Thomas Friedman (and others) on Israel – Sloppy but not Self-hating

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-20-11

This year, 2011, proves that even top journalists can have a bad year. Thomas Friedman started the year with naive reports about the Arab spring as democratic idyll. Friedman turned cranky in mid-year when he witnessed an impressive democratic moment, the ecstatic bipartisan greeting America’s Congress gave Israel’s Prime Minister. Most recently, Friedman’s claim that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” evoked the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of rich, powerful and manipulative Jews. It also ignored most Americans’ genuine love for Israel.

But Friedman is neither anti-Semite nor self-hating Jew. Using either epithet to defame him is simplistic and offensive. If Friedman is “a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater,” as my esteemed fellow columnist Caroline Glick called him yesterday, despite many ties to Israel and his deep, conflicted feelings about the place, what do you call Noam Chomsky? If we group his columns with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion how should we respond to the real, virulent, anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab press – or increasingly in the European press? My broad Zionist tent is big enough to welcome Friedman, even while slamming him for being sloppy and insensitive, letting his distaste for Bibi Netanyahu override good taste.
Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush called himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after 1200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating 0. Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked to meet Bush. As Sheila Segal recounts, when Cardin explained that implying that Jewish lobbyists outmuscled America’s President echoed traditional exaggerations about Jewish power and stirred anti-Semitism.  Bush replied, “But I didn’t specifically mention the Jews, did I?” Cardin replied: “You didn’t have to. It was very clear to us and to everyone. It was offensive, and it was personally painful.” Bush, abashed, apologized. So should Friedman.
Friedman, of course, is not the only reporter whose pen often becomes a negatively-charged magic wand to make Israel look ugly. Israel excites much passion and too much exaggeration. Some Israel reporters suffer chronotaraxis — time disorientation – confusing legislation that is proposed with legislation actually enacted. We are currently living through the Israeli version of 2002’s Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where criminals are punished before committing any crimes, simply for considering them.
Believe it or not, most of the controversial “anti-democratic” laws recently proposed have NOT passed. Nevertheless, hysterical reporting decries these pre-crimes and prematurely eulogizes Israeli democracy, when it is working effectively, resisting many bad initiatives.  I also wonder how foolish the U.S. Congress would look if every ridiculous law proposed made headlines worldwide.
Reporters also suffer from historical hysteria, analogy inflation, overstating the significance of contemporary actions by invoking some legendary game-changer.  Tanya Rosenblit deserves praise for bravely sitting in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, resisting Hareidi harassment.  Gender segregation on buses does not belong in a modern state nor is it required by our ancestral religion. Still, Rosenblit’s actions don’t match Rosa Parks’ heroism. In 1955, Parks, a black woman in a racist South, broke the law, defied convention, shattered what Southerners considered to be the natural order of things when she sat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.  Similarly, it’s not McCarthyism if someone disagrees with you, even if they hurt your feelings; it’s McCarthyism when a demagogue exploits government and media power to try blacklisting you, ruining your life, imprisoning you.
Once upon a time, exaggerations about Israel cut in Israel’s favor. Just a few decades ago, in the Israel of “Exodus” and Moshe Dayan, every soldier was a Maccabee, every blemish overlooked. The renowned liberal historian Henry Steele Commager praised Zionism on Israel’s tenth anniversary as “benign” and peace-loving, while characterizing Israel’s neighbors as committed to “chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism.”
Things changed, thanks to a systematic Palestinian propaganda campaign that resonated with a post-1960s, post-liberal, post-modernist ideology – here Glick and I agree. This worldview caricatured Israel as a white Western racist, colonial power, amid automatic sympathy for the weak over the powerful, the non-white over the white, the Third World over the West, anti-colonial nationalism over liberal democratic nationalism. Just as a concave lens makes an object look bigger while a convex lens makes it look smaller, much of world opinion switched lenses from convex to concave when examining Israel. Viewing Israel through this distorting black-versus-white concave lens magnified even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.
These days, many people also see the Hanukkah holiday through one distorting lens or another. It is easy to caricature Hanukkah as the holiday of violence, of fanaticism, turning the Maccabees into Spartan warriors or Second Temple Hareidim. Examining Hanukkah in America, we could distort it as the holiday of mindless consumption or of dangerous assimiliation – with Christmukkah, the Hanukkah Bush, and, yes, Hanukkah Harry.
But Hanukkah’s power and meaning lie in its Zen balance. Was it God or the Maccabees? Yes. Is the triumph military or spiritual? Yes. Is it a national or a religious moment? Yes. Should we indulge by giving gifts, scarfing down sickly sweet doughnuts, ingesting grease-laden latkes – or should we give charity, celebrate with friends and families, delight in our traditions? Again yes.
Hanukkah’s power stems from its proportionality. Israel’s maturity – as a democracy, as a society, as a topic of concern and conversation, and in coping with critics – will also come from a similar search for balance. We need some Zen in our Zionism while reporters need some poise in their prose – even when writing about Israel.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

