Nuke-Washing Iran


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-7-12

For more than six decades, the fight against nuclear proliferation has been a central concern of the left. From J. Robert Oppenheimer in the 1940s to Helen Caldicott in the 1980s, proclaiming “No Nukes” has been an easy way in for the “Yes We Can” crowd. The 2008 Democratic platform, envisioning  “a world without nuclear weapons,” reflected Barack Obama’s deep yearnings, and the left-leaning academic milieu from which he came.

Given that, it is surprising—and dismaying—that the fight to block Iran’s rush toward nuclear weapons has not stirred progressive passions. Such things are hard to quantify, but it has not been a popular issue on the left. The level of activism pales in comparison to1980s’ standards. There has been no 700,000-person demonstration in Central Park, no prime time apocalyptic television movie like the ABC 1983 blockbuster “The Day After,” no push like the one from the International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War, which won the 1985 Nobel Peace Prize.

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)

Anti-nuclear demonstration in Sydney, Australia, in 1983 (Patrick Riviere / Getty Images)


Here we seem to have a case of nuke-washing (or radioactive cleansing, as it were), with two possible explanations. First, just as Palestinians who target Israelis are often called “militants” when their al-Qaeda comrades who target Americas or other innocents are “terrorists,” threatening Israel does not generate the same outrage as threatening other countries. The Non-Aligned Movement farce that played out in Teheran last week, not only undercut the Obama administration’s salutary push to isolate and sanction Iran, but it made countries like India complicit in Iranian war-mongering when their delegates  did not object to the rhetorical targeting of Israel. Similarly, on campus and in other progressive centers, Israeli checkpoints for security trigger many more protests than Iranian plans for weapons of mass destruction.

My late grandfather would have sighed and said, “Jewish life is cheap.” But it’s a culture of blaming Israel, demonizing Zionism, and romanticizing Palestinians that gives Israel’s enemies a free moral pass in too many quarters. Israel’s controversial policies regarding the Palestinians have created a popular construct that delegitimizes the Jewish state (and the entire Zionist project) well beyond the confines of the Holy Land.

The concept of “pinkwashing,” for example, had to be developed to overcome progressive cognitive dissonance. How could a country that has been so demonized, whose very essence has been deemed corrupt and evil, be so much more enlightened than its neighbors on that core value of the left, equal rights for the LGBT community? Simple: turn that genuine expression of Israeli democracy and human rights into a propaganda ploy by the supposedly sinister, all-power Israeli Hasbara manipulators and lobbyists.

The second explanation reflects a broader historical phenomenon. Since the 1960s, the culture of Western self-flagellation has created an outrage gap, exaggerating any Western, liberal democratic imperfections while excusing many serious Third World crimes. We saw this in the 1970s, when the UN was silent for years regarding the genocide in Cambodia, occupying its time instead branding Zionism as racism and bashing the U.S. as colonialist. We saw this in the 1980s, when the left-wing “no nuke” protests in Europe and the U.S. focused much more on American proliferation than Soviet expansionism and weaponry. This culture of self-blame purports to be anti-racist, but actually reflects liberal condescension and its own imperialist arrogance. Rather than holding every country to the same moral standard, all too often dictatorial enemies of the United States get a free pass—especially those from the Third World.

While the myopic left long excused the sins of others, there was a more muscular, less hypocritical progressive tradition in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s that vigorously fought dictators and international outlaws. As our own Peter Beinart wrote in his 2006 book, The Good Fight, “antitotalitarianism” once sat “at the heart of the liberal project.” It was the Henry Wallace—George McGovern—Michael Moore counter-tradition that “preferred inaction to the tragic reality that America must shed its moral innocence to act meaningfully in the world.”

Barack Obama arrived in the Oval Office in 2009, frequently sounding like he was a standard bearer of that purist, pacifist, appeasing counter-tradition. Yet in his steely determination to hunt down al Qaida terrorists with drones, and in his cool-headed approval of the plan to take down Osama Bin Laden, Obama often took the tougher approach, though still with a liberal outlook. Whether he will be equally strong with Iran remains to be seen.

Of course, the “no nukes” crowd will be quick to talk of a nuclear-free Middle East, sweeping Israel into the push against Iranian nuclear proliferation. Here, too, the nuke-washers will reflect a double standard. Israel’s weilds its presumed decades-old nuclear power quietly, as a democracy accountable to its people. The Iranian theoocracy, which threatens the United States, not just Israel, cannot clam the same restraint or accountability to its citizens.

I challenge my colleagues and this generation of the left: stand strong and shout “No Iranian Nukes.” Obama committed himself to non-proliferation, and to prevent Iran from acquiring weapons, but he needs the support of progressives, and liberals at home and among the international community.

There could be an immediate peace payoff if the protests take off. Mass protests against Iranian nuclear proliferation might help make sanctions work, might rein in the Iranians, and might make Israel feel less embattled and less compelled to defend itself militarily, even possibly unilaterally against what the Iranians’ own rhetoric has suggested could be an existential threat to the Jewish state and other democracies.

