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Tweeting While the Planet Burns

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Published on September 21st, 2010 | by Ali Gharib

6

Reactions to Michael Oren’s ‘Warning to American Jews’

At three synagogues in the D.C. area, Israeli ambassador to Washington Michael Oren used Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, to deliver the same speech three times. The overwhelming thrust of the speech, according to several commentators of various political stripes, was to deliver a warning to American Jews. What exactly the warning was for is a matter of some debate, but Oren’s call for American Jewish support for the “crushingly difficult” actions of Israel’s Likud government are clear as day.

The exact meaning of the warning seems to be in doubt because Oren addressed so many topics during his 15-minute speech to congregations that included Atlantic heavyweight Jeffrey Goldberg and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

One recurring theme in the commentary, however, was Oren’s references to Iran. Oren hinted at issues with Iran before the halfway point of his speech, referring to “monumental–even existential–decisions” that Israeli leaders are forced to make. Returning to the theme of asking his audience to imagine they were Israel’s prime minister, Oren specifically talked about Iran later in his speech:

[T]he ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran.

This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for Israel’s annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom.

Iran does all this without nuclear weapons–imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing. And imagine what you, awakening once again as the Israeli Prime Minister, will decide. Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?

At the end of the speech, he asked that American Jews “stand with [Israel] as we resist Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.”

As covered in our Daily Talking Points today, Bill Kristol, editor of the neoconservative Weekly Standard, interpreted Oren’s multifaceted warning as a shot at Obama: “It would seem that if President Obama does not act to stop Iran, Prime Minister Netanyahu will.”

Kristol’s ideological comrades at Commentary‘s Contentions blog saw things much the same way. Jennifer Rubin wrote that Oren was “crystal clear on Iran.” With her usual biting prose, Rubin attacks Obama as “feckless” and writes that Oren’s section on Iran and conclusion — a call for American Jews and Israelis to be “appreciative of the quandaries our leaders face” — was a

suggest[ion that] it is time to get real, to put aside the fantasy that Swiss cheese sanctions are going to break the mullahs’ will. Obama is, we are told, preparing to call for more “engagement” with Iran — a ludicrous and dangerous suggestion that indicates he’s not remotely serious about ending the threat of a nuclear Iran. So Oren is telling — perhaps pleading — with American Jews to stand by Israel if in fact Obama shirks his obligations as leader of the Free World. After all, should Israel be forced to act on its own, it will be defending our national security interests as much as its own.

Rubin, it would seem, doesn’t need to be warned about anything: She added that it’s a delusion to think “we have some other viable alternative to military force” to halt Iran’s alleged advancement toward a nuclear weapon.

At his blog on the Atlantic website, former IDF corporal Jeffrey Goldberg, who wrote in August about the possibility of an Israeli attack on Iran, gave his own interpretation of Oren’s speech:

I took the sermon as a warning from the Netanyahu government: There may be tough times ahead, in the peace process, and with Iran, so it is time for American Jews to cowboy-up and deal with the difficulties our brethren in Israel are facing. Others in my congregation took the speech as a signal that Israel was prepping American Jewry for an inevitable attack on Iran, or, at the very least, for an Israeli unwillingness to freeze settlement growth, which could lead to the end of the current round of peace talks. In typical Goldblog fashion, I think the speech might have meant all of these thing [sic].

Phil Weiss, who blogs at Mondoweiss, took note of “the suggestion that the peace talks [with the Palestinians] will fail” — Oren had asked the crowd to “uphold us if we have to make painful sacrifices for peace or if we decide that the terms of the proposed treaty fail to justify those sacrifices.” But Weiss saw the warning as focused squarely on Iran. Writing from a trip to the Middle East, Weiss said that Oren used the opportunity to “remind American Jews to support Israel no matter what it does in the near future re Iran.”

Lastly, but not least, Debra Rubin, who attended one of the speeches and wrote it up for the Washington Jewish Week, phrased Oren’s warning about an attack on Iran as a question, citing the views of some attendees:

Was Israel’s ambassador warning the Jewish community on Kol Nidre that Israel has decided to take a preemptive strike in Iran?

Some congregants at Adas Israel Congregation in D.C. thought so […].

