Learning from Obama’s gay marriage wobble

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 5-15-12

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me.

President Barack Obama’s historic embrace of gay marriage last week saddened me. For a president of the United States to back into such a monumental announcement reflected weakness, not strength, diminishing the man, the message and the office. Even as gay activists and Democrats try spinning Obama’s wobbly stand as heroic, newly-energized prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu should not learn leadership lessons from his “frenemy.”

Netanyahu must start leading on key issues rather than skirting them as he has been doing, or playing it too cute by half as Obama just did.

This twist in the gay marriage saga began on Meet the Press, when Vice President Foot-in-mouth, aka Joe Biden, proclaimed when asked directly: “I am absolutely comfortable with the fact that men marrying men, women marrying women, and heterosexual men and women marrying another are entitled to the same exact rights, all the civil rights, all the civil liberties.”

Biden is lucky he is a Democrat. He is windier, wordier, less disciplined than Dan Quayle, but because Biden’s views are more in synch with many reporters – as on this issue – he has largely been spared the ridicule he deserves. Biden opposed the Osama bin Laden raid, then called it the most “audacious” military operation in “500 years.” He greeted Rep. Gabrielle Gifford, the Congresswoman recovering from being shot in the head, upon her return to Congress by saying, “She’s now a member of the cracked head club like me.” He once was caught on microphone dropping “the f-bomb” after introducing the president in the White House.

This time, even Obama admitted that Biden got “a little over his skis.” Nevertheless, by midweek, on Wednesday May 9, the president followed the vice president by acknowledging in an ABC interview that “I’ve been going through an evolution on this issue” and “At a certain point, I’ve just concluded that – for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that – I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.”

As befit the interview format and America’s confessional culture, Obama justified the decision personally, not ideologically.

Hoping the issue could be “worked out at the local level,” he dodged the Constitutional and national policy questions. He spoke instead about “members of my own staff who are incredibly committed, in monogamous relationships, same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together,” about gay “soldiers or airmen or marines or – sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf,” and about his daughters Malia and Sasha – “they’ve got friends whose parents are same-sex couples” who shouldn’t be “treated differently.”

In a pathological tell, wherein you accuse your opponent of doing precisely what you are doing as you do it, Obama then started attacking Mitt Romney’s inconstancy, which Obama called “one of his Etch-a- Sketch moments.” Obama was echoing a Republican spokesman’s Bidenesque characterization of the adjustments Romney will make while transitioning from the primary campaign to the general election. If the traditional definition of chutzpah is killing your parents then pleading for mercy as an orphan, Obama’s chutzpah entails calling Romney an Etch-a-Sketch leader while shaking and redrawing his gay marriage stance in his boobish vice president’s tailwind.

Great leaders evolve. They shift their positions, rethink strategies, adjust their tactics and even, sometimes, reexamine core convictions, as Richard Nixon did with his diplomatic breakthrough to China, and Ariel Sharon with the Gaza disengagement.

But my mother taught that if you are going to do it, do it right.

John Kennedy’s civil rights stance evolved. The tentative politician who tried dodging the black equality issue in January 1960 became a statesman who confronted it eloquently on June 11, 1963. “We are confronted primarily with a moral issue,” the president proclaimed in what became hailed as his Civil Rights speech. “It is as old as the Scriptures and is as clear as the American Constitution.”

Obama, instead, bequeathed to American history an unmemorable conversational announcement elicited by a reporter that had all the poetry of a gas bill, while triggering back stories about Biden’s subsequent make-up meeting with Obama, and Democratic election advisers’ fury over Biden’s blabbing.

Learning what not to do from Obama, Netanyahu should mobilize his expanded, empowered coalition to change Israeli history boldly and clearly. Since 2009, Netanyahu has been part stealth leader, part ward boss. His greatest accomplishments have included quietly blocking undemocratic legislation and tending his weak, fractious coalition. Now, he should stop treading water.

