Israeli Merkava tanks drive near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return on August 5, 2014, after Israel announced that all of its troops had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)
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How Not To Write a Zionist Op-Ed

Ex-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren still sounds like PR man in WSJ essay

Mark Oppenheimer
August 06, 2014
Israeli Merkava tanks drive near the border between Israel and the Gaza Strip as they return on August 5, 2014, after Israel announced that all of its troops had withdrawn from the Gaza Strip. (THOMAS COEX/AFP/Getty Images)

Among my most pro-Israel friends on Facebook, the most-shared piece of the past week has surely been “In Defense of Zionism,” the Wall Street Journal essay by Michael B. Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to the United States and now a professor at IDC Herzliya. It’s a stirring piece, filled with useful (and true) information about the remarkable success of a fringe 19th-century ideology in giving birth to the successful, growing, economically powerful nation-state that is also a homeland for the Jews.

But it’s clearly a work of propaganda, the kind of thing written by an ambassador (Oren’s former job) not a professor (his current one). The author of a highly regarded history of the 1967 war, Oren has intellectual chops. But in this piece of wartime agitprop, he has chosen not to use them. Yes, he’s writing in a limited space, and for a popular audience. But that’s no excuse. And the failures of his Wall Street Journal essay are object lessons of the pitfalls of a world where so many move between academic and government work, or government work and lobbying, or scholarship and opinion writing. Oren is a perfectly competent polemicist, but it’s a shame that he’s so willing to betray the obligations of a scholar.

In his op-ed, Oren writes of Israel’s glories: some degree of pluralism, fair and regular elections, Nobel laureates, a thriving artistic culture. And he makes a brief show of alluding to Israel’s failures. “Statehood means making hard and often agonizing choices—whether to attack Hamas in Palestinian neighborhoods, for example, or to suffer rocket strikes on our own territory,” Oren writes. “It requires reconciling our desire to be enlightened with our longing to remain alive. Most onerously, sovereignty involves assuming responsibility.”

But even in that elliptical passage, which ends with monumental self-regard for “Jewish responsibility” (how’s that for Newspeak?), what’s striking is what’s left out. Oren writes of attacking Hamas, and of a thwarted desire to be “enlightened,” but he never uses the words “settlement” or “blockade.” He is willing to dwell in the moral ambiguities of the current war, where even many on the left concede that Hamas is an evil bunch, and where everyone is horrified by the tunnels. But he is unwilling to look back at what Israel has done to help foment the current situation: immiserate Gaza and continue to settle the West Bank.

Throughout, Oren writes in a faux-searching tone, perplexed that Zionism could be reviled. “What is it about Zionism that elicits such loathing? After all, the longing of a dispersed people for a state of their own cannot possibly be so repugnant, especially after that people endured centuries of massacres and expulsions, culminating in history’s largest mass murder. Perhaps revulsion toward Zionism stems from its unusual blend of national identity, religion and loyalty to a land. Japan offers the closest parallel, but despite its rapacious past, Japanese nationalism doesn’t evoke the abhorrence aroused by Zionism.”

That is a very fair question, and I for one think that much antipathy toward Zionism does come from anti-Semitism, as well as a displaced loathing toward the United States, Israel’s patron. And of course most people who criticize Zionism as an ideology have never read its central texts, and are unaware of the wide disagreements among pioneering Zionist thinkers, many of whom were socialists, and many of whom were quite aware of what would become the Arab question.

But if one wants to engage the question of anti-Zionism in an honest way, it’s impossible not to talk about the occupation, the refusal to give back land won in 1967, the efforts to settle that land, and the ongoing controls that Israel places on people who live in that land. There are surely many dishonest and bigoted anti-Zionists—but there are also many whose anti-Zionism is born of recent history. To pretend such people don’t exist is not just academically irresponsible but rhetorically inane. Oren’s piece may stiffen the spines of true believers, and may convince people who never paid attention to Israel until the last month, but it won’t change anyone’s mind. To be clear: Oren can defend the settlements, but if he wants to change people’s minds, he can’t ignore the settlements.

In any event, I come not to attack or defend Zionism, but rather to discuss what somebody like Michael B. Oren owes to his audience. When he was a government official of Israel, it was to be expected that he offer up simplistic paeans to his adopted homeland. What worries me is that as a professor he’s still at it. As somebody whose career calling now entails ruthless honesty at all costs—for that’s what professors are paid to do: seek and disseminate truth—he should begin any defense of Zionism, or Israel, with unsparing admissions of all the best arguments on his opponents’ side, phrased in language that his opponents would recognize. Intellectual can never be afraid to look at their own soft underbellies.

Of course, Oren’s failure here is not somehow specifically Israeli. In recent years, as American colleges and universities like New York University, Yale, and Wellesley have formed ill-considered alliances with repressive governments abroad, their faculties have been implicated in policies of those governments. When Yale sends faculty members to open up a college in cooperation with the government of Singapore—which bans student political parties—and promises that its faculty will help enforce Singaporean law, it’s doing its part to create little Orens: men and women who aren’t sure where their duties as scholars end and their duties as feds begin.

Maybe I’m being unfair to Oren. Perhaps he has no choice. Nobody has to watch his or her words more carefully than an ambassador, and it wouldn’t be shocking if he lost the capacity for the kind of candor that characterizes professors at their best. In any case, his editors at the Wall Street Journal editorial page must have been elated to find a writer with the credentials of a scholar and the political instincts of a PR man. One only hopes that Oren’s university colleagues understand the bitterness of that recipe.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood.

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