I recently completed a week-long, 15-lecture speaking tour in London. I was impressed by how much more connected the British Jews I met feel with one another and with Israel than do many American Jews – yet distressed by how much more beleaguered they feel, scarred by European anti-Zionism. The last question asked during my last talk addressed this blight.
The questioner wondered whether this intensifying hostility toward Israel and Zionism represented Israel’s tactical failure to defend itself effectively or the antisemites’ irrational hatred. I answered: “yes, both.” We haven’t explained ourselves well, yet our efforts are doomed. Antisemitism, the world’s longest – and hippest – hatred, persists no matter how brilliant our arguments, or selfless our actions. Anti-Zionism grew in academia, and Europe, during the Oslo peace process, when Israel was conceding territory.
True, for too long, Israel too frequently defended itself abroad with unappealing bureaucrats making heavy-handed arguments. And while Foreign Ministry advancement too often reflects one’s skills at self-promotion not national defense, Israel has sent exceptional, eloquent ambassadors to the UK. Daniel Taub, and now Mark Regev, represent a new generation of media-savvy diplomats who understand that representing Israel involves winning PR wars.
Still, while worrying about Israeli PR, I reject the Diasporist critique that particular Israeli policies “don’t do us any good” abroad. That approach reflects the victim’s obsession with the oppressor. We need Israeli policies that are good, not policies to make Israel look good.
Let’s also acknowledge the massive Jewish educational failure regarding Israel and Zionism. Most Jewish day schools excel at motivating kids to get into the right college, not motivating them to defend Israel while at college. Too many Jewish educators and parents describe Israel in such glowing terms, they neglect any problems, any complexities. They transform Israel into this perfect, and perfectly fragile, vase. The first time a professor, a roommate, an author, criticizes Israel the glass shatters for the propagandized student. Many, feeling betrayed, then turn on Israel, and the Jewish community.
Propagandists call it inoculation – introducing minor criticisms in safe frameworks fights off the “germs” of doubt. I call it education: the moral teacher is honest, and open to multi-dimensionality. I educate toward complexity, not to score propaganda points but to hew to the truth, confident that a well-balanced assessment shows that Israel, despite occasional sins, is more democratic, liberal, virtuous, than it was in the past – and than its democratic sisters have been when facing similar dilemmas.
We need a vibrant, deep, romantic yet critical educational process and explanation effort – not for others but for ourselves. This is especially because no argument will sway the bigots, whose hatred is metastasizing, fed by post-modernism and intersectionality – a system that privileges certain forms of suffering as sacrosanct but dismisses the trauma of antisemitism.
My shtetl-born grandfather Leon Gerson saw antisemites behind every tree, even in America. Born into the post-Auschwitz covenant, I disagreed, insisting: “the world learned its lesson.” I discovered how wrong I was in 2000. As soon as the Palestinians decided to turn from negotiations back to terrorism, the world blamed Israel, without giving Israel credit for its many Oslo concessions. Then, in 2002, the kidnapping and killing of Daniel Pearl, the Wall Street Journal reporter, killed my illusions. “What kind of fool wanders back alleys in Pakistan while reporting about the mass murderers who supported 9/11,” my students asked me.
I was that kind of a fool. I never met Daniel Pearl but I understood him. We were both born into the post- World War II Pax Americana. He was lucky enough to go to Stanford, I, lucky enough to go to Harvard. He became a journalist, I became a professor. He worked for a world-class newspaper, The Wall Street Journal
. I worked for a world-class university, McGill. We felt quadruply protected from history. I would have decided, as Pearl fatefully did, that these terrorists wanted him to tell their stories; they wouldn’t hurt him.
The Islamists kidnapped Pearl as an American – but murdered him as a Jew. They forced him, in that infamous snuff video I forced myself to watch, to say: “My mother is Jewish, my father is Jewish, I am Jewish.” Then, they cut off his head. With that, my illusions died. Antisemitism lives.
I smell the fetid smell of antisemitism in the harsh, disproportionate singling out of Israel, the blame-Israel- firsters, treating it as the Jew among nations. I see it when academic colleagues violate their core ideals, their professional standards, their commitments to liberal democracy, only to demonize Israel.
I see it when the UN, especially UNESCO, denies our history, our stories, our roots in Hebron, at the Temple Mount, in the Land of Israel, our homeland. (And asserting our rights doesn’t necessarily negate other claims. I condemn many current expressions of Palestinian nationalism, but acknowledge their collective identity).
I abhor this antisemitism and resist it. I will continue teaching our Zionist narrative, celebrating our Jewish state, refuting the lies, proving the truths. I’d rather be a romantic than a cynic. I’d rather be a truth-teller than a pop star. I’d rather be disliked than dead. Golda Meir said “you can’t be a Zionist and a pessimist.”
I am a Zionist, and I am an educator, which means, instinctively, I am an optimist and an idealist too, despite the world’s hippest and longest hatred.The writer is the author of The Age of Clinton: America in the 1990s. His forthcoming book, The Zionist Ideas, which updates Arthur Hertzberg’s classic work, will be published by The Jewish Publication Society in Spring 2018. He is a Distinguished Scholar of North American History at McGill University.
Follow on Twitter @GilTroy.