‘A’ Jewish State vs. ‘The’ Jewish State

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.

Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images
Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The following is an edited exchange of emails between Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group, the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine and ForeignPolicy.com.

The following is an edited exchange of emails between Michael Oren, former Israeli ambassador to the United States, and David Rothkopf, CEO and editor of the FP Group, the publisher of Foreign Policy magazine and ForeignPolicy.com.

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. It was the country that was making the desert green, the country of great characters like Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan. It was a real source of pride to be Jewish and associated with it.

That only grew as Israel was challenged by her neighbors. I recall sitting around a radio in our kitchen to get real-time reports of the Six-Day War. That Israel was the Israel of David standing up against the Goliaths in the neighborhood again, the democracy fighting against tyrants and bullies — the brave few using brains and technology to defeat the brutal millions who wanted them gone. I felt the same way during the Yom Kippur War, the same way through college.

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.

This was the context of my visit. I was only there a couple of days, and I couldn’t, of course, see much. Though I did get to speak with many people — from [former Israeli national security advisors] Yaki Amidror and Uzi Arad to (Haaretz editor) Aluf Benn to President Shimon Peres. These conversations covered a wide spectrum, and on that level, I came away energized and engaged. I loved the people even when I disagreed with them. I loved the nature of the debate, the willingness, the urgency with which virtually everyone I met discussed big critical issues. But in driving around Israel, in going to meetings, in listening to discussions at the conference I was at, even in looking at the landscape all around, I got a different sense … one that was entirely unanticipated.

Israel seemed old to me. Not old in the sense of antiquity. It seemed old like the core ideas that had brought it to life not as a country but as an idea and an ideal in my youth seemed so compromised, so battered by "realism" and self-interest, so undercut by political deals, that I couldn’t help but wonder if the country had passed its "sell by" date, that its freshness was gone and some of what was good was starting to turn. That sounds harsh, I know, and that’s one reason I haven’t written anything yet on my reactions. And I know about the thriving, innovative tech companies, and I felt the vibrancy of some of what young Israelis were doing. (The IDF headquarters visit strangely did more on that front than any other part of what I did.… It felt like a cool college campus leavened with the essence of Silicon Valley).

But this impression isn’t just a result of my recent visit. I know my views are colored by my sense of frustration with the policies of Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and some of his team and by a quarter-century of dealing with these issues and many of the key players involved in them.

I also know it goes deeper than that — some of it personal. Time has passed. Generations have shifted. My father is dead. Those who knew his story firsthand (and those of his murdered relatives) have also died. And the world has changed. What seemed a compelling need for a Jewish state in the wake of World War II or in the midst of protracted European violence against Jews has lost its sense of urgency. Even if worrisome realities continue to underlie the new situation, all that gave the Israel of Leon Uris its sense of logic and justice seems more distant. We can argue against it, we can condemn it, we can try to den
y it … but a generational shift has occurred in the United States and, I believe, worldwide. As we once discussed, Barack Obama is the first president of the United States to spend essentially his entire adult life post Israel’s intervention into Lebanon in 1982. Even though he is younger than us, he is a middle-aged man. He is the age of the world’s other leaders. They are all a generation raised with a very different narrative of Israel.

J Street is not an aberration. J Street is a reaction to that new narrative and to the perceived excesses of AIPAC and the reflexively pro-Israeli community in the U.S. Reflex was my first instinct for supporting Israel. But it is not sustainable if you have a truly Jewish mind … a mind linked to a tradition of "struggling" with even the Highest Power. Ideas and beliefs have to be tested against a reality. Today there are other safe places for Jews in the world, notably America. Today there are other ways for Jews to live and be true to their traditions that don’t involve the harsher realities of a garrison state.

There was, when I was a boy, a kind of Israeli dream that grew out of this notion that there was an opportunity to create an ideal modern state in an ancient setting, one suffused with the best thinking as well as the best that could be drawn from traditions of faith. In all candor, I came away from my visit wondering if that dream had died or withered so that those who believed in it faced an urgent and stark choice: rethink it or accept that it will die and with it will go many of the aspirations we had for it when we were much younger (and that I sense you still have for it today).

