Announcement: Gil Troy, Open Zion 2.0

Open Zion 2.0

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-4-12

By , 9-4-12

When Open Zion launched a few months ago, it had three staffers: myself and two enormously talented recent college graduates, Elisheva Goldberg and Raphael Magarik. With their combination of intellectual curiosity, tireless energy, commitment to the Jewish people and passion for justice and human dignity, Elisheva and Raffi helped launch a blog whose traffic has grown five-fold since its creation. Sadly for me, however, I always knew that they would not stay more than a year, and both have now gone to Israel, where they are working on behalf of the same liberal democratic Zionist vision that lies at the core of this blog. Luckily, they will both continue to write for us from there.

Starting today, we inaugurate a new Open Zion team. It starts with Gil Troy. Gil is a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute and a professor of history at McGill University. He’s also author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and the forthcoming Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism. He has been a frequent contributor to Open Zion over the past few months, and now joins us as editor-at-large. Joining Gil is Ali Gharib, most recently national security reporter for thinkprogress.org, the website of the Center for American Progress, who will join the site as senior editor. We are also lucky to be joined by assistant editor Sigal Samuel, a recent graduate of the University of British Columbia who has worked at the Jerusalem Post and the American Jewish World Service.

Open Zion is an experiment. It is a blog with a passionate commitment to Jewish identity, Jewish culture and Jewish religion that believes just as passionately that the debate about the future of the Jewish state should be open to everyone, whether they share that background and commitment or not. It is a blog whose core belief is that justice, dignity and safety for both Israelis and Palestinians requires a division of the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean into two democratic states, one Jewish and one Palestinian. Yet it welcomes opposing views, believing that the principles of liberal Zionism cannot be simply assumed, but must rather be defended in respectful discussion with critics from both left and right. In our short existence, we have tried to live those principles, publishing writers as diverse as the Palestinian historian Rashid Khalidi and the Deputy Speaker of the Knesset from Likud, Danny Danon. As we said in our founding statement, we do not draw red lines; we debate them.

Gil, Ali and Sigal continue this commitment to serious, lively debate among people of varying perspectives and backgrounds. Gil is an historian of American politics, a scholar of Zionism, an observant Jew, a resident of Jerusalem and a keen observer of Israeli society and its relationship with the diaspora. Ali is a devoted secularist raised in the suburbs of Washington, DC by parents who fled the Iranian revolution. He is also among the most astute bloggers on American politics, Middle Eastern politics, and the intersection between the two writing today. Sigal was born in Montreal to a family of Mizrahi Jewish descent, studied in yeshivas in both Israel and North America, and now writes about Jewish texts, feminist theory and arts and culture.

With Americans debating whom to elect president, Israelis debating war with Iran and Palestinians debating another statehood bid at the United Nations, this promises to be a dramatic, divisive, and perhaps terrifying, fall. With Gil, Ali and Sigal’s help, our goal is to continue to create a space that surrounds these dramas with criticism, analysis and intense but civil debate. We hope that on Twitter and Facebook and through comment threads and reader submissions, you’ll join in.

Peter Beinart is editor in chief of Open Zion, a blog about Israel, Palestine, and the Jewish future at The Daily Beast. He is the author of The Crisis of Zionism (Times Books).

Advertisements

The Bizarro Universe of the Blame Israel Firsters

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

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.