Michael Oren's Safe Bet

Brandeis' newspaper, The Justice, has protested the university's invitation to Israel's ambassador, Michael B. Oren, to deliver this year's commencement address. The editorial in The Justice says, among other things, “Mr. Oren is a divisive and inappropriate choice for keynote speaker at commencement, and we disapprove of the university’s decision to grant someone of his polarity on this campus that honor.”

The paper was echoing the attitudes of many faculty and students on the campus. Veteran activist Prof. Gordon Fellman said, "His role obligates him to defend Israeli policies. That includes defending the Israeli incursion into Gaza, housing policies of the occupation, and so on. And I think for many people that’s a third rail. And why mess up a commencement with a third rail?"

All of this sent Oren's friend and colleague at Jerusalem's Shalem Center, Daniel Gordis, into full op-ed mode. "This is where we are today," Gordis laments; "For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more." And what bothers Gordis especially, it seems, is the column of Jeremy Sherer, president of the Brandeis J Street U Chapter. This is how Gordis rehearses it:

"Sherer wrote to The Justice, 'I am... bothered [by the invitation to Oren] because I disagree with his politics.' That’s what education is now producing--people who want to hear only those with whom they agree? 'I’m not exactly thrilled,' Sherer wrote, 'that a representative of the current right-wing Israeli government will be delivering the keynote address at my commencement.'"

Gordis is hardly doing justice to Sherer's words, but never mind. It's fair to say this is not the buzz Michael Oren had in mind when he took the job. Yet it is hard not to feel that Oren is himself largely responsible for the persecuting spirit that has been unleashed among Jews in America in recent months. Look at San Francisco's Jewish community currently threatening academic freedom at Bay Area Jewish Studies Programs. Listen to Dershowitz on Goldstone. Oren should try to put an end to it when he addresses Brandeis' students. The students, for their part, should give him the chance.

OREN IS A decent man, a skillful writer, a serious scholar (especially of the Suez War), a gifted teacher, and (I fear this is starting to sound patronizing) good conversation. It doesn't hurt that Oren is good looking and well-spoken, or even that he knows it. He started out running from Italian kids in New Jersey in the 1950s, and volunteering on left-wing kibbutzim in the 60s. He saw action in Lebanon in 1982, a war he--like most worldly Israelis--only half believed in; though like many American Jews who served in the IDF, he speaks of this experience as a rite of passage, a kind of graduation from Alex Portnoy's couch. Oren then became an aide to Yitzhak Rabin until the prime minister's assassination, and then found himself a foreign ministry advisor, which means not sure what's next.

As the Oslo process ground on, and especially after the Al-Aqsa Intifada began, Oren started drifting to the right--not the ideological right, but what might be called the reactionary right. And the force he was reacting to was Yasir Arafat's leadership in the Palestine Authority, which he discovered--so he said--to be sadly representative of Palestinian attitudes as a whole: not just hostile to Israel's actions, but hostile to Israel's very existence. He was not alone here. Benny Morris, Ari Shavit, and many others took this path.

In 2002, Oren wrote a history of the 1967 War--the good war, the safe bet--which became a best-seller, and made his lectures necessary in American synagogues. About the tragic consequences of that war--the occupation, Jerusalem, etc.--Oren was, well, centrist. He wanted peace, but was there a partner? Sure the settlers were extreme, but why pick on them when the Arab world is so threatening? Gee, who can stand people who think this is all our fault. Even Labor thought a united Jerusalem was ours.

Oren, meanwhile, became the house "liberal" at the neocon Shalem Center, whose chief patron was Sheldon Adelson, Bibi Netanyahu's money-bags; his colleagues were, among others, Natan Sharansky and Boogie Yaalon. Oren followed that book with another, about America's Middle East century, and settled into (what seemed to the rest of us poor bastards) an enviable salary and bi-continental career.

SO WHEN NETANYAHU was finally elected, and turned to Oren to be Israel's ambassador, I confess I found the choice rather inspired. Oren had come by his rightist leanings honestly. He was no dogmatist. His chief job would be to manage Israel's brand in the US media, much as Bibi had done for Yitzhak Shamir. Oren, I thought, could be as effective as Golda Meir, without pandering to the Greater Israel types. And unlike Bibi, he had no deep connection to the neocon world. There was much Oren did not see, I believed, or found it inconvenient to see. I suspected he liked just a little too much the 1967 idea of an Israel that was a kind of world Jewish commonwealth, standing up to the toughs, the goyim, where Israelis were the bronzed leaders, and American Jews the shmendrick (though, gratefully, rich) followers--a commonwealth in which he could play a kind of global Prince Valiant. (Listen to this shmooze with Jeffery Goldberg, and you'll get the idea.)

