Israel’s Allergy to the Arab Spring—Justified Again

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-13-12

When the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt in January 2011, Israel’s cautious response did not play well. Many Israel critics—always quick to see Israel as abandoning democracy—decided that Israel’s worries were about democracy itself. Rather, the concerns were about how this particular series of popular revolts would play out in the Middle East cauldron. Moreover, most American experts and politicians, ignoring decades of ugly anti-Americanism and Islamism on the proverbial “Arab Street,” viewed the Arab revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere as the best of Thomas Paine, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and their favorite blogger combined.

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

 

Israel’s anxiety then—and today’s unhappily confirmed fears—reflected a closer reading of the dynamics within each Arab country and throughout the Muslim universe. American hopes were rooted in a two-centuries-long American belief that the rest of the world wants to replicate their revolution, spiced up with a longstanding romantic view of the Arab world, especially among elites. This came even after the decades-long phenomenon of Arafatian terrorism, Islamist fundamentalism, the rise of Hamas, the trauma of 9/11.

Now, nearly two years after that politically correct euphoria, Americans are burying an ambassador to Libya and three colleagues, defending the embassy in Yemen in nearly hand-to-hand combat, and—surprise, surprise—disappointed by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government’s tepid response to the rabid mobs menacing the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Meanwhile, Israel has a newly unstable border with the Sinai, an even colder peace with Egypt, and an expanded role as the Middle East scapegoat.

One can fear the Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of Islamism, the ugly, ubiquitous, frequently violent, anti-American and anti-Zionist demagoguery poisoning the Arab world without fearing democracy, or pining away for Hosni Mubarak and Muamaar Qaddafi. Change is frequently difficult and by definition unstable. Things can still shift for the better. But to help facilitate a necessary change in the Middle East, to help Egypt, Libya and other countries evolve into more stable, more democratic, more free, more humane entities, Western policymakers need to be clear-eyed and not romantic, tough without being dogmatic, and far-sighted rather than myopic. I, for one, am still waiting for such leaders to emerge, from any country, from anywhere along the political spectrum.

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

Americans and Israel After 9/11

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-11-12

Shortly after the horrific 9/11 attacks, Canadian government agency invited a group of McGill University professors to provide an off-the-record briefing explaining what had occurred. One professor after another blamed the assault on one American sin after another. Crossbreeding elitist anti-Americanism with narcissistic academic theorizing, the Central American specialist mentioned America’s assault on Nicaragua in the 1980s; the Africanist blamed America’s neglect of Africa; and so on. When it was my turn, I said, “I think I was watching the wrong channel that day—perhaps NBC not CBC. What I saw was that al Qaeda attacked America, yet you are all blaming the victim.”

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)

Doves are released next to a monument dedicated to the victims of the September 11 attacks in the U.S. during a ceremony outside Jerusalem (Menahem Kahana / AFP /Getty Images)
 

Eleven years later, I remember that exchange as a warning to those of us who wish to understand 9/11’s significance to Israel. Viewing those events through a blue-and-white prism risks distortions, especially given the black-clouded fury of those days and today’s misty haze of forgotten memories. Still, it does seem that then—and now—the 9/11 terrorist attacks served as a propellant for some Americans and Jews, bonding them ever more intensely with Israel. While for others, 9/11 ultimately served as a repellent, especially after the ugly fight over America’s war in Iraq.

On that awful day, many Americans immediately thought of Israel. People talked, for example, about learning Israeli security techniques. They felt a common destiny, a shared anguish, a reinforced sense of values. They started paying more attention to the wave of Palestinian terror Israel had been enduring for a year already—especially after CNN aired images of Palestinians dancing after the Twin Towers’ collapse.

Moreover, 9/11 heralded a Bush’s administration shift toward Israel’s response Palestinian terror. September 11 was a crucial step in Israel gaining American approval for military incursions in the West Bank in April 2002. Subsequently, strategic, diplomatic and military cooperation between the U.S. and Israel in their common war against terror further bonded the two countries—and many of their people.

At the same time, 9/11 ultimately propelled the Bush administration into the Iraq War. The divisive fight over the invasion distanced some from Israel. First, there were those who believed that it was America’s pro-Israel orientation that landed American soldiers in Baghdad. Some who did not buy that narrative were still so sour on Bush that his increasingly ardent support for Israel became a toxic embrace. To these people—and again, I am giving impressions not statistical analysis—Israel and Iraq became neoconservative projects. This neoconning of Israel alienated some Americans, including some American Jews, from the Jewish State.

Today, many foreign policy issues, especially those concerning the Middle East, shake out between those who worry about another 9/11 and those who fear another Iraq. Even though Barack Obama as President has done much to blur the lines by approving the assault on Osama Bin Laden and deploying drones against terrorists while ending the Iraq war, this division persists. The memories of 9/11 do provide more glue in the America-Israel relationship, even as the lingering effects of the Iraq debate strain the friendship. We can also see the impact in the current debate about Iran. Those who focus on 9/11’s lessons champion aggressive preventative action. Those who remember the Iraq War debacle are more skeptical of American motives and the military’s ability to produce desired outcomes.

On this eleventh anniversary of 9/11, in the broad, compassionate, national spirit that emerged on that painful day, each faction should learn a bit from the other, rather than simply refuting each others’ claims. Both regarding Israel and the rest of the world, those who worry about another 9/11  are correct—there are evil forces that need aggressive policing. But those fearing another Iraq War are also correct—the world is far too complex for us to dictate desired outcomes, with complete confidence, all the time.

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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.

History’s handcuffs: The Iraq and Lebanon wars feed skepticism about attacking Iran

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-11-12

As the debate rages over Iran’s nuclear intentions – and Israel’s options, both military and otherwise – we need to acknowledge three recent moments that are making many people doubt the wisdom of an Israeli strike against Iran’s nuclear facilities.  Both Israeli and American policymakers need to be aware of the dark, nearly blinding, shadow of recent history, because in our 24/7 media world, responding to those fears is an essential part of telling the right story. And getting it right is not just spin. It is of strategic value in democracies like the United States and Israel.

Those supporting a military option against Iraq have invoked Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler, Jimmy Carter’s indulgence of the Ayatollahs, and the West’s tendency to tolerate dictators as negative examples. They have mentioned the fight against Nazism, the resistance that ultimately defeated the Soviets in the Cold War, and Israel’s super-successful, surprise-strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear facilities as positive examples.  Bullies crumble, the optimistic chorus suggests, and democracies rise to the challenge, when necessary.  Having done it successfully before, the reasoning goes, Israel, and the United States can and should do it again.

Many Americans, however, are doubly traumatized by the Iraq war, which began in March, 2003 but was triggered by the September 11th terrorist attacks.  Most important, many continue to believe that George W. Bush lied America into the conflict. The absence of WMDs – Weapons of Mass Destruction — suggests to them that Bush manipulated the data and imagined a Saddam Hussein weapons program where none existed, to drag America into war.

The sorry spectacle of the most credible member of the Bush Administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, making the case for war and WMDs before the United Nations Security Council, seemingly confirms the impression that the whole buildup to the war was a farce. The WMD story seems to be a cover for a VMA – a Very Mad America after the 9/11 trauma – and, unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu is closer to George W. Bush in the public credibility scale than he is to where Colin Powell was in public trust and esteem before the unfound weapons debacle.

There are two alternative scenarios. First, that there were WMDs and they were hidden, perhaps in Syria, which is what Israeli intelligence seemed to believe. And second, the fact that British intelligence, Israeli intelligence, and Colin Powell himself believed Saddam Hussein’s WMD posturing, suggests to me – and to others – that the liar was Saddam not Bush.  Saddam Hussein overdid his con, convincing credible people that he was further ahead in his weapons development than he was, and paid for it with his regime and his life.  That interpretation treats Bush and company as themselves gullible not venal. Still, whatever your interpretation, the Iraq war first teaches skepticism regarding claims that one regime or another is “close” to nuclear capability.

