The divide separating American and Israeli Jews is growing, Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren said on Sunday, adding that the unity of the Jewish people should be a primary concern for all Jews.
Speaking at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs Plenum in Detroit on Sunday, Oren discussed his three children — Yoav, Lia and Noam — and described himself as an Israeli father shocked that American Jews would consider boycotting Israel while his own children were looking for bomb shelters and managing recruits in the Israel Defense Forces.
"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," Oren told the audience in Detroit, made up of leaders from all walks of Jewish life. "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."
Oren said that he followed the issue because it was his duty to do so as an ambassador, but that he reacted to it as an Israeli father with genuine Israeli concerns.
"Something is wrong here. Terribly wrong," Oren said of the growing distance between Israeli and American Jews. "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."
If Jews do not join together as brothers and sisters, Oren added, the issue will become much bigger than questions of politics or free speech.
"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 the Jewish people," he said. "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."
Oren then described for the audience what it meant to be "pro-Israel." A pro-Israel person, he said, "recalls what Jewish life was like without a Jewish state and works to ensure that there always will be a Jewish state." A pro-Israel person is also "grateful every day that he or she lives in a time in Jewish history when there is a proud and independent Jewish state."
But there is more to being pro-Israel, Oren added. A pro-Israel person sees Israel's flaws and conundrums and thinks critically about them, but nevertheless, Oren says, "the pro-Israel person also asks, 'how can I contribute to Israel, how can I enrich it and be enriched by it?'"
Three other stipulations make a person pro-Israel, Oren said. First, a pro-Israel person is aware that Israel is a tiny country living under a massive, deafening threat. Second, a pro-Israel person knows that making peace with the Palestinians constitutes a very real risk that the West Bank will devolve into a terror haven, just as Gaza did. Third, and finally, Oren said "a pro-Israel person takes pride in Israel’s incalculable successes."
The secret to the Jewish people's success, Oren stressed repeatedly during his speech, is the unity of the Jewish people. That means that the Jewish State of Israel and the broader, farther-flung tribe that is the Jewish people, must work together, not against each other, to be each other's lifelines.
"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," he said. "That's why the great task of our generation is to preserve our unity."