Mitt Romney’s trip to Israel followed a predictable itinerary, with two twists. He met the usual suspects – Benjamin Netanyahu and Shimon Peres -- then made an unexpected, welcome gesture by meeting with Palestinian Prime Minister Salem Fayyad, the nation builder, while snubbing Mahmoud Abbas the supposed moderate who remains more a delegitimizer than a compromiser. And Romney made the obligatory pilgrimage to the Western Wall, adding the surprising admission that his wife Ann was fasting on Tisha Ba’av, mourning the two Holy Temples’ destructions and the scourge of anti-Semitism. All this reinforced Romney’s politically-charged foreign tour, identifying Great Britain, Poland, and Israel as allies slighted by America’s current president. But Romney needed a more imaginative itinerary to absorb his Israel experience fully and turn his I’m-Not-Barack-Obama tour into a This-is-Who-I-Am moment.
Romney – who has failed so far to offer a compelling personal narrative beyond not being Obama – should have joined the Troy family the week before. Three of my children and I reconnected with some of Israel’s most magnificent sites. The four sites we visited provide four essential messages Romney must master to woo enough undecided voters and win the presidency.
We started in Rehovot, one of Israel’s science and high tech centers. But we visited the low-tech, old fashioned, Machon Ayalon. At this site, which feels like a living time capsule, a thriving Kibbutz in the 1940s hid an underground bullet factory which produced 2.25 million bullets secretly before the 1948 war, defying the British Mandatory authorities. The well-preserved 1940s-style commune reflects Israel’s founders’ idealism and ingenuity. These kids – most were in their late teens and early twenties – faced each obstacle with extraordinary creativity. The bullet factory made noise, so they built a laundry machine right over it. The small kibbutz did not generate enough dirty clothing to justify so many hours of laundering, so they opened a store in town – and started cleaning British army uniforms en masse. The factory also smelled of gunpowder, so they built a bakery, trusting that the burning wood and yummy bread smell would confound the British dogs sniffing for explosives. Such ingenuity, today driving Israel as Start-Up Nation, was then used for nation-building. Romney will need similar dexterity to win the campaign – let alone govern.
Next we visited the Menachem Begin Heritage Center in Jerusalem, the city which Romney recognized as Israel’s capital – because every sovereign state gets to determine its own capital. Encountering the various episodes of a life which my fifteen-year-old son said seemed more fictional than real, witnessing Begin’s journey from the Polish shtetl to a Russian prison, from the underground fight for Israeli independence to the Prime Minister’s office after 29 years in opposition, demonstrated how one individual can determine his fate – and change history. But what was most impressive was how core values Begin learned from his Betar mentor Ze’ev Jabotinsky, continuously shaped his life, including his policy agenda. Romney too, needs to identify his core defining values and showcase them as lodestars which will guide his presidency.
Once inside Jerusalem’s Old City, we climbed up – to walk the top of the walls from Jaffa Gate to the Jewish Quarter. There, where my 12-year-old says you “can learn the most about Israel, just by seeing so much,” we took the broad view, seeing the symphony of minarets, church towers and synagogues that characterize Jerusalem at its holiest. We felt the flow of history from modern times represented by the new city, to medieval times represented by Mount Zion’s Churches, to ancient times as we finally viewed the Temple Mount. Without a sweeping vision of what America can be and should be, Romney will not defeat an opponent who remains widely liked and respected, even by those who are frustrated and disappointed by his leadership.
Finally, at my ten-year-old daughter’s initiative, we visited Ir David, the ancient city of David, on the other side of the Old City from the Begin Center. Marveling at the sophistication of Jewish civilization 3000 years ago, seeing the oldest toilet in the Middle East and navigating through a Biblical tunnel hewn out of hard rock 2700 years ago, we took pride in our roots. Mitt Romney cannot win without figuring out how to embrace his roots, how to tell his story.
So far, his fear of triggering the broad, reprehensible anti-Mormon prejudice festering on the American right and the American left, has silenced Romney about his past, about what made him who he is today. Imagine Obama’s 2008 campaign if he were campaigning in the 1950s, when it would have been embarrassing to talk about a single mother, a wayward father, and a search for self. So far, Romney’s campaign has been stifled by his inability to talk about the most interesting thing in his biography – how his Mormonism turned him into a mensch, how the common Western religious values that link Judaism, mainstream Christianity and Mormonism propelled Romney toward public service and to many private acts of kindness. Until he can tell that tale, until he can embrace who he is, he will appear secretive and inauthentic to the American voter and remain vulnerable to Democratic attacks, which are defining him amid the vacuum emanating from his own campaign.
Tourism, as its best, stretches people beyond their usual comfort zones. Political tourism, on the whole, simply postures and signifies who you already are. Romney’s campaign desperately needed some Vitamin I – Israel as its most potent, its most transformative. Perhaps Romney’s old friend Bibi slipped him some in bottled form – although Bibi could also use some reminding to be ingenious, engage core values, and take a broad view while embracing your roots and your true self.
Gil Troy 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, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall.