No, Israel Isn’t Turning into an Iran-Style Theocracy


By Gil Troy, The New Republic, 2-2-12

The demonizing of Israel, dismissing the democratic Jewish state as a right-wing, religious, racist project, continues. The latest storyline describes ultra-Orthodox Israelis—known in Hebrew as haredim—as medieval Neanderthals rapidly converting Israel into an Iran-style theocracy. This popular caricature encourages those liberals seeking excuses to stop supporting Israel. The appalling images of bearded, black-hatted zealots spitting on eight-year-olds, forcing women to the back of public buses, and parading their children with yellow stars in protest, are all being read as tea leaves predicting Israel’s imminent degeneration into Haredistan. But what if the opposite is true? Haredi rampages seem more like impotent attempts to build a firewall against modernity than harbingers of conquest.

Change is coming to a community defined by its rejection of change. Haredim are joining Israeli society. Haredi vocational programs are proliferating, as government generosity wanes. Over 3000 haredi soldiers have now served in Israel’s army, including a combat-ready unit. Many haredi women, who increasingly are highly educated and working, are demanding more respect while continuing to maintain gender distinctions. The debate about television and internet usage is intensifying, as modern popular culture seeps into the society, which is not hermetically sealed.

While haredi triumphalists emphasize their high birthrate, the outflow of the last two centuries since the Enlightenment continues. Though statistics are elusive, communal anxiety abounds about the apostates. Most haredim, while denying the hemorrhaging, have close relatives who are no longer haredi. The deserters are numerous enough to have inspired a television drama series: Simanei She’eilah (question marks), which tracks the stories of haredi runaways living in a Tel Aviv halfway house, debuted last year.

The Zaka organization provides the most dramatic—and inspiring—example of haredi engagement with Israeli society. Zaka became famous during the second intifada, dispatching ultra-Orthodox crews who cleaned up the spilled blood and pieces of flesh strewn about after bombings. Their reverence and thoroughness impressed normally hostile secular Israelis. Zaka’s heroism, along with the suicide bombings in haredi neighborhoods, reminded all Israelis of their shared destiny. Today, more than 1500 Zaka volunteers nationwide serve in ambulances and participate in search and rescue operations. A Zaka team in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake worked through the Sabbath, saving lives.

One haredi friend, with two sons who served in the army, warns that articles praising Zaka volunteers and haredi soldiers often tout them as the “good” haredim for doing what haredim usually don’t do. “Note the many good deeds done by haredim doing what they normally do, too,” he urges, emphasizing the community’s charitable spirit and elaborate self-help networks. These spawned two leading social service organizations that serve all Israelis: Yad Eliezer established soup kitchens and distributed relief supplies during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, while Yad Sarah’s nationwide network assists the disabled, the elderly, and the housebound.

In the popular media, in both Israel and abroad, images of rock-throwing, gender-segregating, yellow-star-wearing extremists obscure these good works—and a more accurate picture. Noah Efron, a Bar Ilan University philosopher and historian, has explored the ingrained prejudice and popular revulsion against haredim. “The Jewish fight against ultra-Orthodoxy is part of a long-running struggle about what legitimately counts as Jewish,” Professor Efron says. “The modern forms of Judaism have so won the day that this need to continue fighting the battle seems neurotic.” Nevertheless, emphasizing the bad behavior of haredi Jews—who epitomize the stereotypical Jew—makes modern Jews and non-Jews feel better, less judged, suggesting that “these ostensibly superior Jews are actually inferior,” Efron says. “We continually prove our own probity to ourselves by proving the depravity of those people.”

More broadly, these stories provoke secular Westerners’ condescension toward religious people. Reading many of the American and European blogs about the haredi tensions this winter, Efron has been “stunned” by “the depths of the hatred and the crassness of the arguments. The attacks reflect a toxic mix of old style anti-Semitism and contemporary anti-Zionism, with a new style modern anti-anything-that-is-not-secular-liberal-and-Western added.”

