Monday, May 12, 2008

Gil Troy's Why I Am A Zionist: Israel @ 60

A video slide show celebrating 60 years of Israel set to Gil Troy’s updated version of his "Why I Am A Zionist" article (2001).
Video designed and edited by Bonnie K. Goodman.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

The cloud that shadows Israel's 60th

Despite its miraculous progress over six decades, the country is still threatened by its neighbours

By Gil Troy
Montreal Gazette, May 07, 2008

At sundown tonight, Israel marks its 60th anniversary, celebrating impressive national achievements. In 1948, the fragile, embattled country was a harsh place to live, as imperiled as a blade of grass planted in a desert surrounded by menacing predators. Six decades later, the country is a stable, thriving democracy with seven million citizens.

No longer a flimsy seedling, Israel is like a microchip, small, sophisticated - and complicated - generating great power, attracting much attention.
Yet, despite this country's miraculous progress in six decades, the 10th anniversary of Israel 's 50th anniversary is sobering. Looking at 2008 from 1998, not 1948, highlights the devastating impact of the Oslo peace process's failure.

Today, it is easy to forget David Ben-Gurion's daring in urging Israel 's independence. The British planned to relinquish control of Palestine on May 14, 1948. In November, 1947, the United Nations had voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab territory - both groups called themselves "Palestinians." Ben-Gurion, the gruff, charismatic leader of the Yishuv, the Jewish state's preliminary government, endorsed the compromise. That too, took courage because the plan offered hard-to-defend boundaries and internationalized Jerusalem .

Arab leaders rejected the UN decision. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem called for jihad. From November 1947 through May 1948, local Arabs slaughtered 1,256 Jewish men, women and children with truck bombs and ambushes, shootings and stabbings.

With Jerusalem besieged, and five surrounding Arab armies ready to pounce, many proposed postponing independence. Harry Truman's secretary of defence, the legendary George Marshall, warned Ben-Gurion's emissary "as a military man," that the situation was "grave."

Ben-Gurion, however, felt the Jews had waited long enough. They had lost sovereignty 1,900 years earlier, when the Romans razed Jerusalem , and exiled many - although some Jewish communities remained in their homeland. They had just endured the mass murder of 6 million. And the Zionist movement in Palestine had been building toward this moment, settlement by settlement, institution by institution, since the 1880s.
At 4 p.m. on May 14, 1948, David Ben-Gurion read Israel 's Declaration of Independence. This remarkable document, mixing civic and ethnic nationalism, rooted in history stretching back to the Bible, envisioned peace with all the country's neighbours.

Six thousand Jews died in Israel 's War for Independence , approximately one per cent of the population. After fierce fighting, the borders became more defensible. Jews controlled Jewish Western Jerusalem.

Alas, crack Jordanian troops captured and destroyed the old city's Jewish Quarter, the Jewish people's emotional epicentre.

Ben-Gurion's gamble paid off - although what he "won" was not much of a bargain. The new country, Israel , was small, arid, with minimal economic infrastructure, major enemies and massive waves of immigrants coming to resettle, both the survivors of the Holocaust and, over the next 10 years, nearly one million Jewish refugees expelled from Arab lands. These were days of food rationing, rough clothes, hard work, tempered by the exhilaration of returning to history, controlling their destiny and fulfilling a national mission.

Sixty years later, those who survived walk around Israel amazed. The goodies of modern Western prosperity and freedom abound, for better and worse: cars and traffic, factories and pollution, a flood of consumer goods and waves of individualistic self-indulgence. Headlines emphasize the high-tech inventions, the medical advances, the cutting-edge research. Less appreciated are record-level per-capita rates of book publishing and reading, charitable giving and volunteering, spiritual seeking and study.

Perhaps most surprising to outsiders - and most impressive given the country's tragic history - is an ingrained peace ethos. So many defining Israeli songs yearn for peace - Shir LaShalom, a song of peace, Nolatedi LeShalom, I was born for peace, Salaam Aleikum, peace be upon you - Arabic title, Hebrew lyrics, universal hope. Cynics might scoff, but the world has seen the difference between civilizations craving peace, and cultures celebrating vilification and violence.

And that explains the trauma of the 10th anniversary of the 50th. In 1998, the Oslo Accords fed Israelis' hope for peace with their Palestinian neighbours. As it did with the Sinai in 1979, Israel had made the historically unprecedented step of offering to leave contested territory seized legitimately in a border dispute. Israel imported Yasser Arafat from Tunis , offering his forces weapons and training. Alas, rather than being another Nelson Mandela, Arafat remained a terrorist. The renewed Palestinian terror campaign beginning in 2000 shattered Israelis' hope for normalcy.
That Israel's self-defence earned such worldwide opprobrium, despite the Oslo concessions, demoralized Israelis.

Israel has a strong democratic culture of self-criticism that does not exist in the Arab world. Most Israelis, from across the political spectrum, hold two contradictory positions. They lambaste their own leaders for various missteps. Still, most believe Israel 's mistakes pale amid this great betrayal when Palestinians turned from negotiations toward terror - and attracted world support rather than being urged back to negotiate.

As a result, clouds shadow tonight's celebrations. Independence Day festivities immediately follow the Day of Mourning for Fallen Soldiers and Terror Victims. This year particularly, as Israelis swing abruptly from lamentation to exhilaration, they will delight in the miracles they have created since 1948. They will mourn their lost loved ones and dashed hopes. But they will sing their collective songs of peace, knowing that they - and their neighbours - were born for peace, that peace must come upon them, in Arabic and Hebrew, with both sides willing to be self-critical, make critical compromises, and seek a solution that will make the 10th anniversary of the 60th anniversary a moment of absolute joy.

