with Israeli posters, Israeli pictures, representations of the seven Israeli agricultural spices, and the lulav and etrog – as so many do – we bring the relationship to Israel alive, sensually, artistically and graphically. In our synagogues, our rabbis should deliver sermons about Israel, focusing on identity Zionism, meaning how we use Israel, the idea of Jewish nationhood, the reality of the Jewish state to revitalize our own Jewish identities. And in our beautifully decorated Sukkot – or in warm houses nearby – we should study texts about Israel. Wouldn’t it be great if every year we had community-wide, or worldwide, text-study sessions, knowing that simultaneously dozens, hundreds, thousands, were studying the same texts – say one traditional text and one modern teaching.

Sukkot is about a journey, from slavery to freedom, from homelessness to home, from being passive victims to active shapers of history, from wanderers to builders. Sukkot should invite us to contemplate our own journeys as Jews, as human beings. Where are we going? Are we Jewishly ambitious? In thinking about these issues, in viewing our Jewish identities through the prism of Israel, we can get more clarity about who we are and where we are heading.

Holidays are symbolic moments that evoke our pasts. They are often suffused with childhood memories and nostalgia. Many have strong feelings about what to do and what not to do in trying to recreate the past. But we can’t have a Judaism that’s only about yesterday. We also need holidays that celebrate today – and inspire us to build, journey, and decorate, the key Sukkot verbs – a more meaningful tomorrow.

Yes we can Zionism

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 7-16-09

I recently attended a plenary session at a major Zionist organization. The plenary was off the record, so I won’t identify the organization. Some speakers invoked “Obama’s way” as a model, marvelling at the extraordinary fundraising and community-building network that U.S. President Barack Obama and his people developed during the 2008 campaign.

Yes, we can learn a lot from Obama and company’s networking skills. But we must remember that much of the magic of the moment came from Obama’s message. Without a clear vision, without a compelling and positive message, all the networking skills in the world won’t revitalize Zionism – or modern Judaism.

Obama’s “Yes, We Can” slogan captured the sense of hope, renewal, youth that Obama’s network then spread so effectively. Embedded in his positive “Yes, we can” messaging was a “No, we are not” message too. The dynamics of the Democrats’ successful 2008 campaign began as a reaction against then-president George W. Bush and the Republicans. But Obama’s marketing genius was to transform that negative into a positive.

Especially in our apathetic, distracted society, people often react more to negative stimuli than to positive stimuli. Usually, terrifying headlines about disasters or failures grab our attention. But in our happy-dappy, entertainment-addicted society, we don’t want to dwell in that negative space.

A great leader – and shrewd marketer – builds momentum off fear to fulfil longings and achieve something positive. I would say that one of the weakest and most worrying aspects of Obama’s initial approach to foreign policy is that he is too stuck in his “No, we are not” George W. Bush counter-reaction phase and has not yet shaped a positive foreign policy vision that fits the world’s ugly realities while moving forward.

The struggle between the negative and the positive looms as a central challenge for the modern Zionist movement, too. During the “good old days” of the 1990s, when Israel flourished economically and seemed headed for peace, most Diaspora Jews ignored Israel. When the Palestinians rejected the Oslo peace process and turned to terror, all of the sudden, many Jews began rallying around Israel. Too many “Israel advocates” are caught in the cat-and-mouse game against the ugly alliance of amoral moralizers linking the left with pro-Palestinian forces, especially on campus. The fight galvanizes, but ultimately it distracts and demoralizes.

We must evolve away from our sorry situation, which makes the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his fellow Palestinian terrorists – of Hamas, Hezbollah and Fatah – the most effective tools for raising Jewish and Zionist consciousness. Like Obama during his campaign, we should build momentum from the “No, we are not.” We should say, “No, we are not deluded by the politically correct cant that demonizes Israel, that singles out Israel. No, we are not swayed by the distorted reasoning that rationalizes Palestinian terrorism and excuses Palestinian – and Islamist – authoritarianism, sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism.”

But as we build our networks we must master our messaging. We should say “Yes, we can” to Zionism, not just as a movement of national self-preservation to protect us against the Israel bashers’ one-sidedness, disproportionality, anti-Semitism and irrationality. We should say “Yes, we can” to a Zionism of hope and of vision, of individual and collective fulfilment. We should say “Yes, we can” to a Zionism that uses Jewish history, Jewish nationalism, and the extraordinary opportunity of building a modern democratic Jewish state to answer our deepest existential needs. “Yes, we can” have a Zionist revolution about inspiration. “Yes, we can” look at Israel and the Jewish national project as vehicles for finding meaning, values, a sense of mission in the world today.

