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Ambassador Michael Oren, Israeli Ambassador to the United States
One Jewish People, One Jewish Reality
Ambassador Michael Oren Israeli
Ambassador to the United States
May 4 2012
Address to AJC ACCESS 20/20 Washington, D.C.

As Israel’s ambassador to the United States, I confront many challenges. There’s the upheaval throughout the Middle East, the civil wars, the stagnant peace process. In America, there’s the political polarization; there are economic difficulties and rising gas prices. And in my profession there’s bureaucracy. Lots of bureaucracy. But the hardest challenge I face—and I know my wife, Sally, agrees with me—is being away from our children. 
They’re grown now, young Israeli adults, independent and thriving, but it’s difficult being apart, especially when they, too, are confronting challenges. My mother used to tell me, “parenthood is a life sentence.” My mother. You know the expression “little kids, little problems, big kids, big problems.” To which I amend, “big Israeli kids, big Israeli problems.”

Take our eldest son, Yoav, who’s not in Israel at all but in Shanghai, China. After serving in an elite IDF unit, where he was wounded—shot—in a raid against Hamas, Yoav fulfilled his dream of traveling to China, where he learned fluent Chinese. Now he’s working for a large Israeli-American firm, happy but anxious. Yoav believes that strong commercial ties with China are vital to Israel’s future and he’s committed to building them. But breaking into the Chinese market is tough and breaking into it is a constant challenge.

Big Israeli kids, big Israeli problems. Then there’s our daughter, Lia, now studying for an advanced education degree at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva. I spoke to her between the sirens that alert the people of Beersheva to incoming terrorist rockets. In America, schools close for snow days and in Israel they close for rockets. Lia spent those days in bomb shelters. She was anxious about losing class time, anxious about losing her job, and anxious about the 200-foot sprint from her apartment to the nearest shelter.

Big Israeli kids, very big problems…

Finally, there’s our baby, Noam. At twenty-one, Noam has already completed a year of voluntary national service, trained in an elite IDF unit, and graduated from officers’ course. And when I called him on his cellphone a few weeks ago, I learned that he, too, is anxious. He’s just received thirty recruits—boys, many of them from disadvantaged backgrounds, who he has to transform into fighting men. “How will I do it, Abba,” he asked me. “Can I bring these guys together? Can I lead them into battle?”

Big Israeli kid, big Israeli problem.

Here are three typical Israeli young people. They have grown up during years of Palestinian terror. They’ve seen their friends and even a close family member killed in suicide attacks. They’ve seen two comprehensive Israeli peace offers to the Palestinians proffered and rejected. They’ve seen 9,000 Israelis uprooted from their homes in Gaza to help advance peace only to receive Hamas rockets in return. They watched for the last three years while Palestinian Authority leaders refused to negotiate with us and instead praised terrorists as heroes and made reconciliation pacts with Hamas.

Astonishingly, these Israeli young people still support the two-state solution. But unsurprisingly, they doubt there is any Palestinian partner for reaching it. More than the Palestinian issue, though, these typical Israeli youth worry about the relationship between their State and its Ultra-Orthodox citizens. They worry more about the cost of housing for young people. They worry about the 10,000 Hamas missiles in Gaza and the 50,000 in Hezbollah-controlled Lebanon. They worry about an Iranian regime that swears to annihilate them and rapidly develops the nuclear means to do it.

Big Israeli kids, monumental Israeli problems.

In America, meanwhile, there are other concerns. Finding a job, for one, or not losing your home. Talk about big, stressful problems.

More specifically, there are American Jewish concerns such as ensuring Jewish continuity, maintaining Jewish institutions, affording a Jewish education. All are genuinely serious concerns, and not just for American Jewish kids.

I was shocked, then, that on the very day that I spoke with my kids about their concerns in Israel, some American Jews were discussing a call to boycott products made by Israeli settlements in the West Bank. I followed that debate closely, as is my duty as ambassador. I was curious to know whether anybody seriously thought such a boycott could be implemented—whether a distinction could be made between the computer chip made in a settlement and the computer itself. I was curious to know how, in the absence of Palestinian peace partners, such a boycott might contribute to a two-state solution. I wondered whether those calling for the boycott realized how much they strengthened the case for boycotting all Israeli products and delegitimizing the Jewish state.

