I have finally finished reading “Ally” by Michael Oren. I was not surprised, or even deeply distressed, by the things that infuriated so many others. What bothered me was something else altogether: Michael Oren, it turns out, does not much like American Jews. In fact, he appears to view them with considerable disdain.
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This was a revelation to me. I served in leadership positions in the American Jewish community for 30 years and worked with many Israeli ambassadors to the United States, all of them very competent. But like many other American Jewish leaders, I believed that Oren was easily the best of the lot. A genuinely nice guy with a razor-sharp mind, he brought to his position an astounding array of skills. While he lacked the political experience of his predecessors, the fact that he was neither a veteran politician nor a professional diplomat actually worked to his advantage.
Oren did those things that American Jews especially value. He understood the American media, or so it then seemed, and defended Israel with gusto and eloquence. When provoked, he responded in a restrained way that heightened the impact of his message. He was skillful and effective with members of Congress of both parties. And he worked very hard at cultivating strong ties with the American Jewish community.
No one was better at dealing with American Jews than Michael Oren. He asked questions and knew how to listen. He reached out beyond the big-money, big-name leaders who tend to dominate an ambassador’s time. His speeches to Jewish groups were substantive but also warm, personal, and filled with humor. And when approached by American Jews about matters of religious rights, Oren seemed to really understand the issues and even share their concerns.
No one was being nave. Michael Oren had a job to do, and American Jews understood that he was doing it. Still, I had no doubt that Oren saw American Jews as supporters and partners in his work. I would have bet anything that he concluded his assignment in Washington with genuine respect and even affection for the Jews of America.
But I was wrong, and to me this is the real story of “Ally.”
What actually happened, according to the book, is that Michael Oren came to see American Jews as unreliable in their support of Israel, quick to criticize the Jewish state, and unable to appreciate Israel’s vulnerabilities. In his eyes, they were unsure of their own position in America. This made them incurable do-gooders, forever babbling about Tikkun Olam, and more inclined to help others than their own. To Oren’s dismay, the harder he worked, the more critical of Israel the community became.
I suspect that Oren might deny this interpretation. And it is true that “Ally” is a dense book with a lot of “on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand” passages. There are sections praising certain aspects of American Jewish life, such as AIPAC’s work on Israel’s behalf, but taken as a whole, the book offers almost as devastating a critique of American Jews as it does of U.S. President Barack Obama. And in the most revealing passage in the entire volume, it connects the two:
“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. 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.”
This, then, is Michael Oren’s message: American Jews flee from commitment to Israel and the controversies that Israel provokes. They prefer weakness to strength, the universal to the particular, and the weak-willed Democrats to the stand-tall Republicans. And the reason for all of this is not conviction but fear — fear for their well-being in America and fear of the anti-Semitism that lurks beneath the surface.
Really? How did a smart man who won Jewish hearts in his tenure as ambassador so completely misread American Jewish realities?
The issue is not Oren’s right to say such things or the fact that he has offended American Jews. The issue is that this is poppycock. American Jews are a diverse bunch, to be sure, but they are not hiding under a rock. It is absurd to explain their behavior as resulting from 'insecurity.' Oren’s words here say nothing about the pride, power, and toughness of the American Jewish community. They say nothing about how indispensable American Jews remain to Israel’s standing in America. They say nothing about the relative cohesion of American Jews at times of war and crisis in Israel. And they say nothing about the obvious fact that disagreements between American Jews and Israel are natural and flow mostly from the same questions of politics and values that divide Israelis from one another.
The book is wrong about many things, but not about everything. Most importantly, I agree with a lot of what Oren has to say about Iran. American policy on Iran may be well-intentioned, but it is profoundly mistaken and dangerous for all parties.
Yet the great irony of Mr. Oren’s “Ally” is that he professes to have written it in order to enlist American Jews to fight the Iran deal. But it is likely to do exactly the opposite. If he wanted to influence the American Jewish community, he needed to show some understanding and sympathy for that community. Instead, he gave us a book that, in its own way, is dripping with contempt.
Eric H. Yoffie, a rabbi, writer and teacher in Westfield, New Jersey, is a former president of the Union for Reform Judaism.