The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters


By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 4-3-12

When I was young, the Bizarro back-of-the-book feature in Superman comics fascinated me. In the mirror-image Bizarro universe, Superman was ugly and mean, while words’ meanings were reversed. “Bad” meant “good” in Bizarro talk – long before my Boston friends taught me that “wicked” could mean cool. These days, when I hear the Blame Israel First crowd’s relentless criticism of Israel, I often feel I have stumbled into that back-of-the-book Bizarro feature. Some of the criticisms are valid, but they end up exaggerated and distorted.

That, ultimately, explains the failure of Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism. Beinart is too smart and too much of an insider to make baseless complaints.  But he goes too far repeatedly, magnifying Israel and the Jewish community’s flaws until they are, Bizarro-style, unrecognizable, grotesque. Thus, typically, he cannot simply criticize Israeli policies on the West Bank or toward Israeli Arabs. He has to echo the trendy “racism” and “apartheid” rhetoric. He views the mutually fraught relations between two competing national groups, Arabs and Jews, through the distorting lens of “anti-Arab racism.” And manipulatively invoking his South African roots to sharpen the moral condemnation, he equates “occupation” with “apartheid,” despite being unable to find in Israel any of the formal racial distinctions which defined South African apartheid.

The journalist Jeffrey Goldberg has popularized the term “dog-whistling” to mean using “coded ambiguous language” to telegraph bigoted positions.  The “racist” and “apartheid” accusations send subliminal messages to the Left of demonization and delegitimization, without having to go that far explicitly.  Why this keeps on happening with Israel, why the compulsive need to turn an imperfect state worthy of some criticism into a Bizarro grotesquerie raises the discussion about Israel’s critics from the normal to the pathological – revealing more about them and their need to feel morally superior by picking on what Bernard Lewis calls “the fashionable enemy” than about the Jewish State.

Similarly, Beinart caricatures American Jewry and American Zionism as imprisoned in a state of “perpetual victimhood.” I share his concern with the unfortunate American Jewish tendency to invest more in Holocaust memorials than in day schools, and criticize those Israelis and Zionists who are too obsessed with the Holocaust. Still, Zionism is not only about victimization. A more triumphalist American Jewish narrative and Israeli narrative are at play simultaneously – with a much richer Jewish and Zionist conversation than the woe-is-me cliché reading of Jewish holidays, “they tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.”

One book unintentionally offering a tikun, a healing counter to Beinart’s bile, is a sophisticated discussion of the Jewish laws of conversion recently published by David Ellenson and Daniel Gordis. Pledges of Jewish Allegiance: Conversion, Law and Policymaking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Orthodox Responsa, celebrates the rich, delightful mishmash of modern Jewish identity. Rabbi Ellenson is the President of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform seminary. Rabbi Gordis – a friend of mine – studied at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and lives an Orthodox lifestyle. Together, these two scholars analyzed Orthodox readings of the conversion question.

Two important conclusions emerge. First, Ellenson and Gordis have uncovered a wide array of Orthodox responses, sensitive to social conditions, political realities, and changing times, while rooted in the Halacha, the law.  These findings prove that Judaism is complex, fluid and flexible, refuting the distorted ultra-Orthodox perspective which pretends there is one unchanging and always hyper-rigorous interpretation.

The second conclusion more directly repudiates Beinart’s victimization claim. In analyzing Israeli religious responsa, Gordis and Ellenson discovered that “their attitudes toward conversion have been palpably affected by the return of Jewish statehood…. Some clearly understood their roles as public policymakers and not merely as halakhic decisors.” The Jewish return to statehood is an extraordinary phenomenon. It has triggered the revival of Hebrew, the creation of a new culture, fascinating improvisations in secular law and Jewish law. To miss how that fosters a positive new Jewish identity, inspiring Jews in Israel and abroad, is to focus on the Crisis of Zionism so much you miss the Opportunity of Zionism. Seeing Israel as one big Yad Vashem, one big Holocaust memorial, overlooks the Wall and the malls, the nature and the technology, the vitality and the creativity, in short, Israeli life at its fullest.

The Passover holiday similarly resists caricature. Only focusing on Pharaoh and slavery misses more than half the holiday. Passover is not just about the bread of affliction and the paschal sacrifice, it is the Festival of Freedom and the Holiday of Spring. The four cups of wine start with leaving Egypt and delivery from slavery, then build to a redemptive promise and a nation-building process. Stopping with the victimization would be like celebrating Thanksgiving by remembering the Pilgrims’ cold winter but forgetting the turkey and sweet potatoes.

Unfortunately, anyone aware of Jewish history feels the pain of centuries of persecution. This month, we have fresh graves in Israel of young Jews once again killed in Europe for being Jews – this time, in Tolouse, France. And this seder marks the tenth anniversary of the nightmarish Passover of 2002, when a Palestinian suicide bomber destroyed the Park Hotel seder in Netanya.

My late grandfather used to shake with rage during “shfoch chamatcha,” the “pour out your wrath” prayer after the Seder meal, denouncing our oppressors. But he would tremble with joy just minutes later when singing the final round of seder songs. That ability to laugh and sing, to live and build, is an essential Jewish trait that has animated Zionism for decades. Those who only see the hurt, without seeing the healing, are the Bizarros of today.  I, for one, wish my grandfather were around to pour out his Polish-honed wrath on them too.

