TIMES OF ISRAEL – ANALYSIS/ Netanyahu is ‘part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory’ — and, Oren writes, not so different from Obama
Michael Oren, Israeli by choice, spent four years studying and sparring with Barack Obama, the president, the progressive, the African American by choice, the American Jewish hero. He returned to Israel afraid – not for America’s Mideast policy, but for the diverging underpinnings of American and Israeli civilizations (sic).
It’s hard to think of a recent political memoir whose publication set off the level of fretful indignation just witnessed over Michael Oren’s “Ally.”
“A train wreck.” “Dishonest.” The epithets came fast and furious over the past few weeks
Perhaps the most contentious of the book’s assertions, as measured by the outcry among its detractors, lies in Oren’s “armchair psychologizing” of US President Barack Obama’s empathy for the Muslim world. This empathy might be “informed” by Obama’s childhood experience of rejection by two Muslim father figures, Oren suggests in the book.
Slammed as a shallow analysis of the roots of Obama’s foreign policy, this “tendentious psychologizing,” though not the only point in the book that drew criticism, came to define the chorus of condemnation, a chorus joined by the likes of the Anti-Defamation League and even the Obama administration, particularly Washington’s ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro.
So it may come as a surprise that the absentee-father theory of Obama’s foreign policy takes up exactly 17 words in Ally’s 377 pages – and that by his own testimony on the very same page, Oren never took the suggestion too seriously, merely noting that he “wondered” about it in 2009, and apologetically prefacing it with the words “at the risk of armchair psychologizing.” (To be sure, Oren did draw considerably more attention to the subject by recalling it in an op-ed in Foreign Policy.)
“Ally” bills itself as a memoir of a tense period in the US-Israel relationship. But it is more than that. It is the story of Oren’s experience standing on the lip of a yawning chasm in culture and identity, in political narratives and aspirations. And, implicitly, it is his analysis of that chasm through a subtle exploration of another man forged by a similar cultural divide: President Obama.
From a young age, the US-born Oren felt pulled to an Israeli identity as the fulfillment of his Jewish one, he writes. Living in America was “living in the margins” of his history – the history that had a claim on him, the history of the Jews.
In Obama, Oren sees a man shaped by a similar sensation of otherness. Obama’s African American identity came late in life, Oren tells his readers, by choice rather than fate. The parallel is striking. Raised by whites, with a father from Kenya, Obama’s lineage is not in any simple sense “African American.” Yet his adoption of this identity, which informed his religious life, his politics, even his accent, is no mere affectation in Oren’s view. Choosing one’s identity, Oren knows from personal experience, does not make that identity false. When he became African American, Oren believes, the young Obama found his place in the world.
This understated kinship of experience pervades the book: two men whose identities were forged by a complicated life, and ultimately by their own conscious choices.
And in this kinship begins what may be Oren’s most cutting critique of Obama, the one missed in the frenetic scuffles over lesser perceived insults: that he personifies a changing America, an America Oren at once welcomes, celebrating its liberalizing openness, and fears, worrying fretfully that it is in decline. This is both a political-cultural critique and a personal one. Oren can’t help feeling the America Obama represents has become achingly foreign to an ex-American whose identity and wanderlust took him far from the land of his birth, but who never stopped celebrating it.
Cloaked in virtuous mystique
At a 2013 farewell event for Oren in Congress, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had this to say about the nature of history: “History is not just a flat chronicle of events. History is an understanding of the forces that work, the values that shape present action and direct the future. If you have that knowledge, you are empowered in ways that you can’t get by watching the nightly news or reading the morning editorials. We live in an ahistorical age when many people’s memories go back to breakfast, but if you’re armed with that insight you have immense power for good.”
Oren offers this quote as an explanation for Netanyahu apppointing him, a Princeton-trained American-Israeli historian who Netanyahu did not actually know, over a long list of experienced diplomats and trusted aides vying for the coveted Washington post. Netanyahu wanted a historian, Oren believes, someone who could make sense of the changing politics on the other side of Israel’s most important alliance.
And Oren tried to do just that. The key to understanding Obama’s worldview, he argued, lay not in the predictable realms of his education, religious affiliation or political alliances, but in his search for identity.
Obama wrote a book about his identity, “Dreams from my Father,” a decade and a half before running for president, Oren notes.
The book “traced a young man’s search for self from laid-back Hawaii to religiously stringent Indonesia and then on to the Kenyan villages where he seemed to feel most at home. En route, he cultivated the aversion to tribalism later cited in his inaugural speech as well as his empathy for Islam. Yet it was only in the cauldron of inner-city America that Obama’s identity was finally forged. There he became, for the first time, conscientiously African-American and adopted the internationalist and social justice ideas long popular at the urban universities where he studied and taught – Columbia, Chicago, and Harvard.”