But what most struck me—not as an ambassador but as an Israeli and as an Israeli father, was the fact that, on the same day that my son was worrying about his raw recruits and my daughter about rockets in Beersheva, a portion of the American Jewish community was debating whether or not to buy Ahava hand products.

Something is wrong here. Terribly wrong.

When I grew up in this country, the slogan of the United Jewish Appeal was “We are One.” Today, that same logo is more likely to raise eyebrows than funds.

No doubt, a majority of American Jews care deeply about the security of Israel and oppose those seeking to undermine it. And even some of those calling for boycotts do so out of a sense of caring—I’d say misplaced sense of caring—about Israel.

And yet, sometimes it seems that we, Israelis and American Jews, not only inhabit different countries but different universes, different realities.

As recent research by Prof. Steven Cohen has indicated, American Jews care most about women’s and minority rights in Israel, and equality among the major streams of Judaism. Those issues are also important to Israelis, but we are also interested in making a living and gaining social benefits. We are interested in protecting our families so that they can have the luxury of worrying about jobs and benefits. Ironically, at a time when support for Israel in this country is at a near all-time high—indeed it's one of the few truly bipartisan issues—we Jews seem increasingly divided.

Let me be clear: at stake is not merely Israel’s policies or rights of American Jews to criticize them. At stake is nothing less than the unity of a Jewish people.

Throughout much of our history, that unity was taken for granted. According to Medieval documents found in the attic of a Cairo synagogue, a Jew living in eighth century Baghdad could travel to Mumbai or to Cordova or to Paris and be received like a cousin by the local Jewish community. He could be housed and fed and could even cash a check! We partook in a tradition thousands of years old. We were mishpuchah. And if we ever forget we were mishpuchah, the world would quickly remind us. We were bound by our tradition, but also by our often hostile surroundings.

All that began to change with the Enlightenment and the collapse of the ghetto walls. A wellspring of spiritual and political energy was unleashed. Suddenly, there were Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox Jews; Jews not only in the schmata business but in the medical business, even the business of running countries. Suddenly, there were Central European Jews and Eastern Europe Jews and Sepharadi Jews, from lands further east still. There were nationalist Jews who thought of themselves as Frenchmen or Italians first and Communists who weren’t really Jews anymore but members of an international proletariat.

Most peripheral were the Zionists, who wanted to be both people of the Enlightenment and the people of the Book; Western and Eastern Jews together, Nationalists and Communists, farmers, soldiers, and scientists. They attracted little support, and often derision. In this country, on the eve of World War I, out of a Jewish population of close to three million, a mere 10,000 were Zionists.

Much of that changed during World War II. Reform Jews, Conservative, Orthodox, Central and Eastern European and Sepharadi Jews, Communists, Nationalists, Zionists—all were reunited on the trains to Auschwitz.

The Holocaust forced us to rethink the meaning of Jewish peoplehood. Were we Jews simply because we were victims, as Jean-Paul Sartre philosophized? Or were there positive aspects to Jewish identity that transcended all cultural, ritual, and political differences and bound us together eternally?

For a great many, the answer was, yes, we are Jews—not because the anti-Semites say we are but because we revere our tradition, we belong to a community, and we share a birthright, the Land of Israel. And as an affirmation of that identity, in an act of national will unrivaled in human history, we rose from the Holocaust's ashes and recreated our ancient state, the State of Israel.

That state that belongs to you and me in a way that no other state can. For our attachment to it is not contingent on our passport or place of birth. Rather, it is contingent on your membership in a Jewish people that has spanned much of the globe and most of recorded history.

Israel is our state, a work in progress in which every Jew can play a part. Of course, sovereignty is messy, and Jews can and will disagree about Israeli policies without necessarily loving Israel any less. Still, people often ask me, “how do you define pro-Israel?” I have some elementary answers.

The person who is pro-Israel recalls what Jewish life was like without a Jewish state and works to ensure that there always will be a Jewish state.

The pro-Israel person is grateful every day that he or she lives in a time in Jewish history when there is a proud and independent Jewish state.

The pro-Israel person is the one who sees the controversies, yes, and has strong opinions about them. That person might believe that removing all the settlements from the West Bank will bring about peace. Conversely, a pro-Israel person might believe that removing settlements will bring the opposite of peace. Either way, a pro-Israel person knows that there is a place at our table for divergent views.

