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Obama, J Street and the American Jewish Divide

Former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren is a native of West Orange, New Jersey best exemplifies the special relations between the two allies, Israel and the U.S. Ally-book cover jpgWith the publication of his memoir, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (2015), he has another best seller. Previous ones were Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East (2003) and Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present (2007)Having read Ally, I concur with praise from two pundits: Bret Stephens, the Tuesday Wall Street  Journal columnist of note, and Vic Rosenthal, a former resident of Fresno, California, now a Jerusalem resident whose Abu Yehuda blog  posts are a must read about an American  living in Israel.

Bret Stephens’ opening stanza in his June 29, 2015 WSJ column “The President Against the Historianexplains why Oren’s memoir is a must read:

Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States, has written the smartest and juiciest diplomatic memoir that I’ve read in years, and I’ve read my share. The book, called “Ally,” has the added virtues of being politically relevant and historically important. This has the Obama administration—which doesn’t come out looking too good in Mr. Oren’s account—in an epic snit.

Vic Rosenthal in his July 2, 2015, Abu Yehuda blog post, Michael Oren is tired of American Jews, and so am I, addresses  the yawning  divide between Israel and American Jews, another of Oren’s themes in Ally:

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is offended by Michael Oren, on behalf of (non-Orthodox) American Jews. These Jews, like America’s “first Jewish president,” turn out to be very easy to offend: just suggest that Israelis are more qualified than they are to decide the future of their country.

Oren’s new book has offended both Yoffie and the Obama Administration, which has launched an all-out media blitz against him (as far as I know, Obama spokespeople haven’t called him a ‘chickenshit’ yet, but give them time).

Yesterday morning, I dialed into an Israel Project  (TIP)sponsored presentation by Oren. He told the listeners ,unlike the daylight between Obama and Netanyahu over the Iranian nuclear nightmare threat, that there is no daylight across the political divide in the  obsessive democratic cockpit of the Knesset. As Oren tells it, whether Likud, Zionist Union and even Arab parties, all Israel is united that Iran achieving nuclear breakout is “a very bad deal”. Further, he said while some  in the media, the Obama claque of  “senior officials’ and former aides have excoriated him for the early publication  of his memoir, he was heartened that they haven’t addressed the facts of what the Administration has perpetrated. Listen to this recorded  TIP presentation by Oren and the following Q&A.

Oren’s memoir has a lot to say about President Obama and his Administration acolytes isolating Israel over Iran and  Netanyahu’s vigorous defense of Israel  sovereign right of Israel to warn America and the untrusting world about Iran’s nuclear  threat and the very bad P5+1  deal. Perhaps  a  deal about to be announced in Vienna in a few days. Or if not simply kicked down the road.  All while Iran’s  Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei  and Mahdist acolytes of terrorism perfect the means of taking out the “little Satan”, Israel ,with one bomb and the “big Satan”, the  US, with a nuclear tipped ICBM.

Oren clearly takes pride that his well honed skills as a Columbia and Princeton educated historian who earned his PhD in Middle East Studies with the venerable Bernard Lewis.   Not bad for a pudgy dyslexic , pigeon toed 15 year old who shook the hand of the late Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin, when the latter was  Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the US.  He exclaimed on that memorable occasion that some day he would be Israel’s Ambassador.  A late bloomer in high school Oren fulfilled his quest, slimed down hardened through rowing .  Equipped with his backpack he made aliyah to Israel to go through  grueling  paratrooper training  earn his coveted red beret along with an oath taken  to defend Israel on Masada with his IDF comrades.  He ends up in combat and later as a reserve officer during the Second Lebanon War as a military spokesperson to the foreign press.  Along the way he  meets his  American wife Sally Edelstein, a  Jersey girl, dancer and former San Francisco hippy groupie when she makes Aliyah to Israel and they ultimately form their Israeli family.

