Gil Troy: iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

VIDEOS

Gil Troy, Shalom Hartman Institute, 7-18-12

iEngage Panel for Community Leaders (CLP)

iEngage Evening Panel at Shalom Hartman Institute Summer 2012 Community Leadership Program in Jerusalem, June 28, 2012, featuring Tal Becker, Yossi Klein Halevi, Suzanne Last Stone, Gil Troy

Begin x 100 + Ben-Gurion x 40 = Proud Israelis and Jews

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-19-12

Education Minister Gideon Saar has announced curricular plans across Israel to celebrate the centennial next year of Menachem Begin’s birth and the 40th anniversary of David Ben-Gurion’s passing. This is a commendable move in a country that is so indebted to these two leaders and is so in need of Zionist inspiration. Yet the announcement triggered a sourpuss Ha’aretz headline: “Arab educators in uproar over plan to study Begin and Ben-Gurion.” Not only should the Arab schools welcome this educational initiative, the celebrations should reach into the Ultra-Orthodox schools—and be embraced by Jewish educators worldwide.

By deepening our collective historical memory we can build Jewish identity, Zionist identity and Israeli identity, using these world-class statesmen as inspirations. Both David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin were among the twentieth-century’s great leaders, who believed, as Ben-Gurion put it, that leadership entailed giving people what they needed, not what they necessarily thought they wanted.  Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, dominated Zionist and Israeli politics in the 1940s and 1950s, shaping modern Israel. Begin, Israel’s sixth prime minister, fought hard to establish Israel, then revolutionized it, making Israeli politics more traditional, more capitalist, more Sephardic in the 1980s.

These were noble, self-sacrificing, passionate, charismatic, occasionally prickly, scholar-politicians, as bold as they were literate, as eloquent as they were visionary, each of whom led modest lives and both of whom hated each other.  To visit Ben-Gurion’s hut in Sde Boker, to see the living room furniture on display at the Menachem Begin Heritage Center, is to encounter useful role models today in the fight against materialism To read their speeches is to learn about the Biblical echoes that infused the origins of the Zionist movement, to tap into Zionist idealism, and to learn compelling Jewish, Zionist and universal ethics of work, community, state-building, dignity, and self-defense.

Both these heroes remain controversial. Learning about Ben-Gurion includes learning about his ugly decision to attack the Altalena, the supply ship chartered by his rival Begin’s Irgun laden with weapons the fledgling Israeli army desperately needed. The Altalena’s sinking alienated many Beginites, but unified Israel militarily.  Similarly, learning about Begin includes learning about his violent turn toward attacking British soldiers and Arab irregulars in the 1940s, with attendant loss of innocent life.

Educationally, the Begin and Ben-Gurion life-stories invite students into many illuminating conversations. By celebrating these two lives together, we can start building a Zionist and Israeli consensus. Israelis need to be reminded of the grit, the values, the motivations, the moves, and the occasional mistakes and excesses, that helped spawn their state. Ultra-Orthodox and Arab educators should not opt out. They benefit from the State and need to learn about it – and its heroes. Citizenship, especially in a democracy, entails being rooted in your country’s story, engaging its history, affirmatively and critically.  It is a form of educational starvation to raise Israeli children without teaching them about foundational figures like Begin and Ben Gurion – just as there are foundational documents and foundational ideas every citizen should know.

Most outrageous was the Arab educators’ counter-proposal to study the lives of Abdelrahim Mahmud and Edward Said instead. Mahmud was a fiery Palestinian nationalist poet who died in the 1948 war fighting Zionists.  Said was the Palestinian professor who claimed that Westerners were Orientalists oozing condescending contempt for Arabs.  In exploiting the twentieth century’s “generalizing tendency” to view the Israeli-Palestinian local conflict as part of a global struggle, Said helped cast Israel and all Westerners as inherently racist, colonialist, oppressive. Using those two as educational role models would alienate young citizens-in-training from their state, rather than fostering a constructive civic Israeli-Arab identity.

Arabs and Haredim should understand this initiative as a mark of respect.  Countries with diverse population should grant communities autonomy tempered with responsibility. Israeli Arabs and Haredim operate within the social contract that makes a country work. Tax-supported Arab and Haredi schools should teach about their particular cultures, worldviews and heroes – with Arab schools handling the difficult stories of 1948 and 1967 delicately, with nuance. But for citizens of Israel to become good citizens they also need a common vocabulary, common ideas, shared experiences. Learning key civic ideas, and meeting certain founding heroes educationally, is part of the essential educational journey.

Similarly, the Begin-Ben Gurion commemorations in 2013 provide a great opportunity to improve Israel-Diaspora relations. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has invested heavily in Heritage Sites – and should make sure the Begin Center and the Ben-Gurion Heritage Institute are frequently visited and well-funded.  “A crisis in values is threatening our collective identity,” Cabinet Secretary Zvi Hauser wrote in the 50-page outline of the Heritage Plan. “A new generation of Israelis, for whom the Zionist experience is foreign, takes their lives here for granted and is being raised in an environment of cultural shallowness with dwindling knowledge and spirituality.” This plan does not seem to have given much thought to bringing Diaspora Jews into the conversation. Without adding much money, simply by thinking more ambitiously, setting our sights not just on sites but on heroes, values, and a renewed narrative, with annual celebrations of different anniversaries, we could leverage the work already being done and create a Zionist Heritage platform for the entire Jewish people.

