Saving “Private” Schalit – and the Defenseless Jewish State

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-18-11

Gilad, his father Noam, Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Defense Minister Barak.

The Israeli consensus is clear. The deal to free Corporal Gilad Schalit is bewildering: absurd, lopsided, heartbreaking, terrifying, as well as inspirational, humane, necessary, and ultimately rational. Much of the discussion has emphasized the Jewish and Zionist values shaping Israel’s commitment to every individual soldier. But these are Western democratic values too. Hollywood teaches that in moral democratic armies, soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives to save comrades. In Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” most of Tom Hanks’ unit dies bringing home a soldier who lost all his brothers in battle. And “The Great Raid” tells the true story of soldiers in World War II’s final days, dying to free prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March, demonstrating that Americans never abandon imprisoned troops.

Here is one of the Schalit trade’s absurdities. Had soldiers died trying to free Gilad Schalit, the fallen soldiers’ families would have experienced more intense personal anguish, but Israeli citizens – and terror victims – would have endured less mass anguish. In 1975, Americans hailed the Mayaguez raid even though 18 Marines died saving 39 Merchant Marine hostages from Khmer Rouge Cambodian kidnappers. In 1994, Nachshon Wachsman’s death, along with the death of two soldiers in the failed rescue attempt, was terribly upsetting but not communally unsettling.

This bloodless deal bringing Schalit home with no casualties is unnerving because it violates the norms of international engagement. The exchange’s utter disproportionality, 1 = 1,027, feeds fears of equally disproportionate future costs. During the Cold War, American-Soviet prisoner exchanges were more balanced – Natan Sharansky was freed in a four for five deal.

Underlying this unease is the unhappy realization, once again, that for Israel the rules are different. Whereas, once, observers would have used this lopsided equation to say Arabs care about each prisoner only 0.00097371% as much as Israelis care about theirs, today it seems that critics only see Israel as 0.00097371% justified in using force. Israel is supposed to be the geopolitical equivalent of a monk, defying nature, overriding its protective impulse. Israel is always on probation, with its legitimacy contingent on good behavior and passive resistance, no matter how evil the instigation.

The world, it seems, wants a defenseless Jewish state. A defenseless Jewish state would not incarcerate the mass murderers at a Sbarro pizzeria or a Passover Seder. A defenseless Jewish state would not risk the lives of Egyptian soldiers, even if it meant not firing at Palestinian terrorist attackers. A defenseless Jewish state would not retaliate against the Hamas thugs ruling Gaza, even though their dictatorial control makes them responsible for the terrorists operating there. A defenseless Jewish state would not object to Mahmoud Abbas bypassing the compromises negotiations entail, seeking yet another biased, inflammatory UN declaration. A defenseless Jewish state would not inconvenience the Arab world’s Western appeasers.

A defenseless Jewish state, of course, would be an overrun Jewish state, but, these days, taking responsibility for the implications of your political posturing is passé.

A country’s right of self-defense is as basic as an individual’s right to be free. For nearly two millennia, Jews could not defend themselves. Centuries of oppression followed, resulting in the Holocaust in Europe, and, ultimately, mass expulsions from the Arab world. Yet in only doubting one country, Israel, when it defends itself, world opinion is reverting to the traditional status quo, trying to keep Jews defenseless.

As the leader of a mature democratic state which makes tough decisions and defends itself, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes his citizens some straight talk. He and the Israeli leadership must stop lying and claiming that “Israel does not negotiate with terrorists.” Israel negotiates and caves in again and again. When states countenance dishonesty they lose credibility, be it with unenforced speeding laws, epidemic zoning violations, or repeatedly-crossed redlines. Israel needs a new doctrine, based on reality not on fantasy posturing.

Also, Netanyahu must explain the deal’s timing. The message he conveyed to Palestinians, yet again, is that Israel rewards violence like kidnapping but not peaceful, albeit obnoxious, diplomatic maneuvers. Netanyahu’s actions suggest he sees both Abbas and Hamas as equally extreme. If not, why boost the radicals having just stymied those reputed to be moderates at the UN? Finally, Netanyahu should call on President Barack Obama to explain, after Israel releases 1027 convicted terrorists, why can’t the United States, for goodwill, release Jonathan Pollard, who has served longer than any other spy ever convicted for espionage benefiting an American ally.

