This Hanukkah let’s celebrate Liberalism and Zionism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-3-10

Let’s face it.  Although Hanukkah’s basic plot has not changed for 2,000 years, the Hanukkah we know and love is a twentieth-century invention. Hanukkah’s themes of heroism and power, both physical and spiritual, were Zionist ideas; traditionally, the Rabbis thanked God for the eight-day oil miracle. When the Zionist revolution reevaluated Judaism a century ago, the Maccabees’ story proved that Jewish history was not just about anti-Semites oppressing us and rabbis teaching us but our own warriors defending us. The Maccabees were hometown heroes, rooted in Israel’s ancient soil, willing to fight, if necessary, for their homeland, their beliefs, their freedom. At the same time, our festival of lights became our popular response to the seasonal malady of Christmas envy. Boasting eight nights, meaning eight gift-giving opportunities, Hanukkah helped Jews trump their Christian neighbors.

Considering that pedigree, this Hanukkah we should celebrate the happy marriage of liberalism and Zionism. We can fight the trendy claim that liberalism and Zionism are increasingly incompatible without doing violence to the Maccabean story.  Emphasizing a liberal-Zionist rift, in a world fighting the dark clouds of Islamic totalitarianism, ignores the shared enlightenment past of both Zionism and liberalism, as well as the light liberal Zionism can generate today.

Celebrating liberalism and Zionism can help revitalize both ideologies. In embracing Zionism, modern liberals will remember how central nationalism has been to liberalism’s greatest triumphs. Great liberals from John Stuart Mills to John Kennedy were great nationalists, just as great Zionists from David Ben-Gurion to Menachem Begin were great liberals. America’s Constitution, providing bedrock guarantees of personal freedom, begins with “We the People,” valuing the collective entity to achieve national greatness while protecting individual rights. Similarly, the French revolution did not stop at “Liberte” and “Egalite” but sought “Fraternite” too.

Hanukkah celebrates national liberation and a fight for individual rights. In the Maccabean indignation against Greek-Assyrian oppression that gives the story its propulsive power, national and individual sensibilities reinforce one another. Antiochus is the quintessential dictator whose power requires suppressing individuals’ spirits while squelching the Jewish national soul. These simultaneous assaults become untenable. The Maccabean fight for self-dignity and national pride become one, igniting the revolt.

This revolt is not just any proto-liberal-national revolt. It is a Jewish revolt, on Jewish soil, in our ancient homeland, circa 168 B.C.E. Today, 2200 years later, with Palestinian leaders questioning our ties to the Temple, with the worldwide campaign to delegitimize Israel rejecting our character as a nation and our links to the land, Hanukkah reaffirms the Zionist idea of establishing a Jewish national homeland in Eretz Yisrael, the land of Israel.

As a national holiday, Hanukkah reinforces Judaism’s dualistic nature. Just as a jelly doughnut requires jelly AND dough, so too, Judaism needs its national AND religious character. Hanukkah does not celebrate the dedications of every temple, wherever it may be scattered throughout the four corners of the earth; but all Jews, wherever we live, celebrate the one temple, built in Jerusalem, the Jewish people’s eternal capital.

And yes, all this thinking about liberalism and Zionism should sensitize us to the Palestinians’ plight, should spur us toward guaranteeing Israeli Arabs full equality and dignity, while affirming our story, our values, our rights to be in Israel and our rights to live in peace. The impossible odds we face in squaring those circles today are nevertheless less daunting than the Maccabeans’ even more impossible odds in confronting the great empire of their day. They understood the essential Zionist message that we must be strong physically and spiritually, that our values are as valuable a part of our arsenal as our more conventional weapons.

Ultimately, the current belief that Zionism and liberalism are at odds comes from forgetting both ideologies’ true characters and misreading world affairs. Palestinian propagandists have spread the Occupation Preoccupation. The double illusion that solving the Palestinian problem is the keystone to world peace and that the settlements are the great obstacle to that peace, blames Israel disproportionately while obscuring some of the greatest threats to Zionism and liberalism today. This week’s Wikileaks prove that even many Arabs recognize Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah as greater threats to world peace. Last week’s Islamist attempt to blow up a Christmas tree-lighting celebration attended by 10,000 Oregonians mocks the illusion that Islamist terrorists’ anti-Western bloodlust would be satisfied by any kind of Mideast compromise. Israelis should seek a true, mutual peace for their own souls, sanity and safety not out of any delusion that solving a minor regional conflict can solve the world’s major headaches.

