On Jewish Dissent

It is not anti-Semitism, or the fear of it, that impels American Jews to disagree with Israel’s policies, but the policies themselves.

Jason Reed / Reuters

In a lifetime of searching for new sensations, I have found one. I have been called, or compared to, an anti-Semite. I was not aware that my hatred of my people was showing. I thought I was being careful. But I have been exposed. Not even Jewish Voice for Peace will have me now.

The defender of the Jews who busted me, my Javert, was my “friend” Michael B. Oren. What gave me away was my opposition to Benjamin Netanyahu, about whom I have for years been quite withering. This was how I played into Oren’s inquisitorial hands: I wrote an angry article, in 2010, about the Israeli assault on a Turkish ship of pro-Palestinian activists that was headed for Gaza, in which nine people were killed, and in that piece I had the impudence to describe Netanyahu as “a gray, muddling, reactive figure … a creature of the bunker.” I could have said worse, but the damage was done. My Jewish cover was blown. In Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, Oren’s slinky and self-aggrandizing memoir of his service as Israel’s ambassador in America, he cites my derogatory adjectives about his boss and glosses them in this foolish and ugly manner: “The antagonism sparked by Netanyahu, I gradually noticed, resembled that traditionally triggered by the Jews. We were always the ultimate Other—communists in the view of the capitalists and capitalists in communist eyes, nationalists for the cosmopolitans, and for jingoists the International Jew.” The reference to alterity is pretty cool. Otherwise the comment is risible, except that it is not funny.

Oren is baffled by the failure of Netanyahu to arouse universal admiration. After all, as he plaintively remarks, Netanyahu’s “resume reads more glowingly than even the most sterling of the Obama administration’s CVs.” (Ally is just another book about Obama and Netanyahu masquerading as something grander.) “Accepted at Yale and studying at Harvard, he graduated from MIT with an honors BA in architecture and a master’s degree in management. He became a successful analyst at the Boston Consulting Group. … All that, plus Netanyahu was a published author, a superb orator in Hebrew and English, conversant in French, a serious reader, and, in his heyday, famous for his good looks. Who would not be impressed by that resume, if not intimidated? And yet respect and fear were far from the only emotions the prime minister evoked.” A mystery! How to explain it?

There is one explanation for my stubborn resistance of Netanyahu’s good looks that Oren is reluctant to consider. It is that I detest many of his policies because I believe that they are hurting Israel and I do not like to see Israel hurt. Not all of Netanyahu’s policies, I should add: I share his opposition to Obama’s hallucinations about Iran, and I was exhilarated when he told the Jews of France to “come home” because he was expressing Zionism, which moves me to my soul.

But long before Netanyahu’s revolting last-minute demagoguery about Palestinians and Israeli Arabs during his recent campaign for reelection, it was perfectly clear to me that he will never preside over the establishment of a Palestinian state, which in my view is the very condition of the survival of a Jewish state; that he has no interest in the moral dimensions of Israel’s coexistence with Arabs and Palestinians (the Other, indeed!) and will poison Israel’s relations with its citizens and its neighbors if it suits his political purposes; that he prefers military solutions to diplomatic solutions and is utterly lacking in diplomatic imagination; that he regards Israel’s isolation not as a strategic threat but as a moral victory, as a proof of its righteousness; that he has promoted fear from an empirical response to actual dangers into a philosophy of history, and thereby diminished his country’s sense of historical possibility; that he will pander to the darkest forces of Israeli reaction, secular and religious, to advance himself.

All of these judgments are based on my study of Netanyahu’s behavior in power and on my loyalty to the Jewish people, which requires me to state what I believe to be true. I will not insult Oren by suggesting that his differing opinions are animated by anything other than the same values. We are all handsome and we are all sons, but the Israeli situation is complicated and the Jewish tradition is various and we cannot all be right.

Yet Oren, like many on the Israeli right, cannot extend the same courtesy, the same respect, to those who do not share his own understandings. The controversy within the Jewish community, in his depiction of it, is not a debate between two schools of genuine worry, between two sincerely held positions about Israeli security (or the lack of it) and Israeli morality (or the lack of it). It is a debate between his noble outlook and my human, or Jewish, failing; between his integrity and my psychology. “When I suggested to Leon that his hatred of Bibi had become pathological, he merely shrugged and admitted, ‘Yes, I know, it’s pathological.’” I was of course speaking ironically, and gently mocking Oren’s absurd view of my dissent—but irony long ago left this field, and pathology is precisely the category to which Oren repairs to make sense of his puzzlement about the absence of a conformity of Jewish opinion.