Rather than simply maneuvering in the Knesset he should start addressing the nation about tough issues. He should frame the upcoming debate over the Tal Law as a broader opportunity to redraw Israel’s social contract, emphasizing the special rights haredim and Arabs will enjoy while also emphasizing their communal responsibilities.

He should confront the anti-Zionist rabbinate and carve out more civic space for marriages, births, easy conversions and divorce.

He should not wait for another round of social protests before seeking a new balance that shows the world how to preserve Israel’s impressive prosperity while securing the social safety net without making middle class taxpayers feel like “freiers” (suckers).

And he should continue showing that with both the Palestinians and the Iranian nuclear issue, Israel will determine its own destiny, neither held hostage to enemies’ whims nor handcuffed by well-meaning and not so well-meaning Westerners.

When Kennedy became president, his predecessor Dwight Eisenhower warned that only the difficult decisions ended up in the Oval Office. Leading entails choosing between competing goods – or bads. In the US and Israel, sister democracies, we should give our leaders a break, understanding the complex challenges they face. And they should give us what we crave – clearer, more muscular, more principled statesmanship.

The writer 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 will be Moynihan’s Moment: The Fight against Zionism as Racism.

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After Arizona: Israelis, Americans must make democracy work

Israelis should reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned sense.

By GIL TROY, Jerusalem Post, 1-11-11

Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords
Photo by: AP

The Tucson, Arizona rampage left Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords critically wounded, six citizens dead and millions of Americans jumping to the right conclusions for the wrong reasons. Yes, American politics should be more civil. But no, one crazy gunman’s random fixations and horrific violence should not trigger the kind of reform modern political culture needs.

I confess, having written a book, Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents, calling for centrism and civility, I am tempted to flow with the conventional wisdom this time. Right after this mass shooting outside a supermarket at one of Giffords’ “Congress on Your Corner” meet-and- greets, preaching pundits began blaming the vitriol, particularly from the Right. The fact that Sarah Palin’s website featured Giffords and other politicians targeted for political defeat in 2010 with crosshairs on their faces supposedly symbolized everything wrong with politics today.

Human beings love stories, we crave causality. We rubberneck at traffic accidents trying to divine the triggering chain of events, hoping to avoid that fate ourselves. After president John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, its seeming randomness magnified the national trauma. Back then, many Texans vilified Kennedy, but no evidence linked those critics with his murder.

Politics is a domesticated form of verbal, ideological and personal warfare, frequently explained with fighting words. The word “campaign” originated in the 1600s from the French word for the open fields where soldiers fought their long battles, campagne.

Campaign became part of the barrage of military terms describing electioneering.

In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt “rallied” his Democratic “troops,” saying, “I am an old campaigner, and I love a good fight.”

In 2008, America’s modern Gandhi, Barack Obama, telegraphed toughness by threatening his Republican rivals: “If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun.”

“Targeting” opponents and even drawing crosshairs on rivals is not the problem. As candidates, both Roosevelt and Obama also spoke creatively and constructively. Political civility comes from tempering toughness with openness, seeking consensus, acknowledging complexity, varying tone and periodically agreeing to disagree agreeably.

Politics sours when the tone is constantly shrill, when enemies are demonized, positions polarized.

There is too much shouting in American politics today, from Left and Right, against George W. Bush and Obama, on MSNBC and Fox, by reporters seeking sensation and by bloggers stirring the pot. Politics becomes scary when dozens of complex crosscutting issues are reduced to one with-me-or-againstme worldview. As a Democrat who supports gun control, Giffords refuses to be doctrinaire. New York’s former mayor Ed Koch once said: “If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist.”

ISRAELIS SHOULD reflect on the harshness of their political culture which makes American politics look like a tea party – in the old-fashioned, gentlemanly sense, of course. Most Americans understand when to holster partisan anger – even righteous indignation.