There is yet another added bonus that can result from rededicating our commitment to both liberalism and Zionism this Hanukkah. Both modern liberalism and modern Zionism struggle with the tension between materialism and altruism, the selfishness of the “I” and the self-sacrifice of the “us,” the desire to take and the need to give. As Hanukkah, like its seasonal partner Christmas, has degenerated into what the historian Daniel Boorstin called “festivals of consumption,” the question “what did you get” has eclipsed the more important holiday questions “what does this mean?” and “did you grow?”

Traditionally, during Hanukkah Jewish communities rededicated themselves to Jewish education. In that spirit, parents gave children “gelt” or coins to sweeten the experience of Torah study. In the early 1900s, many Jews used Hanukkah as an opportunity to donate the modern equivalent of the “shekel,” the Biblical coin representing the power of responsibility, the importance of being counted, to the Zionist cause. This Hanukkah let’s remember the best of both the liberal and Zionist traditions. This Hanukkah, let’s look for opportunities to give not just get. This Hanukkah, by doing that, we can redeem not just these two noble movements, but ourselves.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. The author ofWhy 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

How Liberalism, Zionism Reinforce Each Other

By Gil Troy, The NY Jewish Week, 7-6-10

The increasingly popular claim that Zionism and liberalism are incompatible misreads contemporary Israeli politics, modern Zionism and liberalism itself.

Zionism, like Americanism, is a form of liberal nationalism, one of the world’s most constructive, successful ideologies. Liberalism and Zionism remain not just compatible but mutually reinforcing.

Like George W. Bush’s America, Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel is a diverse democracy, with its current conservative government vigorously opposed politically and within civil society. Israel has a powerful left-leaning judiciary, an outspoken left-leaning press, and an influential left-leaning intelligentsia. In Israel today, women’s legal rights to an abortion are rarely questioned. Gays serve openly in the military. Israel’s labor federation, the Histadrut, remains formidable.

Moreover, in the last 15 years, as Israel ceded control of most major Palestinian population centers to the Palestinian Authority and left Gaza, most Israelis accepted the legitimacy of Palestinian nationalism. Netanyahu’s government has endorsed a two-state solution, dismantled checkpoints and nurtured the West Bank economy. By contrast, most Arabs continue to repudiate Jewish nationalism, meaning Zionism. The Israeli peace consensus, which has consistently supported territorial compromise, is currently stymied because the recent concessions triggered violence, followed by international condemnation when Israeli defended itself.

While Israelis quarrel about how to achieve peace, the systematic campaign to delegitimize Israel combined with Israel’s continuing control over millions of Palestinians has helped make Israel politically poisonous to many liberals.

Back in 1975, when the Soviet-Third World alliance in the United Nations labeled Zionism racism, the mainstream American liberal establishment denounced the UN, not Israel. UN Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan warned that this “terrible lie” assaulting democracy and decency would enter like a toxin into the bloodstream of international discourse. Subsequently, the Soviet Union collapsed. The UN repealed the resolution in 1991. But the poison persists.

Israel remains the only nation on probation, with its legitimacy seemingly contingent on good behavior. Exaggerating Israel’s rightward shift and concluding that the state never belonged in the Middle East internalizes the relentless attacks rejecting its right to exist.

Treating support for Israel as a right-wing phenomenon ignores the longstanding calls for a “big tent” Zionism spanning right and left, and overlooks the common sources that spawned liberalism and Zionism. Both movements stemmed from the Enlightenment, with central values rooted in the Bible. Zionism and liberalism are intertwined with that sometimes ennobling, sometimes cruel, but defining modern movement — nationalism.

Modern Zionism’s founder, Theodor Herzl, harmonized these three intellectual currents. In his visionary 1896 book, “The Jewish State,” Herzl dreamed of the Jewish state as a liberal model for the world. Herzl articulated the essential Zionist message still true today, echoed in America’s liberal nationalism, that national self-determination can provide the best framework to achieve utopian ideals collectively. Communities first must unite and protect their members before becoming forces for good.

Israel’s proclamation of independence in 1948 reconciles Zionism and liberalism, achieving universalism through particularism, by establishing a Jewish state rooted in Jewish history, expressing Jewish culture, carving out a Jewish public space, while promising equal rights to all its inhabitants. Despite tensions and imperfections, a liberal democratic oasis has sprung up in a harsh totalitarian desert. As Barack Obama eloquently told the Atlantic Monthly in 2008, Zionism represents this “incredible opportunity … when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

Liberal nationalism American style — and Israeli style — enjoys the magical gift of self-correction. In countries offering their citizens equal rights, the natural logic of those guarantees have dramatically expanded freedom for all residents. Free speech, in particular, serves as a battering ram, knocking down hypocrisies, orthodoxies, inequities, injustice. Without changing regimes, America progressed from being a slave-holding white male democracy to today’s multicultural democracy.

