In the Diaspora: Letter to the ambassador

We, US Jews, depend on being able to say Israel is ready to make peace.

By SAMUEL FREEDMAN
May 14, 2009 12:14
In the Diaspora: Letter to the ambassador

michael oren 248 88 aj. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )

 
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Dear Michael, Forgive me for the familiar greeting. I promise to retrain my brain to call you Mister Ambassador from now on. After years of reading your work and knowing you as a fellow writer and a friend of friends, the more personal tone still comes as a reflex. It was stunning, in the best possible way, to see you appointed as Israel's man in Washington. I've been craven enough to try to impress my teenaged kids with my new connection, tossing off the prospect that we'll get a private tour of the embassy, and I have to apologize for bragging above my pay grade. (Hey, though, don't I get something for having written a rave review of Six Days of War in Newsday...) The excitement I feel is genuine, and it's meaningful, too. I can't imagine an ambassador better prepared to interact with American Jews than you, an American by birth and education. In fact, in Israel's entire history, I doubt the country has ever simultaneously put forward a prime minister and an ambassador to Washington who are both so linguistically and culturally fluent with American Jews. The era of diplomacy with an accent out of Mahane Yehuda - or, for that matter, with Abba Eban's embodiment of the "Dress British, Think Yiddish" axiom - is over for now. You'll obviously need all your diplomatic gifts, all your rhetorical and analytical talents, when you and the prime minister meet President Obama next week. Virtually all of the advance coverage has focused on the conflicts you're both expected to have with the president over the moribund peace process and strategy toward Iran. I won't pretend to offer advice in those areas; the spin room is already SRO. WHAT I DO hope is that, even as you deal with those existential issues, you'll spend some time tending to the fraying bonds between American Jews and Israel. I sense that the divide is opening more widely than it has in decades, perhaps than ever before, and I worry that without special effort you'll wind up talking and listening to just one faction of the larger community, the most hawkish part. In some ways, I can't blame you or blame that faction. The right-wing Zionists in America - the ones who support the settlement enterprise and want Iran bombed by either the US itself or Israel with Washington's wink and nod - are Zionists 24/7. It is the defining element of their public, private, political and religious lives. No wonder they have such disproportionate clout here. They work harder and longer. But there's a big middle, albeit a surprisingly silent one for a bunch of Jews, between the AIPAC-Conference of Presidents flank and the Tony Judt-Tony Kushner fringe of politically active anti-Zionists. And in that vast middle, I suspect, there's a lot of disquiet about the new government in Jerusalem. NETANYAHU ISN'T seen by centrists here as a pragmatist but as an ideologue, and his refusal to even pay lip service to a two-state solution has confirmed the impression. Avigdor Lieberman, with his call for loyalty oaths for Israeli Arabs, has also rattled the center here. If there's a way to convey to the mainstream of American Jews why the peace process should be put on indefinite hold, then you're going to have to make it. Same thing in explaining to Americans why Lieberman, who is widely perceived here as a bigot, not only polled so well but was awarded arguably the most important cabinet portfolio. You'll have a real struggle making those arguments, though, and you'll need to resist making them only to the portion of American Jews who already agree with you. American Jews, like many Israelis, endorsed the Oslo process only warily, and only because it carried the warrior's imprimatur of Yitzhak Rabin. And yes, there has been plenty of disgust in the American Jewish center over the second intifada and the rockets from Hamas and Hizbullah. But since falling into line behind the two-state solution, the position has become a linchpin of American Jewish identity, and American Jewish public life. We depend on being able to say that Israel is ready to make peace, that Israel recognizes the concept of a Palestinian state, that Israel as the Middle East's only democracy treats in Arab minority with full rights. Right now, in the privacy of their conscience, I would guess that many centrist American Jews are wondering if they can still say all these things so credibly. It's going to be on you, more than on anyone, to either convince them they can or persuade them why they shouldn't. You're up against a major demographic divide. Nearly two full generations of American Jews have been born since the Yom Kippur War. Their firsthand experience is not of a beleaguered Israel fighting for its life. It is of the Israel of elective wars, though also of the Israel that tried to make peace at Camp David. The attacks on the "Israel lobby," including from American Jews themselves, have made Israel advocacy seem a tainted concept for many of these younger American Jews. Despite the efforts of programs like Birthright, many feel disengaged from and faintly embarrassed by Israel, ill-prepared to argue its case on college campuses against smart, savvy, motivated Arab-Americans whose families are new immigrants from the Middle East and intensely absorbed in the Israel-Palestine issue. Somehow, you need to engage these younger American Jews, not just the self-selecting portion that attended day school and frequents Hillel or Chabad on campus. I wish I had a script for you, or even a few tested turns of phrase to slip into your speeches. Then again, as your books and essays show, you command the English language and American idiom perfectly well, native son that you are. So just know that the pivotal spots on your world map should include not just Tehran and Damascus but Great Neck and Encino, Toco Hills in Atlanta and the North Shore outside Chicago, and all the other redoubts of the American Jewish center, restively sitting on shpilkes. www.samuelfreedman.com

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