Americans and Israel After 9/11

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-11-12

Shortly after the horrific 9/11 attacks, Canadian government agency invited a group of McGill University professors to provide an off-the-record briefing explaining what had occurred. One professor after another blamed the assault on one American sin after another. Crossbreeding elitist anti-Americanism with narcissistic academic theorizing, the Central American specialist mentioned America’s assault on Nicaragua in the 1980s; the Africanist blamed America’s neglect of Africa; and so on. When it was my turn, I said, “I think I was watching the wrong channel that day—perhaps NBC not CBC. What I saw was that al Qaeda attacked America, yet you are all blaming the victim.”

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)
 

Eleven years later, I remember that exchange as a warning to those of us who wish to understand 9/11’s significance to Israel. Viewing those events through a blue-and-white prism risks distortions, especially given the black-clouded fury of those days and today’s misty haze of forgotten memories. Still, it does seem that then—and now—the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a propellant for some Americans and Jews, bonding them ever more intensely with Israel. While for others, 9/11 ultimately served as a repellent, especially after the ugly fight over America’s war in Iraq.

On that awful day, many Americans immediately thought of Israel. People talked, for example, about learning Israeli security techniques. They felt a common destiny, a shared anguish, a reinforced sense of values. They started paying more attention to the wave of Palestinian terror Israel had been enduring for a year already—especially after CNN aired images of Palestinians dancing after the Twin Towers’ collapse.

Moreover, 9/11 heralded a Bush’s administration shift toward Israel’s response Palestinian terror. September 11 was a crucial step in Israel gaining American approval for military incursions in the West Bank in April 2002. Subsequently, strategic, diplomatic and military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in their common war against terror further bonded the two countries—and many of their people.

At the same time, 9/11 ultimately propelled the Bush administration into the Iraq War. The divisive fight over the invasion distanced some from Israel. First, there were those who believed that it was America’s pro-Israel orientation that landed American soldiers in Baghdad. Some who did not buy that narrative were still so sour on Bush that his increasingly ardent support for Israel became a toxic embrace. To these people—and again, I am giving impressions not statistical analysis—Israel and Iraq became neoconservative projects. This neoconning of Israel alienated some Americans, including some American Jews, from the Jewish State.

Today, many foreign policy issues, especially those concerning the Middle East, shake out between those who worry about another 9/11 and those who fear another Iraq. Even though Barack Obama as President has done much to blur the lines by approving the assault on Osama Bin Laden and deploying drones against terrorists while ending the Iraq war, this division persists. The memories of 9/11 do provide more glue in the America-Israel relationship, even as the lingering effects of the Iraq debate strain the friendship. We can also see the impact in the current debate about Iran. Those who focus on 9/11’s lessons champion aggressive preventative action. Those who remember the Iraq War debacle are more skeptical of American motives and the military’s ability to produce desired outcomes.

On this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, in the broad, compassionate, national spirit that emerged on that painful day, each faction should learn a bit from the other, rather than simply refuting each others’ claims. Both regarding Israel and the rest of the world, those who worry about another 9/11  are correct—there are evil forces that need aggressive policing. But those fearing another Iraq War are also correct—the world is far too complex for us to dictate desired outcomes, with complete confidence, all the time.

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

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A decade after 9/11 – and still proud

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Despite all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude, hope from that day and its aftermath.

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-6-11

Ten years ago this week, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes, murdered nearly three thousand people, destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and damaged the Pentagon. Our therapy-orientated culture encourages us to “move on,” rather than wallow in anger. We are supposed to seek “root causes” of violence, absolving belligerent individuals and nations of moral responsibility, especially if we perceive someone from the Third World assailing powerful white Westerners. But at the risk of being politically and psychologically incorrect, I remain angry after all these years. The ruins have stopped smoldering – I haven’t.

I AM still angry that so many good people lost their lives. I mourn with the parents who buried their children so prematurely – or had no remains to inter – and with the widowed spouses and the orphaned children.

Every victim has a name and a narrative; the daily ache of missing a lost friend or relative’s look, laugh and love is compounded by imagining the possibilities of lives not fully lived. For weeks after 9/11, The New York Times ran what became a Pulitzer-Prize winning series, “Portraits of Grief.” These mini-biographies painted a pointillist picture of what America, and the world, lost that day, one precious life at a time. And they confirmed what many of us knew but the media was too politically correct to say – although the victims came from dozens of countries and all classes, most were either white collar male professionals – like me – or blue collar rescue workers who went to work one day and never returned.

I am still angry at the anti-Americanism that formed the backdrop to these mass murders. Al-Qaida’s anti- Western ideology is a murderous manifestation of a broader phenomenon mixing resentment of American power, jealousy of American success, fear of American freedom and contempt for American novelty. In its mildest forms, this anti-Americanism unites haughty Old World Europeans who disdain the aggressive New World upstarts as crude cowboys. In its ugly Islamist form, this anti-Americanism strengthens Muslim fundamentalists’ dreams of a Caliphate theocracy dominating the world.

I am still angry at the foolish, foul Red-Green alliance between radical leftists and Islamists, that has too many in Europe and on campuses echoing the Islamist agenda even when it entails rationalizing sexism, homophobia, theocracy and autocracy. These laptop jihadists, these posturing Chomskyites, view Third Worlders as necessarily noble, oppressed, and thereby justified in attacking Americans, Israelis and others they deem powerful “whites” – despite the multiracial makeup of both America and Israel. These self-hating hypocrites only see Western faults, staying scandalously silent about Syria’s crackdown or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I am still angry at the United Nations, which has become international headquarters for this selective indignation and these double standards. Founded with democratic idealism in the 1940s, the world body has degenerated since the 1970s into the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society as autocrats deploy in New York the very democratic techniques they ban at home.

I am still angry at the bipartisan failure by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to prevent the crime. The moral onus remains on the terrorists, but President Clinton lacked the guts to hunt down Osama Bin Laden more aggressively, while President Bush failed to focus on the threat. Informed speculation that better cooperation between the CIA and the FBI could have stopped the jihadists is emotionally devastating. The fact that reporters and politicians ignored terrorism in the 2000 presidential campaign reflects the bipartisan sloppiness that made the terrorists’ work easier.

I am still angry that despite the rhetoric claiming that terrorism never succeeds, terrorism has succeeded – most dramatically in popularizing and somehow legitimizing Palestinian demands, making the late Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization the spiritual and tactical trailblazers for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida.

I am still angry that this summer, just weeks before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, leading media outlets again rationalized terrorism by calling the Gazan terrorists who slaughtered eight Israelis near Eilat – including two sisters vacationing together with their respective husbands – “militants.”

I am still angry about the convergence of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, exemplified by the candy Palestinians in Gaza threw to celebrate the 9/11 murders, and the cynical way in which Bin Laden started invoking the Palestinian cause when retroactively attempting to popularize his despicable act.

I am still angry about the increased vulnerability of Jews following 9/11 – partially due to the parallel terrorist onslaught Palestinians unleashed. Even today, throughout the Diaspora, many Jewish synagogues, schools and organizations require special protections because terrorists target us and our institutions particularly.

And I am still angry that most American Jews started acknowledging the renewed Palestinian terrorism against Israel only after 9/11 – even though that wave of terrorism began in September, 2000, a year before the devastating al Qaida attacks.

FORTUNATELY, DESPITE all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to the overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude and hope from that day and its aftermath.