Hamas propagandists delude themselves that Israel’s sentimental attachment to Gilad Schlait, and every other citizen, indicates weakness. Dictators always underestimate the morale democracies draw from acting morally. Terrorists can kidnap, rocket, murder but they cannot kill ideas. They cannot kill the Zionist idea that the Jewish people deserve a state. They cannot kill the Western idea that nation-states like Israel are valid entities with rights to self-defense. And they cannot kill the Jewish idea of individual dignity which values every one of us, treating none as sacrificial pawns.

Israel draws strength from these powerful ideas. And these are the ideas embodied today in the young man with deepset eyes who endured five years of suffering, now enjoying his freedom.

Israelis have no choice but to continue defending themselves. A defenseless Jewish state is a dead Jewish state. This Jewish state, learning from history, aware of its responsibilities, will do what it takes to protect its citizens, be they sitting in cafes or held hostage by murderers. At the same time, this Jewish state will remember that seeking peace and living well are the best ways to repudiate the murderous rejectionists who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist and mock its defining humane Jewish, Zionist, and Western values.

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

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The Court Jews of the 21st Century: ‘Confessions’ of ex-Zionists dehumanize Israelis and delegitimize Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-28-11

The recent bouts of ‘confessions’ from ex-Zionists dehumanize Israelis and delegitimize Israel.

Confessional testimonies of the latest Jewish, anti-Zionist poster children recall Puritan Americans’ “captivity narratives.” Virtuous seventeenth-century women kidnapped by Indians described their brutal incarceration, then, their redemption. The new captivity narrative, modern-spoiled-American-Jewish-suburban style, recounts a young Jew’s harrowing redemption from Birthright Israel or Zionist summer camp.

Force-fed diets of Zionist folk tunes, midnight adventures, passionate friendships, and hunkalicious Israeli soldiers, they courageously flee their brainwashing into the welcoming bosom of the New York intelligentsia, rejecting Israel while embracing Palestinians, about whom they claim they never were taught. Kiera Feldman, describing her Birthright Israel trip for The Nation, writes: “Chronically underslept, hurled through a mind-numbing itinerary, I experienced, despite my best efforts to maintain a reportorial stance, a return to the intensity of feeling of childhood.” Village Voice film editor Allison Benedikt in “the Awl,” recalls: “Those summers blur together, but each day begins and ends at the flagpole, where we raise and lower two flags: the American and the Israeli. We make blue and white lanyard bracelets, carve Israel out of ice cream, and sing ‘Hatikvah.’” She adds the self-loathing line: “Because it’s all Jews, I’m considered cute.” She ends the memoir recalling her escape from these cy-ops executed against her by mysterious, manipulative, nebbishes in Bermuda shorts saying: “My best memories from childhood are from camp, and I will never, ever send my kids there.”

Even the rare compliments are dehumanizing. Benedikt’s non-Jewish husband, whose contempt for Israel triggers her transformation, visits Israel, rudely condemns her sister’s “morally bankrupt decision” to make Aliyah, “but at least concedes that … the women are hot.” The “hot” Israeli women and handsome Israeli soldiers reduce these new Jews to all brawn, making American Jews smarter, civilized but flaccid. The stereotyping parallels the racist and sexist 1950s hipsters who considered white men all mind — feminized and impotent — but black men all body — hyper-sexualized and super-potent.

Emboldened by the intellectuals’ conceit that their marginal views reflect popular sensibility, welcomed by a left-leaning media echo chamber, they believe their redemptions signal a mass movement. “Most of my Jewish friends are disgusted with Israel,” Benedikt reports. “It seems my trajectory is not at all unique.”