Center Field: Why I am a Zionist

By Gil Troy
Jerusalem Post,, May 7, 2008

Today, too many friends and foes define Israel, and Zionism, by the Arab world's hostility. Doing so misses Israel's everyday miracles, the millions who live and learn, laugh and play, in the Middle East's only functional democracy. Doing so ignores the achievements of Zionism, a gutsy, visionary movement which rescued a shattered people by reuniting a scattered people. Doing so neglects the transformative potential of Zionism, which could inspire new generations of Israeli and Diaspora Jews to find personal redemption by redeeming their old-new communal homeland.

Tragically, Zionism is embattled. Arabs have demonized Zionism as the modern bogeyman, and many have clumped Zionists, along with Americans and most Westerners, as the Great Satans. In Israel, trendy post-Zionists denigrate the state which showers them with privilege, while in the Diaspora a few Jewish anti-Zionists loudly curry favor with the Jewish state's enemies. Jews should reaffirm their faith in Zionism; the world should appreciate its many accomplishments. Zionists must not allow their enemies to define and slander the movement.

No nationalism is pure, no movement is perfect, no state ideal. But today Zionism remains legitimate, inspiring, and relevant, to me and most Jews. Zionism offers an identity anchor in a world of dizzying choices - and a road map toward national renewal. A century ago, Zionism revived pride in the label "Jew"; today, Jews must revive pride in the label "Zionist."

I AM a Zionist because I am a Jew - and without recognizing Judaism's national component, I cannot explain its unique character. Judaism is a world religion bound to one homeland, shaping a people whose holy days revolve around the Israeli agricultural calendar, ritualize theological concepts, and relive historic events. Only in Israel can a Jew fully live in Jewish space and by Jewish time.

I am a Zionist because I share the past, present, and future of my people, the Jewish people. Our nerve endings are uniquely intertwined. When one of us suffers, we share the pain; when many of us advance communal ideals together, we - and the world - benefit.

I am a Zionist because I know my history - and after being exiled from their homeland more than 1900 years ago, the defenseless, wandering Jews endured repeated persecutions from both Christians and Muslims - centuries before this anti-Semitism culminated in the Holocaust.

I am a Zionist because Jews never forgot their ties to their homeland, their love for Jerusalem. Even when they established autonomous self-governing structures in Babylonia, in Europe, in North Africa, these governments in exile yearned to return home.

I am a Zionist because those ideological ties nourished and were nurtured by the plucky minority of Jews who remained in the land of Israel, sustaining continued Jewish settlement throughout the exile.

I am a Zionist because in modern times the promise of Emancipation and Enlightenment was a double-edged sword, often only offering acceptance for Jews in Europe after they assimilated, yet never fully respecting them if they did assimilate.

I am a Zionist because in establishing the sovereign state of Israel in 1948, the Jews reconstituted in modern Western terms a relationship with a land they had been attached to for millennia, since Biblical times - just as Japan or India established modern states from ancient civilizations.

I am a Zionist because in building that state, the Jews returned to history and embraced normalcy, a condition which gave them power, with all its benefits, responsibilities, and dilemmas.

I am a Zionist because I celebrate Israel's existence. Like any thoughtful patriot, though I might criticize particular government policies I dislike - I do not delegitimize the state itself. I am a Zionist because I live in the real world of nation-states. I see that Zionism is no more or less "racist" than any other nationalism, be it American, Armenian, Canadian, or Czech. All express the eternal human need for some internal cohesion, some tribalism, some solidarity among some historic grouping of individuals, and not others.

I am a Zionist because we have learned from North American multiculturalism that pride in one's heritage as a Jew, an Italian, a Greek, can provide essential, time-tested anchors in our me-me-me, my-my-my, more-more-more, now-now-now world.

I am a Zionist because in Israel we have learned that a country without a vision is like a person without a soul; a big-tent Zionism can inculcate values, fight corruption, reaffirm national unity, and restore a sense of mission.

I AM a Zionist because in our world of post-modern multi-dimensional identities, we don't have to be "either-ors", we can be "ands and buts" - a Zionist AND an American patriot; a secular Jew BUT also a Zionist. Just as some people living in Israel reject Zionism, meaning Jewish nationalism, Jews in the Diaspora can embrace it. To those who ask "How can you be a Zionist if you don't make aliya," I reply, "How will anyone make aliya without first being a Zionist?"

I am a Zionist because I am a democrat. The marriage of democracy and nationalism has produced great liberal democracies, including Israel, despite its democracy being tested under severe conditions.

I am a Zionist because I am an idealist. Just as a century ago, the notion of a viable, independent, sovereign Jewish state was an impossible dream - yet worth fighting for - so, too, today, the notion of a thriving, independent, sovereign Jewish state living in true peace with its neighbors appears to be an impossible dream - yet worth seeking.

I am a Zionist because I am a romantic. The story of the Jews rebuilding their homeland, reclaiming the desert, renewing themselves, was one of the 20th century's greatest epics, just as the narrative of the Jews maintaining their homeland, reconciling with the Arab world, renewing themselves, and serving as a light to others, a model nation state, could be one of this century's marvels. Yes, it sometimes sounds far-fetched. But, as Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism, said in an idle boast that has become a cliche: "If you will it, it is no dream."

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University . He is the author of "Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today. This is an updated version of an essay he first wrote for Yom Ha'atzmaut 2001.