I remember the way Americans united, transcending partisan, racial and religious differences, as so many millions throughout the world expressed sympathy – and outrage. I honor the estimated 5 million Americans who have served in the military since the attacks – alongside many soldiers from allies such as Canada and Great Britain. I lament the 6,200 Americans lost in combat – along with so many other fallen soldiers and civilians from other countries in this fight for freedom. And I appreciate more than ever the liberties we in the West enjoy , the civil society we have developed, and the moral values we cherish, well aware that civilization itself, let alone functional democracies, requires careful tending – and when necessary, an aggressive, effective defense against our enemies – ideologically as well as militarily.

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 latest book is The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

National Insecurity American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

American Jews haven’t stood up for Jonathan Pollard. That might finally be changing.

By Gil Troy, Tablet Magazine, 11-16-10

Jonathan Pollard.

Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; photo: Wikimedia Commons

Jonathan Pollard, who is now marking his 24th year in prison, has earned the dubious record of serving the longest prison term in American history for spying for an ally. Convicted of espionage in 1987, Pollard was the suburban American Jewish dream turned nightmare: a good, middle-class, high-achieving boy turned traitor. The son of a college professor, smart enough to graduate from Stanford, patriotic enough to be hired to work in naval intelligence, he made a criminal decision to betray his country to help Israel.

And yet new petitions on his behalf have recently begun to circulate, and gain momentum, both in the U.S. Congress and the Israeli Knesset. This is, in large measure, because Pollard’s situation rests on a contradiction: He was guilty of a reprehensible crime, and yet he has been treated abominably. One of the most infamous Jewish criminals in modern times, he is also the victim of the worst act of official American anti-Semitism in our lifetimes. With his round face and shoulder-length hair, Pollard today still looks more like a perpetual grad student than an arch criminal, but he has suffered severely. He has served hard time, mostly in maximum-security prisons, spending years in lockdown 23 hours a day. Websites pleading his case detail his medical ailments, noting that he has “developed diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, pre-glaucoma, and arthritis while in prison.”

From the moment he was sentenced, there were people in the Jewish community—and beyond—who believed Pollard had been unjustly punished and who fought for his release. But they were few and far between, and they often made the wrong case for him. This newest round of argument on Pollard’s behalf is different. For starters, many of his champions have been careful not to lionize him. Rather, they focus on correcting what Judge Stephen Williams, who filed a dissent in one of Pollard’s failed appeals, deemed “a fundamental miscarriage of justice.” Most surprisingly, on September 27, 2010, a former assistant secretary of Defense confirmed many people’s decades-long fears that, at some point, the case had turned personal—and poisonous. Without explaining what prompted him to break his silence, Lawrence Korb, who served in the Pentagon in Reagan’s first term, wrote President Barack Obama: “Based on my first-hand knowledge, I can say with confidence that the severity of Pollard’s sentence is a result of an almost visceral dislike of Israel and the special place it occupies in our foreign policy on the part of my boss at the time, Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger.”

Decades into this tragic and pathetic tale, American Jewry’s continuing allergy to defending Pollard says more about our communal fears and the price we are willing to pay for social and political acceptance than it does about Pollard and his crimes.

***

On November 21, 1985, FBI agents arrested Pollard, 31 at the time, just outside Israel’s embassy in Washington. Since June 1984, Pollard had been routinely removing sensitive documents from the Naval Intelligence Support Center on Friday afternoons, passing them to his Israeli handlers for Xeroxing, and blithely returning them on Monday mornings. When first interrogated by the FBI, Pollard called his wife. After he worked the word “cactus” into the conversation, their designated SOS code word, Anne Henderson-Pollard scurried about their house—with a neighbor’s help—sanitizing it. The neighbor subsequently gave the FBI a 70-pound suitcase filled with secret documents, reflecting the volume of Pollard’s activities and sloppiness.

Despite transferring thousands of documents to his Israeli handlers, Pollard failed to gain asylum at the embassy on that day in 1985. Backpedaling furiously, Israel first labeled Pollard a rogue agent, as his handlers worked out of a shadowy organization called Lekem, the Defense Ministry’s Bureau for Scientific Relations. The department, headed by the legendary Mossad man Rafi Eitan, was disbanded shortly after Pollard’s arrest. Israel granted Pollard citizenship in 1995—long after such a move could have done him any good. And it wasn’t until 1998 that Israel finally acknowledged what everyone knew: Pollard had been an authorized agent spying for Israel.

An American Jew’s arrest as an Israeli spy was upsetting enough for American Jews. But Pollard’s defense made the affair excruciating. Minimizing the thousands of dollars he earned, the diamond-and-sapphire ring the Israelis gave him, and his efforts to shop American secrets to South Africa and possibly Pakistan, too, Pollard portrayed himself as a Zionist idealist. Anti-Semites bullied him as a child, he recalled. He claimed that the documents he smuggled out, so crucial to Israeli security, should have been shared freely. And, using a most obnoxious and threatening term, he said a “racial obligation” compelled him, as a Jew, to defend the Jewish state.

Suddenly, amid Ronald Reagan’s resurgence of hard-bodied patriotic machismo, in the age of Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo and Clint Eastwood’s tough-guy “make my day” taunt, a balding, mustachioed, jowly-faced American Jewish nerd in glasses was betraying the red, white, and blue for the blue and white. Pollard’s crimes epitomized Zionism-run-amok, with the ideological implications of Jewish tribal solidarity pushed to its extreme.

“I feel my husband and I did what we were expected to do, and what our moral obligation was as Jews, what our moral obligation was as human beings, and I have no regrets about that,” Anne Pollard said defiantly on 60 Minutes shortly before being sentenced, one of many arrogant, self-destructive moves the couple made back then. While stirring up the terrifying “dual loyalty” charge—far more terrifying to Jews than to Irish-Americans and other hyphenated Americans—the Pollards defined every Jew’s ultimate loyalty as being to the Jewish state. Desperately repudiating the charge, the prominent academic Jacob Neusner would declare America to be the true “promised land.”

This American Jewish skittishness regarding Pollard was particularly surprising because by the 1980s American Jews were thriving in America’s suburban meritocracy. Some American Jewish superstars were accented immigrants like former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, Elie Wiesel. But most American Jewish success stories were 100 percent American. Speaking unaccented English, they were supposed to be unscarred psychologically, unapologetically American.

***

American Jews had been here before. Three decades before Pollard made headlines, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg’s arrest, trial, and conviction as Soviet spies for stealing atomic secrets rendered the American Jews’ nightmare scenario in pinkish hues. But in the 1950s, American Jews were greener, more marginal. Julius Rosenberg represented the intellectual, foreign-born, New York Jew as Communist, at a time when Communism was disproportionately popular among Jews.

With the Rosenbergs—as with the Pollards—the rightness of finding them guilty was often confused with the wrongness of their punishment. The zeal with which they were prosecuted, the way Judge Irving Kaufman presided over their trial, and Ethel Rosenberg’s unjust execution along with her husband, all suggested something deeper in both the American Jewish psyche and the larger American political culture. The American legal establishment particularly enjoyed prosecuting these treasonous Jews, while many American Jews leapt to prove their own loyalty—at the Rosenbergs’ expense.

Just as in the Rosenberg case, the judge presiding over Pollard’s sentencing was swayed to render too harsh a punishment—a decision that kicked up new waves of suspicion and anxiety.

