Michael Oren’s reductive portrait of American Jewry

You might have heard that Michael Oren has written a book.

Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, who grew up in West Orange and moved to Israel in his 20s, writes in Ally about his increasingly tense term as envoy between Netanyahu’s embattled government and Obama’s increasingly impatient administration. Critics say he has shifted blame from Israel to paint a distorted picture of White House perfidy; supporters welcome the issues he is raising as the West looks to complete a nuclear arms deal with Iran.

Oren also raised eyebrows with his comments about the press, suggesting Israel faces more scrutiny and less support because of the “preponderance of Jews in the U.S. media.”

There has been a lot less talk about Oren’s other main role as a diplomat — that is, as envoy from Israel to the Jewish People of America. Oren writes at length about his efforts to bridge schisms between Israel and the non-Orthodox movements who resent their lack of status in the Jewish state. He describes the “countless hours” he spent between 2011 and 2012 trying to quell a crisis over Women of the Wall, eventually proposing a compromise that averted a “devastating breakdown of the Jewish people.”

In 2010, during a visit by Netanyahu to the United States, Oren served as peacemaker at a “near brawl” between Jewish Republicans and Democrats.

Oren is said to be ideally suited to playing the role of mediator between Israel and the Diaspora. American-born and -raised, educated at Columbia and Princeton, and raised in a Conservative home, he would seem to have an ideal perch from which to help close what he calls the “widening gaps between Israel and American Jews.”

But even he admits that “[r]eturning to the United States as Israel’s ambassador in 2009, I scarcely recognized the American Jewish landscape I had left thirty years earlier.” To me, that explains my nagging suspicion that he doesn’t respect us very much.

In writing about the history of American-Jewish attitudes toward Israel, Oren, a historian, tends to dwell more on the American rabbis who resisted Zionism than the large and well-funded Jewish groups that supported it. When he describes the American-Jewish attachment to Israel, he notes superficial manifestations like the Hollywood version of Exodus and Sabra liqueur. He skips over the huge fund-raising apparatus that greeted the birth of the state in 1948 to focus instead on the support in the 1970s and ’80s for Holocaust education and museums, suggesting that “the Holocaust began replacing Israel as the centerpiece of Jewish identity.” And he concludes this capsule history by writing witheringly about “Tikkun Olam,” American Jewry’s call to “rescue humanity” that he says “tended to sideline Israel as the focal point of American Jewish purpose.”

A few pages later he does talk about how American-Jewish philanthropy “enriched the social, educational, artistic, and scientific soil from which Israel’s creativity bloomed.” And he celebrates the wielding of Jewish power on Israel’s behalf by AIPAC. Nevertheless, what lingers is a portrait of an American Jewry with weak ties to Israel, distracted by Holocaust remembrance and universalism or disappearing into assimilation and interfaith marriage.

True, American Jewish engagement with Israel — measured in dollars, political activism, and exclusive commitment — may be intense only among a minority of American Jews. But Oren’s picture overlooks the centrality of Israel in Jewish educational and communal settings, in Jewish organizational agendas, and in the way outsiders view the Jews’ political priorities. (Politicians continue to believe that the fastest way to an American Jew’s heart is by making a week-long visit to Israel.) When the Forward tallied the sum total of “Jewish” charitable giving in 2014, Israel-focused groups received 38% of the $3.7 billion raised in a year, more than any other category, including education.

Oren is particularly tormented by American-Jewish criticism of Israel, of which he also writes in reductive terms. His critique of Jews in the media reflects, I suspect, his views of the engaged liberal Zionists who are no fans of the Netanyahu government. All seem to have ulterior or psychological motives. Some seem to prefer “the moral ease of victimhood.” Others are “isolated and embarrassed” by Israel’s bad press. And perhaps, he writes, “persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its often controversial polices.”

All this is undoubtedly true of some American Jews.

But what Oren leaves out are those who are passionate about Israel, put it at the center of their lives, but still agree with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid: “Israel cannot try to absorb 3.5 million Palestinians and remain a Jewish and democratic state.” I read a lot of shallow and suspect criticism of Israel written by Jews. But I also know and read a lot of Jews, Israeli and American, who fear that, in the failure to achieve a two-state solution, Israel’s isolation will intensify, its moral standing will be compromised, and its ultimate security will erode. They come to these conclusions not out of embarrassment or insecurity, not because they are disappointed that Bibi Netanyahu doesn’t look like Paul Newman, but out of genuine, thoughtful concern for Israel’s future.

Oren rightly skewers armchair quarterbacks who don’t take into account Israel’s legitimate fears. “I share their discomfort and even their pain,” writes Oren. “Yet I also wrestled with the inability of those same American Jews to understand Israel’s existential quandary, that creating a Palestinian state that refuses to make genuine peace with us and was likely to devolve into a terrorist chaos was at least as dangerous as not creating one.”

Yes, and yes. Anyone who thinks the choices Israel faces are easy is a fool, and anyone who prescribes a solution for which other people’s children will pay the price is a coward. But any serious consideration of the rift between Israel and the Diaspora has to consider the seriousness with which many Jews, including its critics, engage with Israel. To do otherwise is to play into the hands of those who thrive off of polarization, including intransigents on the Left and Right, and enemies who profit off of Israel’s isolation.

About the Author
Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor in chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. He was previously editor in chief and CEO of the New Jersey Jewish News and managing editor of the Forward newspaper.
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