After Arizona: Israelis, Americans must make democracy work

Israelis should reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned sense.

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 1-11-11

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Photo by: AP

The Tucson, Arizona rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written a book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and- greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the Right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After president John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with his murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.

Campaign became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”

In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.

Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from Left and Right, against George W. Bush and Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-againstme worldview. As a Democrat who supports gun control, Giffords refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

ISRAELIS SHOULD reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course. Most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation.

Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaux we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on election night 2008 when John McCain and Obama spoke so graciously of each other and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

In Israel, leftists and rightists are capable of demagoguery, demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on the margins, tempered by the civility of the McCains and Obamas, too many shrill voices emanate from the Knesset. Israeli politicians seem to scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner.”

Shas rabbis and other haredim should admit that not all internal critics are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is McCarthyism.

No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by day by ourselves.

Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Prof. Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at attention when the mourning siren sounds on Remembrance Day knows that Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together.

POLITICAL PARTIES work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Giffords’ lifework and for our common good.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

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Essay: Polarized Jews in a depressing election

By GIL TROY , THE JERUSALEM POST, Oct. 23, 2008

Political campaigns are like social stress tests, regularly scheduled exercises that add enough extra pressure on the system to expose weaknesses – and strengths. The long 2008 election has uncovered certain American fault lines. Within the Jewish community, the results of the 2008 electoral stress test have been equally sobering. Partisans from both sides have behaved abominably, demonstrating a growing hysteria and close-mindedness.

Perhaps the most infamous Jewish contribution to this campaign is unproven. Many reporters have claimed the various e-mails accusing Barack Obama of being a Muslim targeted Jews or originated with Jews. There is no solid proof of this. Internet hoaxes, like most urban legends, are hard to track. But anytime I have written anything remotely positive about Obama in the Jewish media, many bloggers have charged that “Barack HUSSEIN Obama” is secretly a Muslim and I am helping this Manchurian candidate deceive America.

The prevalence of this belief in a community supposedly known for its intelligence is dismaying. That neither Obama nor his supporters have eloquently repudiated the use of the accusation of being a Muslim as a slur is depressing. And the charge itself is distracting. More worrying than Obama’s fictional status as a Muslim are his actual actions as a Christian – staying so loyal to the demagogic, unpatriotic, anti-Zionist Reverend Jeremiah Wright for so long. John McCain has refused to mention Obama’s wrongheaded Wright connection, fearing accusations of racism. But Obama’s deep ties to a pastor who trashed America regularly, including in his first sermon after 9/11, remain unexplained and unacceptable.

BEYOND CHOOSING to libel the Democratic nominee for ties he lacks that should not be so damning anyway, many pro-McCain activists have helped perpetuate the stereotype of pro-Israeli Jews as superficial, narrow-minded, right-leaning Johnny One-Notes swooning for any conservative pol who genuflects toward Israel. McCain is a thoughtful friend of Israel who understands the Islamicist and Iranian threats. People who care about Israel – and America – have many legitimate reasons for supporting him.

But the fact that so many fell in line with his vice presidential choice, despite Sarah Palin’s stunning lack of foreign policy experience, is disconcerting. Even if she does display an Israeli flag in her office, trusting such an amateur during these treacherous times was irresponsible. Being an effective pro-Israel politician requires more than waving the blue-and-white flag. It requires a subtle, sophisticated approach to international politics that by serving America’s best interests will also protect the Jewish state. Choosing Palin cleverly energized the conservative base, but it undermined McCain’s argument that experience counts, especially in foreign policy.

Unfortunately, many Obama supporters have behaved equally poorly. Many Jews have mimicked Obama’s undemocratic tendency to treat any criticisms of him as smears. The attempts of the new J-Street lobby to ban anti-Obama advertisements in Jewish papers are just the latest illustrations of the left’s disturbingly illiberal tendency to squelch debate. It is one thing to condemn the false reports about Obama’s religion. But Republicans have the right to raise questions about issues, including the many emissaries from the Democratic Party’s loony anti-Zionist left who have advised Obama, especially on foreign policy and were jettisoned one by one as controversy arose.

MOREOVER, THOSE Jewish Democrats who discouraged Senator Hillary Clinton from attending the anti-Iran rally in September, then helped get Sarah Palin disinvited, did a disservice to America and Israel. The absurd claim that Palin’s presence would have made the rally “political” revealed a childish understanding of American politics. Had Clinton and Palin stood together as two of America’s most prominent women politicians temporarily suspending their jousting to unite against a nuclear Iran, the rally could have been far more effective. The behavior of Clinton – and of too many Jewish Democrats – suggested they hated Palin and the Republicans more than they hated Ahmadinejad and his genocidal threats against Israel and America.