Great heroes are like good books – they tell important stories, deliver valuable ideas, embody important values, stretch us and unite us, providing common points of reference. Commemorating Begin and Ben Gurion is an opportunity for community building, among Israelis and among Jews. These two anniversaries will not solve the existential challenges of Israeli citizenship or Jewish identity. But if done right, the celebrations will contribute to the important educational mission of raising constructive Israeli citizens and proud Jews.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

When Dads Are Barred from their Daughters’ Basketball Games – Improvise Reasonable Accommodations

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-3-12

On Sunday night, the Efrata national religious elementary school hosted two other national religious schools – Yehudah HaLevi and Evelina — at a girls’ basketball tournament. Although the hometown heroines from grades three and four got shellacked in the first round 34 to 6, it was a delightful scene. Five brothers, with silly hats, a tom-tom drum, and much exuberance, cheered their sisters. This being Jerusalem, encouraging calls from the Moms and Dads to “get that rebound” or “take that shot,” rang out in Hebrew and English. Yet, alas, this being Israel, the very presence of the cheerleading brothers and fathers was controversial. This was an improvised, alternative tournament.  The original official Hanukkah tournament limited entry to “Nashim BeLvad,” women only.
This story lacks the drama of other headline-generating events. There are no spitting-bullies or offensively-inappropriate yellow stars, no rocks thrown, not even voices raised. But this incident is instructive. Like the Bet Shemesh neighborhood conflict, this struggle is dividing the religious world. Like more and more episodes, it started with a subtle shift, a creeping assertion of the most expansive religious interpretation into the most innocent of realms. Yet, unlike so many occurrences, its happy ending reflects the kind of civic engagement and problem-solving we need to make this diverse, chaotic, old-new, Jewish-democratic, disputatious, audacious, hi-tech shtetl called Israel work.
“Why are they sexualizing our daughters so young,” asked Naomi Wurtman when she received the flyer advertising the original tournament. Naomi is the friend and fellow Efrata parent who invited me and my daughter to Sunday night’s game. She circulated an email saying “I have no need for my nine-year-old to be turned into a sex object and every need for her father to be able to proudly watch his daughter play a sport.” The broader issue, of course, is “the censoring of girls and women out of every sphere of life in Jerusalem.”  Other offended parents mobilized.  Although the tournament was not organized by the school, such gender segregation violates the unspoken covenant, the basic ground rules, for parents sending their children to national religious schools.
Ultimately, the solution, with the principal’s blessing, reflected what Quebec calls “reasonable accommodation.” Two tournaments took place, accommodating two parallel populations. This solution was better than letting the more extreme minority impose its demands, because competing values are at stake. Living together does not mean the most maximalist religious interpretation always wins. Members of the national religious community should not always feel trumped – the most rigorous reading of Jewish law is not necessarily the right or righteous one. (A lesson many religious people should remember when they look left).  At the same time, Jews in particular should make sure the majority respects minority needs.
The current tensions around the ultra-Orthodox can be resolved with vision, leadership, and civic action. For starters, all Israeli Jews should affirm two mutually reinforcing principles – the Jewish value of Klal Yisrael, the unity of the Jewish people, and the democratic value of every citizen, in fact, every human being, having basic rights and essential dignity. Anyone who appreciates those values could not spit, curse or throw rocks at fellow human beings, no matter their age, gender, lifestyle or dress code. Anyone who appreciates those values would work hard to respect their fellow citizens’ and fellow Jews’ freedom of religion and freedom of conscience. A country committed to those values would make some of the concessions Israel has made to the ultra-Orthodox, while also setting some limits.
This generous vision requires bold leadership.  Benjamin Netanyahu should stop acting like a ward heeler and act like a national leader, stop tending the coalition and shape a communal response. Here, the virtuous move is the shrewd move. He could marginalize Kadima and Labor if he could start defusing the growing tensions between the ultra-Orthodox and the rest of Israeli society. But to do that, our risk-averse prime minister must take risks.
Using the power of the purse, and exploiting the hierarchical nature of ultra-Orthodox society, Netanyahu should call a summit of leading Haredi rabbis. He should threaten their precious Yeshiva subsidies and other government goodies if they don’t start policing their hooligan extremists. He should also demand a new social contract between Haredim and the Jewish state, detailing responsibilities not just rights, and imposing some core courses in basic skills into their educational curriculum.  If Netanyahu plays this right, even if this coalition falls, he could settle in for a long spell as prime minister.
Finally, Israelis should follow the examples of the Efrata parents and of civic activists like Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria – even as she remains in herem¸ excommunicated from Mayor Nir Barkat’s coalition for courageously confronting gender segregation on Jerusalem’s streets.  Israeli citizens from all sectors should protect their rights, their prerogatives, as the Efrata parents did – as the Bet Shemesh parents are doing. They may occasionally have to work harder to come up with the right solution, the reasonable accommodation, the creative improvisation.
And we all should start building bridges too. In particular, national religious Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews have much that unites them not just issues dividing them. They should seek out points of contact, at Shabbat tables and in other settings, to share pleasant experiences not just talk through points of tension.  I, for one, would relish the opportunity to spend a Shabbat meal with a Haredi family, to aid my campaign to stop my children – and too many friends – from viewing all of “them” as unpatriotic parasites feeding off the state who exploit the Holocaust and young kids to score cheap political points.
Basketball can wait. Let’s be good Jews and start by eating together, talking together, learning together, accommodating each other.
Odelia Wurtman and Dolev Gorlin.  Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman
Photo provided by Naomi Wurtman.
The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is the “History of American Presidential Elections.”

A Zionist advocacy timetable for the next five weeks

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

We can turn the UN’s “Palestine Season” into another empty victory for the Palestinians. We should stop dreading this fall

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-23-11

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 The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, and the Fall of the UN.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas at the United Nations Photo by: REUTERS/Chip East

As Palestinians prepare to try bypassing negotiations and dodging compromise by unilaterally declaring independence this September, Zionist activists and educators are prepping too. If the General Assembly votes, Israel will lose, as the UN’s anti-Israel bias will continue feeding Palestinian extremism. But just as the UN’s 1975 declaration that Zionism is Racism backfired, harming the world body more than it hurt the Jewish state, we who support Israel’s survival and seek a genuine peace can win this September. By using the calendar wisely, and remembering what we are for not just what we are against, we can turn the UN’s Palestine Season into another empty victory for the Palestinians, trumping the votes of dictators and their dupes with the outrage of freedom-loving people, along with renewed appreciation for Israel among Jews and non-Jews.

We should stop dreading this fall. The calendar is our friend.  For each of the five weeks starting with Sunday August 28, Zionist activists and educators should pick a theme or two – conceptualizing the conversation about Israel as a double helix linking education and advocacy, the purely positive and the necessarily defensive, the aspirational with the historical.  We should affirm Zionism’s continuing relevance and power for Jews today, along with Israel’s continuing search for peace.  The advocacy piece should link Palestinians’ destructive – and self-destructive – hatred of Israel with the Durban debacle, 9/11-style terrorism, al Qaeda anti-Americanism, and the UN’s corruption– all on full display this coming September.

I would love just to celebrate Israel, welcoming college freshmen and others to the Zionist conversation solely with affirmations about Jewish nationhood’s idealistic potential and payoffs. Unfortunately, the real world demands a more muscular and political approach. If we do not advocate for Israel passionately, our enemies – and they are enemies – will fill that void with subtle distortions and new big lies. Of course, if we only advocate for Israel without delighting in it too, we accept the Palestinian paradigm, which makes everything about Israel be about them, framing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people, and humanity.

The first week, August 28th to September 3, we should Affirm Zionism – and Fight the Racism Lie. For too long, too many pro-Israel activists have avoided calling themselves “Zionist,” unconsciously internalizing the systematic, Arab-fueled campaign to delegitimize Jewish nationalism and the Jewish homeland. On campus, in synagogues, on Facebook, and beyond, we should reintroduce the term, championing Identity Zionism by understanding Zionism as modern Jewry’s great peoplehood project.   Zionism acknowledges that Judaism is not just a religion, but has a national peoplehood component now expressed through our traditional homeland Israel. Simultaneously, with August 31 through September 8 marking ten years since the Durban fiasco, when an anti-racism conference in Durban, South Africa in 2001 degenerated into an anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic hatefest, we should explain that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. Calling Zionism racism or comparing Israel to the discredited South African apartheid regime is the Big Red Lie, a falsehood the Soviet Union peddled. Now, it has become the Big Red-Green Lie, uniting too many on the left blindly, inconsistently, with Islamists.

September 4 through 10, we should build up to 9/11’s tenth anniversary by emphasizing Shared Values and Common Pain in an Age of Terrorism.  We should remember the victims, telling the stories of the many Israelis and Westerners murdered ruthlessly for political reasons in the last decade. We also should think about what unites Israel and the United States as sister democracies, focusing on the values that Islamists and dictators abhor, as well as the resulting security vulnerabilities evildoers exploit.

The next week should begin by concentrating on the United States. September 11 is sacred to Americans. That day we should commemorate that tragedy. The rest of the week can explore the ugly nexus between Anti-Zionism and Anti-Americanism, which became so clear on September 12. The world was shocked by the footage showing Palestinians in Gaza distributing candies to celebrate the Twin Towers’ fall, one of the few places where 9/11 triggered open celebrations.  Osama bin Laden, sensing that his mass murders were broadly unpopular, tried popularizing his anti-Americanism by converting suddenly to anti-Zionism. Before 9/11, al Qaeda rarely mentioned Israel. Subsequently Osama, like his dictator friends in Iran and elsewhere, integrated his hatred for America and Israel, implicitly recognizing Israel as a thriving liberal democracy.