Haredim—and their leaders—are, of course, partly responsible for the broad anger against them. Many lack civic spirit. Few serve in the army. The separation of women often entails inequality. Their politicians exploit Israel’s fragmented coalition-governing system. A culture of lawlessness has grown in many communities, and their holier-than-thou attitude toward fellow citizens rankles.

Nevertheless, even in Bet Shemesh, the town where the haredi men spat on the eight-year-old schoolgirl, the true story is more complex than headlines suggest. “Haredi residents are furious at the recent developments and resent that they are being blamed for the acts of a tiny minority,” the haredi paper, HaModia reported. This doesn’t excuse haredi leaders: In a hierarchical community that grants rabbis so much power, the rabbis must do a better job of restraining the bullies. But as Rabbi Yeshaya Ehrenreich, a member of the Beit Shemesh City Council, told the newspaper, “The haredim who live in the same neighborhoods as these [fringe elements] suffer more than anyone else.”

In Bet Shemesh and elsewhere, the fight often pits ultra-Orthodox against modern Orthodox, not necessarily religious versus secular. Rachel Azaria is a young activist who surprised everyone by winning a seat on Jerusalem’s City Council in the last election. She has fought gender segregation on buses and the banning of female images from bus ads, while working to make the Western Wall welcoming to all visitors and not the world’s largest outdoor haredi synagogue. A religious woman, the mother of three young children, Azaria insists she is not anti-haredi, and that many haredim have encouraged her. “I am the address for haredim,” she explains, “because I am willing to get my hands dirty.” She adds: “I want to affirm to the haredim that they are a part of us—we are all here to stay.”

Statistical projections warning of haredi hordes overwhelming “normal” Israel stoke the media hysteria. But statistical trends are not historical facts. In researching his 2003 book Real Jews: Secular Versus Ultra-Orthodox: The Struggle for Jewish Identity in Israel, Professor Efron traced these Chicken Little statistical warnings to the 1960s. “It has become a staple media trope,” Efron says, “with some predicting the tipping point in 10 years time, others seven, sometimes 15. It should have happened in 1970, then again, and again, but never did.” And while demographers insist that now the threat is real, the steady, underpublicized exit from the community may provide the counter that the million-person Russian immigration provided a decade ago. This attrition accounts for the mirror-image standoff. Haredi and non-haredi Israelis both feel embattled, threatened by the other, and abused by the other’s advantages.

This political dynamic, rooted in the 1990s, persists. Most histories of the haredim in Israel emphasize Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion’s initial deal to exempt a few Torah scholars from military duty. Two other moments were also critical. The counter-revolution of 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud broke the Labor Party’s 29-year political monopoly, fragmented the Israeli political market, boosting the haredim. During the 1990s, demagogues in the ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the anti-ultra-Orthodox party Shinui both discovered the political benefits of battling each other. The result has been growing polarization—and a feeling among the haredim that they are a despised minority, whose standing is resented and imperiled.

The recent spate of spats may be a good sign. Constructive reform sometimes begins with seemingly destructive clashes. Rachel Azaria and other activists no longer feel alone. They believe Israelis are now addressing this issue, which requires visionary leadership. The experience of the 1990s suggest that demagoguery and demonization will not help. What’s needed is statesmanship with a soft touch, a rarity in Israel’s dyspeptic political culture. The right accommodation with the haredim will balance values that are frequently in tension for Americans too. It is difficult reconciling majority rule with minority rights, freedom of religion with equality for women, group prerogatives with individual autonomy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could secure a second term with a more solid majority if he produced a new civic covenant between haredim and Israeli society. But Netanyahu will have to stop acting like a Chicago alderman and start acting like a national leader. Rather than tending his coalition above all else, he must take risks. He should leverage the generous subsidies the haredim currently enjoy to force the rabbis to control the bullies and accept more responsibilities as Israeli citizens. Needed reforms include teaching a core curriculum of general subjects in schools that receive state funding, limiting the number of army exemptions, and increasing vocational training. In return, Netanyahu should pass legislation guaranteeing haredim a separate school system and particular exemptions, so their every benefit is not perennially in doubt. And Netanyahu must move all Israelis beyond classical Zionism’s monolithic, tanned, bronzed secular “New Jews” finding unity in uniformity; today’s multicultural Israelis should celebrate diversity while sharing common civic commitments.

