Making it clear that he cares deeply about Jews in both the United States and Israel, Dr. Michael Oren — the American-born former Israeli ambassador to the United States — maintains that much of the blame for the current rift between the two communities lies with American Jews.
Addressing an audience of more than 600 people in what was his hometown synagogue, B’nai Shalom in West Orange, on Sept. 4, Oren listed the issues dividing the two communities, among them the Iran deal, West Bank settlements, and the Knesset’s recent legislation declaring Israel a Jewish state, AKA the nation-state law. Regarding all of these, he said, North American Jews — or more specifically “liberal, progressive” ones — are taking a position that ignores Israeli realities.
The split, he said, “is becoming irreconcilable and painful.” And at its root is a fundamental fact that “in the worldview of classic Zionism, for Israel to thrive, the diaspora is supposed to disappear.” That idea is hardwired into Israelis, but “U.S. Jews bitterly reject the idea that to be better Jews they should leave America.”
Oren, now deputy minister in the Office of the Prime Minister and a Knesset member with the Kulanu Party, was most emphatic about the controversial Iran nuclear agreement signed by President Barack Obama. “No issue is more alienating,” he said, and listed military and financial factors that make many Israelis see American support for the agreement as “a betrayal.”
While acknowledging that many in his audience might harbor negative feelings about the current U.S. president, he described the Trump administration as “the most pro-Israel” in history and said that the White House had stood by Israel at the United Nations and was working closely with the Jewish state in regard to the combustible situation in neighboring Syria. That coordination, Oren said, is evidenced by the lack of military clashes between Russian and Israeli forces operating within Syria.
Addressing the American “fetish about the Palestinians, founded on an almost complete ignorance,” Oren declared that in a hierarchy of Israelis’ concerns, “peace with the Palestinians comes in dead last, behind housing prices and the cost of living.” This attitude, he said, is a result of Israelis’ beliefs that they don’t have a legitimate partner in the peace process.
“What have the Palestinians done to prepare for statehood?” he asked. “They have a deeply corrupt, anti-Semitic government.” Were a Palestinian state to be established tomorrow, “it would fall apart within hours.” They want to be treated with dignity, he said, “but dignity has to be earned.”
With regard to the nation-state law the Knesset passed in July, Oren said he voted for it, although if an opportunity to revise the language emerges, he would try to change it to emphasize the rights of non-Jewish Israelis. But he stressed that even as it stands it merely affirms a reality that previously went unstated. In fact, he said, it was Palestinian negotiators who once told him, “You don’t recognize yourself as a Jewish state.”
Israel is becoming more and more traditional, he said, and now a third of the children in the country are born to ultra-Orthodox families, eliciting an audible gasp from the audience. There has also been a reversal of left/right orientation, with the military becoming more left-wing, and the youth leaning more to the right. Regarding West Bank settlements, while liberal Jews might see them as “a land grab,” Israelis regard them as the “newest iteration of Zionism.”
Though deeply pained by the division between Israeli and American Jews, Oren said, “Much of the blame for the schism can be traced to our very successes. Never before have there been two more successful Jewish communities.” In order to rebuild the relationship between Israelis and the diaspora communities, he said the two countries must find opportunities to create a bond between Israeli and American youth, and to incentivize non-observant Jews to make aliyah.
In response to a question about why Russia has been making overtures toward Israel, Oren said their interest in forging a relationship with the Jewish state was simple: Israel has become an economic and military force to be reckoned with. Asked then about how the Russian-Iranian alliance factors into that, Oren shrugged and pointed out that dealing with enemies is easier if one has channels of communication with those who are on better terms with them.
As much as Oren represented the views of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu, he made clear his support for pluralism, and the need for non-Orthodox American Jews to step up their engagement with Israel. In that the non-Orthodox communities have much lower birth rates — and higher rates of intermarriage — Oren noted it was inevitable that the government would prioritize appeasing the ultra-Orthodox.
Seton Hall University student Ian Murphy, a diplomacy and international relations major, came to the talk with fellow student Joaquin Matamis. Having gone on Birthright and with hopes of returning to Israel, Murphy said he attended so he could expand his knowledge of the country. “Coming from a Reform background and being relatively liberal, I was curious to hear a more conservative point of view,” he said. Referring to Oren’s plea that Americans listen, and not dictate Israeli policy, he said, “I appreciated his frankness and honesty.”
Despite the evening’s heavy topic, there were still plenty of light moments. Oren, after all, had come home to celebrate his parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. Lester and Marilyn Bornstein, seated in the front row to watch their son, were presented with a gift from the congregation, where they have been members for
Oren, who changed his name when he became Israeli, set the tone when he declared that it wasn’t so much that he made aliyah in 1970, as he found he was no longer welcome in West Orange. “I was thrown out” of Hebrew school, he said. In his defense, he said that his teacher’s name rhymed with a very rude term — as this is a family newspaper, we’ll leave it to your imagination — and given that situation, how could any boy be expected not to be kicked out of school?
In addition to his government service, Oren, a Princeton graduate and an historian, is also an author. He joked about his two fiction and two non-fiction books, remarking that as a government representative he is not allowed to promote them … but they can be purchased online.
In welcoming the former ambassador, the congregation’s leader, Rabbi Robert Tobin, said, “He’s a favorite son who won no awards in religious school but makes us proud nevertheless.” He doesn’t always agree with Oren, he said, “but I love him for his commitment to the truth. He shares with us an affinity for history and context, and a determination to embrace tradition and change.”
As for what it will take to overcome the various challenges Oren outlined, the ambassador’s final statement summed it up quite nicely: “It is a work in progress,” he said.