The second lesson of the Iraq War is even more sobering. Historians have long taught that even though many nations frequently go to war to preserve the status quo – the status quo is every war’s one guaranteed victim.  The Iraq War reinforced that lesson dramatically, resulting in chaos and shaking Americans’ own faith in their military might. Americans learned that we could defeat Saddam, but we lacked the power to impose the kind of peace we wanted at the kind of pace we could accept.

Israelis learned a similar lesson from the Second Lebanon War of 2006. Israel crushed Lebanese infrastructure – and wiped out many Hezbollah strongholds, especially when the war began. But Israel could not crush Hezbollah, stop the missiles raining on the north, or even capture Hassan Nasrallah, who continues to manipulate Lebanese politics today, six years later, even as he remains in hiding.

The Second Lebanon War ultimately ended the nearly four-decade old Six Day War heroic hangover for many. If the Yom Kippur War of 1973 buried the myth of Israeli invulnerability, the Second Lebanon War of 2006 buried the myth of Israeli invincibility. The Egyptian-Syrian surprise attack made Israel bleed – but Israel’s army revived and conquered. The Lebanon War made Israel doubt, for Israel’s army flailed away at the Hezbollah rocket launches without solving the problem.

Leaders cannot be handcuffed by history, but they should heed its lessons. There are political and operational warnings aplenty. Neither the Israeli nor American public has much appetite for failure, for prolonged conflict, or for ambiguity in the precipitating factors or the ultimate results.

In this case, both Israeli and American policy makers must figure out how to convince a skeptical public that Iran is rushing to go nuclear, they have to reassure millions that there are no other alternatives to war, and they have to deliver a decisive blow with minimal fallout or blowback.  The kind of sloppiness that had the United States unprepared to govern Iraq, the day after Saddam fell, is not acceptable now.  After all this talk, after all this preparation, Israel and the United States will have to justify the move – and the wait.

I do not feel competent to judge whether or not a military attack is now justified. The papers seem full of cover stories, political postures, military feints, and misdirection. But if Israel and/or the United States enter into a war with Iran, the PR challenge is to explain, to spin, but ultimately to sell. The military challenge is to win – and win big.

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

Israelis and Americans converge and diverge in summertime mourning

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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.

American Jews’ Cowardly Retreat from the term “Zionism”

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-26-12

I recently met with a group of Australian Jewish leaders and discovered that in the land of the kangaroo and the koala they do not fear the word “Zionist.” Not only do eighty percent of Australian Jews embrace the label proudly, they acknowledge how much Zionism has strengthened their community, inspiring many of them personally, while emboldening many of them politically. By contrast, many American Jewish leaders continue to abandon the word “Zionism,” claiming it does not “poll well.”

Abandoning the term Zionism is an act of cowardice. It represents a retreat in the face of the systematic Soviet-choreographed, Arab-fueled, hard left-endorsed campaign to delegitimize Israel which has been going on since the 1970s and has outlasted the fall of the Soviet Union, and the 1991 repeal of the UN’s 1975 Zionism is racism resolution. Running away from the term gives the delegitimizers a victory they do not deserve. It starts the defense of Israel on the defensive. “Zionism” does not poll well because it has been targeted effectively. But pollsters cannot quantify how much credibility American Jews lose when they abandon the term instead of defending it – our allies, our young people, and our enemies can smell the fear.

American Jews’ gutless flight is particularly anomalous because the community is in many ways more Zionist than ever – and primed to accept a robust Zionist message.  American Jews are a people-people, more united by ethnic, national, cultural solidarity, than by belief in God. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, three-quarters of American Jews consistently support Israel, the Jewish state.  The most successful program of the last decade, Taglit-Birthright, is a peoplehood project which helps young Jews aged 18 to 26 jumpstart their Jewish journeys by visiting Israel. Moreover, young, idealistic American Jews do not want to retreat or defend, they want to celebrate, dream, improve.

Zionism is the national liberation movement of the Jewish people. Its fundamental assumptions are that the Jews are a people not just a community of faith, and that Israel is the Jewish national homeland. Having established the state of Israel in 1948, the modern Zionist movement is now dedicated to protecting and perfecting the state. Perfecting the state is about an aspirational Zionism, a values-based Zionism, an inspiring Identity Zionism, not just a defensive Zionism. It moves Zionism away from “Israel advocacy” which is mostly about preservation, toward a more expansive conversation about seeking fulfillment. Given that understanding of Zionism, American Jews should embrace Zionism as enthusiastically as Australian Jews too.

Just as Israel’s Foreign Ministry is wisely evolving away from that terrible term “Hasbarah,” with its implication of heavy-handed, propagandistic explanations, American Jews should shift from talking about Israel Advocacy to Zionism. Israel Advocacy suggests that Israel needs legions of defense attorneys working overtime defending the Jewish state. Israel Advocacy gives the Palestinians a propaganda victory they do not deserve by focusing on Israel as a problem, and obsessing about all of Israel’s problems.

Israel exists and it is not on probation. It does not need to be constantly advocated for, justified, legitimized. Talk of Zionism carves out more room for the normal and the exceptional. Zionist normalcy includes my sons’ baseball league, my daughters’ ballet performance, my wife’s art school – all of which testify to the extraordinary achievement of simply living an ordinary life in the Jewish homeland. At the same time, Zionist exceptionalism includes Israel’s miraculous achievements as Start Up nation, Israel’s soaring old-new aspirations as values nation, and Israel’s beautiful 24/7 Judaism as the Jewish state.

Groups committed to “Israel Advocacy” can only do so much – they can defend Israel, they can rebrand Israel, they can deepen understandings of Israel. But, as its best, a revitalized Zionist movement can help improve Israel and help improve American Jewry too. Zionism challenges Jews to criticize themselves and their community. A robust American Zionism will question why so many American Jews feel so alienated by their Jewish upbringing, in their families, their schools, their shuls, that they need the kind of last-minute intervention Birthright Israel provides.  A muscular American Zionism will extend the critique from American Jewry to American life itself, asking why so many Americans feels lost, stressed, distressed, despite living in the freest, richest, greatest exercise in mass middle class prosperity the world has ever witnessed. An expansive American Zionism is broad enough to synthesize many American liberal values with Zionist ones, rejecting the caricature of the two ideologies as incompatible. An effective Identity Zionism for American Jews will then use the power of the Jewish story, the richness of Jewish values, the warmth of Jewish solidarity to help ground American Jews – and launch into a lifelong conversation and confrontation with Israel which draws inspiration and strength from Israel, while both defending Israel and refining it.

Zionism has not always resonated with American Jews. For decades, Reform Jews in particular feared the whiff of dual loyalty that may emanate from an American Jewish community too enthusiastic about establishing a Jewish state. But the Holocaust and the establishment of the State in 1948 helped make the Reform Movement Zionist. Israel’s victory in the 1967 war – and the pride it brought American Jewry – made Zionism even more popular in America. That American Jewish support for Israel remains one of American Jews’ defining tenets, 45 complicated years later, represents an impressive accomplishment. Just as most so-called secular Israelis do not begin to fathom how deeply Jewish they are, most Americans Jews do not realize how deeply Zionist they are. They need to stop ignoring the small group of elites trying to sour them on either the Zionist project or the Zionist label, and proclaim to themselves and the world: I am A Zionist.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel 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: The Fight against Zionism as Racism” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Migrant Mitzvahs

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 6-12-12

“52% of Israeli Jews agree,” the Times of Israel headline cried: “African migrants are ‘a cancer.’” The subhead continued that the poll also “establishes a direct correlation between racist attitudes and religiosity.”  While sobering themselves, these findings about bigotry will of course feed other bigotry, with the ever-more-popular “Israel is racist” and “religious people are yahoos” memes leading the way.