Something new is needed — a new paradigm, a new narrative. One in which Israel needs to lead alongside a Palestinian state. One in which Israel must be the most committed of all nations to the success of its neighbors. One in which Israel can’t rely on its traditional relationship with the United States and must make new ties that are based less on history, that are less reflexive, that demand more adjustment, flexibility, and creativity.

I’m not saying I don’t think that’s possible. Who knows, maybe it is something you can lead with. But it is what has been lingering in my brain since my visit and something I have not articulated elsewhere. But you are smarter and more knowledgeable about much of this than I am … much closer to all of it … and, above all, you made the mistake of asking.

* * *


As so many American Jews of our generation, you have this idealized image of pre-1967 Israel. But we’re adults now and adults inhabiting an illusion-less world.

Israel before 1967 was in fact a far less equitable place than it is today. There were hardly any Sephardi Jews, much less Arabs, Africans, and other minorities in government. And the government was controlled by a single party composed almost exclusively of secular and socialist Eastern European Jews. Most of the Arab population (of Israel!) lived under military rule. The Palestinians didn’t really exist and for the same reason that Israel appeared pristine — because the Western press so decided. Israel was the darling and the Arabs weren’t. Hollywood helped, too, as you noted. But instead of Exodus and Cast a Giant Shadow, the film industry could have produced The Gatekeepers or 5 Broken Cameras 50 years ago with the same (often unfounded) sense of righteousness it displays today.

You bought into that myth — we all did. But some of us looked deeper. And what we found was extraordinary. We found a society which, in spite of unspeakable pressures, managed to stay democratic, open, creative, self-correcting (frequently to a fault), self-defending, ultra-literate (in Hebrew), and Jewish. It was the only place on the planet in the last 2,000 years where Jews could take responsibility for themselves — for their governance, their protection, their mess — as Jews. And for those reasons some of us fell in love with the place and decided to try to make it better.

Fifty years later, Israel is by almost any metric inestimably better. More open, democratic; less provincial and homogeneous. In contrast to Washington, where people react passively to a weeklong electrical blackout, when the electricity goes off in Israel — for a single day — residents demand an independent investigation and government resignations. Young people, even if they’re not religious, get married and have children, giving us the fastest-growing population per capita in the industrialized world. There’s universal health care, a citizens’ army, and world-class universities charging less than $10,000 for a BA. Since 1989, we’ve successfully absorbed more than a million immigrants — the equivalent of about 50 million Americans.

Sound good? Well, it isn’t entirely. We’re have rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox and Arab populations that for totally different reasons reject the secular and democratic Jewish state. The settler population is burgeoning as well, including elements that also balk at Israeli sovereignty. Israel has a wide income gap, an eroding middle class, and a severe housing shortage for young people. We’re surrounded by a sea of supremely armed insanity. And we’re caught in an impossible situation with the Palestinians, unable to continue occupying them but no less incapable of ending the occupation in a non-existential way.

That is the tragic truth, and since it’s the Palestinian issue that torments you most, you have to hear it. What you’re really saying, David, is that Israel must take the steps necessary to shift the blame onto the Palestinians. If so, I agree. But a two-state solution is unfortunately unlikely and not because of Israel. We’d make most of the sacrifices — but only because the Palestinians lack the national cohesion necessary to sustain a state structure. Our identity exists entirely independently of theirs; theirs cannot exist without denying ours. Accepting us would sever the one thread that — sometimes — holds them together.

Escaping this dilemma will require creativity and leadership. There are solutions, none of them perfect. There are solutions to the ultra-Orthodox, Arab, and settler issues. Solutions for the income gap, for the beleaguered middle class, and the housing crisis. But there is no solution for the regional madness other than to gird ourselves against it.

But back to your Israel anguish, and it’s here where I want to wax unambassadorial. 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. Tired after two wars in which the vast majority didn’t fight? Try dealing with eight or so, one every few years, together with thousands of rockets raining on you cities, countless bombs blowing up buses and malls and intersections, and an absolutely relentless total threat. Nobody in Israel — not one single person you met, not our friend Lior [Weintraub], not me — hasn’t lost loved ones or hasn’t been deeply scarred.

