Michael Oren’s fascinating and provocative memoir includes an anecdote that will make readers wince. Oren is an American, born in New York, who immigrated to Israel in his late 20s and raised three children there. He recently asked his son Noam, now an officer in the Israeli army, “Who do you feel you have more in common with, your Bedouin sergeant Mahmud, or your cousin Josh in Long Island?” Noam answers: “‘Are you serious?’ he shrugged. ‘Mahmud slept in the dirt with me. Mahmud fought for this country.'”
The Oren family’s American relatives will not be happy at this insensitive story. But it perfectly illustrates a central paradox in Oren’s book (entitled Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide). He was appointed ambassador to the U.S. partly to try and slow the Jewish American drift away from Israel. But there’s a big impediment to this goal: Oren truly does not respect Jewish Americans, and his feelings bubble constantly just under the surface of his narrative. Right after he relates the anecdote about his son, he adds:
“Many Israelis — the world’s only Jews without a compound identity — looked down on an American Jewry that preferred comfort to sovereignty.”
Oren shares this view, even if he tries to hide it.
His enemies list of Jewish Americans is long. Early reports focused on his attack on certain Jewish journalists, including Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, for criticizing Israel at all, and his speculation as to “whether Americans Jews really felt as secure as they claimed,” and therefore “perhaps persistent fears of anti-Semitism impelled them to distance themselves from Israel and its often controversial policies.”
There is more. Oren has a pathological dislike for J Street, the moderate pro-Israel lobbying group that was started as an alternative to AIPAC. (Nowhere in 377 pages does he even mention Jewish Voice for Peace.) At first, Oren grudgingly “engages” in a “dialogue” with J Street, even though “I had no illusions about the group, which received funds from anti-Israel contributors, supported every legislator critical of Israel, and stridently attacked mainstream American Jewish leaders.”
Then Judge Richard Goldstone issued his report criticizing Israeli human rights violations during the 2008-09 attack on Gaza: “. . . outrageously, J Street members hosted Goldstone in Congress and began lobbying against sanctions on Iran,” Oren writes. His “dialogue” with the organization ended. So much for diplomatically listening to other viewpoints. (Oren was merciless toward Goldstone, even after the judge partly recanted in a Washington Post op-ed piece a year later. Oren writes that a certain rabbi “asked me to meet Goldstone and accept his penitence but, rather coldly, I refused.”)
The Oren Jewish enemies list also included a number of Obama administration officials. He doesn’t like Martin Indyk, who seems to most observers an ordinary, inoffensive “peace processor,” certainly no threat to Israel. He is especially nasty about Steven Simon, describing him as “a former Orthodox Jew turned dapper apostate in pinstripes and suspenders.” The only U.S. official he thoroughly approves of is Dennis Ross, which should tell us something.
One Jewish American he does have sympathy for is Jonathan Pollard, who was sentenced in 1987 to life in prison for spying for Israel. Oren lobbies high officials for Pollard’s release. “One senior member of the National Security Council told me over breakfast, ‘As an American Jew, I believe Jonathan Pollard should get out of prison. . .’ He paused to take a bite of his bacon. ‘In a coffin.'”
As the bacon-detail shows, Oren tries to hold himself in check, but his real views about Jewish Americans continually break the surface. He says: “In America, the problem is a scarcity of Jewish identity, while in Israel, the problem is a superabundance. I, for one, would rather deal with a superabundance.” He complains that “only a third of American Jews ever visited Israel and many of those would cancel their trips at the first whiff of crisis.”
Michael Oren provides plenty of raw material in his book for someone to develop a comprehensive explanation for his anti-Jewish American feelings. For now, the anecdote about his son suggests at least part of the reason. Oren writes about his own military training in Israel as a paratrooper, and he brings it up more often than you might expect in what is supposed to be a diplomat’s account. He would deny it, but on some level he thinks Jewish Americans just aren’t tough enough.