With this allegation, anti-Zionist delusions meet pro-Israel fears. “Oy the kinde,” loyalists yell, fearful “we” are losing “our” youth. “Ah, we enlightened ones see through that Israel trip tripe,” hipsters rejoice. The surveys from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center and elsewhere calling younger Jews today more pro-Israel than their immediate elders – thanks to big bad Birthright — are irrelevant. Never let evidence ruin a good rant.

These testimonials do suggest that anti-Zionism is ever trendier among America’s elites. The narratives pivot on a zero-sum ideological universe, first caricaturing the Zionist message as “Support Israel Right-or-Wrong,” then treating Israel as all-wrong and all right-wing. The “brainwashing” set-up imputes to the Zionist educational process a mythic, monolithic propagandizing power. I have helped shape the educational programming of the Young Judaea movement Benedikt mocks as well as Birthright Israel. There is more ideological fluidity, self-criticism, and anguish over the Palestinian problem than is alleged. Simultaneously, the redemptive deprogramming paints Israel as uniquely depraved. As Feldman writes, “With the relentless siege of Gaza, the interminable occupation, the ever-expanding settlements, the onslaught of anti-Arab Knesset legislation, Israel has earned its new status as an international pariah.”

Feldman’s essay spews out modern anti-Zionist clichés, as lecherous billionaires bankrolling Birthright seduce naive American Jews with a bewitching cocktail of sex and Israel advocacy. Everything Israeli is militarized, right-wing, racist, tainted by occupation. Kibbutz Gvulot is a “kibbutz cum military outpost.” AIPAC and Stand With Us are “right-wing Zionist groups … whose members have been known to target Jewish anti-occupation activists with Nazi slurs and pepper spray” – news to me. Philanthropists like Lynn Schusterman and Charles Bronfman, who finance Israel’s left, are “hawkish,” with one small educational grant over the Green Line used to accuse Schusterman of “financially support[ing] illegal Jewish settlements.”

Like a jilted lover, the apostate’s sanctimony, mixing penitential self-righteousness with insider’s knowledge, ultimately sounds petty, vengeful. These testimonials rankle because by repudiating Israel itself rather than criticizing Israeli actions, these Jews feed the delegitimization campaign against Israel. This disapprobation treats Israel as the only country on probation, reinforcing the anti-Semitic Arab campaign against Israel’s right to exist.

Ignoring such complexities, these posturing progressives are the New Galut Jews, the court-Jews of twenty-first century elite society, purchasing acceptance from others by mocking their own. While the nineteenth-century German poet Heinrich Heine saw conversion as the admission ticket to European culture, some American Jewish extremists now use anti-Zionism as their admission ticket to hip, progressive circles.

Refugees from leftist circles could mock Birkenstock-wearing, vegan know-it-alls as tree-huggers claiming to save humanity by recycling paper while ignoring American racism, poverty and violence. But rather than trading insults and perpetuating the false claim that liberalism and Zionism are incompatible, better to learn about the liberal Zionist synergies Rabbi Richard Hirsch celebrates in his new book For the Sake of Zion, which Natan Sharansky hailed at a book launch this Monday in Jerusalem.

A leading Reform Zionist, Hirsch shared his Washington office space with Martin Luther King, Jr., in the 1960s, and has championed liberal Zionism since first visiting Israel as a rabbinical student in 1949. Sharansky thanked Hirsch for supporting his dual role in the Soviet Union as a human rights activist and a Zionist, understanding particularism as a path to universalism. Hirsch sees tribalism as comforting, familial, not stultifying because these “special relationships” never stopped him from criticizing Israel when necessary. To him, controversy demonstrates caring and belonging: His response to Israel’s struggles: “Let the debates continue.”

These Zionist captivity narratives ignore the debates that shaped their educational processes, and the debates shaping Israel today, silencing further discussion through their contempt and ridicule. Instead Hirsch’s Zionism is a Zionism of controversy and loyalty, of nuance and complexity, of proudly belonging while ambitiously striving to improve Israel – and the world.

