The unfortunate drift to theocracy continues. Recently, religious leaders in the army wanted to read a letter at prayers denouncing a policy shift that so infuriated them, they wrote: "We cannot -- we will not -- comply with this unjust law." Initially, high ranking officials did not want the letter read to religious troops because it "could be misinterpreted as a call to civil disobedience within our nation''s military ranks." Cooler heads prevailed. Even as the army brass conceded that the letter’s “dissemination … as part of a religious service was not a matter for Army review," the fundamentalists eliminated that one line and distributed it from their military pulpits.
Had this brouhaha occurred in Israel, with rabbis as the “religious leaders” and settlers as the “religious troops,” renewed warnings of Israel becoming like Iran – as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton charged recently – would have trumped the happy news of compromise. But this news came from the Catholic News Service. It refers to Catholic opposition to the Obama administration’s plan to force Catholic institutions with non-Catholic workers to pay for abortions and contraception under Obamacare. President Obama ultimately relented, and will allow outside insurance providers to cover those services. Before that, as part of a nationwide campaign of rage, Catholic military chaplains distributed the harsh letter from the Archbishop for the Military Services – minus the offending line.
While the issue aroused passions in the US, this military power struggle raised no worries about America turning theocratic. Although some bloggers shrieked that Obama was destroying religious freedom, few Americans feared the republic was imperiled. For Israel, the incident is doubly instructive. First, it reminds us that Israel is not the only democracy navigating complicated religion and state issues, it is not the only democracy with a religious infrastructure embedded within its armed forces, and it is not the only democracy still working out core identity issues through values’ clashes. Democracies are disputatious; important rights frequently collide. Such tensions, even painful dilemmas, are signs of life not forebodings of death.
A second lesson is that there is a particular hysteria -- call it “hIsraesteria” -- surrounding discussion of many issues in Israel. “HIsraesteria” afflicts friends and foes of the Jewish state. For Israel’s supporters, it manifests itself in constant anxiety, reducing Zionist hopes into perpetual fears, viewing Israel as the central headache of the Jewish people. In fairness, the hysteria is sometimes justified. Israel has real enemies, with deep enmity, who seek to exploit any weaknesses. And Israel is a young country with an immature democracy, a democracy frequently tested by war, terror and espionage, populated by millions raised in undemocratic political cultures, especially Russia and the Arab world.
Israel’s enemies use “hIsraesteria” to try furthering their goal of delegitimizing the Jewish State. With Israel the one country in the world on probation – the one country whose legitimacy seems contingent on “good,” meaning compliant, behavior, critics quickly jump from criticizing Israel to repudiating it. Critics love pathologizing Israel’s day-to-day problems, magnifying the common conflicts any democracy might experience into some epoch-making, dream-tarnishing, weakness-inducing immoral mess. And “hIsraesteria” often leads Israel’s critics to caricature Israel’s friends, treating Zionists as heavy-handed bigots.
Two weeks ago, I endured such caricaturing, when I was attacked in the Harvard Crimson, based on a lecture I gave three months earlier and a Jerusalem Post article I wrote about it the next day. The irony is that I reported good news – that I had been warmly, respectfully received at Harvard. Emphasizing that, to show how we can have productive, open-minded campus conversations about Zionism, Israel, and Jewish identity, I mentioned that “on too many campuses” – emphasizing some not all—pro-Israel or Zionist speakers have been “harassed.”
Caricaturing my argument, trying to set me up as a straw man – or a Zionist bogeyman – a student radical on campus pole-vaulted past my words claiming, Troy “relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that ‘pro-Palestinian’ means ‘anti-Semitic.’” In the article, I never used the term “anti-Semitic”—I mentioned “anti-Zionist forces.” Moreover, I have acknowledged repeatedly in writing that many people are pro-Palestinian or critical of Israel without being anti-Semitic. The student distorted my “assumptions” and my “writing” with no evidence but with a clear purpose: to set herself up as open-minded and enlightened while caricaturing me – and by implication all Zionists – as petty and prejudiced. The title of the article “What Anti-Semitism?” treated modern Anti-Semitism as an exaggeration, the pathetic fantasy of extremist minds, as she supposedly proved it didn’t exist by falsely claiming I said it existed where I didn’t say it existed -- then not finding it there.
I rebutted the charge quickly but was left wondering about this Jewish student’s motivation, and the broader phenomenon. This spring, on too many campuses – again, some not all – pro-Palestinian forces will mount an anti-Israel week. Central to the charge will be the erroneous, offensive comparison between Israeli security policies and the systematic racism of the old Apartheid state in South Africa. This modern libel is another form of “hIsraesteria,” making an exaggerated claim – insulting to Jews because it libels the Jewish state and insulting blacks because it hijacks the experience of those who genuinely suffered in South Africa. Just as false analogies diminish the Holocaust, they diminish Apartheid, which legally typed people by skin color.
Students and professors should make their rebuttal – without succumbing to the hysteria. It is much better to invest, as so many are, in building an Israel Peace Week, than to get too mired in shadowboxing against false charges, made by hysterics. Let us not forget. Overall, Israel is thriving – that should be our headline and inoculate us against “hIsraesteria.”
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. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy