The Last Word: A Fantasy Visit to Israel

The Last Word: A Fantasy Visit to Israel
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Gil Troy

“I’d love to sit at a cafe and just hang out,” President Barack Obama told Israel’s Channel 2 on March 14. Obama confessed: “Sometimes I have this fantasy that I can put on a disguise and wear a fake mustache.” He mused about wandering Tel Aviv and meeting university students casually.

In that spirit, I offer an alternative itinerary for his recent Israel trip. This itinerary would confirm Obama’s insight from his 2008 Atlantic interview, that Zionism reflects “the incredible opportunity that is presented when people finally return to a land and are able to try to excavate their best traditions and their best selves.”

The President had no chance to witness any natural, peaceful Arab-Jewish interactions, which occur regularly – although not ubiquitously – in Israel. I would begin at Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, so he could meet with students representing its diverse population – Israeli Arabs constitute at least 10% of the student body.

We could then walk to Hadassah Hospital with its easy mix of Jews and Arabs, religious and non-religious, all living in the republic of medicine – impressively, naturally integrated. Jews and Arabs also mingle easily together at the YMCA’s gym, the Max Rayne Hand in Hand School for Bilingual Education, and the new railroad-tracks-turned-walking-jogging-and-bicycle-path “Park Ha-Mesilah”. All these places reflect the world that could be.

At Hadassah, Obama could learn about Israel’s medical miracles. One institution alone, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, helped develop seven of today’s top-25 biotech drugs. I would give him Start Up Nation, where Dan Senor and Saul Singer explain that the Israeli army’s culture of blunt criticism, even from privates to officers, fosters an improvisational, out-of-the-box, problem-solving spirit essential to Israel’s high-tech miracle.

We would then hop on the new Jerusalem light rail – showcasing urban environmentalism in action – reaching Mahane Yehudah, the bustling outdoor “shuk,” market. Marinating in Israel’s linguistic, racial, ethnic and class diversity, we could brainstorm about ways to refute the Zionism-racism and apartheid slurs, which feed a delegitimisation movement that threatens the peace process by encouraging radicalism and mutual antagonism.

While observing the frenzied purchase of cleaning products and Passover foods, we would toast ethnic-based nationalism, appreciating the opportunities afforded to build a rich public culture that, in this case, is Jewish, and the particular blessings of realising it in what modern Zionism’s founder Theodor Herzl called Altneuland, the Old New Land – the land of Abraham’s desert and Silicon Wadi, of Beth-el and Intel, of Jesus and ICQ.

We could discuss Obama’s view of multicultural nationalism expressed in his 2004 Democratic Convention keynote while reading Israel’s Declaration of Independence – which combines ethnic and civic nationalism, a state that is publicly Jewish, rooted in the Bible, while promising all its inhabitants equal rights and civic dignity.  

Our last stop would be my intellectual home in Jerusalem, the Shalom Hartman Institute, to study the late Rabbi David Hartman’s insights for bridging the religious-secular, traditional-modern, and Israeli-Palestinian divides. We would discuss the Institute’s “Engaging Israel” project and its vision of Israel as a “Values Nation,” an exemplary model combining the best of traditional Jewish values and Western democratic ideals.

And finally, I would give him my new book, on Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Moynihan’s Moment, emphasising how in 1975 American support for Israel – and contempt for the UN’s Zionism is racism resolution – was popular and bipartisan, as it should remain.

Noting the upcoming tenth anniversary of Moynihan’s death on March 26, I would enlist the President in my campaign to get a Jerusalem street named after Moynihan, America’s former UN ambassador. After all, if the President can fantasise, why can’t I?

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His latest book Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism has just been published by Oxford University Press. © Jerusalem Post, reprinted by permission, all rights reserved.