Jeffrey Goldberg decided, at the end of his post, to let his readers decide the focus of the speech for themselves. I’ll follow his lead on this one. Here’s Oren’s remarks in full:

On Yom Kippur we read the Book of Jonah, one of the Bible’s most enigmatic texts. It is also one of the Bible’s shortest texts, weighing in at a page and a half, which is quite an accomplishment for this holiday. And it features one of our scripture’s least distinguished individuals. Jonah–a man whose name, in Hebrew, means dove–not dov, as in Hebrew for bear, but dove as, in English, pigeon.

Yet this same everyman, this Jonah, is tasked by God with a most daunting mission. He is charged with going to the great city of Nineveh and persuading its pernicious people to repent for their sins or else.

Not such an unusual task, you might think. Twenty-first century life is rife with people who warn of the catastrophes awaiting us if we fail to modify our behavior one way or the other. Today we call them pundits, commentators who, if proven correct, claim all the credit but who, if proven wrong, bear none of the responsibility.

Jonah, though, cannot escape the responsibility. Nor can he dodge his divinely ordained dilemma. If he succeeds in convincing the Ninevehians to atone and no harm befalls them, many will soon question whether that penitence was ever really necessary. Jonah will be labeled an alarmist. But, what if the people of Nineveh ignore the warning and the city meets the same fiery fate as Sodom and Gomorrah? Then Jonah, as a prophet, has failed.

Such is the paradox of prophecy for Jonah, a lose-lose situation. No wonder he runs away. He flees to the sea, only to be swallowed by a gigantic fish, and then to the desert, cowering under a gourd. But, in the end, the fish coughs him up and the gourd withers. The moral is: there is no avoiding Jonah’s paradox. Once elected by God, whatever the risks, he must act.

As such, the Book of Jonah can be read as more than morality play, but also a cautionary tale about the hazards of decision-making. It is a type of political primer, if you will, what the medieval thinkers called a Mirror for Princes. The Talmud teaches us that, in the post-Biblical era, the gift of prophecy is reserved for children and fools. In modern times, we don’t have prophets–pundits, yes, but no prophets. Instead we have statesmen who, like Jonah, often have to make fateful decisions for which they will bear personal responsibility. If not a paradox of prophecy, these leaders face what we might call the quandary of statecraft.

Take, for example, the case of Winston Churchill. During the 1930s, he warned the world of the dangers of the rapidly rearming German Reich. The British people ignored Churchill- worse they scorned him, only to learn later that he was all along prescient and wise. But what if Churchill had become Britain’s Prime Minister five years earlier and had ordered a pre-emptive strike against Germany? Those same people might have concluded that the Nazis never posed a real threat and that their prime minister was merely a warmonger.

Or consider Harry Truman who, shortly after assuming the presidency in the spring of 1945, had to decide whether to drop America’s terrible secret weapon on Imperial Japan. Today, many people, including some Americans, regard the dropping of the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities as an act of unrivaled brutality, but what if Truman had decided otherwise? What if the United States had invaded the Japanese mainland and lost, as the US Army estimated at the time, more than a million GIs? Truman, the decision-maker, was either the butcher of Japanese civilians or butcher of young Americans. Either way he lost.

The quandary of statecraft: every national leader knows it and few better than Israeli leaders. They, too, have had to make monumental–even existential–decisions.

On May 14th, 1948, Zionist leader David Ben-Gurion had to determine whether to realize the two-thousand year-long dream of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. But, by doing so, he risked an onslaught by overwhelming Arab forces against a Jewish population half the size of Washington, DC today armed mainly with handguns.

Another example: my personal hero, Levi Eshkol. On June 5th, 1967, Eshkol had to decide whether to unleash Israel Defense Forces against the Arab armies surrounding the Jewish State and clamoring for its destruction or whether to alienate the international community and especially the United States and be branded an aggressor.

Ben-Gurion’s decision resulted in the creation of the State of Israel and Eshkol’s in the immortal image of Israeli paratroopers dancing before the Kotel. Nothing is inevitable in history and in both cases the outcome might have been tragically different. Like Churchill and Truman, Ben-Gurion and Eshkol confronted the quandary of statecraft.

They also have to answer to their citizens. Unlike the prophetic leaders of antiquity, presidents and prime ministers are not selected by God but rather elected by the majority of their peoples through a democratic process. In America, the system was modeled on the Roman Republic in which citizens empowered senators to represent them in the distant capital. In tiny Israel, with its multi-party consensual style of democracy, the model is not Rome but rather ancient Athens. The American president, it has been said, represents 300 million constituents; Israeli prime ministers represent 7 million prime ministers.

