Forward Thinking

Michael Oren, Israel's Historian, Runs Afoul of History

By Ali Gharib

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Last week, Foreign Policy CEO David Rothkopf and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren published a frank exchange about Israel’s past and future. But this was no ordinary discussion. It was between friends: Rothkopf and Oren have known each other since college.

The pair’s long letters, edited and published, were revelatory. Rothkopf’s disenchantment with Israel produced the liveliest reactions from commentators. But less remarked upon was Oren’s unflinching devotion to Israel — a devotion so stirring that Oren, a former historian, has forsaken the historian’s craft in favor of the diplomat’s. That is, his missives to Rothkopf made a case for Israel directed at American Jews. But making a case can involve glossing over facts, sometimes even distorting them.

When Oren started speaking about the relationship between American Jews and Israel, it was clear this was going to be a guilt trip. “As so many American Jews of our generation,” Oren wrote to his old college buddy, “you have this idealized image of pre-1967 Israel. But we’re adults now and adults inhabiting an illusion-less world.”

Oren noted that Rothkopf “once felt a part of” the Israeli story. The rupture, Oren wrote, didn’t happen because Israel changed (it improved!), but because Rothkopf did: “[M]uch of American Jewry has also changed — you, in terms of your Jewish identity, have changed — and acknowledging that is a prerequisite for forming your opinions about the Jewish state.” Maybe Oren’s privy to something we aren’t, but it seems to me he’s conflated Rothkopf’s “Jewish identity” with his support for Israel. There are enough worms to fish the Atlantic Ocean clean in that can.

The more shocking stretch of this guilt trip, however, arose from his defiance of American criticisms of Israel, especially from American Jews.

“[W]e know that the Jewish people survived — barely — the inaction of American Jewry during World War II, and know that in the future we might have to survive in spite of part of that community’s alienation,” Oren wrote. What is it that Oren thinks he knows about American Jewish “inaction” during World War II?

Here the historian has run afoul of history: his is a propagandist’s talking point, not a dispassionate look at the facts. And it’s a right-wing pro-Israel talking point, pushed by pre-state right-wing Zionists with a political agenda. Writing last year in the Forward, J.J. Goldberg explained the history and called the narrative of American Jewry’s inaction a “libelous myth” and “a lie.” As Goldberg noted, all this was laid to rest with a definitive takedown in the neoconservative journal Commentary — in 1983. Three decades later, Oren is still pressing the case.

You might think this a bit disturbing, but not to Michael Oren. Instead, the former diplomat “was disturbed by your [Rothkopf’s] reference to the unequal distribution of water between Israelis and Palestinians.” Rothkopf had written that “local resources, like water, ought to be shared equitably.” That seemed uncontroversial, as does the implicit suggestion that these resources aren’t, today, shared that way.

Oren responded that this notion constituted “a long-exposed Palestinian canard for which EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, after recently repeating it in front of the Knesset, apologized.”

Schulz did kick up some controversy — Israeli minister Naftali Bennett demanded Schulz apologize — by quoting a Palestinian who’d told him that Israelis are allocated about four times more water than Palestinians. His interlocutor may have been wrong on specifics (a possibility Schulz himself conceded), but not in the broad strokes. It was precisely these broad strokes that Oren sought to deny.

Studies have indeed found broad disparities in water allocation for Israelis and Palestinians; even right-wing Israeli media has recognized the disparity is real, even if Schulz’s numbers weren’t correct. What’s more, some reports on a meeting between Schulz and Bennett a week after the incident made no mention of an apology, whereas others explicitly reported that no apology was made.

You could be forgiven for being “disturbed” by a historian’s inability to adhere to basic facts, but it didn’t end there: Oren waded back into Jewish identity issues. He wrote:

When, in order to become ambassador, I relinquished my U.S. citizenship, an American consul punched a hole in my passport. But no one can punch a hole in the passport linking you as a Jew to Israel because your passport is your membership in the Jewish people and it’s irrevocable.

Got that, American Jews? Your criticisms of Israel are not welcome because you’re American Jews, not Israelis, and Israel will do just fine without you. But you’re nonetheless wedded to this Israel thing.

Unfortunately for Oren, many liberal American Jews aren’t shy about criticizing Israel, perhaps exactly because its deeds are done in the name of Jews everywhere. If Oren really takes the diaspora seriously, he ought to address their criticisms without libeling them. And he ought to get his basic facts right.

Ali Gharib is an independent journalist based in Brooklyn. Follow him at @ali_gharib.


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