The polls indicate a problem that Israel has—which Israel shares with many Western democracies, including the U.S. The same day the Times of Israel publicized its immigration survey finding, the CBS News Political Hotsheet pronounced: “Most Americans think Arizona immigration law is ‘about right,’” with 52 percent of Americans approving the controversial law requiring Arizona law enforcement officials to check citizenship status aggressively.

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An African migrant stands as a right-wing protestors walk past holding Israeli flags and banners during a demonstration against African migrants in Tel Aviv. (David Buimovitch / AFP / Getty Images)

Immigration is a blessing and a curse, a welcome engine for creativity, entrepreneurship and growth as well as a dramatic social disruptor.  Even immigrant-friendly societies such as the US and Israel have long histories of resisting newcomers. The United States has NINA—No Irish Need Apply signs in windows—in its past; Israel has “sabonim”—calling Holocaust refugees “soap”—in its. The anxiety over immigrants is partly rational, partly atavistic. Immigrants sometimes compete for jobs, commit crimes, upset social order.

Furthermore, they always represent change. The great liberal icon Thomas Jefferson, in his Notes on the State of Virginia, worried about the different mores, customs, sensibilities, and attitudes toward democracy immigrants would bring.  His fears do not invalidate the power of the Declaration of Independence, just as some polls, and a series of ugly incidents do not justify branding Israel as a racist society—especially when most Israelis and most of Israel’s political leadership denounced the recent hooliganism.

This problem is educational—citizens have to learn that immigration benefits society, that immigrant pathologies are not more prevalent only more visible because immigrants stand out, and that, regardless of the pragmatic payoffs, welcoming the less fortunate into free, more prosperous societies is a democratic “mitzvah” in the fullest sense of the word, a commandment, an obligation, a good deed.

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

Honoring the Alchemy of Education: Israel’s Honorary Doctorates

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By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 6-12-12

What do the scientist Howard Cedar, the historian Deborah Lipstadt, the Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran, the industrialist Eitan Wertheimer, the sociologist Robert Putnam, the Nobel prize winner Dan Shechtman and the singer Yehoram Gaon have in common? These are among the luminaries reminding us that it is honorary doctorate season again at Israeli universities. The newspapers are filled with lists of super-duper high achievers being celebrated for jobs well done and lives well lived.

Honorary doctorates are often distributed at commencement ceremonies to salute particular heroes, emphasize certain defining values, and introduce graduating students to inspiring role models. The juxtaposition of young graduates embarking on their careers with impressive individuals who have already made their mark reminds us of the alchemy of education. We remember that watching others frequently stretches us and that success is not preordained – each of these honorees sweated, suffered and improvised, surviving and thriving in challenging environments.

The seven mentioned – of dozens being honored this spring – offer a broad celebration of modern Israel’s values. Professor Cedar, a top geneticist, represent Israeli science’s extraordinary achievements while Shechtman, the iconoclastic chemist, shows that Israeli greatness is finally being recognized. Wertheimer, of Iscar, now owned by Warren Buffett and Berkshire-Hathaway, represents Israel’s invigorating entrepreneurial climate.  Justice Joubran represents Israel’s muscular legal culture and great strides towards equality in welcoming Israeli Arabs into leadership positions. Gaon represents Israel’s delicious creativity and the commitment of some celebrities to use their fame for public service. Professor Lipstadt, the historian who confronted the Holocaust denier David Irving, represents Israel’s great partnership with the United States and the happy consonance of Jewish, Zionist and academic values, while Putnam, the Harvardian who taught us that this generation likes to Bowl Alone, unlike our more communitarian parents, represents the sweep of achievements in the humanities worldwide. These worthy superstars honor the institutions that honor them.

Missing from the lists I examined for this year were leading politicians – reflecting the current state of political despair. For all its strengths epitomized by its impressive universities, Israel is enduring a leadership vacuum and a crisis of popular confidence in politics. As in the US, many Israeli voters doubt their leaders or their institutions can solve the serious problems afoot. Universities are sometimes happy alternatives, and, frankly, sometimes ugly mirrors reflecting what goes on – as my Jerusalem Post writing colleague Seth J. Frantzman reported last week. The phenomenon of what he calls “Incitement U” is a serious problem demanding frank discussion and creative reform.  Frantzman was called a “collaborator” at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev last week for daring to think politically incorrect thoughts – backed up by research — about Beduin land claims. Still, during honorary degree season, even Israeli universities usually are on their best behavior.

In a more ambiguous category are the many honorary degree recipients who earned their honors by donating generously to the university. On the one hand, philanthropy is a fancy name for Tsedakah, righteous charity, and should be rewarded. Universities need the help; generous benefactors deserve the thanks. Giving generously in a contemporary culture of self-indulgence which makes few people ever feel like they have accumulated enough is an act of heroism and selfless commitment to the next generation. The usual honorary degree mix of genius academics, general high achievers, and generous donors itself represents the tripod on which the academy stands – pure knowledge, pragmatic action, and community spirit.

At the same time, the “look Mom, I bought a doctorate” game fools no one. As the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel writes in his illuminating new book What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, the game is a form of corruption: “Money can buy things, but only in somewhat degraded form,” he writes. He then imagines what would happen if universities were honest, saying at the degree-granting ceremonies to a wealthy donor: “We confer honorary degrees upon distinguished scientists and artists for their achievements. But we award you this degree in thanks for the $10 million you gave us to build a new library.”  Of course, “the transparency would dissolve the good.” Instead, Sandel notes, universities “speak of public service, philanthropic commitment and dedication to the university’s mission – an honorific vocabulary that blurs the distinction between an honorary degree and a bought one.”

Blessedly absent from the Israeli honoree community are those absurd salutes to the famous – simply for being famous. In recent years, American universities have devalued their honorary degrees by granting doctorates to Shaquille O’Neal, Jack Nicholson, and Dolly Parton. Such awards often thrill parents, students, alumni and donors, giving them opportunities for celebrity namedropping back home – but they demean the process.

Six years ago, Knox College granted the television comedian Stephen Colbert an honorary degree. His best career advice for students, he said, was: get your own TV show. It pays well, the hours are good, and you are famous. And eventually some very nice people will give you a doctorate in fine arts for doing jack squat.”

Fortunately, Israeli universities, especially these days, are not honoring the jack squatters but the thinkers, doers, and builders of today and tomorrow. Even without any rah-rah blue and white speeches, even without quoting Herzl, these ceremonies are profoundly moving Zionist acts. They tell the story of a society that is growing, that is contributing to the world – and recognizing the world-class achievements of others. When we pull back the historical lens and consider that these universities were not established in 1249 like Oxford or 1636 like Harvard, but mere decades ago, when we remember all the traumas and travails, we should not only salute the honorees, not only praise the universities, but hail the Jewish people and the entire Zionist enterprise.

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

African Refugees Are Israel’s All-American Dilemma

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By Gil Troy, Open Zion The Daily Beast, 5-31-12

Israel’s African refugee quagmire is providing the national equivalent of a cardiac stress test.  The challenge has highlighted Israel’s weakest, darkest side, epitomized by the recent anti-immigrant violence in Tel Aviv. But the challenge also spotlights Israel’s strongest, sweetest side, epitomized by mass revulsion against the hooliganism, along with generous efforts such as the internet entrepreneur Yossi Vardi’s success in making Tel Aviv’s Bialik-Rogozin school a model educational institution for children of refugees from 48 nations.

Given the constant attacks on Israel’s legitimacy, proclaiming what this problem “reveals” about Israel will reveal more about the judge than the judged. More productive is to appreciate the clashing values and seemingly-impossible policy choices involved.

