In further critique of Michael Oren
I devoted my last post to an expression of support for the July 14th P5 + 1 agreement reached with Iran on its Nuclear Program, and coupled this with criticism of what the former Israel ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, sets forth in his memoir, Ally, as the ideal form of special alliance relationship that exists and should exist between Israel and the U.S.. In this sequel, I explore the further implications of such a special relationship as a template for dangerous trends in political life at all levels of social organization. Oren reflects these trends, and his views and their implication deserve out attention. He has enjoyed an extremely successful life after surmounting serious childhood learning disabilities and a humble social background. He became a prize-winning historian, an elite IDF paratrooper and intelligence operative, a high-ranking civil servant, and a prominent diplomat, and most recently launched a further career as a politician, being elected to the Knesset in March. In addition to all these worldly achievements Oren appears to have had a long, satisfying marriage accompanied by a fulfilling family life, mostly spent in Israel.
With this background in mind, I find Michael Oren’s life experience to be at once impressive, worrisome, provocative, and overall, alien and emblematic of dangerous trends in politics. I compare my own background, not to claim a comparable stature, but to highlight how small differences in our social locations seem to have produced dramatic variation in life circumstances and outlook. We were both born as American Jews, and were later influenced by spending significant portions of our lives at Princeton University. Yet our experience diverges sharply when it comes to Princeton, Israel, America, Zionism and almost everything in between. It makes me wonder anew about the tenuous links between the subjectivity of consciousness and our perceptions of reality within what Habermas calls the ‘lifeworld.’
Let me start with Princeton, perhaps unfairly, because Oren seems to be so far from the reality I experienced over the course of forty years as to make me think that his ideological affinities with Israel and Zionism clouded his vision of the place to the point of extremity, if not absurdity. In Ally a single reference to me is inaccurate and inflammatory, and raises doubts about Oren’s credibility as an observer.
After calling “outrageous” the UN Human Rights Council inquiry into war crimes committed in the course of Israel’s attack of 2008-09 on Gaza Oren goes on to write in the same sentence that “..its special rapporteur on Palestine, Richard Falk, regularly compared Israelis to Nazis.” With this view of the HRC in mind Oren adds approvingly of George W. Bush being so “disgusted by its anti-Israel bias” that he withdrew the American representative from participation in the council. [references are to location 1069 of the Kindle Edition of Ally]. His reference to me is totally false, and maliciously misleading. On only a single occasion, well before serving as UN Special Rapporteur, lacking any connection with HRC, did I draw any connection between Israel and Nazi Germany, and then only in a very restricted reference to the disturbing similarities between the sort of collective punishment being inflicted on the people of Gaza with the forms of collective demonization relied upon by the Nazis. Not only was there no comparison of any sort while serving in the UN, even in my journalistic writing, there was never ‘regular’ assertions along the lines that
Oren irresponsibly alleges to show HRC bias. In fact, such language was never a part of the critical discourse directed at Israel in the HRC. Rather as the Goldstone Report elaborated in conservable detail, there existed a widely shared perception that Israel’s policies and practices in Gaza before, during, and after the Operation Cast Lead (the IDF name given the 2008-09 attack) amounted to
Crimes Against Humanity, a view that resurfaced again in 2015. The later contentions are to be found in the report of a new fact finding commission appointed by the HRC to examine Israeli military operation, code-named Protective Edge, a 51 day devastating military attack upon Gaza in July 2014. Oren makes his inflammatory reference to my views presumably to make readers believe, contrary to the true situation, that the HRC relies on a deeply flawed and overly critical attitude toward Israel, and its behavior.
