Despite the Eilat tragedy, Israel programs heal

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-9-12

Last week’s Eilat tragedy is a nightmare scenario those of us working in informal education dread.  A troubled participant on an extended Israel experience program, William Hershkovitz, murdered Armando Abed, a 33-year-old sous-chef at Eilat’s Leonard Club hotel, in a workplace dispute. Security forces then shot and killed Hershkovitz.  Acting responsibly, the Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky promised a full inquiry into how this troubled young man ended up on the “Israel Way” program, which is part of the Jewish Agency for Israel’s successful Masa initiative, which has subsidized 70,000 young Jews’ extended stays in Israel since 2003.

I can save Sharansky and his JAFI colleagues time and money. The only inquiry really required should scrutinize the hotel’s security training — if initial reports are accurate and Hershkovitz wrestled the gun away from a security guard. Beyond that, neither the Jewish Agency nor “Israel Way” is responsible. Moreover, I regret to say, a repeat of such violence, while as rare and anomalous as this first incident, is not really preventable.

Modern Western civilization craves order, abhors messiness and takes the smooth functioning of life for granted.  When something goes wrong, we demand explanations, establish commissions, and try to prevent a recurrence. But screening procedures for such programs are necessarily cursory – resources are limited, the focus is on recruitment more than rejection, and, as in all successful educational interactions, goodwill is generally assumed.<

Examining the far more rigorous college selection process also proves that these processes are not predictors.  Some troubled people are well-practiced in covering up their violent tendencies. Sometimes, disturbed behavior emerges abruptly, with little warning.  Moreover, the mental health crisis is so acute among young people today that it is virtually impossible to distinguish the many unhappy ones from the violently disturbed.

We tend to overlook it in two worlds I inhabit – the Israel program world and the university universe – but those of us working with twenty-somethings are working with masses of emotionally fragile young people. So many of our program participants and students have scarred psyches, are traumatized by broken families, and take psychotropic drugs just to endure.  We are experiencing but mostly ignoring epidemic levels of loneliness, rootlessness, alienation, anxiety, depression, and all kinds of dysfunction. My friends who are university mental health counselors, camp directors, social workers or psychologists working with this age group are deeply worried.  By contrast, universities in particular appear to be in denial about this widespread and acute problem.

At first glance, this epidemic does not make sense. Even amid this prolonged recession, our society is the wealthiest and freest society in history. Never before have so many people enjoyed so much autonomy, so much prosperity, so many toys, so many prerogatives. This good life and these extraordinary liberties were supposed to facilitate the pursuit of happiness, not the spread of misery.

But something is seriously wrong. Too many are overdosing on ultimately unsatisfying indulgences, on alienating technologies, on illusory consumer choices.

In many ways, Israel programs are responses to this mass misery. The programs do occasionally stress some participants and Israel experiences cannot substitute for the serious psychological counseling some need. But as facilitators in the process of identity formation, the programs’ popularity stems from their widespread success in propelling most participants on journeys toward greater rootedness, deeper meaning, and more fulfilling lives.

Natan Sharansky himself has written so eloquently in his 2008 book Defending Identity about the way being a part of a larger communal story helps anchor individuals, most of whom ultimately want their lives to count for something significant, grander than simply surviving.

In his latest book, The Promise of Israel: Why Its Seemingly Greatest Weakness is Actually its Greatest Strength, my friend Rabbi Daniel Gordis makes the powerful case for Zionism itself, saying that Israel stands for a vision of enriching, anchoring, traditional particularism rather than empty, alienating, modernist universalism.  Gordis shows how embracing a national model, in this case a Jewish national model, is actually the most effective way to build a life of idealism that does the world good. By being comfortable in your own skin, by being connected to your own people, by buying into your own particular values framework, you can then change the world for the better, and service humanity – working with your communal comrades and building on enduring traditions.

Positing a Zionist response to North American emptiness requires subtlety not arrogance. Every individual has a biography and no one’s personal misery should become cannon fodder for ideologues.  Moreover, championing this aspect of Zionist ideology as an answer to a North American challenge should not send Zionist ideologues back to the old negating-the-Diaspora model. A true partnership encourages constructive criticism as well as splendid synthesis. Just as Zionism seeks an ideal mix of the best of the West and the gems of Judaism, so, too, both the Israeli and North American Jewish communities should seek to learn from each other’s strengths and weaknesses.

Still, there is a cost to the identity annihilation, to the cutting of ties, that the American sociologist Robert Bellah has identified as the defining model for maturing in America, especially among elites.  The notion that growing up entails going beyond tradition, family, values, community rather than growing into them has helped spread this psychic stress.

So, yes, the commission investigating the Eilat murder should do its work. But the commission should not overreact and burden Israel programs with unnecessary, unwieldy admissions procedures that cannot predict that which remains unpredictable. And the commission must remember that these anchoring, orienting, meaning-seeking, Israel programs are offering important, compelling, creative solutions to the broader problem which so many responsible adults are simply ignoring or denying.

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 next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press in the fall.

