Michael Oren and American Jewish Decline
Most of the great fanfare greeting Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, Michael Oren's memoir of his term as Israel's ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013, has rightly focused on Oren's detailed account of relations between the United States and Israel over that period. But the book also provides rich insights on changes in American Jewry over Oren's lifetime.
In the autobiographical section with which Oren begins, he describes the impact of the Six-Day War on him as a 12-year-old growing up in West Orange, New Jersey: "Israel was young, righteous, and heroic, and I fell in love with it." Decades later, he would write the most riveting account of the 1967 War, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.
The Borenstein family was the only Jewish family on the block in their working class neighborhood, and fat, dyslexic, and pigeon-toed Michael was regularly set upon by neighborhood bullies. His freshman year in high school, the family's Conservative synagogue was fire-bombed. Israel was the salve for the anti-Semitism that he experienced daily.
"The story I considered the most riveting of all time was that of the Jewish people," he writes of his boyhood and teenage years. He felt himself to be "part of a global Jewish collective stretching back millennia," and longed to be part of the narrative unfolding in Israel.
After graduating Columbia College and serving as an advisor to Israel's U.N. delegation, Michael realized his dream of making aliyah and enlisted in the IDF as a lone soldier, proud to don the uniform of "the first Jewish army in two thousand years." Now a strapping two-time Maccabiah Games gold medalist in rowing, he demanded to be placed in the paratroopers.
A few years older than Michael, I identify with the feelings aroused by the Six-Day War, though anti-Semitism was never a factor in my daily life growing up. Similar excitement about Jewish history as the greatest story ever told propelled my wife and I to Israel on our honeymoon in 1979, the same year Oren made aliyah.
THINGS HAVE CHANGED a great deal since then. Returning to America thirty years after making aliyah, Oren does not recognize the "Jewish landscape." In his youth, Jews who were raised in religiously observant homes salved their conscience about their loss of observance with ardent support for Israel. Their children and grandchildren feel no residual guilt and thus no inclination to care about Israel. For them tikkun olam has become "Judaism's most important commandment, almost a religion in itself." The younger the Jew the shallower his or her connection to Israel, writes Oren.
He finds himself frustrated by the refusal of American Jews who demand that Israel "make peace" -- as if it were in Israel's power to do so alone -- to attempt to understand Israel's security situation. Even the threat of a nuclear Iran committed to the annihilation of Israel leaves American Jews "for the most part removed and impassive." A far more integrated and powerful Jewish community is repeating the apathy of the mainstream American Jewish community of the '30s to the rise of Hitler. Oren has scant success when he asks heterodox rabbis to place signs proclaiming "No nukes for Iran" alongside those announcing, "We stand with Darfur" (for which I would wager they have done precisely nothing.)
EVEN PRIOR TO TAKING UP HIS AMBASSADORIAL DUTIES, journalist Jeffrey Goldberg (today Obama's favorite interlocutor) warns Oren that "the first thing Obama will do in office is pick a fight with Israel." And sure enough, on day one the new president calls for a complete Israeli halt to building in Israeli settlements – including areas of so-called east Jerusalem in which hundreds of thousands of Jews live. No difference between a balcony extension in Gilo and new houses in Itamar.
Shortly thereafter, the administration makes clear that George W. Bush's April 14, 2004 letter acknowledging new realities on the ground in the 37 years since the Six-Day War – i.e., the existence of large settlement blocs, which no Israeli government could contemplate uprooting -- is null and void. Bush's letter was the quid pro quo for the entire 2005 expulsion of Jews from Gaza.
When Oren meets with Democratic Jewish congressman, they almost unanimously back Obama's position on building in Jerusalem and the major settlement blocs referred to in the Bush letter. He leaves the meeting more concerned than ever both about the future of American Jewry and the level of bi-partisan support Israel can expect from the Democrats.
After the announcement by a municipal zoning commission of approval of new building in Ramat Shlomo during a visit to Israel by Vice-President Joseph Biden – a decision of which Prime Minister Netanyahu had no prior knowledge – the White House and Clinton State Department do everything possible to create a major crisis.
Returning to Washington from accompanying Biden, Oren is "summoned" to the State Department, where Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg reads him the riot act. Oren has to endure listening to the full text of Clinton's 45-minute harangue of Prime Minister Netanyahu, delivered while Oren was in the air, and some additional "furious comments" from Steinberg. Oren learns later that State Department staffers listened in on the diatribe and cheered.