But irrespective of politics, the pro-Israel person also asks, "how can I contribute to Israel, how can I enrich it and be enriched by it?" When I attend synagogues in the United States, I see how the majority of American congregations have adopted Sephardic Hebrew—the Hebrew we speak in Israel. But I also see the profound influence of American ritual—egalitarian prayers, for example, and the music of Shlomo Carlebach—on Israeli prayers. A third of the electricity for Eilat is now provided by solar panels devised by Yosef Abramowitz, a visiting educator from Boston. This is enrichment at its finest, the enrichment that is two ways.

And it’s the same in scholarship, in the joint high-tech campuses between American and Israeli universities, and in the arts. Many of you have no doubt seen the hit cable series In Treatment and Homeland. Both of them are Israeli.

A pro-Israel person appreciates the immense threats the people of Israel face every day. She knows that Israel, alone, cannot bring peace with the Palestinians, but that the Palestinians have the agency—the responsibility—to denounce terror, reject Hamas, and accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. The pro-Israel person understands the threats to Israel of not achieving peace but also he understands the threat to Israel of making a peace that will quickly unravel and transform the West Bank into another Gaza. The pro-Israel person empathizes with those who live under the constant hazard of missile attack and with those who devote years of their lives—indeed risk their lives—for the safety of the Jewish state. The pro-Israel person recognizes the supreme danger of a nuclear-armed Iran and acknowledges that—as President Obama recently stated—Israel has the right to defend itself against any Middle Eastern threat. Only a sovereign Israel has the right to decide how best to protect its citizens.

Finally, a pro-Israel person takes pride in Israel’s incalculable successes. In our world-class universities, our pioneering achievements in medicine, economics, alternative energy; in the fact that we have more technological patents, more scientific papers, more start-ups and more Nobel Prizes per capita than any country in the world; that, after Canada, we’re the most educated population in the world, our stock market is rated the world’s best investment, and Tel Aviv is listed as the third most fun and first most gay-friendly city on earth. We have the only growing Christian population in the Middle East and we’re one of the world's oldest democracies, part of small club of countries that has never known non-democratic rule. All that, and, yes, we export wine to France.

The pro-Israel person sees Israelis—left, right, religious, secular—not as some distant "Other" but as part of a whole—a dynamic, creative, rambunctious, and precious whole.

The pro-Israel people are those who view even those who disagree with them politically as part of their people, as mishpuchah. We are a small people, but we face big problems. We are a small people, with immense achievements. But we are a people. And because we are people, we have been able to overcome adversity. Peoplehood is the secret to our success.

Yet Jewish peoplehood must not be taken for granted. It must be nurtured and strengthened and invigorated. The responsibility cuts two ways.

We, in Israel, must do a better job in recognizing and respecting the diversity of American Jewish life. Just as we ask who is pro-Israel, so, too, must we ask who is pro the Jewish people. In Israel, to be pro the Jewish people is to guarantee respectful space for egalitarian prayer at the Kotel, to maintain a dialogue over the conversion issue, to enable open debate about those Israeli policies that impact all of world Jewry.

Together, we must invest in our future as a people We must not only enable more American Jews to participate in Israel youth experiences , but expand the numbers of young Israeli participants. All three of my children have taken part in American-Jewish-Israel exchanges and each has emerged with a deeper sense of am yisrael, of klal yisrael­ – of the Jewish nation.

We must seek ways to perform Tikkun Olam as a people, American Jews, Diaspora Jews, and Israeli Jews joined in humanitarian projects worldwide.

You know how those sacks of grain say “A gift of the American people.” I want to see containers of food and medicine labeled “A gift of the Jewish people.”

We must find more venues in which Jews from all backgrounds and outlooks can talk candidly to one another. No less crucially, we need more venues for listening.

Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish People. Our very existence—our raison d'etre—is predicated on that peoplehood. Yes, we face daunting challenges, but with the Jewish people united and behind us, we can overcome them all.

That's why the great task of our generation is to preserve our unity. We must dedicate ourselves to reinforcing a sense of oneness, of community, and of connection to the land.

Israel is predicated on peoplehood, but the life and vitality of the Jewish people is dependent on Israel. That is why our other great task is to defend our state, to invest and rejoice in it. To unite the Jewish people and strengthen the Jewish state, that is our dual duty.

Our duty is to create one Jewish universe, one Jewish reality. Our duty is to create a world in which our kids are your kids, a world in which our problems, no matter how big, belong to us all. And so do our accomplishments. Our task is to ensure that the Jewish people and the Jewish state are, and will remain, inseparable.