“For all my hundreds of speeches and innumerable hours of talk, American Jewish criticism seemed only to surge.” We disappointed him. Oren deals with his disappointment—rather like Obama, he needs to comprehend why his magic did not work—by refusing to imagine that a deeply critical view of Netanyahu could arise from anything but an aberration. The aberration in question, I was startled to learn, is some sort of internalization of the anti-Semitic view of the Jews: the opposition to Netanyahu, like the opposition to the Jews, is a prior prejudice, dogmatic, vile, immune to evidence, not an argument but a hatred. Needless to say, I do not take kindly to this. Analytically speaking, Oren is, for all his smoothness, very coarse. Even in a time of resurgent anti-Semitism, anti-Semitism cannot explain everything. Netanyahu’s reputation is not entirely out of his hands, just as Israel’s fate is not entirely out of its hands. Oren’s suggestion that the prime minister’s unpopularity has nothing to do with his qualities and his words and his deeds reminds me of the old joke about the Jew with a stutter who is turned down for a job as a radio announcer and explains to his wife that the station will not hire Jews.

“No less than their Israeli counterparts,” Oren observes with disillusion and outrage, “American commentators—almost all of them Jewish—were fiercely indisposed toward Netanyahu.” Note that subclause: in Oren’s view, one’s interpretation of reality should be shaped by one’s ethnicity. It wounds Oren that people who share his identity do not share his ideology, and it confounds him. About The New York Times he complains that “these and other unflattering dispatches were written by Jews working for a paper long under Jewish ownership.” Shouldn’t Jews write flattering dispatches? And more generally: “The presence of so many Jews in print and on the screen rarely translates into support for Israel. … The pinch I felt reading articles censorious of Israel sharpened into a stab whenever the names on the bylines were Jewish. Almost all of the world’s countries are nation-states, so what, I wondered, drove these writers to nitpick at theirs?” Clearly Oren does not read the free presses of other nation-states, in which criticism of power is regarded as one of the very purposes of the profession. “Nit-picking” is not a disgrace in a democratic society, it is a glory. This is certainly the case when the nits that are being picked are historically and morally significant. Oren ludicrously conflates the defense of Netanyahu with the defense of the Jewish people.

Again Oren responds to disagreement with psychopathology: Jews who differ with him are infirm Jews. They suffer from an identity disorder. “Pondering these questions, 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 is why so many of them supported Obama …” This is patronizing Israeli crap. It also demonstrates a deep ignorance of the condition, internal and external, of American Jewry, and a fundamental failure to grasp the way in which American pluralism represents a revolution in Jewish history. Like many American Jews who move to Israel—and I bless them all (except those who choose to “ascend” not to the Jewish lands of the state but to the Palestinian lands that it occupies)—Oren has a problem with the majority that stays behind. They seem to call into question the legitimacy of his choice, and so he must call into question the legitimacy of their choice. (I know, I just committed psychology.) He translates the old Zionist principle of “the negation of the diaspora” into a genial condescension toward the diaspora. American Jews are truants and Michael Oren is their truant officer. I should note that in his recent campaign for a seat in parliament, Oren permitted himself to describe Netanyahu as “cynical.” This was required by his political self-interest, since he was running on a right-wing list that needed to distinguish itself from the prime minister’s Likud party. But still, how dare he? Was this the vestigial quaking of a former American Jew?

Oren might instead consider the possibility that it is not fear of anti-Semitism that impels his brethren in America to distance themselves from Israel and its often-controversial policies, but the policies themselves. The alienation that he laments, and rightly, has many causes, but it must also be counted as one of Netanyahu’s achievements. American Jewish insecurity? You must be kidding, brother. Our problem over here is not Jewish self-hatred but Jewish self-love. We are secure almost to the point of decadence. Speaking only for myself, I have searched my heart and am pretty satisfied that I have not carped about Netanyahu because I want to be asked into the Metropolitan Club. My Jewishness is one of the few things that I am not anxious about! I need no lessons in ahavat yisrael, or the love of the Jewish people. But ahavat yisrael is not all that a thinking Jewish adult needs to know.

Oren’s expectation of journalism amounts to a kind of xenophobia, a little culture war. Must all the work of Jews be an expression of Jewishness? Is journalism produced by Jews Jewish journalism? (Do Jewish doctors practice Jewish medicine?) Why should a Jewish journalist care about anything except the facts of the matter? There are realms of life in which the ideal of authenticity is misplaced, and even corrupting. It is not the duty of Jewish writers to stop betraying their ancestors and cheer for Bibi. It is the duty of Jewish writers to write what they believe, whether or not they betray their ancestors. The early Zionists themselves betrayed their ancestors even as they also fulfilled them.

Anyway, who owns the ancestors? And the ancestors are an exceedingly mixed lot. They stand for diverse and contradictory things. The lockstep of which Oren dreams, the monolithic fidelity, is impossible in a tradition as broad and variegated as ours. As the ancient rabbis instructed, the multiplicity of our opinions requires us to conclude that all the opinions are the words of the living God. Or more accurately, all the opinions that are expressed in good faith, like Michael Oren’s and my own.