Screaming mourners do not disrupt official American ceremonies, as was done in the Carmel last week. And Americans excel at mounting the patriotic tableaux we witnessed on 9/11 when Democrats and Republicans spontaneously sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps, on election night 2008 when John McCain and Obama spoke so graciously of each other and this Monday when the nation stopped for a moment of silence.

In Israel, leftists and rightists are capable of demagoguery, demonization and incitement to violence, yet each camp only sees the other’s guilt. And while America’s most extreme voices usually fester on the margins, tempered by the civility of the McCains and Obamas, too many shrill voices emanate from the Knesset. Israeli politicians seem to scream “die traitor” as often as Arizonans say “howdy pardner.”

Shas rabbis and other haredim should admit that not all internal critics are heretics. Rightists should acknowledge that not all leftists are unpatriotic. Leftists should concede that not every criticism of them is McCarthyism.

No one needs a rampaging maniac to deliver a wake-up call. We can see it night after night on the news; we must judge it and change it day by day by ourselves.

Israelis, too, know how to rally together, when necessary. Harvard Prof. Ruth Wiesse calls Israelis “reverse hypocrites,” whose deeds are frequently more patriotic than their words. And anyone who has stood at attention when the mourning siren sounds on Remembrance Day knows that Israelis too understand that national loyalties transcend partisanship.

“Democracy begins in conversation,” the great American educator John Dewey taught. The conversation should be passionate but tempered with a touch of humility, an acknowledgment of complexity and an appreciation for the enduring values, common history and shared fate that bind fellow citizens together.

POLITICAL PARTIES work when they help individuals solve problems together; coalition building works best when people have a range of conflicting loyalties, when people might pray together in the morning yet attend competing political meetings that night. Political parties become destructive when they demonize and polarize, becoming one of a series of reinforcing elements fragmenting the country.

Recently, in Tucson, Arizona, a sweet nine-year-old girl named Christina Taylor Green was elected to her student council. Born on September 11, 2001, Christina was always a particularly welcome symbol of hope to her friends and family. Last Saturday, a neighbor invited Christina to meet Giffords and “see how democracy works.” Christina ended up murdered, shot in the chest.

Americans and Israelis should cultivate a politics of civility, not because of the insane murderer but because we all want to show “how democracy works,” in Christina’s memory, to honor Giffords’ lifework and for our common good.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.

This July 4, Israelis and Americans should celebrate our past

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 7-2-09

This July 4, we remember the shared interests, values, ideals, experiences and enemies uniting Israel and the US. These bonds are particularly important as a new American administration picks on Israel while wooing America’s foes. President Barack Obama himself has deemed the American-Israeli friendship “unbreakable.” Yet his zeal for criticizing Israel, and his initial hesitation even to criticize Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Iran, has unnerved Israelis. Celebrating national holidays and learning national histories help nations understand themselves better, clarifying values and priorities, sifting friend from foe. America and Israel could each learn from the other how to “do” holidays and history better.

The Statue of Liberty holds a...

The Statue of Liberty holds a tablet inscribed with the date of United States independence. Americans can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally.
Photo: Bloomberg

As an American Jew born in New York and bred in a Zionist family, my most exhilarating Fourth of July was in 1976. For months we had been building toward celebrating America’s 200th birthday, especially with Bicentennial Minutes. Every night on CBS television, a celebrity – Ed Asner or Lucille Ball, Walter Cronkite or Betty Ford, Nelson Rockefeller or Gerald Ford – described a moment from the American Revolution. That summer I went to Young Judaea’s Camp Tel Yehudah ambivalently, not wanting to miss the tall ships from around the world that would sail around the Statue of Liberty on July 4.

All doubts disappeared in camp as history-in-the-making overrode history to commemorate. Terrorists hijacked Air France Flight 139 and held all the Jews (and the brave flight crew) hostage at Entebbe Airport in Uganda. After havdala on July 3, when we heard that Israeli commandos had rescued the hostages, we all went crazy – singing and dancing and high-fiving. Pride in Israel and pride in America reinforced one another that day: The Bicentennial healed an America reeling from Watergate and Vietnam as Entebbe healed an Israel still reeling from the Yom Kippur War.