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

Cultivating democracy, Reagan- and Sharansky-style

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-8-11

Photo by: Ronald Reagan Library/White House photo
Israelis usually know notFormer US president Ronald Reagan and Sharansky to let fear of the future cloud the present. All peace-loving democrats should celebrate the potential inherent in Egypt’s popular uprising. As the ones who taught the world about going from slavery to freedom by leaving ancient Egypt, Jews would love to see modern Egypt teach the Arab world about going from enslavement under dictators to the freedom that flourishes in peaceful, popular democracies.

Democracy is delicious. Those who enjoy civil rights, live in states that empower the people, see leaders rotated regularly, and have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our privileged club.

THIS WEEK, two anniversaries remind us of the essential link between freedom and democracy. February 6 marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth.

When many intellectuals were too dazzled by communism to recognize its crimes, Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. Shocked, one leading American historian labeled his 1983 address the worst presidential speech ever. Reagan never understood how people so smart could be so dumb – and arrogant – as to assume that people suffering under communism did not yearn for freedom.

As president, Reagan helped free another freedom fighter, Natan Sharansky, from the gulag 25 years ago, on February 11, 1986. While Reagan faced condescending professors, Sharansky had to resist the KGB. These days, when many criticize Israel for being too worried about its peace with Egypt to cheer the democratic revolution, the world should remember that since 1986, Natan Sharansky has been preaching, from Israel, that Arabs deserve democracy – defying the conventional wisdom even as it mocks him, George W.

Bush and others for demanding that.

Not surprisingly, today, when historical memories get wiped out with a click of the ‘refresh’ button, Israel’s critics are busy rewriting history. The bash-Israel crowd, dismayed that those pesky Arabs again had other concerns beyond the Palestinians, nevertheless used the Egyptian crisis to attack Israel. Now they criticize it for making peace with dictators – as if it could choose some democratic Egyptian leader as a peace partner.

Turn back the clock three decades. Had Israel rejected the media darling Anwar Sadat because he was a dictator, the world would have condemned it. Today, these critics want Israel to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas – another aging autocrat – and the deadly dictators of Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin’s realist teaching that you only make peace with your enemies has an unspoken Middle East corollary – where strongmen reign, you can only make peace with dictators, although not with those who promise to obliterate you.

The media herd has missed another inconvenient nuance, failing to understand that popular is not necessarily democratic. The New York Times ran one article after another reading like Muslim Brotherhood press releases. On February 4, Nicholas Kulish’s Valentine claimed that the Brotherhood’s “actual members… come across as civic-minded people of faith.”

Roger Cohen gushed that “the Middle East has evolved…

Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s,” adding gratuitously and disproportionately: “Democracies can coexist with politically-organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates.”

Apparently, these cheerleaders have never read the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna’s harsh exhortations to “prepare for jihad, and be lovers of death.” These deluded democrats overlook the Brotherhood’s Nazi roots, which produced Hamas terrorists, not Turkish economists. And perhaps most important of all, these simpletons have overlooked democracy’s essential foundations.

Yes, democracy involves not having dictators. And yes, democracy can arise after popular revolts. But even orderly elections can spawn dictators and demagogues, violent societies and civil-rights violators. Civil society’s gossamer threads must restrain government’s blunt power. Citizens in a democracy need basic rights, essential protections and fundamental dignity, not just an occasional trip to a voting booth.

IN GRADUATE school, we debated whether colonial America’s fluidity, mobility and prosperity – unlike Europe’s feudal rigidity – nurtured its democracy. I learned then – and we learned again from watching disasters in Gaza and elsewhere – that you don’t build democracy from the (headless) top down, you build it from the ground up.

Ronald Reagan understood this when he funded institutions like the Voice of America to cultivate a vibrant political culture of openness, tolerance and dissent in communist lands. Natan Sharansky understood this when he championed building factories and investing in Gaza and the West Bank, even as Palestinian terrorists murdered Israelis. Even many Islamist groups understand this when they woo the masses by feeding, teaching and employing them before recruiting them.

