Wieseltier on Oren: “[I’m] Outraged and Offended”
Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States now serving in the Knesset, has harsh words for numerous American Jewish journalists in his new memoir, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. In it, Oren likens criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leveled by Joe Klein of Time, David Remnick of The New Yorker and Thomas Friedman of The New York Times to the sort of antagonism “traditionally triggered by the Jews.” Oren also recalls a private conversation with Leon Wieseltier, the longtime New Republic literary editor now at The Atlantic. In the pages of The New Republic, Oren writes, Wieseltier once described Netanyahu as a “gray, muddling, reactive figure” and “a creature of the bunker.” “When I suggested to Leon that his hatred of Bibi had become pathological,” Oren writes, “he merely shrugged and admitted, ‘Yes, I know, it’s pathological.'”
In an interview at the annual conference of the Association of Jewish Libraries on June 21, Wieseltier gave a different account of that conversation. He was speaking ironically, he said — making fun of Oren’s own opinion.
“I don’t take kindly to being called anti-Semitic and I don’t take kindly to having Jewish self-hatred attributed to me. I don’t take kindly to it at all,” Wieseltier later said. “It’s cheap and it’s ugly and he knows better. You know, his problem may be Jewish self-love, but that’s another subject.”
In the conversation excerpted below, Wieseltier and Moment editor Nadine Epstein discuss Oren’s assessment of American Jewish journalists’ treatment of Israel, and whether — as Oren claims — President Barack Obama has abandoned Israel.
Check back soon for the complete interview.
Nadine Epstein: So, speaking of feelings wounded, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has a new book coming out.
Leon Wieseltier: It’s out, it’s out. [Editor’s note: Ally was released June 23.]
E: Oh, it’s out. O.K. And in the publicity buildup he singled out you and [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman, saying that your antagonism toward Netanyahu resembles historic hatred of Jews. Do you harbor “pathological hatred,” as he says, toward Netanyahu, and do you remember that conversation with him?
W: Oh, of course I do — I’m gonna write about it this week because I want to have some fun at Michael’s expense.
W: It’s outrageous; it’s completely risible. I have never in my wildest dreams thought I would be called an anti-Semite before. It’s kind of kinky.
W: My revered teacher, Isaiah Berlin… he once said that an anti-Semite is a person who hates Jews more than necessary. And Michael’s book puts me in mind of that remark. I have disliked and opposed Netanyahu since the day I met him in the summer of 1982 when he was the [Deputy Chief of Mission at the Israeli Embassy] here in Washington. I think that, as a political matter, he’s taken Israel exactly nowhere and probably backwards. These are my views, I’ve been clear about my views the whole time. The conversation that Michael reports… Every time I would run into Michael — and we were old friends— I’ve made it clear to him that we don’t need to speak again for a very long time. I told you, free society. Every time I would run into him, he would say, “Why don’t you give my boss a break?” And I would say, “Well, why doesn’t your boss give Israel a break?” And we would go ‘round and ‘round. And then, one day he said to me, you know — I said to him, “Yeah, I know, it’s pathological,” which is what he — my alleged hatred of Netanyahu. And he reports this in the book. Now, of course I was speaking ironically, making fun of what Michael thought. My mistake… irony left the subject of the discussion about Israel many decades ago. But — I was very surprised to be called anti-Semitic. It’s not something I’m usually accused of — and, you know, outraged and offended, and I will strike back, because that’s what we do. But it was a strange week.
E: Well, why do you think Oren would write a book like that right now? Does it have something to do with becoming a politician now, as opposed to an ambassador?
W: Oh, I mean, I don’t want to answer, I don’t want to say anything about Michael. Instead I’ll tell you a story that comes to mind, about the time in 1847 — you’ll see why I’m saying this — Rossini went to the premiere of Wagner’s opera Tännhauser, and the critics saw Rossini at the back of the theater, and after the opera was over, they ran up to him and said, “Maestro, what is your opinion of this work?” And Rossini said, “It is impossible to form an opinion of this work having seen it only once, and since I have no intention of ever seeing it again, I have no opinion.” So, that’s my answer to your question.
E: So you haven’t read the book yet.
W: Oh I’ve read it; of course I’ve read it.
E: Oh, you have. O.K.
W: I can’t reply to it unless I read it; of course I’ve read it. Yes, yes.
E: So, do you think President Obama has been bad for Israel?