September 18 through 24, the focus should be on the United Nations, with the General Assembly opening on September 13, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas planning to speak on the twentieth and the Durban III review of the original anti-racism conference beginning September 21. Hosting a Durban review conference in New York City, ten days after 9/11, when the ugliness at Durban also helped bridge anti-Zionism with anti-Americanism, juxtaposes the UN’s call for Palestinian independence with the UN’s anti-Semitic and anti-peace bias.  The pro-peace Zionist left should be heard here, challenging the Palestinians to negotiate rather than posture while criticizing the UN and the Palestinians for undermining the search for peace by trying to delegitimize Israel rather than seeking a two-state solution. Since 1975, it has been impossible to write a history of the movement to delegitimize Israel without discussing the UN but all too easy to write about attempts at Middle East peacemaking without mentioning the UN.”

Finally, we should end September by making September 29 and September 30 a Zionist Rosh Hashanah. Nations, like people, make mistakes – and can seek redemption. Just as true love of family involves accepting imperfections, we have to take Israel off probation, pushing it to improve where necessary while celebrating this exciting experiment in national redemption and Western democracy called Israel, which embodies noble democratic and Jewish values, enriching our lives as Jews and as lovers of freedom.

The tragedy of it all — The tragic story of Lee Gabriella Vatkin

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

This is the story of a beautiful, brilliant girl who fell through the cracks and slipped into the dark abyss that is the drug scene in Jerusalem

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post Magazine, 8-18-11

The death last year of Lee Gabriella Vatkin, the 16- year-old daughter of Fiona Kanter and Yehuda Vatkin, traumatized Jerusalem parents and teens. Lee Vatkin was an eighth-generation Jerusalemite on her father’s side, the daughter of the idealistic aliya from London on her mother’s side. She grew up enjoying the best modern Jerusalem had to offer in its tolerant, sophisticated, altruistic, traditional-yet-not-too-dogmatic, South-Central bubble – living in Katamon, attending elementary school in Baka. Yet by the time she reached junior high, the city’s ugly underside, the harsh, drug-perverted, aimless street culture that festers downtown nightly, after the tourists turn in, seduced and killed her.

Vatkin’s tale is a story of Jerusalem’s “magic” bypassing one of its children and turning tragic, creating a perfect storm of institutional breakdown and individual dysfunction, with a dash of evil added.

It is a story of an over-extended, underfunded school system that let a brilliant, creative child fall through the cracks.

It is a story of a hypersensitive girl lured into the dark abyss of central Jerusalem at night, manipulated by her immigrant boyfriend, a petty criminal and drug addict, himself abused by his drunken father.

It is a story of an overextended, undertrained, frequently insensitive and occasionally brutal police force that has lost control of the youth prowling around the city’s downtown core.

It is a story of a desperate mother who warned, “This man is going to kill my daughter” – and no authorities would, or perhaps even could, help her.

And it is a story of that heartbroken mother now crusading to reach other at-risk youth so her daughter’s death at least becomes a constructive warning that saves others’ lives.

Kanter is a civic and cultural consultant, an event organizer and community activist, well-known in Anglo Jerusalem as a social spark plug. She organized Anglo support for Nir Barkat’s mayoral election, and now she is concentrating on Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – her initiative, following her daughter’s death, to raise money for and awareness about at-risk youth.

Lee Gabriella Vatkin was born on February 5, 1994, eight years after her mother immigrated from London. Vatkin has a brother, Matan, now 14, and a sister, Maia, 12, as well as three older siblings from her father’s former marriage.

“Almost from the day she was born, Lee was clearly advanced developmentally,” Kanter recalls. “She started speaking at seven months – and never closed her mouth from then on!” She was also “fiercely independent, always challenging, giving the impression she was the one in charge.”

Extremely bright, creative and artistic, she was an accomplished pianist, drummer and equestrian. She participated in the Ofek supplementary program for gifted children, but was unchallenged the rest of the time, a source of great frustration. After graduating from the Efrata School in sixth grade, she had trouble finding a suitable successor school. The 2007 teachers’ strike hurt her. “From June that year through Hanukka, she barely had a framework; the strike just derailed her,” her mother reports sadly.

She ended up at Leyada, the prestigious school close to The Hebrew University. There, the administrators initiated a pointless power struggle with her over her continued participation in Ofek, which anchored her. “The whole struggle was very damaging to her,” Kanter recalls. “I couldn’t persuade them at Leyada to leave her alone.” In November 2008, administrators told Kanter their school was “not the right framework for Lee,” even though Kanter insists it “is unlawful to send such a message mid-year that they simply don’t want to deal anymore with a student.”

She then chose to attend Ankori, an alternative school on the Ben-Yehuda pedestrian mall. That school has “wonderful,” empathetic principals and teachers, Kanter says. But Vatkin exploited the school’s loose framework; her “downward spiral” had begun.

BORED IN school, rebelling at home, she started hanging out downtown. There, her mother insists, she was not part of the heavy drug scene, but she found a community of kids who had fallen through the cracks. “All the experts talk about the various groups – the haredim, the Russians, the Ethiopians,” Kanter explains. “I personally have a different take. Many of the children who are being drawn to the street are super-sensitive, super-intelligent, super-creative and are fearless, feeling they have absolutely nothing to lose jeopardizing their lives by substance abuse and destructive behavior patterns.” Like her daughter, she says, they circumvent the overloaded educational system as the street’s edginess sucks them in, feeling invincible.