Unfortunately, elite American reporters do not seem to grasp this concept, with their suddenly impatient calls for immediate change and their inability to see that democracy must be groomed and grown. In the musical South Pacific, set during World War II, the wise Emile de Becque asks a hotheaded American sailor: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” We know the Egyptian rebels are against Hosni Mubarak, but what are they for? Are they for women’s rights, gay rights, Jews’ rights, Coptic Christians’ rights, human rights? Are they for allowing different ideas to flourish, for listening to their opponents, for resolving conflicts peacefully, for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are they for establishing a prosperous, stable middle-class so democracy can flourish? Are they for a new democracy built citizen by citizen, institution by institution, social good by social good? Rather than being paralyzed by fear or naively deluded, Israel, America and the world should do whatever is possible to plant the necessary democratic seeds, so the answers become “yes,” even “yes we can.”

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 Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

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 giltroy@gmail.com

Educating the spoiled brats of Jewish history

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-3-10

Halleluyah! Natan Sharansky is trying to reform the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI). Since he became chairman of this quasi-governmental agency, uniquely poised to bridge the State of Israel with Jewish communities around the world, he has pushed an exciting new vision for the infamously bureaucratic agency.
Sharansky views the Jewish Agency as the spearhead for a global Jewish push revitalizing Jewish identity. If in the 20th century JAFI’s great accomplishment was saving Jewish lives, the 21st century has to be about saving Jewish souls.

Now that may sound jarring to us, because so many of us are secular, sophisticated, technocratic and uncomfortable with “soul talk.” But if we don’t have the passion, if we don’t see that building Jewish identity is ultimately about saving souls, then how do we get the gumption to do what must be done?

Words such as “change” and “identity” can be empty slogans, amorphous and lacking meat on the bones. Our vision of Jewish identity and our mission must be coherent, so that we know how to get traction on this important issue.

The modern Zionist movement tried to solve “the Jewish problem” of the 19th century – anti-Semitism. The Jewish problem for most (not all) Jews today is the opposite: we are being Loved to Death. Some 2.5 million young Israelis, 1.7 million young North American Jews, and most of the 600,000 young Jews from other countries enjoy unprecedented freedom – and prosperity. But too many perceive that freedom as “negative freedom,” freedom from – freedom from ties, from tradition, from community and from responsibilities (and many of their parents aren’t much better). We’re being loved to death in once-hostile communities that now happily celebrate our children’s marriages to theirs, and we’re being loved to death, because while we can enter the modern world freely, we often enter by voluntarily relinquishing our Jewish identity.

Our young people, in secular Israel and abroad, in this age of “I” not “us,” are entranced by the new cosmopolitanism cross-bred with a hyper-individualism, what Sharansky calls a false choice between Jewish values and universal values. That false choice is reinforced by an equally false promise that we can transcend national boundaries, cut ourselves off from tradition and simply be islands unto ourselves, encased within our own technological test tubes.

Isn’t that the Apple promise, to each his own iPod and iPhone, to each his own customized Thinkpad?

And we Jews lap it up. You know the old joke. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Christian” and you know he’s Christian. Show me someone who says, “I’m a Muslim” and you know he’s Muslim. Show me someone who says, “I’m just a human being” – he’s Jewish.

We are, New Republic writer Leon Wieseltier says, “the spoiled brats of Jewish history,” more comfortable than ever before, but more selfish and self-indulgent than ever before. Our great mass crime, Wieseltier argues, isn’t intermarriage, but ignorance. One of the most educated generations in Jewish history in secular terms is one of the least educated Jewishly.

In 2008, U.S. President Barack Obama showed that liberals shouldn’t be afraid of the “three Fs” – family, faith and flag. We have to build our identity on what we might call the “three mems” – mishpachah (family), morashah (heritage) and moledet (homeland). This holy trinity, if you will, roots us, consecrating our personal and national identities, teaching us about our past, inspiring us in the present and orienting us toward the future. JAFI – and other Jewish communal institutions – must express and foster this vision, with education at its core.

