Beware ‘HIsraesteria’: Friends’ and foes’ hysteria over Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-14-12

The unfortunate drift to theocracy continues. Recently, religious leaders in the army wanted to read a letter at prayers denouncing a policy shift that so infuriated them, they wrote: “We cannot — we will not — comply with this unjust law.” Initially, high ranking officials did not want the letter read to religious troops because it “could be misinterpreted as a call to civil disobedience within our nation’s military ranks.” Cooler heads prevailed. Even as the army brass conceded that the letter’s “dissemination … as part of a religious service was not a matter for Army review,” the fundamentalists eliminated that one line and distributed it from their military pulpits.
Had this brouhaha occurred in Israel, with rabbis as the “religious leaders” and settlers as the “religious troops,” renewed warnings of Israel becoming like Iran – as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged recently – would have trumped the happy news of compromise. But this news came from the Catholic News Service. It refers to Catholic opposition to the Obama administration’s plan to force Catholic institutions with non-Catholic workers to pay for abortions and contraception under Obamacare. President Obama ultimately relented, and will allow outside insurance providers to cover those services. Before that, as part of a nationwide campaign of rage, Catholic military chaplains distributed the harsh letter from the Archbishop for the Military Services – minus the offending line.
While the issue aroused passions in the US, this military power struggle raised no worries about America turning theocratic. Although some bloggers shrieked that Obama was destroying religious freedom, few Americans feared the republic was imperiled. For Israel, the incident is doubly instructive. First, it reminds us that Israel is not the only democracy navigating complicated religion and state issues, it is not the only democracy with a religious infrastructure embedded within its armed forces, and it is not the only democracy still working out core identity issues through values’ clashes.  Democracies are disputatious; important rights frequently collide. Such tensions, even painful dilemmas, are signs of life not forebodings of death.
A second lesson is that there is a particular hysteria — call it “hIsraesteria” — surrounding discussion of many issues in Israel. “HIsraesteria” afflicts friends and foes of the Jewish state. For Israel’s supporters, it manifests itself in constant anxiety, reducing Zionist hopes into perpetual fears, viewing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people. In fairness, the hysteria is sometimes justified. Israel has real enemies, with deep enmity, who seek to exploit any weaknesses. And Israel is a young country with an immature democracy, a democracy frequently tested by war, terror and espionage, populated by millions raised in undemocratic political cultures, especially Russia and the Arab world.
Israel’s enemies use “hIsraesteria” to try furthering their goal of delegitimizing the Jewish State. With Israel the one country in the world on probation – the one country whose legitimacy seems contingent on “good,” meaning compliant, behavior, critics quickly jump from criticizing Israel to repudiating it. Critics love pathologizing Israel’s day-to-day problems, magnifying the common conflicts any democracy might experience into some epoch-making, dream-tarnishing, weakness-inducing immoral mess. And “hIsraesteria” often leads Israel’s critics to caricature Israel’s friends, treating Zionists as heavy-handed bigots.
Two weeks ago, I endured such caricaturing, when I was attacked in the Harvard Crimson, based on a lecture I gave three months earlier and a Jerusalem Post article I wrote about it the next day. The irony is that I reported good news – that I had been warmly, respectfully received at Harvard. Emphasizing that, to show how we can have productive, open-minded campus conversations about Zionism, Israel, and Jewish identity, I mentioned that “on too many campuses” – emphasizing some not all—pro-Israel or Zionist speakers have been “harassed.”
Caricaturing my argument, trying to set me up as a straw man – or a Zionist bogeyman – a student radical on campus pole-vaulted past my words claiming, Troy “relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that ‘pro-Palestinian’ means ‘anti-Semitic.’” In the article, I never used the term “anti-Semitic”—I mentioned “anti-Zionist forces.” Moreover, I have acknowledged repeatedly in writing that many people are pro-Palestinian or critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. The student distorted my “assumptions” and my “writing” with no evidence but with a clear purpose:  to set herself up as open-minded and enlightened while caricaturing me – and by implication all Zionists – as petty and prejudiced. The title of the article “What Anti-Semitism?” treated modern Anti-Semitism as an exaggeration, the pathetic fantasy of extremist minds, as she supposedly proved it didn’t exist by falsely claiming I said it existed where I didn’t say it existed — then not finding it there.
I rebutted the charge quickly but was left wondering about this Jewish student’s motivation, and the broader phenomenon. This spring, on too many campuses – again, some not all – pro-Palestinian forces will mount an anti-Israel week. Central to the charge will be the erroneous, offensive comparison between Israeli security policies and the systematic racism of the old Apartheid state in South Africa. This modern libel is another form of “hIsraesteria,” making an exaggerated claim – insulting to Jews because it libels the Jewish state and insulting blacks because it hijacks the experience of those who genuinely suffered in South Africa.  Just as false analogies diminish the Holocaust, they diminish Apartheid, which legally typed people by skin color.