In an effort to keep his wife out of prison, Pollard pleaded guilty to one count of espionage. His wife, Anne, then 26, pleaded guilty to the milder charge of illegally possessing classified documents. In return, the prosecutor asked the judge to punish Pollard with a “substantial number of years in prison.” During the sentencing phase, one voice proved damningly influential. In a secret 46-page-pre-sentencing “damage-assessment memorandum” sent to the judge—and an additional four-page memo that was recently declassified—Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger made a fierce argument. “It is difficult … to conceive of a greater harm to national security than that caused by the defendant in view of the breadth, the critical importance to the U.S., and the high sensitivity of the information he sold to Israel,” wrote Weinberger, before adding—malevolently and unnecessarily—that Pollard’s “loyalty to Israel transcends his loyalty to the United States.”

Judge Aubrey Robinson Jr., of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, sentenced Jonathan Pollard to life in prison and his wife to five years. (After Anne Henderson-Pollard served three-and-a-half years, she was paroled. Jonathan Pollard divorced her so she could rebuild her life without him.) The sentence was surprisingly harsh. By comparison, in 1987 Sgt. Clayton Lonetree, who’d been seduced by a Soviet agent, became the first Marine ever convicted of espionage. His crimes compromised agents and the American embassy in Moscow. Yet a military court—under Weinberger’s direct authority—sentenced Lonetree to 30 years in prison, and he eventually served nine years. Richard Miller, an FBI agent who spied for the Soviets in the 1980s, served 13 years. Spies for other allies, like Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Egypt, and the Philippines, served anywhere from two to four years, with maximum sentences of 10 years. Pollard’s extreme sentence—along with the continuing refusal to free him–has raised questions about official American anti-Semitism and whether Pollard is enduring harsher punishment for the crime of being an American Jew spying for Israel.

Given that neither Weinberger nor Robinson ever explained their actions, the Pollard case remained shrouded in this noxious mystery. Years later, Weinberger would skip over the case in his memoirs and, when asked about the omission, would dismiss the Pollard case as a “very minor matter.” But it’s clear that his accusation that Pollard committed “treason”—and harmed the nation—had a devastating impact.

In his recent letter, Lawrence Korb suggested that Weinberger, his former boss, had exaggerated the damage Pollard caused and that an anti-Semitic bias distorted the case. From the start, some speculated that Weinberger, who had Jewish grandparents but was a devout Episcopalian, sacrificed Pollard to exorcise his own ancestral demons. There was something about this pudgy, sloppy, unapologetic Jewish spy for Israel that repulsed Weinberger. Weinberger was also one of the Reagan Administration’s leading Israel skeptics. Caught in a power struggle with the pro-Israel Secretary of State George Shultz, Weinberger usually viewed the Jewish state as more albatross than asset.

More benign observers guessed that the secrets Pollard spilled did more damage to U.S. interests than Pollard or the Israelis suggested. Perhaps, some argued, Russian spies secured key codes thanks to Israeli-based KGB agents. Others assumed Pollard received instructions from a higher-level mole who remains unexposed. After Aldrich Ames’ arrest for spying in 1994, some speculated that Weinberger and others may have blamed Pollard for the damage Ames had actually caused, including the deaths of as many as 10 CIA assets. The author John Loftus and others theorized that Ames, who was a top CIA counter-intelligence official, probably pinned his own crimes on Pollard. In 1995, Moment magazine editor Hershel Shanks would quote Loftus quoting naval intelligence “sources” who admitted that “90 percent of the things we accused [Pollard] of stealing, he didn’t even have access to.”

***

After Pollard’s sentencing, New York Times columnist William Safire warned that Pollard encouraged “anti-Semites who charge that Jews everywhere are at best afflicted with dual loyalty and at worst are agents of a vast fifth column.” Issuing a personal declaration of independence from Israel, Safire proclaimed: “American supporters of Israel cannot support wrongdoing here or there. In matters of religion and culture, many of those supporters are American Jews, but in matters affecting national interest and ultimate loyalty, the stonewalling leaders of Israel will learn to think of us as Jewish Americans.”

But one keen observer of American Jewry, the political scientist Daniel Elazar, noticed that it was American Jews—and not their non-Jewish neighbors—who were actually raising the dual-loyalty specter, “apparently in the hope of preventing the issue from surfacing by raising the charge in order to deny it. Even more frequently, it was raised by Jews in the media, most of whom were highly assimilated but still apparently needed to demonstrate their ‘bona fides’ as Americans.” Elazar concluded: “The level of American Jewish insecurity is astounding.”

American Jews still viewed themselves and their community as on probation in the United States, with their ultimate acceptance conditional on good behavior. This pathology would be stated clearly, if unconsciously, years later, by one of the highest-ranking Jews in American history, who served his country nobly as director of naval intelligence from 1978 to 1982 and yanked Pollard’s security clearance—temporarily—years before the spying began. Rear Admiral Sumner Shapiro sounded like a scared yid when discussing Pollard. Annoyed at fringe American Jewish groups that defended Pollard, Shapiro told the Washington Post in 1998: “We work so hard to establish ourselves and to get where we are, and to have somebody screw it up … and then to have Jewish organizations line up behind this guy and try to make him out a hero of the Jewish people, it bothers the hell out of me.”

All minorities want to celebrate their tribal successes as reflecting the best of their people without being tarred when one of their own acts poorly. And given the torturous history of anti-Semitism, American Jews feel this intensely. We circulate lists of Jewish Nobel prize winners, delighting in each American Jewish success, using Jewish achievements to validate our rich but complex Jewish baggage. And while we reserve the right to cringe when a Bernard Madoff becomes the modern face of the greedy Jew or a Jonathan Pollard becomes the modern face of the traitorous Jew, we also reserve the right to object when our neighbors make similar leaps from the one bad apple to the whole bunch.

Nearly two years after Pollard’s arrest, with the sentencing returning the case to the headlines, the Israeli academic Shlomo Avineri zeroed in on this American Jewish insecurity—and inconsistency. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, first condemning Pollard as a traitor and his own government as clumsy, Avineri mocked the “nervousness, insecurity, and even cringing” of American Jews. Playing the role of the abrasive Israeli—or biblical prophet—Avineri wrote: “Today, American Jewish leaders by their protestations of over-zealous loyalty to the United States at a moment when no one is really questioning it, are saying that America in the long run is no different from France and Germany. When you have to over-identify, there is no other proof needed that you think that your non-Jewish neighbors are looking askance at your Americanism. You are condemned by your own protestations of loyalty and flag-waving.” At a time when Israel’s actions made it unpopular with many American Jews, Avineri’s aggressively Zionist analysis only exacerbated tensions.

***

The controversy–and speculation–peaked during the Wye River negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians in October 1998. Benjamin Netanyahu, in his first round as Israel’s prime minister, lobbied hard for Pollard’s release. President Bill Clinton seemed set to free him as a sweetener to Israel until the CIA director, George Tenet, threatened to resign. Such power politicking against a spy who had been imprisoned for over a decade reinforced both camps’ speculation. Those who fear anti-Semitism say this irrational move reflects a deep aversion in the WASP-iest bastions of the American government. Those who believe Pollard did more damage than we know insist that the usually mild-mannered Tenet had a good reason to be so rigid.

