Gil Troy Responds to Yousef Munayyer

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-21-12

The many articles like Yousef Munayyer’s asking just how racist is Zionism echo the classic loaded question, “when did you stop beating your wife”?

Supporters of Israel are forced to start backpedaling immediately, and frequently, unthinkingly, defensively, confirm too many unfair assumptions built into the question. I have no need to defend Aaron David Miller or his New York Times op-ed worrying about Israel’s demographics. I am not an Israeli WASP—a White Ashkenazi Sabra with Protekzia (connections), nor am I an American Jewish WASP, a Washington Peace Processor. Moreover, we at the Engaging Israel project of the Shalom Hartman Institute reject the whole Demography of Fear industry. As educators and as activists we believe in inculcating collective values and educating individuals, not in counting which groups at what scale threaten society.

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A young Arab-Israeli holds up the Palestinian flag run as he rides his horse in a Lod village, during a demonstration for “Land Day”, 30 March 2006. (Samuel Aranda / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Still, Munayyer’s use of Millers article to repudiate the Zionist project as racist raises recurring issues that should be addressed.

First, using the terms “racist” and “racism” is inaccurate and inflammatory. The racism charge was launched with great force into the Middle East by Soviet propagandists in the 1970s, particularly with the UN General Assembly’s infamous 1975 Zionism is Racism resolution. This was an attempt to charge Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people with the most heinous of crimes, crimes that in Nazi Germany, South Africa and the American south—on different scales of course—immorally judged human beings’ worthiness, and sometimes even their rights to live, on the basis of specious biological differences, especially skin color.

That is not what is going on in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That conflict pivots on a set of national and ethnic distinctions which most of the world is more comfortable making. In a world of nation states that are frequently built on ethnic and tribal differences, we acknowledge that membership in one group or polity can affect the distribution of certain rights among human beings.  We also acknowledge that one valid role of a nation state is to preserve, affirm, and transmit a culture and certain collective values, not just to protect individuals.

Applying these abstractions to reality, we note that:

A. Certain countries, particularly the United States and Canada, live by a from of civic nationalism, which focuses more on the relationship between individuals and the nation, although even in those two countries the rise of multiculturalism has led to discussion, awareness and sometimes even assigning of group rights.

B. Most countries represent a form of ethnic nationalism, using some vision of solidarity as the foundation for national unity and seeking to celebrate certain ethnic values in the nation’s public space.

C. Most Arab countries are on the high end of the scale of ethnic sensibility and the low end of the scale reflecting social tolerance, diversity, or fluidity.

D. Israel is a hypbrid. Israel’s Declaration of Independence establishes it as a Jewish state but also articulates civic aspirations, offering all its “inhabitants” equal rights.

Yes, there is a tension between the desire to keep Israel as a Jewish state—whatever Jewish means—and its civic aspirations. But all democracies navigate key tensions such as the tug of war between majority rule and minority rights. Just because two goods or two rights are in tension, it does not mean that one should negate the other.

Tragically, many critics use Israel’s civic, democratic aspirations as truncheons against the Jewish state, without noticing the exclusivity and rigidity of so many other countries, neighboring and otherwise.

I want Israel to keep pushing in both directions. I want Israel to be democratic, welcoming, broad-minded, giving all its citizens full rights and dignity. I also want Israel to be an ideal Jewish state, celebrating and redefining Jewish culture, embodying and enriching Jewish values, epitomizing and stretching the best Jewish ideals. Categorical “ahas” like Munayyer’s, implicitly saying, “you see, I told you the Zionist project was worthless” don’t help.  We need to fight the ethnocentrism that is an unfortunate byproduct of ethnic pride—especially at a time of ethnic and national conflict.

I am appalled by the “lynch” of Arabs in Zion Square, the racist rabbis of Tzfat, the yahoos who do not appreciate Israel’s delicate and diverse democratic dance. But to defeat them, we need a more nuanced, open, sophisticated and forgiving dialogue that seeks to find the right balance, forge the Golden Path, so that Israel can be what its founders wanted it to be a democratic Jewish state, protecting Jews, preserving Jewish tradition, opening up Jewish life and embracing all its inhabitants. Achieving that goal requires better education, clearer ideologies, sharper visions—and a constructive push for values neither counting one group of citizens as the “good” kind or repudiating the Zionist project itself.