Oren’s approach to Princeton is no more convincing, and clearly contradicts my experience. Oren writes that he found himself isolated at Princeton because his Zionist sympathies and support for Israel were so out of step with the prevailing attitudes. In the course of completing his graduate studies Oren found that his support for Israel “was scarcely popular at Princeton.” He doesn’t single out Princeton, but believes his experience was reflective of a more widespread national “mood on many American campuses [that] had turned against Israel and even against America.” [Loc. 567] He goes on, “I held firm but the academic atmosphere regarding Israel remained toxic.” [loc. 594] He even portrays himself as a victim of an anti-Israeli academic establishment, suggesting that his Zionist views exacted a high ‘professional’ cost: “Publisher after publisher rejected my books, precluding an academic career.” [loc. 638; later he alludes to his academic success, having his books appear under prestigious publishing imprints and find their way onto bestseller lists as indirect benefits of Israel’s victory in the 1967 War] At Princeton, and elsewhere, Oren holds that his support for Israel was responsible for leaving him “..often a lone voice in an increasingly one-sided harangue.” [loc. 622]
My impressions of Princeton are diametrically opposed. It was considered precarious on campus to voice any opinions that were out of step with support for Israel or that showed sympathy with the Palestinian struggle. Bernard Lewis was a hegemonic presence in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton, and used his influence to marginalize and banish Israeli critics from academic arenas, not only at Princeton, but throughout the world. Michael Walzer was the second most visible scholarly luminary at Princeton who was concerned with this subject-mater, and like Lewis, a stalwart supporter of Israel and an ardent proponent of the Zionist Project, and then after him there was Fouad Ajami, a prominent Lebanese-American intellectual who increasingly sided with Israel in its clash with Palestinian aspirations and later became associated with the Hoover Institutions and the most bellicose views on the Middle East. Not surprisingly, I experienced hostile and condescending treatment from Lewis and Walzer, and their departmental colleagues, on several occasions. There were few contrary voices on these issues at Princeton during my entire period at the university, and those few of us who held more critical positions toward Israel were the ones who during these felt sidelined at the university during the 1980s and 1990s. There were almost always Israeli military officers among the small group of doctoral students interested in international relations, and prominent pro-Israeli diplomats were frequent visitors. I had to get permission from the State Department to allow a PLO diplomat, Shafik al-Hout to speak as a guest in my seminar, and it was granted on condition that he not deliver a public
lecture. Even such a prominent Princeton graduate as Edward Said came to the university to speak in my classes, and never as an invited public speaker.
Many students from the Arab world in this period complained to me about this one-sided pro-Israeli atmosphere at Princeton, and in an effort to counter its presence a wealthy student from Morocco who had suffered from Orientalist pedagogy during his Princeton years took it upon himself to fund a parallel research center with the express purpose of giving students and scholars an alternative voice more open to a sympathetic treatment of issues on the policy agenda affecting Islam and Palestinian aspirations. Such an institutional initiative was a breadth of fresh air so far as the intellectual and political mood was concerned, diluting to some extent the pro-Zionist atmosphere that had dominated the university during my period as a faculty member.
Oren’s undisguised hostility to Edward Said’s Orientalism is a further revelation of his zealous hostility to all intellectual efforts to widen the conversation on Israel and Palestine. In a wildly overstated observation, Oren writes that “Said’s book became canonical in many Middle East Studies Departments, pressuring students and professors to prove that they were not Orientalists.” [loc. 576] To Oren, Said’s book was abhorrent because it alleged that the academic study of the Arab world was shaped by racist, imperialistic, and European ethnocratic assumptions of cultural superiority, and further that Said’s prime targets, such as Bernard Lewis, should be
discarded as purveyors of false consciousness. [Loc. 567, 576] In reaction to these supposed pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli trends, Oren felt “compelled to stand my ground. I worked to expose Said’s Orientalism’s screed.” [Loc. 576] To describe Said’s seminal book as ‘a screed’ is polemical at best, and more likely an indication that Oren had never bothered to read Said’s careful exploration of his hypotheses by literary and cultural analysis. After so much fire and brimstone, Oren’s main refutation of Said seems to be his rather trivial contention that the earliest Middle Eastern scholarship was the work of scholars from Germany and Hungary, “neither of whom colonized the region.” [Loc. 585] This strikes me as a silly argument, considering that both countries were firmly in the Western camp, and shared an Orientalist worldview. But no matter, as Oren professed purpose is to deflect to the extent possible criticisms of Israel. Oren does make some perfunctory remarks acknowledging that Israel’s dispossession of Palestinians in 1948 and establishment of settlements after 1967 might have something to do with growing criticism of Israel. This is mere window dressing as Oren makes it clear that whatever wrongs Israel might commit is beside the point, and a diversion from his us or them worldview: “The terrorists, together with their Arab and Iranian state supporters, would still try to massacre us even if every settlement were removed.” [Loc. 588] This kind of declamation exposes the raw tissue of Oren’s beliefs—that hostility toward Israel is at bottom anti-Semitism and premised on an absolute Arab rejection of Israel’s right to exist in Palestine as a Jewish state. This is a convenient and opportunistic standpoint, trivializing criticism of Israel, which should always deserves support as the sole Western style democracy in the entire region. Oren indirectly inverts the argument of Orientalism, claiming that hostility to Israel is based on ethnocratic criteria rather than being a reaction to Israel’s violation of fundamental Palestinian rights, which serve the Arab world as a respectable rationalization for hatred of Jews.