Kanter, who supports Sayeret Horim, the Parents Patrol of volunteers who try bringing a friendly adult presence to teenage haunts, loves these street kids – but is disgusted by their behavior. She describes, in both Independence Park and the city center, activities “not suitable to be mentioned in a family newspaper,” that occur as voyeurs encircle young couples, egging them on while obscuring the authorities’ view. And she describes a culture of risk, shamelessness and aimlessness, along with elements of violence, cruelty and selfishness.

In March 2010, Vatkin met a young, charismatic tough who was originally from Azerbaijan, Rauf Zagloff. Zagloff, nearly 21, was well-known to the authorities. “Suffering from his influence, his Anglo ex-girlfriend was eventually whisked out of the country to Montana,” Kanter explains, “to dry out from drugs and other destructive behaviors.”

She and her parents, of course, are the lucky ones in this story On Independence Day that year, Zagloff, “drunk and drugged up to his eyeballs,” threatened Kanter and her young daughter in their own home.

“You are always welcome, but that boy is not crossing my threshold any more,” Kanter told her 16-year-old daughter. But Vatkin was under his sway.

Desperate, Kanter went to the police that same day, begging for help, saying, “This man is going to kill my daughter! What are you going to do?” The police, she charges, are useless.

When they do respond, “they are generally so violent in their dealings with the youth that an insurmountably bad rapport with our youngsters seems to have been created. For a while this year, all police personnel were required to do a night in town, but this seems to have slacked off, probably due to lack of resources and training.”

The police acknowledged Kanter’s desperation, but felt handcuffed by the law, their limited resources and the ambiguity of the threat. Kanter was led to believe she should find ruffians to administer vigilante street justice, but that is not the kind of person she is – although she thought about it seriously enough to realize such actions would make her vulnerable to blackmail from whatever vigilantes she found.

Under Zagloff’s influence, Vatkin’s behavior deteriorated. She was playing her parents, who divorced in 2007, off against each other. “She did not want to be helped. She thought she had all the answers. She thought she was invincible,” her mother says, reciting a heartbreaking haiku of parental powerlessness. “She did not want anybody to guide her or teach her.”

By May, Kanter was “petrified. I was afraid for her life. I was very verbal about it, writing and saying, ‘He is going to kill my daughter.’ And nobody would listen to me. Nobody would help me.

You know that African proverb, ‘It takes a village to raise a child’? Well, the opposite is true, too – it takes a village to lose a child.”

She pauses. “I don’t walk around with resentment,” she says. “But I feel the system let me down. I approached the courts – they wouldn’t give me any grounds [for a case].”

THAT SPRING, Vatkin and her boyfriend moved into an apartment in the capital’s Nahlaot neighborhood that her father had secured for them, despite Kanter’s objections. Kanter felt her daughter was “losing the ability to judge right from wrong,” but she no longer had control. On June 5, she spoke to her daughter, saying “I won’t judge you, I love you.

Whatever is going on, we can solve, but we need to deal with this.” Vatkin replied, “Ima, I am fine…” Kanter’s voice trails off. “And within three days she was gone.”

On the night of June 7, a known drug dealer and addict found a bag that had been discarded in the compound of the Italian Synagogue. In it were eight vials of methadone, the heroin replacement the government-authorized clinic dispenses to addicts under treatment. “Can you imagine, they give these drug addicts a few bottles at a time, and its street value trades at NIS 100 a bottle,” Kanter complains. The dealer poured the eight vials into a water bottle, then “disguised it” with raspberry syrup.

Shortly thereafter, Lee joined her friends in town, who were sipping the concoction carefully, one bottle cap’s worth at a time. The “friends” later admitted to Kanter that no one had told Vatkin what was in the bottle. Eventually Zagloff “swiped the bottle,” and he, Vatkin and another friend, Menny, walked to their apartment.

At the apartment, Menny reacted badly. At 6:30 the next morning he called his girlfriend – “herself a 17-year-old single mother, from a different fellow,” Kanter says. Rushed to the emergency room, he had his stomach pumped. At 8:30 a.m., Menny called Zagloff, who said everything was fine.

Neither Menny nor his girlfriend thought to alert the authorities, or warn their friends. Vatkin and Zagloff went to sleep – “and never woke up. Methadone acts like heroin, it depresses your system,” Kanter explains. “Lee’s heart stopped.

She was 16 years and four months old.”

By 3:30 p.m., Yehuda Vatkin started looking for his daughter, calling her cellphone repeatedly. He only thought to go to Nahlaot at 11 p.m., where he found her, dead in bed with Zagloff.

A doctor interviewed for the Uvda program, which aired on national television in January, stated that had they been found early enough, they could have been saved. That fact is one of many particular plot twists haunting the grieving mother – along with other outrages, such as the state’s continuing failure to prosecute the drug dealer.

