Despite our differences, a former Israeli ambassador wants the Milwaukee Jewish community to know the Jewish diaspora is a family.
Dr. Michael B. Oren spoke at a community event organized by Milwaukee Jewish Federation on Dec. 4 about the Israeli elections, Ukraine and rising antisemitism, emphasizing the overarching theme of Jewish identity. The event was held at the Harry & Rose Samson Family Jewish Community Center, Whitefish Bay. To host the event, the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Business and Professionals Network partnered with the JCC and United Hatzalah, which received funds from Milwaukee Jewish Federation, to bring Oren to Milwaukee.
Oren served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States from 2009 to 2013. He was also a member of the Knesset for five years and the deputy minister to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from 2015 to 2020.
In addition to talking at the JCC about the worldwide Jewish family, Oren said he believes the recent Israeli elections can be summarized in two words: Benjamin Netanyahu.
“Every poll we take shows that the issue Israelis care most consistently about is security and whether our children are safe,” Oren said. “There is no single Israeli politician who can lay claim to having best assured our children’s safety at night when they go to sleep. It’s about Netanyahu.”
In the recent election, Netanyahu and the Likud won a solid majority of 64 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, with some coalition members holding extreme right-wing and racist views, according to Oren.
“This poses tremendous challenges, both internally within Israel… and our foreign relations and our relations with the American Jewish community,” Oren said. “Among the positions that have been championed by some of these new members of the government have been to no longer recognize Reform conversions to Judaism in this country as the basis for making aliyah to Israel.”
Despite some extreme voices, Oren said he is not fearful for the direction of Israeli politics. He saluted Israeli democracy for being historically strong and reminded the audience of the importance of the Jewish diaspora in influencing Israeli politics.
“When you speak to Israelis, you need to speak security,” Oren said. “Diaspora Jews generally, American Jews specifically, account for around 6.5 percent of our GDP. That’s the equivalent of our defense budget. You don’t want to jeopardize that in any way.”
Oren then transitioned to discuss the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. He was an open critic of Israel’s decision last February to remain neutral due to the presence of the Russian army in Syria. He believes Israel should have supported Ukraine from the start to preserve Israel’s relations with the West and for moral reasons.
“How can the Jewish and democratic state of Israel not stand alongside a fellow democracy that has been invaded by a totalitarian state, a fellow democracy that is, by the way, led by a very proud Jew?” Oren said.
Now that Russia has withdrawn the majority of its troops in Syria, Israel’s position on Ukraine has changed, with Israel supplying humanitarian aid, intelligence information and equipment to Ukraine, he said.
Oren finished by discussing antisemitism, which he said has been on the rise in recent years in America. Being the only Jewish child in his American neighborhood, Oren experienced antisemitism first-hand, which motivated him to respect the state of Israel from a young age.
“Everybody understands that antisemitism is a reality for American Jews,” Oren said. “Antisemitism has been mainstreamed, and has been mainstreamed in the opening routines of Dave Chappelle on Saturday Night Live, but it’s mainstreamed in ways that are subtle but invidious and intentionally, ultimately, very dangerous.”
In his eyes, antisemitism involves holding Israel to a moral standard that is higher and unique among that of democratic countries, denying Israel the right to exist as a Jewish state and denying the Jewish people the right of self-determination.
“The greatest task facing the American Jewish community today in confronting the surge of rising antisemitism in this country is to agree on a definition and to rally around that definition,” Oren said.
Oren expressed his admiration for the resounding strength of the Jewish people, who over the course of 4,000 years are the only people who speak the same language, revere the same God and claim a deep connection to the same land, he said.
“We’re a family. We disagree about a lot of things within this family, but at the end of the day, we’re still a family,” Oren said. “And not just any family. We are the world’s most extraordinary, resilient family.”