Like Americanism, Zionism has never been static or monolithic. Zionism’s founders were charmingly, creatively, fragmented. Labor Zionists battled Revisionist Zionists. Cultural Zionists combated Political Zionists. Today, Religious Zionism and settler Zionism flourish alongside multicultural Zionism, eco-Zionism, entrepreneurial Zionism, feminist Zionism, and two-state-solution Zionism.

Those on the left who so demonize Zionism and romanticize Palestinianism to the point that they ignore Hamas’ violence against Palestinians and Israelis, violate liberalism’s core commitments to individual liberty and fair, rational conclusions. Progressives should delight in the vitality of Israel’s democracy, the vigor of its press, the power of its courts, the creativity of its universities, the dynamism of its population, the brashness of its many patriotic critics, the rights of its minorities, the freedom and equality so many of its citizens enjoy.

The Jewish and liberal traditions of development through disputation thrive in Israel, analyzing shortcomings, advancing reforms. Nevertheless, Israel, facing serious challenges, stumbles, like every nation-state, like all human creations. While criticizing Israel’s faults, without pulling any punches, also reaffirming the historic, harmonic convergence between liberalism and Zionism can help redeem Zionism — and liberalism.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University. His upcoming seventh book on American history will analyze Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s battle against the 1975 UN Zionism is racism resolution.

The Left’s fiasco flotilla: Betraying Zionism and liberalism

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-7-10

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This month, in Jerusalem, Way Off Productions and AACI are premiering Arsenic, The Musical, an original musical based on Arsenic and Old Lace. In this charming, energetic production, the exceedingly normal star, Mortimer Brewster, suddenly realizes he is surrounded by homicidal lunatics – including his two doddering old aunties. What a fitting metaphor for Israel’s read of the flotilla fiasco, wherein purported “peace activists” pummeled fellow human beings with metal rods and the whole world went crazy, blaming Israel while Israel felt assailed.

There is, of course, much to criticize in Israel’s actions. However, amid all the righteous indignation targeting Israel, will any leftists criticize the Turkish jihadists who masked their violent intentions by blustering about human rights and humanitarian aid? Who will defend Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals? Who can cry for the people of Gaza AND the tattered teachings of Martin Luther King Jr., who would have despised having his non-violent philosophy hijacked by these goons?

Some prominent American Jews are complaining that Zionism betrayed liberalism. They ignore modern Zionism’s big broad tent while caricaturing Israel in all its chaotic complexity and democratic diversity as a McCarthy-ite theocracy slouching toward fascism. In fact, liberalism remains compatible with Zionism, having helped spawn it. But today’s hypocritical left, driving recklessly because of its moral blind spots, repeatedly betrays both liberalism and Zionism.

Honest liberals could not support Hamas; a theocratic, dictatorial, anti-Semitic terrorist movement that snuffs out any signs of liberal life that try sprouting in Gaza. Consistent liberals would recoil from the jihadist associations of the IHH, the Turkish organization calling itself the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief, while ferrying rogues lacking identity cards, flush with cash and armed for a fight. True liberals would make time to protest North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean ship – purposely killing three times the number Israelis mistakenly killed this week. They would protest Pakistani violence, Saudi Arabian sexism, Iranian repression while rushing toward nuclear weaponry, Islamic homophobia, the brutal trampling of individual rights throughout the Arab world. Wise liberals would understand that the left’s selective indignation, represented by the human rights establishment’s obsession with Israel, undermines liberalism’s core ideals, abandoning millions who need help throughout the world.

Some trace this leftist betrayal to liberalism’s nineteenth-century tug of war between universalism and particularism. Yet liberal nationalism triumphed, epitomized by the US and implemented widely as democracy spread throughout the West. Some modern anti-Zionism, especially among Jews, stems from a faux cosmopolitanism – an inability to see how particularism, nationalism, rootedness in an identity, can better fulfill universal ideals. Today’s toxic hypocrisy picks and chooses among particularisms, for example, romanticizing Palestinian nationalism while demeaning Jewish nationalism. More broadly, the New Left holds Western democracies to artificially high standards while giving a moral free pass to non-white, non-Western autocracies.

This perverse double standard is younger. After World War II, the virtuous struggle against colonialism, imperialism and racism created what we could call “Che Guevara rules”. In advancing civil rights, in defeating colonial regimes, revolutionaries like that Argentinean Marxist taught that, in any national struggle, white Western powers are always wrong, indigenous people of color are always right, and that anything goes for those deemed to be oppressed in opposing the oppressor. In the 1970s, Soviet propagandists pushed further, redefining human rights from protecting individuals against their states to protecting the supposedly weak against the powerful, which usually meant virtuous Third World countries against decadent Western democracies.

