Michael B. Oren’s ‘Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide’ – The New York Times
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in July 2010, he met with representatives of the National Jewish Democratic Council and the Republican Jewish Coalition at Blair House. After the two delegations quietly entered the dimly lit brocaded dining room, they sat down at a large elliptical table, the Democrats to Netanyahu’s left and the Republicans to his right. But the calm was shattered as the Democrats and Republicans began shouting at each other and pounding the table until they were told to cool it. “The chastised representatives fell silent and finally acknowledged Netanyahu’s presence, but their near brawl demonstrated that Washington’s political schizophrenia also split American Jews” — or so the former Israeli ambassador to the United States and current Knesset member Michael B. Oren reports in his remarkably frank new memoir, “Ally.”
Since then, tensions have only heightened. After the maladroit Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer (a protégé of the former House speaker Newt Gingrich, who himself dismissed the Palestinians as an “invented” people in 2011) arranged with Speaker John Boehner for Netanyahu to address a joint meeting of Congress in March without informing the Obama administration, dozens of Democratic lawmakers decided to boycott the speech. Next came Netanyahu’s demagogic warning on the eve of the recent Israeli election that Arab voters were flocking to the polls, along with his rejection of a two-state solution. After his victory, he apologized for the first and grudgingly backtracked from the second statement. Most recently, Oren himself triggered a controversy around his book’s release by accusing President Obama in a June Wall Street Journal op-ed of deliberately sabotaging relations with Israel, an accusation that Dan Shapiro, the American ambassador to Israel, asked Netanyahu to repudiate, only to be rebuffed by him. And in Foreign Policy magazine, Oren piled on with an essay claiming that being abandoned by his Muslim father and stepfather explained a proclivity on Obama’s part to soft-pedal terrorism in an effort to be embraced by “their coreligionists.” The Anti-Defamation League warned that Oren’s lucubrations about Obama’s Muslim heritage resembled “conspiracy theories” and “amateur psychoanalysis.”
Oren was undaunted. Speaking at the 92nd Street Y in Manhattan to publicize his book, he explained that it is designed to help sound alarms about a nuclear deal with Iran, and he demanded that the Obama administration stop its “ad hominem” attacks on Netanyahu. “We shouldn’t,” he said, “be treated this way.” According to Haaretz, he also mused that non-Orthodox and intermarried American Jews in the administration “have a hard time understanding the Israeli character.”
These acrimonious charges not only underscore the longstanding frictions between Obama and Netanyahu, but also the extent to which Israeli-American relations have become the subject of what amounts to an intramural debate. In an earlier era, the American foreign policy establishment was dominated by Arabists from the Ivy Leagues. Now, as the names of various Washington officials, scholars and journalists whiz by in Oren’s memoir, it seems clear that the older WASP establishment has been supplanted by the very ethnic group it once disdained.
Far from easing disputes about Israel, however, this development appears to have further envenomed the debate over its destiny. On the one side are traditionally liberal Jews who continue to see Israel as an egalitarian version of America. Their lodestar is the famous credo enunciated by Louis Brandeis, one of the founding fathers of American Zionism: “To be good Americans, we must be better Jews, and to be better Jews, we must become Zionists.” On the other side are more conservative Jews and Christian evangelicals who believe that this is sentimental piffle. Instead of lecturing Israel, Americans should unflinchingly stand by it — by which they really mean Netanyahu’s Likud — and recognize that peace is an illusion.
It is here that Oren’s memoir is most illuminating. Oren was by no means Netanyahu’s most truculent adviser, but his personal odyssey exemplifies the shift from a liberal and secular Zionism to a more belligerent nationalism. A gifted historian whose account of America’s interventions in the Middle East, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” was a best seller, Oren grew up an American in West Orange, N.J., and emigrated to Israel in 1979, abjuring his American citizenship three decades later to become ambassador. Oren traces his devotion to Israel to meeting Yitzhak Rabin briefly in May 1970 in Washington, as a 15-year-old member of a Zionist youth group. According to Oren, “his life remained a model for mine. Following his example, I would devote myself to Israel, fight in its wars and defend it from critics. I shared his vision of peace in spite of disappointments and bloodshed.”