We can find salvation in more Jewish education, because Jewish education isn’t just about learning the facts, but about mastering life. Jewish education isn’t just about thinking, it’s also about doing. Jewish education isn’t just about understanding the world, but fixing it – tikun olam. Jewish education isn’t just about skill-building, it’s about identity-building. In short, Jewish education is values education – and that’s the added value we need, and must provide. As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently told JAFI’s board of governors: “This is not an exercise in education. It’s an exercise in survival.”

Center Field: Remembering the Holocaust after Ahmadinejad denied it

Center Field: Remembering the Holocaust after Ahmadinejad denied it

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-21-09

DURBAN DIARY

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. He is attending the Durban Review conference as an observer.

Thanks to tremendous prep work by the Jewish community along with human rights organizations and democracies ashamed by Durban I, Durban II has been mild. Despite the undercurrent of hostility – and the occasional security threat — the UN’s move from Durban to Geneva worked. The NGO delegates’ lounge has the festive schmoozy air of any conference. The streets have been relatively quiet.

In fact, pro-Israel forces have dominated the street. On Monday, members of the European Union of Jewish Students taped their mouths shut – and were joined spontaneously by two Darfur refugees – to protest the UN’s silence on Sudan’s crimes and other human rights violations. Last night, a moving Yom HaShoah commemoration in front of the United Nations featured Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Canadian parliamentarian Irwin Cotler, Father Patrick Desbois and the French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy.

Cotler recalled his parents’ lesson that some events “in Jewish history, in world history, are too terrible to imagine, but not too terrible to have happened.” Cotler’s words and his denunciation of Ahmadinejad’s genocidal designs on Israel linked the traumas of the past that Elie Wiesel described so eloquently with the threats of the present. Mourning the Holocaust in Europe, with six elderly survivors lighting candles in front of the UN, hours  after Ahmadinejad’s Durban Review conference appearance, also linked the world’s failures yesterday with the world’s failures today.

Still, with so many eloquent supporters of Israel assembled, this conference often feels like a Jewish fringe festival – and a gathering of my mentors and heroes – but with a profound message.

Today (Tuesday), after hearing predictably anti-Israel speeches from the Palestinian and Syrian conference delegates, I attended a side NGO session on modern anti-Semitism. The capacity crowd heard Professor Wiesel, visibly anguished by Ahmadinejad’s appearance, denounce the Iranian’s speech as “an insult to our intelligence, an insult to our sensitivity, an insult to our memory.”

Wiesel received a standing ovation by demanding the UN apologize for inviting Ahmadinejad at all. The actor Jon Voight followed with a heartfelt tribute to Israel and the Jews, mystified by the hatred such a “sacred” people endure. Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz then drew “the unbroken line” linking Hitler, his Palestinian ally Haj Amin el Husseini, Yasser Arafat who called Husseini a hero, Ahmadinejad and his terrorist proxies Hizbullah and Hamas.

“Woe unto any of you out there who support Hamas,” Dershowitz thundered. “You are supporting Hitler’s heirs – you are complicit in the great evil of the twentieth century.” Natan Sharansky linked the Soviet Union’s “Orwellian world” with the modern UN’s Orwellianism. Sharansky offered a simple test for “a real conference against racism.” Countries that grant free speech should be given free speech; countries that fight against racism should be allowed to join the conference combating racism. Father Desbois, who uncovers mass graves of Jews in Eastern Europe by speaking to elderly parishioners, demonstrated the importance of challenging people to do the right thing. When he approaches, many ask “Father, why are you coming so late.”

While each of these speakers testified eloquently against the Durban distortions, the fifth speaker, Professor Shelby Steele, tried explaining the continuing appeal of modern anti-Semitism masquerading as anti-Zionism. Steele, a leading black American intellectual, analyzed the wave of revolutions after World War II which eliminated white supremacy. Unfortunately, for many Africans, Arabs, and African-Americans, ending racism, achieving freedom, did not improve their lives as much as they expected. The result was an obsession with racism, and a scapegoating of Israel and Jews, as an act of “bad faith.” It is easier, Steele said, to denounce someone else than to take responsibility for your own misery – or to work hard to improve. Anti-Semitism, is a way of “changing the subject.”