Obama “learned who he was and what he stood for relatively late, in his twenties.”
The formative sensibilities he developed in his search resonated with Americans in ways that both worried and inspired Oren.
On sabbatical in Washington’s Georgetown University in 2008, the year before his appointment, Oren recalls that “despite my frequent visits, I had not lived in the United States for nearly two decades and found the country significantly altered. The mostly middle-class, white, and Protestant-dominated society I remembered had been largely replaced by a more financially strapped, multiracial, and religiously diverse population. Once right of center, America now leaned leftward. I felt like Rip Van Winkle of the old Dutch American folk tale, who wakes up from a twenty-year nap and can barely recognize his own village.” This new America was struggling – financially, socially, politically. It was a “glum and polarized” society.
Obama, he writes, “personified these changes and cloaked them in virtuous mystique.
Conservative leaning, an Israeli patriot proud of his decades of service to his country, Oren finds a great deal about Obama troubling – what he considers Obama’s stumbles and miscalculations in the Middle East, the president’s apparent agnosticism when it came to American exceptionalism, and his reliance on “ideology” and “worldview” in place of hard strategy. But what perhaps troubles Oren most, and was almost entirely missed by critics of his book, is his sense that Obama’s political success lies in his ability to make Americans feel good about what Oren increasingly came to see as America’s national decline.
Attending Obama’s first inauguration, “shivering shoulder-to-shoulder with more than a million Americans,” Oren recalls his complex reaction to Obama’s first speech as president.
“I had no difficulty with Obama’s ties with Muslims or his offer to ‘extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist,’” he remembers. “And as someone who thought of himself as a natural link between two countries, I could hardly criticize anybody who offered to bridge two cultures. Still, I thought it unusual for a president to address the adherents of a faith as if their views were monolithic. I wondered about the ramifications of reconciling with a Muslim world widely opposed to Israel’s existence, and whether Obama’s desire to dissolve ‘the lines of the tribe’ included my tribe, the Jews.”
The Muslim world with which Obama sought to reconcile was not the vast, unimaginably complex world inhabited by that religion’s adherents, but one that existed in Obama’s imagination, the “other” against which a young Obama developed and understood his own Americanness.
Throughout his campaign, Obama celebrated his otherness and “proudly recalled his Muslim family members and his childhood time in Indonesia, an Islamic state.”
That affinity for Islam was not a loyalty to the Muslim world, and “contrary to common conservative belief, [Obama] was not anti-Israel,” Oren explains at various points. Rather, Obama saw in his election to the most powerful post in the world, an election made possible by a changing America’s embrace of difference, as a vindication of the suturing power of his very liminality. The first black man in the White House, who was also half-white; the son of a Muslim Kenyan father and secular white mother who worshiped at an evangelical African American church; a man surrounded and supported by Jews, and called by some of them, only half-jokingly, “the first American Jewish president” — Obama believed he could bridge all those fraught divides.
Living in the margins
There is something jarring in Oren’s almost offhanded speculation over “whether Obama’s desire to dissolve ‘the lines of the tribe’ included my tribe, the Jews.”
Tribalism – Obama’s aversion to it and Oren’s discovery of it – is key to understanding the tensions that permeate the book, which opens with a poignant description of the moment Oren officially renounced his Americanness.
In a chapter titled “The Perforated Passport” in honor of the violence done to his now-invalid US passport after the 2009 renunciation ceremony at the US embassy in Tel Aviv was concluded, Oren explains that he still “believed in that passport – in the history it symbolized, the values it proclaimed.”
“My eyes still misted during the national anthem, brightened at the sight of Manhattan’s skyline, and marveled at the Rockies from thirty-five thousand feet.”
He wasn’t merely “sentimental” about the United States, but “felt indebted.” It was America that instilled in him the culture and the chance to excel. “Unreservedly,” even on the day he would surrender his citizenship, “I referred to Americans as ‘we.’”
Yet Oren left America as a young man, and recalls how even at the tender age of 12 he used the first-person plural to refer to Israeli Jews as “our people.” Of the American Jewish community of that time, he writes, “One could hardly imagine a community more integrated, and yet we remained different. Alone among the hyphenated ethnic identities – Italian-American, African-American – ours placed ‘American’ first. And only ours was based on religion…. As Jews and as Americans we were sui generis, as difficult for us to define as for others.”
This tension at the heart of his identity was resolved through the simple expedient of choosing a side. “Zionism was not merely a reaction to discrimination” he experienced as a child, Oren writes, “but an affirmation of what I felt from an early age to be my fundamental identity. For deep-rooted reasons, Zionism defined my being….I belonged to that people and needed to be part of its narrative. Being Jewish in America, while culturally and materially comfortable, felt to me like living in the margins.”
Later in life, he tells an American Jewish audience that “in America, the problem is a scarcity of Jewish identity, while in Israel, the problem is a superabundance. I, for one, would rather deal with a superabundance.”