Israeli democracy is rambunctious and intensely personal, placing the premium on individual participation. In our family, I can attest, my wife and I have never voted for the same party. Our son also went his own way politically. Together with his friends, he started a political party in our living room that now holds two seats on the Jerusalem municipality.

At 62 years old, Israel’s democracy is older than more than half of the democratic governments in the world, which, in turn, account for less than half of the world’s existing nations. Israel is one of the handful of democracies that has never succumbed to periods of undemocratic rule. And Israel has achieved this extraordinary record in spite of the fact that it is the only democracy never to know a nanosecond of peace and which has endured pressures that would have crushed most other democracies long ago. In a region inhospitable–even fatal–to government by and of the people, Israel’s democracy thrives.

Democracy in Israel is not only personal and vibrant, but also grave, because the stakes are so enormously high. Recalling Jonah’s paradox, the leaders we elect are confronted with grueling decisions.

Consider the case of terror. Israel today is threatened with two major terror organizations: Hamas in Gaza and, in Lebanon, Hizbollah. Both are backed by Iran and both call openly for Israel’s destruction. And, over the past five years, both have acted on that call by firing nearly 15,000 rockets at Israeli towns and villages.

Next imagine that you’re the prime minister of Israel. You know that in order to keep those thousands of rockets out of Hamas’s hands you need to blockade Gaza from the sea. The policy is risky–people may get hurt, especially if they’re armed extremists–and liable to make you very unpopular in the world. But you have to choose between being popular and watching idly while a million Israelis come under rocket fire. You have to choose between popular and being alive.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has nearly quadrupled the rockets in its arsenal. They’re bigger, more accurate rockets, with a range that can reach every Israeli city, even Eilat. Worse: Hizbollah has positioned those rockets under homes, hospitals, and schools, confident that if Israelis try to defend themselves from those missiles, they will be branded war criminals.

Imagine, again, that you’re Israel’s prime minister. Do you wait until Hizbollah finds a pretext to fire those rockets or do you act preemptively? Do you risk having the much of the country being reduced to rubble or having that same country reduced to international pariah status?

The terror threat is a very poignant example of the quandary of statecraft in Israel, but an even thornier case is posed by the peace process.

Yes, the peace process, with its vision of two peoples living in adjacent states in a relationship of permanent and legitimate peace. What could be so hazardous about that?

Well, let’s return to that Kafkaesque scenario in which you wake up one morning and find yourself transformed into Israel’s prime minister.

You know that to create that neighboring state that you’re going to have to give up some land, but not just any land, but land regarded as sacred by the majority of the Jewish people for more than three thousand years. You know that a great many of your countrymen have made their homes in these areas and that numerous Israelis have given their lives in their defense. You know that Israel has in the past withdrawn from territories in an effort to generate peace but that it received no peace but rather war. And, lastly, you know that many Arabs view the two-state solution as a two stage solution in which the ultimate stage is Israel’s dissolution.

What, then, Mr. or Ms. Prime Minister, do you do?

You could opt for maintaining the status quo, with the risk of deepening Israel’s international isolation or you could specify a vision of peace that significantly reduces its perils. You could, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has done, insist that the future Palestinian State be effectively demilitarized, without an army that could bombard Israeli cities or an air force that could shoot down planes landing at Ben-Gurion Airport. You could insist that the Palestinian State reciprocally recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people, and so put an end to all future claims and conflicts.

Even then, of course, Israel will be running incalculable risks, for what if the Palestinian state implodes and becomes another Gaza or Lebanon? What do you do if, a week after the peace treaty is signed, a rocket falls on Tel Aviv?

More than Gaza, more than peace, the ultimate quandary of statecraft centers on Iran.

This is the radical, genocidal Iran whose leaders regularly call for Israel’s annihilation and provides terrorists with the means for accomplishing that goal. This is the Iran that undermines governments throughout the Middle East and even South America, and an Iran that shoots its own people protesting for freedom.

Iran does all this without nuclear weapons–imagine what it would do with the nuclear arms it is assiduously developing. And imagine what you, awakening once again as the Israeli Prime Minister, will decide. Do you remain passive while Iran provides nuclear weaponry to terrorist groups, targets Tel Aviv with nuclear-tipped missiles, and triggers a nuclear arms race throughout the region? Or do you act, as Israel has now, joining with the United States and other like-minded nations in imposing sanctions on Iran, hoping to dissuade its rulers from nuclearizing? And, if that fails, do you keep all options on the table, with the potentially far-reaching risks those options entail?

