Israeli Democracy Rises to the Occasion


By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-28-12

Despite war drums beating and appalling anti-Arab beatings, the Israeli school year started quite normally yesterday, August 27.  Pushy parents and cranky kids swarmed clothing stores and stationery stores on Sunday. They were then followed by legions of fresh-faced students dreading the return to school on Monday. But you’d never know it, given the headlines, which advanced a political agenda by always caricaturing Israel—and Jerusalem—as dysfunctional.

Life in Jerusalem today is quite pleasant and peaceful—far more similar to clean, safe Montreal in the 1990s than the racially-charged Boston I first encountered in the early 1980s or the crime-scarred New York I grew up in during the 1970s.  That does not mean that Jerusalem is problem free—no city is. And the problem that erupted in Zion Square last week was particularly heartbreaking. An Arab teenager, Jamal Julani, 17 was beaten unconscious by a mob of Jewish teenagers, shouting “Death to Arabs.” One of the eight who was subsequently apprehended uttered more bigoted statements when remanded.



Ultra-orthodox Jewish girl plays in a fountain during summer vacation on August 8, 2012 in Jerusalem, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images)

By contrast, the entire Israeli political establishment led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu united in what President Shimon Peres called “shame and outrage.” Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin visited Julani and his family in Hadassah Hospital, which itself happens to be a lush garden of Arab-Jewish cooperation, where individuals work naturally with each other and serve human beings with tremendous dignity, no matter what their ethnicity, citizenship, or religion.

“It is hard to see you lying in the hospital because of an unimaginable, outrageous act,” Rivlin told Julani, who is now at home. “I came here in the name of the State of Israel, in order to apologize and express anger over what happened.” Rivlin, a proud right-wing Likudnik, was particularly appalled that some of the hooligans wore Betar soccer shirts. He noted how disgusted the founder of Betar and revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky would have been by the crime. And then, showing he was not mentioning the historic disjunction to dodge responsibility but to take it, he said: “We, the government, the Knesset, schools and everyone who sees himself as a leader, are responsible for this.”

In turn, showing the seeds educators can sow, we had at least two conversations about the incident around our table, and another one with family friends within six hours of the kids returning home that day.

Young teenagers calling out “Death to the Arabs” while beating a fellow human being is a despicable byproduct of an inflamed atmosphere, and reflects the worst of Israeli society. Predictably, Israel’s critics have jumped on the incident, using these crimes to indict Israel’s society, culture, and politics more broadly. But that simplistic demonizing narrative overlooks the fact that Israel’s “right wing” leaders are taking responsibility for such violence and trying to educate youth away from such horrors. While Israel’s defenders will only focus on the leaders’ anguished but constructive response—and contrast it with Palestinian celebrations of terror—a true, nuanced conversation about Israel—like all democratic societies—must acknowledge the good and the bad.

The truth in the Middle East is murky. Simplistic condemnations or celebrations should invite suspicion. In complexity, we may not find salvation, but we will at least be closer to the truth and, possibly, better mutual understanding.

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.


Gil Troy: From the Center: Keeping it civil

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-7-08

Last month, a de-magnetized identity card prevented me from entering the building housing my office on the McGill University campus at 10:30 one night. I asked a woman passerby who looked like a faculty member for help. “My ID card isn’t working,” I said. “I teach here.”

“I know who you are,” the woman spit out contemptuously. “You’re that awful right-wing conservative professor.”

Startled, I was about to launch into my standard defense when I face that accusation, saying how I consider myself a centrist, just wrote a book championing moderation and besides, if all she knows about me is that I’m pro-Israel and anti-terror and that makes me conservative, liberalism is in worse shape than I thought. Instead, I wisely stayed silent. I just looked at her quizzically. Backpedaling from this ugly descent into politics when a simple, civil exchange was required, my colleague said she lacked the correct card and left.

This admittedly minor but nevertheless outrageous incident highlights why those of us in the broader Zionist community should be particularly horrified by the pipe bomb attack against Prof. Ze’ev Sternhell ostensibly in the name of Zionism. Those of us who have defended Israel on campus know what it is like to take unpopular stands. We understand that independence of thought is the lifeblood of freedom, that democratic communities and especially intellectual communities wither in environments that smother dissent.

The attacks and ostracism pro-Israel professors experience worldwide reveal that the intolerance underlying the assault against Sternhell is not unique to Israel. But it is rare, and particularly horrible, to see this increasingly common small-mindedness degenerate into violence. The violence reflects the acute shortage of two key ingredients democracy demands: mutuality and civility.