Ally  depicts what it was like for an American-Israeli to fulfill his dream as his adopted country’s Ambassador in Washington  Israel’s  interests in the byzantine politics of the Obama era from 2009 to 2013. After leaving Washington, Oren turns home to Tel Aviv to lecture, teach at Harvard and Yale and write his memoir.   Oren is now a member of the Kulanu party headed by former  Likud Communications Commissioner and economic reformer Moshe Kahlon.  Oren is a thinking liberal and  both he and the family are members of a Reform synagogue.  His memoir culminates on a dramatic note when he  and Sally attend  a  Bar Mitzvah celebration for 13 year olds at  Kibbutz Na’an, with one of his former Washington Embassy aides, Lee Moser, mother of  one of the bar mitzvah candidates when a red alert sounds, sirens wail and they scurry for shelter. He writes:

I held Sally’s hand and glanced over my shoulder over my shoulder just as two Hamas rockets roared in. Then with twin booms that rattled the tin overhang  and shook the ground below, the missiles exploded. Iron Dome interceptors, developed by Israel and funded by the United States, scored perfect hits. For moment afterward, as we emerged into the uncertain night, the glow of those bursts hovered over us, beaming like kindred stars.

All  of which brings  us to why he has frosted the J Street  fawning rabbinic leadership of the Reform Movement in America and  earned  both Vic Rosenthal’s and my admiration. This came on the cusp of having orchestrated a  recent viewing and panel discussion of the Americans for Peace and Tolerance documentary, J Street Challenge with Pensacola pro-Israel colleagues; Rabbi Eric Tokajer of Brit Ahm synagogue, Mike Bates, 1330amWEBY general manger of “Your Turn host and Florida State Representative Mike Hill, a U.S. Air Force Academy grad.

Vic Rosenthal notes a similar experience in his Fresno in his Abu Yehuda column:

We tried to bring the local Jewish community – the organizations, the synagogues and individual Jews – along with us. With a few exceptions, mostly people like us who had lived in Israel or had relatives there, we had to drag them kicking and screaming. Most of our pro-Israel events drew the same few supporters.

The local Reform temple was probably the most frustrating. A film critical of J Street, followed by a discussion? Absolutely not, it would be ‘divisive’! The Jewish Federation and Hadassah were better, but it was always easier to organize an event about Jewish culture than Israel.

Is Oren right that American Jews are more interested in helping others than their own? Certainly they were far more upset about terrorism in Charleston than Jerusalem, and far more ready to criticize our Prime Minister than their own Administration. The Reform rabbi threw himself into activities to help the poor and homeless. He is seen on TV on panels with the Imam of the Islamic Cultural Center. He is an outspoken advocate of liberal causes, but he did not give a sermon in favor of PM Netanyahu’s speech about Iran before the Congress.

In preparation for the recent J Street Challenge  Pensacola event, we culled excerpts from Oren’s Ally about his views on J Street  and its defenders inside the Obama Administration, illustrative of what  concerns Vic Rosenthal.

On J Street’s inclusion in Major American Jewish organizations meeting with Obama in 2009 p. 78

He promised to be more evenhanded in asking all parties, not just Israelis, to make sacrifices for peace. Yet the meeting would be remembered as a turning point in the administration’s approach toward the Jewish State.

Included for the first time with the mainstream Jewish leaders were the heads of Americans for Peace Now and the newly founded J Street, both organizations stridently critical of Israel and its traditional American supporters.  Their presence rattled the other participants, many of whom had been personally slighted by these parvenus.

The President concluded, “When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines and that erodes our credibility with the Arabs”.

Commenting on the discussion, J Street founder Jeremy Ben Ami cited Obama’s ability to connect with the Muslim World and his immense standing in America and the World. “He was very clear that this is a moment that has to be seized and he intends to seize it.  By contrast the other American Jewish leaders emerged from the meeting concerned about Obama’s departure from the long standing principle of “no daylight” in U.S. –Israel relations.

On J Street’s promotion of the Goldstone Report that Maligned Israel in Operation Cast Lead in 2008 – 2009 p. 102

Though J Street refrained from formally endorsing the [Goldstone Report], activists in the organization escorted Goldstone to Congress for meetings with progressive members.  Assistant Secretary of State Michael Posner told the UNHRC of America’s disappointment with the document’s double standards. But he also cited Goldstone’s ‘distinguished record of public service” and called on Palestinians to investigate Hamas abuses. This, for Israelis, was tantamount to asking al-Qaeda to investigate 9/11.

On the contretemps between the Israeli Embassy and J Street P. 107

Irksome was the embassy’s continued imbroglio with J Street. Unlike my predecessor, Sallai Meridor, who had shunned the lobby, I initially engaged it in a dialogue.  I had no illusions about the group, which received funds from anti-Israel contributors, supported every legislator critical of Israel, and stridently attacked mainstream American Jewish leaders. Though J Street defined itself as “pro-Israel” and “pro-peace”, its logo bore no connection to Israel whatsoever, not even the color blue, and portrayed other pro-Israel organizations as anti-Israel. Before becoming Ambassador, I chanced to meet one J Street board member and asked him why he had joined. “I’m uncomfortable with the special relationship,” he told me. “I want to normalize U.S.-Israel ties.”

