Israeli ambassador Michael Oren gets hero’s welcome in liberal enclave of Brooklyn

Israel/PalestineMiddle EastUS Politics
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Oren Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren (center) poses with Rabbi Andy Bachman, on the right. (Photo: Alex Kane)

Last night, Congregation Beth Elohim seemed to leave its grounded place in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn and zoomed its way into another universe. The universe of Michael Oren, that is–a place where Israel can do no wrong.

It was a jarring contrast for me. Just two weeks ago, I attended the Russell Tribunal on Palestine, where I listened to testimony of the daily indignities that Palestinians suffer under the yoke of Israeli occupation and apartheid. But if you were to live in Michael Oren’s universe, you wouldn’t know that an occupation even existed.

The tall and lanky New Jersey-born Israeli ambassador to the United States spoke to a packed house at Congregation Beth Elohim, a historic Reform synagogue with a politically active rabbi. The crowd was mixed, but trended middle-aged and older, though young folks were certainly there as well. Oren was flanked on both sides by flags: stage right was the Israeli flag, and stage left the American one. It was a fitting atmosphere for Oren, who was born in the United States and immigrated to Israel in the 1970s, and served in the Israeli Defense Forces when they invaded Lebanon.

A small group of protesters standing outside in the rain attempted to insert some reality into the night, but the message didn’t enter the shul.

The talk, titled “Israel: Achievements, Threats and Beyond,” was wide-ranging but not very deep. You could tell Oren’s given the speech before. The event was sponsored by a host of organizations, ranging from the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York to other Brooklyn synagogues. Also sponsoring the talk was J Street–the rapprochement between Oren and the liberal Zionist lobby group completed. Throughout the talk, Oren painted a picture of a blameless Israel, where a belligerent occupation, radical and racist settlers and the crippling blockade on Gaza didn’t exist.

Rabbi Andy Bachman opened the night by giving Oren a t-shirt with the word “Brooklyn” emblazoned on it and went on to thank the Jewish Community Relations Council for its efforts to defeat the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) drive at the Park Slope Food Co-op.

“Having the ambassador here is an honor,” said Bachman, who later explained to an attendee that it took a two-year long lobbying effort to bring Oren there. Bachman is a well-known liberal Zionist rabbi who is vehemently against the BDS movement. He was one of the signatories to a letter from Brooklyn rabbis that denounced the boycott of Ahava products, which are made in illegal West Bank settlements.

Bachman then gave way to the star attraction: Michael Oren, who received a large round of applause as he took to the podium as the inscription “Love thy neighbor as thyself” shimmered above him.

He began his talk with an exhaustive list of Israeli achievements, from touting the fact that Arabs serve in the Knesset to hailing Tel Aviv’s status as a gay haven. Oren also spoke glowingly of the Israeli doctors who rushed to Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake. And of course, the alleged threat from Iran was played up.

But before long, Oren’s stump speech was over, and the night gave way to what the synagogue promised was a “substantial” question and answer session. Congregation Beth Elohim overpromised, though.

Bachman gushed over Oren and Israel throughout the discussion. Bachman may be a liberal Zionist who acknowledges Palestinians, but when given the opportunity to really question a man with some power and influence in Israel and the U.S., he balked.

“We have a responsibility to strive for peace,” said Oren, in response to a question from Bachman about the stalled peace process. The Israeli ambassador then played up his relations with Palestinian officials in Washington, adding that he attends American Task Force on Palestine events. “We hope that our Palestinian neighbors accept their responsibility to make peace,” he added.

Oren downplayed the impact of settlements on the negotiations process, saying that they only constitute 2 percent of the West Bank. This is true, but wholly misleading, which Oren was throughout the night. According to B’Tselem, settlements “control 42 percent of the land area of the West Bank.” The 42 percent number comes from not only the physical construction of settlements but the entire settlement apparatus, which includes the area of their jurisdiction. In other words, the area the settlements control reach far beyond their physical limitations.

The one topic where there was some dispute between Bachman and Oren was over the issue of African migrants in Israel. Oren praised how Israel treated them, relaying how he went down to the border and saw the IDF’s state of the art facility for holding African migrants. Bachman referred to the Africans in Israel as “refugees,” but not before Oren pushed back hard. Oren claimed that only 2% of the Africans in Israel were refugees, with the rest looking for work. Oren also said that “about 40 percent of them are Muslim, which creates a security concern for us,” as The Daily Beast‘s Open Zion blog reported.

Bachman also brought up the Arab Spring and what it means for Israel. “There is a situation in the Middle East that’s not conducive to peace,” said Oren, noting the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, cold relations with Turkey and Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran came up in the question and answer session, too. An audience member’s question that Bachman picked from an index card read, “can Israel defeat Iran without the U.S.?” Oren answered it by saying that “nobody is talking about defeating Iran,” but that Israel needed to “defend itself.” Israel bears “no animus” towards the people of Iran–only its leadership. And Oren acknowledged that while Israel reserves the right to protect itself, the Israeli military’s capabilities didn’t match the U.S. military’s.

And the last question concerned the American elections; Oren played it safe. “I get a certain amount of gratification” when candidates debate who is more pro-Israel than the other, remarked Oren. The ambassador also emphasized that “we don’t interfere in American elections.”

Oren’s time was up. The synagogue gave him a standing ovation. I remained seated, my small act of defiance at least making myself feel better after I witnessed the spectacle of liberal Democrats applaud a man who puts a pretty face on an ugly system. Oren is a good propagandist.

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