Remembering that, you shouldn’t be amazed that the country seems tired. You’ll be amazed that the country exists at all. You’ll be astonished that those young cool kids you saw in the army are still cool and still want to serve.

Of course, Israel must take into account the fact that the president of the United States has no real recollection of the Six-Day War and that J Street reflects generational shifts in American Jewish opinion. We must do our best to adapt to those changes. But doing our best does not mean taking risks that would endanger the lives of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and perhaps the survival of
the state. Israel is not about to leave a vacuum in the West Bank to be filled with Hamas or accord with a nuclear-enabled Iran just to gain the favor of politicians with memories of Sabra and Shatila and American Jews too young to remember Entebbe. Nobody takes more seriously than I the viewpoints of American Jews, both the reflexively supportive and those critical of Israel. But we know that the Jewish people survived — barely — the inaction of American Jewry during World War II, and know that in the future we might have to survive in spite of part of that community’s alienation.

You are right in expressing your reservations about your ability to reach such sweeping conclusions after a first visit of a mere three days. Your conclusions showed evidence of years reading press reports and foreign-policy journals that have proved off base on just about everything in the Middle East, Israel included. Certainly Israel, no less than the United States, deserves the serious scrutiny born of a serious investment of time and effort. I know you approach this subject out of a place of caring, even love, but I have also noticed that such love leads some American Jews to be more disturbed by the accidental death of a Palestinian civilian at the hands of the IDF than by the killing of an innocent Pakistani by a U.S. drone. Ask yourself if you fall into this category, and, if so, I urge you to revisit your conclusions about Israel.

Israel is a story, a human story, that you once felt a part of. You no longer do, at least not in the same way, and it’s easy to explain the change in terms of a radically transformed Israel. But much of American Jewry has also changed — you, in terms of your Jewish identity, have changed — and acknowledging that is a prerequisite for forming your opinions about the Jewish state.

* * *


The case for the progress Israel has made is undeniable.

You continue to have your eyes wide open about many of the challenges Israel faces. It’s an admirable trait I have admired in the many, many Israelis I have met over the years. This is not a country of people with blinders on — for the most part. Nor is it a place that is afraid of introspection and debate.

But, I do want to offer a bit of a nuance to your nuances, to put the context you offer in a different context. Yes, I may have been influenced by a superficial view of Israel. Yes, I may not have seen as many weaknesses as were there in the past. And, as an American Jew who continues to view living in America as the best possible answer to the depredations and tragedies that befell my ancestors for many generations, I may come at this from a rather different perspective on several levels.

I’m no Zionist. I’m actually pretty deeply opposed to the notion of religion being in any way involved in either the governing of a state or the formation of its national identity. And, also, to compound my own narcissism, I’ve got a case of that good old-fashioned American narcissism that I have to fight all the time. You know the disorder I’m talking about. The one that makes us (and our senior officials) typically argue for a new Copernican reality that has every country on Earth orbiting the American sun.

But you should also be more sensitive than anyone to the reality that the U.S. relationship with Israel is central to its history and important to its existence. And though I may be a Hollywood-deluded foreigner who doesn’t fully appreciate the rich tapestry of Israeli existence, I’m no boob. Despite the steady diet of foreign-policy journals and newspaper articles that I have been fed over the years, I have traveled throughout the Middle East. I have read and written and researched these issues at length. I have viewed them through the lens of being a senior U.S. government official. I stay as current as modern technology allows me to be. Heck, I even read at least one Israeli newspaper. So, if I don’t see the merits to current stances or if I feel the narrative has been lost or squandered, it is worth noting.

I should be among the most supportive of Israel. Indeed, I still think I am in many respects. But, as a member of the U.S. policy community (if there is such a thing … a club that deservedly evokes Groucho Marx’s line that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would admit him), the fact that I feel Israel is increasingly diverging from what I thought it once was should matter. If the well-informed and well-disposed are concerned for the future of the country and troubled by settlements and apparent insensitivity to the fate of a population that is rapidly growing to be the majority population within your borders, then regardless of the flaws in my education or reasoning, it matters.