THAT LAST ANECDOTE caught my attention. James Steinberg was a law school classmate of mine. I don't remember ever speaking to him, and don't think he graduated with our class. But a few years after graduating, I happened to meet his white-haired bubbe in Jerusalem's King Solomon Hotel. She and two similarly coiffed companions were clearly thrilled to be in Israel, probably on a Hadassah mission. They reminded me of my own grandmothers.
We spoke briefly and somehow it emerged that she was Jim's grandmother. I told her that her grandson stood out as very smart, even at Yale Law School – which was true – thus allowing her to kvell in front of her companions. And that was the last I ever thought about James Steinberg, until I read that he had been appointed to the number two position in the State Department.
The distance between the proudly Jewish bubbe and the grandson, who allowed State Department staffers to amuse themselves eavesdropping as he blasted the Israeli ambassador, provides a pretty fair measure of the state of contemporary American Jewry.
Good Riddance, Abe
Abe Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, is retiring after more than a quarter century at the helm of the organization. And not a minute too soon, in my opinion.
No doubt Foxman and the ADL have done many good things over the years: It is hard not to do so with a $50,000,000 annual budget at one's disposal. But the exigencies of raising that budget and his own $700,000 plus salary have too frequently led Foxman to comment on matters well beyond his brief in combating anti-Semitism.
He has pandered to the worse impulses of American Jewry to the latter's detriment. The ADL's dogged pursuit of every swastika painted on a barn door in Wisconsin has for decades helped to overstate the degree of anti-Semitism in America. Worse, it has helped Jews frame a cheap and false identity: Someone hates me therefore I still exist as a good Jew.
The ADL has been a great deal better at ferreting out isolated examples of traditional redneck anti-Semitism, in places where few Jews dwell, than dealing with the much more threatening anti-Semitism, in the form of delusional attacks on Israel, on elite university campuses and the media – places where Jews are found in abundance. Beyond the damage done to Israel's image, the rabid anti-Israel propaganda to which Jews students are subjected can have a profound impact on their Jewish identity.
Foxman has frequently and often needlessly alienated the Christian Right, and reinforced the notion that Jews are against G-d. In the 2000 presidential campaign, he criticized Democratic vice-presidential candidate Joe Lieberman for injecting too much "G-d-talk" into his speeches – e.g., a reference to the fifth commandment to honor one's parents.
At the 2001 ADL national convention, he inveighed against the Christian Right for attempting to implement "their Christian worldview, to Christianize America, to save us." What was the Christian Right's crime? Opposition to the ADL's position on the absolute separation of state and religion. Agudath Israel of America could be similarly criticized by that standard.
Foxman waged an ill-advised holy war against Mel Gibson's The Passion in 2004. The fight would have been better left to the U.S. Conference of Bishops or Biblical critics with Christian-sounding names, like Paula Fredricksen, to make. Why risk putting Jews in the position of trying to censure Christian scriptures, or Gibson's fractured version thereof? The campaign only served to hype the box office for the film. And I'm not aware of a single anti-Semitic incident attributed to The Passion.
Last week, Foxman rushed into the fray to defend President Obama from Michael Oren's Ally, accusing Oren of peddling "conspiracy theories," "armchair psychoanalysis," and attributing to Obama a Muslim worldview.
In his chapter "Obama 101," Oren seeks to understand Obama by consulting those who know him and reading his memoir Dreams of My Father. In describing Obama's formative influences, he devotes much more time to his Columbia professor Edward Said's highly influential book Orientalism and to the "realist school" of American foreign policy represented by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, authors of The Israel Lobby. (He generously leaves out Obama's more radical mentors, while noting that the future president had not a single good word to say for the country he would one day lead.)
Oren could have left out with no loss a single sentence of speculation that Obama's outreach to the Muslim world was influenced by abandonment by his Muslim father and step-father. But it is trivial to his analysis. He engages in no conspiracy theories and does not attribute to Obama a Muslim worldview but rather a particular ideological view of the Muslim world.
As usual, Foxman's views reflect those of his donor class -- monied Jewish liberals, who do not wish to read of how hostile President Obama and his administration are to Israel.