Americanization is one thing, but this is ridiculous. Israel, America’s erstwhile ally, has created its own illegal immigration mess—calling them “undocumented aliens” instead of “illegals” won’t solve the problem. In Israel as in the US, the phenomenon represents a massive social breakdown, mocking the rule of law. Democracies, based on consent of the governed, should not have phantom populations flouting the law, with America’s estimated 11 million illegals constituting 3.5 percent of its 313 million people, and Israel’s estimated 300,000 foreign workers, refugees, and illegal asylum seekers, constituting 3.8 percent of its 7.7 million.  Functioning countries cannot have such porous borders, for security reasons let alone communitarian concerns. But as softhearted democracies—even with their respective blind spots—Israel and America are in a pickle because they will not compete with countries like Egypt in shooting refugees trying to enter illegally.

Both countries also share a dirty little secret—they are addicted to their foreign workers, whatever their legal status. The illegal immigrant mess irritates America’s greatest sore, its racial tensions, with many illegal non-Americans hired as supposedly more reliable and cheaper employees than young African Americans. In Israel, foreign workers replaced Palestinians after Yasir Arafat led his people away from negotiations back toward terror in 2000. More disturbing, relying on Palestinian and foreign labor represents the flip side of Israel as “Start-Up Nation.” It risks becoming another, spoiled “magiya li”—”I deserve it”—capitalist society outsourcing hard labor, and betraying the initial Zionist impulses championing autonomy, self-reliance and manual labor.

Beyond the story’s ugly side—the border breakdowns and advanced capitalist societies relying on non-citizens for “dirty work”—is the beautiful impulse propelling individuals to find liberty and prosperity in desirable democracies.  Immigration, overall, is good for the immigrants and good for the host society, ultimately fostering creativity, energy, and a healthy diversity, even though both the US and Israel have legitimate concerns about preserving social sameness and real worries about diversity’s steep social costs.

As immigrant societies, both Israel and America have long been Fields of Dreams, with most Israelis and Americans today appreciating their own immigrant roots. When the passage from immigrant to citizen is such a central motif in most individuals’ family stories, let alone our national narratives, it is not so easy to ban what Emma Lazarus in 1883 indelicately called “the wretched refuse” from the “teeming shores”—note how America’s ambivalence toward immigration goes way back.

Americans and Israelis should follow two paradoxical policies. Just as David Ben-Gurion famously taught Palestine’s Jews in the 1940s to fight the Nazis as if there were no problems with the British, but to fight the British as if there were no Nazis—both societies should work harder at keeping illegal immigrants out while doing everything possible to welcome those who are already in. Borders should be sealed, treating undocumented outsiders as interlopers. If Israel’s southern fence worked as it should to keep terrorists out, discouraged asylum seekers would look elsewhere. But now, too many get in, also feeding a corrupt no-man’s-land nightmare for them in the Sinai desert of bribery, robbery, and rape.

At the same time, the social cost of having partial ghosts in a democracy, invisible when it comes to getting rights but quite visible when it comes to hiring or scapegoating them, outweighs the practical problems of luring more by treating them humanely. Just as every outsider should be treated cautiously as potentially an illegal immigrant, every insider should be treated generously as a potential citizen. Israel should live by its bighearted vow in its 1948 Proclamation of Independence to “foster the development of the country for the benefit of all its inhabitants.” And there must be a national conversation spearheaded by the prime minister and president acknowledging these immigrants’ contributions, admitting—as the tabloid Yediot Achranot noted—that their crime rate is quite low—and affirming that “their” story is “our” story. Seeking salvation, building a better life for this generation and the next, is not just the American dream, it is not just the Zionist dream, it is a compelling worldwide fantasy that so many Israelis and Americans are lucky to fulfill.

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

Obama Neither anti-Israel nor the most pro-Israel President, ever, really, really…

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 3-13-12

Although we need calm, smart, nuanced, conversation about Israel and its challenges, an epidemic of stupid has broken out on the subject. On the right, many refuse to admit that President Barack Obama can believe in Israel’s right to exist even if he dislikes some Israeli policies or Israel’s prime minister. Instead, extremists call Obama anti-Israel, even anti-Semitic. The blogger Pamela Gellar said Obama was “wet-nursed on Jew-hatred” in Indonesia.  The left is equally idiotic. Last fall, a New York Magazine cover story proclaimed Barack Obama Israel’s “first Jewish President,” echoing the African-American novelist Toni Morrison’s foolish, borderline racist, characterization of Bill Clinton as “the first black President” because he was “born poor,” loved “junk food” and suffered as his “unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution.” Apparently, in his forthcoming book, Peter Beinart also calls Obama “a Jewish President.” Last week, Thomas Friedman proclaimed Obama “Israel’s best friend,” wondering in the New York Times whether Obama “is the most pro-Israel president in history or just one of the most.” As the Republican presidential campaign proves, political hysteria these days is not limited to the Israel file. Two unfortunate modern political phenomena are reinforcing each other, creating this scourge of rhetorical exaggeration when talking about Israel.
The first is the broader problem of political polarization in American politics – and other democracies. With the hysterical blogosphere, hit-and-run talk radio, trash-talking media outlets, and my-way-or-the-highway extremist politicians, too many people try making too many issues make-or-break, zero-sum choices.  Partisan aggression trumps consensus building. Viewing politics through a Democratic-Republican or left-right prism distorts. As New York Mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of twelve issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on twelve out of twelve issues, see a psychiatrist.”
Yet, AIPAC can host 13,000 Jews and non-Jews, blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans at its policy conference but rather than marveling at the broad consensus supporting Israel and complimenting this extraordinarily impressive bipartisan organization, with, if anything a liberal bent because of American Jewry’s liberal tendencies, it has become fashionable to call AIPAC “right-wing.”
Similarly, in hailing Obama, Thomas Friedman only blamed the Republicans for politicizing the Israel issue, making it a “wedge issue” to play for Jewish support.  Friedman was half right. Some Republicans have demagogically tried to make supporting Israel exclusively their partisan domain. But the other half of the story involves the way the Democratic Party has made itself vulnerable on the issue, thanks to the unfortunate spread of leftist anti-Zionism. The Democratic Party is emerging as the home of the loud minority of anti-Israel voters and politicians, from former President Jimmy (Israel = Apartheid) Carter to Virginian Congressman Jim (blame the “Israel lobby” first) Moran. The Democratic Party remains the home of passionate pro-Israel politicians, and is overwhelmingly pro-Israel. Still, ignoring the Democratic left’s growing Israel problem, like claiming Obama as the most enthusiastic pro-Israel President ever, on the planet, strains credibility.
The other phenomenon distorting the debate is the systematic, four-decade-old campaign to delegitimize the State of Israel. The Soviet propagandists who characterized the national conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a racial struggle, casting this regional fight between neighbors as an imperial, colonial power-grab by the Jews, still haunt us, 21 years after the Soviet Union fell. We see the Soviets’ posthumous victory, the Arab world’s continuing enmity, and the collaboration of the radical left, in demonizing Israel, singling out Israel, obsessively focusing on Israel, and constantly attacking Israel’s right to exist. That kind of pummeling does damage. Opponents magnify minor Israeli missteps into major sins, trying to justify their assault. In response, too many pro-Israel activists become too thin-skinned, too quick to assume that a criticism is condemnation and condemnation is repudiation – because they often are.
For a politician like Barack Obama, the delegitimizers make life easier and harder. On the one hand, they set the “pro-Israel bar” ridiculously low. Of course Obama is “pro-Israel,” because he vows “we will always reject the notion that Zionism is racism” and insists that Israel deserves to exist in peace. Moreover, Obama has endorsed the idea of a Jewish state passionately, poetically, embracing the romance of Zionism, riffing, in his 2008 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, about “the incredible opportunity” that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves. And,” he added, making it personal, “obviously it’s something that has great resonance with the African-American experience.”  But delegitimization complicates Obama’s relationship with Israel, because his clear sympathy for the Palestinians, his hostility to Israel’s post-1967 borders, his disdain for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and his occasional obtuseness on Israel’s valid security fears mark him as a critic, in a world where too often Israel’s critics become Israel’s enemies – even as the first “Jewish President” school of thought condescends toward Israel by suggesting it needs tough love to save Israel from itself.
Asking whether Obama is pro-Israel or anti-Israel is immature and reductionist. The more important question is “have Obama’s Middle East policies succeeded”? So far, he has failed to reassure many Israelis of his support, which is needed to create the atmosphere for the kinds of concessions he wants from Israel. He created a new obstacle to negotiations by bungling the settlement freeze issue, practically forcing the Palestinians to embrace a new precondition. He has bristled repeatedly in Netanyahu’s company. And he has dithered on Iran, cold-shouldering the 2009 Green Revolution and now seeming more worried about an Israeli strike against Iran than a nuclear Iran. That does not make him anti-Israel; only naïve and ineffectual. This is not an issue of loyalty but competence.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