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.

 

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Response to New York Times Op-Ed: Avraham Burg’s Blind Spots

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-7-12

Decades from now, scholars will be able to derive joy from reading Avraham Burg’s latest screed against Israel, which much fewer of us can take today. With the distance of time, and the zeal of historians seeking to explain one of history’s mysteries, they will use his disproportionate, inaccurate, August 4 New York Times op-ed as a proof-text explaining the Israeli left’s intellectual, ideological, moral, and political failure. Burg’s essay reflects the Israeli left’s two blind spots—the inability to see real enemies outside of Israel combined with an equally perverse inability to see much good inside of Israel.

The first blind spot appears in Burg’s first paragraph, when he rants about a “misguided war with Iran” and calls Benjamin Netanyahu a  “warmongering prime minister.” This analysis would apply if Netanyahu threatened to wipe Iran “off the face of the earth” and welcomed the opportunity to end the Islamist experiment by sending it into the “trash bin of history”—which is, of course, the rhetoric Iran deploys against Israel as the mullahocracy rushes to build its lethal nuclear bombs. So far, as far as we can tell from the media, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reign has included unconventional alternatives such as cyberattacks, coalition sanctions, and assassinations, rather than bombing raids or battles—a salutary, more subtle approach.

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Workers put up an election poster for the left-wing Meretz party reading: “Only Meretz is Great.” (David Silverman / Getty Images)

 

The second blind spot ignores any signs of life, liberty, equality or fraternity in Israel’s polity in order to justify the article’s hysterical title: “Israel’s Fading Democracy.” Combining the self-absorption of too many Orthodox Jews today with the self-loathing of too many modern liberals, and using his own religious family as the weakest form of single anecdotal evidence, Burg caricatures modern Israel as Settleristan, “a religious, capitalist state… defined by the most extreme Orthodox interpretations” elevating “religious solidarity over and above democratic authority,” becoming “more fundamentalist and less modern, more separatist and less open to the outside world.”

Hmmm. Where do the Start-Up Nation, the People’s Republic of North Tel Aviv, the overwhelmingly non-religious population, the Russian aliyah, the hyper-activist Supreme Court, the super-critical free press, the chaotic, fragmented, can’t-agree-on-much-of-anything culture of argument, the many bikini-clad women and Speedo-wearing men fit in? How come we only hear from Burg about the “exclusionary ideas” of unnamed “rude and arrogant power brokers” as opposed to noble tales about the princes of the Likud, Ministers Dan Meridor and Benny Begin, Knesset Speaker Rubi Rivlin and Prime Minister Netanyahu himself, who, through their Beginite and Jabotinskyite liberalism have been fighting the anti-democratic and occasionally racist forces in their own party and coalition?

Such complexities, of course, have no place in what is becoming the dominant caricature among supposed sophisticates, inside Israel and beyond, about the Jewish States and its current prime minister.

I know how annoying it is to let pesky facts disrupt a good tirade, especially when Israel is the target and the New York Times forgets its usual fact-checking and broadcasts the rant worldwide. But as an historian today—not even waiting for the future—I was offended by Burg’s topsy-turvy worldview. His claim that Netanyahu’s “great political ‘achievement’ has been to make Israel a partisan issue,” ignores the neo-conning of Israel that occurred after the Iraq War debacle, when Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were at the helm and George W. Bush critics recoiled from Israel because he gave it his toxic embrace. Burg’s speculation that Israel “will become just another Middle East theocracy” and that Israel “has no real protection for its minorities or for their freedom of worship” ignores the many rights and privileges both non-religious and non-Jewish Israelis enjoy in the real Israel of 2012, which is not his dystopic Settleristan. And his nostalgia for the America and Israel of his childhood in the 1950s absolutely sickened me, considering how much more racist and segregated America was (even in the noble North), how much more unwelcome Arabs—who were then under martial law—were in Israel, and how much more sexist, stultifying, conformist, and authoritarian both countries were.