You may think my view of Israel was naive. It may have been. But it was also the foundation for the historical narrative. Policy, as you know well, is not driven by reason or facts, but by people, prejudices, expediency, habits, and inertia. Changes are hard to engineer. And when views drift from what they were and support wanes, it may well be not just that facts have changed but that narrative themes and emotional underpinnings of a relationship that are based more on perception than reality have shifted to a degree that makes them more important. And that has an impact on relationships. Generational shifts also play a big role in this.

I guess what I’m saying is that I think Israel has a real problem with losing the narrative that can’t be rationally argued away but needs to be addressed. I’m just a canary in the coal mine.

* * *


It seems I hit a nerve by suggesting that Americans and American Jews can be naive about Israel and its neighborhood. Certainly they have no monopoly over naiveté, as demonstrated by the Israelis who got us into the Lebanon War or who thought peace with Arafat was possible. But the debate is far deeper than who among us is the most misinformed. Rather, the question is whether any country, much less one confronting Israel’s complex environment, can ever meet the stratospheric standards set by the U.S. policy community you referenced, particularly those members who belong to that other self-selecting subset: the American Jewish community.

That standard was best summarized by a 90-year-old woman I met at an art exhibition in Washington. She stood on her toes and pointed her finger in my face and said, "I like you but I do not like everything your government does." I smiled and replied, "Do you like everything your government does?" Which earned me another finger-wagging. "No. But your government must be perfect."

The expectation of perfection extends beyond my earlier mention of whether Palestinian civilian casualties bother you more than those among Afghans or Pakistanis. It defines those in the media — many of them Jewish — who generally overlook policies on the Texas and Arizona borders but who write serially about Israel’s allegedly insensitive treatment of African "refugees" crossing its southern border. (In truth, most of those who illegally entered Israel were unmarried men in search of work — i.e., no more refugees than the Mexicans who slip into the United States.) The same journalists who are not losing sleep over America’s practice of detaining and then repatriating those Mexicans are singularly disturbed when Israel, which cannot repatriate most of these men to the African states technically at war with us, does not absorb them. America’s policies toward the Mexicans are not perfect, and neither is Israel’s toward the Africans. But the expectation of perfection pertains overwhelmingly to Israel.

I collected many examples of this during my tenure. Another favorite was the repeated media condemnations of gender segregation on one or two bus lines serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem. The fact that similar buses serve similar communities in New York went overl
ooked. Is gender segregation ever justified? No, never. But only one country gets labeled anti-feminist, even anti-democratic, because of it.

This brings me back to your letter. You say you oppose a role for religion in the formation of state or national identity. This means you oppose the state and national identity of roughly 40 percent of the nations on Earth, including not only all the Arab and Muslim countries but also Spain, Iceland, Finland, Denmark, Argentina, Norway, and Great Britain. America is "one nation, under God," and its Declaration of Independence credits the Creator as the source of individual rights. Israel’s doesn’t. In fact, it doesn’t mention God at all. So what is it, exactly, that you find so objectionable about a Jewish state?

The truth is that the Jewishness of the Jewish state is understood differently by most Israelis and American Jews. When we say "Jewish," we mean people. We mean nation. But for a large number of American Jews, it means religion. Admittedly, we are an anomaly: a nation-state composed of many ethnicities and cultures but bound by a national religion that is observed — or not observed — in many ways. The closest example, I guess, is Japan, minus the ethnic diversity. But do we have to apologize for being sui generis? Do American Jews really want us to be Finland?

I think not. But neither do many of them seem to want us to be a real country with sometimes surreal problems, preferring to objectify us in a way truly reminiscent of anti-feminists. If only I had the proverbial nickel for every time I heard of the need for Israeli soul-searching and every time I silently retorted with the wish that American Jews would conduct that same search. Such introspection would answer basic questions like: Do you regard yourself as part of the Jewish people? Do you consider your life inextricably linked to the Jewish story? Do all Jews — American, Israeli, or French for that matter — share a destiny? I can’t speak for American Jews, but my guess is that the overwhelming majority of Israelis, religious and secular, would answer all of those questions in the affirmative. A nation-state will do that for you.

