Michael Oren on Zionism and the Diaspora Jewish Experience

My interview with Michael Oren, the new Israeli Ambassador to the U.S., was quite lengthy (but fascinating throughout!), so I've broken it up (actually, Goldblog Deputy Managing Editor for Transcription Tali Yahalom has broken it up) into smaller pieces, and by topic.  Below is our exchange on Zionism and the American Jewish experience.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Do you think that the Jews who stayed in America, who didn't pick up and move to Israel, are living in exile today? Do you think of this country as a form of exile for Jewish people?

Michael Oren: No. ... The Zionist movement, as it was conceived in the 19th century, and as it was formulated by the founder of Zionism, Theodore Herzl, never came to grips with the realities of American Jewry. American Jewry didn't fit the Zionist paradigm. In the Zionist paradigm, Jews cannot become major figures in a government; they can't have more than a minyan in Congress, or in the Senate -- that would be inconceivable. To be a powerful Jew in a Zionist universe, you have to become an apostate. You have to be an Israeli.

JG: Is the American Jewish experience, then, a reproach or a critique in a way of this Zionist idea? I mean, Herzl ignored American Jewry because he couldn't explain American Jewry. So is the fact that American Jews, that Jews in America, have found a kind of promised land in a Christian majority country, does that mean that the Jewish state is somewhat superfluous?

MO: No, it means that it forms an alternate utopia for the Jewish people. And just as Zionism never came to grips with American Jewry, American Jewry never came to grips with the Zionist experiment. I'll give you a personal example: in the 90s, the then-president of the state of Israel, Ezer Weizman ... decided to hold a conference of the Jewish people at the president's house when he became the president of Israel. And he gathered Jewish leaders from around the world and he offered them a deal. He said 'Let's make a new covenant.' And the covenant would be based on two concessions: the Diaspora Jewish leaders would agree that aliyah, moving to Israel, constituted a possible solution for Jewish continuity. The Zionist state, the state of Israel, would have to recognize that life in the Diaspora was a legitimate choice for Jews. The two sides sat, debated for three days and, in the end, neither would agree to these concessions. There was no concession.

So the two utopias exist side-by-side and, over the years, we have developed a more or less confluent and peaceful interaction with one another. And at the end of the day, we find that we really need one another. Israel needs the political and economic support of American Jewry, and American Jewry increasingly needs the spiritual infusion of the Jewish state. ... In recent years, we have found that a 10-day visit to the state of Israel by American Jewish youth does more for Jewish identity than seven years in Hebrew school. In fact, seven years in Hebrew school, as one poll shows, does some damage to Jewish identity.

JG: I'm looking at my 12-year-old daughter.

MO: She's nodding furiously.

JG: But you're supposed to hate Hebrew school. People don't understand that. That's part of the American Jewish experience.

MO: In order to get us to Hebrew school, my parents used to give us a dollar, which in those days could buy a lot of candy, so you'd stop off, you'd buy the Milk Duds, you'd buy the jujubes, and then you'd sit there and have ADHD attacks while this guy was trying to teach you the alphabet.

JG: No wonder you couldn't read Hebrew.

MO: We need each other.