Recent days have seen several sharply-negative reviews of Michael Oren’s new book Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. Five latch on to Oren’s condescending criticisms of American Jewish journalists as a group so afraid of American anti-Semitism that they need to criticize Israel to suck up to power. The angry reviews, two penned by Oren targets, Philip Gordon and Leon Wieseltier, suggest that Oren in his haste (he wrote the book in a year or so) has injured himself and the interests of his adopted country, Israel.
1. Jonathan Broder calls it an anti-Obama screed in Newsweek.
Broder summarizes Oren’s errors re Obama and his misplaced criticisms of American Jews and concludes that Oren has “has sorely misjudged his audience.” That audience is largely American Jews, who are offended by Oren’s sneering tone and will respond to the book, It’s Israel’s policies, not our psychology that is at fault. Note the obnoxious paragraphs from Oren that Broder quotes.
But others who closely follow U.S.-Israel relations will likely find Oren’s book a self-aggrandizing and ultimately disappointing screed. The American-born Oren, now a parliamentarian in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition, has sadly shifted from measured historian to breathless polemicist, and a poor one at that. With its factual oversights, sneering tone and amateur psychological analysis of both Obama and Netanyahu’s American Jewish critics, Oren’s book offers a view into the deep rifts that have opened not only between Washington and Jerusalem, but also between Israeli and American Jews…
Oren’s accusations have drawn heated denials from the Obama administration. State Department spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby rejected them as “false,” noting that Oren himself was too far removed from the real diplomatic action to know what was really going on. Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, protested to Netanyahu, asking him to distance himself from Oren’s accusation. But in another sign of how toxic relations have grown, Netanyahu refused…
[Oren] also criticizes American Jewish journalists, charging they are largely responsible for Israel’s poor image in the U.S. media. He singles out New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman, as well as what he calls that paper’s “malicious” editorial page, which is edited by Andrew Rosenthal. He complains about The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick, Time columnist Joe Klein, The New York Review of Books, and Leon Wieseltier, former literary editor of The New Republic, saying their antagonism toward Netanyahu resembles classic anti-Semitism. “The presence of so many Jews in print and onscreen rarely translates into support for Israel,” he writes, apparently taken aback that the Jewish identity of some journalists doesn’t automatically translate into tribal solidarity. “The opposite is often the case, as some American Jewish journalists flag their Jewishness as a credential for criticizing Israel. ‘I’m Jewish,’ some even seem to say, ‘but I’m not one of those Jews—the settlers, the rabbis, Israeli leaders, or the soldiers of the IDF.’”
Then Oren once again dabbles in amateur psychology. Explaining why American Jewish journalists “nitpick” at Israel—a country he calls their “nation-state”—he suggests some resent Israel for complicating their conflicted identities as Jewish-Americans. Others, he sneers, “saw assailing Israel as a career enhancer—the equivalent of Jewish man bites Jewish dog—that saved several struggling pundits from obscurity.”
“I could not help questioning whether American Jews really felt as secure as they claimed. Perhaps persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its often controversial policies,” he writes, adding sarcastically: “Maybe that was why so many of them supported Obama, with his preference for soft power, his Universalist White House seders, and aversion to tribes.”
“Universalist White House seders”! A lot of Jews will read that and think, What an asshole!
2. A coup for the Washington Post. Here is former Obama Middle East adviser Philip Gordon writing the review in the Post saying that Oren’s effort to “peddle a false narrative” — the Obama administration abandoned Israel– will only hurt Israel:
The problem with the book is that Oren’s main argument is a caricature, bolstered by exaggerations and distortions that will probably contribute to the deterioration of the very relationship the author purports to cherish….
Gordon calls Oren out for his attack on Jewish journalists and his psychological analysis of the president:
By mischaracterizing important aspects of U.S. policy and attributing critiques of Israeli policy to anything from Obama’s upbringing and education to Jewish American journalists seeking to enhance their careers, boost ratings or heal some deep psychological wounds — that is, to anything but Israeli policy itself — Oren’s account will provide plenty of fodder for those who want to blame Obama for U.S.-Israeli tensions…
By the way, Gordon opens a window on Obama’s reasoning re Iran when he goes after Oren for trying to get the U.S. to attack that country:
[Oren] approvingly quotes former defense minister Ehud Barak’s claim to U.S. officials that “one night of strategic bombing will restore all your lost prestige in the Middle East,” not realizing how similar that claim might sound to Netanyahu’s “guarantee” to Congress a decade earlier that invading Iraq would have “enormous positive reverberations on the region.” Maybe Obama is not in fact banking on a historic reconciliation with Iran but is instead simply no more eager to use force to solve the problem than was his predecessor, who reluctantly tolerated the emergence of an Iranian centrifuge capacity and began the international negotiations process, yet was rarely accused of being soft.
3. Oren’s former roommate at Columbia, David Rothkopf, is generally positive about the book at Foreign Policy, but notes that the book has unleashed a “firestorm” and its treatment of Jewish journalists is “profoundly, offensively wrong.”
There are parts of Ally and of some of Michael’s recent editorials with which I have serious disagreements. He correctly observes, for example, that while Jews are highly prominent in the U.S. media, this hardly makes the media pro-Israel. However, to illustrate this, he goes on to suggest that several prominent Jewish journalists cite their “Jewishness” to give credibility to their attacks on Israel or to gain prominence. “I’m Jewish,” he later suggests they might be saying. “But I’m not one of those Jews — the settlers, the rabbis, Israeli leaders, or the soldiers of the IDF.” He speculates that if their stance is not due to opportunism, then their position may be due to their insecurity — perhaps due to their fear of anti-Semitism. And yet, elsewhere in the book, he proposes their critique of Netanyahu is similar to the age-old, anti-Semitic image of the Jew as “the other.” Frequently, he expresses frustration with American Jewish critics of Israel, suggesting that many American Jews (meaning those who are too critical of Israel) are psychologically or culturally impeded from understanding the situation in which that country finds itself. Nowhere does he really seem to entertain the possibility that these critics might just be right and their views motivated by the same hope for a better future for the U.S.-Israel relationship, or for Israel itself, as are his.
