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.
The following is an open letter to Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States
We are deeply concerned that Israel is about to return Eritrean asylum seekers before allowing for an appropriate refugee status determination process to take place.
According to those detained in the Saharonim internment camp for asylum seekers, on July 14, about 15 Eritreans who spent the last year in Saharonim prison were returned to Asmara, Eritrea where they will face probable arrest, torture, and danger to life. We are aware that there are around 200 Eritreans in total who have been designated to return to Eritrea.
If these people are returned, their lives will undoubtedly be in danger as a result. We are concerned that Israeli authorities are not acknowledging the imminent and serious danger to the asylum seekers’ lives nor are they processing their asylum claims responsibly, transparently, or fairly. We believe that such treatment of those who have fled from an oppressive and tyrannical regime is unconscionable.
As Jews, we know that such treatment of the stranger is forbidden by our Torah. As American Jews, we feel that such treatment of a disenfranchised minority challenges our legacy of fighting alongside other minorities for civil rights.
As members of the world community, we call on Israel to uphold its legal obligations. We call upon the Israeli authorities to desist from the attempt to return refugees to dangerous situations without allowing them to have their legal claim for asylum heard and evaluated.
The insulting remarks about Jews made by Mohamed Morsi in 2010 have been replayed enough that they don’t need to be repeated here. Morsi was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood then, and probably never thought he’d become president of Egypt in just a few years. That may explain his remarks. It doesn’t excuse them.
Beyond lamentation and condemnation, how else should good people respond?
When asking myself that question, I thought back to the Forward’s January 9 meeting with Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador to the United States. Most of our discussion was off-the-record (his request, not ours), but I thought it was interesting that at only one point during the hour-long talk did he specifically say we could quote him. Oren is a very adept diplomat, an articulate, American-born historian with a command of language and nuance. He knows how to talk to the press. He wouldn’t go on-the-record unless he meant to.
And so he clearly wanted to get across a message about Morsi.
A controversial report aired by CBS News has pitted Israel’s top envoy to the United States against the network’s flagship news show and now has the Jewish community up in arms.
The report by senior “60 Minutes” correspondent Bob Simon, sought to explore the plight of Christian Palestinians, a dwindling population caught between the hardship of Israeli occupation and the pressure from rising Islamic extremism. But even as the story was in the process of being reported, the loaded issue became even more explosive. Israeli officials tried to fight what they viewed as an unbalanced report, and CBS’s reporter fought back against what he viewed as inappropriate intervention by the Israelis. The result on air was a lengthy discussion dedicated not to the issue of Palestinian Christians, but to the conduct of Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to Washington.
“When we decided to do the story last year, we did not realize it would become so controversial,” Bob Simon stated at the opening of his report. An account provided to the Forward by an Israeli official involved in the events confirmed that controversy ran throughout the entire year of preparation. Israelis first heard of Simon’s intent to produce a story on Palestinian Christians more than six months ago. For Israel, a damning story about its treatment of Christians in the Holy Land could dampen relations with Christians across the world and complicate Israeli public diplomacy efforts aimed at portraying the Jewish State as the only haven of religious freedom in the Middle East.
An official discussing the issue likened the danger of such a report to a “strategic terror attack” against Israeli diplomacy.