Recently, together with members and staff of the Manhattan Jewish Experience (MJE) group I was guiding, I was treated to a master class of Israel advocacy in the hallowed halls of the Knesset by Dr Michael Oren. Oren is the American-born former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who is currently serving as deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy. He is an expert on Middle Eastern history and a prolific author on the topic. Oren has written several books, including “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East,” the definitive history of the 1967 Six Day War, and the New York Times bestseller, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” which recounts his experience as Israel’s ambassador under the Obama administration. He regaled our group with pearls of wisdom gleaned over his extensive career as a scholar, diplomat and politician.
The Knesset is the DNA of Israel, according to Oren. He reminded our group how one of the most extraordinary accomplishments of Israel is democracy. Israel is the only democracy to have never known a second of peace. War is usually a democracy killer. He observed how amazing it is how close we are to war and conflict and still things get done, and done well. Oren claims that it is possible to have both a Jewish and a democratic state. One of Israel’s basic laws defines Israel as a democracy, not as a Jewish state. According to Oren, this is not a contradiction. He explained that it’s inherently Jewish to have a democracy. Democracy is good for our security. Democracy provides a space for Arab Members of Knesset to get their frustrations out. No other country could have a democracy in the conditions Israel has found itself in since its inception almost seventy years ago.
Oren is very proud of his American roots. His name was Michael Scott Borenstien before he changed it upon making Aliyah and serving as a lone soldier in the Paratroop Brigade. His father was a career officer in the US military. He explained to our group how his values as an American made him who he is as an Israeli. He also recounted how he cried when he had to give up his American passport upon being appointed as the Israeli ambassador to the United States.
One of the most controversial elements of our discussion was when he mentioned that 25 percent of Knesset members do not recognise the state or sing the national anthem. He was referring to the Arabs and Ultra Orthodox Members of Knesset. He asked when does legitimate opposition become treason? He also posed the question of when can the Knesset expel one of its members? He gave the example of an Arab MK from the Joint Arab List who appealed via the Palestinian delegation to the UN to open an investigation against Israel for violation of human rights to the Secretary General of the UN. That, according to Oren, is treason.
He also commented that what we do on college campuses regarding Israel advocacy is too late. According to Oren, the students need to be educated and inspired whilst still in junior high school. (Two excellent organisations that are already at the forefront of high school Israel advocacy are Write On for Israel and StandWithUs.)
Oren finished his discussion with my group on a positive note. He reminded us that in 1948, three years after VE Day, 600 000 Jews defended Israel against mass Arab armies. He declared that the existence and flourishing of a Jewish state, which rose like a phoenix from the ashes, symbolises our victory over victimisation.