Reaching for the Truth

All of us can, at most, “Strive for Truth” [It’s a borrowed title], and so I appreciate Rabbi Shafran’s clarification of his position. And to the best of my recollection, there hasn’t been a back & forth discussion/argument of this nature on Cross-Currents in over a decade, much as different authors often disagree. The more one reads Cross-Currents, the more the reader recognizes that the Orthodox are hardly the monolith they are often portrayed to be; a debate of this nature just makes this as explicit as possible, and thus where Rabbi Shafran and I emphatically agree is that this is a positive dialog for several reasons.

I see no reason to depart from Rabbi Shafran’s enumeration of my points, and I’ll let people respond to both articles in the comments below.

1) My point was that there seemed no need for Rabbi Shafran to wander down this road, especially considering the tenuous ground upon which his arguments stand. What is the purpose of demonizing Oren? Instead of being a brilliant historian and dedicated public servant, all of a sudden he’s a right-wing nut job attacking Obama just to sell books, and Kafui Tov for not recognizing how wonderful Obama really is. Really?

Oren’s not a right-winger, he’s not a Netanyahu crony, and he only confirmed what those of us who have followed the news reports carefully have seen for years. As Rabbi Shafran conceded, the egregious omission of Israel in the countries rushing to provide aid to Haiti — that and that alone — disturbed him greatly, and “seemed to contradict” his “positive judgment of Mr. Obama’s regard for Israel.”

As described by Oren’s close friend, Yossi Klein Halevi, Oren had a good reason to release this book now:

Michael Oren is one of the most selfless public servants of the Jewish people I’ve been privileged to know. And he wrote “Ally” for one overriding reason: to challenge Obama on Iran. That’s why he timed its release just before the deadline for concluding the Iranian negotiations. His explicit intention was to call into question the credibility of the President of the United States when he repeatedly declares that he has Israel’s back. Not because Michael believes that President Obama hates Israel or wishes us harm, but because Michael believes – as do I – that the President’s Iranian policy is placing Israel under existential threat. “Ally” is Michael’s cry of alarm – the culmination of a commitment that we began together in 2006, when we co-authored an article for the New Republic warning against American complacency toward a nuclearizing Iran.

2) It’s clear that Rabbi Shafran did not understand what Oren said. The quote, in context, reads “The first principle was ‘no daylight.’ The U.S. and Israel always could disagree but never openly. Doing so would encourage common enemies and render Israel vulnerable.” It is extremely well-known that the United States disapproved of the expansion of settlements, and said so. Could Michael Oren, familiar as he was with the history of the US-Israel relationship, have intended to say that all of Reagan, Bush I, Clinton and Bush II had never publicly disagreed with Israel at all? No.

What was Oren actually saying? That Obama made it a policy. Instead of highlighting the firm partnership between the US and Israel, he highlighted the disagreements — as he said he would do in his 2009 speech. That is what Oren was talking about, and it remains unrebutted.

3) I do not understand Rabbi Shafran’s claim that the change and tenor “is Mr. Oren’s judgment only.” The Bush letter acknowledged that Israel would not leave the entirety of the West Bank: “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The unwritten subtext approved Israel building in existing Jewish neighborhoods and settlements. Having been approved by both the House and Senate (including the votes of Sen. H. Clinton and Rep. R. Emanuel), it was a firm pledge from the United States to Israel.

Sorry, but Rabbi Shafran can’t have it both ways. If he wants to claim that there was no shift, then why did Obama need to disavow the letter? Why was an assurance from the House, Senate and previous President null and void, if nothing had changed? The very fact that the letter was set aside is clear proof otherwise. And if this had precedent, neither Rabbi Shafran nor any of Oren’s other critics have shown us where. [What Obama did was set a precedent, relevant to its relationships with all other countries: the commitment of one administration, though backed by both houses of Congress, can be dropped by the next without a backwards glance. The United States feels no obligation to keep its word.]

Further, Rabbi Shafran claims that “Mr. Obama has never addressed his position on the ultimate status of any settlements, opting instead to leave all such things to any negotiations between Israel and the PA.” But this, too, is incorrect. What Obama did was adopt the Palestinian negotiating position as US policy.

From page 208 of the book: “the capstone [of Obama’s new plan] would be recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for peace. This, the president would likely say, would merely express the obvious and reiterate long-standing US policy. In reality, though, America’s embrace of the 1967 lines would undermine the Terms of Reference so fastidiously forged by Hillary Clinton. That TOR talked of ‘the Palestinian goal of an independent and viable state based on the 1967 lines’ – that is, not the Israeli or American goal. Endorsing those borders, even with mutually agreed land swaps, meant granting an immense concession to the Palestinians while they refused to even enter peace talks. It meant tying those talks to lines that, in broad areas in and around Jerusalem and along the Jordan Valley, no longer existed… Instead of taking Abbas to task for not negotiating and for opposing construction in neighborhoods Israel would ultimately retain, the administration rewarded him.”

There is an account earlier in the book which shows how Obama’s new attitude played out in real life — both towards Israel, and towards the Bush promise.

Ramat Shlomo is a (charedi) neighborhood on the northern edge of Jerusalem, and unquestionably one of those neighborhoods included in Bush’s letter as part of Israel. It is slightly to the northwest of Ramat Eshkol, and as much a part of Jerusalem. In 2010, as Joe Biden came to Israel, the Interior Ministry approved a plan to build 1600 new housing units. The plot of land being developed lies in between Ramat Shlomo and the green line, between HaRav Rephael Toledano Street and Yigal Yadin (Route 1). An you can see from the map, this simply develops a small tract of land that links Ramat Shlomo to the rest of Jerusalem.

In “Ally,” Oren describes how he and everyone else in the administration was as surprised as the Americans, when a Ministry bureaucrat approved the permits for these new units. From pp 137-139:

Finally, close to two a.m., Ron Dermer and I ran with a handwritten draft to the hotel lobby where [US Ambassador to Israel] Dan Shapiro waited peevishly. He visibly brightened, though, when he read our assurances. We typed them up in the business center and went upstairs for a few hours sleep.

The air itself felt supercharged the following day as the vice president rose to the Tel Aviv University podium. He spoke about feeling at home in the Jewish state, about the “unbreakable bond… impervious to any shifts,” between it and the United States… But then he turned to the Ramat Shlomo plan, which, he said, undermines the trust required for productive negotiations. ‘At the request of President Obama, I condemn it immediately and unequivocally.’

Some left-wing students clapped at this as well, but other Israelis seethed. Diplomacy provides a word-scale for expressing levels of displeasure, beginning with regret and disapprove and escalating to denounce and deplore. But the harshest of all is condemn. “the administration never condemned Iran for killing its own people,” Ron muttered, “but Israel gets condemned for building homes in a Jewish neighborhood in our capital city.”…

I… boarded a plane and arrived in the United States at five o’clock Friday morning to learn that Secretary of State Clinton had excoriated Netanyahu for forty-five minutes over the phone, rebuking him for humiliating the president and undermining America’s ability to deal with pressing Middle East issues… And then I heard that the State Department, protesting “the deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship,” had summoned me to an immediate meeting.

As in the case of the word condemn, diplomacy provides a calibrated lexicon to describe requests for high-level meetings. The scale descends from the amicable “respectfully invited” to the more neutral “asked to come.” The lowest, by far, is “summoned.”

So all of a sudden, building within Jerusalem meant the Israelis were not interested in peace. During the freeze insisted upon by Obama, people in Ramat Eshkol could not repair their porch — and Rabbi Shafran calls this consistent with previous US policy!

4) Whether or not the US has an obligation to inform Israel was never under discussion. The question to be asked is, did Obama value the historically tight collaboration with Israel on critical issues of national security (to both countries)? By deliberately shutting out Israel, and consciously acting to limit Israel’s options, he showed an entirely different attitude than previous Presidents. Oren, as the Ambassador of Israel to the United States, certainly knew the history of communication between the two countries, and found Obama’s refusal to communicate with Israel an ongoing concern — especially when it came to a nuclear Iran.

From p. 334: “Administration sources meanwhile continued leaking reports of IDF air strikes in Syria. One of these, a May 3 bombing of a Damascus warehouse purportedly containing yet another shipment of advanced missiles for Hezbollah, was said to have killed forty-two Syrian soldiers. Israel again withheld comment on the action, but the American leak spurred Assad to threaten counterattacks. At the embassy, I asked my staff what would impel some U.S. official to risk triggering bloodshed between Israel and Syria. Perhaps, one diplomat suggested, the White House wanted to distract Israel’s attention from efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran.”

5) Note that the Dominican Republic is connected to Haiti; they share a common island. According to Oren’s account — and the JTA’s revised version — the Israel ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Amos Radian, was the first official to come to Haiti following the quake on Wednesday the 13th, and was joined by an advance team to find a site for Israel’s hospital on the 14th.