Students and professors should make their rebuttal – without succumbing to the hysteria.  It is much better to invest, as so many are, in building an Israel Peace Week, than to get too mired in shadowboxing against false charges, made by hysterics. Let us not forget. Overall, Israel is thriving – that should be our headline and inoculate us against “hIsraesteria.”

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.

Harvard Crimson: Response to an inaccurate attack by Sandra Y. L. Korn ’14

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Harvard Crimson, 2-3-12

My skin is itchy—Sandra Y.L. Korn ’14 in her February 1 article “What Anti-Semitism?” set me up as a straw man. I now have to deny her accusation that I was making an accusation I never made, while noting that had I made that accusation with just a little more subtlety­—she herself admits it would be justified.

Korn attacked an article I wrote about my talk about Identity Zionism at Harvard last semester, so there is no ambiguity, the written record is clear. I described the warm, intelligent reception I received at Harvard, noting that “on too many campuses” – and I italicized “too many,” emphasizing some but not all—pro-Israel or Zionist speakers have been “harassed.”

Caricaturing my argument, she wrongly suggests I contrasted Harvard with everywhere else. She ignores the article’s intention of encouraging civil discussion about Zionism. And she pole vaults past my words claiming, Troy “relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that ‘pro-Palestinian’ means ‘anti-Semitic.’” In the article in question, I never used the term “anti-Semitic”—I mentioned “anti-Zionist forces.” Moreover, I have acknowledged repeatedly in my writing that many people are pro-Palestinian or critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. Korn distorts my “assumptions” and my “writing”—with no evidence.

What I have said, repeatedly, although not in that article or that talk, is that Israel’s critics, including Palestinians and their allies, have a moral obligation to distance themselves from those pro-Palestinian activists who are anti-Semitic. I have challenged them to condemn the anti-Jewish stereotypes in the Arab press resurrecting Hitlerian caricatures when attacking Israel, and to repudiate those extremists who engage in Jew-hatred when championing Palestinians.

Of course, not everyone who is pro-Palestinian is anti-Semitic or anti-Israel. But many pro-Israel speakers have been disrupted on campuses, including Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the US, and there have been documented incidents of anti-Israel protestors waving placards denouncing Jews, wishing Hitler had “finished the job” or  throwing pennies at Zionists. Even Korn admits that, “some advocates for Palestinian rights are undoubtedly anti-Semitic.”

Finally, again without documentation, she says she is “assured by others” that “across the globe” the “arguments for economic sanctions on Israel do not stem from deep-seated anti-Semitism.” Here, she at least pretends to adduce proof by inserting a hyperlink. But her “evidence” is an article about the problem of falsely making accusations of anti-Semitism. The article says nothing about the worldwide anti-Israel boycott movement – which has some activists who are anti-Semitic, who deserve condemnation.

How odd. Korn feels compelled to allege falsely that I invoked anti-Semitism to then minimize claims of anti-Semitism by others even though she acknowledges that some pro-Palestinian voices are anti-Semitic. This exhausting tryout for the apologetics Olympics, cut off from the truth, minimizing the serious problem of anti-Semitism which does exist, suggests a moral blindness and animus that are unworthy of the Crimson and of Harvard.

 

Gil Troy ’82, Ph.D. ’88

Professor of History

McGill University

 

Gil Troy ‘82 is a Professor at McGill University in Canada.