These factual distortions, and these two recurring blind spots of never seeing any threats to Israel or acknowledging any true progress in the country, explain why Meretz has gone from being a powerful left wing voice to a marginal, unpopular collection of hectoring, irrelevant windbags; why many of us who agree with Burg that Israel needs a constitution and a two-state solution nevertheless recoil from any association or alliance with him; and why Avraham Burg himself spends more time appealing to the prejudices of Israel’s critics outside the country than working on constructive, realistic solutions to the many challenges the country faces—and is frequently solving without his help—at home.

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.

Thomas Friedman (and others) on Israel – Sloppy but not Self-hating

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-20-11

This year, 2011, proves that even top journalists can have a bad year. Thomas Friedman started the year with naive reports about the Arab spring as democratic idyll. Friedman turned cranky in mid-year when he witnessed an impressive democratic moment, the ecstatic bipartisan greeting America’s Congress gave Israel’s Prime Minister. Most recently, Friedman’s claim that the “ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby” evoked the ugly anti-Semitic stereotype of rich, powerful and manipulative Jews. It also ignored most Americans’ genuine love for Israel.

But Friedman is neither anti-Semite nor self-hating Jew. Using either epithet to defame him is simplistic and offensive. If Friedman is “a dyed-in-the-wool Israel hater,” as my esteemed fellow columnist Caroline Glick called him yesterday, despite many ties to Israel and his deep, conflicted feelings about the place, what do you call Noam Chomsky? If we group his columns with The Protocols of the Elders of Zion how should we respond to the real, virulent, anti-Semitism so prevalent in the Arab press – or increasingly in the European press? My broad Zionist tent is big enough to welcome Friedman, even while slamming him for being sloppy and insensitive, letting his distaste for Bibi Netanyahu override good taste.
Twenty years ago, President George H.W. Bush called himself “one lonely little guy” facing “powerful political forces” after 1200 Israel activists lobbied Congress seeking loan guarantees to help Israel resettle emigrating 0. Shoshana Cardin, the President of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, asked to meet Bush. As Sheila Segal recounts, when Cardin explained that implying that Jewish lobbyists outmuscled America’s President echoed traditional exaggerations about Jewish power and stirred anti-Semitism.  Bush replied, “But I didn’t specifically mention the Jews, did I?” Cardin replied: “You didn’t have to. It was very clear to us and to everyone. It was offensive, and it was personally painful.” Bush, abashed, apologized. So should Friedman.
Friedman, of course, is not the only reporter whose pen often becomes a negatively-charged magic wand to make Israel look ugly. Israel excites much passion and too much exaggeration. Some Israel reporters suffer chronotaraxis — time disorientation – confusing legislation that is proposed with legislation actually enacted. We are currently living through the Israeli version of 2002’s Steven Spielberg-Tom Cruise movie, “Minority Report,” where criminals are punished before committing any crimes, simply for considering them.
Believe it or not, most of the controversial “anti-democratic” laws recently proposed have NOT passed. Nevertheless, hysterical reporting decries these pre-crimes and prematurely eulogizes Israeli democracy, when it is working effectively, resisting many bad initiatives.  I also wonder how foolish the U.S. Congress would look if every ridiculous law proposed made headlines worldwide.
Reporters also suffer from historical hysteria, analogy inflation, overstating the significance of contemporary actions by invoking some legendary game-changer.  Tanya Rosenblit deserves praise for bravely sitting in the front of a gender-segregated bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem, resisting Hareidi harassment.  Gender segregation on buses does not belong in a modern state nor is it required by our ancestral religion. Still, Rosenblit’s actions don’t match Rosa Parks’ heroism. In 1955, Parks, a black woman in a racist South, broke the law, defied convention, shattered what Southerners considered to be the natural order of things when she sat in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.  Similarly, it’s not McCarthyism if someone disagrees with you, even if they hurt your feelings; it’s McCarthyism when a demagogue exploits government and media power to try blacklisting you, ruining your life, imprisoning you.
Once upon a time, exaggerations about Israel cut in Israel’s favor. Just a few decades ago, in the Israel of “Exodus” and Moshe Dayan, every soldier was a Maccabee, every blemish overlooked. The renowned liberal historian Henry Steele Commager praised Zionism on Israel’s tenth anniversary as “benign” and peace-loving, while characterizing Israel’s neighbors as committed to “chauvinism, militarism, and territorial and cultural imperialism.”
Things changed, thanks to a systematic Palestinian propaganda campaign that resonated with a post-1960s, post-liberal, post-modernist ideology – here Glick and I agree. This worldview caricatured Israel as a white Western racist, colonial power, amid automatic sympathy for the weak over the powerful, the non-white over the white, the Third World over the West, anti-colonial nationalism over liberal democratic nationalism. Just as a concave lens makes an object look bigger while a convex lens makes it look smaller, much of world opinion switched lenses from convex to concave when examining Israel. Viewing Israel through this distorting black-versus-white concave lens magnified even minor flaws into seemingly major sins.
These days, many people also see the Hanukkah holiday through one distorting lens or another. It is easy to caricature Hanukkah as the holiday of violence, of fanaticism, turning the Maccabees into Spartan warriors or Second Temple Hareidim. Examining Hanukkah in America, we could distort it as the holiday of mindless consumption or of dangerous assimiliation – with Christmukkah, the Hanukkah Bush, and, yes, Hanukkah Harry.
But Hanukkah’s power and meaning lie in its Zen balance. Was it God or the Maccabees? Yes. Is the triumph military or spiritual? Yes. Is it a national or a religious moment? Yes. Should we indulge by giving gifts, scarfing down sickly sweet doughnuts, ingesting grease-laden latkes – or should we give charity, celebrate with friends and families, delight in our traditions? Again yes.
Hanukkah’s power stems from its proportionality. Israel’s maturity – as a democracy, as a society, as a topic of concern and conversation, and in coping with critics – will also come from a similar search for balance. We need some Zen in our Zionism while reporters need some poise in their prose – even when writing about Israel.