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.

Leaving The Language Of Conflict


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 7-11-12

Showing a remarkably Israeli insensitivity to international public opinion—or is it a charmingly Zionist assertion of independence?—the Levy Committee, chaired by the retired Israeli Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy, has declared settlements legal and what is broadly called the “occupation” of the West Bank not a classic occupation under international law. The predictable Pavlovian reaction has Right Wing settlers calling for more settlement and Is-crits internally and externally condemning these rapacious, racist, imperialist colonialists.

Following the script, here on Open Zion Hussein Ibish called the Levy Report “The Anti-Balfour Declaration.” After making the subtle, clever argument that the Israeli government has to decide whether it wants to use the legal status of occupier to justify military measures and treat them as temporary or treat the territories as permanent extensions of Israel, with all the resulting democratic and demographic headaches, Ibish succumbs to the kind of moralistic rhetorical exaggeration that makes discussions about Israel and Palestine so combustible. Brandishing the A-word, apartheid, he writes: “When systematic ethnic discrimination is intended to be maintained rather than temporary, it is a crime under international law. Although Israel is not a signatory to the treaty, this is how the Statute of Rome, which outlines the work of the International Criminal Court, defines Apartheid.”

An Israeli father and his child play on swings in Kfar Etzion (Menahem Kahana / AFP / Getty Images)

Ibish links to the Rome Statute—sounds pretty authoritative. But when I pursued the link to Article 7 2 (h), I discovered that “The crime of apartheid” means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Apartheid was an abhorrent system of racial discrimination which is not the same as ethnic discrimination. Moreover, the Israel-Palestine mess is not at all about race, much less about ethnic issues, and much more about a national conflict.

Palestinians see themselves as a separate nation. Most Israelis post-Oslo learned to acknowledge that national identity. The separation on the West Bank acknowledges Palestinians’ distinct national identity, mirrors their own desire to be apart from Israel, and often reflects security complexities. Moreover, many of us who endorse a two-state solution do so precisely because we respect those national differences.

So, as everyone mans—persons?—their usual battle stations, it is worth commenting on the toxicity of the debate and how the rigid categories and hysterical terms so many use to describe the Middle East threaten a two-state solution. Sweeping generalizations treating all the settlements as one, rigid binary categories like “legal” or “illegal,” even the word “occupation” implying that there is a clear provenance to this oft-conquered and redrawn land, are all obstacles to peace and reconciliation—as are inaccurate, inflammatory cries of “racism” and “apartheid.” They go to the ontological—Israel’s essential character—rather than the transactional—Israel’s actions.

Distinguishing between some settlements and others, rather than speaking about them as “the” settlements, explains why a thriving suburb so close to Jerusalem like Gush Etzion, with its tragic history of being destroyed by Jordanians on the eve of Israel’s Declaration in 1948, is well within the “peace consensus,” consistently supported by at least 70 percent of Israelis, as opposed to a hilltop outpost, conceived in revenge, surrounded by Palestinians. If critics drop words like “legal” or “illegal”—especially considering the British Mandate of 1922 which was never abrogated but allowed Jews to settle in the area of historic Palestine between the Jordan and the Mediterranean—they can stop thinking of Israel as an international criminal and view the country as a potential peace partner. If we can end the occupation preoccupation, with its harsh, inflexible reading of the ever-changing boundaries in the Middle East, we can accept land swaps, improvise, and focus on present demographic realities rather than past claims or slights.

In The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen, the modern philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah explains that we frequently underestimate the importance of honor—and dishonor—in facilitating reform and making the world a better place. Those who have been systematically delegitimizing Israel with false charges of racism and condemning “the Occupation” as illegal should acknowledge that dishonoring Israel makes compromise less likely—countries and individuals tend to hunker down not take expansive risks when under assault. In fact, Israel proved most willing to compromise in the early 1990s, after the UN repealed its odious Zionism is racism resolution in 1991.

While I believe that Israel’s control over the West Bank has legal and historical validity, the Levy Report argument is distracting and incendiary. I start by assuming that in the area of historic Palestine—however you define it—borders shifted and populations changed. Given that two peoples are in love with the same land, they must negotiate and compromise, aware of their history but not handcuffed by it, acknowledging past slights without adding to them, while concentrating on pragmatic demographic and geographic realities.

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: The Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

We need creative extremism – not left or right Orthodoxy

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-1-10

Ideologues left and right seem unhinged these days. Leftists claim that bullying right-wingers menace Israeli democracy. Their diatribes suggest there is no free thought in Israeli universities, with everyone forced to parrot a right-wing line. Meanwhile rightists charge traitorous left-wingers with threatening Israel’s very existence. Their diatribes create the impression that Israelis are bracing for apocalypse now rather than anticipating the start of school today and the Jewish New Year next week.

