A Defense of Michael Oren

I recently had the good fortune of seeing on my Facebook newsfeed a link to an article from Tablet Magazine, a Jewish culture magazine I highly regard for its rigor and style, entitled “How Not to Write a Zionist Op-Ed.” I also recently had the misfortune of perusing the contents of that article.

Written by Tablet’s Mark Oppenheimer, the article does not convey the instructions that it advertises. Being that I am in the habit of writing Zionist Op-Eds, I was hoping to be provided with a set of decent if not necessary conditions that may define a good Zionist Op-Ed, or, perhaps, a categorical list of do-not-dos. Instead, I and readers elsewhere were presented with a complaint about a recent Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal entitled “In Defense of Zionism,” written by Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren.

Oppenheimer concludes that Oren’s article is “clearly a work of propaganda, the kind of thing written by an ambassador (Oren’s former job) not a professor (his current one).” Indeed, I, too, have acknowledge that the flaccid content of Oren’s former Op-Eds were a product of his diplomatic position. But Oppenheimer believes that Oren’s current academic position should allow him the latitude to write articles of polemical strength.

Apparently for Oppenheimer, Oren writing of Israel’s “glories” is not a sufficient procedure for a an adequate defense of Zionism, a “wartime agitprop,” as he calls it. And it is true that Oren’s piece leaves the reader feeling uplifted about Israel’s social achievements but diminished in clarity on the necessity of Zionism. But Oppenheimer does nothing to alleviate these concerns, instead launching into a fitful critique of the shifting priorities of a diplomat become scholar. Oppenheimer’s piece then becomes an exercise in social science, arguing that “the failures of his Wall Street Journal essay are object lessons of the pitfalls of a world where so many move between academic and government work, or government work and lobbying, or scholarship and opinion writing. Oren is a perfectly competent polemicist, but it’s a shame that he’s so willing to betray the obligations of a scholar.” These failures are indeed immanent, and should be dissected by academics dedicated to the study of the behavior of academics, a department of inquiry not easily established because its subject is itself, but they have nothing to do with Zionism, its defense, or Oren’s piece.

As Oppenheimer continues, Oren’s “betrayal” finally becomes defined in what he did not say as opposed to what he said. Incensed that Oren did not mention the word “settlements” or “blockade” and Israel’s culpability in “[immiserating] Gaza,” it becomes clear that Oppenheimer has conflated Israeli policies with Zionism. Though, as Oren himself writes in his piece, the enemies of Zionism have existed long before Israel and Egypt’s co-blockade of the Gaza Strip after it turned Hamas enclave, existing as they do in the form of an inveterate hatred of the Jews. To this Oppenheimer agrees, “I for one think that much antipathy toward Zionism does come from anti-Semitism, as well as a displaced loathing toward the United States, Israel’s patron.” He continues, though, that in a fair assessment of anti-Zionism “it’s impossible not to talk about the occupation, the refusal to give back land won in 1967, the efforts to settle that land, and the ongoing controls that Israel places on people who live in that land.”

This is a staggering rhetorical staccato. One not expected to be found in the lines of the same piece complaining of academic betrayals. Oppenheimer acts the magician here. Turning two issues into four, he exponentiates the controversy of Israel’s control of the west bank. It is indeed true that there are settlements and settler policies; and it is indeed true that a military occupation exists in the disputed territories of the west bank. But Israel has offered to give 95% of that land to both Jordan post 1967 and to the Palestinian leadership and the “ongoing controls” are a result of a refusal by the Palestinians to accept that proposal and the proposals that proceeded it all the way back to 1937.
As Oren writes

In view of these monumental achievements, one might think that Zionism would be admired rather than deplored. But Zionism stands accused of thwarting the national aspirations of Palestine’s indigenous inhabitants, of oppressing and dispossessing them.

