The Ridiculous Mr Oren

July 1, 2015 12:34 pm

My friend Jeff Goldberg goes to great lengths in this new article to get us to take Michael Oren and his new book (‘Ally‘) seriously and not be led astray by the book’s publicity campaign or the opeds Oren himself has written in support of it, which are apparently far less nuanced than the book itself. And yet, in Jeff’s interview, Oren comes off as precisely the over-clever asshole Goldberg wants him not to be. We hear again and again from Oren’s defenders (and to be clear, Goldberg isn’t really defending him, as much as he’d clearly like to) that the former Israeli ambassador wanted to write a book about the fatal shortcomings of President Obama’s Iran diplomacy and yet somehow accidentally wrote a book in which he not only psychoanalyzes President Obama but all of American Jewry. The latter are too conflicted and defensive about their identity as Jews not to give thanks that they were born in the same era as Benjamin Netanyahu, the embodiment of the Jewish people who brings together both Maimonides and Herzl into one unified, deluxe Jewish person. (I hate it when that happens!) Because there is no possible reason other than a psychological one why American Jews might not genuflect at the Netanyahu altar.

If this all seems a bit boisterous and over-the-top, welcome to the world of former serious person, journalist and ambassador to the US Michael Oren. If we take this new argument on its face, Oren’s adoption of the kind of claptrap we American Jews are used to hearing from right wing talk radio freaks (Obama’s outreach to the Muslim world is due to being rejected by two Muslim fathers) has obscured whatever it is in the book Oren might have had to say about the Iran deal. (Perhaps he can release those pages as a Kindle single? And we can all read that?) This clown deserves every ounce of derision he is receiving. His turnabout, as someone who professes to be concerned about mending the US-Israel relationship, really exposes him as a hypocrite and/or a fraud, and probably both.

When we last discussed the Oren book I noted among other things his taking long-time New Republic back of the book editor Leon Wieseltier to task as an example of the sort of American Jewish writer captured by an ingrained and pathological animus toward Netanyahu which mimics the anti-Semitic stereotyping and attacks gentiles have visited on Jews for millennia. Wieseltier, from his new post at The Atlantic, has now responded. And the result is predictably delicious, both in style and substance. You should read it. In my rougher hands I can summarize it thusly. A lot of Israeli Jews and a lot of American Jews simply disagree on some basic points about the future of Israel and the future of the Jewish people. Once you can accept that disagreement on its own terms, there’s no need to come up with embarrassingly clumsy armchair psychological explanations or deify the all-to-human Mr. Netanyahu into some sort of Jewishness made flesh.

Here’s one passage from Wieseltier’s essay that I completely agree with …

But long before Netanyahu’s revolting last-minute demagoguery about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs during his recent campaign for reelection, it was perfectly clear to me that he will never preside over the establishment of a Palestinian state, which in my view is the very condition of the survival of a Jewish state; that he has no interest in the moral dimensions of Israel’s coexistence with Arabs and Palestinians (the Other, indeed!) and will poison Israel’s relations with its citizens and its neighbors if it suits his political purposes; that he prefers military solutions to diplomatic solutions and is utterly lacking in diplomatic imagination; that he regards Israel’s isolation not as a strategic threat but as a moral victory, as a proof of its righteousness; that he has promoted fear from an empirical response to actual dangers into a philosophy of history, and thereby diminished his country’s sense of historical possibility; that he will pander to the darkest forces of Israeli reaction, secular and religious, to advance himself.

All of these judgments are based on my study of Netanyahu’s behavior in power and on my loyalty to the Jewish people, which requires me to state what I believe to be true. I will not insult Oren by suggesting that his differing opinions are animated by anything other than the same values. We are all handsome and we are all sons, but the Israeli situation is complicated and the Jewish tradition is various and we cannot all be right.

Let me add a point here speaking for myself. I believe two states is the right, only and (I believe) inevitable solution to the conflict. I believe this for many reasons not least of which is that the people living in the West Bank and Gaza deserve the dignity of citizenship and statehood. I believe this because I believe all people deserve this but especially with the Palestinian people because, much as each side expresses the bond through bloodshed and hate, I believe the Jewish and Palestinian peoples are inextricably linked together, forever. But it is crucial to my understanding of the conflict and the future that even if I had a perfect indifference to the fate of the Palestinians my position would not change at all.

If you are a Jew and a Zionist and not in serious denial about the world we live in today, you must recognize that the statelessness of the Palestinians in the territories is an anomaly and that the pressure (expressed in diplomatic isolation, boycotts, sanctions and more) against it will only grow. How quickly it will grow, I don’t know. But it will never diminish, though it may be temporarily tamped down by another intifada. Similarly, if you are an Israeli rightist and you think none of this matters because America will always defend Israel, consider a few questions. Do you believe the US is becoming more or less powerful, in relative terms, on the global stage? Second, do you think the trends in the US electorate are toward one more or less supportive of Israel at all costs? If you are familiar with the internal politics of the US and global politics, neither answer is a good one if your theory is to rely permanently on lockstep US support to keep the West Bank and Gaza Palestinians stateless forever. The pace of the progression is uncertain but direction and destination are not.

