Center Field: Why we are here

Why we are here in Israel (despite Gaza war)

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 1-12-09

My family and I returned from England on January 2, midway through the second year of our extended Israel adventure. The seventh day of war against Hamas’s rockets added frissons of anxiety to the usual arrival chaos. After an impromptu security check as we deplaned, guards detained one passenger.

Our driver met us, saying, “The situation is rough.” I told my daughter, “We’re going to have to be extra careful wandering around for now.” With a 13-year-old’s defiant logic, she replied “Then why are we here?”

It was a fair question. We were returning from Limmud – a festival of Jewish learning with 900 sessions for 2,000 participants in five days at a bucolic (if freezing) English campus. In that British bubble, or our usual Canadian cocoon, we never worried about suspicious objects or avoided riding on buses.

I gave my daughter a 5:30 a.m. airport answer: “Because good people don’t cut and run when bad guys start bombing.”

Of course, the answer goes deeper.

We are here because the Jewish people have only one homeland, only one Jewish place running on Jewish time, where we belong as a people and are not living by anyone else’s good graces. There is nothing like Jerusalem on a Shabbat, on Sukkot, on Yom Kippur. The tranquility, spirituality, community and history enveloping us and enriching our lives here are unique.

We are here because daily life here is also special. Kids roam comfortably, under neighbors’ watchful, even prying, eyes, as adults build this small, still fledgling state, with such potential, and yes, much room for improvement.

Many of those Israeli traits that Westerners dislike, the pushiness, the incessant improvisations, are the very characteristics that will help win this war and make this experiment work.

We are here because we, like Jerusalem’s many “meaning junkies,” as one friend calls them, seeking more to life than the latest pop culture trends, hoping to root our lives in enduring values.

We are here because when we wander around Jerusalem’s Old City or delight in Tel Aviv’s modernity, when we remove ancient pots from the ground or buy modern artistic knickknacks, we do it with the heroes of Jewish history sitting proudly on our shoulders: Deborah the prophetess or David the king, Sarah Aaronsohn the Nili spy or Menachem Begin the fighter turned peacemaker, Golda Meir the prime minister who also left America’s comforts or David Ben-Gurion, the prime minister who knew when to compromise in accepting the UN partition plan and when to plunge ahead in declaring the state despite American and Jewish calls to wait.

We are here because our great-grandparents dreamed of being here but could not be, because one grandfather fought in the 1948 War of Independence, and another helped smuggle weapons from New York so Israel could be free. For generations Jews have been singing “Next Year in Jerusalem.” This is our time to be in Jerusalem, build Jerusalem and be rebuilt by Jerusalem, not sing about it as if it were some impossible dream.

We are here because the fight against terror knows no boundaries; this month it is Sderot and our cousins’ kibbutz in the Negev, last month it was Mumbai; seven years ago on 9/11 it was my hometown, New York. But here Jews control their own fate, unlike the Lubavitchers in Mumbai who had to wait for the Indian army to get organized, unlike in Montreal where we have to beg to designate firebombing a Jewish day school a hate crime, only to see the perpetrators punished lightly.

We are here because – as I said at the airport – good people cannot flee but must fight evil. Even critics condemning Israel’s supposedly “disproportionate response” implicitly concede that a state is justified in responding to 10,000 rockets terrorizing its citizens over eight years. And I for one, am proud of Israel’s response – only after years of exhausting diplomatic efforts, only after offering the Palestinians a chance to build Gaza by removing the constant struggle with the settlers and the army, only after naive but well-meaning American Jewish philanthropists raised $14 million to donate the burgeoning hothouses the Israelis developed, inviting Palestinians to make Gaza productive rather than a terror center – which Palestinians then trashed. I am proud of Israel’s attempt to minimize civilian casualties even as Hamas terrorists cower behind women and children, behind mosques, hospitals and UN schools.

We are here because if we flee, who are we; if we let others fight for us, what are we; and if none of us fight, where will we – and the world – be? What values would we stand for if we abandoned Jerusalem, as cousin Daniel continues farming on the Gaza border with rockets flying overhead, as our friend Mickey and thousands of others serve their country, the Jewish people and the civilized world so honorably and selflessly?

Israel, the Jewish people’s national project, is a rich tapestry. Every day those of us in Israel, temporarily or permanently, add golden threads to this extraordinary old-new artwork. Some threads may be as short as the ones Birthright Israel participants add in their 10-day stints here, some may only last a year or two, others are lifelong. Others, tragically, are cut short – as we have seen too frequently in this war as well.

This is our moment to spin our Israeli yarn, and add to this magical Jewish tapestry with as many golden cords as we can create for as long as we choose, on our timetable, not cowed by anyone’s threats. And yes, being here will sometimes test our fiber. But a good yarn also means a great story, and we are blessed to be here, now, weaving the tapestry of modern Israel – and helping to star in this grand narrative, one of the amazing adventures of 21st century modern democratic life.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and 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.