To Israeli settlers, Pollard’s case symbolizes the anti-Semitism of even benign non-Jewish polities such as the United States and the weak-kneed appeasement policies of successive Israeli governments, which have failed to free Pollard. The most popular pro-Pollard bumper sticker in Israel simply appeals for Pollard to come home “haBaytah,” but a few years ago one poster challenged: “BUSH: FREE YOUR CAPTIVE.” This poster not only targeted a good friend of Israel’s, George W. Bush, but it pictured Pollard with the young Israeli Hamas is holding, Gilad Shalit. The implicit comparisons, between the innocent Shalit and the guilty Pollard, as well as between the democratic United States and the terrorist-state Hamas, were offensive. While the right’s support has sustained Pollard emotionally, it may have made his get-out-of-jail card even harder to get. The Israeli right is unpopular with both the American Jewish community and the American political establishment, making Pollard even more unappealing.

***

However unappealing he may be, the time has come to free Jonathan Pollard—not as some sop to Israelis but as a matter of justice. Holding an individual hostage to the vagaries of the never-ending Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process is cruel and unusual punishment. The Pollard case has become a question of justice, American-style, unrelated to American-Israeli relations. And justice when applied too zealously becomes unjust. For decades, the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil-rights organizations have taught that we take up certain criminals’ cases not because we like the criminals or excuse their crimes but because, at a certain point, it becomes the right thing to do.

Imagine another case in which an accused man served a disproportionately long sentence after being tried in a court where direct pressure was applied by the secretary of Defense for reasons that may well have been mistaken or personally motivated. If there was another such case, one imagines that it would attract lots of attention from the ACLU and other groups concerned with the civil liberties of Americans. So why are they silent? More to the point, why are we silent?

If the Pollard case represents the worst of American anti-Semitism, then, by historic standards, anti-Semitism American style is mild indeed. Still, that American Jews, despite their long record of defending the underdog, still hestitate to champion Pollard’s release now, suggests that we—like Jonathan Pollard—remain victims of the “astounding” insecurity Elazar witnessed two decades ago.

Gil Troy, a professor of history at McGill University in Montreal and a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem, is the author of six books on American history and Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

The neo-conning of Israel and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-24-10

A disturbing new trend risks making Israel and Zionism politically poisonous to liberals. Israel has been “neo-conned,” cast as a neo-conservative Sparta, caricatured as a militarized theocracy, defined by the ultra-Orthodox haredim’s black garb and the IDF’s olive green uniforms, epitomized by “Avigdor Lieberman, the settlers, and Shas,” as Peter Beinart claimed in his recent, overwrought, New York Review of Books essay.

This narrative depicts American Jewish organizations as mindless and monolithic, enabling every right-wing, racist Israeli impulse, squelching dissent, making Zionism incompatible with liberalism, and cloddishly alienating the next, noble generation of American Jews. Treating Israel as more conservative than it actually is alienates many Jews and non-Jews from the Jewish state, especially in the Age of Obama.

Even for those writers who reject the perverse, inaccurate South African Apartheid analogy, seeing Israel through an American historical prism frequently distorts too. Barack Obama compares Palestinian suffering to African-Americans’ oppression. This comparison also sloppily and demagogically racializes a national conflict, making the multi-hued Israelis the “white guys,” meaning the bad guys.

Many critics are also shouting “McCarthyism,” hysterically defining even mild, non-governmental counterattacks against Israel’s relentless critics as hysterical. “McCarthyism” involved government repression of critics, ruining careers, even jailing dissidents; yet today McCarthyism is often alleged when right-wingers dare criticize the Left.

While rooted in the decades-long campaign to declare Zionism racism and Israel illegitimate, the latest surge stems from George W. Bush’s toxic embrace of Israel. His unpopularity proved contagious. Many Americans, including the current president, reflexively transferred their dislike of Bush to countries Bush liked, especially Israel.

Increasingly, championing Israel was deemed “conservative.” The timing was particularly ironic, amid Israel’s Gaza withdrawal, then Ehud Olmert’s centrist government offering the Palestinians generous concessions. Clearly, as a modern capitalist consumerist society Israel is not the socialist workers’ paradise David Ben-Gurion imagined. Israel remains vexed – and tarred – by the continuing Palestinian conflict. Israel’s current governing right-wing coalition includes some parties that have taken appalling anti-democratic positions. And Israel occasionally does stupid things, such as banning Noam Chomsky from the West Bank (then rescinding the ban).

Still, this wave of articles paints Israel not as leaning rightward but as abandoning democracy. These shrill attacks ignore the many counter-balancing forces – and Netanyahu’s own centrist shifts. Avigdor Lieberman is an unpopular, straitjacketed foreign minister, often bypassed. Still, he attracts more attention than moderates like the urbane, cosmopolitan Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor.

In neo-conning Israel critics overlook Arab illiberalism. Peter Beinart correctly notes that many young Jews resent hearing about Palestinian terrorism, incitement and intransigence. Casting the Arabs as the victims and Israel as the aggressor constitutes one of the greatest con jobs in modern politics.

Most significantly, Netanyahu embraced “two states for two peoples.” Seeking stability as a prerequisite to peace, his government has dismantled checkpoints, nurtured the Palestinian economy and cooperated on security matters with the Palestinian Authority. Netanyahu’s moves reflect Israel’s historic peace consensus, with most Israelis consistently willing to compromise for peace. These political steps and this profound yearning for peace are under-reported. They muddy the popular narrative of heavy-handed Israelis, long-suffering Palestinians, morally blind American Jewish leaders and justifiably rebellious American Jews.

A vital, creative and liberal Zionist center still thrives. True, if reporters continuously quote post-Zionist radicals such as Professor Ze’ev Sternhell or Avraham Burg, they will find backing for caricatures about a Holocaust-obsessed, racist country that ignores the noble elites trying to save it from itself. This one-sidedness would be like writing darkly about “George W. Bush’s America” in 2006 by quoting only Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

Reporters covering Israel should work harder, muddying the story further with truth. They could quote Professor Ruth Gavison, whose “Metzila” think tank harmonizes Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, with universal democratic values. They could interview Professor Moshe Halbertal, a political philosopher who wears a kippa, opposes settlements, and refuted the Goldstone Report. They could visit the Shalom Hartman Institute where Rabbi Donniel Hartman is leading a project I have joined reframing the vocabulary describing Israel and Zionism through Jewish texts as well as enduring Jewish and liberal values. They could consult Reut, the centrist think tank, which champions full equality for Israeli Arabs while defending Israel. Of course, now that Reut opposes delegitimizing Israel it has been branded “right wing.”

Within American Jewry, shoving established Jewish organizations into a box marked “Danger: Conservatives” makes the Jewish leadership and Israel unkosher no matter how bipartisan AIPAC is, no matter how committed to civil liberties the American Jewish Committee is, no matter how many Jewish leaders endorse two states.

Moreover, considering the many arguments about Israel at Sabbath tables and social events, it is absurd to claim that American Jews feel forced to march in lockstep regarding Israel. In most American Jewish circles, there is much more social pressure to be pro-choice than pro-Israel.

Considering Jews’ rich history of disputation, this culture of intensely criticizing Israel may be the modern Jew’s way of showing love. Professor Theodor Sasson argues that intense Jewish debates about Israel reflect a new paradigm of “direct engagement,” rejecting the traditional, more personally passive, organizational model of “mass mobilization.” The 250,000 young students, age 18 to 26, who visited Israel in the last 10 years with Birthright Israel, he notes, feel personal ties to Israel.