Just as particular historical forces shaped this haredi moment, a new covenant can foster a healthier relationship. Israelis await such wise governance, in this realm and many others.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Fellow.


Ian McEwan Missed the Real Israel

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, February 22, 2011

The delegitimization campaign tries to rob Israel of its normalcy, poisoning the conversational stream about Israel so everything becomes about settlements, occupation, conflict, violence.  This Palestinian conceit makes everything about Israel be about Palestinians, exaggerating their hardships, caricaturing Israelis as uniquely evil, rooting every Middle East problem in one local conflict. Those of us seeking a peaceful two-state solution should explain that both a delegitimized Israel and a Palestinian culture of victimization are obstacles to peace.   Woe-is-me self-pity and righteous indignation discourage generosity; feeling demonized or demonizing your enemy prevents compromise.


To resolve this conflict – like all conflicts – truth, nuance, subtlety, complexity, criticisms, contradictions and moral clarity are our friends.  In that spirit we should welcome the British novelist Ian McEwan, who accepted the Jerusalem Prize at Sunday night’s opening ceremony of the Jerusalem Book Fair as a friend to Israelis and Palestinians. Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat sounded pathetic in telling McEwan: “We appreciate your decision to come to Israel despite many pressures.” She should have welcomed him more grandly, less defensively, to a country that “embrace[s] freedom of thought and open discourse,” which administers “the Jerusalem Prize as a tribute” to its “precious tradition of a democracy of ideas” – which was how McEwan described Israel.

In accepting the prestigious prize, McEwan impressed the crowd with his magnificent soul and eloquent tongue — an artist who believes in the novel’s liberating power and a novelist who believes art can reveal truth. Nevertheless, when he stopped talking literature to talk politics, he sounded naive.

Unlike most British intellectuals who simply condemn Israel, McEwan acknowledged that “hostile neighbors” threaten Israel. He condemned Hamas’s charter for incorporating “the toxic fakery of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and repudiated “the nihilism of the suicide bomber, of rockets fired blindly into towns … of an extinctionist policy towards Israel.”

Still, seeking “balance,” his indictment of Israel was sloppy and superficial. He said “It is nihilism to make a long term prison camp of the Gaza Strip,” exaggerating Gazans’ suffering and implicitly blaming Israel when the 2005 disengagement could have spawned a free, prosperous Gaza had the Palestinians built one. He blamed “Nihilism” for “unleash[ing] the tsunami of concrete across the occupied territories,” when it was self-preservation. And he claimed “East Jerusalem is steadily being drained of its Palestinian inhabitants,” when East Jerusalem’s Palestinian population jumped from 66,000 in 1967 to 268,000 in 2008. B’tselem reports 22 houses demolished with 191 people displaced in 2010, hardly a “drain.”

This is not to claim that Israel is beyond criticism – zero demolitions and displacements are ideal. But incorrect albeit trendy criticisms undermine McEwan’s search for “creative” paths to peace. More deluded was his claim that Jerusalem “lacks … small talk,” because “politics enters every corner of existence.”  Perhaps when a famous novelist defies boycott threats to visit, he only hears politics. But Israel’s charm – and part of the conflict’s messiness – comes from being a country of small talk, middling lives, and tall tales, making it livable for Arab and Jew alike.

No, Mr. McEwan, Israel is not only defined by the conflict. Seeing Israel through that lens exclusively is like seeing England only throughLondon’s fog – everything appears grayer, grimmer.

Israel’s rich, complex, sometimes depressing sometimes inspiring but surprisingly normal life was demonstrated dramatically in Tel Aviv, the same night McEwan spoke in Jerusalem. A premiere of “Strangers No More,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school showcased an Israel of messy problems and creative solutions, of soaring aspirations and impressive achievements.

