Several days before Yom Kippur services, the Embassy of Israel informed the Congregation that Michael Oren, Israel’s American born ambassador to the United States, wanted to be able to address the Congregation during Yom Kippur services. I am not criticizing the Congregation’s decision to allow him to speak. But I don’t think the speech he made is what the Congregation expected.
Adas Israel is a very large, Conservative congregation, located in Washington DC, less than a mile from the Israeli embassy. As a matter of courtesy and tradition, Israel’s ambassador is offered a free membership at the synagogue in the hope that he (it’s always been a ‘he’) and his family will feel comfortable there and participate in synagogue activities.
I don’t know if the Oren family actually participates, but last year, also on Yom Kippur, the synagogue invited Ambassador Oren to be its Yom Kippur afternoon speaker (not during services, but between them), and his presentation (he was interviewed by Atlantic Magazine’s Jeffrey Goldberg) was interesting, provocative, and somewhat controversial.
This year, he was not an afternoon speaker; rather, he made a special appearance in three (or perhaps four) large services, being held concurrently. And this was not a “Holiday greetings from the Israeli embassy speech”. He gave a 20 minute oration. As one of the rabbis said, when Ambassador Oren briskly left the room, “Now, where were we?”. And as another one said, “We want to thank Ambassador Oren for his sermon.”
Yom Kippur is a solemn day – the liturgy revolves around individual and communal failures during the past year (“for the sin which we committed by ________”). It involves recognition, confession, public atonement, praise of God, and prayer for a fresh, new start. This is the whole meaning of the day.
There are many things an Israeli ambassador could say that would fit within the spirit of the day (all this putting aside the fact that an Israeli ambassador is clearly not a religious or spiritual figure, and that his intervention into a relatively set liturgical format is bound to disturb the rhythm of the day to some extent). But this is not what Ambassador Oren did.
He talked about Jonah and the whale and the terrible choices Jonah had to make – how he was virtually involved in a lose-lose situation. He talked about Winston Churchill and his unpopular anti-Nazi sentiments in Britain in the years prior to World War II. He talked about Harry Truman’s choice in decided to drop atomic bombs on Japan. And he talked about all of the choices that face an Israeli prime minister, many of which also seem to be lose-lose situations. Do you leave Iran alone and let it get nuclear weaponry, or do you preventive action? Do you allow Hamas and Hezbollah to gather strength or do you do something to stop them?
All of these are, of course, legitimate political questions, and Oren’s proposition was that the government of Israel had to make choices along these lines every day, doing something troublesome in order to defray even more trouble down the line. The impression he was giving, as a representative of the Netanyahu government was that Israel was going to make difficult, unpopular, violent decisions that would further shake the sensitivities of much of mankind, but that these were necessary decisions for the long run. And he went on to request the American Jewish community to support Israel’s decisions, whatever they may be.
This harsh presentation was also being made with the backdrop of the peace negotiations underway with the Palestinians. Clearly, the Ambassador doesn’t think that these discussions will lead to peace, even if they seem to. And the impression was that, no matter what the course of the negotiations turn out to be, Israel will act as Israel wants, irrespective of these discussions, which probably aren’t very important in the scheme of things in any event.
No presentation could have been, in my mind, less appropriate, nor more offensive, on Yom Kippur, during a Yom Kippur atonement service, than the presentation of Ambassador Oren. As the person sitting next to me remarked, when Oren asked the rhetorical question, “and what would you do if you were Israeli prime minister”, saying “I’d get a new ambassador to the United States.”
The remarks, by the way, were certainly not out of character for ego-driven Oren. He is the one who pooh-poohed the detention of women praying at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, the man who refused to attend the conference of the progressive J-Street lobby (and who badmouthed J-Street very unnecessarily during a Purim spiel earlier this year at Adas Israel), the man who found the Goldstone report so distasteful that anyone who found anything useful in it might automatically be considered to be anti-Israel.
Clearly, Oren is part of the problem, and not part of the solution. A large portion of the American Jewish community, I am sure, approved of what he said. This too is part of the problem.
Israel faces a load of problems, to be sure. Many of these problems would exist no matter what policies Israel employed. But others of these problems exist because of its policies, policies which are the product of a frightened populace, a political system that (as a requirement of coalition building) gives small fringe parties enormous powers to negotiate political positions, and leadership which appears able to stand up the rest of the world, but not to the radical agendas of its coalition partners.
It is time for Israeli leaders to publicly recognize some of the country’s policy shortcomings, to atone for them, and to hope, pray and work for a fresh, new start.