Day after day both warring camps make extreme claims and idiotic moves. Leftists hysterically – and ahistorically – cry “McCarthyism” whenever anyone dares criticize them. And most recently Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu foolishly fed the paranoia by threatening to cut theatres’ funding when some actors refused to perform in the West Bank. Both extremes forgot that democracy guarantees freedom for the thought we hate.

Too many leftists apparently skipped the lessons about mutual rights along with civic responsibility in their democracy primers. For over a decade thoughtful critics have complained that too many professors in too many universities preach more than teach, imposing an anti-Zionist line which intimidates students. These charges of educational malpractice transcend the political content of the critiques. Academic freedom is not only about criticizing but about creating a learning environment which does not compel adherence to party lines. Yet, when a think tank such as the Institute for Zionist Strategies researches academic bias cries of “McCarthyism” and “thought police” mount even before the paper is released. And when Im Tirzu activists threaten to take the struggle against a politicized professoriate to donors, leftists shout “Stalinism” not just McCarthyism. Academics confident that they are offering a balanced, open-minded, thought-provoking education should say, ” Bring it on. We can win a debate about the quality of our teaching and research without crying foul.”

Similarly, NGOs that foster a culture of criticism about Israel demonize their critics rather than responding to substantive challenges regarding the sources of their funding and the destructive aims of some organizations they support. Does the Israeli left want a politically correct orthodoxy or a dynamic democracy? The shrill response to critics suggests that they love criticism only when directed at others, not at them.

At the same time, too many rightist ignore the civility and governmental restraint essential for healthy democracies. Bibi Netanyahu should know better than to risk the dignity of his office by duelling with activist actors. He should have ignored their refusal to perform in Ariel, or said this proposed boycott demonstrates Israel’s democratic vitality. The anti-Israel boycott movement abroad is reprehensible because it demonizes all of Israel, attacking the State’s legitimacy while singling Israel out for special opprobrium. That movement’s essentialism, one-sidedness and complicity in Arab-fueled anti-Semitism targets the collective Jewish state  and harms the peace process. However, focused boycotts for specific policy goals are legitimate.

While failing to defend democracy in Ariel, Netanyahu correctly condemned Rabbi Ovadia Yosef’s outburst praying for Palestinians to “vanish from the world.” Still, more cabinet ministers should have repudiated such language. It is immoral and stupid, undermining Israel’s demand that Palestinians end their constant anti-Israel incitement.

Partisans should learn from two of the greatest social activists Natan Sharansky and Martin Luther King, Jr.  Sharansky, who went from imprisoned dissident to cabinet minister, judges democracies using his “town square test” – can citizens denounce their rulers publicly without being harassed by the authorities? Nothing in this test absolves social critics from criticism in the free marketplace of ideas. Yet Sharansky’s test cautions leaders in a democracy to avoid any appearance of punishing peaceful protesters.

Martin Luther King advocated “creative extremism… a type of constructive, nonviolent tension” to free individuals “from the bondage of myths and half-truths” and spur “creative analysis.” Israel needs creative extremists who – blessed to live in a society that passes Sharansky’s “town square test” – foster King’s “constructive, nonviolent tension.” Understanding that freedom is a subversive power, activists should hold contradictory or nuanced thoughts in their heads:  Israel may be imperfect but it is not illegitimate; criticism may be harsh but it is not illegal; some Palestinians may be ready for peace and engaging in state building while others still seek Israel destruction.

Activists should learn from criticism and understand their political culture. King shrewdly spoke the language of Christianity, Cold War and the Constitution while demanding radical change. Too many Israeli critics repudiate Zionism and convey contempt for Israel while peddling reform, then complain when they are denounced or ignored.

Moreover, appreciating that democracy is a fragile flower and that the Middle East is a volatile region, “creative extremists” should understand some realities constraining Israeli actions. We need hope to combat the sourpusses left and right who demonize adversaries and exaggerate problems rather than seeking common ground and finding solutions.

In fact, hope might be breaking out as the Jewish New Year begins with a round of peace talks.  Understanding Winston Churchill’s vision that “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” even the normally anti-Netanyahu Ha’aretz speculated that Bibi might be poised to become Israel’s Mikhail Gorbachev, confounding expectations to make peace.

Of course, Zionism has always been fueled by hope, “HaTikvah.” Without hope the Jews who stayed in the land of Israel for millennia could not have survived. Without hope the early Zionist pioneers would not have built the infrastructure for a state in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Without hope no Holocaust refugees would have moved to Israel. Without hope no refugees from Arab lands would have been absorbed as Israelis – rather than being consigned to perpetual refugee status as the Arab countries have done to the Palestinians. And without hope Israel would not have matured and thrived.

Right-wing and left-wing extremists are caught in their parallel pessimisms, in dueling nihilisms. Those of us in the center must progress fast enough to catch the historical train, but not too fast that we stumble and get overrun.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, he is also the author of The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. He can be reached at