“Yes, we can” have a Zionist movement that invites us in, saying we are so lucky to be living in this historical moment, when by spending time in Israel, learning about Israel, viewing the world through a Zionist lens, we can grow as individuals, but remember that humans flourish best and accomplish the most when they’re rooted in enduring values, and when they’re working, building, and dreaming together in larger frameworks that pull us beyond ourselves without sacrificing our selves.

Gil Troy: Open Letter to our Diaspora Affairs Minister

Center Field: Open Letter to our Diaspora Affairs

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-19-09

Dear Minister Yuli Edelstein,

On April 5, Anshel Pfeffer welcomed you as Diaspora Affairs Minister with a bleak open letter in Ha’aretz, lamenting: “What a pity you’ve been given the emptiest brief of all in Netanyahu’s mammoth cabinet.” Pfeffer called your portfolio useless and toothless, with no budget, status, or clear mandate.

I disagree. Of course I wish you had a huge war chest and a clear mission. But there is such a vacuum of leadership in this area, and such a pressing need for visionary statesmanship, you can accomplish much as a public leader. Jews in Israel and the Diaspora are thirsting for inspiration. The Minister of Israel-Diaspora Affairs is essentially responsible for promoting, fulfilling – and at this historical juncture – reviving Zionism. You have what American President Theodore Roosevelt called a “bully pulpit” to complete this important task. Good luck with it.

Your most important job is reminding many Jews in Israel and abroad what peoplehood means while bringing pride back to the label “Zionist.” Too many Jews have internalized our enemies’ disdain. Zionism – the national liberation movement of the Jewish people – has been falsely linked with racism, as Arab enemies have spread a despicable big lie with Nazi-Soviet roots. As a refugee from that insanity, as a legendary refusenik who escaped Soviet Communist oppression to find freedom in modern Israel, you are living proof of Zionism’s power and legitimacy. Use your inspiring personal narrative of renewal to infuse new relevance and resonance into Zionism, our people’s collective narrative of renewal.(And if the rumors are true and Natan Sharansky becomes the head of the Jewish Agency, the two of you have a tremendous opportunity to revolutionize the Zionist Movement).

The past few years have witnessed great advances on the Israel-Diaspora front, despite some disturbing trends. On the plus side, over 150,000 inspired Birthright Israel alumni, and thousands of annual Masa participants, illustrate the transformational impact Israel experiences can have on Jewish life worldwide. Birthright’s “Mifgash” program with Israeli soldiers and the Jewish Agency’s successful P2K, Partnership 2000 have also demonstrated the benefits for Israelis from learning and working with Diaspora Jews.  Moreover, ease of transportation and communication, along with the globalized youth culture gives someone with a powerful platform like your new job affords you tremendous reach.

Unfortunately, this globalized culture often undermines Jewish identity, addicting many Jews in Israel and abroad to the worst, most indulgent elements of modern materialism. Moreover, too many Israeli and Diaspora Jews believe Zionism is passé, and Israel an embarrassing anachronism in a cosmopolitan, politically-correct, multicultural world. As a Zionist hero, you should build bridges between Israeli and Diaspora youth, and, within Israel between the National Religious camp and the Secular Zionist camp. This latest economic upheaval shows that human beings need anchors, frameworks for meaning, a sense of collective purpose beyond individual indulgence; you are uniquely positioned to explain how Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism, can provide those nurturing ideological roots and core values, for Israelis and Diaspora Jews.

Every nationalist movement shapes a people’s present and charts the future by defining its past. For Israelis to appreciate Zionism they must learn more about the past and about Diaspora life. You must ally with the Education Ministry, work with the Jewish Agency, and woo the media to instill some important Zionist lessons about Israeli and Diaspora life. Without returning to the outmoded notion of negating the Galut [the exile], you have to push Israelis to have a more sophisticated understanding of the realities abroad and the values they should be appreciating at home. That entails weaning so many Israelis from their obsession with all things American, fostering an appreciation of the benefits of living in a Jewish space by Jewish time, and learning about the historic conditions in the Diaspora that first triggered the Zionist revolution. It also entails embracing creative initiatives like Herzl Day, which gets Israel schoolchildren celebrating Zionism’s founder.

In this anti-Semitism looms large – but handle this part of your portfolio carefully. On the eve of the Durban II conference in Geneva, we need greater vigilance against anti-Semitism, and your predecessors, especially Natan Sharansky, have launched important initiatives to combat hatred. However, Israel-Diaspora relations must be about more than fighting anti-Semitism. Zionism and Israel cannot just be the central headaches of the Jewish people. Without denying the negative, you must celebrate the positive. Work with Mayor Nir Barkat to use Jerusalem, for example, the Jewish people’s capital, as a unifying asset, welcoming Jews from all over the world to build and be rebuilt there.