American Jews overreact to a clever critique of American assimilation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 12-6-11

American Jewry is furious. Israel-Diaspora relations are endangered. Israel’s Prime Minister is apologizing.  And why? Because the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption’s campaign inviting expatriate Israelis back home, suggested, shock of shocks, that there is widespread assimilation in America, so much so that Christmas sometimes trumps Chanukkah, especially for kids; that living in English shifts your linguistic orientation away from Hebrew; and that an American might not immediately realize a girlfriend’s candle-lit apartment on Israel’s Memorial Day sets the mood for mourning not snogging.

Before I lose all my American friends, let me acknowledge. Yes, the 30-second commercials were simplistic and heavy-handed.  But what effective advertisement isn’t?  Yes, it is awkward that the Israeli government produced the ads not some web whiz kid.  And yes, there are arrogant Israelis who don’t “get” American Jews and “dis” them.
Furthermore, this is not how I educate; this is not my kind of Zionism. My book Why I Am A Zionist encourages affirmative identity Zionism not reactive, guilt-laden Zionism.
Still, the shrill reaction is disproportionate.  The campaign hit a nerve because it highlighted some uncomfortable truths we should acknowledge:
·         Bebis America’s great blessing – and curse. American culture is welcoming and enveloping, for better and worse. While the US is open enough so millions can keep their traditions, many more jettison their pasts to dwell in the present, believing that to succeed as a “somebody” they must act like everybody — which risks making you, existentially, a nobody.  Living by Facebook not the Good Book, worshiping at the altar of mammon, these new pagans, addicted to the iPod, the iPad and the me, me, me, are mall rats not church-goers, deifying celebrities,  revering themselves, and orienting their lives by the here-and-now not the-tried-and-true. And, yes, Virginia, America’s most seductive, most dazzling holiday is Christmas, which, many Christians lament, has been drained of its piety, becoming too consumerist and too Americanized. Intermarriage and ignorance, apathy and alienation are epidemic among American Jews, even as a committed Jewish minority – a minority within the minority – thrives.
·         Many Israelis living in America embrace America’s assimilationist ethos on steroids.  Most ignore the organized Jewish community. Many come to America denuded of the kind of rich Jewish identity which keeps some American Jews Jewish because of Israel’s absurd all-or-nothing, religious-or-secular absolutism.
·         Israel’s Remembrance Day is probably the hardest day for Israelis abroad. Even many involved American Jews are unfamiliar with the intense, intimate, reverent way Israelis observe that day. A few years ago, a snafu scheduled Montreal’s Jewish film festival’s opening for Remembrance Day Eve. The organizers could not understand why a respectful moment of silence before the festivities began still offended many Israelis. The organizers had no clue about the Yom Kippur-like atmosphere, the closed cafes, the somber songs, the restricted TV schedule that makes the day so difficult for Israelis to observe, anywhere but Israel.
In advertising’s blunt, cartoonish way, the three internet ads captured these complex issues, dramatically, effectively.
This American Jewish freak-out is strange given all the talk lately about how Israelis must learn to take criticism from Americans and American Jews without freaking out. The “big tent” looks less welcoming if the criticism only flows, like the donations, from enlightened America to benighted Israel. “Hugging and wrestling” must be mutual; otherwise it becomes moralizing and finger-pointing.  With Jewish Voices for Peace becoming ever louder, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton comparing Israel to theocratic Iran and the segregated South, while Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta browbeats Israel to kowtow to the Palestinians, Americans have shown they know how to disparage Israel.
The controversial ads are being “disappeared” down the Internet’s 1984-style “memory hole.” As an educator, I would rather use them to spark discussion.  We are living in an extraordinary moment in Jewish history. Two fabulous centers of Jewish life are thriving in Israel and North America, each offering distinct advantages and disadvantages.
North American Jews should acknowledge the occasional thinness of their lives, and learn more about the innate thickness of Israeli life – the overlapping communal, religious, national, traditional, ties fostering Israelis’ sense of intimacy, that sense of connectedness to each other and to the past. The Jewish State provides many of its citizens with natural frameworks for meaning and belonging that enrich their lives.
Simultaneously, Israel suffers from the overstated, all-or-nothing divide between secular and religious, the rabbinic establishment’s depressing, destructive ability to drive Jews away from Judaism, and the unappealing prominence of Judaism’s most illiberal, intolerant, unforgiving Jewish expressions. Israelis should learn from the more centrist, fluid, human-centered expressions of Judaism flourishing in North America today.
The days of David Ben-Gurion’s shlilat hagolah – negating the Diaspora – are over. While some of Israel’s Jewish critics arrogantly engage in shlilat ha’aretz – negating  Israel – we need a true friendship, a real partnership, between Israel and the Diaspora. Despite tiffs like this, there is more mutuality today than ever. Sophisticated Israelis are learning they can learn from the philanthropic, creative, pluralistic American Jewish community. Sophisticated American Jews are realizing that Israel as “Start Up Nation” can be an inspiration and a partner not just a charity case.
We need a meaningful, mature Zionist conversation. In both America and Israel, Zionism, the dreams and the reality, the grounding of nationhood and the possibilities of statehood, should be used as tools to explain, enhance, challenge and critique the status quo. For all its glorious impact on both sides of the Atlantic, the Zionist revolution’s full redemptive potential remains untapped. And those common understandings, the shared dreams, even applied to different realities, can build a solid foundation of mutual respect, carving out room for constructive criticism, honest exchange, and, most important, real growth in both communities.
 

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections.

A decade after 9/11 – and still proud

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

Despite all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude, hope from that day and its aftermath.

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-6-11

Ten years ago this week, 19 terrorists hijacked four airplanes, murdered nearly three thousand people, destroyed the World Trade Center’s twin towers, and damaged the Pentagon. Our therapy-orientated culture encourages us to “move on,” rather than wallow in anger. We are supposed to seek “root causes” of violence, absolving belligerent individuals and nations of moral responsibility, especially if we perceive someone from the Third World assailing powerful white Westerners. But at the risk of being politically and psychologically incorrect, I remain angry after all these years. The ruins have stopped smoldering – I haven’t.

I AM still angry that so many good people lost their lives. I mourn with the parents who buried their children so prematurely – or had no remains to inter – and with the widowed spouses and the orphaned children.