A more consistently disturbing distortion once again emerged in this campaign. Although, as with so many trends, this position is difficult to quantify, many pro-Obama Jews indicated that they support abortion much more intensely than they support Israel. Many statements from prominent Jews justifying their support for Obama first mentioned choice – despite the slim chances of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion. Liberalism has long been the reigning American Jewish theology. But this campaign confirmed the centrality of the pro-abortion stance within that liberalism.

FINALLY, THE “Great Schlep” showdown between the comedians Sarah Silverman and Jackie Mason added another level of absurdity to the Jewish role in 2008. The ethnic stereotyping underlying this debate – while funny – was more suited to our grandparents’ Jewish community in the 1950s. Silverman’s assumption that young, right-thinking (meaning left-leaning) Jews had to “schlep” their “bubbies and zaides” in Florida to vote Democratic, reflected a misreading of most Florida Jews’ pro-Obama tendencies. Jackie Mason’s response was equally simplistic and maddening. In America’s celebrity-besotted culture, both videos were taken far too seriously, generating numerous YouTube viewings and media reports.

On one level, it is unrealistic during the campaign to expect Republicans to criticize McCain’s vice presidential choice or mainstream Democrats to confront their party’s Jimmy Carter wing. But the campaign uncovered an underlying intolerance laced with nastiness rooted in a growing polarization dividing American Jews.

Increasingly, the divisions are multiple and reinforcing. A vocal minority of Jews are more religious, more pro-Israel and more Republican. These “red” Jews are as different and as distant from the “blue Jews” as “red state” Americans are from “blue staters.”

Just as America will need to heal after the election, the Jewish community must heal too. We need to learn how to disagree without being disagreeable – and how to recognize common interests even within a big, broad, diverse and disputatious community.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents was just published by Basic Books.

Playing the partisan

By  Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-23-08

A JPost.com exclusive blog

Clinton addresses the...

Senator Hillary Clinton’s refusal to attend the major rally called for Monday September 22 in New York against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s UN appearance is outrageous – as is the organizers’ subsequent decision to disinvite Sarah Palin.

Back in August, Senator Clinton had agreed to attend. She abruptly pulled out this week because the Republican nominee Sarah Palin also agreed to appear. This move suggests that Senator Clinton hates Governor Palin and the Republicans more than she hates Iran’s Ahmadinejad, despite his sexism, homophobia and advocacy of genocide.

The explanation Senator Clinton’s office gave for the shift was petulant and ignorant. Apparently, Clinton felt blindsided by news of Palin’s appearance. Palin’s “attendance was news to us, and this was never billed to us as a partisan political event,” Mrs. Clinton’s spokesman, Philippe Reines, told the New York Times. “Senator Clinton will therefore not be attending.” Upset by the controversy, a day later the organizers declared that no elected officials would attend, to keep the event “nonpartisan.”

But as Senators John McCain and Barack Obama showed in their joint appearance on September 11, sometimes political rivals have to stop opposing each other, even during election season. Imagine how powerful a message the American people would have sent to Iran had their two leading women politicians stood together during the presidential campaign against Ahmadinejad and Iran’s nuclear-hungry mullahocracy.

Of course, Palin’s planned appearance was not simply altruistic and of course it had partisan aims. Politicians never stop prospecting for votes, especially during tough elections. And Palin’s willingness to protest against Ahmadinejad was part of her quest for legitimacy in foreign policy as well as a play for Jewish votes.

Hillary Clinton’s initial decision to attend the rally also was partisan as was her decision to boycott this important round in the popular fight against Iran. It is not surprising that Clinton recoiled at the thought of helping Palin’s quest in any way, but it is disappointing that Clinton succumbed to those feelings, given the seriousness of the Iranian threat.

The organizers did not need the rally to be nonpartisan but bipartisan. A nonpartisan rally limits the guest list to apolitical people such as the writer Elie Wiesel, who is planning to lend his powerful moral voice to the effort. But the organizers initially understood that in the United States, power resides with partisan politicians.

The rally would have been most effective had it been bipartisan – with influential representatives from both sides of the aisle. It is surprising that Senator Clinton and then the organizers failed to understand that distinction between bipartisan and nonpartisan. It is also unrealistic for Senator Clinton to walk around pretending that Sarah Palin has not become America’s newest political superstar.

The comic sensation of the week is a skit from NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler imitating Palin and Clinton, respectively. The skit imagines the two of them uniting to battle sexism. On Monday, life could have outdone art.

In fact, in addition to denouncing Ahmadinejad, Senator Hillary Clinton could have helped remind Americans of the many things that unite them, even during this campaign. Instead, Hillary Clinton played the partisan – and diminished her own moral standing in the process.

From the center: Why are Republicans guilty of tokenism – while Democrats produce historic breakthroughs?