But here, again from the book, is Oren’s fuller description of what happened, from pp. 131-133:

It began on January 14, forty-eight hours after a massive earthquake devastated Haiti. Vast swaths of the impoverished Caribbean country lay in ruins, with at least 150,000 dead. With its war-born experience in dealing with casualties, its expert medical teams, and its biblical traditions of caring for the week, Israel responded. More than 200 Israelis, many of them volunteers from the IsraAID relief organization, immediately took off for Haiti and set up the first completely equipped hospital unit. Yet the operation could not have been mounted without the logistical assistance of the United States. Some of the Israelis even slept in chairs at the US Embassy. Throughout, I was on the phone around the clock with the State Department, coordinating our joint efforts.

So again, Oren knew what the real situation was, because he was intimately involved. He knew that the Americans were quite well aware that what Israel was doing was on an entirely different level than that of any of the countries that made Obama’s list, up to and including the US itself — in the words of one American doctor, “it’s something that almost makes you embarrassed to be an American” when he compared Israel’s hospital effort to their own.

None of the critics have successfully challenged any of Oren’s facts, because they cannot. This is classic mudslinging and character assassination — throw anything you can at Oren and hope that something sticks. When proven wrong, just go try a different angle. This isn’t our way. Ally is not only precise in its descriptions of events, it is backed up by the record — and as such, it stands on its merits.

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6 Responses

  1. Tal S. Benschar says:

    While not everything that Oren says in his book holds water, the Obama Administration seems to have a real problem with Israel and Jews. That was driven home when Obama made his infamous comment that “It is entirely legitimate for the American people to be deeply concern when you have a bunch of violent, vicious zealots who behead people or randomly shot a bunch of folks in a deli in Paris.” As anyone with an ounce of brains can tell, the shooters chose a kosher deli for one reason: to kill and terrorize Jews. Yet our President cannot bring himself to call the facts as they are.

    (A White House spokesman later tried to defend the remark by claiming that the shooters did not know the individuals they were shooting. By that logic, the recent shooting of a black church in Charleston S.C. was “random,” since the shooter did not know anyone there. Imagine if a Republican had called that awful shooting “random.”)

    And all R. Shafran could say about Obama’s comment was that it was “unfortunate.” That tells you how much credibility R. Shafran has on the topic.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    The Flight from Truth: The Reign of Deceit in the Age of Information (1992)
    by Jean Francois Revel gives a rigorous analysis of information, including the mis- and dis- varieties, we encounter. Once you make a cogent case, count on many others to try to balance off its facts with the many available non-facts.
    Marrying people to the truth that challenges their outlook is as hard as making a shidduch in general.

    You can safely let Rabbi Shafran have the last word. His arguments call on us to believe Obama and not our own eyes (Ref.: Marx Brothers).

  3. L. Oberstein says:

    It is fine to have these debates. They don’t “bahshmutz” one another,which is so different that what one seems to hear in Knesset arguments with shouting and name calling and guys getting ejected from the room. This is how Americans discuss an issue, with relative politeness. “My distinguished friend is totally out of his mind,but I love him”
    I didn’t read the book yet,but the publicity is great for sales.
    Obama is not going down in history as a great President. He is inept, arrogant, stubborn and has made many serious errors in foreign policy. I don’t know if he could have done more domestically had he been a better people person, but it couldn’t have been much worse.
    Jack Lew is a shomer shabbos Jew. I see him in shul whenever I am in Riverdale. It is a tribute to America that someone of his caliber can rise to such a lofty position and his Jewish observance is not a hindrance. Lately, I see that Joe and Hadassah are also davening more at the Bayit than at RJC. I hear that sometimes the two chat about stuff. Otherwise, Lew is careful to avoid too much interaction with people who will give him an earful. Otherwise, it would be hard to come to shul.

    Let’s remember that Jews are still a minority and that the USA is very important in Israel’s existence .As long as we don’t bite the hand that feeds us and as long as we don’t get an unrealistic picture of our own power, we are free to have these debates. We are in golus, the goyim can turn on us, Israel is isolated and alone and the USA is its main and often only major power friend. Presidents come and go but the permanent military and government bureaucracy stays. We need cool heads and shouldn’t get too big for our britches. That is how we said it back in Alabama.

  4. Shua Cohen says:

    > “I find it an odd enterprise to defend a book’s claims by recourse to…the book’s claims.”