Yet leaving America did not mean he stopped being American. “Those two identities finally felt melded in me,” he writes of his first day, in his early 20s, as a citizen of Israel. While Israel was “my own land,” Israel and the US “stood for identical ideals,” and “one could be – in fact, should be – a Zionist as well as a patriotic American.”
Oren’s recollection of the statement he made at the Tel Aviv embassy after renouncing his citizenship is even more stark. “My loyalties to the United States and the Jewish State are mutually validating,” he remembers saying. The loss of citizenship “did not render me less American in my culture, principles and spirit.”
It is startling to realize that he said those words to American diplomats who had just, at his request, punched a hole in his passport and declared him forevermore non-American. And it is hard to think of another example in which another nation’s ambassador might openly and explicitly proclaim his “mutually validating” loyalty to America, his Americanness in all but name, even as he prepares to represent a foreign nation in Washington.
Oren describes his feelings attending Obama’s first inauguration as only such a “patriotic American” could: “Whatever transpired later, that moment would remain for me resplendent. That sense of oneness – most of those crowding that hill [on Washington’s National Mall] were African-Americans – of hallowedness, and, yes, of hope. I still cherish the hand-warmers that well-wishers distributed for free, and the memory of a glimpse I caught of Obama as his motorcade passed.”
For all his concerns over Obama’s policy priorities, Oren understands that there is a link between his own trans-national experience and Obama’s. On his last day as ambassador, he recalls, he packed in a cardboard box the handful of gifts he had especially asked Israeli authorities to be allowed to keep. One of them was “the leaf of official White House stationery on which President Obama wrote, ‘Michael, your life of service embodies the bonds between our nations – not bad for a kid from New Jersey.’”
‘More than just a country’
The twentieth century was for countless Jews outside America an unmitigated cataclysm, a long series of torments that belied the nineteenth century’s promises of modernity, liberalism and acceptance. Not so for America’s Jews, who have become so much a part of American civilization and identity that their Jewishness is seen by most Americans as a mere curiosity.
Yet their very salvation has made American Jews keenly aware of their dependence on what saved them, the promise of America’s founding ideology of civic democracy and individualism. The safer they feel, the more activist they seem to become in defense of the ideas they credit for their safety.
It is no accident of history, then, that Jews have been so prominent in the campaign for African American equality. The centuries-long suffering of America’s blacks is the most dramatic example of a failure of America’s founding promise, and thus a standing reminder to American Jews of the fragility of their good fortune.
Jews are a surprisingly large fraction of the NAACP’s founders, of the campaigners and lawyers behind the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and among the earliest funders and backers of America’s first black president. They are vastly overrepresented among Obama’s top advisers, including his campaign manager David Axelrod, who Obama first hired because he specialized in the peculiar problems black mayoral candidates encountered running in majority-white cities.
So it is not surprising that Obama himself is one of the clearest articulators of this aspect of American Jewish identity.
In May, in a speech to Washington’s Adas Israel synagogue, Obama told his audience that their congregation “helps us to tell the American story.”
He explained: “Tomorrow night, the holiday of Shavuot marks the moment that Moses received the Torah at Mount Sinai, the first link in a chain of tradition that stretches back thousands of years, and a foundation stone for our civilization. Yet for most of those years, Jews were persecuted – not embraced – by those in power. Many of your ancestors came here fleeing that persecution.
“The United States could have been merely another destination in that ongoing diaspora,” he said. “But those who came here found that America was more than just a country. America was an idea. America stood for something.”
America, Obama told American Jews in a speech shaped by American Jewish ideas and experiences, is not really a diaspora community, because America is not simply a country. Jews in America are redeemed — not in the limited sense that they had found a country more tolerant than most, but because they had joined their fates to the idea of America, to its defining promise clothed in a civic nation.
American Jews have taken to Americanness, to a nationhood founded on a universalist idea, because they had already seen something similar in their Jewish identities. Both Americans and Jews are nations defined by an idea, and even today both can only be joined through the acceptance of an idea. Since ideas, unlike tribal bloodlines, are malleable, it was only a matter of time before American Jews merged the Jewish “values” that delineated one identity with the American ideology that defined the other. To be American, many liberal American Jews believe, is what it means to be Jewish.
Obama affirms and epitomizes a great deal of this narrative: African American integration and success, and the desire for an increasingly universalist and tolerant American polity. And he does so consciously.
“From the founding members of the NAACP to a freedom summer in Mississippi, from women’s rights to gay rights to workers’ rights, Jews took to heart the Biblical edict that we must not oppress a stranger, having been strangers once ourselves,” Obama said at Adas Israel.
This president who once wrote a book about his own estrangement was telling American Jews that their experience of America was his own, that he and they had found the same home in the same idea of America.