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The Zionism-Racism lie lives – 20 years after the UN’s repeal

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-29-11

Last week, Ha’aretz’s publisher Amos Schocken joined the chorus prematurely mourning “the elimination of Israeli democracy” – although articles like his in his hyper-critical newspaper prove Israel’s democratic vitality daily. Exaggerating further, he accused Israel of practicing “apartheid.” This libel is inaccurate and inflammatory. Tragically, it appeared just before an important anniversary that should not be overlooked – the United Nations’ repeal of its odious Zionism is Racism resolution twenty years ago on December 16, 1991.
A clever polemicist, Schocken appeared more subtle than the average Israel-basher by acknowledging a “difference” between South African apartheid “and what is happening in the territories.” Nevertheless, he found “points of resemblance.” He defined apartheid as “the undemocratic system of discriminating between the rights of the whites and the blacks, which once existed in South Africa.” But he discussed “discrimination” in the West Bank without offering any evidence regarding the offense which made apartheid apartheid, defining people systematically, legally, by skin color.
In a world which abhors racial distinctions but organizes itself around many distinctions between different national groups, justifying the apartheid accusation requires proving a racial dimension. Schocken could have charged “discrimination” – which is devastating enough to a democracy. Using the demonizing word “apartheid” linked him to the Big Lie delegitimizing the Jewish state by calling Zionism racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s apartheid regime.
The apartheid charge gussies up the Zionism-racism lie with sincere concern about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, but both blood libels share common origins, carrying the putrid stench  of Soviet totalitarianism’s rotting corpse.  In the 1960s and 1970s, Soviet and Arab propagandists concocted the Zionism-racism charge to ostracize the Jewish state by identifying it with racist South Africa and Rhodesia. This “Big Red Lie,” as Daniel Patrick Moynihan called it, also echoed Nazi views of Jews as a “race.” Trying to racialize Zionism, to South Africanize Israel, to demonize the Jewish people and the Jewish state, the UN’s General Assembly passed Resolution 3379 on November 10, 1975, calling Zionism racism.
Moynihan, serving as America’s UN Ambassador, saw the resolution as an attack on democracy and decency.  And he recognized the genocidal implications of accusing Israel of the one international crime punishable by national death. Comparing Zionism to Nazism and white supremacism wished the same fate on Israel that befell Nazi Germany and – eventually – apartheid South Africa. Israel’s UN Ambassador, Chaim Herzog, denounced the Hitlerite anti-Semitism shaping the resolution, targeting the collective Jew rather than individual Jews.
Both Herzog and Moynihan believed “words matter” and ideas count. When Herzog became Israel’s president in 1983, he and now-Senator Moynihan began campaigning to repeal the resolution. Everyone said that no General Assembly resolution was ever repealed – although Spain joined the UN in 1950 despite an earlier resolution prohibiting its membership.
Herzog and Moynihan persisted. In 1985, Israel’s UN Ambassador Benjamin Netanyahu hosted a conference demanding repeal. Netanyahu explained the resolution’s potency, noting “there is no worse epithet in today’s lexicon than ‘racist,’” the word is “the modern version of ‘Christ killers,’ ‘traitors,’ ‘usurers,’ and ‘international conspirators.’”
Moynihan, a Democrat, cooperated with the Republican Presidents Ronald Reagan, then George H.W. Bush, who ultimately secured the repeal. The Jewish community mobilized, uniting grassroots protests with effective organizational advocacy. And history happened. The Soviet Union collapsed.
The liberated Eastern European countries endorsed repeal. Following a courageous intervention by Elie Wiesel, who pointedly asked the Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk how come no one in Kiev opened up a door to save even one child as thousands marched to their deaths toward the forests of Babi Yar in 1941, Kravchuk rejected this “resolution born out of bitter ideological confrontation.” The Czech President Vaclav Havel needed no coaching, saying: “I didn’t approve of it then; I don’t approve of it now.”
Unfortunately, despite the repeal, despite the Soviet Union’s collapse, the Big Red Lie refuses to die. “Zionism is Racism” and the Apartheid accusation have become central memes in modern politics. A meme, “something imitated,” is an idea popularized in a culture through repetition. Israel’s enemies have used these two Killer Memes to make their assault on Israel’s existence constant and cumulative. The Zionism-Racism claim integrates one criticism with the next; the apartheid allegation treats every Israeli misstep as a crime against humanity.
No one involved in Middle East matters, least of all Ha’aretz’s erudite publisher, can claim to be ignorant of the significance of validating the Apartheid-Racism memes. Intentionally or not, in the internet age, Ha’aretz is an important link in the chain of delegitimization that often starts with its incendiary coverage and ends with the Boycott Israel-Kill the Jews crowd feeling vindicated. That realization should never stop Schocken or others from truth-telling. But it should caution them against sloppy rabble-rousing.
Schocken should get a taste of those democratic prerogatives he defends so eloquently. The Jewish Agency, the Federations, the Israeli government, the universities, should stop taking out those ridiculous, expensive front page ads in the English Ha’aretz welcoming this group or that board to Israel — and explain why the gravy train stopped. Charity dollars should not be wasted in such vanity enterprises anyway — especially if they subsidize spreading these modern blood libels.
Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Jewish organizational world, and the Jewish people should celebrate December 16. We should toast the American-Israeli friendship, America’s bipartisan cooperation on this issue, Zionist activism, and the welcome defeat of Soviet totalitarianism that produced the victory. Our students should learn that sometimes Israel’s advocates, Zionism’s champions, democracy’s defenders, can win. And all Israelis, from across the political spectrum, should learn they have a treasury of words and historical comparisons to use during vigorous democratic debate. However, using the Zionism-Racism and Apartheid memes assaults the truth and encourages Israel’s deadliest enemies.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenge of Today,” his next book is “Moynihan’s Moment: Zionism is Racism, the Rise of Reagan and the Fall of the UN.”