Outrageously, J Street members hosted Goldstone in Congress and lobbied  against sanctions on Iran. These actions were deeply deleterious to Israel’s security – “they endangered seven million Israelis,” I said –and made interacting with J Street virtually impossible. Both the Prime Minister [Netanyahu] and the foreign minister [Avigdor Liberman] vetoed my participation in its annual conference.

On the Obama White House relations with J Street p. 108

J Street… fashioned itself as the Administration’s wing in the American Jewish Community. Obama acknowledged that fact by sending his National Security Advisor [former Marine General] Jim Jones, one of Washington’s most powerful officials to greet the organization. “I’m honored to represent President Obama at the first national J Street conference.  And you can be sure that this administration will be represented at all other J Street conferences…” Obama’s newly appointed advisor on anti-Semitism, Hannah Rosenthal, an early J Street supporter, issued her first denunciation not of anti-Semites, but rather of me for boycotting the summit.

Michael Oren’s Ally might be considered a 21st Century version of Emile Zola’s J’accuse.  Oren , like Zola in the fin de siècle Dreyfus affair,  addresses the calumnies of President  Obama, nurtured  in Muslim Indonesia, creating daylight isolating Israeli PM Netanyahu over nuclear Iran and recognition of a Faux Palestinian State.  Daylight promised  to Obama’s  Chicago anti-Israel confreres, Rashid Khalidi, holder of the Edward Said Endowed Chair on Modern Arab Studies  at Columbia and Ali Abunimah , editor of The Electronic Intifada blog, that he wouldn’t forget them. Oren chronicles how Obama delivered on that promise.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of President Obama and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, July 2009. Source: White House Photo

Dissected: President Obama’s Anti-Israelism

This past Memorial Day Weekend Jews observed  the Festival of  Shavuot (spring harvest festival) celebrating the giving of the law by Moses (Moshe rabbenu “Moses our teacher”) to the assembly of ancient Hebrews and others in the exodus multitude gathered under the mountain. Just prior to Shavuot President Obama gave his ‘drash’ (commentary) on relationships with Israel its existential enemies and the Jewish people in two pre-holiday events. The first was his interview with Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg on Israel, ISIS and Iran while the second was his appearance last Friday morning at Washington Conservative synagogue, Adas Israel  Congregation ,where  he spoke to a  gathering 1,200 progressive Jews, including Goldberg. He suggested in his synagogue remarks that some in the progressive American Jewish community consider him perhaps the first “Jewish President”. That would likely support the opinion of Obama by redoubtable NER colleague, Dr. Richard L. Rubenstein, noted theologian, scholar and author of Jihad and Genocide and other  noted  post Holocaust works. Rubenstein took the measure of Obama early on in our June 2010 NER interview posted on YouTube calling Obama, “the most radical President ever”. Watch it here.

Both Vic Rosenthal’s Abu Yehuda  blog post, “For Obama it’s a Moral Crusade” and Brett Stephens’ Tuesday Wall Street Journal column, “The Rational Ayatollah Hypothesis” suggest that the President’s comments sinuously convey anti-Israelism.

Rosenthal gives the following evidence:

Some of the reasons I and others find Obama anti-Israel are these:

  1. His stubborn attempts to force Israel into a suicidal agreement with the Palestinians.
  2. His acceptance (regardless of his words) of a nuclear-armed Iran, and his efforts to stop Israel from acting against it.
  3. His open contempt for our Prime Minister.
  4. His taking the Turkish president’s side in the Mavi Marmara affair, and forcing PM Netanyahu to apologize to the Turks.
  5. His acceptance of Hamas claims that the IDF acted ‘disproportionally’ in Gaza (as shown by his demand for an immediate cease-fire and imposition of an arms embargo during the recent war).
  6. The aforementioned leaks about Israeli actions in Syria and elsewhere.
  7. His acceptance of the anti-Israel narrative that Israel’s right to exist rests on the Holocaust and that it must be balanced against the rights of the ‘deserving’ Palestinians (as expressed in his 2009 Cairo speech).
  8. His attempts to interfere in Israeli politics, including trying to defeat Netanyahu at the polls. It’s ironic that American money was used to help get out the presumably anti-Netanyahu Arab vote — and then Obama bitterly criticized Netanyahu for telling his supporters that they should get out and vote because the Arabs were!
  9. The double standard he displays: compare his condemnation of the PM for his election-day remark with his lack of response to the daily barrage of Israel-hatred and veneration of terrorists coming from the official Palestinian media. Or look at his expressed concern for Palestinians suffering the indignities of checkpoints against his failure to mention the almost daily Jewish victims of Palestinian terrorism.

