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Who should US Jews vote for? I didn’t say and I won’t

Encounters with American audiences have become a minefield with increasing charges that I endorsed Trump – or was it Biden?



By Michael Oren

Over the past six months, since shortly after October 7 and the new, alternative universe created by Hamas’s onslaught on Israel, I’ve undertaken repeated emergency fundraising trips to North America. I’ve spoken before dozens of Jewish communities – Reform, Orthodox, Conservative, mixed – bringing a message of hope, strength, gratitude, and belief. And analysis, for that’s what my audiences ultimately wanted to hear: what I thought about the situation, which courses of action I’d recommend. I obliged, sharing my ideas about the war and its impact on US-Israeli relations, all while cognizant of the deep polarization rending American politics, obsessively steering clear of partisanship.


It didn’t work.


Some listeners, I later learned, found my comments blatantly anti-Trump.


Others accused me of stumping for Trump and disparaging President Biden.


Both of these reactions were illuminating for, apart from the minor adjustments needed to keep up with events, I’d given exactly the same speech.


Several of my lectures were recorded. I carefully read through a transcript of one of them to see where I might have slipped.


The lecture opened, as it invariably should, with October 7 and why Israelis cannot move beyond that date. I talked about the broken covenant of “never again,” and the state’s need to restore it, about the irreconcilable goals of destroying Hamas and freeing all the hostages, about the loneliness. “Nobody understands us in the world,” I lamented. “Everyone is condemning us for killing 30,000 Palestinians.”


That figure, I explained, was libelous. It was formulated by Hamas, infamous for inflating its statistics, and included the 12,000 terrorists killed by IDF, the Palestinians killed by short-falling Hamas rockets, and the people who had naturally died. Equally insidious was the charge that Israel “indiscriminately” bombed Gaza, for though mistakes unfortunately happen, each IAF operation must first be approved by military and legal experts. The administration’s mantra of “too many Palestinians have been killed,” meanwhile, was misleading, suggesting that some lower number would have been acceptable. Though every collateral Palestinian death is a tragedy, I concluded, the ratio of combatant-to-civilian fatalities in Gaza is the lowest in modern urban warfare. That proportion is even more extraordinary given the fact that Hamas hides not only behind Gaza’s population but also beneath it. Washington’s tendency to downplay this reality and condemn our conduct of war was, I said, “especially painful.”


The remainder of my speech was devoted to the optimism – yes, optimism – born of an Israeli society that had proven itself to be the world’s strongest and most resilient, of a country that, from the moment of its birth, had overcome serial challenges. Our newfound Jewish unity was also a source of hope. “Beyond the nightmares and the horrors,” I affirmed, “we have discovered who we are. We are the Jewish people. We are a nation. We’re a family.”


No objections there, but many would follow as I opened the floor to questions. These featured the most frequently asked, “Why is Israel’s PR so bad?” to inquiries about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and the possible opening of a second front. I recalled my suggestion made early in the war to flood Gaza with food and medicine – “The enemy that wants its civilians to die. That’s going to put pressure on Israel to agree to accept a ceasefire” – and for the IDF to maintain its pressure on Hamas but place its primary focus on Hezbollah. “They are a strategic threat,” I explained, “with heavier rockets that are extremely accurate. The entire northern part of the country is now uninhabitable, an entirely intolerable situation for any sovereign state.” But then came the harder questions. “How should we react to the Biden administration’s criticism of Israel? Who should we, as American Jews, vote for?”


Here was a familiar minefield and, as always, I tried sidestepping it by recalling that I no longer held American citizenship – I’d had to forfeit it to become Israel’s ambassador to Washington and later to serve in Knesset – and would not endorse any candidate. Yet, as a historian of the US-Israel relationship, and as one who had worked with several US administrations and Israeli governments, I could share my insights. I would, for example, talk about my understanding of the political climate in the United States, the impact on the Middle East of the tight presidential elections and the contest over the so-called swing states. “As far back as November, a very senior American journalist told me that the issue is not Gaza anymore. It’s Michigan.”


I fully appreciated the administration’s need to survive politically, and the difficulties the president faced in standing up to the many people in his administration questioning his policies toward Israel. Still, I was disappointed by his wavering from his initial unequivocal support of Israel and the message the administration seemed to be sending to Hamas of “hold on, a break in US-Israel relations is coming.”


