Celebrating An Open Jerusalem

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-25-12

Warning: this posting contains good news and positive thoughts about Israel, Jerusalem and the Middle East.

So many of the narratives about Israel are so negative, especially in the media, that we often fail to note the poetry of the everyday that comes from living in the Jewish state, or even the most mundane prose of life that shows that things are functioning. What I think of as the Great Israel Disconnect distorts: the gap between the hysterical, judgmental, apocalyptic headlines, and the calmer, happier, more meaningful experiences of most Israelis, most of the time (be they Jewish, Christian or Muslim) is confusing. As a result, some dismiss all the media jeremiads as propagandistic and jaundiced, while others dismiss any positive reports as propagandistic and deceitful.

 

Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism's most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)
Israeli children ride their bicycles at a car-free street in Jerusalem, during Yom Kippur, Judaism’s most solemn day. (Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty Images)

 

In the few hours before Yom Kippur begins in Jerusalem, it is worth contemplating the magic of that day in the Jewish State, as an indicator of many of Israel’s greatest successes. For starters, Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, is not really just one “yom” day—despite its name. It is the culmination of a 40-day process that begins as the last month of the year, Elul, begins. Especially in Jerusalem, there is a flowering of Jewish learning as people study texts about forgiveness, piety, the power of prayer, the meaning of life. In the Sephardic (Spanish/Middle Eastern) tradition, there are additional “Slichot” forgiveness prayers for an entire month—with some waking up at midnight or at 4 am to recite them; in the Ashkenazic (Eastern European) tradition those prayers only begin a week before the Jewish New Year. This week, I had the privilege of participating in Slichot prayers at midnight at the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Charles E. Smith High School for Boys, which my two sons attend. Experiencing the mix of Ashkenazic and Sephardic prayers and rituals was incredibly moving, offering a counternarrative of communal respect and interweaving contradicting the usual focus on ethnic gaps and communal tensions.

Similarly, during a pre-Yom Kippur jog through the Old City, I witnessed a very different Jerusalem than the one I usually read about. I always tell visitors to the city never to walk alone in the Old City. That is a historical spur, not a safety warning. “Walk with someone on your shoulder,” I like to say. “It can be David or Solomon, the kings who built the city, Jesus or Mary for our Christian friends, or an ancestor or relative who never made it here—and whom you are now representing.” In fact, the real hazards I faced—as usual in my jogs—were slippery steps, rocky roads and the occasional bicyclist. In hundreds of jogs through the Old City over more than five years, I have never witnessed an argument, never tasted fear (despite being a hyper-aware and cautious native New Yorker). The only clash I have ever experienced occurred when a young Arab cyclist and I each turned a blind corner and nearly collided. Instead, we ended up in an awkward (but manly!) hug. I like to think of that as a metaphor for what we could achieve, rather than the collisions that we more frequently read about.

As I jog through the Old City, I always imagine myself a human thread, weaving together the past and the present, uniting the different communities, as I traverse a borderless entity. I am neither deaf to Palestinian cries for national fulfillment nor numb to the occasional tensions and pressing issues. But I also see a calm, a functionality, a vitality that is equally palpable, and in fact defines the experiences of most Jerusalemites, which is why the population keeps growing and demands for Israeli citizenship papers from the Eastern (Palestinian) Jerusalem side grow too.

Finally, as Yom Kippur itself begins, I will see—as I have seen repeatedly before—a tremendous display of Jewish unity. Israel turns into one vast spiritual retreat center, as by custom not law cars disappear from the streets, and a deep, elevating spiritual quiet envelops the country. As the Jerusalem Post reports, “approximately two-thirds of Jewish Israelis will fast this Yom Kippur and over 80 percent will use the day either to pray or for general introspection,” blurring the usual distinctions between religious and non-religious. The highlight for many of us in Southern Jerusalem will be the post-Kol Nidre Emek Refaim promenade. After the evening prayers, hundreds of Jerusalemites descend on Emek Refaim, the increasingly fashionable shopping and restaurant boulevard. In a modern equivalent of the Easter Parade, they simply walk—or bicycle—up and down, greeting neighbors and friends, enjoying the liberation from the noise of cars, the burdens of work, and the compulsions of the clock. And—judging by the array of clothing (mostly but not exclusively white) and the happy cyclists pedaling up and down—this is a mix of Israelis, of observant and non-observant, just enjoying the magic.

The Yom Kippur repentance ritual demands that we reconcile with our fellow human beings before we reconcile with God. Note that we are supposed to make our peace with all humans, not just Jews. In toasting the Jerusalem I see—which so frequently unites  Ashkenazic and Separdic, Muslim and Jew, religious and secular, simply in the act of being safe, happy and productive in Israel 2012—I pray that the normalcy I experience will become epidemic and standard, that the reconciliation required will be among peoples not just individuals, and that the only clashes we have next year will end, as mine did, in an awkward (but manly!) embrace.

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.