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.

Gil Troy: LETTERS; The New Israel Lobby

New York Times Letters to the Editor, September 27, 2009

There has always been a peace consensus in the pro-Israel community ready to compromise. Until Israel’s critics figure out how to acknowledge the pain and suffering resulting from Palestinian terrorism and exterminationist rhetoric, by pointing the Palestinians and the Arabs toward real change, they will fail to sway those Israelis and Jews that are ready to take a shot at reconciliation.

GIL TROY

Professor of History

McGill University

Montreal

Gil Troy: Don’t cry for us, New York Jewry

Center Field: Don’t cry for us, New York Jewry

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 4-8-09

Reports of distressed American Jews are stacking up faster than airplanes trying to land at La Guardia at rush hour. On a recent visit, lovely, passionate, pro-Israel friends shared their dismay. Some admitted they avoided talking about Israel because “it is too painful.” The epicenter of the worrying – and the disdain – seems to be New York’s Upper West Side, still the capital of liberal American Jewry.

Taking a break during a Tel...

Taking a break during a Tel Aviv Purim party. The foreign headlines overlook the vibrant community life, the warm Jewish holiday observances, the Western comforts, the openness and diversity.
Photo: AP

The latest trigger, of course, is the anti-Israel backlash following the Gaza war. The IDF has withdrawn, Hamas’ rocket fire has resumed, but the condemnations of Israel have intensified. The New York Times, the New York Jew’s Bible, has fed this frenzy. The Times gave splashy, repeated, front-page coverage to rehashing the unsubstantiated rumors about Israeli soldiers brutalizing Palestinians, with no independent reporting. Days later, the damage done, an article buried on page 4 treated the IDF’s defense as a “he-said, she-said” disagreement rather than a strong repudiation, not only by the top brass but by many soldiers who tried hard to minimize civilian casualties.