I opposed the attempts by Vice President Kamala Harris to distinguish between Israel’s government and people and Senator Chuck Schumer’s call for new elections to replace Netanyahu, seeing both as signs of disrespect for Israel’s democracy. I regretted America’s refusal to stand up to Iran even as Iranian proxies fired at and killed US troops and threatened international shipping in the Bab al-Mandeb straits. “This notion that there’s a Biden doctrine that’s going to end the war in Gaza, avert a war in the north, and expand the Abraham Accords into a strategic front against Iran…is delusional without American showing power and its ability to effect deterrence against Iran.” So, too, will peace with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states hinge on Israel’s success in defeating the twin threats of Sunni and Shiite extremism. “John Lennon, forgive me,” I ventured, “but we have to give war a chance.”


I was critical of the White House but also cautioned against interpreting my comments as an endorsement of Donald Trump. “We have to sort of get over that,” I stressed. “You can criticize the president but that doesn’t mean you’re going to vote for the other guy.” I ended by recommending that no candidate should ever take American Jewish support for granted. “Roosevelt received 94% of the American Jewish vote,” I recalled. “And you know what he did to save European Jewry? I rest my case.”


Such commentary would enable me to avert the minefields, or so I erroneously thought.


“You cannot criticize Biden,” one progressive congregant later berated me. “Criticizing Biden means victory for Donald Trump and the death of American democracy.”


Taken aback, I asked, “You mean I can’t defend my country if it somehow might endanger the United States?”


“Absolutely!”


A more enraged response ensued when I set out the five questions American supporters of Israel might ask in an election year. Which candidate rejects a permanent, unconditional ceasefire in Gaza? Which commits to continue the supply of US arms and ammunition to Israel? Which is determined to stand up to Iran and the Iranian nuclear program? Which is willing to defend Israel against charges of genocide? And which opposes European efforts to impose a Palestinian state on Israel?


I tempered my remarks by suggesting that Israel should accept President Biden’s offer to talk about the “day after” scenario in Gaza and the path to a two-state solution. “Let’s talk about a pathway. It’s fine. It doesn’t commit us in any way and doesn’t cost us anything.”


Along with critique, my talk was sweetened with many warm references to Biden, to the warm conversations we had during my time in Washington, his love of Israel and the Jewish people, the delightful aphorisms that always began with “as my father used to tell me.” For some in the gathering, though, all that was useless – or worse.


“You’re leaving breadcrumbs that lead to Trump,” one attendee steamed. Another stood and literally screamed at me. “How dare you come in here and tell us to vote for Trump!” Rumors of my alleged advocacy of the former president reached me here, in Tel Aviv, and compelled me to reread that transcript for any sign of such an endorsement. There wasn’t. Not even crumbs.


Elsewhere, the reactions were radically different.


“You never once mentioned Trump’s great support for Israel – his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights,” one attendee protested. Another complained, “How could you support an administration that wants to award Palestinian terror with a state and that accuses Israel of war crimes?”


My most egregious faux pas, apparently, was in relating a talk I gave to Dallas businessmen on October 5 in which I forecast that Iran, threatened by the proposed peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, would soon try to preempt it with a war. Circumstances from Iran’s perspective were propitious. “Israel was divided over the government’s judicial reform. America was politically paralyzed. And the Iranians were afraid of the return of Donald Trump.” To the degree that Biden was predictable, Trump was totally unpredictable, I said. “The same situation obtains today. We know pretty much what the Biden administration’s policy is. We have no idea what the Trump policies are.”


That analysis earned me protests from both sides of the Jewish aisle. That result could lead me to believe that I was safely, centrally placed. Or, conversely, that discourse in the United States generally, and particularly in the American Jewish community, is no longer possible. Even if united over the war in Gaza, threatened by a rising antisemitism that makes no distinction between Democratic and Republican Jews, the unbridgeable divisions between them over the 2024 elections, make it virtually impossible to present them with a candid Israeli view. The conclusion could be that speaking to American Jews has become a no-win enterprise which is best avoided.


My conclusion, though, and that of other speakers on Israel’s behalf, must be just the opposite. We who know all too well the dangers of succumbing to polarization must not be discouraged by encountering it abroad. We must continue to convey Israel’s truths as we see them – and we, ourselves, are unlikely to be in total agreement – even at the risk of antagonizing some of our listeners. At stake is not merely our way of life but life itself for us and all of our families. If discourse is indeed dead in America, the task of defending Israel remains very much alive and more pressing than ever. We must persevere, irrespective of the minefields.

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