Never mind that the Jews were natives of the land—its Arabic place names reveal Hebrew palimpsests—millennia before the Palestinians or the rise of Palestinian nationalism. Never mind that in 1937, 1947, 2000 and 2008, the Palestinians received offers to divide the land and rejected them, usually with violence. And never mind that the majority of Zionism’s adherents today still stand ready to share their patrimony in return for recognition of Jewish statehood and peace.

Never mind, indeed. Never mind that Oppenheimer has failed to appreciate the polemical power of these paragraphs and instead admonishes Oren that ” [he] can defend the settlements, but if he wants to change people’s minds, he can’t ignore the settlements.” And never mind that Oren writes of Israel’s failures and controversies that,

“Many Zionists insist that these [west bank] territories represent the cradle of Jewish civilization and must, by right, be settled. But others warn that continued rule over the West Bank’s Palestinian population erodes Israel’s moral foundation and will eventually force it to choose between being Jewish and remaining democratic.”

The clear fact that Oren not only mentions the settlements but implicates “many Zionists” as the ones who want them to exist in perpetuity, and that there are also many Zionists who oppose such policies not only complicates the definition of Zionism, but belies Oppenheimer’s suggestion that anti-Zionism is partly caused by the settlements, the anti-Zionists Oppenheimer categorizes as  the “many whose anti-Zionism is born of recent history.” One does not, as Oppenheimer implores, have to defend the settlements to defend Zionism. And one does not have to defend the blockade of the Gaza strip to defend Zionism. However, the inverse is true. One must defend Zionism to defend both the settlements and the blockade. In as much as these policies are the result of a nation that has faced more aggressive wars than it has decades of existence, Oren’s “faux-searching tone,” as Oppenheimer caricatures it, and “perplexity” begins to gain purchase. Just what is about the Jewish State that ignites so much enmity against it?

Oren offers a suggestion towards the beginning of his piece which Oppenheimer regards as a “fair question” but then proceeds to ignore its implications. Oren writes, “Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn’t evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.”

To rap up our syllogistic exercise, one must defend nationalism to defend Zionism, a fact that far too many Jews, obsessed with making a liberal case for Israel, ignore. Nationalism is, today, a tough sell. Today we have a United Nations, but most of those nations are now just administrative districts in the vast blended strata of the “human community.” Japan ,as Oren correctly observes, is an exception, along with Israel. Oren’s question still stands resolute and indefatigable. There is something about the Jewish State and its nationalistic leanings that evoke a revulsion that Japanese, French, or Singaporean nationalism does not — Oppenheimer ineptly references Singapore in relation to academics without understanding its importance. If there are anti-Zionists who have reached their conclusions because of the existence of the settlements then they need to explain why Israel cannot exist if it were to withdraw from the west bank. And if they can’t do that, then it is academically prudent to assume that they are anti-nationalists; and if they are anti-nationalists, then they must answer for their obsession with Israel, the most benign and liberating nationalism in history; and if they can’t do that, then they must answer for their antisemitism.

What Oren attempted to do in his piece was to lay out what Zionism was, is, and what its future holds. And in so doing he revealed, undetectable to Oppenheimer, that anti-Zionism, in most of its forms, as Dr. King instructed, is antisemitism. That there are “the many whose anti-Zionism is born of recent history” further demonstrates the fact. There would be as few anti-Zionist as there are now anti-Indians if there were a measure of balance in the world’s attention to the suffering masses of the third world. That Israel is repeatedly and disproportionately battered in the media creates these many “born of recent of history.”

But, Mr. Oppenheimer, they aren’t born of recent history. An academic and fair assessment of Israel’s history does not make anti-Zionism inevitable. They are born of recent antisemitism masquerading as human rights councils and journalists pandering to the demands of a western world that has turned its antisemitism into anti-nationalism and its anti-nationalism into antisemitism.

About the Author
Sean DeGan studied Philosophy at Kennesaw State University in Atlanta, Georgia. Along with his formal studies, Sean has developed expertise on the history of the Middle East and the State of Israel, the Israel/Palestine conflict, as well as a working knowledge of the language, religion and culture. As such, he is always in possession of more books than money.