Birthright is a non-partisan program, an open-ended gift defined by the catchphrase “no strings attached.” As the new voluntary chairman of the Birthright Israel International Education Committee, I have been struck how researchers tracking the program report that few participants complain about being force-fed a line. The trip’s organizers know their credibility as educators rests on being open-minded not heavy-handed. Birthright is not an advocacy program but an identity-building program, launching thousands of individualized Jewish journeys.

The Zionist center is alive and well on both sides of the Atlantic – even if ignored by reporters. It is a Zionism of balance, seeking to better Israel while opposing its enemies’ irrational, obsessive hatred. It is a Zionism sobered by reality, seeking peace while remembering how territorial concessions bred Yasser Arafat’s terrorism and Hamas’s Kassams. It is a Zionism characterized by idealism, viewing nationalism as a framework for finding collective meaning and harnessing group power to achieve universal values. And it is a Zionism still nurtured by its liberal roots, viewing individual liberty, true equality, a just democracy and a lasting peace as keys to fulfilling Judaism’s teachings, Zionism’s dreams and Israel’s promise.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. Among his books are Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

Center Field: ‘Thank you, George W. Bush’

by Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, Wednesday Jan 07, 2009

Once again, in Israel’s hour of need, George W. Bush has supported the Jewish state eloquently, passionately, gracefully. At a time when most presidents use their rapidly shrinking bully pulpit to burnish their legacies, Bush devoted one of his final Saturday radio addresses to defending Israel’s actions and condemning Hamas. “This recent outburst of violence was instigated by Hamas, a Palestinian terrorist group supported by Iran and Syria that calls for Israel’s destruction,” Bush declared. He added that “Since Hamas’s violent takeover in the summer of 2007, living conditions have worsened for Palestinians in Gaza. By spending its resources on rocket launchers instead of roads and schools, Hamas has demonstrated that it has no intention of serving the Palestinian people.” George W. Bush has consistently used this kind of clear rhetoric to distinguish between Palestinians’ self-destructive addiction to terrorism and Israel’s justified self-defense.

With his stirring rhetoric and noble, timely, friendship, George W. Bush has woven himself into the fabric of Jewish history. His actions will stand out as golden threads, tempered and as hard as metal, glittering as a beacon to all good people. President Bush encouraged Israel in April 2002 when, after hundreds of terrorist murders, Ariel Sharon finally attacked the Palestinian terrorist infrastructure in the West Bank. President Bush supported Israel during the summer of 2006 when it fought Hizbullah’s menacing missiles. President Bush celebrated Israel in May, 2008, with an eloquent speech toasting Zionism’s achievements when he visited during Israel’s 60th birthday festivities. And now, President Bush is reinforcing Israel’s campaign to stop the incessant rocket barrage in the South. Each time, President Bush did not just do his duty he demonstrated his friendship for Israel publicly and powerfully. President Bush did not support Israel because it was expedient, but because it was right. For any one of these actions, George W. Bush should be lionized in the annals of Jewish history as a friend of the Jews and of the Jewish state. For any one of these actions Jews individually and collectively should be saying, “Thank you, George W. Bush.”

Instead, most Jews have taken Bush’s pro-Israel actions for granted – and joined the general public pile-on against him. Intelligent beings can hold competing positions, supporting some presidential positions and not others. The polarizing partisan Bushophobia which has characterized the last eight years, wherein people cannot say anything positive about the President is foolish and dangerous. Life – and particularly American politics – is too complex to approach issues so simplistically and fanatically. One can thank Bush for standing by Israel while disliking his tax policies or his war in Iraq. One can even thank Bush for standing by Israel at critical moments while criticizing his approach to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. In fact, a heartfelt thank you from a longstanding liberal or Bush-critic can be even more resonant and appreciated than yet another round of praise from conservative fans.

Thanking Bush publicly, collectively, flamboyantly for befriending Israel is particular important because American Jews are facing a growing gratitude gap with Republicans. Clearly, George W. Bush, John McCain, Evangelicals and millions of other Americans right and  left support Israel because it is the right thing to do, not because it is the politick thing to do. The contempt of the world for the pro-Israel position, as well as the contempt of so many American Jews for Republicans and Evangelicals, suggests that there are easier paths to popularity and votes. Still, politics is a game of give and take. What Tom Wolfe calls “the favor bank” is significant. American Jews need to figure out how to thank Republicans and Evangelicals for supporting Israel, even if it does not translate into massive Republican votes. At the same time, American Jews should be more wary of the Democratic party’s role as the home for many of the most virulently anti-Israel forces in America today.

American Jewish voting behavior powerfully disproves both the claims of dual loyalty and all the Israel Lobby stereotypes. The fact that three-quarters of the American Jewish community consistently votes Democratic proves that American Jews vote as Americans more than as Jews and are more concerned with a candidate’s domestic policies than foreign policies. Still, this lovely demonstration of American Jewish patriotism risks neutering the American Jewish community. A community that rewards its enemies and punishes its friends rapidly loses political clout.

Having mostly missed our opportunity to thank George W. Bush during his presidency, I propose a warm embrace during his post-presidency. American Jews should donate to his presidential library, perhaps to a particular wing, – as Jews, and as explicit thanks for his warm pro-Israel friendship. American Jewish organizations should shower ex-President Bush with as much love and as many awards as they showered on Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan. And American Jewish individuals should send letters and emails with this simple message “thank you George W. Bush.”

Mumbai “Blowback” – terrorists miscalculated again

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-10-08

Islamist terrorists are no doubt celebrating the Mumbai mayhem, convinced they triumphed somehow by turning luxury hotels, a train station and a Jewish community center into killing fields. And in the media’s pathological patter – shaping too many Westerners- defensive defeatism – talk of the “militants'” “successful operation” feeds these triumphalist delusions. In fact, once again, the terrorists miscalculated. Their depraved actions triggered another “blowback.” India’s three days of terror boosted George W. Bush‘s legacy, strengthened Barack Obama‘s fortitude in combating terrorism, embarrassed  many Indian Muslims, highlighted the ugliness of Islamist anti-Semitism and triggered worldwide sympathy for the victims. Strangers united to mourn the spiritually-inclined American father and daughter shot in a hotel, the altruistic Montreal doctor and social worker slain on vacation, the lovely Lubavitch Jewish couple murdered in their outreach center, and the dozens of good citizens of India who suffered the most from these thugs.

Suddenly, following these attacks, the terrorists’ least favorite president, George W. Bush is seeing the first uptick in his standing in months. Many people are noting one of the great anomalies of Bush’s administration. Perhaps his greatest achievement is a non-event. After September 11, most Americans assumed they would endure a wave of terrorist attacks. Even those Americans who hate Bush must acknowledge albeit grudgingly that he deserves credit for the fact that not one major attack has occurred again on American soil.  Subsequent atrocities in London , Madrid , Bali, Jerusalem , and now Mumbai – among many others – suggest that the terrorists kept trying.

In assessing a president’s legacy, it is hard to celebrate something that did not happen. It is hard to build a monument or even to write clearly regarding a threat that while palpable and potentially lethal, never materialized. The Bush Administration cannot of course divulge details of most operations it thwarted. Still, the fact that as of this writing all of North America has avoided another 9/11 demonstrates that at least some of the Bush Administration’s anti-terror strategies worked.

