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January 17, 2013

Michael Oren is staying put — which is a good thing

http://www.jewishjournal.com/rob_eshman/article/michael_oren_is_staying_put_for_now

Michael Oren at the Saban Theatre on Jan. 15. Photo by Joseph Scarnici

Michael Oren at the Saban Theatre on Jan. 15. Photo by Joseph Scarnici

Michael Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States. And he has no plans to stop being Israel’s ambassador to the United States. 

This was news to me, as reports abound on the Internet that, as of March 2013, Ron Dermer, a senior adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, will replace Oren in Washington, D.C.

“The reports of my demise are grossly overstated,” Oren told me during an interview on the evening of Jan. 15, just before he took the stage at the Saban Theatre for a major address to the Los Angeles community.

“I don’t know where that’s coming from,” he said.

Oren said that, while things can always change, no one has asked him to leave his role — officially or unofficially — and he has no plans to do so.

Which is, as they say, good for the Jews.

What is happening now in Jewish life is as plain to see as the hole in the bagel: American and Israeli Jews are drifting apart, splitting into two tribes and in danger of becoming one people separated by a common religion.

Michael Oren is one of those rare people who mind the gap.

This was in evidence as he spoke at the event, sponsored jointly by the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The gig was not exactly a tough assignment — telling an audience of about 1,000 guests hand-selected by the consulate, Jewish organizations, synagogues and schools just how special the U.S.-Israel bond is. It was like convincing Arnold Schwarzenegger that exercise is good for you.

But Oren is practiced at the harder stuff, too — explaining Israelis to American Jews, and American Jewry to Israel — and that job is only getting harder.

Consider this: In the recent American election, close to 80 percent of American Jews supported President Barack Obama, while, in Israel, polls showed a similar percentage supported Obama’s opponent, Gov. Mitt Romney. Israeli Jews overwhelmingly supported the second Iraq War. American Jews overwhelmingly opposed it. 

Think back to the Obama-Bibi rancor of 2010, when Israel declared in the face of U.S. umbrage that it had approved construction of 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem. American Jewish support for Netanyahu on that issue dipped to 44 percent. Support for Obama was 59 percent.

The aspects of Israel that upset or alienate large sectors of American Jewry, such as the control of Orthodoxy over civil matters, elicit a shrug from most Israelis.

And the things that keep Israelis up at night, like the Arab uprisings, many American Jews approach with a more hopeful attitude.

“They see what’s happening in Egypt and Syria and think Lexington and Concord,” Oren told me — and then later, the audience — “we think, ‘oy vey.’ ”

The surprise turnout for the centrist Yair Lapid in this week’s election is a sign that a bigger chunk of the Israeli electorate than pundits predicted does care, and votes, on issues of religious freedom. But the gap persists, and Oren (like, fortunately, Lapid himself) remains one of the few Jewish leaders who can bridge it.

Oren and I met in the Saban Theatre’s green room before the main event. A security detail arrived first, then aides and consular officials, then Oren’s wife, Sally, and a strikingly handsome, 20-something sabra who turned out to be Oren’s son. Oren is grayer than the last time I interviewed him, in 2010, but still army-uniform lean.

I immediately brought up the various brouhahas — my word — that had arisen between the United States and Israel that week.

Just that morning, columnist Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in Bloomberg News, reported that Obama, in his frustration over Netanyahu’s decision to allow settlement in an area of the West Bank known as E1, repeatedly said, “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.” 

Oren, to his credit, neither shot the messenger nor denied the accuracy of the message. 

“It just doesn’t reflect the reality in Israel,” he said.

He focused instead on the positive — Bibi’s stated willingness to negotiate a two-state solution with the Palestinians, provided they come to the table. 

Another brouhaha: the accusation among staunch pro-Israel activists that Sen. Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee for secretary of defense, is anti-Israel, or even anti-Semitic.

“Do you think the phrase ‘Jewish lobby’ is anti-Semitic?” I asked.

“Well,” he said — and this is why he’s Israel’s top diplomat — “it’s inaccurate. Not every one who supports Israel is Jewish.

“I don’t like the phrase ‘Israel lobby’ either,” he added, pointing out that pro-Israel forces in America are Americans acting in what they assert are America’s interest. 

Stepping back, I asked Oren about my deeper concern, whether these incessant brouhahas don’t indicate a deepening rift between American and Israeli Jews.

On the one hand, Oren pointed out that support for Israel among all Americans is at a 20-year high. Even among younger people, he said, despite claims to the contrary. Oren is one of those rare Jewish leaders who isn’t afraid to relay good news to audiences more accustomed to doomsday pronouncements.

But Oren, born and raised in America, is acutely aware that different life experiences make for different outlooks. He moved to Israel as a young man. His wife’s sister was murdered in a bus bomb attack. In the army, he survived an attack that killed many of his buddies. His son was severely wounded in combat as well. Oren, a preeminent historian and author, has a deep intellectual understanding of the forces that guide the Middle East. But nothing beats being there.

“Look, we Israelis know what it means to deal with suicide bombers, terror, regional turmoil. Israeli Jews do the heavy lifting. These are profound differences,” he said.

“There’s a gap in understanding. If American Jews would see it from the inside out, they’d better understand it.”

And, he added, Israelis don’t often see the deep support that American Jews marshal and maintain for Israel.

“There’s an expression in Hebrew,” he said, quoting Ariel Sharon: “Things look different from here than they do from there.”

Oren didn’t say it, but a little humility on both sides might just help.

His aide ended the interview — it was time for the ambassador to take the stage. We shook hands.

“What’s that word brouhaha come from?” he said, ever the curious researcher. “Can someone look that up?  Does that have anything to do with malarkey?” 


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism

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