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.

The crime: Illegal enveloping in a tallit

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-26-09

Just days after, in all probability, the first Jew since the oppressive Soviet Union collapsed was arrested for wearing a tallit and carrying a Torah, the outrage has dimmed. We have moved on to the next headline. But the Israel Police’s obnoxious overreaching at the Western Wall last week was outrageous. The arrest of Nofrat Frankel in the women’s section of the Wall, and, if reports are correct, the fact that she was held in custody for two-and-a-half hours, insults all Israelis who believe in the rule of law and freedom of religion, no matter how religious or non-religious.

What charge did the police consider while holding her – illegal enveloping in a prayer shawl? Premeditated praying? Unlicensed layning (reading of the Torah)? Now, the police claim they detained her for her own safety. But someone detained for her own safety would be held for two-and-a-half minutes at the Jaffa Gate police station, far from the Wall. Moreover, when extremist hoodlums attacked Elazar Stern, the IDF’s human resources chief, and his family, at the Wall following the Gaza disengagement four years ago, the police showed they know the difference between protecting and arresting someone.

Yes, the situation is complicated. I would not encourage my daughters to parade in a tallit and carry a Torah in the women’s section of the Western Wall, just as I would not encourage my sons to walk onto the women’s side, despite the fact that for centuries Jews prayed at the wall, with men and women mingling freely. I support the compromise whereby women and mixed groups of men and women can pray at the Southern Wall – under Robinson’s Arch, while the Western Wall Plaza follows the protocols of an Orthodox synagogue.

I believe the egalitarians got the better deal. I was bar mitzvahed at the Wall, and remember my mother and grandmother straining to watch. My daughter read Torah on the Thursday before her bat mitzvah under Robinson’s Arch, and we all enjoyed an equal view. Moreover, the Western Wall plaza is sanitized, cleansed of its rocky, rubble-y history to accommodate thousands. The Southern Wall area feels more authentic, historic, with debris from the destruction 1900 years ago seemingly frozen in mid-fall. The compromise works – although freer access to the Southern Wall, and a greater effort by non-Orthodox Jews to visit this equally holy site would validate it more – even though I appreciate the current limited number of visitors preserves the shrine’s charm.

It is unfortunate but understandable that Judaism’s holiest site divides rather than unites. Both sides must remember that we are the product of our history, of the warring ideologies that still have not found a uniform resolution of the profound conflict between tradition and modernity. Still, while I would counsel Nofrat Frankel to respect the Orthodox side of the Wall, I remain appalled that the police used one of the state’s ultimate powers – the power to suspend a citizen’s freedom – when Frankel simply was asserting one of her inherent freedoms, that of religious expression.

Last spring, when Cambridge police arrested Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates after an unfortunate confrontation, the president of the United States himself stepped in and asserted leadership. After first addressing the issue in a hasty, unproductive way, Barack Obama invited Gates and the Cambridge police officer who arrested him for a healing beer at the White House. Race flummoxes Americans as much as religion flummoxes Israelis. As the first African-American president, and Gates’ friend, Barack Obama had particular insight and empathy. In Israel’s fractured political system, with too many small parties holding the government hostage, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu – or any other leader – did not dare to wade into last Wednesday’s mess.

This dodge is triply unfortunate. On religious questions and other issues, Israel badly needs the kind of moral leadership the President of the United States – of either party – frequently provides. Israelis must encourage their leaders, both through substantive political reform and a more subtle mandate, to tackle controversial issues and lead. Moreover civility cannot be assumed in a polyglot democracy with people originating from dozens of different countries, with varying political cultures. Civility must be cultivated. Political leaders can either serve as noxious weeds in the democratic garden or, when really effective, Miracle Gro.

Finally, the questions of religious freedom, separation of church and state, respect for women in Judaism, loom large in Israel-Diaspora relations – particularly among the most engaged non-Orthodox North American Jews. Rather than alienating them through foolish police actions, Israel should be working with them to establish strong multi-generational, cross-Atlantic ties.

Perhaps, then, with the Prime Minister shirking his duties to lead, the mediation should be left to the capable Diaspora Affairs Minister, Yuli Edelstein. Edelstein is a mensch, an observant Jew, with a commitment to religious freedom cemented by time in Soviet prisons. Perhaps he can reconcile both sides.

Meanwhile, the police officers – all along the chain of command – responsible for this stupid, outrageous arrest should undergo American-style sensitivity training – with a Jerusalem twist. I would sentence them, among other educational undertakings, to a Shabbat or two at Jerusalem’s egalitarian synagogues, a short walk from their Jaffa Gate headquarters. Let them experience the joyous, skilled, female-led singing at Shira Chadasha during kabbalat shabbat, the easy equality among tallit-clad women at Moreshet Avraham or Kol HaNishma, the expert women’s Torah readings, especially by bat mitzvah girls, at a growing number of Orthodox synagogues such as Yedidya. Perhaps, rather than just learning that women wrapped in prayer shawls and carrying Torahs should never be arrested, these officers might be inspired to embrace the model of dynamic, committed, pious joyous, egalitarian Judaism Nofrat Frankel was defending – and so many Israeli Jews and Diaspora Jews find so meaningful.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave 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.