I could go on, but this should be enough to show that the belief that Obama is anti-Israel is substantive, not simply a political reflex as he suggests.

Stephens provides additional evidence:

Can there be a rational, negotiable, relatively reasonable bigot? Barack Obama thinks so.

So we learn from the president’s interview last week with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg—the same interview in which Mr. Obama called Islamic State’s capture of Ramadi a “tactical setback.” Mr. Goldberg asked the president to reconcile his view of an Iranian regime steeped in “venomous anti-Semitism” with his claims that the same regime “is practical, and is responsive to incentive, and shows signs of rationality.”

The president didn’t miss a beat. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s strategic objectives, he said, were not dictated by prejudice alone. Sure, the Iranians could make irrational decisions “with respect to trying to use anti-Semitic rhetoric as an organizing tool.” They might also pursue hate-based policies “where the costs are low.” But the regime has larger goals: “maintaining power, having some semblance of legitimacy inside their country,” and getting “out of the deep economic rut that we’ve put them in.”

Also, Mr. Obama reminded Mr. Goldberg, “there were deep strains of anti-Semitism in this country,” to say nothing of Europe. If the president can forgive us our trespasses, he can forgive the aAatollah’s, too.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a man with an undergraduate’s enthusiasm for moral equivalency (Islamic State now, the Crusades and Inquisition then) would have sophomoric ideas about the nature and history of anti-Semitism. So let’s recall some basic facts.

Iran has no border, and no territorial dispute, with Israel. The two countries have a common enemy in Islamic State and other radical Sunni groups. Historically and religiously, Jews have always felt a special debt to Persia. Tehran and Jerusalem were de facto allies until 1979, when Ayatollah Khomeini came to power and 100,000 Jews still lived in Iran. Today, no more than 10,000 Jews are left.

So on the basis of what self-interest does Iran arm and subsidize Hamas, probably devoting more than $1 billion of (scarce) dollars to the effort? What’s the economic rationale for hosting conferences of Holocaust deniers in Tehran, thereby gratuitously damaging ties to otherwise eager economic partners such as Germany and France? What was the political logic to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s calls to wipe Israel off the map, which made it so much easier for the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions? How does the regime shore up its domestic legitimacy by preaching a state ideology that makes the country a global pariah?

Rosenthal concluded his column:

Obama does not actually love Israel. Possibly he loves some kind of idealized version of Israel, in which Israelis behave like good Christians, turning the other cheek at terrorism and “taking risks” to the point of sainthood. Of course, such an Israel wouldn’t last two weeks in this Middle East.

What he does seem to believe is that the Palestinian Arabs, like American blacks, are denied civil rights. He believes that this is due to the racism of the Israeli government and Prime Minister; that this is a special case of Western colonialism a la Edward Said; and that Barack Obama ought to use his power to right this ‘wrong’.

For Obama, like Said, the Palestinian Cause is a moral crusade.

Stephens ended his column:

Whether the Ayatollah Khamenei gets to act on his wishes, as Eichmann did, is another question. Mr. Obama thinks he won’t, because the ayatollah only pursues his Jew-hating hobby “at the margins,” as he told Mr. Goldberg, where it isn’t at the expense of his “self-interest.” Does it occur to Mr. Obama that Mr. Khamenei might operate according to a different set of principles than political or economic self-interest? What if Mr. Khamenei believes that some things in life are, in fact, worth fighting for, the elimination of Zionism above all?

In November 2013 the president said at a fundraising event that he was “not a particularly ideological person.” Maybe Mr. Obama doesn’t understand the compelling power of ideology. Or maybe he doesn’t know himself. Either way, the tissue of assumptions on which his Iran diplomacy rests looks thinner all the time.

We will more to say about this in a forthcoming review in the NER of Manfred Gerstenfeld’s latest book on the subject of anti-Israelism as political warfare, A War of a Million Cuts.

EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared in the New English Review. The featured image is of President Barack Obama and Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg in Oval Office.