Which brings me to your last and, I think, most compelling point, about the narrative that we once had and are steadily losing. Though this observation, too, needs refining. Popular support for Israel in America has inexorably risen, not declined, from 67 percent to 74 percent in the last few years alone (I take no credit). Perhaps this is not your America, but this is an America that votes and wants its Congress voting in support of the state they admire. And yet, I agree that we cannot afford to lose elite opinion in the United States. I agree that this is not just a matter of better PR or even enhanced education. Israel must treat the attitudinal and generational shifts you mentioned not as an image problem but as a strategic threat.

Overcoming that threat is much of which my life is about these days. I am thinking about the creative ways through which Israel can break the status quo in the territories, especially if the peace talks fail, and how we can preserve our democratic and Jewish character. I’m probing the means for making Israel more just, more compassionate, and, in the ethical sense, more Jewish. I’m exploring identity issues, some of them quite sensitive, that seek to bridge the gap between a national identity that is indeed Jewish but also Israeli, incorporating Muslims, Christians, and Druze. I am determined to make Israel the nation-state of all of the Jewish people, including Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative Jews.

Which brings me back to the definition of Zionism as Jews taking sovereign responsibility for themselves. Syllogistically, if you respect those Jews who do, and consider yourself a Jew, doesn’t that make you — denials notwithstanding — a Zionist? In my book it does.

* * *


You raise three points that I want to address: One pertains to the expectation that Israel must meet a higher standard than that set for other countries. The next has to do with the issue of whether or not it is legitimate to take issue with the idea of a Jewish state (especially being a Jew). And the final one has to do with the shifting narrative on Israel.

Regarding the first issue, I think you are straying into reductio ad absurdum territory. You both define an impossible goal "perfection"– which may have been the standard by which a little old lady had evaluated Israel but is certainly not the expectation of anyone with a grip on reality — and then you list a number of areas in which Americans take exception to Israeli policy and equate them to flaws afflicting the United States and other governments.

Certainly no one who can read a newspaper expects Israel to be perfect. Nor, I believe, do they expect Israel to operate to a higher standard than any other country. Well, let me modify that. Americans don’t expect Israel to operate to a higher standard than any other ally to whom we provide a great deal of aid and support. If we are to be closely associated with Israel, then by extension we will be judged based on the actions of our ally. So, if this ally strays or missteps, it resonates for us more than it might for other nations. Further, if we not only support such a country but, by virtue of our agreements with that country, are put in a position to defend it, then we have a legitimate interest in whether that country’s behavior reflects well on us (important in terms of our regional and global influence). On top of which, we must also be concerned with whether or not this relationship could somehow get us into trouble we’re not looking to be in.

Beyond this point is that the core criticism of Israeli behavior is not about how Orthodox women are treated on buses or how Ethiopian immigrants are treated in Israel. It is about how Palestinians are treated both within Israel’s borders and within the Palestinian territories as a consequence of Israeli actions. You, better than anyone, are aware of the facts behind these critiques and know that you do not have to be a Jimmy Carter and loosely throw around terms like apartheid to feel that Palestinians are entitled to their own self-determination. Or to know that Israel’s needs should not have a greater claim on outcomes in that part of the world than those of Palestinians; that local resources, like water, ought to be shared equitably; or that the rights of Palestinian people to vote, to have their own state, to have claim to their own historical and cultural heritage should be inviolable as it is for any other people. Further, those rights — the very same ones that have been referred to here for centuries as inalienable — do not simply appertain to Palestinians in what we all must hope will soon become a Palestinian state. They also ought to pertain to Palestinians who choose to live in Israel.

For the state of Israel to undervalue or be slow to implement or respect any of these issues of basic rights not only reflects badly on the United States as a sponsor and supporter and ally of Israel, but it reflects badly on Israel as a democracy and as a state that stakes a claim on representing Jews worldwide. (Personally, I find this latter perspective intolerable too. Netanyahu’s tendency to sometimes speak for the Jewish people far overreaches any powers offered him either in the Israeli Constitution or by virtue of any other aspect of his position.) Unilaterally determining where borders may lie, where settlements may be built, what rules may be applied to protect Israeli security within the borders of the Palestinian territories are all behaviors that many would-be supporters of Israel — those of us who want to be supportive and feel a kinship and a connection — find difficult to countenance.