The X factor in the American election

JPost, July 13, 2008

Throughout much of George W. Bush’s reign, the newspapers and blogosphere have been filled with dire warnings about the state of America. Much of it was so hysterical, it was easy to dismiss it as “Bushophobia,” a reflection of the irrational, intense hatred this president provokes, especially among elites.

In fact, for much of the Bush years, America’s economy did well. Quarter after quarter, experts would warn about sobering outcomes, and yet the numbers kept on illustrating a much rosier picture. As long as the economy was strong, Bush’s popularity ratings could plummet, New Orleans could sink, Iraq could become a quagmire, but the overall tone in the United States remained surprisingly upbeat.

All that has changed. The talk in the United States has turned, people frequently admit their economic distress, focusing on limited finances now or worries about limitations to come. The most visible symbol of this new economic reality is that gasoline is now consistently over $4 a gallon.

People are cutting back, redirecting resources they once piddled away on luxuries toward keeping up with their necessities. As a mark of this shift, Starbucks, one of the great symbols of early 21st century indulgence with its $4 cups of coffee, just closed 600 stores. It seems that the Bush daydream has become the Bush nightmare.

This energy and economic trauma on top of all the other traumas should make it a simple election for the Democrats. No matter who wins the White House, everyone is expecting a Democratic sweep of Congress. On Capitol Hill, Republicans are bracing for a bloodbath, Democrats are already squabbling over the spoils. With Barack Obama leading in the polls, with John McCain retooling his campaign team, this election should be a slam dunk win for the Democrats.

But the dynamics of the presidential campaign are not that easy. Remember President Michael kis? He was crowned the presumptive successor to Ronald Reagan in 1988 as he enjoyed a double digit lead in the polls over George H.W. Bush throughout the summer. But Bush was able to come back and defeat him.

The office of the president is so personal, the campaign is so long and grueling, that anything could happen. It really is too early to say Kaddish for McCain or pick out the new colors for Obama’s Oval Office re-design. And on top of all these personality and political factors in the mix, the economy is going to weigh ever more heavily – if current indicators continue to play out as they have been.

In 1992, Bill Clinton defeated George H.W. Bush, who once enjoyed approval ratings close to 90 percent. Clinton’s slogan was “It’s The Economy, Stupid.”

This year, barring a major terrorist attack or international blow up – it seems clear that the election will hinge yet again on that stupid economy.

If McCain cannot figure out how to respond to Americans’ distress on this issue, he is finished. But if Americans lose confidence in Obama’s ability to be a steady steward of the economy, he, too, is doomed.