IT IS the most compelling lesson from George W. Bush’s simplistic approach to democracy: Democracy entails much more than choosing your leader. The chaos of Iraq, the brutality of Gaza’s Hamas-Fatah civil war, teach that without mutual respect votes are worthless tools and rights are shams. Citizenship in a democracy requires a commitment to sharing rights, to granting the same liberties to others that we demand and enjoy.

People frequently swing rights as clubs, claiming their right to free speech without extending that freedom to others who disagree with them. Without that grace, people are not enjoying free speech but demanding personal prerogative. Mutuality requires thinking about others, accepting differences within the same community, and limiting some of our excesses for the common good. Mutuality tempers the individualism so essential to freedom, avoiding the descent into selfishness. Civility is the logical and necessary result.

Alas, modern Israel often lacks both mutuality and civility. The litter strewn about too many sidewalks, the aggressiveness harming so many on the roads, the harshness of so many public interactions and the corruption tainting so many leaders, all reflect the elevating of individual whims over communal norms. The palpable, toxic, mutual contempt between left and right, secular and religious, reveals an arrogant presumption of personal infallibility that demeans the freedom of others to draw opposite conclusions reasonably.

And the particular pathology of the settler community, characterized by illegal outposts, bursts of rioting and a growing disrespect for the police and the army is a ticking time bomb that must be defused. Last month, when 40 thuggish settlers attacked an IDF post near Horesh Iron every parent of an IDF recruit or reservist should have denounced this outrage. These soldiers are our sons, brothers and fathers. Anyone who targets them should be jailed; those who facilitate such attacks should be shunned.

After the Sternhell bombing, in the dying days of his administration, while giving interviews sounding more left wing than he ever did so he could guarantee adulation and steady speech income when he travels abroad, Ehud Olmert lectured his fellow citizens about avoiding “lawlessness.” Olmert’s unsuitability to teach anyone about respect for the law underlined his utter inadequacy as the country’s leader.

BOTH VIOLENCE and democracy define Israel’s history, interwoven like the two DNA strands. There is an element of the Wild West in the country, which despite its flaws remains the Middle East’s only real democracy. At its best, this unruliness is part of its appeal, making it compelling as a country-still-in-formation, as a place that can be more open, more malleable, more creative than the more staid West. At its worst, this rowdiness reveals itself in the ugly violence coursing through the society; in the rough way parents handle children, then children handle each other; in the growing crime rate; in occasional outbursts against Palestinians. Like all functional democracies, Israel must forge a community that indulges individuals enough so they flourish without spoiling them so much they harm others.

The balance is delicate, the stakes are high. The Sternhell pipe bombing reflects not only twisted individuals whose moral system has imploded but an ugly strain within society. If America the celebrity-obsessed produces glory hounds like the men who shot Ronald Reagan and killed John Lennon, a politically charged Israel produces ideological fanatics like the criminals who targeted Sternhell.

Fortunately, Israeli society is healthy enough to be united in disgust by this hooliganism. The attack was as evil as it was self-defeating. Instinctively – and blessedly as a disincentive to copycats – reporters echoed Sternhell’s most provocative pronouncements, broadcasting them more loudly than ever in response to this horrific attempt to silence him. All of us who love Israel, who cherish democracy, must embrace Sternhell as he recovers. And in that group hug we should utter the mantra of a healthy democracy rooted in mutuality, fostering civility: Whether or not I agree with you, I will defend to the death your right to express your ideas (knowing that it protects my rights too).

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and 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.


Center Field: The two state solution as the only unhappy alternative

By Gil Troy, JPost, 10-2-08

Some readers objected to the end of my last column on the lessons of Oslo. Most of the column argued that Arab and particularly Palestinian rejectionism destroyed Oslo yet most Westerners could not fathom Palestinian political culture’s destructive and self-destructive addiction to violence. Nevertheless, I concluded, the only solution remains a two-state solution. Critics deemed this claim contradictory.

The two-state solution remains the most logical solution for Israelis and Palestinians because, like the infirmities of old age, it beats the alternative, or in this case, the alternatives. Extremist Palestinians advocate the one-state solution, trusting that masses of Palestinian voters in a secular democratic state would overwhelm Israelis. Across the spectrum, since 1967, many right-wing Israelis have endorsed the status quo, ignoring the psychic, moral, diplomatic, military, political, and economic costs to Israel of controlling millions of hostile non-citizens. A two-state solution can take many forms, including federations with Egypt and Jordan that would mean a three-state or a one and two half-state solution. Somehow, Israel must stop governing millions of Palestinians.