“ONE YEAR ago, my heart stopped when Abba told me he had found you cold and unconscious,” Kanter wrote in an open letter to her daughter, a year after she died. “My soul is crying that I will never hear the sound of your voice again, never see your face, never touch your hair or tickle your back, never again see your smile or hear your laugh.” She admits she spent months looking for her dead daughter: “I was looking for you everywhere, knowing I would never find you. I see a little girl with blond tresses and blue eyes and pray I could turn the clock back. Never in my worst imaginings did I truly think there would be no tomorrow for you.”

While grieving, she did what she does best: mobilize and organize. She has established Im Ein Ani Li, Mi Li – a play on Lee’s name and Hillel’s teaching in Hebrew, “If I am not for myself, who is for me” – as an umbrella group dedicated to saving youth at risk. Currently she is fund-raising for three projects. The first is Sayeret Horim, which she wants expanded to cover all the wellknown youth hangouts several nights a week. The second is a Facebook initiative created by Shaby Amedi, the wellregarded head of Kidum No’ar, to reach out to youth at risk and their families, providing information, advice, contact numbers and wisdom, 24/7.

“Facebook is their social tool,” Kanter explains. “So let’s try to reach out – and create a dialogue – in a non-judgmental, loving way.” Finally there is the Ma’aleh School of Television, Film and the Arts’ pathbreaking videotherapy program, which uses filmmaking as form of expression and a constructive outlet. She also wants to create a central resource for referral and raising awareness, so no parent ever flounders as she did.

More broadly, she is pushing for some visionary leadership. “We need to generate more opportunities for our kids to express themselves creatively and productively, to create more regular outlets of challenging sports activities, music and the arts right in the center of town,” she explains.

“The kids are bored and don’t have the funds to sponsor expensive pastimes.

The festivals which abound in Jerusalem today provided by the municipality are nice, but don’t provide a consistent response to the needs of this particular sector of the population. Why are we not finding temporary solutions right now, such as lighting up Independence Park and providing a platform to encourage our youth to channel and focus their energy and natural impulses on more creative solutions, turning it from a literal den of iniquity to a place of positive personal expression?” She asserts that “we don’t need an extra organization, we just need to support projects that work but are underfunded. We are talking over 10,000 kids at risk here. And those are the ones who we know have fallen from the system.

What about the others?” Her daughter, she says, “had a larger-than-life personality. Incredibly funny and marvelously astute. In her circles she was a celeb. The fact that it happened to her, given her powerful personality, shook the kids to their core.” Many of them, during this black year of mourning, have turned to Kanter, supporting her and getting support in turn. “These are not bad kids,” she concludes. “They are just lost. I believe that all these projects can and will effectively reach out to our youth in Jerusalem who are going through such troubled and anguished times.” She offers her e-mail – fionarachelkanter@gmail.com – and an invitation to join her. “Working together will give us the strength to prevent this from ever happening again,” she says.

Oases of Israel excellence at IASA and elsewhere

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-19-11

Tragically, an Israeli epidemic of mediocre teachers, undisciplined students, unsupportive parents, unyielding bureaucrats and unchallenging curricula is spawning many dysfunctional classrooms and failing schools. Although we also see fabulous teachers, stimulating classrooms and well-run schools, the educational mediocrity my children have experienced has been our greatest disappointment in Israel. Shrieking teachers, wild classrooms and pointless tests demoralize students. 

When I complain about Israeli education, most Israelis say, yiheyeh beseder, it will be OK. They insist good families nevertheless raise good children; besides, the army straightens every one out. This characteristic insouciance, while admirable, also yields a sloppy improvisational ethos celebrating the cut corner over the job well done.

Traditional Mapai socialism confused individual ambition with indulgent elitism, high standards with bourgeois values. Today, while Israel could use more Ben-Gurionesque collectivist idealism, Israel needs centers of excellence to stretch our minds, our souls, our selves, individually and collectively.

In Jerusalem, poetically located between the Malcha mall symbolizing modern Israel and the Biblical Zoo, lies one oasis of excellence, the Schusterman Campus of the Israel Center for Excellence through Education. The campus honors the Oklahoma-based miracle-workers Lynn and the late Charles Schusterman. This marvelous initiative unites American philanthropic do-gooders like the Schustermans and IASA’s founder Robert Asher with visionary Israelis to change the world. 

Visitors most notice the 200 or so students attending the Israel Arts and Science Academy (IASA, “Madaim ve’omanuyot” in Hebrew). This high school is a magical mix of Zionist summer camp and Harvard. Students hail from 100 different communities, including Christians and Muslims, religious Jews and secular Jews. Tuition assistance guarantees that anyone admitted can attend, harmonizing excellence with egalitarianism. Even with high standards, frequent tests, and crushing workloads, the school is a surprisingly happy place, featuring class talent nights, silly bonding games, and a warm family feeling uniting students and staffers. 

“This school is much more intense than other schools I attended,” says one satisfied student. “The teachers have high expectations. There are consequences if you don’t do your work.” But students feel motivated, she explains, because these teachers are so creative and dedicated: “they don’t just teach to the bagrut,” the matriculation exams that undermine so much high school learning, “they are teaching for the sake of learning.” Science entails intensive lab work supplementing classwork. Literature class often involves following authors’ footsteps. Recently, Meir Shalev guided students through the battle sites in A Pigeon and a Boy. Describing the volunteer work in distressed communities, and the dormitory life with its group-building and values-clarifying activities at night, she sums up the school’s mission: “To be excellent in every way.”