Harvard WhoDunit: How to foster a civil, substantive, satisfying Zionist conversation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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

The standard narrative about Zionism on campus today is one of crisis and conflagration, of academic propagandizing and intellectual hooliganism, of Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed. Unfortunately these problems occur too frequently on too many campuses. We must be intolerant of the intolerant, confronting professors and students who violate academic ideals by committing academic malpractice in the classroom, bullying at student events, or distorting the truth in books and articles. But we should not overreact or exaggerate. Every day on many campuses, especially in North America, a civil, substantive, satisfying discussion about Israel and Zionism takes place.

On Monday, October 31, Harvard Hillel invited me to speak about “Building Identity Zionism: Envisioning a Positive, Liberal, Big-Tent Identity Zionism for the Twenty-first Century.” Frankly, I expected a small turnout – and was ready for a seminar-style exchange among a dozen or so thoughtful students. I also wondered whether there would be “fireworks.” Nevertheless, I prepared for the talk I wanted to give – emphasizing modern Zionism’s ideological meaning to Jews today – but thought about how to keep the discussion focused if hostile anti-Zionist forces tried hijacking it.

I had two surprises. First, the lecture hall was quite full – I didn’t count because I was speaking but it could have been as many as fifty people, undergraduates and graduate students, including a senior Israeli diplomat touring North America. I considered that a great turnout for an event billed as ideological not confrontational – conflict, or the anticipation thereof, draws many more in. The second surprise was unpleasant. As I began, a friend whispered: “Two Palestinians students just entered with signs they plan to wave at some point to disrupt your talk.”

I looked into the crowd and saw students, with a smattering of “grown ups.” It was not obvious who the hostiles were – even as I maintained eye contact with the audience during the talk. But I followed my plan. I lectured with a PowerPoint presentation ( available here) for half the time, reserving a solid 45 minutes for questions and comments.

My message was simple. I argued that not every conversation about Israel should be about “The Conflict,” just as every conversation about the United States cannot be about racial strife and every conversation about Canada cannot be about linguistic tension. And I insisted that talking about the meaning of Zionism for us today, in Israel and the Diaspora, asking how this exciting project called Israel answers our deepest needs, addresses our existential concerns, fulfills our souls, expresses our values, is not a sidestep. I am not dodging the real conversation – this is it, I said.

In fact, we all should recognize that wherever we stand on the political spectrum, we are children of the age of delegitimization. We have so internalized the “Israel as problem” mode of discourse that we are too quick to run to our battle stations rather than listen to our muses. Singling out of only one country, Israel, for attack, only questioning its legitimacy, its right to exist, robs us of the opportunity to appreciate how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, to dream about how to perfect it, and to tolerate a range of opinions about what it should be. We need a big tent that accepts all those who believe in a Jewish state as Zionists, encouraging the kind of free exchange universities and all democratic movements should relish. And we need a hyphenate Zionism, a passionate Zionism that fuses strong ideological visions with equally strong commitments to a Jewish state, providing updated versions of the Labor-Zionism, Revisionist-Zionism, Religious-Zionism, Cutural-Zionism that animated the Zionist movement a century ago.

Underlying all this is an understanding that as Jews we belong to a people as well as sharing a common religion, and that as a people we can find our fullest ideological expression with sovereignty in our national homeland. To be is to belong, I insisted, justifying national identity in general. I am not arrogant to say that Zionism is the only way. But it is one way to get traction in this world and make our tribalism transcendent. I also talked about the obstacles facing this ideological conversation – including the pulls of the “I” in the age of the iPod and iPad when Zionism is about “us.” I insisted that they have to be the builders, thinkers, and visionaries to make Zionism relevant, inspiring, effective.

The questions and comments were superb, showing that the audience embraced the message. Students said they rejected youth group graduates’ “canned,” Israel-right-or-wrong Zionism and anti-Zionists’ “nihilistic” rejectionism. They wondered how to avoid feeling neutered as American Zionists, understanding they are not citizens of Israel yet want to contribute. They worried that some segments of Israeli society envision a very different Israel than one they would find acceptable. They asked about triggering a parallel Zionist conversation among young Israelis and about how to confront campus anti-Zionism when it does appear. And they asked about me and my struggles, what it was like working within the university while adopting these controversial positions.