Bialik-Rogozin educates more than 800 children from 48 different countries who have landed in Israel as refugees or as children of migrant workers.  The film follows three students through a school year – one 12-year-old from Eritrea never attended school before. This school of hugs and hope accepts kids the world has rejected into a loving, stimulating, embracing multicultural refuge where Hebrew functions as the cultural touchstone and linguistic safety zone. “In education, there [are] no strangers,” the principal, Karen Tal, explains. “Everyone has a special story,” their own traumas. “We cannot change the past.” But “we can influence our future.”

This prophetic principal, these gallant teachers, undertake heroic efforts for “their kids,” making house calls, buying them bicycles, arranging visas for parents. “This is my life, this school,” Mohammad from Darfur exclaims. “I feel like I’m with my family here.”

The legendary hi tech investor Yossi Vardi supports the school. Vardi is a myth-busting pioneer with a heart of gold and a platinum rolodex, er contact list. Years ago, he proved you could make money with Israeli start-ups. Now, by mobilizing his many friends and considerable resources to teach these kids, he is showing that Israelis can take responsibility for themselves philanthropically – and that not everything about Israel is about Palestinians.

Noting that for the last three years, an Israeli film concerning some aspect of “HaMatzav,” the situation, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, the President and Founder of S-Curve Records, Steve Greenberg, ended the evening by praising the film – and Vardi’s army of do-gooders — for focusing on the real Israel. Even more important, Greenberg said, these visionaries prove that no matter what Israel’s challenges, the Jewish impulse toward “Tikun Olam” can mend the world – making great art out of life’s difficulties while using great art to heal life’s difficulties – just as McEwan and other great novelists do.

Vardi’s army proves that Israel is not merely an Embattled State or a Start-Up Nation, but what we at the Shalom Hartman Institute call a Values Nation.  Vardi’s people, like many Israelis, live in prose, making small talk – while also making grand, healing gestures which ennoble us all and reveal the real Israel.

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.”

Cohen’s karma defeats boycotters

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 10-15-09

In late September, nearly 50,000 Israelis massed into the National Stadium in Ramat Gan to hear the Canadian troubadour Leonard Cohen sing.

Not only did the sponsors add an additional 1,000 seats at the last minute, but many in the crowd seemed quite familiar with Cohen’s oeuvre – and not just Hallelujah.

But perhaps most impressive, Cohen’s magic worked in the Middle East. After the concert, as thousands streamed into the overflowing parking lots, as people pulled out of their typically Israeli haphazard parking spots – it took us more than 45 minutes to leave the complex – a modern miracle occurred: I didn’t hear one shout, one sustained beep, one impatient “Nu kvar….” Cohen’s karma proved contagious.

Tragically, most of our Palestinian neighbours weren’t exposed to Cohen’s charms. The simple fact that he was willing to play a concert in Tel Aviv made Cohen persona non grata in the Palestinian Authority. He had offered to play in Ramallah, too. But as part of the hysterical, misanthropic BDS – boycott, divestment and sanctions – movement targeting Israel, Palestinians spurned his offer. Undeterred, Cohen donated the $2 million the concert generated to a special foundation he established, whose major beneficiary is the Parents Circle, a group of bereaved Israelis and Palestinians who have lost loved ones in the conflict. Cohen repeatedly praised this “holy, holy” group during his transfixing 3-1/4-hour-long concert, each time triggering sustained applause.

With the Palestinians’ ridiculous, impotent Cohen ban coming days after the failed attempt to ruin the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) because it dared to celebrate Tel Aviv’s 100th anniversary, the pro-Palestinian movement seems to be reaching new lows. Palestinians and their fellow travellers are trying to treat Israel as a country with cooties – the schoolyard phrase captures just how immature and self-destructive this move is. As a result, even peace-loving Zen Buddhist monks like Cohen or the many left-leaning, pro-Palestinian Israelis in the Tel Aviv film community are deemed radioactive, because they dare to interact with the Jewish state.

This is a cultural intifadah, an all-out war, not against “the occupation” or the “Gaza operation,” but against Israel itself. Just as Palestinian suicide bombers undermined their own propaganda yelling about “the settlements” by attacking Tel Aviv and Haifa, treating all of Israel as a “settlement,” these boycott bullies find everything or anyone Israeli repulsive, no matter where they stand politically. This blacklist approach treats potential allies as enemies, dooming any chance for peace. It’s hard to be open to compromise and reconciliation when your existence is threatened, when the very essence of who you are seems to trigger disgust in others.

