The United States’ Jewish community was roiled this week when the news blog POLITICO reported that a senior member of the Obama Administration had indicated that Middle East adviser Dennis Ross might have dual loyalties. The official’s words, at least as reported by Politico, were that “he ( Ross) seems to be far more sensitive to Netanyahu’s coalition politics than to U.S. interests and doesn’t seem to understand that this has become bigger than Jerusalem but is rather about the credibility of this administration.”
The report was immediately denied by NSC chief of staff Denis McDonough who defended Ross, underscoring “his commitment to this country and to our vital interests.”
Denial apart, the very serious allegation that a U.S. Jewish diplomat may be focused on things other than the interests of the United States, should ring some warning bells. It was exactly the aspersion cast against Benjamin Disraeli when he became prime minister of Britain in 1868 and then again in 1874, despite the fact that he had been baptized at the age of 12 and had been an Anglican since that time. Much of the criticism of his policies was actually couched in anti-Semitic terms. He was depicted in various antisemitic political cartoons with a big nose and curly black hair, referred to as “Shylock” and “abominable Jew,” and portrayed in the act of ritually murdering the infant Britannia.
Disraeli, to his credit, never denounced Jews or shied away from the acknowledgment of his Jewish roots. In fact he evinced pride in his heritage, famously responding to a parliamentary slanderer : “Yes, I am a Jew, and when the ancestors of the Right Honourable Gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the Temple of Solomon.” Disraeli saw no conflict of interest in using British power to support Jewish interests and would have almost certainly been a firm and committed Zionist, having penned his novel Tancred as a proto- Zionist blueprint.
Similarly Herbert Samuel, appointed the first High Commissioner for the British Mandate of Palestine in 1921, was pilloried as unfit to be a High Commissioner because of his own Jewish extraction. Like Disraeli , Samuel was not a practicing Jew but before his appointment he was an open Zionist and had strongly favored the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. This made him anathema to the Arabs and distasteful to British elites, who were certain that his biases would turn the Arab world against Britain. But his four years in Palestine were, if anything, a great disappointment to the Zionists who felt he had bent over backwards to mollify Arab opinion at the expense of the rights of Palestine’s Jewish community. His appointment of the villainous antisemite Hajj Amin al Husseini as Grand Mufti was to have dire consequences for the region and his decision to slow the rate of Jewish immigration only added to Jewish frustration. He left his post in 1925 hated by his Jewish brethren and looked at askance by his own government.
The two models offered by Disraeli and Samuel suggest to the Jewish members of the Obama Administration some interesting contrasts. Either they can willingly renounce their attachment to Israel – its welfare and security, in the interests of the administration’s “credibility” – or they can hold fast to their own identities and make the evident case that there is no divergence in interests between the two nations and that Israel’s security is in fact America’s as well.
For his part, Dennis Ross should have no cause for worry that he will be castigated as a traitor. Much like Samuel and Disraeli, he is not a practicing Jew and has built his career demonstrating even handedness as a Middle East envoy.
Dennis Ross’s credentials as an American patriot can therefore not be impugned. There are, in fact, much better reasons to repudiate him. They revolve around his abysmal diplomatic track record and his alarming absence of good judgment. Ross was one of the great boosters of the 1993 Oslo Accords and throughout the 90s remained a die hard Oslo loyalist even as Israeli citizens were being blown to smithereens by Palestinian suicide bombers. He was a genuine believer in Arafat and the Palestine Authority as credible partners for peace, even as incontrovertible proof mounted that the P.A’s leadership had masterminded the Second Intifada, sending the peace process spiraling into desuetude. He still holds firm to his understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a struggle over territory, when he is certainly astute enough to recognize that it is really a contest over Israel’s right to exist.
But be that as it may, the fire purportedly extinguished this week by NSC Chief of Staff Dennis McDonough, still smolders as a reminder to Jews both inside and outside this administration that they are being watched. How these individuals respond to such surveillance – either with the defiance of a Disraeli or the submissiveness of a Samuel, may define not just American- Israeli relations for the duration of the Obama administration, but relations between the U.S. Jewish community and broader community as well.