Michael Oren's Incredible Shrinking Tent

The Hour

By Leonard Fein

Published December 30, 2009, issue of January 08, 2010.
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Here we go again.

This is about two people, a man and a woman, who both live, not incidentally, in Washington, D.C., but who apparently inhabit very different planets.

One is named Michael Oren. He is the current ambassador of the State of Israel to the United States. Oren has a fine scholarly reputation and has generally been thought to identify politically with Israel’s center right. Soon after his arrival to his new post, Oren expressed his eagerness to “reach out to different groups, Jewish and non-Jewish, that have not felt a close attachment to the embassy in the past.” This was taken to mean that Oren wanted to be a “big tent” emissary, that he would in particular welcome dialogue with that large swath of people who, while devoted to Israel’s safety and welfare, part company with Israel’s government and its policies.

Either that was wishful thinking or Oren had an early change of heart. The first evidence of that, in October, was in his rejection of J Street’s invitation to address its first gathering. In a statement announcing the rejection, the Israeli embassy said that it “has been privately communicating its concerns over certain [JStreet] policies… that may impair the interests of Israel.”

Those who genuinely welcomed the big-tent-Oren assumed that the ambassador was operating not at his own discretion but on instruction from Israel — specifically, from Prime Minister Netanyahu, to whom Oren reports.

But then, without specific cause or warning, came Oren’s gratuitous remark at the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s biennial convention in December: “J Street,” the ambassador said, presents “a unique problem in that it not only opposes one policy of one Israeli government, it opposes all policies of all Israeli governments. It’s significantly out of the mainstream. This is not a matter of settlements here [or] there. We understand there are differences of opinion. But when it comes to the survival of the Jewish state, there should be no differences of opinion. You are fooling around with the lives of 7 million people. This is no joke.”

It doesn’t get much nastier or more intrusive than that. By any reasonable standard, J Street is a welcome addition to the Jewish organizational panoply. One need not agree with it, but there is no reason to doubt the seriousness of its commitment to being, as it puts it, “pro-Israel, pro-peace.” The only reason to oppose it is that its policies are entirely independent and often at odds with the policies of the Israeli government. But that warrants opposition, not exclusion or ostracism. And: To insist that on the most serious issue of all, the survival of the Jewish state, we check our judgment at the door and behave like automatons, reserving our reservations for pillow talk, is simply not serious.

It has long been accepted that the job of Israel’s ambassador to America informally includes being ambassador to the Jewish community. But that does not, by any stretch of the imagination, entitle him to act as if he is the mashgiach, declaring who is kosher and who is treyf. Ambassador Oren may believe that J Street is “fooling around” with the lives of 7 million people. But if he does, then the exigencies of his position have impaired his scholarly judgment. For what he chose to say condemns all those who seek to find some zone of comfort where they can express their concern for Israel without being told that they must abandon their critical capacity or their cherished values.

Comes Hannah Rosenthal, the newly appointed head of the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, and when asked by a Haaretz interviewer about Oren’s comment that J Street is threatening the lives of 7 million Jews, replied that the comment was “most unfortunate.” That reply was sufficient to kick up a tempest in an egg-cup. (Disclosure: Hannah is a cherished friend of mine — with whom I have not spoken since the contretemps began.)

The serrated knives of the crazies are predictably out, as the many lunatic blogs show, but the Jewish establishment has also weighed in. Thus, for one unfortunate example, Alan Solow, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations: “Ambassador Oren has been working tirelessly and effectively since his appointment to build upon and enhance the strong relationship between the United States and Israel. All members of the Obama Administration with whom I have discussed his work have been deeply appreciative of his efforts. As an official of the United States government, it is inappropriate for the anti-Semitism envoy to be expressing her personal views on the positions Ambassador Oren has taken as well as on the subject of who needs to be heard from in the Jewish community.”

Excuse me: It is wrong of Rosenthal to express her views on “who needs to be heard from in the Jewish community” but it is not wrong when Oren does that? Yet because of the noise from the Jewish establishment, the State Department and the White House have felt it necessary to be heard as well. The White House has circulated a blah blah statement from Assistant Secretary of State Jeff Feltman: “The Department of State values its close relationship with Ambassador Michael Oren and his staff at the Embassy of Israel in Washington… Ambassador Oren plays an indispensable role in maintaining and strengthening our relationship through his day to day interaction with the Administration and Congress on issues of vital importance to both countries and his vigorous outreach to Americans of all origins and points of view.”

“All points of view” save J Street’s, it seems.

Truth is, it seems to me entirely appropriate for a person charged with battling antisemitism to assess the view that this organization or that threatens the lives of masses of Jews.

But even you believe that Rosenthal stepped across a boundary, there’s this to consider: Oren had already obliterated that boundary.

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