The New Left’s addiction to these revolutionary theatrics and Identity Politics violated liberalism’s defining enlightenment rationalism. Liberalism abhorred unreason, considered violence a last resort, and even in its nationalist expressions valued universal individual rights and consistency of results. All of a sudden, “identity” trumped “politics”; who you were determined what rights you had and became more important than what you did. Palestinians could get a free pass to be terrorists; Israelis were scorned even when defending themselves.

This deviation from liberalism was a racist condescension masquerading as anti-racism. When someone in the conflict was cast as of color, the rules changed. Whites were consistently assumed to be wrong and held to higher standards. While supposedly sympathizing with the “other,” white leftists treated many people of color as morally inferior, as somehow absolved of the normal moral restraints.

This strategy was formalized in the UN General Assembly’s 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. The US Ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan and his Israeli colleague Chaim Herzog understood they were defending Western Civilization’s guiding principles. They recognized the attack on Israel as an attack on democracy and decency. They warned that the language of human rights and the UN itself would be diminished, that hypocrisy and selective indignation would trump consistency and the rule of law. What Moynihan called this “terrible lie” has outlasted the Soviet Union’s fall and even the resolution’s repeal in 1991.

Shortly before the UN passed the resolution, the British writer Paul Johnson wrote in The New Statesman:

The world is increasingly governed not so much by capitalism, or communism, or social democracy, or even tribal barbarism, as by a false lexicon of political clichés, accumulated over a century and now assuming a kind of degenerate sacerdotal authority.”

The Palestinians, with the help of their Soviet puppeteers and a restive Third World imprisoned the Arab-Israeli conflict in these political clichés. For decades now, the Palestinians have cleverly used these clichés to pillory Israel, indicting Israel as embodying all three great sins, as a racist, imperialist, colonialist state.

How tragic that so many leftists have drunk this potion laced with arsenic, poisoning the language of human rights, the UN itself, distracting humanitarian organizations from many important tasks, in this collective pile-on against Israel. How frustrating that Israel stumbled into the trap this week, allowing jihadis not only to do violence to our soldiers but to the West’s and liberalism’s core ideals.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. His next book will be about the Zionism is Racism resolution of 1975.

He can be reached at gtroy@videotron.ca

Are We Moving to the Right?

A historical look at the trends of conservative Jewish voters.

By Gil Troy, MyJewishLearning.com

In one of the funnier–but more absurd–appeals for the Jewish vote in 2008, the trash-talking comedienne Sarah Silverman recorded a video for TheGreatSchlep.com, a website urging young Jews to lobby their grandparents in Florida to vote for Barack Obama.  

In her direct, conversational style Silverman riffed: “And I know you’re saying, like, ‘Oh my god, Sarah, I can’t believe you’re saying this. Jews are the most liberal, scrappy, civil rights-y people there are.’ Yes, that’s true, but you’re forgetting a whole large group of Jews that are not that way, and they go by several aliases: nana, papa, zayde, bubbie, plain old grandma and grandpa.” 

As more than a million viewers watched the video on YouTube, and as moralists lamented the crass ethnic appeal, political analysts questioned the central assumption. While Jewish voting studies are unreliable, considering the statistically insignificant number of Jews in most samples polling the American population, most anaylses suggest that zayde and bubbie vote Democratic far more reliably than their grandchildren.

Jews as New Deal Democrats

Although Jews generally voted Republican from the Civil War through the Great Depression, most Jews became loyal Democrats thanks to Franklin Roosevelt and his sweeping reforms. For decades thereafter, many Jews and non-Jews considered American Judaism and American liberalism mutually reinforcing ideologies.

Even today, the Urban Dictionary, the web’s street-savvy guide to slang, defines Jewish Republicans as people “who considers themselves to be Jewish but [are] ignorant of Jewish values, common sense, and/or the platforms, actions and reputations of the two major American political parties.”

These days the Urban Dictionary definition is anachronistic. Since the 1980s, the number of Jewish Republicans has grown significantly. They are a minority in the Jewish community, which remains overwhelmingly Democratic, but Jewish Republicans are no longer merely an anomaly or a punch line.

The Neoconservative Backlash

Like so much of American politics today, the Jewish Republicans are the product of the Reagan Revolution–and a reaction to the 1960s’ politics and culture. While many Jews, from the radical political activist Abbie Hoffman to the feminist Betty Friedan, helped shape the 1960s, other Jews helped forge the backlash.

