Michael Oren, the former ambassador of Israel to the United States, got some attention in the last day for comments he made about U.S. Jews in positions of power. He noted the enormous influence of Jews over policymaking — Barack Obama or Joe Biden was often the only non-Jew in the room when a Palestinian state was being discussed at the White House, he said– but the American Jews were not able to fully understand Israel, in part because they are assimilating or intermarried. He called on American Jews to exhibit a greater sense of shared “peoplehood” and obligation to Israel.
Here’s a transcript of his remarks, at the 92nd Street Y on Sunday night. Interviewer Jonathan Rosen remarked that in his new book, Ally, Oren talks about all the Jews in high positions in the Obama administration, but says he is disappointed in how they show their concern for Israel. Oren said:
Yes not only the names you mention but the depth to which Jews, American Jews were involved in policymaking not just in this administration but even in the previous administration… was immense, and in my discussion of the relationship between American Jewry and the state of Israel, I talk about how the founding fathers of Zionism– and mothers of Zionism– did not anticipate the American Jewish success. It didn’t fit into their Zionist weltenschauung, which was that Jews couldn’t make it in Europe, no matter how much they assimilated… You could be the most assimilated army officer in the world, and you’re going to be accused of being a Jew at the end of the day [reference to the Dreyfus affair].
They could not foresee a situation that I encountered regularly, which is, six Jews sitting in the White House, three Israelis and three American Jews, discussing the Palestinian state. It happens all the time. Very often the only non Jewish person in the room was the vice president or the president. The American Jewish story is a huge success story which doesn’t fit into some of our deepest Zionist impulses and ideology.
Having said that, though, American Jews and American Jews particularly who are non orthodox or say themselves that they are more assimilated– many of the Jews in the administration were intermarried– would have a hard time understanding the Israeli paradigm, where you have the nation state of the Jewish people. It’s not… a religious state, but it is predicated on the notion that there is a Jewish people, and that is irrespective of where you live, whether you’re living in Washington or living in Hadera in Israel, we belong to the same people, and we should have some affinity and a better sense of understanding of one another.
Oren then went on to fault “center to leftist” American Jewish groups such as J Street that call for a two state solution, when the obvious consequences of establishing a Palestinian state, he said, would be a failed state, and Israel would have thousands of rockets and rifles aimed at its cities. He’d found it “extremely difficult” to explain this reality to American Jews who’d never had rockets fall on their houses and never put their children on school buses not knowing if they wouldn’t come back home.
He described the Jewish communities in the U.S. and in Israel as intertwined and dependent:
What do we need to understand about one another, and what do we need to expect of one another? I hope to get that conversation going…
There’s one thing we should be agreeing on. One thing. We can disagree about the peace process, we can disagree about the relationship between Netanyahu and Obama, disagree about the Iranian nuclear program. The most important thing we should agree on, is, We live in a completely unique moment of Jewish history. A moment where there are two great Jewish communities that are strong and vibrant and creative and immensely successful. Every Jew in the world today is free. Think about that. For centuries we weren’t free….
Six Jews in the White House talking about a Palestinian state, it’s an extraordinary moment, and there’s one thing we demand of one another. On this I won’t compromise. We should all be deeply profoundly endlessly grateful. Grateful.
Later Oren indicated that the gratitude should flow toward Israel from American Jews. When an audience member asked if American Jews should express their feelings about Israel, Oren said Yes, but with several caveats:
All I ask, is that these opinions be expressed with an understanding of Israeli realities, not detached from Israeli realities, and a feeling of peoplehood– and I’ll say it again, a sense of gratitude. Express it with gratitude.