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Top Ten Apologies We Need to Hear– and Those I Offer

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-24-12

Although apologies are often required throughout the year, during these ten days of penitence Jews are supposed to struggle harder and ask forgiveness for offenses they overlooked during the year – or for cumulative injuries beyond the dramatic hit-and-run sins for which they need to apologize immediately. While “I’m sorry” is the simple phrase to become friends again and make amends, sometimes more elaborate apologies are required – or offered. The legendary New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia’s classic supplication “When I make a mistake it’s a beaut,” conveyed his large personality, when right or wrong. Former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara did not just say, “We were wrong, terribly wrong” about Vietnam, he added, poignantly, “We owe it to future generations to explain why.”  And the Yom Kippur “Ashamnu” prayer is doubly poetic, in affirming individual and community responsibility with its cascade of communal sins, from A to Z.

In the US, Mitt Romney so fears that Barack Obama’s apologies for American foreign policy conveyed weakness, especially to the Arab world, that he issued a manifesto:  “No Apology – the Case for American Greatness.”   While dodging that debate, we should note that the two concepts “apology” and “greatness” are not inherently at odds.  The right apology – proportionate, appropriate, heartfelt – elevates; the wrong apology – grudging, insincere, or unnecessary, demeans.

A grudging or false apology is like a botched shofar blow. We await a clear, dramatic clarion call, at once familiar yet unique, but end with a tepid pffft of hot air, blocked sound, and dashed hopes.  Every parent has had to extract a more sincere apology after a child spit out the words “I’m sorry.”  In March, 1987, Ronald Reagan offered an older man’s variation on the schoolboy’s side step when he said about the Iran-Contra affair:  “A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that is true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not.” One Reagan staffer wrote out the words he believed the American people wanted to hear — “I’m sorry” — but the President purposely ignored the text.

I do not solicit apologies from terrorists, murderers and the like. We don’t share the same moral universe, which is essential for repentance and reconciliation. But in honor of these ten days, here are ten individual apologies I would love to hear, based on recent events:

  • From Barack Obama to the American people for allowing his personal pique at Bibi Netanyahu to unsettle Israelis just when they need more demonstrations of American friendship, both symbolic and real.
  • From Bibi Netanyahu to the Israeli people for allowing his lack of personal chemistry with Barack Obama to cloud relations with Israel’s closest ally.
  • From Tzipi Livni to the Israeli electorate for failing to secure the job of foreign minister in Netanyahu’s government, Livni could have forged a relationship with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that would have alleviated some of the predictable Obama-Netanyahu tension.
  • From Ehud Olmert to his fellow citizens and to the Jewish people for failing to live up to the high ethical standards we merit from our leaders.
  • From Shaul Mofaz for making Israeli politics appear even more ridiculous than usual by leaving the coalition as abruptly as he joined it – what could he possibly have learned about Netanyahu, the Likud, or Israeli politics he didn’t know before he joined?
  • From Bill Clinton to the American people for demonstrating once again his tremendous political talents, thereby reminding many of us that his presidency disappointed because he indulged his baser needs, repeatedly.
  • From Mitt Romney to the “47 percent” of Americans he dismissed for allegedly being too dependent on government handouts – and to the other 53 percent for failing to offer the uplifting, competent, gaffe-free campaign all Americans yearn for, regardless of partisan affiliation – or net worth.
  • From the Haredi extremist bullies who spat on 8-year-old Na’ama Margolis in Bet Shemesh, and to all those who sweep innocent children into their vortex of hate.
  • From the Jewish teenagers, their parents, their teachers, and in some cases their rabbis, who attacked a young Arab Jamal Julani in Jerusalem, and to all bigots and hooligans everywhere.
  • From UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon for emboldening Iran and undermining the Western campaign of sanctions by attending the non-aligned movement meeting in Tehran.

On a personal note, allow me to apologize publicly to all friends, colleagues, relatives, students and readers for whatever words or actions of mine that hurt them this year. I apologize specifically for resorting to sarcasm in a recent column when challenging rabbis-for-Obama not to assert their spiritual authority to make partisan endorsements. The confrontational tone contradicted my work in various contexts, such as the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Engaging Israel Program and the Red Lines and Blue-and-White Lines initiative, trying to construct as big and as welcoming a tent as possible when talking about Israel and Zionism. Striking the right balance on issues close to our hearts is easy to endorse, sometimes hard to implement. I promise to do better in this realm and others.

The difference between a heartfelt apology and one that is phoned-in is the difference between ending up with a relationship doomed to stagnate – at best — and one that can be renewed. True reconciliation is not a monologue but a dialogue. An artful apology not only expresses the deliverer’s remorse but recruits the recipient to accept, stretch, and join in the act of resetting.

In the spirit of the season, I wish everyone a meaningful fast, a good stretch, a healthy epidemic of heartfelt reconciliations and revitalizing resets.

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: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published in November.