As for the question of the separation of churc
h and state, while I acknowledge many states do not share the views outlined in the U.S. Constitution on this point (and indeed, many Americans seem uncomfortable with the concept in practice), I am as clear and resolute on this as any principle I hold.

History is the story of the human catastrophe that results when states promote religious ends or use religious criteria to guide their governance. As we have often seen, the embrace of religion into the identity of a nation, while being sold to the people as something unifying and elevating, is often something else. It is exclusionary. It is about finding a way to achieve cultural and ethnic "purity." It is an idea that should be more anathema to Jews, given our history, than to any other group. I find the response of Zionism to be exactly the wrong one. It suggests we have seen how others have abused religion by intermingling it with governance and national identity and the only protection is to do the same thing ourselves.

The best protection (as the United States has demonstrated) is to institutionalize the concept of tolerance and diversity and to work tirelessly to ensure that the powerful impulses to segregate and divide are quashed. It is not easy. But it has made the United States the most successful experiment in cultural diversity in history — though only after a series of horrific errors, including slavery and the genocide against Native Americans and the devaluing of the role of women, were ultimately remedied. We’re not there yet. But in this respect, we are heading in a better direction than most other states. And for very nearly as many Jews as there are in Israel, it is the model we have embraced and chosen as U.S. citizens. Indeed, it is worth noting that the majority of the world’s Jews live somewhere other than in Israel, places that have chosen different environments and approaches to governance.

Therefore Israel cannot be the Jewish state. It can be a Jewish state. But even should its people choose that path, for it to be a moral state, it must be one that guarantees the rights and prerogatives of every citizen equally regardless of religious orientation, gender, ethnicity, etc. It is hard to say Israel does that now.

This brings us back to the narrative. Certainly, there are many Americans who support Israel. Israel has much to recommend it. But from the massacres in Lebanon through the Intifada, to the contentious and willful construction of settlements that should not be built, Israel has undercut its moral high ground. I know there is a group in Israel who say, this is what we must do to be secure. And certainly Israeli toughness and willingness to accept criticism is as much responsible for the success of the country as anything else. From a purely practical perspective, as a country Israel needs political support abroad, but over these past few years it has almost systematically made it harder for those who would be supportive to follow through on that impulse.

You can refer to it as a problem among "elites." It is not. It is a problem among important communities that are essential to the coalition that has provided support for Israel in the past and will be just as important in the future. You know that. It is not just the rise of J Street. It is not just liberals and the Walt-Mearsheimer anti-Israel Lobby Crowd. It is guys like me. You know, guys who grew up in New Jersey who were captivated by the story of a Jewish state that was in a way "ours," who were lifted up by the heroism of the Six-Day War, guys who admired the stories of turning the desert green. You know guys like that, right? You were one.

It’s worth asking why those other guys like me, who started in the same place, the next town over, went to the same schools, who have had a similar career trajectory, could still love much of what they saw in Israel, but so often find the choices made by its government to be troubling.

* * *

Dear David,

Before I move on to my vision of Israel, I have to take issue with several aspects of your last letter.

You deny, David, that Americans (and American Jews) apply a double standard to Israel. Rather, the aid granted by Americans to Israel — and the enmity that it arouses against America in certain quarters — entitles them to expect better behavior by Israel. But that approach itself betrays a double standard. Americans expect no such probity from the Gulf countries, Turkey, and South Korea, which receive vastly more military support from the United States than does Israel. By the way, Turkey and South Korea have defense pacts with the United States; Israel does not.

Like many of those in the "we-aid-you-therefore-we-can-criticize-you" camp, you seem to minimize what the United States receives in return for its assistance. Start with the superbly skilled and motivated armed forces that are more than twice as large as Britain’s and France’s combined, are situated in the world’s most strategic crossroads, and are unerringly loyal to the democratically elected leaders of an unabashedly pro-American country. Add to that the unrivaled intelligence sharing, weapons development, joint maneuvers, ports-of-call and landing rights, munitions prepositioning, and cyber-cooperation. Israel is the one country in the Middle East where a U.S. president can still come and give a speech and be cheered by thousands of young people. America gets all of that as well as the last significant leverage it stills wields in a region that is still vital for U.S. security.