Fortunately, the most unlikely of celebrities demonstrated how to fight this hatred. After she joined in condemning TIFF, Jane Fonda had second thoughts. Responding to a letter against the boycott signed by Jerry Seinfeld, Sacha Baron Cohen and others, Fonda realized that this proposed boycott against the Jewish state would harm the peace process and was like the despicable Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s.

People in the pro-Israel community take note: comparing the boycott to the blacklist was a masterstroke. It showed that the best way to fight these affronts is to master the insider language of the community in question and demonstrate – what is often true – that the attack on Israel is an attack on core liberal values, in this case, freedom of expression and association.

Joining Fonda in resisting the hate was Cohen. He showed that the good people of the world cannot be cowed. Cohen ended his concert by raising his hands solemnly, reaching back into his personal and communal tradition as a Kohen, a priest, and reciting the priestly benediction.

Wouldn’t it have been grand to have thousands of Israelis and Palestinians together absorbing that blessing, with its moving final lines, “May the Lord lift up his face to you and grant you peace.”

Now, when you deprive yourself of these and other cultural opportunities, preferring to perpetuate hatred instead, we must ask, “Who is the loser?” – in both its meanings.

Now Tel Aviv is under attack, at the Toronto Film Festival

By Gil Troy, The Jewish Chronicle, 9-10-09

Jane Fonda: supported a boycott of films about Tel Aviv.

Jane Fonda: supported a boycott of films about Tel Aviv

In the relentless attempt to demonise and de-legitimise Israel, the latest flashpoint is the Toronto International Family Festival.

The TIFF is toasting Tel Aviv’s 100th birthday as “a young, dynamic city that, like Toronto, celebrates diversity”.

In protest, the Canadian film-maker John Greyson withdrew his film from the festival, comparing honouring Tel Aviv films to “celebrating Montgomery buses in 1963… Chilean wines in 1973… or South African fruit in 1991”.

Predictably, various leftist celebrities, including Jane Fonda, Danny Glover and David Byrne, cheered Greyson’s boycott.

The TIFF is a world-class cultural festival, running this year from September 10-19. In 2008, the festival screened 312 films from 64 different countries. The trendy celebrity protest violates the festival’s spirit.

More disturbing, it delivers another blow to the peace process by advancing an exterminationist agenda against the Jewish state. If even a benign celebration of Tel Aviv’s film-making community — which is quite pro-Palestinian — is unacceptable, then nothing Israeli is OK.

Comparing Israel to the American South’s Jim Crow regime, Pinochet’s dictatorship and South African apartheid makes the protestors’ aims clear: they wish to tar Israel with the crime of racism and seek its obliteration.

These ignoramuses try to read racial conflict into what is a clash of two nationalisms. They fail to acknowledge that there are light-skinned Palestinians and dark-skinned Israelis, let alone that Israel has welcomed African refugees often persecuted by racist Arabs.

In distorting the truth, these critics march to the beat of a propagandists’ drum rooted in Arab antisemitism, Soviet anti-Zionism, and Nazi racism.

This is not to say that all criticism of Israel is illegitimate. But the “Zionism is racism” libel, which the UN General Assembly embraced in 1975, had these illegitimate ideological ancestors.

If these people truly want peace, they should learn from the history of the conflict that Israel makes peace when it feels comfortable, not threatened. Those who seek a true two-state solution must stop delegitimising either nation.

Israelis learned this in accepting the Oslo Peace Process of the 1990s. Unfortunately, too many Palestinians and their allies resist this lesson and campaign for Israel’s isolation and annihilation.

Israel is not perfect. But celebrating Tel Aviv at the TIFF should have been an opportunity to toast its diversity, democracy and creativity. The critics’ myopia reflects their bias. We must delegitimise these delegitimisers, highlighting the cesspools which spawned their one-sided enmity and the risk they pose to peace in the Middle East.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal, Canada