We don’t need Noam Shalit’s sunshine patriotism in politics

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-10-12

Gilad Shalit is home and, we all hope, recovering.  Apparently his father, Noam Shalit, has not fully recovered from the experience.  It seems he so liked the status of what we should now call celebritus erroneous– celebrity by tragic mistake – that he has decided to exploit it and plunge into politics.

So many Israelis were justifiably torn by the one-for-1027 Shalit deal.  On the one hand, Shalit’s homecoming was an extraordinary moment, a symbol of Israel at its best.  The nation acted as one small family in welcoming Gilad home, delighting in his freedom, respecting – as best we could – his privacy.  In most countries, a single hostage would have been ignored or not redeemed.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that if you save one life you save the world — that position was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s intimacy, Israel’s Jewishness, Israel’s idealism, Israel’s solidarity – and Israel’s vulnerability.

And that, of course, was the flip side.  Shalit’s homecoming was fraught with potential danger, the fears that these 1027 terrorists, feeling vindicated, would return to their criminal ways, the concern that Hamas was once again getting a gift from the Israeli government it did not deserve, the fear that in saving one life, so many others would actually be lost.  In a Jewish State, where the Talmudic dictum still holds — that we should not pay exorbitant ransoms so we don’t encourage the practice of kidnapping – the lopsided swap was just not tenable.  Anyone in Israel that day felt Israel’s frustration, Israel’s fear, Israel’s anger, Israel’s dividedness – and Israel’s vulnerability.

Moreover, the families of those killed, maimed or traumatized by some of the 1027 terrorists were asked to forego their own desires to see justice served and accept a deal to save Gilad Shalit’s life – and help the nation move on.

This calculus of terror is difficult to fathom.  These choices Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others had to make are truly excruciating.  We should direct our anger where it belongs at the terrorists, the Palestinian culture of terror, and the world culture of appeasement that foments these crimes and places Israel in such terrible binds.

But on the eve of that extraordinary, memorable, once-in-a-lifetime, all blue-and-white-all- the-time kind of day, Noam Shalit lost me.  Days before his son came home, but once it was, as they say, a done deal, Shalit was photographed restoring the Israeli flag on the roof of his family home.  Apparently, he had taken it down two years earlier in frustration with the government’s inaction on his son’s file.  It was the wrong gesture by the wrong man at the wrong time.

With that one photo, Noam Shalit lost me – and many others.  Just when he was appealing to all Israelis to be patriotic, and accept the barely acceptable, when he needed the grieving families of terror victims to accept their country’s action, right or wrong, Shalit risked appearing to be what Thomas Paine called “a sunshine patriot,” essentially not asking what he could do for his country but judging his country only by what it did for him and his family.

Had he taken Bibi Netanyahu’s picture down two years ago and restored it that day, I would have said “fine.”  We judge politicians by what they have done for us lately. But in lowering, then raising the flag, Shalit suggested his patriotism was contingent, his love of Israel depended on whether the government served his needs.  That made him appear ungracious when he was pulling the patriotic card on others – and makes him unsuitable to enter politics.  Rather symbolizing  “Eretz Yisrael HaYaffa,” the beautiful Israel of rolling Galilee hills, casual, shoulder-shrugging, we-shall-do-what-it-takes patriotism, and warm, values-rich homes, the gesture suggested the ugly, “magiya li” post-Zionist culture, the “I deserve it” guy – or gal – who grabs aggressively, voraciously, with a sense of entitlement rather than humility.

I am sorry to say, that if he makes it that far, Noam Shalit will encounter many greedy politicians in the Knesset who epitomize the “magiya li” approach.  But until that moment on the roof, Noam Shalit and his family to me had always embodied the lovelier ideal – and his statement in explaining his motivation in entering politics, hoping to tap the idealism he encountered during his family’s quest, reflects his desire to be seen that way.

I know it is very difficult to judge a family that has endured the trauma the Shalits endured – and still suffer.  And I held my fire when I first saw the photograph, during Gilad Shalit’s euphoric homecoming.  But in leveraging his celebrity status from his son’s kidnapping into a political career, Noam Shalit has made his actions, statements and gestures during the Gilad Come Home campaign fair game – and this gesture deserves condemnation.

It is also unfortunate that Noam Shalit is willing to sacrifice his iconic apolitical status in a country that desperately needs national heroes untainted by the particularly ugly way Israelis play politics.   “In some ways it seems he fell in love with the camera. It changes the whole context of the story, the way you perceive all the characters,” says G., 28. He is an American oleh who served in the armored corps from March 2006 to August 2007, “a couple of drafts after Gilad” and shared officers in common, but had “deeply mixed feelings” about the exchange itself.

Israel, of course, is a free country, and the Shalit exchange came with no strings attached to the family, no demands that they behave any better or worse than anyone else.  And there is a deep democratic yearning for redemption from citizen politicians, leaders who were thrust into the spotlight, and rose to the occasion.  But the Shalit episode is still so fresh, emotions remain so raw, worries persist, that Noam Shalit’s timing as well as the decision itself deserve scrutiny.  This frank welcome, of course, will provide the initiation he needs into his new career.

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.

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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