President-elect Barack Obama‘s decisions to keep Bush’s Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and to appoint Hillary Rodham Clinton as Secretary of State reflect Obama’s own realization that the terrorist threat is serious. So far, the apologetic appeasers who occasionally advised him during the campaign have not joined his official family. As one of the two Senators from New York State when the Twin Towers fell, as a mother who first did not know exactly where in Manhattan her daughter was on September 11, Senator Clinton has a deep, heartfelt, sophisticated disgust for Islamist terrorism. Moreover, the videotape al Qaida recently released, wherein one of their leaders used an ugly racial epithet to characterize Barack Obama as servile, may have been ignored by much of the media, but clearly caught Obama’s attention. The combination, during a presidential transition, of a revolting display of Islamist racism and a horrific explosion of Islamist terrorism, illustrated that this nasty problem is not disappearing – and that an underlying, obnoxious ideology unites these murderers who strike at Westerners, Jews, and democrats wherever possible.

The fact that in a sea of tragic stories, the siege of Mumbai’s Chabad Lubavitch house stood out also helped thwart the Islamist terrorists’ goals. These terrorists seek to isolate Jews, to make others recoil from Jews in fear. But the slaughter of simple, defenseless, idealistic, giving people targeted because they were Jewish triggered a massive outpouring of sympathy and support for Israel , Chabad, and Jews. That Islamist ideology is equally intolerant of a black president, of Jewish do-gooders, of Western tourists, makes the lines in the sand very clear. Those of us appalled by these acts – and, make no mistake about it, in the terrorists’ sights — must rally together. We should not only be united when we are being hunted by maniacs who have caught us by surprise; we must unite to eradicate this evil, putting minor differences aside to meet this great moral challenge.

As the civilized world rises up and repudiates these acts, Muslims must share the outrage. These Islamist terrorists claim they are performing their racist, anti-Semitic, anti-Western, anti-democratic acts in the name of Islam. By contrast, Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan , wrote a poignant article in Tuesday’s New York Times denouncing the terrorists and noting that he is a victim too – terrorists murdered his wife last year. In India , Muslims have asserted their Indian nationalism – and their humanity – by refusing to bury the terrorists in Muslim ceremonies and condemning the killers’ brutality. If hundreds of millions more Muslims stood up in outrage, embraced Moshe the two-year-old son of Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the murdered Chabad couple, repudiated  the terrorists for trying to hijack their religion – and whenever possible spit these people out from their communities, the Islamist terrorist problem would disappear.

We have, as the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan mourned in a different context, defined deviancy down. We have grown too accustomed to the racist rantings of al Qaida brigands, to the murderous rampages of Islamist terrorists, and to the silent and thus implied consent of too many of their co-religionists. The eloquence of President Zardari, the outrage of the Mumbai Muslims, are balanced out by the cant of so many others who scream “Islamophobia” anytime someone condemns Islamist terrorism or notes Muslim complicity in anti-semitism, racism or sectarian violence. These Mumbai massacres pose another moral challenge to all of us, those who are targeted and those who are standing idly by. Now is the opportunity to rise up, to mourn those martyred, repudiate the murderers, then take individual and collective responsibility to ensure that this will be the long-awaited, long-overdue turning point in the war against terror.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel , Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book is “Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.”

Gil Troy: From the Center: Keeping it civil

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-7-08

Last month, a de-magnetized identity card prevented me from entering the building housing my office on the McGill University campus at 10:30 one night. I asked a woman passerby who looked like a faculty member for help. “My ID card isn’t working,” I said. “I teach here.”

“I know who you are,” the woman spit out contemptuously. “You’re that awful right-wing conservative professor.”

Startled, I was about to launch into my standard defense when I face that accusation, saying how I consider myself a centrist, just wrote a book championing moderation and besides, if all she knows about me is that I’m pro-Israel and anti-terror and that makes me conservative, liberalism is in worse shape than I thought. Instead, I wisely stayed silent. I just looked at her quizzically. Backpedaling from this ugly descent into politics when a simple, civil exchange was required, my colleague said she lacked the correct card and left.

This admittedly minor but nevertheless outrageous incident highlights why those of us in the broader Zionist community should be particularly horrified by the pipe bomb attack against Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell ostensibly in the name of Zionism. Those of us who have defended Israel on campus know what it is like to take unpopular stands. We understand that independence of thought is the lifeblood of freedom, that democratic communities and especially intellectual communities wither in environments that smother dissent.

The attacks and ostracism pro-Israel professors experience worldwide reveal that the intolerance underlying the assault against Sternhell is not unique to Israel. But it is rare, and particularly horrible, to see this increasingly common small-mindedness degenerate into violence. The violence reflects the acute shortage of two key ingredients democracy demands: mutuality and civility.

IT IS the most compelling lesson from George W. Bush’s simplistic approach to democracy: Democracy entails much more than choosing your leader. The chaos of Iraq, the brutality of Gaza’s Hamas-Fatah civil war, teach that without mutual respect votes are worthless tools and rights are shams. Citizenship in a democracy requires a commitment to sharing rights, to granting the same liberties to others that we demand and enjoy.

People frequently swing rights as clubs, claiming their right to free speech without extending that freedom to others who disagree with them. Without that grace, people are not enjoying free speech but demanding personal prerogative. Mutuality requires thinking about others, accepting differences within the same community, and limiting some of our excesses for the common good. Mutuality tempers the individualism so essential to freedom, avoiding the descent into selfishness. Civility is the logical and necessary result.

Alas, modern Israel often lacks both mutuality and civility. The litter strewn about too many sidewalks, the aggressiveness harming so many on the roads, the harshness of so many public interactions and the corruption tainting so many leaders, all reflect the elevating of individual whims over communal norms. The palpable, toxic, mutual contempt between left and right, secular and religious, reveals an arrogant presumption of personal infallibility that demeans the freedom of others to draw opposite conclusions reasonably.

And the particular pathology of the settler community, characterized by illegal outposts, bursts of rioting and a growing disrespect for the police and the army is a ticking time bomb that must be defused. Last month, when 40 thuggish settlers attacked an IDF post near Horesh Iron every parent of an IDF recruit or reservist should have denounced this outrage. These soldiers are our sons, brothers and fathers. Anyone who targets them should be jailed; those who facilitate such attacks should be shunned.

After the Sternhell bombing, in the dying days of his administration, while giving interviews sounding more left wing than he ever did so he could guarantee adulation and steady speech income when he travels abroad, Ehud Olmert lectured his fellow citizens about avoiding “lawlessness.” Olmert’s unsuitability to teach anyone about respect for the law underlined his utter inadequacy as the country’s leader.

BOTH VIOLENCE and democracy define Israel’s history, interwoven like the two DNA strands. There is an element of the Wild West in the country, which despite its flaws remains the Middle East’s only real democracy. At its best, this unruliness is part of its appeal, making it compelling as a country-still-in-formation, as a place that can be more open, more malleable, more creative than the more staid West. At its worst, this rowdiness reveals itself in the ugly violence coursing through the society; in the rough way parents handle children, then children handle each other; in the growing crime rate; in occasional outbursts against Palestinians. Like all functional democracies, Israel must forge a community that indulges individuals enough so they flourish without spoiling them so much they harm others.