Yet I also assumed that Oren, unlike Golda Meir, would be able to talk with, or respectfully manage relations with, a wide range of dissenting (or plain indifferent) American Jews, whose criticisms of the occupation often mirrored that of non-Jewish friends; criticisms that sounded very much like criticisms in Israel--anyway, America now had troops in the region, and the conflict with the Palestinians could hardly be thought Israel's internal affair. I also thought that, as an American with a cultivated sense of irony, Oren could funnel back into the cabinet the restiveness of American Jews--also a sense of their diversity and intellectual range--and provide more of a global perspective.

There was, after all, another way to to look at American Jewish attitudes. That democratic ideals were paramount, and national feeling was everywhere increasingly hybridized; that the most powerful elements of Jewish national identity in Israel were linguistic and cultural--not something you picked up running from Italians in New Jersey, or even from Nazis in Poland, for that matter--and that Hebrew culture was bound to create a mild sense of bafflement or even alienation between Israelis and most American Jews, which Oren, with patience, could bridge without hiding under a yarmulka.

ANYWAY, IT WAS not to be. I was surprised and dismayed last fall when, after almost no time on the job, Oren refused to accept J Street's invitation to address its founding conference in October, claiming J Street's positions "endangered Israel." This seemed to me very much out of character. In effect, Oren was doing the safe thing again, just taking direction from Netanyahu's brains-trust, or reading the polls and counting on Obama's presidency imploding like Jimmy Carter's had, or counting on the resilience of the AIPAC world, in which his star power was intact--or all of these at once.

Talking about J Street's supporters in this way seemed to me irresponsible, particularly in view of the composition of the Israeli government, which Oren did not really have to endorse to do his job. Endanger Israel? Really? One could make the case, obviously, that it was a shortsighted clinging to the status quo that endangered Israel; that the question of what works or doesn't work diplomatically was arguable; that particularly after the Gaza operation, the idea that the Israeli military could be trusted to know what is and isn't dangerous for Israel in the world was also arguable. (On my panel, the former head of Israel's Secret Service, Ami Ayalon, argued a security strategy far different from Netanyahu's.)

What was most irresponsible about Oren's decision to shun J Street was the drawing of lines in ways that seemed calculated to intimidate dissenters from Israel's official line. Nobody was asking Oren to agree with everything people said at the conference. But Oren knew full well that what J Street was asking for was a kind of space in which what was good for Israel could be reconciled to what was good for Americans and Palestinians--an endorsement of humility and moral tact.

Which is precisely what Oren refused to grant, at the very moment J Street was struggling to be born. "J Street endangers Israel" was code for there is no Israel but Israel, and AIPAC is its prophet. To be a good Jew you recognize how Zionism created an institutional power whose defense is the only real choice good Jews make. It is what Limbaugh meant by "American" during the Bush administration. Or Sen. McCarthy meant by "un-American" in the 1950s, when Oren was running from bigoted Italians.

SO IT REALLY does feel a little insolent to hear Oren (and Gordis) speak of freedom of expression with respect to the Brandeis commencement. "One suspects, says Gordis, "that the students would have been thrilled to hear Obama, despite the fact that many do not agree with his policies." Yes, but has Obama declared any opposing views "dangerous"? Leave aside that Oren has made himself almost irrelevant to the public conversation among Jews in America by his original effort to stifle what he now argues for. He has helped unleash something ugly that has come around to him. To be safe, Jews do not just disagree with dissenters; they have to isolate and scorn them.

This is not entirely new. I got a pretty good dose of Jewish pack behavior when I published The Tragedy of Zionism back in 1985. But it is worse than I have ever seen before--or more flagrant--and it does not have to continue. Oren, who helped start this most recent fire, has a golden opportunity to put it out. He should go to Brandeis and more or less apologize for the things he said about J Street, or at least promise to address J Street's next convention. He should also promise that the Israeli diplomatic corps will, so long as he is ambassador, respect the standards of vigorous debate that have marked American Jewish freedoms, even identity. Oren may believe he's found an answer in Israel. Itfadal. But American Jews, as Irving Howe said, live on the questions.