Oren grew up in a Catholic neighborhood in West Orange, New Jersey where he experienced daily bullying because he was a Jew. This early contact with anti-Semitism was combined with a strong Jewish involvement based on family, community, and synagogue, giving Oren, while growing up, an attachment to Zionism and Israel as a sanctuary for diaspora Jews. He became a Zionist youth activist, departing for Israel at a young age, and never looked back. He combined ardent participation in all things Israeli while maintaining a strong attachment to America. It is not surprising that Oren developed the state of mind of a dual citizen. He movingly describes the day that he was compelled to renounce his American citizenship so that he could become the official representative of Israel in the United States. This act of choice caused anguish for Oren as it violated the reality of his depth experience of dual identity that never dissipated regardless of the legal niceties.
It is very tempting to compare my childhood and adult life with that of Oren, and reflect upon the starkness of the differences. I lived in Manhattan as a child in a middle class neighborhood dominated by Jews, and attended a private school that was almost deserted on Jewish holidays, which were totally ignored on the secular homefront. At the same time my immediate societal environs were sufficiently assimilationist so as to make it seem natural to observe Christmas by singing Handel’s ‘Messiah’ and decorating a Christmas tree. My parents, although both Jewish, were completely post-ethnic in temperament and behavior, as well as post-religious in their beliefs. Already as an adolescent I challenged their secular humanist leanings by becoming interested in religion, and later explored several religious traditions. This inclination toward an embrace of religion may have resulted from the fact that as a child I was cared for by a young Irish immigrant who was a devout Catholic, and took me with her frequently to attend mass at a nearby church, which I found satisfying despite the mysteries of Latin Rite being lost on me. This early exposure to religion has led a non-denominational spirituality throughout my life, but left me without much attraction for institutional affiliations with organized religions.
Also, the rise of Nazism did not impact strongly on my experience during childhood. I had no known relative that was ever in a concentration camp, and the Holocaust seemed horrible, but something that happened in Europe, which seemed distant and remote to in those years. From the age of seven I was raised by my father as a single parent. He was a conservative, strongly anti-Communist lawyer and historian who managed in his spare time to write a couple of widely read books about the rise of Japanese sea power. My father, a tender and loving man in concrete relationships, lacked public empathy. He deeply disliked FDR’s New Deal, accepted the judicial logic of strict constitutionalism, and wrote a book attacking Roosevelt’s plan to circumvent the Supreme Court by enlarging the number of judges through appointment of individuals who would uphold his policies. These parental politics, and my status as a de facto only child, led me to interact with prominent people in several fields as an adolescent, but also to drift inconsequentially in search of an authentic identity. Israel and Zionism were completely remote from this search. I learned from my father that what mattered was national identity, not the sort of tribal reality that Oren acknowledges as an essential part of his experience of being Jewish. As I matured, and decided on the study of law without have clear career goals, my orientation became increasingly anti-vocational. From this standpoint, I hoped to practice ‘international law’ or find something to do that had nothing to do with being a ‘real’ lawyer. With such an outlook, I ended up focusing on international law and law in India while still a law student, and due to a series of coincidences, was hired upon graduation on an emergency basis (substituting for a faculty member who had suddenly fallen ill) to teach some courses for the year at the College of Law at Ohio State University. I ended up spending five years on the campus in Columbus, almost immediately discovering that academic life was congenial, providing me with autonomy and interesting friends at the very beginning of a professional career.