On this Yom HaShoah, in the unlikeliest of places, some of Israel’s most thoughtful defenders helped change the subject in Geneva constructively, away from the Durban obsession with “changing the subject” destructively. Professor Cotler’s warnings that the unimaginable can become the historical haunt me, even as the words of Father Desbois comfort me. We cannot be complacent. And we cannot wait for others to recognize the justice of our cause. We must challenge our friends, our neighbors, seeking out allies. We must make sure that in the future, no one looks back on a preventable historical tragedy and wonders “why are you coming so late” to ask for help.

Gil Troy at Hadassah’s 94th Annual Convention

The growing materialism and “meaninglessness” in much of American Jewry could be fought with teaching Zionism by creating savings accounts for children and teenagers to be used for eventual trips to Israel, suggested McGill University history Prof. Gil Troy.

Gil Troy

Gil Troy

Speaking on Monday, the second day of the 94th annual Hadassah convention at the Westin Bonaventure Hotel in Los Angeles, Troy and other speakers at a plenary session “Is Israel on Your Radar Screen?” bemoaned the fact that the younger Diaspora Jews are, the less likely they are to care about or identify with Israel.

The birthright program that will bring 42,000 young Jews to Israel for 10-day trips this year is excellent, said Troy, “but we have also to take personal responsibility for it and take more vacations in Israel. As the father of four young children, I know that Jewish children get more and more unnecessary gifts. Instead, think of Zionism as an answer for materialism. Hadassah, he suggested, can lead by organizing such savings accounts for travel to Israel. He also advocated widespread teaching of Hebrew to American Jews.

The convention’s 2,000 delegates were polled instantaneously using electronic devices that captured their opinions. When asked whether their youngest adult child was just as attached to Israel as they were, only half answered yes, and 85 percent felt that Jews in their 20s and 30s are not as attached to Israel as their elders.

Prof. Steven Cohen, a researcher in Jewish social policy at the Hebrew Union College, conducted his own scientific study of non-Orthodox American Jews who constitute 90% of Americans who identify themselves as Jews.

According to all measures, the younger they are, the less attachment they feel about Israel. “It’s a terrible tragedy. The only exception of less activity compared to their elders is that younger Jews are more likely to speak to non-Jews about Israel, but this is because they know more non-Jews.”

Because the poll queried people who identified as Jews, Cohen said it “overrepresents Jewish attachment to Israel because there are many intermarried and assimilated Jews who do not identify themselves as such.”

The serious decline in donations to Jewish causes since the 1980s reflects the fact that unmarried intermarried Jews are less inclined to financially support Jewish and Israeli causes, Cohen said.

“The strongest predictor of attachment to Israel is if you have a Jewish marriage partner. There is a corrosive effect on Jewish identity in the US. You can’t sustain ethnicity if don’t have Jewish friends, neighbors and spouses, but two-thirds of young Jews have a non-Jewish romantic partner.

“Assimilation and intermarriage is at the root of declining identification by Jews with and support for Israel. But an antidote is to travel to Israel, and the more you come, the better.”

Cohen also endorsed Jewish financial support for Jewish summer camps and youth movements, independent prayer groups and Jewish learning.

Rabbi Eli Stern, director of special projects at the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, said that there is a “profound identity shift among young Diaspora Jews from assumed Jewish identify to asking why one should be Jewish at all.”

The serious decline of the Conservative Movement, which always supported Israel, Stern said, reflects this disillusionment.

While political support for Israel in the general American population remains strong, using Israel as a source for collective Jewish identity has taken a tremendous hit, Stern added.

Former Israeli cabinet minister, refusenik and human rights activist in the Soviet Union, Natan Sharansky, who is now chairman of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said at the convention that the growing view among young Jews that freedom and peace can be achieved only by rejecting ethnicity, nationalism and faith was dangerous.

“They think that freedom and identity are on opposite sides, that there no values worth dying for. There must be no hesitation in saying proudly that we are for justice and human rights, but the only way we can defend and protect Israel is going back to our roots and being proud Jews,” he said, earning a standing ovation.