This does not mean that Israelis — and this one, especially — are not profoundly appreciative of American support. And I agree that the aid reflects not only shared strategic interests but also common values. But surely one of those values is respect for our democratically determined policies, even when they sometimes differ from America’s.

As for arousing enmity, I have no doubt that America’s alliance with Israel fans Middle Eastern rage. But your position evokes the claim made at the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars that support for Israel cost America "blood and treasure." Forget the fact that many Israelis — again, this one included — warned the United States to stay out of those wars; Middle Easterners raged against America well before Israel’s creation (the first anti-American demonstration took place in Cairo in 1912, after Teddy Roosevelt told Egyptians that nation-building took decades). And they’re raging today for reasons utterly unrelated to Israel. Hillary Clinton was pummeled with shoes in Alexandria not because of her supposed love of Zion but because of her alleged preference for the Muslim Brotherhood. America has spurred resentment among Syrians and the governments of the Gulf not because it stands with its allies but because, purportedly, it won’t. Polls show that the highest levels of anti-American sentiment in the region were found in Turkey, Egypt, and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority — all technically at peace with Israel and each a recipient of massive American largesse.

Unquestionably, Israel has made tragic errors in its policymaking toward the territories, but that does not mean that it bears the overriding blame you assign it.

Israel does not, for example, deny West Bank Palestinians the right to vote for their own leaders — their own leaders do that. They are unelected leaders, avowedly secular and far from corruption-free, and such governments have not fared well in the Middle East lately. They praise terrorists and teach their children that Israel will eventually disappear. It’s worth remembering that Israel has accepted at least three two-state solutions since 1947, each of which was rejected by the Palestinians and almost always with violence. And still, there is greater support for the two-state solution today in Israel than among Palestinians or even Americans. Israel does not, as you imply,
impugn the Palestinians’ "historical and cultural heritage," though much of it is obsessed with refuting ours. On the contrary, we recognize the Palestinians as a people endowed with the right of self-determination in their homeland — a recognition that they refuse to extend to us. And Palestinian Israelis do not merely, as you say, "choose to live in Israel," but adamantly refuse to live under the Palestinian Authority, which they know will rescind the democratic rights they enjoy in Israel.

Israel’s declaration of independence, modeled on America’s, guarantees "complete equality of social and political rights to all [of Israel’s] inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex," as well as "freedom of religion, conscience, language, education and culture." Yes, discrimination does persist in Israel — as it does in America. Your assertion that the United States represents history’s "most successful experiment in cultural diversity" might raise eyebrows among America’s prison population, by far the world’s largest, the majority of which is African-American and Hispanic. But as you note, America is a work in progress, and so is Israel.

More substantively, I was disturbed by your reference to the unequal distribution of water between Israelis and Palestinians and your assertion that Israel is abusively mingling religion and politics as a means of protecting itself from the religious radicalism that has traditionally targeted Jews. The first is a long-exposed Palestinian canard for which EU Parliament President Martin Schulz, after recently repeating it in front of the Knesset, apologized. The second is just wrong. Far more Jews — and more people generally — have been killed by radically secular communist and fascist regimes than by religious ones. The degree to which Judaism is "mingled" with the Jewish state derives from deep cultural and historical affinities, not fear.

Perhaps your own ambivalence about Jewish peoplehood leads you to emphasize that the majority of Jews live outside Israel and that Israel, therefore, can be merely a Jewish state but not the Jewish State. But most Irish people live outside Ireland today, and that does not make Ireland any less their nation-state. Israel, by contrast, is home to the world’s largest Jewish community and, given current demographic trends, will soon host the absolute majority of Jews. But Israel is the Jewish state because it, alone, is situated in our ancestral homeland, has provided refuge to Jews from more than 70 countries, has revived the ancient Jewish language, and observes a national Jewish calendar. It is the Jewish state because it will aid you and your family, should you ever need such assistance, because you are Jews. When, in order to become ambassador, I relinquished my U.S. citizenship, an American consul punched a hole in my passport. But no one can punch a hole in the passport linking you as a Jew to Israel because your passport is your membership in the Jewish people and it’s irrevocable.

