Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.

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Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)
 

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

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What Romney Should Have Learned in Israel

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-31-12

Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres — then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.

Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.

We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they buil t a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.

Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.

Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.

Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.

So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.

Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.

End Price Tag Terrorism – and their Culture of Lawlessness

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-4-11

During these ten days of repentance, when Jews should reflect on past sins to avoid future ones, some extremist hooligans chose instead to sin anew.  “Price tag” terrorists burned a mosque in the northern Israeli village of Tuba Zangria, graffiting the messages “price tag” and “revenge” nearby.  I am proud that members of the special police task force recently formed to fight these extremists reportedly arrested some suspects already.  I am also proud that a furious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an equally indignant President Shimon Peres, condemned the attack.  We all must combat these Price Tag Terrorists, repelling them from our midst, shunning them socially, repudiating them ideologically, while insisting the government hunt down and punish these felons, to stop this madness immediately.

Price Tag Terrorists — and they fit the definition of terrorists, making political points by violently attacking civilian and symbolic targets — have struck before, targeting other mosques, vandalizing army jeeps, and harassing leftwing activists. In condemning these crooks, we must reject the culture of lawlessness festering in the West Bank. Too frequently, political crimes Israeli Jews commit there are overlooked or under-investigated.  Such crimes of intimidation and the double legal standards must end.

There is no wiggle room morally here.  These price tag assaults are an affront to humanity, democracy, Judaism, Zionism, and Jewish history. The perpetrators are not heroes.  Their actions are not legitimate, explainable, or defensible. Too many of us have fought too hard against terrorism – demanding moral clarity from the PA, the UN, the EU, and other terrorist enablers — to pussyfoot.  Just as we enumerate our sins in plural on Yom Kippur, taking responsibility communally, we are all particularly diminished, we are multiply ashamed, we are additionally demeaned because these madmen believe they are acting in our name – and enablers encourage that delusion.

Burning a mosque – or any religious institution – is a particularly inhumane act. Houses of worship traditionally have been places of refuge, neutral sites, benefiting everyone.  We need sacred spaces and shared sanctuaries, common areas of respect. I want synagogues to be specially protected.  I gladly respect mosques and churches in return.

Price tag vigilantes assail the core democratic values consecrated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These thugs violate Israel’s commitment to equal rights and mutual respect for all religions, while ignoring the people’s voice.  Taking the law into their own hands, these outlaws bypass democracy, defy the government, insult voting citizens and civil society, acting like traitors not patriots.

These hooligans may as well eat pork on Yom Kippur while driving in their cars and blasting the radio – they have already flouted Judaism so flagrantly, why put on a show of piety? Rather than dressing in white on Yom Kippur they should dress in ash black and blood red, representing the destruction they have brought upon innocents and the shame they bring upon as all.  If they call themselves “religious,” their rabbis should renounce these heinous acts and twisted souls.

Moreover, we who cherish tradition must emphasize that ethics come before ritual, personal morality trumps public piety, to stop the masquerade of criminals hiding terrorist acts – or other crimes –behind yarmulkes and kosher food, prayer books and Bibles.  Our rabbis must remind us – and we, alas, occasionally must remind them – that you cannot be a good Jew –by any interpretation or denomination – without being a good person first. During these ten days of repentance, we must reconcile with other people before reconciling with God.

Although these crooks – along with some extremist reporters –fancy themselves “extremist Zionists” – they are deeply anti-Zionist.  While dishonoring Zionist values, confirming the world’s worst prejudices about Zionism, they also betray the movement’s essential character. There is no room in the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl, the proud Zionism of Zeev Jabotinsky, the Labor Zionism of A.D. Gordon, or the religious Zionism of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook for burning mosques – or attacking soldiers, harassing dissidents, destroying olive groves, or any other Price Tag Terrorist crimes.  Such villainy is not why a Jewish State was created. Nor does this Jewish state need such behavior to be protected.

Jewish history teaches that those in the majority must limit their power and respect minority rights, avoiding abuses like these Price Tag crimes. We should be proud that despite centuries of provocations, even under hellish circumstances, Jews usually maintained their moral compasses.  Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie “Inglorious Basterds” was so offensive because he missed that essential historical lesson. In depicting Jews during Hitler’s era as vengeful mass murderers themselves, he posited a moral equivalence between victimizer and victim. Historically, we resisted that temptation – and have chided Palestinians and their supporters who claim their grievances forced them to become suicide bombers.  Today, we should continue following our ancestors’ glorious example not Tarantino or Palestinian perversity.

We are all moral actors, we all have moral choice. Palestinian terrorists choose to commit mass murder – justifiably earning moral opprobrium. Vigilante Price Tag Terrorists choose to commit their crimes – also earning contempt, although their milder crimes of arson, graffiti, and harassment are not comparable to murder.  Many of us have long wanted the Palestinian masses to condemn crimes committed in their names.  We must do the same, as Israelis are doing, refusing to be blinded by false communal solidarity or shoddy self-pitying logic. Rabbis and right-wingers should take the lead, given that previous suspects emerged from their communities.

We should help rebuild that mosque – and embrace the traumatized citizens of Tuba Zangria. We should protect the political activists who were harassed.  And we should demand that the same laws against violence apply to all under Israel’s jurisdiction, ending this outrage wherein Price Tag Terrorists overlook the price we all pay for their crimes.

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 most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com