Unlike many people I don’t believe we will ever reach a point where the two state model “dies” or becomes impossible and one state becomes inevitable. I don’t think history works that way. You have to be deeply out of touch with history, particularly in this part of the world, to think that mass, forced population transfers are somehow impossible. This is why I’m confident two states will come eventually. The question is just how painful and bloody it will be and how much the Israelis will have the outcome imposed on them, with all the negative consequences that go with that, as opposed to being able to do it now or lay the groundwork for it now on their own terms.

Rather than some nonsense about wanting to chum up with the goyim or some psychological resistance to just coming out and saying how amazing a work of virility and intellect Benjamin Netanyahu is, I believe this is what motivates a lot of the American Jewish criticism that so angers and confounds Michael Oren.

Israelis of Oren’s stripe tell American Jews that living on what amounts to our own continent castellated behind the most powerful army in the world we simply do not understand the realities of the neighborhood Israel finds itself in. There is real truth in this claim. But there are insights American Jews have as well, ones that Israeli culture and that complacency with US protection make it very hard for Israelis to see. Again, just speaking for myself but perhaps for others as well, one of the more frustrating aspects of this conversation is trying to send this message to our brethren in Israel and being told in essence to fuck off because America will always protect them. It is something like a father, who has always underwritten his son’s money-losing business ventures, advising him that his latest idea needs serious rethinking and being told, “What do you know? Everything’s worked out for me until now!”

It is this painful pass which, as more stories have come out, has led me to a limited reevaluation of Oren’s book. He’s been accused of trashing the US-Israel alliance to sell a few books. He’s been called a hypocrite and a fraud for what seems like a total turnabout in who he is or claimed to be just months ago. I believe and said as much at the top of this post. But I’ve started to think it’s actually a different story.

I have yet to read Oren’s book because it has not been released yet. So I have to read it vicariously through reviews and write ups. But in reading those it’s clear Oren’s book is filled with set-piece anecdotes meant to illustrate the sorrowful awakening experience he had during his ambassadorship from 2009 to 2013, with American Jews serving as clownish exemplars of the various shortcomings he finds in them. But we’re now seeing write up after write up about how Oren’s stories are often demonstrably false. Indeed, statements which Oren recalls of exemplars of confounding tone-deafness turn out to be Oren’s interlocutors sarcastically making fun of him. I already noted one of them here about an oped in The New York Times. Now there’s another example from Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

In his book Oren describes feeling like he “had been kicked in the chest” when President Obama publicly thanked a handful of countries for sending disaster aide to Haiti just after the catastrophic 2010 quake but failed to mention Israel despite that fact that Israel was “the first state to arrive in Haiti and the first to reach the disaster fully prepared.”

It is a gripping anecdote and for Oren it symbolizes both the downward trajectory of the US-Israel relationship and the President’s efforts to damage it. And yet, as Kampeas shows in methodical detail, none of the key elements of Oren’s story actually happened. Israel was not the first country to render aide. All six of the countries Obama named preceded Israel into the country and when Obama made his statement Israel’s team wasn’t even in the country yet. (Read the details if you must.) For a small country, Israel routinely outdoes itself in rendering aid in natural and man-made disasters around the world. And the fine, granular analysis of just when Israeli rescue and hospital teams arrived in the country is painful and would be unnecessary if Oren hadn’t made it another centerpiece example in his fantasy of President Obama’s efforts to denigrate Israel and degrade the alliance between the two countries.

Having read enough of these bogus stories from Oren’s book, I now agree with Kampeas who says he fully believes that Oren did feel kicked in the chest. The countries Obama name-checked “among others” were Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia and the Dominican Republic, each countries with historic relationships with Haiti. Oren was actually wounded that Israel was not also mentioned with this select group among the numerous other countries that had similarly pledged relief because Israel had already announced that it was sending a team – one that did not go into operation until the day after Obama spoke.

Seeing this all in a greater context, the entirety of Oren’s tenure in America and the impulse behind his book begins to come into focus. Oren’s reaction makes perfect sense as that of a coddled child who is genuinely hurt when he is treated in a friendly and reasonable way along with peers as opposed to with extreme deference and preference. Only in this context would it make any sense for Obama to single out Israel, a country half way around the world with no particular or historic relationship with Haiti which was not even on the ground yet rendering aid. This isn’t an example of a snub but painful evidence of an extremely unrealistic sense of entitlement. Again, I now believe Oren really did feel kicked in the chest. The Haiti anecdote perfectly captures the entirety of the book and Oren’s critique of both Obama and American Jews. Looking back on Oren’s time as Ambassador, he now looks like nothing so much as a self-awareness Mr Magoo walking through Washington, encountering entirely normal behavior or significant and serious critiques of Israeli policy by American Jews, all of which he was incapable of seeing on their own terms and, confounded, creating a fantasy world of Jewish self-hatred, conflicted identity and personal and national self-pity to fill in the blanks.

In these terms, Oren’s book turns out to be deeply edifying.

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