The issues of terror, the peace process, and Iran evoke strong emotions in this country and around the world, and often spark criticism of Israeli policies. Yet it’s crucial to recall that those policies are determined by the leaders elected through one of the world’s most robust and resilient democracies. Recall that the people of Israel–not of Europe, not of the United States–bear the fullest consequences for their leaders’ decisions.

There is no escaping the responsibility–as Jonah learned thousands of years ago–and that responsibility is borne by our leaders and by the majority of the people they represent. Israel today faces decisions every bit as daunting as those confronting Jonah, but we will not run away. There is no gourd to hide under or fish to swallow us whole. Terror, the peace process, Iran–our Ninevehs–await.

Support us as we grapple with these towering challenges. Back us in our efforts to defend ourselves from terrorist rockets. Uphold us if we have to make painful sacrifices for peace or if we decide that the terms of the proposed treaty fail to justify those sacrifices. Stand with us as we resist Iran’s efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. Respect the decisions we take through our democratic system and respect the risks that we, more than any other nation, take.

The message of the Book of Jonah is one of personal and collective atonement, but it is also a message of unity and faith. “In my trouble I called to the Lord,” proclaims Jonah, “VaYa’aneini” – “and He answered me.”

Let us–Israelis and the American Jews–united by our faith, our peoplehood, and our common love for democracy. Let us assume responsibility for our decisions, crushingly difficult though they may often be, and appreciative of the quandaries our leaders face. When we call out, let us answer one another with the assurance that no challenge–no paradoxes, no Ninevehs–can defeat us.

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6 Responses to Reactions to Michael Oren’s ‘Warning to American Jews’

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  1. avatar David says:

    Imagine Easter at a Christian church and some rightwing functionary taking over the pulpit. This sounds like something that Terry Jones would do.

    Unfortunately, this kind of crap goes on all too often in synagogues. And it pisses off the progressive Jews in the congregations.

    Last year, every Jewish congregation was asked to read a letter by the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

    Just imagine the outrage and uproar if Syrian Muslims were asked to read a letter from Assad in their mosque at Ramadan.

  2. avatar Jack Ross says:

    The above comment scarcely does it justice. I read about Oren’s antics with horror, not least because I was fortunate enough to spend the High Holidays before the pulpit of a co-chair of Rabbis for Human Rights where, among other things, Yizkor was said for the old man and his grandson killed harvesting in Gaza.

    My own sense of humility does not allow me to think too long about what the sight of a neocon feigning atonement must be like, but it does haunt me each year at the High Holidays. I also understand academically, among other things, about the era when they amounted to little more than an elaborate pitch to sell Israel bonds.

    I should also point out that I remain skeptical that we’ll actually see an attack on Iran for any number of reasons. Still, as I said, I read about Oren’s spiel with genuine horror. There is something positively satanic about his using the Day of Atonement to preach transnational race solidarity behind waging aggressive war.

  3. avatar scott says:

    All four of his examples serve as an example for Oren Eshkol, Ben Gurion, Truman and Churchill, all repugnant murderers guilty of the first crime at Nuremberg, to initiate wars. Oren has tried to justify the Liberty attack again selectively pulling facts and omitting others; like a true propagandist. What no one can justify regarding the liberty is the shooting of the lifeboats. What no one can justify regarding Churchill was his belligerence, what no one can deny regarding Truman is that the Japanese offered surrender terms months earlier.

  4. avatar Jon Harrison says:

    I think the speech was designed to rally support for Israel among American Jews, as opposed to paving the way for military strikes. The rhetoric was a little too strident to take seriously as a threat to make war.

  5. avatar Jon Harrison says:

    The two-state solution IS a two-stage solution with the dissolution of Israel as the ultimate Arab goal. A Jewish apartheid state in Palestine cannot stand. A Palestine in which Jews can live as free citizens alongside Muslims, Christians, and others is still possible — but time is running out.


About the Author

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Ali Gharib is a New York-based journalist on U.S. foreign policy with a focus on the Middle East and Central Asia. His work has appeared at Inter Press Service, where he was the Deputy Washington Bureau Chief; the Buffalo Beast; Huffington Post; Mondoweiss; Right Web; and Alternet. He holds a Master's degree in Philosophy and Public Policy from the London School of Economics and Political Science. A proud Iranian-American and fluent Farsi speaker, Ali was born in California and raised in D.C.



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