This view is not just wrong. It is profoundly, offensively wrong. But it is also revealingly wrong. It illustrates a vitally important dimension of the U.S.-Israel relationship as it exists right now — the breakdown between the views of the current Israeli leadership and many in the Israeli establishment, and the views of not only the current U.S. leadership but also many in the Jewish American community. It is important for students of the relationship to understand the rationales employed by those Israelis who attack Americans critical of the Netanyahu government, its settlement policies, and its role in tragic conflicts like the recent bloodletting in Gaza.
Rothkopf goes on to say that when it comes to American Jews, Oren has twisted reality. As you read this, remember that a year ago Rothkopf published an exchange with Oren in which he said that Zionism was “exactly the wrong response to history.” That latent anti-Zionism is evident here too:
Michael is not a Likud-nik, not a reflexive right-winger… He struggles with these issues. I know this because he and I have spent many hours grappling with them together. And yet on these issues, he is not just tone-deaf, he is rationalizing his view with perspectives and analysis that twist reality, pervert his analysis, and make it hard for him to accept the idea that perhaps these critiques don’t come from American Jews because of their flaws, but because of their objectivity or their strengths.
4. Jane Eisner in the Forward is also angered on behalf of Diaspora liberal Jews, whom she says Oren caricatures and misundertands. The review is titled, “Michael Oren, you hardly know us at all”:
The pluralism Oren ridicules is by now built into the DNA of American Jews (except, perhaps, those who live in ultra-Orthodox enclaves.) We feel accepted here because we are, and that leads many of us to strive to broaden that acceptance to those not as privileged. Of course, the president looks awkward wearing a yarmulke in the official Seder photograph, but that image serves as a powerful acknowledgement that our religious tradition is on equal footing with the Christianity that once dominated America.
The same cannot be said for Reform and Conservative Jews in the Israeli religious context. Another source of American alienation the Netanyahu government has chosen not just to ignore, but to exacerbate.
She says Jews are liberals.
Israelis are at fault for refusing to concede that Americans largely favor diplomacy over military action because the latter hasn’t worked out so well for us lately. And because we have myriad problems at home to address — problems like income inequality, persistent racism, assaults on free speech and reproductive rights, environmental degradation, a broken immigration system. The stuff Jews care about. A lot.
5. Just saw this. Leon Wieseltier in the Atlantic. He’s really pissed off.
In Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, Oren’s slinky and self-aggrandizing memoir of his service as Israel’s ambassador in America, he cites my derogatory adjectives about his boss and glosses them in this foolish and ugly manner
He too says it’s the policies:
There is one explanation for my stubborn resistance of Netanyahu’s good looks that Oren is reluctant to consider. It is that I detest many of his policies because I believe that they are hurting Israel and I do not like to see Israel hurt.
And he mocks the self-hatred analysis.
Oren might instead consider the possibility that it is not fear of anti-Semitism that impels his brethren in America to distance themselves from Israel and its often-controversial policies, but the policies themselves. The alienation that he laments, and rightly, has many causes, but it must also be counted as one of Netanyahu’s achievements. American Jewish insecurity? You must be kidding, brother. Our problem over here is not Jewish self-hatred but Jewish self-love. We are secure almost to the point of decadence. Speaking only for myself, I have searched my heart and am pretty satisfied that I have not carped about Netanyahu because I want to be asked into the Metropolitan Club.
Finally– 6– not a book review, but an important critique of Oren’s many op-eds in his book roll-out: Ali Gharib at the Nation says that Oren’s book signals the end of liberal Zionism. The right wing is regnant in Israel, and Oren and his neocon wingmen are leaving no room in the middle for liberals to claim that Israel is supporting reform. Therefore the liberal Zionists should move into the BDS camp. (I have long talked about the inevitable polarization).
One of the most curious strains of Oren’s recent attacks were those against liberal American Jews. In his book (which came out this week and I haven’t read), he reportedly directs substantial ire at American liberals. A Haaretz article reviewed the attacks: “Obama isn’t Oren’s only target: he is also critical of American Jewish liberals and their ‘religion’ of Tikkun Olam, and turns devastating when it comes to American journalists who are also Jews.” Oren went after the New York Times editorial board, Times writer Thomas Friedman, and Leon Wieseltier, formerly with The New Republic and more recently of The Atlantic—liberal Zionists all.
No single example can tell the whole story of these complex politics, but Oren’s attack is representative of something broader: Unlike BDS, the Israeli right and, by extension, their American allies hold real power. It is they, not those one-staters among BDS advocates, who are squeezing liberals out of the pro-Israel camp in America….
In other words, the pro-Israel right—exemplified most recently in Michael Oren’s attacks on American liberals—is winning. The point is fast approaching at which liberal Zionists will have to choose between their liberalism and their Zionism, if only because the notion of liberal Zionism itself is everyday becoming less of a plausible ideology for what’s happening on the ground in Greater Israel. I’m not asking them to join BDS efforts, but at least if they can’t see who their real comrades are—those dedicated to human rights and equality as universal values—they should recognize who their real enemies are. Instead, the right is rendering liberal Zionism, such that it is, a moot ideology, even as liberal Zionists themselves take the fight to BDS. Michael Oren must be pleased.