In 1978, when I was still living in Chicago, I was elected President of the Midwest Region of the United Synagogue of America. At the time I was also writing a weekly column for the Chicago Jewish Post & Opinion called “As I See It” which dealt critically with the issues of the day in that Jewish community.
After I took on the leadership of the United Synagogue there, one of my mentors, Rabbi Dr. Samuel Schafler of blessed memory, sat me down and told me that I had to give up writing the weekly opinion column. His logic, which I accepted fully, was that when you take on a community leadership position you give up the right to have a public personal opinion. Why? Because anyone reading such a column will always internalize what is being said through the prism of the author’s official community role. As such, he reasoned, what I wrote would be seen as reflective of the official position of the United Synagogue of America even if the by line said that it was my personal opinion and did not reflect the position of the organization.
This week MK Michael Oren, the former Ambassador of Israel to the United States of America, wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled “How Obama Abandoned Israel.” His thesis, which is developed more fully in his soon to be released book “Ally: My Journey Across the Israeli-American Divide” is that this US President intentionally violated two cardinal principles of the US-Israel relationship, (1) that there be no diplomatic sunlight between Israel and the US and (2) that there be no surprises in the relationship.
I will not enter the discussion as to whether or not his thesis is correct. There is all too much material floating around in the media about this subject as it is and my guess is that I cannot contribute much to that dialogue. But what is clear is that former Ambassador Oren has not internalized the fact that now, as a member of the Knesset, he no longer has the right to a private opinion if that opinion has the possibility to be seen as representative of the policies of the State of Israel in whose legislature he is an elected member.
What does this mean in practice? It means that he can write all the op-eds he wants about why it is important to have smaller classes in Israeli schools because responsible pedagogy says that is beneficial to the student or he can write about the need for Israel to deal with the increasing prices of homes in this country which makes it impossible for young couples to buy apartments. But when it comes to diplomatic issues which affect the relationship between Israel and our allies, such activities are best left to the diplomats whose job it is to handle these issues.
My guess is that when Michael Oren was the Ambassador to the United States, if a Knesset Member at that time wrote a piece positing what Oren did this week, he, as a sitting Ambassador in Washington would have found that action totally inappropriate. That, of course, is the impression that US Ambassador to Israel Daniel Shapiro had when he read Oren’s piece. Ambassador Shapiro was rightly disturbed and insulted not only as official representative of the United States to Israel but also because he and Michel Oren are personal friends….or at least they were until this week. At a minimum, he deserves an apology from Oren.
There is a concept in Judaism called “yetzer hara” which loosely translates to “the evil inclination” which exists, at some level, in all of us who are part of humanity. The “yetzer hara” is always in conflict with the “yetzer tov,” the desire to do good things. In this case, it would seem that the “yetzer hara” got the better of Michael Oren. Had the “yetzer tov” dominated his thinking he would have waited until this President left office before publishing the book given the finite time limits on the office dictated by the US constitution. The fact that he chose to do otherwise was either incredibly self-serving or just plain stupid.