Every victim has a name and a narrative; the daily ache of missing a lost friend or relative’s look, laugh and love is compounded by imagining the possibilities of lives not fully lived. For weeks after 9/11, The New York Times ran what became a Pulitzer-Prize winning series, “Portraits of Grief.” These mini-biographies painted a pointillist picture of what America, and the world, lost that day, one precious life at a time. And they confirmed what many of us knew but the media was too politically correct to say – although the victims came from dozens of countries and all classes, most were either white collar male professionals – like me – or blue collar rescue workers who went to work one day and never returned.

I am still angry at the anti-Americanism that formed the backdrop to these mass murders. Al-Qaida’s anti- Western ideology is a murderous manifestation of a broader phenomenon mixing resentment of American power, jealousy of American success, fear of American freedom and contempt for American novelty. In its mildest forms, this anti-Americanism unites haughty Old World Europeans who disdain the aggressive New World upstarts as crude cowboys. In its ugly Islamist form, this anti-Americanism strengthens Muslim fundamentalists’ dreams of a Caliphate theocracy dominating the world.

I am still angry at the foolish, foul Red-Green alliance between radical leftists and Islamists, that has too many in Europe and on campuses echoing the Islamist agenda even when it entails rationalizing sexism, homophobia, theocracy and autocracy. These laptop jihadists, these posturing Chomskyites, view Third Worlders as necessarily noble, oppressed, and thereby justified in attacking Americans, Israelis and others they deem powerful “whites” – despite the multiracial makeup of both America and Israel. These self-hating hypocrites only see Western faults, staying scandalously silent about Syria’s crackdown or Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

I am still angry at the United Nations, which has become international headquarters for this selective indignation and these double standards. Founded with democratic idealism in the 1940s, the world body has degenerated since the 1970s into the Third World Dictators’ Debating Society as autocrats deploy in New York the very democratic techniques they ban at home.

I am still angry at the bipartisan failure by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush to prevent the crime. The moral onus remains on the terrorists, but President Clinton lacked the guts to hunt down Osama Bin Laden more aggressively, while President Bush failed to focus on the threat. Informed speculation that better cooperation between the CIA and the FBI could have stopped the jihadists is emotionally devastating. The fact that reporters and politicians ignored terrorism in the 2000 presidential campaign reflects the bipartisan sloppiness that made the terrorists’ work easier.

I am still angry that despite the rhetoric claiming that terrorism never succeeds, terrorism has succeeded – most dramatically in popularizing and somehow legitimizing Palestinian demands, making the late Yasser Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization the spiritual and tactical trailblazers for Osama Bin Laden and al-Qaida.

I am still angry that this summer, just weeks before the tenth anniversary of 9/11, leading media outlets again rationalized terrorism by calling the Gazan terrorists who slaughtered eight Israelis near Eilat – including two sisters vacationing together with their respective husbands – “militants.”

I am still angry about the convergence of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism, exemplified by the candy Palestinians in Gaza threw to celebrate the 9/11 murders, and the cynical way in which Bin Laden started invoking the Palestinian cause when retroactively attempting to popularize his despicable act.

I am still angry about the increased vulnerability of Jews following 9/11 – partially due to the parallel terrorist onslaught Palestinians unleashed. Even today, throughout the Diaspora, many Jewish synagogues, schools and organizations require special protections because terrorists target us and our institutions particularly.

And I am still angry that most American Jews started acknowledging the renewed Palestinian terrorism against Israel only after 9/11 – even though that wave of terrorism began in September, 2000, a year before the devastating al Qaida attacks.

FORTUNATELY, DESPITE all my lingering post-9/11 anger, I also hold on to the overwhelming feelings of pride, gratitude and hope from that day and its aftermath.

I remember the way Americans united, transcending partisan, racial and religious differences, as so many millions throughout the world expressed sympathy – and outrage. I honor the estimated 5 million Americans who have served in the military since the attacks – alongside many soldiers from allies such as Canada and Great Britain. I lament the 6,200 Americans lost in combat – along with so many other fallen soldiers and civilians from other countries in this fight for freedom. And I appreciate more than ever the liberties we in the West enjoy , the civil society we have developed, and the moral values we cherish, well aware that civilization itself, let alone functional democracies, requires careful tending – and when necessary, an aggressive, effective defense against our enemies – ideologically as well as militarily.

The writer 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.

Israel is peripheral in the US elections – fortunately

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-27-10

Although Americans glided smoothly to the 2008 presidential election, with most increasingly giddy at the prospect of Barack Obama’s historic victory, they are stumbling haphazardly toward the 2010 congressional midterms, with most increasingly cranky.  Pollsters predict that on November 2, Barack Obama will suffer a major defeat. Gone is the faith that this mortal can solve America’s problems. Gone is most of the hope that galvanized millions. Gone is the sky-high popularity rating that had Republicans and comedians wondering in January 2009, “how are we ever going to criticize, let alone laugh, at this guy.” Gone is the “yes we can” optimism, as many Americans take a “no we can’t” approach. And gone may be the power President Obama drew from his Democratic congressional majority.

When the actor Jamie Foxx led Los Angeles Democrats in chanting “We are not exhausted,” to introduce Obama, even the pro-administration New York Times called it “a backhanded rally cry if there ever was one.”

Many issues have shaped this campaign, especially health care, taxes, immigration, and gay marriage. The challenges of Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan loom in the background. But Israel has been a peripheral issue – which makes sense, for America’s sake and Israel’s.

Americans are, most appropriately, focusing on domestic issues. America’s economic crisis has once again triggered a crisis of faith. Americans rarely view their economic ups and downs as cyclical – but as cataclysmic. In a nation addicted to prosperity and success, hard times are particularly hard.

Remembering the Great Depression, and his father’s slide from garment center riches into economic and psychic despair, the playwright Arthur Miller recalled: “a fine dusting of guilt fell upon the shoulders of the failed fathers.” Guilt implies responsibility. Rather than blaming economic failure on outside forces, Americans often blame themselves. This approach helps propel most to the kind of creativity that triggers the next boom, but it makes the bust extremely traumatic.

Obama’s liberal agenda and the Republicans’ obstructionism have not yet stimulated the economy but they have stimulated debate about how big government should be. While this campaign hit a low when Christine O’Donnell, running for Senate from Delaware, felt compelled to insist, “I am not a witch,” the ideological clash is significant. Americans are still debating the issues Ronald Reagan’s election raised in 1980.  Obama seems to have misread his mandate to replace George W. Bush as a mandate to restore the Big Government which first sparked Reagan’s revolution.

The truth from 2008 still holds in 2010. What Israel most needs from America is a strong America. Israel needs its best friend in better shape, economically, diplomatically, militarily, psychically. While there is no guarantee this election will improve matters, Israel was lucky that Americans have been debating their future not their friendship with Israel.

Although Israelis and Jews often assume Israel is a central issue, focusing on Israel is not necessarily good news for the Jews. Barack Obama has made two central mistakes in approaching the Middle East. The first, was buying the Palestinian conceit that solving the Palestinian problem is the keystone problem in world politics today. An American-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace accord tomorrow probably would not even calm the Middle East. Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, Iraq and Afghanistan would remain problematic and unaffected.

Nevertheless, acting on his first flawed assumption, Obama bullied Israel into freezing building in settlements. Obama’s big push for a settlement moratorium created a new opening demand for Palestinian negotiators – which has now become the new first obstacle to peace talks. This move placed an issue of short-term importance which a real agreement would solve, ahead of the difficult long-term issues which must be resolved for any agreement to hold.  It also treated settlements as the major obstacle to peace, ignoring the threat posed by continuing Palestinian dreams of destroying Israel.

Ironically, Israel’s most enthusiastic friends and harshest enemies overplay Israel’s centrality in the world. It has long been the anti-Semite’s distinguishing tic to blame the Jew for many ills; modern anti-Semites masquerading as “just” anti-Zionists impute to the Jewish State undue importance in singling out Israel for condemnation. The entire BDS – Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions – movement hinges on this exaggeration.  Labeling Israel the new South Africa, the boycotters caricature Israel as the great threat to world peace, the world’s greatest source of injustice and instability.

