Is It Ever Okay for Israelis to Criticize American Jews? – Rabbi Evan Moffic/HuffPo
Michael Oren’s book Ally has unleashed a wave of anger at the former Israeli Ambassador to the United States. In the wake of his severe criticism of President Obama’s foreign policy, respected Jewish voices have said he has no appreciation or understanding of American Jews. Several have pointed to his renunciation of US citizenship in order to become an Israeli politician as clear evidence of his underlying disdain for his native country. Others describe his view of American Jews as naive and teeming with “psychobabble” and “cheap gossip.” One writer in the highly-respected Jewish Daily Forward said Oren’s book should be in the “self-help” section rather than in history or current affairs.
What explains this vitriolic reaction by American Jews? Oren’s book is both nuanced and empathetic toward opposing arguments. He is a highly-respected historian. One can certainly disagree with his conclusions, but many of the responses have crossed the line to expressions of personal disdain. This hyperbolic reactions proves one of the arguments Oren makes. American Jews do feel a distance from Israel. They lack an emotional connection. (You can see the statistics that prove Oren’s argument here)
Oren is hardly the first person to make this argument. Studies over the last decade have shown that emotional identification with Israel is directly correlated with age. The older an American Jew is, the stronger their feeling of emotional connection with Israel.
History explains some of this correlation. Older Jews lived through the Six-Day War in which many Arab states proclaimed their hope to destroy Israel and push its Jewish population into the sea. Older Jews also grew up directly in the shadow of the Holocaust. Oren explores the implications of this diminishing identification with Israel, suggesting it has translated into less support for the Jewish state, especially among younger Jews with liberal political views.
Attack the Messenger
Instead of engaging with Oren’s message, many American Jews have chosen to bash the messenger. According to Yossi Klein Halevi, a respected author and friend of Oren’s, this hostility reflects many American Jews’ feeling that they should be immune from Israeli criticism. America transfers billions in foreign aid dollars to Israel. America is Israel’s closest ally. Israeli criticism, so this argument goes, is a form of biting the hand that feeds you. As Halevi points out, “Ironically, the Israeli-American Jewish relationship has become the reverse of its old problematic dynamic. Where once it was forbidden for American Jews to criticize Israel, now, apparently, it is forbidden for an Israeli to criticize American Jewry.” Ouch.
Is Halevi right? I think so. American Jews have become so divided politically how best to support Israel that we have forgotten the story–the narrative–that binds us together. Whether or not we agree with Oren’s policies and politics, we can read his book as a not-so-gentle push to embrace our shared narrative. That narrative allows–even embraces–disagreement, but it is rooted in a solidarity and love.
Embracing Our Story
I personally felt the pull of that narrative during my first year of rabbinical school in Israel. It was the second half of 2001 and first half of 2002. It was the height of the Second Intifadah. Every week there was a bombing. A man exploded himself at the hotel next door to the rabbinical school. And a bomb was set up at the coffee house across the street from where I lived. We were told not to ride the buses, and we saw some of our teachers called up for military service.
In spite of this environment–or perhaps, because of it–my classmates and I developed a deep bond and love of Israel. We saw the way its citizens calmly and bravely went on with their lives in the midst of terror. Like most Jewish communities, we were not all of one opinion, and there were great disagreements, as there are today, on settlements and appropriate borders for a future Palestinian state. Yet, we saw the way that terrorism and hatred strikes innocent Israelis, and can threaten the lives of those who seek to live in peace.
I don’t know when we will see peace, but I have faith that someday we will. In the meantime, it is our obligation–our privilege–to support those working, like Michael Oren, to protect our ancient ideals and ensure the survival of that land that is a refuge and home for so many.