The balance is delicate, the stakes are high. The Sternhell pipe bombing reflects not only twisted individuals whose moral system has imploded but an ugly strain within society. If America the celebrity-obsessed produces glory hounds like the men who shot Ronald Reagan and killed John Lennon, a politically charged Israel produces ideological fanatics like the criminals who targeted Sternhell.

Fortunately, Israeli society is healthy enough to be united in disgust by this hooliganism. The attack was as evil as it was self-defeating. Instinctively – and blessedly as a disincentive to copycats – reporters echoed Sternhell’s most provocative pronouncements, broadcasting them more loudly than ever in response to this horrific attempt to silence him. All of us who love Israel, who cherish democracy, must embrace Sternhell as he recovers. And in that group hug we should utter the mantra of a healthy democracy rooted in mutuality, fostering civility: Whether or not I agree with you, I will defend to the death your right to express your ideas (knowing that it protects my rights too).

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.

 

Just another conventional politician

JPost.com, August 25, 2008

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left,...

Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., left, talks with Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., prior to the start of the first Democratic presidential primary debate of the 2008 election
Photo: AP/J. Scott Applewhite , AP

It is possible that liberals, conservatives and centrists who are not blinded by Obamania may all be able to agree that Joe Biden was a terrible choice as a running mate. Despite his contempt for George W. Bush, Obama seemed to be channeling Bush’s Cheney choice with this pick – trying to show that he really was not as inexperienced and unprepared as critics suggested. But Dick Cheney in 2000 had at least one thing over Joe Biden – Cheney had not just run a presidential nominating campaign that demonstrated how unpopular he was.

It was one of the interesting anomalies of the 2008 Democratic race. There were three Washington veterans with decades of experience who went absolutely nowhere during the campaign. Senator Joe Biden, Senator Chris Dodd, and Governor Bill Richardson failed to get any traction, despite decades of governing and countless days and nights of hobnobbing with Beltway insiders. The three frontrunners, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama had far better claims to outsider status – Edwards served only one term in the Senate, Clinton was just starting her second term, and Barack Obama was the most famous Senate freshman in decades.

Biden was a particular embarrassment on the campaign trail, shaming himself and his institution with his awkward, seemingly condescending remarks describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” After winning 9,000 votes and finishing fifth in Iowa, Biden left the race, proving how little American voters are impressed by a three-decade Senatorial resume. Obama’s ability to forgive Biden’s gaffe suggests a personal grace and generosity that is nice to see in politics; but this choice may fuel questions about Obama’s political and policy judgment.

Beyond this stunning – and recent – political failure, Biden’s supposed foreign policy experience may alienate both liberals and conservatives. Liberals will note that, unlike Obama, Biden voted for the war in Iraq – just as Hillary Clinton and John McCain did. Thus, in the future, Obama will have to be a little more cautious when he mocks McCain’s judgment about initially supporting the war.

At the same time, conservatives will note Biden’s failure to support the surge. This suggests that for all the media hype about Biden’s brilliance in overseas matters, he is just a conventional, finger-to-the-wind type, buffeted by the political trends of the moment. Holding fifty-plus Senate hearings and appearing repeatedly on Sunday morning television shows reveals a mastery of the Washington game not the intricacies of foreign affairs.

At the same time, centrists will mourn the fact that Joe Biden is neither a fresh face nor a bridge-builder. He lacks Obama’s outsider credentials and McCain’s track record in seeking bipartisan solutions. Biden is a good Democratic soldier, who has consistently stayed within party boundaries and helped create today’s destructive, angry, overly-charged Washington quagmire. In fact – and this we are told is part of his appeal – Biden knows how to throw hard political punches, as demonstrated by his partisanship during the Robert Bork and Samuel Alito hearings.

Regarding the Middle East, Biden is equally conventional – and unimaginative. In a reflection of just how standard it remains to embrace Israel from both sides of the aisle, Biden has declared his love for the Jewish State as enthusiastically as anyone. The fact that he has declared “I am a Zionist,” suggests that Zionism may be a less politically controversial term in the United States than in Israel itself.

But Biden has demonstrated no particular insight on the issue, beyond supporting “the peace process,” in whatever form the Palestinians appear ready to accept. And the fact that he has been among the Senators least alarmed about Iran, most open to negotiating with the Mullahs, and voted against declaring Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a terrorist group is worrisome – and a reflection of the potential direction of an Obama-Biden administration.

To be fair, Biden seems to be a decent man who has demonstrated tremendous personal grit over the years. The poignant story of the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in an automobile accident shortly before he entered the Senate, his ability to raise his two boys on his own and eventually start a new family, his comeback from two brain aneurysms, and his record of thirty years in Washington without a major scandal – or it seems, a big payday – are all extremely admirable. But virtue does not always guarantee votes – as George H.W. Bush learned when Bill Clinton defeated him in 1992.

In fact, speaking of Clinton, Obama would have done much better had he learned from Clinton in 1992. That year, amid doubts about Clinton’s youth and inexperience, Clinton showed great moxie in refusing to nominate an elder statesman to compensate for his supposed weaknesses.

Instead, Clinton thrilled voters by choosing another young Southern politician, Al Gore. This vice-presidential choice reinforced Clinton’s message of change; Obama’s choice, unfortunately, muddied the waters, suggesting that, at the end of the day, 2008 is going to be another conventional campaign and Obama may be just another conventional politician, like his new best friend, Joe Biden.

The generational game

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 8-10-08

Barack Obama celebrated his 47th birthday on Monday of last week with minimal fanfare. The anniversary of his birth on August 4, 1961 highlights his campaign’s often-underappreciated generational dimensions.

Obama was not just born later than most national leaders, he imbibed a different sensibility. Demographers may clump Obama – and his wife Michelle who was born in 1964 – together with “Baby Boomers,” but those of us born at the tail end of that population explosion know we are more like the slipped discs of the Baby Boomers, split from the mainstream like the jellylike substance that ruptures from the spinal column and frequently causes great pain, as Obama imposed on the Clintons. Many of us slipped discers seek to revive some of the faith, hope, morality and national unity many Boomers scorned.

Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, both born in 1946, represent the two sides of the political fault line that the Baby Boomers 1960s’ earthquake triggered (John McCain, born in 1936, pre-dated the Baby Boom). Clinton and his buddies were traumatized by the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, tormented by the Vietnam War’s draft, yet inspired by their political and cultural revolution’s transformational potential. Others, like George W. Bush, enjoyed the “sex, drugs, and rock n’roll” moment, but, politically, triggered the conservative backlash.

As a slipped discer, or baby buster, born as America’s birth rate stabilized, Barack Obama was too young even to lie as so many Baby Boomers did about being at Woodstock in 1969 – he was only eight. Rather than being children of the 1960s, we were children of the 1970s. We stewed in the defeatism of Viet Nam, the cynicism of Watergate, the pessimism of Jimmy Carter’s energy crisis rather than the triumphalism of the post-World War II world.

Most of us did not experience “Leave it to Beaver” or “Father Knows Best” moments teaching us life was so simple; with the divorce revolution fragmenting families all around us, most of us watched Michelle Obama’s favorite show, “The Brady Bunch,” with knowing, pre-post-modernist smirks.

Moreover, thanks to Stagflation, that unique seventies combo of inflation and unemployment, we – and our Depression-era parents – were anomalies in modern America: we grew up doubting the fundamental American idea of progress, doubting we could fulfill the American dream of outdoing our parents and bettering our own lives. In college, many of us felt inadequate for being less radical and influential than our older peers, even as we considered them tiresome and self-righteous.