Recently, when the Army’s Chief of Staff Gabi Ashekanzi visited, the students followed through on their school’s culture of voluntarism by protesting cutbacks in pre-army volunteer opportunities. 

“This commitment to excellence in all dimensions is an expression of our Zionism.” Hezki Arieli, the chairman of the board explains. “When we founded the school twenty years ago, excellence was a dirty word in Israel, considered elitist. Today, Israelis – and people around the world – look to us, and to Israel in general, as a center of excellence.” 

Arieli spearheads the Center’s other initiatives, which include running educational summer camps; organizing in-school enrichment programs, Excellence 2K, in 250 Israeli schools; developing curricula; and teaching teachers. The Center now exports excellence to India, Singapore and North America, where 150 schools, half Jewish, half not, use the Center’s math and science curricula. “Once educators from Singapore asked me ‘how do you do it?’” Arieli recalls. “’We don’t just want to teach our children to pass tests, we want them to be creative like you, to be considered for Nobel Prizes like you.’” Arieli explained the Zionist ethos of “ein breira.” “We have no choice but to use our wits. If we lived in a rainforest we would not need this,” he said, stopping at one of the ubiquitous drip irrigation systems that make this desert bloom, “But without water, you devise a solution. Lacking natural resources, our only major exportable resource is brainpower.” 

Seeking a new image, early Zionists considered the People of the Book too passive, vulnerable, victimized. Today, as the Israel miracle matures, we understand that the secret of Israel’s success has been remaining People of the Book, surviving and thriving with our collective smarts. But what kind of book will our foundational text be? We fear our children are becoming the people of Facebook, addicted to false friends, fleeting experiences, virtual values. We need a new Torah for today, rooted in the best of our tradition, responding to contemporary realities, and facing the future boldly, creatively, humanely, Jewishly, virtuously. 

Fortunately, the Israel Center for Excellence through Education is one of many brilliant flowers blooming in Israel today. We see the zeal for aesthetic excellence in the renewed Israel Museum, which its director James Snyder explains, “not only brings together the best of the East and the West, but has become a model for other museums. Even before the economic downturn we decided to make our recent ‘campus renewal’ project a $100 million refurbishing initiative rather than a half-billion dollar or billion-dollar tear-down-and-rebuild project. Now, colleagues worldwide are studying our alternative model.” We see the zeal for spiritual excellence in cutting-edge synagogues like Jerusalem’s Shira Hadasha, which, while pioneering an Orthodoxy empowering women, has top quality volunteer cantors and sermon-givers. We see the zeal for intellectual excellence at the Shalom Hartman institute, which runs its own superb schools while pushing Israel, the world’s start-up nation, to become the world’s values nation too. 

I have firsthand knowledge of each of these oases of excellence, representing this growing trend. For, I am not only a happy Zionist but a proud (and relieved) parent. The satisfied IASA student is my oldest daughter.


Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”

Needed: A New Jewish Civics Course

By Gil Troy, The New York Jewish Week, 1-11-11

If 2000-2010 was the decade of delegitimization, when Palestinian attacks on Israel’s existence gained renewed traction, 2010 was the year of delegitimization-lite.

More and more Jews responded to the relentless criticism of Israel by internalizing it.

True, most rejected the radical caricature of Israel as a racist or apartheid state deserving destruction. But absorbing the anti-Israel poison in the atmosphere, increasing numbers, especially among liberal Jewish elites, attacked Israel as fundamentally broken, caricaturing Zionism as a right-wing enterprise.

This neo-conning of Israel accepted the Israel-as-keystone-to-world peace delusion, indulged in the occupation preoccupation that the settlements constitute the main obstacle to peace, viewed liberalism and modern Zionism as increasingly incompatible, and bought the pro-Israel monolith myth, that the Jewish community squelches criticism of Israel.

Angry leftists and defensive rightists overlooked the Brandeis surveys showing growing support for Israel among young Jews, thanks especially to Birthright Israel, along with the debate raging about Israel within the community.

This apparent crisis, even if exaggerated, triggered much soul searching, including debates about how to teach Israel. Inevitably, in such a politicized environment the debate degenerated into a clash about how critical to be when trying to teach young Jews about Israel.

Educationally, we risk creating a mess. If adults struggle to sift through conflicting arguments, positions and emotions, how can we expect our students to absorb a coherent message?

To reframe the debate, we should re-conceptualize Zionist education. We need a revitalized Jewish history curriculum to teach the rise of Zionism and the realities of Israel as the result of a long historical process. However, Zionism should be taught as part of Jewish civics, exploring our rights and responsibilities as Jewish citizens in the modern world.

A Jewish civics curriculum makes explicitly Zionist assumptions, that we are a people with a civics to teach. Jewish civics starts by teaching belonging, explaining our deep, multi-dimensional connections to Judaism and Jews, to Israel and the Jewish people. If done effectively, it rejects probationary Judaism, what-have-you-done-for-me-lately Judaism, a transactional Judaism making Jewish identity contingent on Judaism being useful for us, and dependent on Israel’s good behavior.