WHEN IT comes to celebrating national holidays, Americans could learn from Israelis. Israel’s national calendar revolves around the traditional Jewish calendar. The major Jewish holidays unite so-called “secular” and religious Israeli Jews in a delightful symphony, mixing the old with the new. Silly shticks like cheesecake on Shavuot and masks on Purim emphasize sacred values like the joys of learning and the joys of giving.

Nationally, the most powerful holidays are Remembrance Day and Yom Ha’atzmaut, Israel’s memorial day followed immediately by Independence Day. The doleful siren’s wail that stops traffic as the nation mourns its fallen soldiers and terror victims reinforces the glee that sweeps the country the day after. The historical experiences of founding the state – as well as the repeated sacrifices imposed on thousands to preserve it – remain immediate, vivid, emotionally raw.

By contrast, the Fourth of July and Memorial Day, like most American holidays, are too frequently divorced from any meaningful rituals or deeper meanings. Some families mourn on Memorial Day, and some communities celebrate July 4 with reverence and appreciation. Alas, for most Americans, these holidays are more days off – or sale days – than days of reflection.

YET AMERICANS can teach Israelis about celebrating historical anniversaries – and appreciating history more generally. Israelis should seek out more “teachable moments,” fostering historical awareness and national pride. This spring, Americans could not avoid Lincoln’s 200th birthday celebrations – will Israelis even notice Herzl’s 150th birthday next May 2, or his 105th yahrzeit today? Recently, the World Zionist Organization helped pass a law in the Knesset launching Herzl Memorial Day, first held in 2005. We need more such initiatives.

Too many Israelis are losing touch with the heroic history that explains what the country is all about. I recently entered my local bookstore on Rehov Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, seeking basic Hebrew texts about Israeli history for school-age kids. There were slim pickings. I asked the sales clerk why there were so few choices, saying that American bookstores feature shelves filled with creative history books for kids. “We are not patriots here,” she shrugged in reply.

Those Bicentennial Minutes, the 60-second snippets celebrating 1776 in 1976, boosted national pride when Americans were demoralized. The CRB (Charles R. Bronfman) Foundation in Canada funds the Heritage Project and Historica “to raise greater interest and awareness of Canada’s past” by “linking what children see at home, on television and on computer screens to their studies at school.” CRB developed the Bicentennial Minute Canadian style, telling stories of Canada’s past while developing various curricula and popular materials.

In Israel, the schools in general need fixing, the history curriculum in particular needs modernizing. Creative initiatives, like “Toldot Yisrael” started by Aryeh Halivni, need funding and support. Halivni wants to record the testimonies of 5,000 people from the founding generation recalling the struggle to establish the state. We need more books, movies, documentaries and computer games explaining the Zionist idea and Israel’s historical fulfillment of it.

Nationalism, patriotism, history itself are not the exclusive preserve of the Right. Since the 1960s, too many conservatives have sought to dominate their national narratives, and too many leftists have ceded the field to them, in both Israel and America. Barack Obama, among others, has spoken eloquently about the need for a bipartisan patriotism that is not the preserve of the Right or the Left.

All democracies, but particularly America and Israel, need a strong civic sensibility, rooted in history. Americans need it because of their diversity; Israelis need it because of the continuing adversity this unique country endures.

In movies, when someone gets knocked on the head and loses his memory, his first question when he wakes up is “Who am I?” Without memory we have no identity; without history we do not know who we are or who we should become. History helps provide the glue that keeps nations together – and fosters the idealism necessary for nations to survive and thrive, especially amid today’s challenges.

The writer is professor of history at McGill University. He is the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and Leading from the Center: Why Moderates Make the Best Presidents. He splits his time between Jerusalem and Montreal.