Surprisingly, after all the Baby Boomers’ experimentation, in our generation, the rebellious ones were the straight ones. For anyone in the left or the center who did not want to be tagged as – heaven forbid – a goody-goody – it was easier to “do it” than to abstain.
Even today, when Barack Obama talks about traditional morality and political moderation he risks being mocked by his peers and his usual ideological allies among the “let it all hang out” Boomers.

Of course, demography is not destiny; the generational game – which the Baby Boomers typically overdid – should not be overplayed. Still, it is not surprising that it was Jon Stewart, born in 1962, who has been among the few public figures to champion moderation, blasting the hosts of CNN’s Crossfire for dividing America. And it is not surprising that Obama came to prominence with an un-Boomer-like call for unity and healing.

In his book “Audacity of Hope” and during the 2006 Congressional campaign, Obama emphasized this generational divide. But the Baby Boomer cohort remains too large to risk alienating during a tight presidential contest, so he has done less Boomer-bashing lately.
Still, as he demonstrated in defeating Hillary Clinton, born in 1947, Obama is more nimble than many Baby Boomers. He is less starry-eyed and less battle-scarred, thus less doctrinaire, freer of the great Baby Boomer fault line and more anxious for national healing.

Unfortunately, many “slipped discers” lack the visceral love for Israel and understanding of the Zionist project that their elders had. John McCain’s generation of pre-Baby Boomers witnessed the devastation of the Holocaust followed by the redemption of re-establishing a Jewish State.

The Baby Boomers tasted the euphoria of the Six Day War, with liberals inspired by many of Israel’s communitarian ideals and conservatives appreciating Israel’s strategic importance during the Cold War. Obama’s generation was marked by the Yasir Arafat con, wherein the grandfather of modern terrorism was somehow able to be hailed as the protector of the oppressed and a man of peace.
Obama and his peers have seen an Israel of the “Zionism is racism” libel, of ugly apartheid accusations, of corrupt and ineffectual leaders. We see the fallout among Jews this age – it is not surprising to see it among non-Jewish politicians as well.

Those of us born in the early 1960s have long been upstaged by our louder, more self-righteous, older peers and siblings. Wherever we stand politically, many of us understand that Obama’s syntheses of tradition and innovation, his calls to transcend the usual divides in American politics, reflect a collective generational frustration. Many of us are fed up with the older generation’s media-hogging, polarizing, tendencies.

Demographers called Boomers the pig-in-the-python because they stuck out demographically. Their attitudes often simply stuck in our craws as we yearned for a less bitter, less zero-sum politics – which is what Obama the birthday boy, at his best, is promising.

Nearing toward foreign policy consensus

JPost, July 20, 2008

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Barack Obama and John McCain clashed over foreign policy last week – or did they? While some headlines emphasized the two candidates’ differences, proclaiming “McCain Slams Obama on Iraq Surge,” the two also agreed on many important fundamentals – as well as key policies.

Their points of overlap demonstrate that both are patriots, both are “anti-terror,” both seek an American victory in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The fact that the previous sentence needs to be written, of course, illustrates the absurd extremes to which so many partisan critics take the polarizing discourse about the candidates.

Appropriately, Israel was not a central thrust of either speech. But the fundamental equation remains operative – what is good for America in this election will be good for Israel. And if the winning candidate sticks to the vision articulated in either of the two speeches, America, and Israel, will be all right.

Characteristically – and in fairness, due to the setting – Obama’s speech at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Building in Washington was more sweeping, more visionary, more programmatic. McCain’s response at a town hall meeting was more focused, more hands-on, more strategic.

Obama built his speech by remembering America’s Cold War containment policy, embracing George Marshall’s faith in “judgment,” mixing what we now call “hard” and “soft” power.

Before finishing with an inspirational return to his history lesson, Obama demonstrated his commitment to righting the wrongs of the Bush years with a deft combination of self-sacrifice, selflessness, muscle-flexing and nation-building – in the United States and abroad. He sees foreign policy – like domestic policy – as a vehicle for national renewal, for encouraging Americans to work together and build a national sense of mission and community, while defending their nation and improving the world.

Less loftily, Obama proclaimed “five goals essential to making America safer: ending the war in Iraq responsibly; finishing the fight against al-Qaida and the Taliban; securing all nuclear weapons and materials from terrorists and rogue states; achieving true energy security; and rebuilding our alliances to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”

Obviously, the rhetoric of a campaign speech does not necessarily anticipate a president’s track record in the Oval Office. But the bulk of Obama’s speech would be thoroughly acceptable to most Ronald Reagan Republicans. In particular, both Obama and McCain agreed about the need to beef up the American troop presence in Afghanistan.

In response, John McCain focused part of his stump speech in New Mexico on Obama, Afghanistan, and Iraq, rather than delivering a more formal foreign policy address.

Highlighting the contrast between the young, eloquent, intellectual visionary and the wizened warrior, McCain came out swinging, “I know how to win wars. I know how to win wars,” McCain told his Albuquerque audience. “And if I’m elected President, I will turn around the war in Afghanistan, just as we have turned around the war in Iraq, with a comprehensive strategy for victory, I know how to do that.”

Sharpening his elbows, McCain said: “In wartime, judgment and experience matter. In a time of war, the commander in chief doesn’t get a learning curve.”

And more directly, he mocked his opponent, reading two Obama quotations, one back in January 2007 doubting the surge would work, and a second one a year later, acknowledging that more troops in Iraq led to more stability. “My friends, flip-floppers all over the world are enraged,” McCain chuckled.

In fact, both candidates are converging, not only about Afghanistan. Both understand that in the wake of the Bush presidency, America needs to experience an economic, diplomatic, and ideological renewal. Obama is more explicit about that – but McCain rides heavily on the fact that he was calling for what became the “surge” while George W. Bush was still blindly defending “Rummy” – Donald Rumsfeld – and pooh-poohing reports of chaos in Baghdad.

And even on Iraq, Obama is cautiously, cleverly, and responsibly, narrowing the gap between his policies and McCain’s. Obama still talks about giving the military “a new mission on my first day in office: ending this war” – an interesting choice of words considering that the traditional goal of most militaries is to win the war not just end it.

Still, analysts noted that Obama’s sixteen month timetable, now is set to begin on Inauguration Day – six months from now, and he spoke about a “residual” force remaining. Clearly, as the possibility that he just might become Commander-in-Chief grows, Obama is realizing that his rhetoric and his postures may have serious life-and-death implications.

This convergence in a campaign is good. It is not just the gravitational pull to the center we often see after primaries. It is not just the “oh, boy, I might be president” flight from irresponsibility. It is also precisely what the American people want. A Washington Post poll this week found that 78 percent of those surveyed, “said it is more important for a candidate to adjust positions to changing circumstances than to stick to his original stands (18 percent prioritize consistency).”

By this poll, more than three-quarters of the American people are more mature than most reporters and bloggers, partisans and pols. The challenge is for the candidates to show they can campaign vigorously, disagree passionately on some issues, while still reassuring the American people they understand that they both share many common values, common dreams, and common-sense policies.

Support for Israel remains a part of this consensus. Judging by this week’s exchange, as well as the more Israel-focused AIPAC speeches, the hysterical claims that Obama is going to abandon the Jewish State, or that McCain is going to so blindly support Israel there will be no constraints are both overstated.

 

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.