It was in this period that I began to develop a political identity. While still a law student, I had instinctively opposed McCarthyism, and was surprised that my classmates at the supposedly very liberal Yale Law School were generally unwilling to sign a petition opposing blacklisting of so-called ‘Fifth Amendment Communists’ for fear that it would hurt their job prospects. At Ohio State I became involved as a non-tenured faculty member in litigation against several members of the Board of Trustees alleging that as they were owners of off-campus student housing that unconstitutionally discriminated against African American student renters they were personally responsible for violation of rights. Although a favorable settlement of the case was a source of satisfaction, what turned out to be more influential for my political development in this period was interaction with progressive graduate students at Ohio State. And even more so was an afternoon in the university library where I started reading by accident of the French defeat in their war to retain colonial control over Indochina. I was so persuaded that afternoon by Owen Lattimore’s critique of the French colonial enterprise that it led me to became an early opponent of the Vietnam War adopting the realist premise that if the French failed, so would the United States fail, and at great cost to itself, and to its wider alignments and interests. My opposition at that time was framed by reference to arguments about international law and realist assessments of costs and benefits.
A decade later, in 1968, I accepted an invitation to visit North Vietnam as both a peace activist and academic expert on the international law aspects of the war. During this visit, relating again to this contrast with Oren, I found myself identifying with the vulnerability of the Vietnamese peasantry in response to the high-techology warfare being waged by the United States against their country, people, and nationalist aspirations. I shifted emphases from being an opponent of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam to becoming a supporter of Vietnam’s struggle for self-determination.
It became a normative preoccupation rather than a realist stance, the latter being much more respected within the Princeton environment, especially among the faculty. In the course of this political development, I had never experienced any tribalist longings to affirm my Jewish identity, and now I found myself at odds with my government, beginning to feel more comfortable with an affirmation of human identity than with the national identity derived mechanically from my American birth and citizenship, and the dynamics of socialization beneath an American flag. Long before I encountered the words of Vincent Harding, I resonated to the sentiment he movingly articulated: “I am a citizen of a country that does not yet exist.” Derrida, I believe, was pointing to a similar reality when he wrote and spoke of ‘a democracy to come,’ that is, a democracy not yet existing, and not even clearly envisioned beyond some humanistic values that constituted a political community with no spatial boundaries. I have never doubted the primacy of this human identity in my political consciousness, although I find that remaining dedicated to the better realization of national identity through the fulfillment of America’s promise and potential both compatible, and in a sense intertwined. I have at times envied some forms of tribal identity, especially if not enacted at the expense of others, but it never resonated existentially. I believe the interplay of tensions between tribal, national, and human identities in our life experiences goes a long way toward explaining why I see the world so differently than Oren.
Perhaps, another take on these differences, would emphasize forms of empathy that are chosen by each of us. Clearly, Oren has strong empathy when it comes to family, clan, tribe, and nation, but less so, or not visibly at all, when it comes to the human species (putting aside how becoming fully human means extending empathy to animals and even plants). I found surprising that Oren approvingly quotes Atticus, the wise lawyer hero of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, as saying, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” [Loc. 2222] In his text, I find no effort to achieve such understandings as when he deals with Palestinian militancy or Edward Said’s attack on Orientalism. It is this failure of comprehending the other that makes it accurate to brand Oren, however well educated, as primarily a tribalist and nationalist when it comes to politics, while being a very dedicated husband, father, and friend when focusing on the realm of personal relations.
For myself, I raise the historical and humanist question as to whether species survival is increasingly at risk because of the lethal rivalries produced by tribal and national agendas as reinforced by ever more sophisticated technologies of destruction and control. Thinking hopefully, the Anthropocene Age may soon witness the first species insurgency against the eco-tyrannical elites of the world, who have become the suicidal guardians of our neoliberal market forces joined in an unbreakable alliance with dominant forces of tribalism and nationalism. In moments of despair, the end-time hegemony of this unbreakable alliance are likely to retain control of species destiny, perhaps justifying their techno-violence and paralyzing surveillance by imagined struggles with ISIS-like forces, given mass credibility by a compliant, fear-mongering media. In effect, if we care about future generations and the wellbeing of the species and its natural surroundings, we must begin to think, feel, and act like an eco-insurgent.