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.

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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.