I walked away extremely impressed with these thoughtful, passionate, committed young idealists, who assured me that the typical Israel conversation at Harvard was about Israel and Zionism not about the conflict or the Palestinians. And, by the way, at some point the Palestinians left the room, quietly, respectfully. They had the intellectual integrity to realize that their prepared disruption did not fit the talk and would have made them look foolish – a stance not all their comrades always adopt.

So here is the answer to the Harvard Whodunit – we had a serious conversation about the meaning of Zionism, thanks to smart, idealistic students – and the enduring power of the Zionist dream.

Gil Troy 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.” giltroy@gmail.com

Becoming an Activist

By Gil Troy, The New Vilna Review, 11-28-10

I always shock my students by admitting that when I attended Harvard University as an undergraduate, class of 1982, I was shy. I always had things to say in sections but was too intimidated to speak.  As a graduate student and then a lecturer in history and literature there, I gained more confidence – I often call graduate school my finishing school. Still, during ten years at Harvard, the only time I was in the newspaper was in 1982 during a collective bout of food poisoning. Interviewed about “Quincy House Plague,” I told the Harvard Crimson that while lying on the floor retching, I could hear a chorus of others suffering through the bathroom vents and added: “It was charming.” That was the Crimson’s quotation of the day.

Teaching at McGill in the 1990s, I kept my public profile low, especially on Jewish affairs. I had been involved in the Young Judaea Zionist youth movement in high school, and worked at Camp Tel Yehudah while in graduate school. But I took refuge in my name “Gil Troy” – although my “Christian” name is Gilad, and my father was born Troyansky.  Being “Gil Troy” not “Gilad Troyansky” meant that, beyond getting warm welcomes in Greek restaurants, I was ethnically “clean.” One colleague once told me, “There are so few WASPs like us left at Harvard.” I replied, putting on my heaviest New Yawk accent, “even fewer den u tink!” And every spring, earnest young freshmen would approach me,  saying, “Professor Troy, we need to take off the next two nights” – as if we met at night – “for the Passover say-ders,” saying “seder”  slowly for my supposed non-Jewish ears. Furrowing my brow, I would ask if they were going to make up the extra work, then surprise them by saying “chag sameach.”

Truth is, I wanted to “make it” in “the real world” as a regular person. I did not want to run into extra static or stand out as a “model minority.” I was not ashamed of being Jewish. I had a rich Jewish private life but no public life.

That changed, a decade ago, due to two forces, one positive, one negative. The positive spur was the establishment of birthright Israel. When I first heard about this idea to send young Jews aged 18 to 26 to Israel for free for ten days, I feared the community was throwing money once again at the “continuity problem.” I wrote an article in Moment that if these new trips offered the same old Jewish guilt trip, they would fail.

If you criticize Jews, either you are lucky and get demonized, never to be bothered again, or you get the kind of call I got saying, “OK, big shot, help make this work.” Before I knew it, I was chairing the Montreal birthright task force, accompanying the first 200 birthright students from Montreal to Israel. Seeing how educationally sound the program was, and how much power the Israel experience had for alienated young Jews, I wrote a follow-article “Birthright Israel:  Why I Was Wrong.”

That first trip was in February 2000. In September 2000, Yasir Arafat led the Palestinians away from the Oslo peace negotiations back toward terrorism. I supported Oslo. One of the first articles I ever wrote in the Canadian Jewish News warned that if we did not build personal relations between Jews and Palestinians, in the Diaspora and Israel, then, when we hit bumps in the peace process, we would lack the necessary good will to insulate the peace process and protect it.

That Israel made such tremendous concessions during Oslo, especially bringing Arafat back, training and arming his men, was extremely significant for me. The fact that nevertheless as soon as the Palestinians resorted to terror, Israel was attacked simply for defending herself traumatized me. I felt betrayed by the Palestinians, by the hypercritical UN, and by much of the world. As things deteriorated, I smelled that ugly, stale smell of anti-Semitism shaping too much of the criticism. I did not see how we could have peace when Palestinians and their allies delegitimized Israel, attacking Israel’s right to exist, precisely when they were arguing for their national rights and most Israelis finally, belatedly, had recognized them.

