The new memoir by Michael Oren, recounting his four years as the Israeli ambassador to Washington and his “journey across the American-Israeli divide,” ignited debate before the 400-page book was even published yesterday. Much of that was due to Oren himself, who in a few strategically-placed opinion pieces, siphoned off the most provocative parts of his analysis to blame President Obama for the growing divide and much else wrong in the Middle East today.
Oren’s reputation as a respected historian has taken a beating in the process, as the version of events outlined in “Ally” has been challenged repeatedly. Our purpose here is not to pile on, though the disconnect between his narrative and the facts can lead a reader to question his overall credibility.
Oren also took with him to Washington another sterling credential: His intuitive knowledge of American Jews. He was born here, bred in New Jersey and educated in the Ivy League, where he also taught. He spoke our language, prayed in our synagogues, embibed our culture, which was his culture until he made aliya to Israel. It was the perfect resume for someone hired in 2009 to be the interlocutor between a new American administration headed by a Democrat and a new Israeli one headed by Benjamin Netanyahu of the more right-wing Likud.
Yet here, too, there is a disconnect. A fair and careful reading of “Ally” reveals an ambassador so intent on analyzing what he perceives to be a hostile White House that he doesn’t try hard enough to understand why most American Jews not only continue to support Obama but align themselves so fulsomely with progressive values and politics.
This is especially surprising because Oren acknowledges that even his own family members were enamored of the president — they “bedecked themselves with Obama pins and even slept in Obama pajamas.” But it seems he never sought to ask them why.
In a revealing passage he writes: “I could not help questioning whether American Jews really felt as secure as they claimed. Perhaps persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its often controversial policies. Maybe that was why so many of them supported Obama, with his preference for soft power, his universalist White House seders, and aversion to tribes.”
We’ll put aside the dripping sarcasm here and try to unpack this critique.
Fears of anti-Semitism don’t impel American Jews to distance themselves from Israel. Anti-Semitism is at historic lows and while it may have haunted Oren’s childhood, it is simply not a lived experience for most Jews today — especially younger Jews, who are more likely to question the controversial policies Oren cites and reject Netanyahu’s persistent warnings that it’s 1939 all over again.
Oren is famed for writing brilliantly about the Six Day War, but for many Jews who came of age since 1967, Israel is seen not as David but Goliath; not as victim but as occupier. That same generation’s experience of American military engagements — Iraq and Afghanistan — has understandably persuaded them that the “soft power” Oren derides is far preferable to pursue than the reckless wars championed by George W. Bush and his contemporary acolytes.
The pluralism Oren ridicules is by now built into the DNA of American Jews (except, perhaps, those who live in ultra-Orthodox enclaves.) We feel accepted here because we are, and that leads many of us to strive to broaden that acceptance to those not as privileged. Of course, the president looks awkward wearing a yarmulke in the official Seder photograph, but that image serves as a powerful acknowledgement that our religious tradition is on equal footing with the Christianity that once dominated America.
The same cannot be said for Reform and Conservative Jews in the Israeli religious context. Another source of American alienation the Netanyahu government has chosen not just to ignore, but to exacerbate.
Oren directs some of his most scathing criticism of Obama to the president’s outreach to the Muslim world, beginning with his landmark speech in Cairo in 2009 and up to what Oren sees as the catastrophic mistake to negotiate with Iran today. The unspoken jab at American Jews is: How can you possibly support this naive, un-Jewish posture?
What the former ambassador doesn’t understand is that many Jews, along with many Americans, view the attempted rapprochement as a sign of strength and maturity, not the craven pandering that Oren describes. Has it worked out as hoped? Not so far, though Obama can’t be blamed entirely for the failures.
But just as Americans are rightly criticized for not appreciating Israel’s obsession with projecting toughness and guarding its security, Israelis are at fault for refusing to concede that Americans largely favor diplomacy over military action because the latter hasn’t worked out so well for us lately. And because we have myriad problems at home to address — problems like income inequality, persistent racism, assaults on free speech and reproductive rights, environmental degradation, a broken immigration system. The stuff Jews care about. A lot.
Instead of blaming American Jews for criticizing Israel while loving it, and supporting a president who does the same, Oren might have more productively helped his boss learn from our perspectives. “Perhaps,” writes one reviewer of “Ally”, “these critiques don’t come from American Jews because of their flaws, but because of their objectivity or their strengths.”
The writer is David Rothkopf of Foreign Policy, which published one of Oren’s recent columns. Rothkopf also was Oren’s college roommate, quoted often in the book. Perhaps Oren should have listened to him more, too.
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.
Michael Oren, You Hardly Know Us at All