End Price Tag Terrorism – and their Culture of Lawlessness

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 10-4-11

During these ten days of repentance, when Jews should reflect on past sins to avoid future ones, some extremist hooligans chose instead to sin anew.  “Price tag” terrorists burned a mosque in the northern Israeli village of Tuba Zangria, graffiting the messages “price tag” and “revenge” nearby.  I am proud that members of the special police task force recently formed to fight these extremists reportedly arrested some suspects already.  I am also proud that a furious Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and an equally indignant President Shimon Peres, condemned the attack.  We all must combat these Price Tag Terrorists, repelling them from our midst, shunning them socially, repudiating them ideologically, while insisting the government hunt down and punish these felons, to stop this madness immediately.

Price Tag Terrorists — and they fit the definition of terrorists, making political points by violently attacking civilian and symbolic targets — have struck before, targeting other mosques, vandalizing army jeeps, and harassing leftwing activists. In condemning these crooks, we must reject the culture of lawlessness festering in the West Bank. Too frequently, political crimes Israeli Jews commit there are overlooked or under-investigated.  Such crimes of intimidation and the double legal standards must end.

There is no wiggle room morally here.  These price tag assaults are an affront to humanity, democracy, Judaism, Zionism, and Jewish history. The perpetrators are not heroes.  Their actions are not legitimate, explainable, or defensible. Too many of us have fought too hard against terrorism – demanding moral clarity from the PA, the UN, the EU, and other terrorist enablers — to pussyfoot.  Just as we enumerate our sins in plural on Yom Kippur, taking responsibility communally, we are all particularly diminished, we are multiply ashamed, we are additionally demeaned because these madmen believe they are acting in our name – and enablers encourage that delusion.

Burning a mosque – or any religious institution – is a particularly inhumane act. Houses of worship traditionally have been places of refuge, neutral sites, benefiting everyone.  We need sacred spaces and shared sanctuaries, common areas of respect. I want synagogues to be specially protected.  I gladly respect mosques and churches in return.

Price tag vigilantes assail the core democratic values consecrated in Israel’s Declaration of Independence. These thugs violate Israel’s commitment to equal rights and mutual respect for all religions, while ignoring the people’s voice.  Taking the law into their own hands, these outlaws bypass democracy, defy the government, insult voting citizens and civil society, acting like traitors not patriots.

These hooligans may as well eat pork on Yom Kippur while driving in their cars and blasting the radio – they have already flouted Judaism so flagrantly, why put on a show of piety? Rather than dressing in white on Yom Kippur they should dress in ash black and blood red, representing the destruction they have brought upon innocents and the shame they bring upon as all.  If they call themselves “religious,” their rabbis should renounce these heinous acts and twisted souls.

Moreover, we who cherish tradition must emphasize that ethics come before ritual, personal morality trumps public piety, to stop the masquerade of criminals hiding terrorist acts – or other crimes –behind yarmulkes and kosher food, prayer books and Bibles.  Our rabbis must remind us – and we, alas, occasionally must remind them – that you cannot be a good Jew –by any interpretation or denomination – without being a good person first. During these ten days of repentance, we must reconcile with other people before reconciling with God.

Although these crooks – along with some extremist reporters –fancy themselves “extremist Zionists” – they are deeply anti-Zionist.  While dishonoring Zionist values, confirming the world’s worst prejudices about Zionism, they also betray the movement’s essential character. There is no room in the political Zionism of Theodor Herzl, the proud Zionism of Zeev Jabotinsky, the Labor Zionism of A.D. Gordon, or the religious Zionism of Rav Abraham Isaac Kook for burning mosques – or attacking soldiers, harassing dissidents, destroying olive groves, or any other Price Tag Terrorist crimes.  Such villainy is not why a Jewish State was created. Nor does this Jewish state need such behavior to be protected.

Jewish history teaches that those in the majority must limit their power and respect minority rights, avoiding abuses like these Price Tag crimes. We should be proud that despite centuries of provocations, even under hellish circumstances, Jews usually maintained their moral compasses.  Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 movie “Inglorious Basterds” was so offensive because he missed that essential historical lesson. In depicting Jews during Hitler’s era as vengeful mass murderers themselves, he posited a moral equivalence between victimizer and victim. Historically, we resisted that temptation – and have chided Palestinians and their supporters who claim their grievances forced them to become suicide bombers.  Today, we should continue following our ancestors’ glorious example not Tarantino or Palestinian perversity.

We are all moral actors, we all have moral choice. Palestinian terrorists choose to commit mass murder – justifiably earning moral opprobrium. Vigilante Price Tag Terrorists choose to commit their crimes – also earning contempt, although their milder crimes of arson, graffiti, and harassment are not comparable to murder.  Many of us have long wanted the Palestinian masses to condemn crimes committed in their names.  We must do the same, as Israelis are doing, refusing to be blinded by false communal solidarity or shoddy self-pitying logic. Rabbis and right-wingers should take the lead, given that previous suspects emerged from their communities.

We should help rebuild that mosque – and embrace the traumatized citizens of Tuba Zangria. We should protect the political activists who were harassed.  And we should demand that the same laws against violence apply to all under Israel’s jurisdiction, ending this outrage wherein Price Tag Terrorists overlook the price we all pay for their crimes.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his most recent book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” giltroy@gmail.com