Jewish civics then moves from being to becoming. Our connection to Judaism becomes not simply a static piece in a modern person’s jigsaw puzzle of identities but a dynamic engine that helps us become better people while improving the world.

Jewish citizenship entails understanding peoplehood, realizing Judaism is more than a religion. It means learning how belonging to community enriches us and obligates us. It means understanding tikkun olam as a way of fixing the world through being Jewish not by escaping from Judaism. And it means studying Israel and Zionism in context — the context of rights and responsibilities, and, yes, rights and wrongs, challenges and dilemmas.

Zionism taught as Jewish civics involves understanding Zionism’s historical roots, Zionism’s mission to fix Judaism, to make it whole and historical and multidimensional again. It explores Zionism’s character, emphasizing action, not just identity.

Israel taught in the context of Jewish civics sidesteps the whole Israel right or wrong debate in two crucial ways. First, emphasizing belonging also makes the connection to Israel more integral, more natural, fewer contingents. It roots our Israel connection in our shared, enduring roots, not in the latest headlines. And by teaching Israel as part of the process of becoming, we carve out room for a wide variety of political responses while empowering a range of civic responses, meaning opportunities to build it, improve it, engage with it, dream about it, and find fulfillment through it.

Done effectively, a Jewish civics curriculum could be particularly empowering in the modern world and deliciously counter-cultural. It could move our youth beyond the internet’s passive, isolated, meta-community, with its false Facebook “friends” and virtual experiences. It could root our youth in the eternal us, in longstanding traditions, rather than the me-me, my-my, more-more, now-now of contemporary culture.

Civics skill-building could actually turn some of the time that young people spend surfing the net into more productive time, as they master the skills of citizenship 2.0, including learning how to fight anti-Semitism and anti-Zionist hate propaganda on the web. And it can unite young Jews all over the world, because young Israeli Jews need a new Jewish civics as desperately as do young American, Canadian and British Jews. n

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute 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

Educating the spoiled brats of Jewish history

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-3-10

Halleluyah! Natan Sharansky is trying to reform the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Since he became chairman of this quasi-governmental agency, uniquely poised to bridge the State of Israel with Jewish communities around the world, he has pushed an exciting new vision for the infamously bureaucratic agency.
Sharansky views the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity. If in the 20th century JAFI’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century has to be about saving Jewish souls.

Now that may sound jarring to us, because so many of us are secular, sophisticated, technocratic and uncomfortable with “soul talk.” But if we don’t have the passion, if we don’t see that building Jewish identity is ultimately about saving souls, then how do we get the gumption to do what must be done?

Words such as “change” and “identity” can be empty slogans, amorphous and lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent, so that we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The modern Zionist movement tried to solve “the Jewish problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem for most (not all) Jews today is the opposite: we are being Loved to Death. Some 2.5 million young Israelis, 1.7 million young North American Jews, and most of the 600,000 young Jews from other countries enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many perceive that freedom as “negative freedom,” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community and from responsibilities (and many of their parents aren’t much better). We’re being loved to death in once-hostile communities that now happily celebrate our children’s marriages to theirs, and we’re being loved to death, because while we can enter the modern world freely, we often enter by voluntarily relinquishing our Jewish identity.

Our young people, in secular Israel and abroad, in this age of “I” not “us,” are entranced by the new cosmopolitanism cross-bred with a hyper-individualism, what Sharansky calls a false choice between Jewish values and universal values. That false choice is reinforced by an equally false promise that we can transcend national boundaries, cut ourselves off from tradition and simply be islands unto ourselves, encased within our own technological test tubes.

Isn’t that the Apple promise, to each his own iPod and iPhone, to each his own customized Thinkpad?

And we Jews lap it up. You know the old joke. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Christian” and you know he’s Christian. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Muslim” and you know he’s Muslim. Show me someone who says, “I’m just a human being” – he’s Jewish.

We are, New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier says, “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” more comfortable than ever before, but more selfish and self-indulgent than ever before. Our great mass crime, Wieseltier argues, isn’t intermarriage, but ignorance. One of the most educated generations in Jewish history in secular terms is one of the least educated Jewishly.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama showed that liberals shouldn’t be afraid of the “three Fs” – family, faith and flag. We have to build our identity on what we might call the “three mems” – mishpachah (family), morashah (heritage) and moledet (homeland). This holy trinity, if you will, roots us, consecrating our personal and national identities, teaching us about our past, inspiring us in the present and orienting us toward the future. JAFI – and other Jewish communal institutions – must express and foster this vision, with education at its core.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education, because Jewish education isn’t just about learning the facts, but about mastering life. Jewish education isn’t just about thinking, it’s also about doing. Jewish education isn’t just about understanding the world, but fixing it – tikun olam. Jewish education isn’t just about skill-building, it’s about identity-building. In short, Jewish education is values education – and that’s the added value we need, and must provide. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told JAFI’s board of governors: “This is not an exercise in education. It’s an exercise in survival.”

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.