Together, the birthright inspiration along with the trauma of Palestinian terrorism and rejectionism spurred my activism, and the book that I wrote “Why I Am a Zionist.” I came out publicly as a Jew, proud and loud, finding my own personal voice too. Students don’t explain “say-der” to me anymore.

Gil Troy was educated at Harvard University and is currently Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal. He is also the current Chair of the Birthirght Israel International Education Committee and a Visiting Scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. Dr. Troy is the author of several books, including Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.



Understanding Obama As Our First PC President

By Gil Troy, New York Jewish Week, 4-27-10

Three mysteries underlie the current crisis between America and Israel. The first one is biographical: How can President Barack Obama call himself Israel’s friend, yet display such animus toward the Jewish state, exemplified most recently by refusing even to be photographed with Israel’s Prime Minister when hosting Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House?
 
The second is diplomatic: Why is Obama pursuing a policy that is so strategically shortsighted? His great accomplishment so far is raising Palestinian demands while strengthening the rejectionist front against Israel and a two-state solution.
 

And the third is political: How come Obama is not paying much of a price from the American Jewish community? The smart money, so far, is on most Jews still voting Democratic in 2010 and 2012.
 
To unravel these mysteries, and understand this politician who repeatedly used his biography in his political ascent, we should look more closely at Obama’s personal story. Americans have not paid sufficient attention to Obama’s years at Harvard Law School — partially because he ignores those years, even in his memoir. But while it is shrewd for an ambitious politician with populist pretensions to downplay his time at one of America’s most elite institutions, it is foolish for citizens to underestimate the impact those years had on his ideological development.

In a rare article exploring Obama’s Harvard years, The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2007) proclaimed that “In Law School, Obama Found Political Voice.” While describing the consensus-building skills that would win him the White House, the article also glimpsed at the atmosphere in the Law School in 1990 when Obama became the Harvard Law Review’s first African-American president. Harvard in those years was in the throes of “PC,” political correctness. The Times captures this by saying that “a mouse infestation at the review office provoked a long exchange about rodent rights” and that in “dozens of interviews, his friends said they could not remember his specific views from that era, beyond a general emphasis on diversity and social and economic justice.”

 
These lines suggest that Obama conformed with the general atmosphere on campus, which was addicted to narratives of victimhood in the search for “diversity and economic justice.” The PC movement was rooted in the justifiable disgust with American racism, sexism and homophobia. Alas, like many counter-revolutions, it overreached, repudiating many Western values independent of those ills, celebrating whatever political groups succeeded in positioning themselves as underdogs afflicted by those ills, and frequently overlooking inconvenient facts that contradicted the larger plotline.
 
To be fair, Obama is too smart and subtle to be reduced to a PC poster child. Just as too many PC types caricatured complex situations around the world, it is unfair to caricature him. Still, it seems clear that the ethos of the time, which was overwhelming, monolithic, and quite unforgiving of any deviations, shaped Obama’s worldview.
 
Having lived through those years at Harvard, I salute Obama for emerging from that caldron of political correctness with as much range and nuance as he has. Still, when I see his edge on the Israel issue, when I see how quick he is to bash Israeli housing starts and how slow he is to criticize Palestinian incitement and violence, I recognize the signs of the distortions imposed by the PC-prism.
 
By 1990, Israel was no longer politically correct and the Palestinians were considered the African-Americans of the Middle East, insulated from criticism by virtue of their victimhood. Obama’s refusal to recognize the now-established historical pattern, whereby Palestinians increase their demands and intensify the violence when they feel supported by the West, is reminiscent of many other Ivy League New Leftists who saw the world as they wished to see it, not as it was — and is.

 
The Shin Bet documented 125 terror attacks or attempts this March, 27 of them in Jerusalem, in contrast to 53 in February with only three in Jerusalem. The Obama administration has consistently pressured Israel more than the Palestinians — even though this strategy undermines the push for peace. Yasir Arafat only negotiated when desperate, not when confident. Clearly, our first PC president’s worldview distorts his view of world events. And as for American Jewry, let’s face it, most of our community was — and is — PC too.
 
Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, D.C. He is the author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.” His latest book “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction,” was recently published by Oxford University Press.