Barry Gelman of Houston and Gil Troy of Montreal

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Center Field: The two state solution as the only unhappy alternative

By Gil Troy, JPost, 10-2-08

Some readers objected to the end of my last column on the lessons of Oslo. Most of the column argued that Arab and particularly Palestinian rejectionism destroyed Oslo yet most Westerners could not fathom Palestinian political culture’s destructive and self-destructive addiction to violence. Nevertheless, I concluded, the only solution remains a two-state solution. Critics deemed this claim contradictory.

The two-state solution remains the most logical solution for Israelis and Palestinians because, like the infirmities of old age, it beats the alternative, or in this case, the alternatives. Extremist Palestinians advocate the one-state solution, trusting that masses of Palestinian voters in a secular democratic state would overwhelm Israelis. Across the spectrum, since 1967, many right-wing Israelis have endorsed the status quo, ignoring the psychic, moral, diplomatic, military, political, and economic costs to Israel of controlling millions of hostile non-citizens. A two-state solution can take many forms, including federations with Egypt and Jordan that would mean a three-state or a one and two half-state solution. Somehow, Israel must stop governing millions of Palestinians.

A post-Oslo acceptance of the two-state solution requires launching a new Palestinian entity with low expectations and no illusions, informed by the violence the Oslo process unleashed. In fact, a sophisticated, realistic approach to a Palestinian state should build on two additional failures beyond the Oslo debacle: Ehud Barak’s hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Ariel Sharon’s undemocratic disengagement from Gaza. 

Ironically, of these three recent failures that promised peace but resulted in some form of prolonged war, only the Oslo peace process increased the Israeli death rate in the area under discussion. Israel suffered casualties steadily during its presence in Lebanon, sometimes as many as 20 to 25 soldiers annually. Since then, even including the Second Lebanon war, many fewer have died. Similarly from the start of Yasir Arafat’s renewed war against the Jewish people in 2000, more Israeli soldiers and civilians died in Gaza than the handful who died since the disengagement.

So, yes, the withdrawal from Lebanon emboldened Hizbullah and probably encouraged the Palestinians to believe they could accomplish more with terrorism than with diplomacy. And, yes, the disengagement from Gaza destroyed beautiful communities, disheartened thousands of individual patriots, launched Hamas to power, and subjected Sderot along with other communities in the Western Negev to traumatic, reprehensible bombardments. But the comparative death toll suggests that the alternative to leaving – staying – would have been more costly. The challenge, then, is to do what needs to be done more intelligently, more effectively, and less naively.

Now, many will argue that the West Bank is different, that Judea and Samaria are more integrally connected to the Jewish people than either Southern Lebanon or Gaza, and that, at this point, the rate of anti-Israeli violence is minimal. Moreover, whereas a Hamas-run Gaza can rain Kassams on a small, peripheral community like Sderot, a Hamas-run West Bank could rain more destructive missiles on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport.

Ultimately, a sober, security-minded approach responds to these valid arguments and others by starting with the assumption that clear borders shrewdly and patiently negotiated offer more security than the current mess. Those who dream of Israel’s Biblical boundaries have to acknowledge that millions more Palestinians than Jews streamed to those areas in the twentieth century and that Israel’s security barrier has formalized the demographic realities as of 2000. Given the separation, it is better for Palestinians to control their own destiny than to have Israelis trying to control them. And, especially in today’s climate, the rules of engagement between hostile neighbors are much clearer than the protocols for one nation dominating another.

Had the Gaza disengagement been handled more intelligently, Israel would have had a good example of how to proceed. Ariel Sharon claimed there would be zero-tolerance for violence, that any attacks by air, sea, or land from Gaza would be dealt with severely. After the first post-engagement Kassam flew, Israel needed to respond militarily, close the border, cut off electricity in Gaza, and retake one evacuated settlement. Had Israel responded so aggressively once, maximum twice, the situation probably would not have deteriorated.

Unlike during the Oslo years, Israel should not rush into anything. Israel should approach the two-state solution gradually, with benchmarks of progress toward peace Palestinians could follow. If that sounds uneven, condescending, and high-handed, it also acknowledges the tragic fact that following the events of 2000 to 2004, Israel is the victim and the victor. The Palestinians unleashed the violence – and lost. In the equivalent of suing for peace, they have to demonstrate their readiness to make peace – with Israel free to retreat whenever security threats or violations occur.

A two-state solution could provide moral, diplomatic, and military clarity. Borders are easier to defend when they are clear, not ambiguous. Actions are easier to justify when the moral onus is on one aggressor not a people who play the victim card as an occupied people.

Ronald Reagan, the arch enemy of Communism, negotiated with the Soviets when he saw it was in his country’s best interests to do so. His mantra throughout the negotiations, “Trust but verify” reflected the need to progress with no illusions. Oslo buried many Israelis’ illusions about the short-term prospects of a true peace with the Palestinians, or most of the Arab world. But the Olso-triggered terrorism could not kill the need for progress or the chance, eventually, for some stability. The Oslo peace process assumed good will would develop quickly among the two peoples. A new approach should assume lingering bad faith among Palestinians unless hard evidence suggests otherwise. But bad faith does not preclude enduring stability or serious progress toward a more workable solution. Israel should not withdraw for the sake of the Palestinians, but for the sake of Israel.