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, September 10, 2008

When Barack Obama accepted the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, many Americans cheered his historic breakthrough. For the first time in American history, a major political party had nominated a black man for president. Even many Obama opponents transcended partisanship to celebrate this extraordinary – and hopefully healing – achievement.

Republican vice presidential...

Republican vice presidential candidate, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
Photo: AP

Yet the next day, when John McCain designated Alaska’s young governor, Sarah Palin, as his running mate, Democrats cried: “tokenism.” Democrats said McCain’s was manipulating the many American women mourning Hillary Clinton’s defeat as a setback in their quest to break the ultimate “glass ceiling” of the White House. Even many Republicans squirmed at McCain’s crassness.

Yet there seems to be a contradiction. Why are Republicans deemed guilty of tokenism when they promote women or blacks, while Democratic “diversity” promotions are hailed as historic breakthroughs? Obamaniacs have a simple answer. They claim that Barack Obama – and Hillary Clinton – are both qualified to be president and Sarah Palin is not. Moreover, Democrats say that Obama did not run on his race, and Clinton did not run on her gender, but that Palin was picked solely because she is female.

BOTH SIDES of the story are more complicated. The 44-year-old Palin, indeed, is a first-term governor of a marginal state, but the 47-year-old Obama is a first-term US senator, so he lacks any serious executive experience. And while Obama did not run on his race alone, he would not have won the primaries without African-Americans’ nearly-unanimous support.

Similarly, Palin’s gender factored into McCain’s equation in choosing her, but so far she has been more useful in solidifying his right-wing evangelical base. Moreover, the older Democratic women who disdain Palin rejoiced in 1984 when Walter Mondale nominated the inexperienced Congresswoman Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate.

Partisanship and ideology feed this hypocrisy. Just as Democrats charged tokenism when President George H.W. Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, an anti-affirmative action African-American to the Supreme Court, Democrats are furious that Palin is pro-life. She is so pro-life she did not abort her fifth child, even though she knew he would be born with Down syndrome. Now Palin seems to be encouraging her pregnant 17-year-old daughter to get married and keep the love child. These anti-abortion bona fides thrilled the Christian right, and have already improved the Republican Convention dynamics for McCain.

Obama has campaigned as a leader of all Americans, not the great black hope. But, inevitably, in multicultural democracies, the lines blur. Whenever an individual from a distinct, historically oppressed subgroup bursts through a glass ceiling, it is an individual and group achievement.

Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of hypocrisy. Republicans are usually quicker to disdain tokenism, yet they frequently make strategic choices based on race, religion, ethnicity or gender. Democrats worship “diversity” as a core ideal, but too frequently that means a rainbow of men and women representing different races, religions, ethnicities, all marching in ideological lockstep, never tolerating diversity of thought too. How supporting abortion became so central to the women’s movement is an interesting historical question for another time, but to many women, a female pro-life vice president is as unacceptable as an anti-Zionist Jewish president would be to Jews.

AMERICAN JEWS are as inconsistent on this score as any other group. Jews crave acceptance as “normal” Americans while taking particular naches in every Jewish political appointee, in every American Jewish success. American Jews want non-Jews to accept them as Americans, without noticing that American Jews vote for their own kind disproportionately and often help each other out generously.

A popular if possibly apocryphal story about America’s first Jewish cabinet member, Oscar Straus, recalls that when president Theodore Roosevelt met leaders of the American Jewish community celebrating the appointment, he told them what they wanted to hear. TR insisted: “I chose Oscar Straus because he was the best man for the job.” Then, the legendary banker Jacob Schiff, now old and deaf, thanked the president, saying that when president Roosevelt told him it was time to have a Jew in the cabinet, Oscar Straus was the obvious choice.

In Israel, too, the politics of ethnicity and gender can get intense – and inconsistent. Moshe Katsav delighted in his role as a successful Sephardi role model, then immediately – and falsely – played the racism card when his despicable behavior created a scandal. And Tzipi Livni’s on-again-off-again flirtation with the legacy of Golda Meir reflects her complicated juggling act among being treated like “one of the boys,” tapping into some “girl power” and staying true to her Revisionist anti-Golda roots.

Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to win a congressional seat, ran for president in 1972. She insisted : “I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not a candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman, and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people of America…” Alas, if anyone remembers Chisholm today, it is because of her race and gender.

Still, hers is an admirable formula. And so, with Barack Obama having received the Democratic nomination, Americans and freedom-loving people everywhere honor his individual achievement, appreciate his impressive abilities independent of his race, yet also welcome this breakthrough for people of color and oppressed minorities everywhere. Similarly, as long as Sarah Palin appears more like Al Gore than Dan Quayle, she should be hailed as an impressive individual and a leading pioneer.

We need a little constructive hypocrisy on this issue. People should rise and fall on their merits, but in this imperfect world, if they bring their subgroup a little more pride and standing, that is an added bonus.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents.