In the novel or AMC series that will some day be made about the American Jewish relationship to Israel, two of the main characters will be based on Michael Borenstein and David Rothkopf. Both born in 1955 (my year), they arrive at Columbia University in 1977 and wind up being good friends and roommates. They are on the cusp of the Jewish explosion into the U.S. establishment. But Borenstein doesn’t quite believe it. He believes in the endurance of anti-Semitism. And he is the stronger character of the two. He is sterner, more confident, better-looking. Blue eyes and sharp cheekbones, the leading man type. He thinks he is smarter too.
And he is a man of action: he throws himself into supporting Israel, to the point of emigrating and changing his name from Bornstein to Oren. He serves in the Israeli army. He is repeatedly arrested by the KGB on feats of derring-do on behalf of the Jewish people in Eastern Europe. He serves in the Israeli government, ultimately as its ambassador to the United States, sacrificing his citizenship here.
While Rothkopf gets on the American meritocracy gravy train. He gets the fattest envelope that rising Jews of my generation could get — a political appointment in the Clinton administration — and that leads in time to a lot of other plums. The Council on Foreign Relations, ceo and editor of Foreign Policy. He writes a forgettable book celebrating the American elite, of which he is now a goldstamped member, and there’s a neurotic edge to this character. He needs a lot of affirmation. He gives too much respect to his old friend.
But the truth of the story is that Rothkopf is the smarter and stronger of the two, he just doesn’t know it yet. And as middle age breaks the two men on its wheel, Rothkopf finally takes Oren on, by visiting Israel for three short days in 2013, and comes away horrified as an American. Still he can’t break his silence, till Oren prods him. What did you think?
And Rothkopf breaks free in the remarkable exchange of letters that he published yesterday at Foreign Policy, in which he demolishes Oren and exposes him as a flat anachronism, made up of stupid bluster (“We’re surrounded by a sea of supremely armed insanity”) and hectoring lectures (“Do you regard yourself as part of the Jewish people? Do you consider your life inextricably linked to the Jewish story?”) and lies (Palestinians have equal access to water, he claims) with no sense of how the world regards Israel.
In this moment, the Rothkopf character comes into his own. He tells us what he really thinks and he’s the thoughtful and secure one, Oren is provincial. Zionism is “exactly the wrong” response to history, Rothkopf says, and delivers a speech about history that brings everyone to their feet:
The best protection (as the United States has demonstrated) is to institutionalize the concept of tolerance and diversity and to work tirelessly to ensure that the powerful impulses to segregate and divide are quashed. It is not easy. But it has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural diversity in history — though only after a series of horrific errors, including slavery and the genocide against Native Americans and the devaluing of the role of women, were ultimately remedied. We’re not there yet.
I.e., everything you’ve devoted your life to was a mistake.
I wrote about the letters yesterday but obviously I can’t get over them. Ilene Cohen wrote me to say that Israel is now “cooked.” That when someone of Rothkopf’s stature comes out, it allows others in the elite to come out and declare, Guess what, I was never for Zionism, either. “I’m just a canary in the coal mine, Rothkopf writes,” she said. “There will be more. Kerry was a canary, too. And think about Martin Indyk making that speech at WINEP.”
Cohen also asked a question: How is it that Rothkopf never went to Israel before?
The answer is at the heart of the relationship between American Jews and Israel. Most of us have never been. I didn’t get there till I was 50 years old. Like Rothkopf, I was pursuing the rewards and pleasures of American society and was afraid of what that place looked like.
But there was also deference. We understood ourselves as part of a cohesive American Jewish community that held the breathing tube for Israel, for one part of our community was the political faction that ensured America’s devotion to Israel (in sharp distinction to Oren’s fantastical booklength propaganda that Americans love a religious state). In Rothkopf’s case, the advocacy was direct. He stood up for Israel against its critics. In my case it was passive: Till the Iraq war forced me to get on the stick, I accepted the prohibition of my Oren, neoconservative Eric Breindel, whom I knew in my elite college: You don’t know enough about this to get involved, he told me. I thought he was smarter than I was. And I stayed away.
As Rothkopf says to Oren, “you are smarter and more knowledgeable about much of this than I am.” Bullshit.
Why the deference to madmen? Well that is the substance of the novel or TV series. Israelis were manly. Oren was getting arrested by the KGB while Rothkopf was working on his pencil-neck. They were fighting and dying, while we were serving in the front lines of the New York Times and the Council on Foreign Relations. They were devoted to our security, they said, and any community defers to its security forces. And there was a spiritual dimension. They called themselves “aliyah,” which means they are higher. We are yoredim, meaning we are lower. I was informed of this by my mother’s best friend who made aliyah in 1968, from Indiana to Jerusalem. And that religious attitude infuses secular Jewish life in the “psychological Zionist captivity,” to use Max Blumenthal’s phrase.
Of course this is a story about careerism and the lobby. David Rothkopf wouldn’t be a CEO if he hadn’t said the right things about Israel. But as Michael Oren insists in those letters, this is a matter of Jewish identity, of how Jews construct their relationship with the wider world. Blumenthal is liberating Jews and so is Rothkopf. At bottom they are both anti-Zionists; and it is only a matter of time before Rothkopf will endorse democracy between the river and the sea because two states is the dead hand of history.
It’s a great moment. Rothkopf sounds a lot like our publisher Scott Roth when he rejects as “intolerable” Netanyahu’s claim to be king of the Jews even as he commits human rights violations against Palestinians.
For the state of Israel to undervalue or be slow to implement or respect any of these issues of basic rights not only reflects badly on the United States as a sponsor and supporter and ally of Israel, but it reflects badly on Israel as a democracy and as a state that stakes a claim on representing Jews worldwide. (Personally, I find this latter perspective intolerable too. Netanyahu’s tendency to sometimes speak for the Jewish people far overreaches any powers offered him either in the Israeli Constitution or by virtue of any other aspect of his position.)
This kind of talk terrifies Michael Oren. He reminds his old roommate about the breathing tube:
I agree that we cannot afford to lose elite opinion in the United States…. Israel must treat the attitudinal and generational shifts you mentioned not as an image problem but as a strategic threat.
Then Rothkopf explains that it’s not just elites, and, shedding the neurotic careerism, identifies himself with the grassroots:
You can refer to it as a problem among “elites.” It is not. It is a problem among important communities that are essential to the coalition that has provided support for Israel in the past and will be just as important in the future. You know that. … It is guys like me. You know, guys who grew up in New Jersey who were captivated by the story of a Jewish state that was in a way “ours,” who were lifted up by the heroism of the Six-Day War, guys who admired the stories of turning the desert green. You know guys like that, right? You were one.
So Rothkopf reveals himself as an American everyman, and– Israel’s next existential threat. That’s the end of the story, really. That resolves the personal conflict. And maybe the larger conflict too.