We don’t need Noam Shalit’s sunshine patriotism in politics

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-10-12

Gilad Shalit is home and, we all hope, recovering.  Apparently his father, Noam Shalit, has not fully recovered from the experience.  It seems he so liked the status of what we should now call celebritus erroneous– celebrity by tragic mistake – that he has decided to exploit it and plunge into politics.

So many Israelis were justifiably torn by the one-for-1027 Shalit deal.  On the one hand, Shalit’s homecoming was an extraordinary moment, a symbol of Israel at its best.  The nation acted as one small family in welcoming Gilad home, delighting in his freedom, respecting – as best we could – his privacy.  In most countries, a single hostage would have been ignored or not redeemed.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that if you save one life you save the world — that position was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s intimacy, Israel’s Jewishness, Israel’s idealism, Israel’s solidarity – and Israel’s vulnerability.

And that, of course, was the flip side.  Shalit’s homecoming was fraught with potential danger, the fears that these 1027 terrorists, feeling vindicated, would return to their criminal ways, the concern that Hamas was once again getting a gift from the Israeli government it did not deserve, the fear that in saving one life, so many others would actually be lost.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that we should not pay exorbitant ransoms so we don’t encourage the practice of kidnapping – the lopsided swap was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s frustration, Israel’s fear, Israel’s anger, Israel’s dividedness – and Israel’s vulnerability.

Moreover, the families of those killed, maimed or traumatized by some of the 1027 terrorists were asked to forego their own desires to see justice served and accept a deal to save Gilad Shalit’s life – and help the nation move on.

This calculus of terror is difficult to fathom.  These choices Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others had to make are truly excruciating.  We should direct our anger where it belongs at the terrorists, the Palestinian culture of terror, and the world culture of appeasement that foments these crimes and places Israel in such terrible binds.

But on the eve of that extraordinary, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime, all blue-and-white-all- the-time kind of day, Noam Shalit lost me.  Days before his son came home, but once it was, as they say, a done deal, Shalit was photographed restoring the Israeli flag on the roof of his family home.  Apparently, he had taken it down two years earlier in frustration with the government’s inaction on his son’s file.  It was the wrong gesture by the wrong man at the wrong time.

With that one photo, Noam Shalit lost me – and many others.  Just when he was appealing to all Israelis to be patriotic, and accept the barely acceptable, when he needed the grieving families of terror victims to accept their country’s action, right or wrong, Shalit risked appearing to be what Thomas Paine called “a sunshine patriot,” essentially not asking what he could do for his country but judging his country only by what it did for him and his family.

Had he taken Bibi Netanyahu’s picture down two years ago and restored it that day, I would have said “fine.”  We judge politicians by what they have done for us lately. But in lowering, then raising the flag, Shalit suggested his patriotism was contingent, his love of Israel depended on whether the government served his needs.  That made him appear ungracious when he was pulling the patriotic card on others – and makes him unsuitable to enter politics.  Rather symbolizing  “Eretz Yisrael HaYaffa,” the beautiful Israel of rolling Galilee hills, casual, shoulder-shrugging, we-shall-do-what-it-takes patriotism, and warm, values-rich homes, the gesture suggested the ugly, “magiya li” post-Zionist culture, the “I deserve it” guy – or gal – who grabs aggressively, voraciously, with a sense of entitlement rather than humility.

I am sorry to say, that if he makes it that far, Noam Shalit will encounter many greedy politicians in the Knesset who epitomize the “magiya li” approach.  But until that moment on the roof, Noam Shalit and his family to me had always embodied the lovelier ideal – and his statement in explaining his motivation in entering politics, hoping to tap the idealism he encountered during his family’s quest, reflects his desire to be seen that way.

I know it is very difficult to judge a family that has endured the trauma the Shalits endured – and still suffer.  And I held my fire when I first saw the photograph, during Gilad Shalit’s euphoric homecoming.  But in leveraging his celebrity status from his son’s kidnapping into a political career, Noam Shalit has made his actions, statements and gestures during the Gilad Come Home campaign fair game – and this gesture deserves condemnation.

It is also unfortunate that Noam Shalit is willing to sacrifice his iconic apolitical status in a country that desperately needs national heroes untainted by the particularly ugly way Israelis play politics.   “In some ways it seems he fell in love with the camera. It changes the whole context of the story, the way you perceive all the characters,” says G., 28. He is an American oleh who served in the armored corps from March 2006 to August 2007, “a couple of drafts after Gilad” and shared officers in common, but had “deeply mixed feelings” about the exchange itself.

Israel, of course, is a free country, and the Shalit exchange came with no strings attached to the family, no demands that they behave any better or worse than anyone else.  And there is a deep democratic yearning for redemption from citizen politicians, leaders who were thrust into the spotlight, and rose to the occasion.  But the Shalit episode is still so fresh, emotions remain so raw, worries persist, that Noam Shalit’s timing as well as the decision itself deserve scrutiny.  This frank welcome, of course, will provide the initiation he needs into his new career.

