A conversation with FP's David Rothkopf and former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren -- on Zionism, the loyalty of American Jews, and the promise of the Promised Land.
Note:Oren eviscerates Rothkopf's naivite. Here's another key quote -
It's time that American Jews see Israel not as a Hollywood or Hebrew school
fantasy but what it was and still is: a real country made of bona fide humans,
faults and all, albeit humans caught in inhuman circumstances. It's time they
stop judging Israelis by the standards of the American Jewish experience and
start trying to understand the Israeli experience.
Key line from Amb. Oren:
exists entirely independently of theirs; theirs cannot exist without denying
The first of the emails came after Oren asked Rothkopf how he felt about a trip to Israel he made in late 2013, the first time he had visited the country. Longtime friends, Oren and Rothkopf were roommates and classmates at Columbia University in New York City.
The question, while simple enough, ignited a discourse on the United States, Israel, American Jews, Israeli Jews, and the state of the relationship as seen from two different perspectives -- that of two men who started out with similar backgrounds and views and who, over time, reached some strikingly different conclusions on one subject important to them both. That two people who are close and who agree on so many things could have such disparate perspectives on this issue seemed more than just a disagreement among friends and appeared to be instead a reflection of the state and some of the critical fault lines in a broader debate.
You asked me a pretty simple, straightforward question in your email that has been careening around my brain like a stray pinball. It was, "Did Israel live up to your expectations?"
It is hard for me not to have strong reactions to Israel.
My father was raised as a Zionist, going to Jabotinsky-inspired summer camps in Europe before the Nazis ran his family out of Austria. His aunt was blown up on the Patria in Haifa harbor. Of the few relatives who survived the war, a couple made their way to Israel. When I was a little boy, as I suspect was the case with you,
I had this sense of Israel as a different kind of "promised land," not something from a biblical text but a place where special people were making special things happen.
As you and I have discussed, something began to change in the early 1980s when Ariel Sharon led the Israeli army into the camps in Lebanon. The narrative shifted. Israel was no longer David. Economic, political, social, and military successes had made Israel the local heavyweight champion, even if it was fighting well above its weight class. And the people whom Israel was leaving as victims in the conflict within and nearest its borders appeared to be weaker, vulnerable, and often, though certainly not always, innocent. I understood the blurry lines, even intellectually understood the tactical rationale behind the moves made by Israel's leaders. But narratives are more powerful than armies, and this one was shifting in what would turn out to be a tectonic way.
The First Intifada only compounded this. Initially, I did not feel any sympathy for the Palestinians of Yasser Arafat. Even as I entered the Clinton administration in 1993 and got to view some aspects of the regional debate up close, it was clear to me that the other side was not sincere in advancing the interests of the Palestinian people -- who I have nonetheless always felt have had a strong claim to their own country. But it is hard to deny that the genius of the Intifada was the imagery: boys with rocks and bottles standing up to tanks and fighter planes. No amount of explanation can change the emotional resonance of such images.
Rather than seeking to reclaim the narrative, the high ground -- to appear more open, more flexible, more committed to the just path -- the Israel of the past decade has become more committed to a stance that often seems discordant with the best impulses and stated ideals behind its modern origins.
Of course, with a tie to the Patria -- the ship sunk by Jewish extremists in 1940, killing over 200 people -- it's hard not to recall that this dichotomy has always been at the heart of the battle among Israelis to define the nature of your state. Building settlements may have satisfied a political need for Israeli leaders, but it looked insensitive and unconstructive … because it was and is. As you and I have also discussed, the opportunity has always been there for Israel to take a different course, embrace the idea of a Palestinian state, and lean in to the peace process precisely because you have known that the Palestinians would struggle to follow through. While this may seem cynical, it meant the risks would be low, the return would be high, and if peace resulted all the better. After all, in my view, demographics and economics and common sense all dictate that nothing could do more to secure Israel than the establishment of a flourishing Palestinian state.
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