A post-Oslo acceptance of the two-state solution requires launching a new Palestinian entity with low expectations and no illusions, informed by the violence the Oslo process unleashed. In fact, a sophisticated, realistic approach to a Palestinian state should build on two additional failures beyond the Oslo debacle: Ehud Barak’s hasty withdrawal from southern Lebanon and Ariel Sharon’s undemocratic disengagement from Gaza. 

Ironically, of these three recent failures that promised peace but resulted in some form of prolonged war, only the Oslo peace process increased the Israeli death rate in the area under discussion. Israel suffered casualties steadily during its presence in Lebanon, sometimes as many as 20 to 25 soldiers annually. Since then, even including the Second Lebanon war, many fewer have died. Similarly from the start of Yasir Arafat’s renewed war against the Jewish people in 2000, more Israeli soldiers and civilians died in Gaza than the handful who died since the disengagement.

So, yes, the withdrawal from Lebanon emboldened Hizbullah and probably encouraged the Palestinians to believe they could accomplish more with terrorism than with diplomacy. And, yes, the disengagement from Gaza destroyed beautiful communities, disheartened thousands of individual patriots, launched Hamas to power, and subjected Sderot along with other communities in the Western Negev to traumatic, reprehensible bombardments. But the comparative death toll suggests that the alternative to leaving – staying – would have been more costly. The challenge, then, is to do what needs to be done more intelligently, more effectively, and less naively.

Now, many will argue that the West Bank is different, that Judea and Samaria are more integrally connected to the Jewish people than either Southern Lebanon or Gaza, and that, at this point, the rate of anti-Israeli violence is minimal. Moreover, whereas a Hamas-run Gaza can rain Kassams on a small, peripheral community like Sderot, a Hamas-run West Bank could rain more destructive missiles on Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport.

Ultimately, a sober, security-minded approach responds to these valid arguments and others by starting with the assumption that clear borders shrewdly and patiently negotiated offer more security than the current mess. Those who dream of Israel’s Biblical boundaries have to acknowledge that millions more Palestinians than Jews streamed to those areas in the twentieth century and that Israel’s security barrier has formalized the demographic realities as of 2000. Given the separation, it is better for Palestinians to control their own destiny than to have Israelis trying to control them. And, especially in today’s climate, the rules of engagement between hostile neighbors are much clearer than the protocols for one nation dominating another.

Had the Gaza disengagement been handled more intelligently, Israel would have had a good example of how to proceed. Ariel Sharon claimed there would be zero-tolerance for violence, that any attacks by air, sea, or land from Gaza would be dealt with severely. After the first post-engagement Kassam flew, Israel needed to respond militarily, close the border, cut off electricity in Gaza, and retake one evacuated settlement. Had Israel responded so aggressively once, maximum twice, the situation probably would not have deteriorated.

Unlike during the Oslo years, Israel should not rush into anything. Israel should approach the two-state solution gradually, with benchmarks of progress toward peace Palestinians could follow. If that sounds uneven, condescending, and high-handed, it also acknowledges the tragic fact that following the events of 2000 to 2004, Israel is the victim and the victor. The Palestinians unleashed the violence – and lost. In the equivalent of suing for peace, they have to demonstrate their readiness to make peace – with Israel free to retreat whenever security threats or violations occur.

A two-state solution could provide moral, diplomatic, and military clarity. Borders are easier to defend when they are clear, not ambiguous. Actions are easier to justify when the moral onus is on one aggressor not a people who play the victim card as an occupied people.

Ronald Reagan, the arch enemy of Communism, negotiated with the Soviets when he saw it was in his country’s best interests to do so. His mantra throughout the negotiations, “Trust but verify” reflected the need to progress with no illusions. Oslo buried many Israelis’ illusions about the short-term prospects of a true peace with the Palestinians, or most of the Arab world. But the Olso-triggered terrorism could not kill the need for progress or the chance, eventually, for some stability. The Oslo peace process assumed good will would develop quickly among the two peoples. A new approach should assume lingering bad faith among Palestinians unless hard evidence suggests otherwise. But bad faith does not preclude enduring stability or serious progress toward a more workable solution. Israel should not withdraw for the sake of the Palestinians, but for the sake of Israel.