Your perspective on these fundamental points perhaps seems to me to stem from your decision — a decision made by many American Jews — to be more an observer of the Jewish story than an active participant in it. We both made our choices — you’re right — and I’ve chosen to participate. For me, the issue isn’t the right to criticize Israeli policies but the duty to influence and implement them. It’s about making the real-life and real-time decisions to ensure my country’s survival as a democratic and Jewish state and its ability to surmount existential threats.

Early in our correspondence, I remember saying that Zionism, for me, means Jews taking responsibility for themselves. Israel is rife with responsibilities. It’s a responsibility rarely assumed by people in history and certainly not by Jews throughout most of the last two millennia. But, as I’ve emphasized in my earlier letters, it’s a burden I consider a blessing.

I harbor no illusions — the responsibilities are enormous. They require us to stop treating the Palestinians as two-dimensional props in a Jewish morality play but as a people with agency and, yes, responsibility. If they prove incapable of fulfilling those responsibilities, then we must separate from them by declaring our own borders that will best guarantee our security and encompass the maximum share of our citizenry. And those borders should bear the imprimatur of the United States. Your last letter dealt at length with what Americans can expect of Israel. In this, a decision sure to encounter protests in the world and evoke bitter opposition at home, Israel can expect the backing of the United States.

But I don’t see Israel or Israel’s future solely through a Palestine/conflict lens. Israel must work to make itself the nation-state of the Jewish people and not only in theory. It must respect all streams of Judaism and establish national criteria for determining membership in the Jewish people. My vision of Israel remains that of the Jewish state but the Jewish state that embraces all Jews everywhere, irrespective of how they observe, or prefer not to practice, their Judaism.

That state must also embrace its minorities. In the face of unequaled pressures, Israel has preserved their rights — compare it to the treatment of Japanese-Americans during World War II — and enabled many of them, especially the Christians, to flourish. But we have not done nearly enough. Israel must wage an unremitting war against discrimination and embark on a far-reaching campaign to incorporate non-Jewish Israelis into society, including via national service. On the other hand, Israel deserves the loyalty of its minorities. If a British Jew can salute, fight, and even die for a flag that has not one but three crosses on it, and a government linked to the Church of England, then an Arab can salute the Israeli flag and defend the state for which it stands.

Created as a socialist state, Israel must shed the socialist networks and bureaucracy that keep its price of living inordinately and artificially high, that deny a living wage to the middle class and affordable housing to young people. To remain at once militarily strong and an attractive place to live, Israel must be economically competitive in the world and preserve its technological edge. But to remain the Jewish state, Israel cannot dispense with its social safety nets. It cannot abandon the homeless, the immigrants, the children in need.

Consequently, our society may resemble Sweden’s more than America’s, but Israelis cannot for a second forget that they do not live in Scandinavia. We must continue to spend a large share of our national wealth on defense, and we must maintain a robust citizen’s army. We must preserve our right to defend ourselves by ourselves in the manner and time of our choosing, and we must always have the means for doing so. Ideally, we should shoot less, but we should talk lesser still. But we can never outsource our fundamental protection.

Our responsibility — my responsibility — is to fulfill the promising vision of Israel that I know you shared. That is the open, tolerant, secure, dynamic, and moral Israel, the Jewish state not only ethnically but ethically. It is an Israel that retains the support of three-quarters of the American public it currently enjoys (an all-time high — those Beltway elites you cite are very much a minority) and builds on it. But that Israel will never look like Bethesda or even Summit, New Jersey. It will be more intense, louder, more rambunctious and flagrantly creative. It will have to make decisions and take measures that will undoubtedly generate controversy. Still, we can exhibit the vitality, the innovation, the pluralism, and the morality that Americans value in themselves.

And on that, I believe in conclusion, we can both emphatically agree.

Michael Oren, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the United States and now a member of Knesset, is the author of Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (Random House).
David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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