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

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Israeli democracy needs ‘Sharanskyism’ not ‘Liebermania’

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-26-11

When I studied modern Jewish history in graduate school, one book in particular revolutionized my understanding of Israel – and helps explain Israel’s current democratic predicament — Prophecy and Politics: Socialism, Nationalism and the Russian Jews, 1862-1917. By following the migrations of Russian Jewish ideologues, especially to New York and Palestine, Jonathan Frankel showed their extraordinary influence on the two centers of my life, America and Israel. As modern Israel seeks suitable boundaries for democratic debate amid security threats, Frankel’s insights remind us how the Russians and other immigrant groups molded Israel. Considering that Russian impact, Israeli democracy today needs a big red purge of certain, destructive, Soviet impulses.

Linking the Jewish labor movement in New York with Zionism’s early stirrings in Russia and Palestine, Frankel’s book taught me how Russian Israeli culture is and how Americanized my understanding of Zionism was. I then learned from Melvin Urofsky’s American Zionism from Herzl to the Holocaust, shaped by Louis Brandeis’s marvelous mix of Zionism and American Progressivism. The great American Supreme Court Justice – and Zionist – cast the story of Jewish national liberation in American terms, emphasizing the Jews’ flight from oppression to pioneer a new, enlightened democracy in Palestine. This cocktail helped American Jews view supporting Zionism as an expression of Americanism, not a distraction or a betrayal.

Labeling Israel the Middle East’s only democracy exaggerates geography’s political relevance. Actually, culture counts. How Polish-Russian Jews like David Ben-Gurion and Menachem Begin, born into the Czarist Russian Empire, learned to appreciate democracy and implement it in a country filled with immigrants from undemocratic regimes remains one of Zionism’s greatest achievements.

Zionism functioned as a centrifuge, mixing different cultures, ideologies, and values, then incorporating the best of them into this exciting new experiment in Jewish nationalism and state-building. The early Russian pioneers contributed a communal passion that still exists in creative tension with American Zionists’ Brandeisian individualism and liberalism. But while that collectivist zeal frequently elevated Israeli society, most nobly with the Kibbutz movement, it degenerated in Bolshevik hands into Soviet totalitarianism. Vladimir Putin demonstrates that within Russian political culture an authoritarian streak still resists free expression, especially untrammeled criticism, while longing for strongman rule.

That Soviet strain – which we can call in Israel Liebermania, named after Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman – propels the undemocratic ideas in Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition. Unfortunately, that repressive strain also appeals to a growing number of native Israeli Jews and those in the religious camp who misread Judaism as monolithic rather than disputatious and democratic. Culture is, of course, adaptive and dynamic, neither immutable nor genetic. Many who survived the Soviet regime – and Arab rule – emerged as champions of democratic expression and civil society. Natan Sharansky is only the most famous example of that counter-tradition.

And no culture is problem-free. Modern American political culture, especially the post-1960s progressive variety most American Jews embrace, tends to be highly self-critical, relativistic, and frequently blind to the presence of real enmity or evil. This approach encourages political reform and national self-improvement. But it discourages the necessary moves for self-defense embattled democracies must make while often accepting the narratives of critics and enemies over more patriotic and admittedly self-serving storylines.

Israel needs Sharanskyism rather than Liebermania, a vital democracy that is neither oppressive nor self-destructive. We must welcome Russians’ continuing concerns with high culture, science, and the collective national soul. But we also must purge that lingering Soviet influence – the totalitarian instinct to outlaw free speech we hate rather than refute it, along with the yearning for tough demagogues.

Similarly, Israel should help the United States – and the rest of the West – balance self-criticism with survival. The Zionist instinct toward self-preservation, and the blunt Israeli approach of “Ein Breira,” we have no alternative, serve as important correctives – within limits – to Western prosperity-laced guilt mixed with American “We are the World,” and “I’m OK, you’re OK” diplomacy. As we approach September 11th’s tenth anniversary we should remember that the day America was blindsided by Islamist terrorism – despite years of warnings – Americans turned toward Israel to learn how thriving democracies can fight terror effectively, so that the Constitution would not become “a suicide pact.”

In this struggle for Israel’s soul, Binyamin Netanyahu should lead not waffle. His background is American not Soviet, more Brandeis than Lieberman. As UN Ambassador and in his books, he argued that democracies could preserve core values while protecting themselves. As Prime Minister, he seems too concerned with preserving his coalition not protecting those values. Democratic ideals should be guiding principles he defends passionately – not just easy applause lines when dueling Barack Obama or Mahmoud Abbas.

This is an educational and ideological challenge. North American Zionists, watching this struggle, should not cut and run. Saying “Israel is pushing me away,” as one Huffington Post blogger recently complained, is immature. Here is a noble cause, a delicious struggle, an opportunity for Anglos — and other freedom-lovers — to import our values to shape Israel’s future. In this fight, advocating a ‘Big Red Purge’ challenges those who escaped Soviet tyranny to explore what destructive impulses they absorbed unintentionally. Yelling “McCarthyism” repeatedly, in addition to being historically inaccurate, doesn’t resonate with that audience – and reflects the self-referential elitist bubble encasing Israel’s left.

Israel is a young country still forming. Our challenge, our opportunity, amid all the surrounding threats, is to ensure that Israel fulfills its core Zionist vision, becoming a model state that welcomes immigrants from different cultures, culling the best of what they bring, while retaining democratic and Jewish values. Making that effort succeed can be one of the great adventures of modern life, injecting, as Jonathan Frankel’s Russian thinkers did, a touch of prophecy into everyday politics.

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