    >> This morning’s comment-in-rebuttal from R. Shafran is, in-and-of itself, an IED which blows his entire argument to smithereens. R. Shafran finds it “odd” that an historian’s “claims” (i.e. firsthand accounts and analyses)are what? …offered as accurate and truthful? Really? I guess that in R. Shafran’s estimation NO ONE should write history (or at least not history that disagrees with his and Pres. Obama’s idiosyncratic Weltanschauung).

    Every historian knows that contemporaneous recordings of historical events by eye witnesses are the single most trustworthy for discovering the truth (albeit, with the need to examine the recordings’ objectivity being always prerequisite). In Mr. Oren, we have a recorder of history who is, by all measures, a distinguished scholar with nary a hint of reason to question his objectivity (not to mention his sincerity). The only critics who have the credibility to challenge him would be those individuals who were privy to the same level of first-hand knowledge as the one being criticized.

    R. Shafran would have us believe that for four years, he was a veritable aide-de-camp to Mr. Oren, during the latter’s service as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Therefore, we are further led to believe that, from his intimate familiarity with all of Mr. Oren’s experiences, R. Shafran can sweep aside “the book’s claims” and analyses as being disingenuous (to say the least). What HUBRIS!

    Unless R. Shafran can demonstrate otherwise, there is no presumption that he has any special connections to members of the diplomatic service in either the U.S. or Israel, that he was privy to any of the thousands of memos, cables, and other documents (whether official or off-the-record) that Mr. Oren was privy to, or that he has a clue as to the words and demeanor of the hundreds of interlocutors with whom Mr. Oren privately huddled with over the years of his ambassadorial service. I would pretty much postulate that all that R. Shafran can possibly know is exactly what any U.S. or Israeli citizen can know, from reading about events in the public media (and we know how reliable that can be, right?) to hearing the self-serving soundbites of government PR people.

    Sorry, but R. Shafran has zero credibility while standing in Mr. Oren’s shadow, and does a disservice to the frum community by his obvious and distasteful Obama-sychophancy…a veritable Stephen Wise for our times. How ironic it is what the noted historian, Benzion Netanyahu (Bib’s father), wrote about Stephen Wise, vis-à-vis his relationship to one of Mr. Obama’s predecessors:

    “He thought of himself as a servant of president Roosevelt. He referred to Roosevelt as “chief”, and he really meant it that way – Roosevelt was the chief, and Wise was the servant. Wise was happy to just follow along with whatever Roosevelt wanted. He was content as long as FDR just remembered his name or gave him a few minutes of his time every once in a while.”

    I feel very sad that R. Shafran is so comfortable in his role as the “Orthodox defender-in-chief of Mr. Obama.”

  5. Yaakov Menken says:

    First of all, please don’t side with me simply because I allow comments. Rabbi Shafran’s other responsibilities prevent him from engaging with comments, and that is always been his policy on Cross-Currents.

    I guess we agree to disagree. The State Department was well aware that an absolutely extraordinary relief effort from Israel was on the way to Haiti, so the omission of Israel was certainly bizarre at best. Egregious: shocking, outstandingly bad. Nonetheless, Oren never said that that one incident was tremendously significant on its own — it’s better to read the book, because it is filled with incidents that, taken in a vacuum, might not signify much. The cumulative impact of dozens of such incidents is another story entirely.

    Again, Oren is an historian. When is the last time you’ve read a biography that didn’t try to understand the mindset of the subject, that this should be deemed a “loopy undertaking” on an historian’s part? Did Obama’s auto-biography, Dreams of My Father, not invite us to try to understand him?

    Similarly, Rabbi Shafran persists in focusing attention upon a poor word choice in Oren’s WSJ article, in lieu of addressing his central point — that Obama made deliberate steps to distance Israel from the US, changing US policy at least since Reagan.

    Clearly Rabbi Shafran has no children living in Ramat Eshkol. George Bush said that the major settlements and Jerusalem would be within Israel’s borders, so of course that meant Israel could build within those areas. That was Sharon’s “reward” for the Gaza withdrawal. Rabbi Shafran has neatly sidestepped the issue: Obama redefined “contested areas!”

    Stuxnet is but one example of close US-Israel collaboration during the past six years. There is no question that Obama is interested in helping Israel to defend its citizens — but his ideas about globalism and rapprochement with the Arab world have caused him to disconnect from Israel in a way that threatens its security, all the same.

  6. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    As the United States rushes to sign a deal that ensures Iran will attain nuclear weapons and gain hundreds of billions of dollars to pursue regional hegemony and buttress such allies as Hezbollah and Hamas, it simply defies belief to assert that President Obama has Israel’s security (or America’s, for that matter)uppermost, or indeed anywhere, in his thoughts.

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