Michael Oren is Right (Sort Of)

Michael Oren’s recent contribution to Foreign Policy magazine (“The Ultimate Ally,” May/June 2011) provides a clear and carefully worded justification for the enduring alliance between Israel and the United States. Oren’s argument contains few surprises; for the most part it’s exactly the sort of piece one would expect from the Israeli ambassador to the United States. He makes salient points regarding Israel’s tactical importance to the United States, yet his piece is not remarkable for them. They are the same points every advocate of Israel parades before a skeptical audience: Israel’s strong military presence in a hostile region, its support of US foreign policy, its thriving economy and its legacy of democratic government. Yet Oren veers into strange territory before the close of his first paragraph as he lauds Israel’s commitment to America’s “global vision,” an ideological imperative he vaguely defines as an embrace of democratic ideals. He reminds his American readers that Israel boasts streets named after Washington and Lincoln, that it hosts memorials for John F. Kennedy Jr. and Martin Luther King Jr. and owns two replicas of the Liberty Bell. Oren’s pride in these tributes to American history clearly demonstrates his disregard for Western colonialism’s impact on the region. He ignores the implications of Israel’s relationship with America for Israelis and Arabs alike in order to present a case for Israel’s commitment to democratic ideals, ideals that he believes are shared by Americans.  Gender equality, rights for GLBT citizens, and a viable justice system exemplified by former President Moshe Katsav’s recent conviction for rape are pillars of his apologetic. This shows that Oren is ignorant of the many ways these ideals aren’t truly represented by American society.

He ignores  similar failures in his own country. The rising power of the Orthodox Shas party, which does not value gender equality or GLBT rights, is of concern. It is also hard to accept his portrayal of Israel’s justice system since an equitable application of the law does not extend to the IDF’, whose tactics in the recent invasion of Gaza included documented war crimes like the use of white phosphorous. The victims of these crimes could offer a countering view to Oren’s perspective on Israeli justice. Nor is the argument even applicable to all Israeli politicians: Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party continues to serve in his position as Foreign Minister despite facing charges of corruption. The double standard is continued as Oren lauds his country’s commitment to international law and states that settlements are not an impediment to peace, even though these same settlements are considered violations of international law.

For these reasons, the legacy of Israel’s democracy has been tarnished far more than a casual reader would surmise from Oren’s piece. He boldly states that Israel has “never experienced interregna of nondemocratic rule,” and this is true, if only partially so. Israel can boast of fair elections. But its elected officials do not represent its occupied territories, and despite the ambassador’s claims regarding his country’s commitment to the peace process, Al Jazeera’s recent release of the “Palestine Papers” reveal Israel’s decades-long reticence to the numerous compromises set forward by the Fatah administration of the West Bank, as well its refusal to negotiate with the democratically elected government of the Gaza Strip. That reticence is demonstrated again this month as Israel announced it will not negotiate with the new Palestinian unity government since it will necessarily contain members of Hamas. This exhibits a lack of respect for the democratic process of the Palestinian people and substantially weakens Oren’s argument. So does a new loyalty oath proposed by the Israeli government, which will require new citizens to swear allegiance to an explicitly Jewish state. The concept of  a Jewish state is inherently racist and is incompatible with democracy, since it promotes one racial identity above all others and therefore undermines the free expression of cultural differences. A state that defines itself by a specific racial identity cannot truly be considered free. But Oren makes no reference to the loyalty oath in his piece.

As disturbing as these omissions are, they are topped by Oren’s inexplicable praise for Christian Zionism. The points analyzed in the above paragraphs follow a defense of Christian Zionism that extends for over four paragraphs. As Oren begins to describe the historical context of the Israeli-American relationship, he writes: “And yet, for all their urgency, the close ties between the United States and Israel are hardly new. Their roots extend further than Israel’s creation 63 years ago — rather, they took hold with the Pilgrims’ arrival in North America.” Oren continues the Pilgrim theme, and reminds readers that the Pilgrims considered themselves the founders of a “New Israel.” He is correct that this motif figures prominently in the history of colonial America, and that the Judeo-Christian influence on American culture has led to an embrace of Israel, first as a concept and later as an established state. Oren mentions Truman’s membership in the American Christian Palestine Committee, and also correctly identifies it as a Zionist organization. In its time, the Committee provided powerful lobbying on behalf of Zionist causes. It is a role filled today by organizations like Christian Action Israel, Christians United for Israel, and Christians for Israel International among others. The position finds extensive support in mainline evangelical churches. But Oren does not understand the implications of this support.

Yes, Christian Zionists are a powerful ally of Israel. But the movement has its own objective. According to the dispensationalist theology taught in most evangelical churches, Israel will be the site of Armageddon. Certain major events, like the desecration of a restored Temple, are described in the Book of Revelation and must take place in order for Christ’s Second Coming to occur. Furthermore, Revelations states that Israel must dwell securely in order for the Antichrist to arise. For Christians that believe a literal interpretation of the Bible, support for the state of Israel is necessary. But it’s not for Israel’s sake alone. Nor should Oren expect to find sympathy for Jewish beliefs among the Christian Zionists. Judaism rejects Jesus as the messiah, which is the primary tenet of Christianity. So evangelicals support Israel. But they also believe that practicing Jews are destined for hell, and that the existence of Israel is required in order for the Messiah these same practicing Jews do not worship to return. It is worth noting that this literal interpretation also teaches that Israel will be the site of a massive battle in this event and that only 144,000 Jews will ascend to heaven. It is disturbing that Israel’s ambassador to the United States is so clearly unaware of the Christian Zionist movement’s motivations.

Michael Oren’s blatant omissions, his selective interpretation of the facts and his praise for Christian Zionists obscure the legitimate points he makes regarding the economic, political and military benefits of the American alliance with Israel. However, this alliance must sustain a critical examination of its ethical ramifications for human rights and the preservation of international law. As presented by Ambassador Oren, it simply does not, and it instead raises serious questions about Oren’s judgment.  Rather than being the titular “ultimate ally,” Israel’s violations of international law and its history of war crimes call the credibility of the United States as an advocate for human rights into question.

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2 thoughts on “Michael Oren is Right (Sort Of)

  1. I’d like to quibble with your assertion that evangelical Christians read the Book of Revelation literally. Revelation is so full of symbology that a literal translation that is not nonsensical is impossible. The interpretation of pre-millennial dispensationalists (who do not constitute all evangelical Christians) has just as much scriptural backing as a historical or amillenial reading does. It’s important that we not cede the ground of so-called literalism to pre-millenials (or any other Christian group).

  2. I agree that a literal translation that is actually coherent is impossible. But that doesn’t stop “theologians” like Tim LaHaye from insisting that they are in fact translating it literally.

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