American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-26-12

I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”

Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.

American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message.  American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state.  The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.

Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.

Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.

Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides.  A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.

Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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Time to refute the Israel-Apartheid & Zionism-Racism big lies with subtlety on campus

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-21-12

I had a disorienting experience in New York two weeks ago. I attended a discussion about Israel on campus that lacked hysteria, acknowledged complexity, and advocated nuance. The David Project launched its white paper “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges.” The question mark after “Burning Campus” reflected a growing sophistication in American Jews’ conversation about Israel on campus.
The writers of the David Project’s analysis – with whom I consulted and for whom I wrote the foreword – dared announce that “Campus is largely not a hostile environment for Jewish students.” Actually, Jews are enjoying a golden age in American universities. There have never been so many Jewish students and professors, Jewish studies programs and identity-building experiences.  “Relatively few” of the more than 4000 post-secondary American institutions “have an anti-Israel problem.” Yet, this also is a golden age for Israel-bashing on campus. The study correctly warns that “pervasive negativity toward Israel on key leading American university and college campuses is likely to erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state.”
We cannot be complacent. American university culture welcomes hard left views that trend against Israel. Too many professors commit academic malpractice, preaching not teaching, frequently propagandizing to demonize Israel. Outside class, an aggressive, self-righteous anti-Israel movement intimidates many pro-Israel students and has discouraged pro-Israel forces from using the Z-word – Zionist. This anti-Israel movement will soon launch anti-Israel hate weeks in a dozen or two campuses across North America, perpetuating the New Big Lie that Zionism is racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s racist apartheid.
In A State Beyond The Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, the British journalist Robin Shepherd accurately diagnoses the problem afflicting Israel on campus: All these attacks’ cumulative effect on Israel’s “reputation” is “devastating….  “Consider the words and images with which Israel has in recent years been associated: ‘shitty,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘racist,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleanser,’ ‘occupier,’ ‘war criminal,’ ‘violator of international law,’ ‘user of disproportionate force,’ ‘liability.’ …. No other state in the world is talked about in such terms.” Shepherd’s insight resonates with one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fears after the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism is Racism” resolution when he was America’s UN ambassador in 1975. Moynihan worried that, increasingly, “Whether Israel was responsible,” for particular world problems, “Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.”
While recognizing these dangers, pro-Israel circles – they should call themselves Zionist! – are debating the dangers of overreaction. When Zionists spotlight some anti-Israel conference or hate week, do we highlight activities that otherwise would be ignored? We must choose our battles carefully – although our campus problem partially stems from too many decades of being too passive.
We need jujitsu moves, turning negative forces into positive energies – while telling our story, and offering our affirmative vision. If, as is occurring in nearly fifty campuses this spring, anti-Israel hate week triggers rounds of “Israel Peace Week,” then Israel’s adversaries will be the ones seeing their strategy backfire. Whoever calls themselves pro-peace must learn to be anti-delegitimization. In relationships between countries — as with people — you cannot go into a defensive crouch and an expansive hug simultaneously. Fighting against delegitimization is fighting for the conditions that facilitate peacemaking.
Similarly, let the week perpetuating the Apartheid libel trigger weeks of learning about what Zionism is – a movement of Jewish national liberation – and what it isn’t – racist. Let’s learn what the American civil rights leader Vernon Jordan said in 1975 after the UN’s Zionism is Racism Resolution:“Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” Jordan wrote. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words … can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for anti-Semitism.” Jordan blasted the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination, against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese Blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardic Jews.
Back then, thirty years after the Holocaust, most Americans, left and right, black and white, would never link the word “racism” to anything connected to Zionism or Judaism.  The former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was “[s]hocked because of all people in the world, the Jews have not only have suffered particularly from racist persecution, they have done more than any other people in history to expose and condemn racism…. To condemn the Jewish survival doctrine of Zionism as racism is a travesty upon the truth.”
Further left politically, the anti-poverty activist and Democratic Socialist Michael Harrington joined the chorus of outrage. “If one preposterously charges that Zionism is racist, then so are all nationalisms which joined to condemn it at the U.N.,” Harrington said. “And that is to drain the concept of racism of any serious meaning.” Harrington warned that “By inventing a non-existent racism in Israel, the UN has undermined the effectiveness of mobilizing serious action against the real racism of Southern Africa.” Jean Daniel, a French radical and frequent critic of Israel called this “diabolic idiocy,” which discredited “the Arab cause” and the Third World, “counter-revolutionary and anti-Socialist.”
Since then, the New Big Lie has become a broadly accepted truism despite remaining untrue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. The Soviet-Arab decision to call Zionism racism and compare Israel to South Africa was a clever propaganda move to demonize and ostracize Israel – and Jews.  That the Soviet Union fell, the UN repealed the Resolution in 1991, and Israel made peace with some Arab neighbors shows that history can get better. That this libel outlived its Soviet concocters should spur our fight against this New Big Lie, and for Zionism, with strategy, with nuance, with effective education not just indignation, no matter how justified.

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.

A Zionist advocacy timetable for the next five weeks

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

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

The writer is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem.

The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, his next book will be The Big Red Lie: Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Zionism is Racism, and the Fall of the UN.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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