Israelis should be relieved that Israel has not been an issue in this American campaign. Recent polls showing just how enthusiastically Americans support Israel should prove even more reassuring. And the late summer survey by the Cohen Center at Brandeis estimating that 63 percent of Jews feel “very much” or “somewhat” connected to Israel while 75 percent agree that caring about Israel is an important part of their Jewish identities, should be even more reassuring.

Nevertheless, despite this popular enthusiasm for Israel, no one should interpret any setback Barack Obama may suffer at the polls as any kind of message about Israel. Nor will a Democratic defeat lift the pressure on Israel.  If Obama feels he did better than the pundits predicted, he may feel more empowered to continue pushing Israel around without pressuring Palestinians equally. Alternatively, if the Democrats lose so badly Obama fears he may be a one-term president, he may pressure Israel to give him some victory somewhere. Foreign policy is often the last refuge of a frustrated president.

In short, after the election, Israelis will awake to a world similar to the world today. Obama will remain president. And the perpetual conundrum – how to give the Palestinians enough concessions to feel satisfied while giving Israelis enough assurances to feel safe – will also persist. Few should expect dramatic lurches in American policy – or quick resolutions of this complex conflict.

How Zionism can get a passing grade on campus today

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 8-11-10

There is something wrong with this picture: This is a golden age for Jews on North American campuses. Never before have there been so many Jewish college presidents and Jewish professors, Jewish students and Jewish Studies majors. Yet, this is also a golden age for anti-Zionism on campus. Never before has Israel-bashing appeared to be such a popular intramural sport. An unholy alliance of anti-Israel activists and jaundiced professors demonizes Israel and damns Zionism on many – not all – North American campuses. These false but potent poisons injected into the intellectual bloodstream of so many leaders of tomorrow will haunt us for decades.

In preparing for another school year, we do not need another woe-is-me round of laments about the asinine activists, perverted professors and useful idiots who mask Palestinian rejectionism and Arab anti-Semitism behind a veneer of liberal pieties. The pro-Israel community on campus cannot just be anti the anti-Israel-crackpots on campus. We should start thinking about what we have been doing wrong – and what we need to do right – in this fight for Israel’s legitimacy, Jewish dignity and democratic decency. We must improve our defenses, strengthen our alliances, and, most important of all, advance a new vision, engaging Israel in a fresh, exciting way by singing a new song of Zion.

When I visit North American campuses, I frequently am amazed by how lonely and embattled pro-Israel students feel. Although the Jewish community is considered well-organized, even smothering and monolithic, many students standing for Israel feel isolated and exposed. Even more surprising, despite the systematic campaign against Israel on campus, both pro-Israel students and local Jewish communities frequently seem unprepared when targeted. We need more information-sharing, more “cookbooks” providing recipes for how to react, more exchanges via conferences and websites about best practices. At the same time, we cannot forget that the university has its own unique political culture and each campus has its own particular anthropology and sociology. Cookbooks are helpful; cookie-cutter approaches or what seems like outside interference are not.

Students would also feel less isolated if they solidified alliances. Pro-Israel forces should develop a language attacking Islamism on liberal grounds and joining with other campus groups offended by the illiberal, sexist, authoritarian, homophobic, anti-democratic, anti-universalistic impulses menacing the world today, which emanate from Israel’s enemies – not Israel. How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Iranian students and pro-Israel students against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s sexist, homophobic, repressive, nuclear-hungry Iran? How come we don’t see stronger alliances between Indian students, Christian students, pro-Obama students, college Democrats and college Republicans – all of whom should favor Israel as a democratic Western-oriented state in the Middle East over its dictatorial, Islamist enemies?

Internally, the Zionist world should clarify what unites us not just what divides us. We must foster a broad big-tent Zionism that carves out space for vigorous debate about the territories and the settlements, conversion and religion, Bibi Netanyahu and Avigdor Lieberman, while emphasizing the core values that make Zionists Zionist. We should define the red lines we impose on ourselves which we shall not cross in debate, knowing that we operate in a toxic atmosphere, agreeing, for example, not to invoke the historically inaccurate, morally mischievous apartheid analogy, because we know it is used to delegitimize Israel and repudiate Zionism.

At the same time we should affirm the blue-and-white lines which we share, the way all of us, from left-wing secular Zionists to right-wing religious Zionists, believe in Zionism as the movement of Jewish national liberation, affirm Israel’s centrality in Jewish life, and appreciate how lucky we are to enjoy a democratic Jewish state in our traditional homeland.

In reaffirming our blue-and-white lines and ties, we will remember that the Zionist revolution is incomplete: Israel remains an unfinished product inviting more input while Zionism’s mission to solve the Jewish problem remains relevant today. We grant our enemies a propaganda victory they do not deserve when we make Israel the central headache of the Jewish world today, when we reduce Zionism only to the Israel Defense Force, when we forget Zionism’s redemptive power. Zionism, like Americanism, like all forms of constructive liberal nationalism, roots individual members in a collective enterprise greater than themselves. Starting with the grounding history provides, Zionism – like all liberal nationalisms – injects meaning into the present by dreaming about and building toward a better future.

It is fitting that Theodor Herzl’s slogan was Eem Tirzu Ein Zo Aggadah, “if you – collectively! – will it, is no dream.” While acknowledging the universalists’ critique that terrible crimes were committed in the name of nationalism, many of the greatest achievements of the modern world resulted from nationalism too. On one side of the Atlantic, consider the American achievement – the world’s most successful mass, middle-class civilization, mass-producing freedom and prosperity for hundreds of millions. On the other side of the Atlantic, consider the Israeli achievement – returning Jews to history’s stage, reviving the Hebrew language, saving millions after the Holocaust and from the Arab expulsion, forging an Altneuland, an old-new land, a modern Western democracy with a Jewish flavor in the Middle East.

In that spirit, we should jumpstart a Zionist conversation that is dynamic not defensive, empowering not pedestrian. We should be Jewishly-ambitious – not just setting career goals, financial benchmarks, and personal growth targets, but Jewish aspirations, individually and collectively. In asking “how can I grow Jewishly,” we can also ask “how can I help Israel thrive.” And in so doing, we will find the ultimate Zionist secret: by seeking redemption for Israel we will also help redeem ourselves. In a modern world that often feels aimless, alienating, and disempowering we will find purpose, focus, roots, as we sing a new, renewed, relevant song of Zion.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University in Montreal and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow. 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.

Let’s mobilize against anti-Israel week

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-7-10

We historians don’t predict the future – the past is foggy enough. But allow me one prediction. Within weeks, the Jewish world is going to be in high dudgeon, outraged at the Anti-Israel Week activities on campuses across North America. And, judging by the past, and the current situation as far as I know, we will shift into temporary crisis

mode, reacting and overreacting, flailing about with little discipline, little coordination, little strategy, little tactical gain, but much frustration.

Our enemies – and yes, they are our enemies – have been planning this Israel hate-fest for a year, if not longer. One Israel-bashing Web site declares: “Mark your calendars – the 6th International Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) will take place across the globe from the 1st to the 14th of March 2010!” True, a “week” usually lasts only seven days; our adversaries count days as sloppily as they recount the past. These Israel-libelers claim 40 cities will participate – 12 in Canada alone – mostly on campuses. Rather than dithering then scrambling, we must plan – in fact, planning should have started months ago.

David Olesker, the director of JCCAT, the Jerusalem Center for Communication and Advocacy Training, warns that before planning tactical responses, we must clarify our strategy. “Where do we want to be in five years, where are we going with our arguments and advocacy?” he asks, noting how rarely pro-Israel advocates think about the big picture, although our adversaries do.