Oren is both an American and an Israeli, a man who left his country of birth, learned a new language, served in multiple wars and suffered a long series of hardships in the name of his tribal belonging to the Jews of Israel, all while insisting there is something profoundly American in this journey “because the two countries stood for identical ideals.”
Shortly after his arrival in Washington, Oren realized his own “Rip Van Winkle” culture shock was shared by Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu.
“Many Israeli leaders were American-educated and remembered the much different country of decades past,” Oren writes. “For them, the Obama phenomenon” – and, perhaps, everything it represented in the American and the American-Jewish mind – “could seem like a momentary detour from an otherwise unbroken path of American preeminence and exceptionalism. As I saw it, a crucial part of my job was unearthing American truths and conveying them to Israeli power” – including the truth, especially after Obama’s reelection in 2012, that the new sensibilities emanating from Washington were not temporary. America was changing.
But it wasn’t only the Israelis who were confused. The vision of Israel that enjoyed the love and support of American Jews, and through their close affinity with Obama also the president’s, was similarly diverging from the complicated reality of Israeli society.
Obama “was intensely supportive of a specific version of Israel – the Israel of refuge and innovation,” Oren writes.
But that Israel does not really tell the whole story. Israel is made up of Jews who experienced a very different 20th century from their American counterparts, and drew the opposite lesson: that small nations find safety through inward-looking solidarity, not in strangers’ promises of liberalism. Israeli Jewish identity draws its roots from the Eastern European and Middle Eastern origins of Israeli Jews; it is more religiously oriented, territorial and unapologetically defense-minded; it is tribal. Indeed, so much about Israel – its state religion, its internal ethnic divisions – grates incessantly against American Jewish expectations. Israeli Jewish nationalism, a source of cohesion many Israelis credit with their very survival, can seem to American Jews a betrayal of what it means to be American – and thus, in the peculiar intertwining that characterizes so much of American Jewish identity, of what it means to be Jewish.
It is against this backdrop that Oren’s depiction of Israel’s leader, Netanyahu, is revealing. Netanyahu, he writes with a touch of admiration, is “one of the world’s most complex, seasoned, divisive, and hounded leaders, and perhaps its loneliest.”
Those who rail against Oren’s alleged psychologizing of Obama can take comfort in what he does to Netanyahu. Noting that the prime minister’s father was a noted historian of anti-Semitism, Oren offers the view of many Israeli analysts that “that gloomy view of Jewish fate – to be hated for who we are irrespective of how we hide it – darkened the son’s worldview…. Though Netanyahu dismissed such insights as ‘psychobabble,’ the images of Masada, Auschwitz, and looming Jewish apocalypses permeated his speeches and even our private talks.”
Netanyahu is “part commando, part politico, and thoroughly predatory,” Oren writes — and not so different from Obama. “Both men were left-handed, both believed in the power of oratory and that they were the smartest men in the room. Both were loners, averse to hasty decision making and susceptible to a strong woman’s advice. And both saw themselves in transformative historical roles.”
Netanyahu’s view of his role is no less grand than Obama’s: “Destiny had tasked him with saving the Jewish people, irrespective of the personal price.”
And so each in an important sense personifies the ideas and assumptions that characterize the American-Israeli divide, both between the two nations, and between their two Jewish communities. The mere fact that many American Jews can see in Obama a fulfillment of American Jewish aspirations, and that he can understand and acknowledge this closeness, is a sign of what American Jews mean when they say they are, profoundly, home in America. Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s overpowering awareness of history, of the world’s pitilessness towards a people that cannot defend itself, reflects the very different path Israeli Jews have taken to safety.
This political and ideological divide has grown in recent years even as military ties, driven by American strategic planners’ belief that stable, allied Israel is a rarity in a collapsing region, only strengthened. The tensions in the relationship, in other words, are not motivated by strategic difference, but by deeper, murkier gaps in culture and sensibility.
Oren wrote “Ally” as a call to repair the “unshakeable” but increasingly wobbly alliance between Israel and America. In doing so, he opened a window into the deeper currents driving this divide. One is left wondering if it isn’t the very closeness of Israel and America, the way each side fails to meet the other’s deep-seated expectations – or the strange fact that the two nations’ political classes feel the need to have such expectations in the first place – that is pulling them apart.
Allies, Oren explains on the last page of his book, “back one another on principle and not merely to placate domestic constituents. Their bonds are elemental, meaningful, and mutually, enduringly beneficial.”
Allies, a worried Oren seems to be arguing, should behave more like families than governments.
“Ally” is a book steeped in an inchoate sense that something far larger than any US-Israeli strategic alignment is at stake. A deeper fissure is quietly developing between the two nations, a divide that risks casting Israel afloat in a hostile world, bereft of its closest ally, of half its tribal family, and of the other half of Oren’s own trans-Atlantic identity.
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