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Israelis and Americans converge and diverge in summertime mourning

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-24-12

In traveling this week from Israel to the United States, my family and I visited two wounded countries, recoiling from different faces of the evil that bedevils our world. Last week, Israel’s chofesh hagadol, grand summer vacation, was ruined by the terrorist who destroyed an Israeli tour bus in Burgas, Bulgaria. Days later, the `”Joker” gunman who shot up a Colorado movie theatre during the Batman premiere, assaulted all Americans who usually enjoy such leisure pursuits without fearing violence, and without the security guards who have become ubiquitous wherever Israelis gather in large numbers. As these two nations united in mourning, certain differences also emerged, as Israelis lamented external dangers, and Americans confronted internal threats.

Both sister democracies, both proud peoples, rallied around their scarred citizens, and shared communally in the individual anguish and anger, which for some will remain forever. Israelis kept on repeating the story of the 42 year old who finally became pregnant after years of trying, of the two sets of best friends off on a summer lark killed by what was probably an Iranian and Hezbollah operative.  Americans – including President Barack Obama who visited Aurora, Colorado – talked about “Stephanie,” the 21-year-old who, with no military training, put her finger on the bullet wound in her friend Allie Young’s neck, to stanch the bleeding, and refused to flee the theatre, despite her friend’s pleas to save herself.  Both survived.

Some of us read such stories obsessively, trying to personalize the horror beyond the statistical death tolls of six here, twelve there. We seek stories of everyday heroism to inspire ourselves and, in my case, share with my children, in our own attempt to vanquish the evil. Others simply turn away, finding the grief too overwhelming.

Beyond this range of human reactions, each story propelled each society onto a different political, ideological, and existential search for meaning. For Israelis, this was one of those nightmarish moments which brought back all the pain from the wave of Palestinian terror that destroyed the Oslo Peace Process a decade ago. The unique Israeli infrastructure of logistical and emotional support that kicks in with its organizational array from Zaka to Mada, the media memes and themes, all stirred emotions that are constantly roiling just below the surface of the Israeli body politic, which still suffers from collective post-traumatic stress syndrome following Palestinian terrorists’ amoral assault on basic human hopes and assumptions ten years ago. Even more disturbing, we again saw the international double standard at work, as UN officials condemned the “bombing” without using the t-word, terrorist, and even the US helped host a UN-based counter-terrorism conference that excluded Israel.  These insults left Israelis feeling abused by the terrorism death cult flourishing among Palestinians, Iranians, and Islamists, and abandoned by a world that often enables such violence yet somehow blames Israelis even when citizens simply trying to enjoy themselves at a beachside resort are targeted.

Americans struggled with different traumas, as the newspapers told the story of an honors science student turned mass murderer while authorities tallied up the 6000 rounds of ammunition, bullet proof vests, and high capacity “hundred round drum magazine” that this homicidal maniac purchased with just a few clicks of his computer.  Two of the most beautiful byproducts of American nationalism, the Constitution and the Internet, helped yield horrifically ugly results.

More profoundly, as Americans asked “why?” many resurrected the question from the 1960s – is ours a “sick society?” With faith lost in Wall Street, Capitol Hill, the Oval Office; with relationships disposable, values contingent, optimism lagging, and the economy still flagging, many Americans are scared. If America had the right leaders, such violence could provide a much-needed wakeup call. Alas, neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have shown that kind of skill or vision this year.

As my children and I prepare to observe the Ninth of Av, commemorating the two holy temples’ destructions, while visiting Washington DC this weekend, I see a similar parallelism. When I am in Jerusalem, during the endless summertime fast, I feel our enemies’ oppression most intensely, as I contemplate the litany of horrors that have stricken the Jewish people on the Ninth of Av, culminating in the Holocaust.  When I am in Washington, I think more about exile than oppression. What little anti-Semitism there is in America is so mild compared to the European and Arab variations, the American Jewish experience has been so darned positive overall, that it is hard to feel targeted in the land of the free.  What kind of an exile is it, when it has become so voluntary, and so delightful?

In fact, I usually have serious problems with Tisha Ba’av.  I do not know whether it is more absurd to mourn so intensely in rebuilt and reunified Jerusalem or in the proud, free capital of the most pro-Israel and pro-Jewish superpower in history, which is populated by Jews who live there happily and thrive.  While I recall the story of the soldier in Napoleon’s army, who impressed the great emperor by mourning his people’s loss from 2000 years earlier so intensely – “this is an eternal people,” Napoleon supposedly said — I frequently fear all this breast-beating about our past traumas invites neurosis.

Then Bulgaria happens. And Aurora happens.  Following both crimes, my Tisha Ba’av this year will be particularly resonant. I will mourn the losses the Jewish people have sustained from unreasoning, often broadly enabled, anti-Semitism. And I will appreciate the opportunity to root my children and myself in a more enduring story of loss and rebirth, in a deeper set of values which includes memory, which can anchor the soul, even if the result is occasional anguish and perpetual mourning programmed into our calendar.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Institute Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his next book “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism is Racism,” will be published this fall.