Good people should be angry with the Palestinians, not embarrassed by Israel. Inon, a 25-year-old law student turned soldier, saw an elderly Palestinian woman in pain during the war. When Israeli medics approached to help, they noticed her suicide bomb belt. “This is what we are up against,” Inon sighed on http://www.soldiersspeakout.com. During my two visits to the Gaza front, most Israeli soldiers I met mentioned “Hadilemot,” the Heblish word for the dilemmas in fighting an enemy cowering behind civilians.

More recently, the lovely story about the Palestinian youth orchestra from Jenin that played for Holocaust survivors in Holon soured when the “moderate” Palestinian Authority shut down the orchestra, banning the conductor from the PA. The Palestinians denounced the conductor and any attempts at “normalization,” which is also why Palestinians face death if they sell Jews land, and many “moderate” Fatah leaders still insist they never recognized Israel’s right to exist.

It is not PC to acknowledge that we are dealing with a different culture and a murderous ideology – the resulting “dilemmot” are heartbreaking, horrible. I remain proud that under these circumstances the number of civilian deaths was far smaller than it would have been with any other army in the world – including America’s. Yes, one wrongful death is too many. But given both sides’ firepower (and Hamas has smuggled in another 70 tons or so since the war ended), that only a few hundred civilians died reflects Israel’s moral and operational discipline.

AFTER 60 YEARS, Israel should no longer be on probation, with its legitimacy questioned in the world, or its popularity among Jews so contingent upon good behavior. American liberals did not question America’s legitimacy even when they hated president George W. Bush. Yet many Jews and non-Jews repudiate Israel entirely because of one action, or one leader. Nationalism, patriotism, morality, usually runs deeper.

This Upper West Side discomfort suggests that if Israel is not the Disneyland in the Desert it promised to be in the 1960s, it is not worth supporting. Yet Israel is more friendly, pleasant and in many ways progressive than it was in the heyday of the kibbutz and Moshe Dayan. Israel today is remarkably functional. with a higher quality of life than New York Times reportage suggests. The headlines overlook the vibrant community life, the warm Jewish holiday observances, the Western comforts, the openness and diversity, let alone the scientific and hi-tech breakthroughs.

At the same time, yes, there are struggles. Ruth Gavison, the Hebrew University law professor and founding president of Metzila, a center for Zionist, Jewish, humanist and liberal thought, embraces the creative tension resulting from forging a state that is Jewish and democratic, that is moral and fights for survival. As Rabbi Daniel Gordis reminds us in his compelling new book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End, the “very name ‘Israel,'” the name Jacob earned after wrestling with the angel, connotes “struggling, grappling, the interaction of the human with what is beyond human.” Gordis proclaims: “The real challenge facing Israel is to produce a society worthy of its name.”

As Americans – and Upper West Siders in particular – adjust to the startling new economic realities, more and more are recognizing that this prolonged, Reagan-Clinton-Bush “Never, Never Land” that is ending seemed to defy the laws of gravity, unrealistically promising a life without struggle. As a result, our collective moral conscience lost its edge – which the new age of austerity may revive.

Similarly, modern Judaism has been dulled. Many Jews have simply stopped “doing Jewish,” because it was too hard, too distracting when there was so much money to be made and so much fun to be had. Many Jewish leaders fed this problem, watering down Judaism, trying to make Jewish life as fluffy as the rest of American life. But this unbearable lightness of being Jewish failed to compel many, who then felt if Jewish values were pale reflections of secular values, why bother? Traditionally, the rabbis taught about “the neshama yetara,” the extra soul acquired on Shabbat. This weekly boost gave Jews a taste of redemption while steeling them for the week’s upcoming hardships.

Too many of us – and I regret to say, too many of my prosperous, self-righteous, Upper West Side friends – have lost that extra soul. Since Yasser Arafat led his people from negotiations toward terrorism, my family and I have set an extra seat at the Seder in memory of one terror victim who is missed at his or her Seder; this year, I am tempted to set an empty place for New York Jews’ deliciously constructive grit, for their neshama yetara.

We need warrior Jews not just worrier Jews. Israelis should justifiably say: “Don’t cry for us New York Jewry (and elsewhere). Our state, for all its challenges, is thriving. Our neighbors – and the world – need fixing.”

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Montreal and Jerusalem.