In his first public appearance here since he stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Israel at year’s end, Dan Shapiro said President Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu “deserve more credit” than they received for maintaining and strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance, despite their well-publicized differences at times.
Now living in Israel, the Hebrew-speaking Shapiro said he plans to write about his experience as ambassador for five years, during which “a mythology arose” that portrayed the U.S.-Israel relationship in dark terms. “True, there were disagreements,” he acknowledged, but said it was a period when the relationship between the two countries was strengthened, particularly in terms of “security, missile defense technology, shared intelligence and economics.”
He also noted that in spite of President Trump’s campaign pledges to shake up Washington’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, things are not that different today.
Speaking at a forum sponsored by The Jewish Week and Hadassah, the women’s Zionist organization, last Wednesday evening at Park Avenue Synagogue, attended by more than 350 people, Shapiro pointed out that so far the Trump administration has been looking for an opening for negotiations between the parties and trying to tamp down settlement activity, similar to the goals of past presidents.
“I have a lot of serious differences with this administration, but on Israel I have less difference than on anything else,” said Shapiro.
Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the senior rabbi at Park Avenue and co-participant in the conversation, said he felt Obama “suffered from a perception problem” in the Jewish community and that Trump has “done a better public relations job in telling Israelis, ‘we’ve got your back.’”
Most of the evening’s discussion, moderated by Hadassah magazine editor Lisa Hostein, focused on the topic, “America, Israel and the future of American Zionism.”
Rabbi Cosgrove, referring to an Opinion piece he wrote recently for The Jewish Week, spoke of the tension for Jews today in having both “prophetic values,” like being a light unto the nations, and “the protective impulse” to first take care of one’s own.
As a father, he said he sees his young daughter questioning Israel’s treatment of Palestinians, and he recognizes the importance of explaining to her “the need for a Jewish state.” At a time when some on the Israeli right are calling for a one-state solution, he characterized a two-state solution as “not a betrayal but an actualization of Zionism,” while appreciating that “there are multiple expressions of Zionism.”
As for the heated left-right debate within the Jewish community over Israel, Rabbi Cosgrove said “toxicity doesn’t help.” He stressed that those in “the sane center can’t abdicate our role.” There is no better way to help Israel, he said, “than to make it a sane conversation.”
The rabbi and former ambassador agreed that Zionist education for young people is critical, and worried the community is not doing enough. “We are woefully under-preparing” our children, said Rabbi Cosgrove, adding: “One of the greatest dangers” to the relationship between American Jews and Israel “is an American Jewry that no longer cares” about Israel. The challenge is heightened, he said, when Israeli policies, including its resistance to religious pluralism, clash with Western values.
In response to a question on whether Zionism can be discussed outside of the realm of politics, Shapiro said “no, not today, it’s the real world and you can’t escape it.” Calling on diaspora Jews to add “a sense of humility” in their discussions on Israel, he said that what is required is taking steps that may lead to peace in the future, perhaps in Rabbi Cosgrove’s daughter’s generation.