As a child, Oren, who was born in 1955, had to wear a leg brace at night and suffered from learning disabilities. After Israel triumphed in the 1967 war, he writes, it “appeared to be everything to which I — at age 12 still incapable of learning the multiplication tables or of running around the bases without tripping over my own pigeon-toed feet — aspired.” This fierce attachment to Israel was fortified by the anti-Semitism he encountered in his blue-collar neighborhood. “The only Jewish kid on the block,” he writes, “I rarely made it off the school bus without being ambushed by Jew-baiting bullies.” After each incident, Oren says, his father showed him an album that his brother, a World War II veteran, had given him. It contained yellowing pictures of concentration camps and corpses. According to Oren, “The ovens of Auschwitz, I often felt in high school, were still smoldering.”
Oren wanted to fight back. As an Israeli, he volunteered in 1982 for the dangerous assignment of traveling through the Soviet Union to meet and assist members of the Zionist underground. Later that year he fought in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. But there was also another battle that Oren ended up fighting, which was on the campuses of American universities. In September 1982, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Princeton, where he studied with the legendary Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was depicted by academic foes like Edward Said as dripping with condescension and contempt toward the Arab world. Oren wrote and lectured to denounce Said’s claim that a Western Orientalist academic tradition viewed the Arabs through imperialist spectacles. After years in the academic trenches, however, he ended up isolated, unable to land a job. “Perhaps I had never fully escaped my high school role of Don Quixote,” Oren says.
His fortunes turned when his idol Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992. He secured a position in the prime minister’s office as an adviser on interreligious affairs. Then came 9/11 and the publication of his book on the 1967 war, “Six Days of War,” which sold out in a week. “The lecturer once snubbed by academia,” Oren writes, “was now a visiting professor at Yale and Harvard.”
It’s difficult to avoid the impression that Oren continues to carry a large chip on his shoulder. He complains, for example, that “The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, both Jewish-edited, rarely ran nonincriminating reports on Israeli affairs.” The odd formulation “Jewish-edited” suggests that Oren views everything through the lens of ethnic identity. In addition, Oren hastily dismisses the historian Tony Judt as someone who “opposed Israel’s existence.” If anything, Judt’s apprehensions about Israel’s future seem more cogent than ever.
To criticize Israel is not tantamount to being anti-Israel, a tiresome tactic that too many of the country’s would-be defenders have adopted. Might it not even be pro-Israel, in the sense of pointing out failings that any Israeli government would be prudent to rectify? Oren, however, elides any discussion of Israel’s actions — other than to refer euphemistically to its settlements around Jerusalem as “robust construction projects.” What’s more, Oren sees the ghost of Said everywhere, including in the Obama administration. Oren depicts Obama’s uplifting but vacuous June 2009 Cairo speech, which called for outreach to the Muslim world, and his desire to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran as part of a wider pattern that reflected “the ’60s revulsion to military strength, the romance with developing societies and the questioning of American primacy. Regarding the Middle East, in particular, one could discern the reverberations of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism.’ ”
Oren seems stuck in a time warp. Obama has never sought to resuscitate warmed-over pacifist ideas from the 1960s. As it happens, Obama ramped up the drone war and attacked Libya. Nor has he extricated the United States from either Afghanistan or Iraq. So much for the bogus notion that Obama reviles military power.
The pity of it all is that Oren has been a political moderate, at least in the context of Netanyahu’s inner circle. According to Oren, he often counseled prudence in dealing with America. Netanyahu would have none of it. Oren says, “my approach ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality — part commando, part politico and thoroughly predatory.”
But what Oren, much like Netanyahu himself, refuses to countenance is that Obama’s focus on reaching a deal with Iran isn’t based on wishful thinking but on cold strategic considerations. Oren concludes by saying that Israel should not take America for granted and that he wants to help restore ties between the two. If so, he has a funny way of going about it. “Ally” does not strengthen the alliance but could further erode it.
ALLY, My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide – By Michael B. Oren
Illustrated. 412 pp. Random House. $30.
(*Editor’s Note: $30?! That’s some expensive bullshit!)