Most prominently, the “neoconservatives” were a loose collection of disproportionately–but not exclusively–Jewish intellectuals who moved right with the country. Irving Kristol, Norman Podhoretz, Ben Wattenberg, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, among others, recoiled from the New Left’s politics and sensibilities. Street crime, Black Power, Affirmative Action, hippie libertinism, radical anti-Americanism, and a perceived appeasement of Soviet Communism alienated these thinkers from the Left, as did the spread of liberal anti-Zionism.

Just as their Jewish identities once reinforced their liberalism, they abandoned the Democrats and supported Reagan as Americans and as Jews. 

These “neocons,” as they were known, struck a particular chord in the 1980 election, when a surprising 38% of the Jewish community voted for the Republican candidate Ronald Reagan. The incumbent Democratic President, Jimmy Carter, often seemed  insensitive to Jewish concerns, despite successfully negotiating the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty at Camp David.

Nevertheless, the much-predicted Jewish voting realignment never occurred. In Reagan’s 1984 reelection, Jews joined with African-Americans as one of the few groups still voting majority Democratic during a Republican landslide. Even as many Jews prospered during the great booms from 1980 through 2008, Milton Himmelfarb’s classic if ethnically reductionist truism from the 1970s still held: Jews earned like Episcopalians, but voted like Puerto Ricans.

Jews still remain liberal — with some exceptions

Since Reagan’s presidency, the Jewish vote has remained overwhelmingly Democratic, and Jews have remained far more liberal than other Americans. The nonpartisan American Jewish Committee’s 2008 Annual Survey of American Jewish Opinion showed 44% of respondents placing themselves left of center on the political scale, 24% right of center and 30% calling themselves middle of the road. More dramatically, 56% of Jews surveyed called themselves Democrats, 17% called themselves Republicans and 25% were independent.

Still, unlike in the 1960s, there are many prominent Jewish Republicans and, as in 2008, the Jewish vote has appeared to be in play more frequently. Contrary to Sarah Silverman’s stereotype, older Jews have remained reliably Democratic–although many more Jews supported Hillary Clinton than Barack Obama in the 2008 primaries.

A growing percentage of intermarriage has also altered voting patterns. Younger Jews with intermarried parents, or those who intermarry, have proven to be more independent and less reliability Democratic. This might reflect the 18 to 34 set’s aversion to party loyalty in general  It also may be that in growing up with a diluted American Jewish identity, these youngsters ended up drifting from the traditional liberal mindset of Jewish voters. As Steve Windmuller has written, Jews with one non-Jewish parent tend to vote Republican more often than other Jews.

2004 election leads to questions about Jewish Divide

The more dramatic surge in Republican voting among Jews has come from the Orthodox community.  Although surveys estimate the percentage of Orthodox Jews hovering between 10 and 20 % of American Jewry, the Orthodox community, unsurprisingly tends to be more united, more pro-Israel and more focused on Jewish concerns. In the 2004 election battle, George W. Bush won 25% of the Jewish vote. Close analysis of the vote uncovered a disturbing polarization within the Jewish community.

Jews who were more traditional and more pro-Israel were starting to vote Republican rather consistently. At the same time, the growing majority of secular Jews remained committed to the Democratic Party. Paralleling the often-overplayed “Red State” versus “Blue State” phenomenon, it seemed that we could start talking about “Red Jews” and “Blue Jews”–not in geographical terms but in ideological terms.

The 2008 election continued this pattern. John McCain has a long record of enthusiastic, effective support for Israel. But in the campaign against Barack Obama, McCain’s support among Jews only peaked at 31% –and was as low as 22 % in the October 2008 Gallup Poll. McCain’s most vocal Jewish supporters tended to be more unwavering in their support of Israeli policy, and his broadest range of support was in traditional communities.

Many of Obama’s most prominent Jewish supporters, including Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer, championed Israeli policies that took a softer line with the Palestinians. And quite a number of statements by Jews supporting Obama mentioned Obama’s pro-choice position, especially after John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate.  

When the stock market crashed, Jews joined most Americans in focusing their concern on the economy, rather than foreign policy concerns about Israel, Iran, and Iraq. In the 2008 election, as in the 1992 election, Americans focused most on “The economy, stupid,” And many Jews supported Obama’s proposed reforms.

Still, the common worry about the economy did not hide the growing polarization within the community. A wide range of opinions is natural in a community as diverse and disputatious as the Jewish community. But if voting patterns continue to reinforce the growing gap between traditional and non-traditional Jews, it will be harder to maintain the civility and common sense of purpose the community needs to thrive.

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington DC. His latest book is Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.