In dealing with Diaspora Jews, make sure to fill your role as a Zionist icon – and never underestimate the potency of the celebrity aura an effective, publicly savvy Israeli Cabinet minister can generate. As the Jewish state’s representative, start every conversation, every speech, in Hebrew – emphasizing that Hebrew, not English should be the Jewish people’s lingua franca. Make sure to deliver the good news about Israel, the updates about normal life in the Jewish state, not just the bad news. And make sure to challenge Diaspora Jews constructively – to use Israel as a vehicle for finding ideological fulfillment and communal satisfaction, to step in and take responsibility to make sure that the successful initiatives of the last two decades like birthright and Partnership 2000 do not languish due to this financial crisis. Be the shaliach-in-chief, an emissary to synagogues and schools, to organizations and foundations. But remember how many Diaspora Jews are unaffiliated, and reach them through non-traditional means in the general media and on the internet.

Life in Israel is a daily tableau illustrating the beauty and perils of the Zionist return to history. On both sides of the Atlantic, we know the perils. Make sure to remind us of the dream, and help us fulfill it.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem and is the author of Why I am A  Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

Gil Troy: We should all turn toward Israel

Canadian Jewish News, 10-30-08

Five times a year, Israelis witness a strange sight. As they return to work after the first and last day of Sukkot, the first and last day of Passover, and the Shavuout holiday, some visiting North American and European Jews still observe the strictures of the “chag,” the holy day.

That these Diaspora Jews stick to their galut – exile – practices in the Jewish homeland when even the most pious Israelis have ended the holiday is absurd. The holiness of Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel, should prevail

The bizarre practice of visitors to Israel observing the second days of holidays there highlights two disturbing trends. The Orthodox world suffers from a kind of autism about ritual, an inability to read subtle cues, to distinguish minor from major. More broadly, many Jews exhibit a condescending attitude toward Israel, forgetting Israel’s primacy within Judaism.

For starters, accompanying Orthodoxy’s welcome resurgence over the last few decades has been a disturbing stringency about far too many minutiae. Some – but not all – rabbis have lost their bearings. Some hector their congregants about the most picayune rules of kashrut while ignoring major sex scandals or other ethical lapses among congregants. Some gossips condemn neighbors in harsh, hateful and even violent terms for wearing dresses they might deem immodest by centimetres.

In fairness, the genius of Halachah, the Jewish system of law, lies in its focus on details. The strict attention to seemingly minor rituals has sustained Judaism through the millennia, preserving continuity, maintaining legitimacy and fostering an intensity in Jewish tradition. But focusing on details should enhance, not obscure, the major principles looming behind the minor acts. When ethical guidelines are ignored – or sacrificed – and when bigger principles are violated, ritual is distracting rather than reinforcing.

Rabbis must educate congregants about proportionality and intentionality. Maintaining the purpose behind the ritual is essential, and Jewish law should facilitate the broader quest to achieve a good, meaningful and ethical life. I once asked a rabbi what he thought about Orthodox Jews who observed the Sabbath obsessively yet acted in business immorally. He answered: “They are not Orthodox.” This rabbi understood that if you can’t pick and choose when it comes to rituals, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to ethics, either.

Of course, visitors observing the second day of holidays in Israel are not obscuring any lapses, ethical or otherwise. Still, maintaining this particular ritual diminishes the Holy Land, thus undermining a major Jewish principle to adhere to a more minor ritual.

Alas, more and more Jews seem to forget Israel’s primacy. Forgetting the blessings that flow from living in Israel, all too frequently, free, comfortable western Jews feel they are better off than their poor Israeli cousins. Too many fundraising appeals that caricature Israel as needy seemingly confirm this perception.

In truth, Orthodox Jews in the Diaspora face a major contradiction that most of them simply ignore. Despite devoting their lives to following every jot and tittle of Jewish law, they overlook the many mitzvot associated with living in the land of Israel. Before Israel became independent in 1948, Jews felt forced to remain in exile. Today, how can someone dedicated to following all of God’s commandments as fully as possible justify choosing to live outside the land of Israel?

I’m well aware of how explosive a charge this is, and how sensitive the aliyah issue is, so allow me to make a more modest proposal that will help restore some proportionality to the relationship. All Jews today should put the study of modern written and conversational Hebrew at the top of both communal and individual agendas. Studying modern Hebrew necessarily reorients people toward Israel, helping all Jews engage with Israel better.

And perhaps even more important for Diaspora Jews, putting Hebrew front and centre can prove humbling. Rather than demanding that our Israeli brothers and sisters speak to us in the particular language of our exile, we should make the effort – however trying – to speak the language of our people.

The great Zionist philosopher Achad Ha’am said that just as the Jews preserved the Sabbath, the Sabbath preserved the Jewish people. Similarly, let future historians note that just as the Jewish people preserved Hebrew, Hebrew preserved – and redeemed – the Jewish people today.


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.