W: Yes and no. I don’t think he’s had any particular soft spot in his heart for Israel; I think that he hasn’t been an enemy of Israel’s. You know, the Jews — for good reasons and bad — want special love from presidents. And in my lifetime, every single president I can remember in the beginning was “the greatest friend that Israel ever had.” And within four or five years, he turned out to be, if not Hitler, then a problem. American policy towards Israel, at least on the subject of the Palestinians, has basically been consistent since the Nixon administration. Since the Nixon administration — peace, two states, some arrangement around Jerusalem, the annexation of the Golan will be recognized and accepted, which I’m for — but no annexation of the West Bank… and plus, a strategic alliance with Israel in the Middle East, Israel is our preferred friend, extraordinary defense cooperation — it’s basically been consistent. Even during the first Bush administration during the loan guarantee stuff, it’s basically been consistent. So, the problems are usually tonal. I think Obama is clinically confident of himself, and he thought that he could start from scratch. I mean, instead of building on where the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had been left — and by the way, it took decades to get there, I mean… I still can’t even get over the fact that Israel and the Palestinians are even speaking. I was one of those people who would get in trouble for shaking the hands of PLO people. But he thought that he would start it all over because nobody’s cooked spaghetti until Barack Obama’s cooked spaghetti. Right? Nobody knows how to do it until he’s done it. And so, it was a huge mistake. He didn’t provide Israel with the reassurance that they needed. When he went to give his speech in Cairo, which didn’t impress me overly, instead of going to Jerusalem, he had Elie Wiesel meet him in Dachau, which was exactly the wrong thing to do. Plus, he has this hallucination about Iran. Which I regard as a — not about, I mean, even if they get the deal — I mean, I’m against the deal, and we’re not gonna talk about that now, but, you know — but say for 15 years they have this deal and it more or less works, you know, 15 years is a young person’s idea of a long time. And so 15 years will pass and… they are not gonna make the strategic decision not to have a nuclear weapon. But he has this fantasy that he’ll make the deal and then Iran will somehow be embraced and brought back into the region and be a — as he called it — a flourishing regional power. And not only is it a fantasy because it’s not gonna happen, in my view, but it’s an ugly fantasy, because who on earth wants to bring this regime back into the community of nations? It’s a criminal, oppressive, theological dictatorship that proliferates terrorism everywhere it can. And we’re inhibited by these negotiations because God forbid we should insult the supreme leader. The supreme leader, while he’s negotiating with us, is helping Hezbollah in Lebanon, is running the war for Assad with Hezbollah in Syria, is busy shoring up the government in Baghdad in Iraq, is now playing around with the Houthis in Yemen — they’re totally uninhibited. So I think we’re being strategically outplayed, and I think that the next president is going to have to reconstruct American foreign policy.
E: I guess one of the things that was bothering me is that, do you think somehow there’s an expectation that American Jewish intellectuals and journalists should drop their responsibility… to ask tough questions when it comes to Israel? And is that, that’s sort of the implication of Michael Oren’s book.
W: Yes. There are so many double standards here. The idea that —of course, if the Jews really didn’t want the Goyim to hear us criticize Israel, we shouldn’t have stopped speaking a Jewish language. Right? But we did. And this is a free country, and I will not insult my brothers and sisters on the Israeli right by suggesting that their virulent criticisms of Israeli governments were not motivated by ahavat Yisrael, by the love of Israel. I will not insult them in that way. They insult me and the so-called Jewish left that way all the time. All the time. And the truth is that the taboo against vociferously criticizing Israel in public was broken not by the left —I mean, the left, there was a group that testified on the Hill in 1979, and there was this and that — it’s after Oslo, in America, that the Jews went nuts. I mean, the right-wing Jews, they went nuts. Right or wrong, right or wrong, but they dropped all inhibitions and all of a sudden it didn’t matter who overheard, right? And the fact that the American Jewish community would not present a unified front on behalf of Israel, suddenly that didn’t matter. Now, again, I will pay them the respect of believing that they did that because they genuinely thought Israel was endangered by it. I think, when I criticize Israeli policies, that the failure of Israel to find ways to live with the Palestinians and the continuance of the settlements on the West Bank also endangers Israel. That’s my view about what endangers Israel. So insofar as it’s a debate between two conceptions of Israeli security, both of them motivated by ahavat Yisrael, it’s totally legitimate. Insofar as it’s portrayed as the left that wants the Jews to be very moral because they’re afraid of what the Goyim will think, and the right who have the spine and the guts to stand up to the world and defend Israel, I find all that deeply offensive. I think it’s rubbish. I once had an adventure, in 1980 or ‘81, they started a settlement called Elon Moreh, and I was a graduate student at Harvard and I helped start Peace Now here in the States, and I was upset, and I called various Jewish intellectuals and writers and we signed a letter and it made the front page of The New York Times. And the Prime Minister’s office issued a statement that was so delicious. A reporter asked a spokesman—it might have been Zev Chafets—”Does Mr. Begin know of this?” And he said, “Yes, you have to understand, it’s very hard for the Israeli prime minister to do his work with so much aggravation.” I thought to myself, “How Jewish can this get?” Right? I said, “Tell him next time I’ll only give him nachas.”
W: When I was a critic early on, I was told, “But you don’t live there, and you won’t experience the consequences of what you recommend.” But the same is true of right-wing Jews… in America—they don’t live there either. So if they’re wrong, they’re not going to experience the consequences of what they think is the case. So my view is that we should all speak freely and openly, we should all, when we can, try to impute the best of intentions, and we should stop playing cheap little guilt-mongering games.
E: So, this brings me to what’s happening in the Israeli press. Are Michael Oren and Netanyahu upset by journalists like Gideon Levy or other Israeli journalists who [are critical of Israeli policy]? Everybody’s criticizing Israel in Israel, from the left and from the right, and that doesn’t seem to create the same kind of reaction.
W: Israel has got one of the most anarchic, wild, uninhibited presses in the world. I don’t know. This whole business about what you’re allowed to say and who’s allowed to say it, I’m actually tired of that game. What matters to me is what people say and whether it’s right or wrong. The actual debate between different visions of Israeli security and between different visions of Zionism and the purpose of Israel, that’s something that I’m very happy to devote my life to. But this whole question of — you’re right, but you don’t have the right to say it; or, you’re wrong, but you should say it anyway, or why don’t you say it just in Hebrew, or — all this stuff, it’s just narishkeit.
E: What would you say to Michael if and when you run into him?
W: Oh, what I have to say to him, he’ll read by the end of the week.
E: You’re not planning on running into him in the near future?
W: No, no, no, the truth is, all jokes aside, I don’t take kindly to being called anti-Semitic and I don’t take kindly to having Jewish self-hatred attributed to me. I don’t take kindly to it at all. It’s cheap and it’s ugly and he knows better. You know, his problem may be Jewish self-love, but that’s another subject.