Thinking strategically, the pro-Israel community should remember “Three P’s.” First, Push back, but push back intelligently, remembering our target audiences. We will rarely sway with mere facts someone who has swallowed the apartheid libel and drunk the anti-Israel Kool-Aid. Our target is wavering Jewish students and the vast uninformed and uninterested middle. We should play off the radical demonizers, making them look extreme and foolish as we demonstrate our informed commitment, our enlightened passion, the rightness and righteousness of our cause.

Second, Position Israel better as a modern democracy fighting terror, sometimes forced to make unhappy decisions like other countries. The truth is our friend. Israel has compromised – and seen withdrawals from territory and other concessions “rewarded” with violence. Until critics deal with that, they are simply Israel-bashing with no real commitment to peace. And speaking of peace, let’s call the libelers’ bluff. Those who falsely accuse Israel of practicing racist, South African-style apartheid, are essentially saying Israel is so odious that, like that regime, it should not exist. How can such a libelous, historically misinformed attack advance the peace process?

Third, be Proud of Israel as an extraordinary old-new land, one of the great successes of the twentieth century, now leading the way technologically in the twenty-first century. Just as the US is not only defined by its racial troubles, and Canada not only defined by its linguistic tensions, Israel is not just about the Palestinians. It was the central conceit of Yasser Arafat and his terrorist henchmen to make every conversation about Israel revolve around them – and it worked. In taking back the narrative, we should jump to a different track, not always talking about Israel in the context of defending Israel or justifying its existence but celebrating Israel, delighting in Israel’s achievements, pluralism, values, democracy and historically redemptive role.

Tactically, as we wait for the latest initiatives rumored to be in the works in North America and Israel to help galvanize and centralize pro-Israel sentiment, we should mobilize the Jewish Netroots. Let us put out a call to the pro-Israel blogosphere for an approach defined by the “Three H’s.”

For starters, we must be Horizontal, understanding that today’s informational, ideological and political playing field is vast, chaotic and democratic. Students, bloggers and activists should speak their minds, display their passions, forge their own relationships with Israel and express their pride as effectively, as creatively, as widely, as they can.

This more horizontal approach must be Hip, singing, rapping or tweeting a new song of Zion, one that is relevant, resonant, inspirational, conversational, internalized among millions of pro-Israel and pro-democracy activists, rather than dictated from above or simply inherited from our ancestors.

And finally, we should not be afraid to be Hysterical¸ to laugh among ourselves while mocking the heavy-handed propagandists who build their entire ideology on negation – investing time, money, energy in denigrating Israel rather than building anything constructive for Palestinians, or anyone else, for that matter. Israeli culture is improvisational – demonstrated particularly by the ingenuity of the IDF and the creativity of high tech entrepreneurs. Those same skills should be deployed in the fight for Israel’s legitimacy, but with humor, not a heavy hand. We should mock our enemies – because their positions are laughable and because ridicule is such an effective tool on the net.

We must go global and virtual in Israel advocacy, not because of anti-Israel week but because we have a great story to tell. And in the virtual world millions can take the lead in celebrating Israel. For too long, Israelis have sat on the sidelines, watching their brothers and sisters flounder in the Diaspora, or, even worse, allowing a small minority of Israelis to fuel the fires of anti-Zionism abroad, giving Israel and particularly Israeli universities a bad name. But today, Israelis and non-Israelis can work together – or at least in parallel – broadcasting a pro-Zionist message while ridiculing and undermining our enemies.

In a country that must engage its youth in more nationalistic, values-oriented projects, and at a time when parents lament how much time their kids spend on the computer, here is a great challenge for the country’s high schools and universities. The anti-Israel forces wish to wipe Israel off the map and demonize Zionists as the “New Nazis.” If we fail to fight back, they will continue poisoning the discourse around Israel, especially on campuses and in Europe. Let young Israelis learn enough history to defend themselves and their country effectively on the Internet. Let this be a great virtual contact point, building relations between Israeli and Diaspora youth.

Wouldn’t it be great if next year, the anti-Israel forces canceled their annual festival of nihilism because the push-back they triggered simply wasn’t worth it? Now that’s a strategic goal worth pursuing.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. His latest book The Reagan Revolution:  A Very Short Introduction, was recently published by Oxford University Press.

Obama gets Zionism – why don’t our youth?

Canadian Jewish News, Thursday, 03 July 2008 

True, at the annual meeting of AIPAC, the legendary American Israel Public Affairs Committee, in Washington, D.C., the most powerful American politicians tell some of the most powerful American Jews exactly what they want to hear.

True, at the meeting in June, Barack Obama overstated his commitment to a united Jerusalem, and then backtracked, causing great controversy. True, during the heat of a presidential campaign, anything one says that is positive about one candidate is perceived to be an endorsement of him, regardless of the writer’s intent. Still, it’s worth focusing on Obama’s remarkable riff about Zionism – and challenging Jews in the United States and Canada to learn at least this from America’s Democratic presidential nominee.

Early on in his address, Obama recalled the influence of a Jewish counsellor of his at a summer camp the young Barack attended in the early 1970s. Obama said:  “I first became familiar with the story of Israel when I was 11 years old. I learned of the long journey and steady determination of the Jewish people to preserve their identity through faith, family and culture. Year after year, century after century, Jews carried on their traditions, and their dream of a homeland, in the face of impossible odds.”

Obama explained that as a young man cut off from his roots, not knowing his father, this quest to return and this deep sense of rootedness moved him. “So I was drawn to the belief that you could sustain a spiritual, emotional and cultural identity,” Obama proclaimed. “And I deeply understood the Zionist idea – that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story.”

There are three powerful ideas embedded in this short paragraph. Obama offers a compelling “holy trinity” if you will, explaining some of the ways Jews have maintained our identity for thousands of years, despite adversity. Obama talks about “faith, family and culture.” He speaks about one’s “spiritual, emotional, and cultural identity.” I could add history, the land, and tradition as well. I talk about national and historical identity, too. But what’s important is that Obama recognizes Judaism’s multi-dimensionality. Judaism is not “just” a religion. Jews are a people sharing a common past, certain cultural traits, enduring family values, a binding faith, an interconnected fate in the present, and, we hope, an inspiring and glorious future.

Second, in this speech and elsewhere, Obama talks about the common modern quest for roots, for an identity. He understands that there’s more to life than making money and spending money. True success, true fulfilment, comes from knowing who you are – having a deep, enduring, historical identity.

Both the United States and Canada are remarkable countries, welcoming immigrants throughout the world. But both countries, particularly with today’s modern consumerist popular culture, encourage a kind of historical amnesia, a disconnect from our Old World past. True, Canada is officially multicultural and more sensitive to those concerns than the United States, but the lure of the “I,” of the here-and-now of modern culture, overrides those rhetorical and ideological differences, enticing all of us to jettison our historical identities.

Finally, Obama appreciates the value of having a homeland as an anchor, as a repository of our past, our values, our story – and our future. We need to imagine sometimes what it must have been like for our grandparents and great-grandparents who were cut off from that homeland. We need to imagine sometimes what it must be like for kids like the young Obama, who, while welcomed into the American heartland, know that they are different, know that they have another identity and wish to reconcile it all.

We need to ask, “Do we always remember to keep our homeland – the homeland of Israel – ‘at the centre of our story’ as modern Jews?” Have too many of us, in the comforts of North America, forgotten how lucky we are to have Israel as an identity anchor? How many of our well-educated, sophisticated 40-year-olds speak as eloquently as Obama did about the power of the Zionist idea historically – and to us personally? And if Obama is willing to say “Yes we can” to our Zionism, how come so many of our youth are not?