The non-Israeli ambassador

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, is returning to Israel after more than four years of service. The American-born Oren (whom I’ve known for thirty years) told an Israeli reporter: “I’m still surprised that some people, even advisers in the Prime Minister’s Office, ask me if I’m Israeli.” Surprising indeed. Oren has lived in Israel since 1979, assumed Israeli citizenship, served as an Israeli paratrooper in Lebanon, raised his three children in the country, and even renounced his U.S. citizenship to become Israel’s ambassador in Washington.

Oren’s successor, American-born Ron Dermer, won’t escape the same prejudice. Past defense and foreign minister Moshe Arens was recently asked this question about Dermer’s appointment: “Dermer is 42 years old and lived in the United States until the age of 30, making him a kind of new immigrant. Is he the figure that Israel needs to represent us to the Americans?” (Dermer actually immigrated at the age of 25—seventeen years ago—and has already represented “us to the Americans” as economic attaché, requiring him to renounce his U.S. citizenship back in 2005.) Arens pointed to Dermer’s personal qualities, and added this clincher: “I appointed Netanyahu [in 1982] to be Israel’s deputy ambassador in Washington, and at the time people also talked about him being half-American, and how can he represent Israel.” (Netanyahu, born in Israel and raised partly in America, had acquired U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in 1982.) Arens, by the way, also grew up in the United States and held U.S. citizenship, which he renounced in order to serve in Israel’s Knesset. He later served as Israeli ambassador to the United States, so that Dermer is the third Israeli ambassador to Washington to have held and renounced U.S. citizenship.

No one would ask whether an Arab, female, or gay appointee could be an appropriate diplomatic representative of Israel, so this nativist view of “immigrants” must be one of the last prejudices in Israel that openly speaks its name.

“Mr. Israel”
Those who still hold it might consider the case of the most renowned Israeli ambassador to Washington: Abba Eban. Eban served as Israel’s first representative to the United Nations (from 1948) and concurrently as its second ambassador to Washington (from 1950). During that formative era in Israeli diplomacy, he became the familiar face and stirring voice of the Jewish state for American Jews, and “Mr. Israel” to the world.

Imagine his surprise, then, when in the spring of 1959, on the eve of his return to Israel, he was informed that he wasn’t a citizen of Israel, that he was ineligible to vote in Israeli elections and, more importantly, that he couldn’t run for Israel’s Knesset and thereby enter Israeli politics.

The back story? Eban was born in 1915 in South Africa, to Lithuanian Jewish parents who brought him to England the following year. In 1940, Eban joined the British Army, where he did intelligence chores in Egypt and Palestine, ultimately attaining the rank of major. Upon his demobilization in 1946, he joined the Political Department of the Jewish Agency, the precursor of the Israeli foreign ministry. The Jewish Agency, appreciating his talents and Zionist zeal, dispatched him to New York in 1947 to work on the United Nations partition resolution. A few days after Israel declared independence in May 1948, the new State of Israel named Eban its first representative to the UN. He immediately renounced his status as a British subject and returned his British passport. In 1950, Israel also appointed Eban ambassador to Washington, where he took up the challenge of turning Israel’s nascent relationship with the United States into something special.

Pressed into diplomatic service, Eban didn’t reside or keep a home in Israel in its first decade. He had first laid eyes on Palestine as a British officer in 1942, and from then and until his demobilization in 1946, he spent a total of only about three years in Jerusalem. When he joined the Jewish Agency in 1946, he went straight to London, then moved to New York in 1947, and finally settled in Washington in 1950. During the 1950s, when hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants were becoming acculturated to Israel, Eban was being Americanized. “Insofar as an Israeli can ever feel at home outside Israel,” Eban later wrote, “it is in America that he feels less alienated from his environment than anywhere else.” Eban’s memoirs reveal a man entirely at home in America.

After more than a decade in the United States, Eban decided the time had come to make a bold move and enter Israeli politics. (He himself recognized that “I would soon lack an intimate relationship with the reality that I was supposed to represent.”) Promised a choice place on the Mapai party list for the November 1959 Knesset elections, he began to plan his political debut. Eban naturally assumed he had Israeli citizenship, because he carried an Israeli (diplomatic) passport. But when the matter was vetted, he learned that he could neither vote nor run for office. His diplomatic passport didn’t confer citizenship, and his name didn’t appear in the population and voter registry. He’d been out of the country on all the critical dates relevant to the citizenship law. Abba Eban, Israel’s most celebrated diplomat, wasn’t a citizen of Israel.

The Attorney General wrote to him in March 1959, proposing that he acquire citizenship under the Law of Return, by which any Jew could claim citizenship. Eban balked. He wanted to be regarded as a citizen of Israel from the date of its establishment, May 15, 1948. In a letter to Yitzhak Navon, bureau chief in the Prime Minister’s Office, he pointed out that Israel’s embassies were Israeli territory under international law, and that he’d been sent abroad by the State of Israel on official duty. It would be “difficult emotionally” for him to accept the solution proposed by the Attorney General. The newspaper Maariv, reporting the case, said that this route to citizenship would have seemed “ridiculous.” But Mapai’s opponents exploited the episode, claiming it would be absurd for someone who hadn’t lived in Israel as a citizen to land a seat at the cabinet table.

Eban couldn’t be made a citizen retroactively without leaving the impression that the law had been stretched for partisan political purposes. Was there another option that might spare him the indignity of becoming a “new immigrant” under the Law of Return? The 1952 nationality law, section 6(d), did confer on the interior minister the power to grant citizenship directly, “if there exists in his opinion a special reason.” Eban finally settled for this compromise and telegraphed a request to the interior minister, who granted him citizenship in May 1959, just before Eban left Washington. He could now stand for the Knesset in November. But he couldn’t vote: only those on the voting roles as of December 31, 1958 could do so, and Eban’s citizenship wasn’t retroactive. One of Eban’s supporters pointed to the irony: Eban could cast Israel’s ballot at the UN, but couldn’t cast his own ballot in Israel.

Eban didn’t mention the episode in his two memoirs, where he delved into every aspect of his public life in minute detail. (His authorized biographer, Robert St. John, touched on it in passing.) The story probably doesn’t deserve more than a footnote in any account of the sweep of Eban’s career, culminating in his dramatic role as Israel’s foreign minister in the 1967 war. But it’s a reminder of an attitude toward Eban that dogged him throughout that career. In a 1987 profile of Eban, the journalist who interviewed him expressed it succinctly: “I can’t shake the feeling that this man, who arrived in Israel decades ago, still hasn’t landed here.” That said as much about nativist prejudice as it did about Abba Eban.

By competence alone
So just how long does one have to live in Israel to represent it in Washington, New York, or anywhere else? The precedent set by Israel in dispatching Abba Eban, the non-Israeli ambassador of Israel, set the bar very low, and since then, each of the former Americans sent by Israel to Washington has surpassed it easily, by decades. And beyond counting years, the broader lesson is that Israel’s ambassadors should be judged strictly by their competence, not by whether they conform to some artificially construed and outdated notion of what constitutes “Israeliness.” A warm welcome home to Michael Oren and best wishes for success to Ron Dermer. And here’s to the memory of Abba Eban, who brilliantly represented the State of Israel in its first decade, without having lived there at all.

Sources: The letter from Eban to Navon, March 15, 1959, is in the Abba Eban Archives at the Truman Institute, Hebrew University, file C-297/F-3563. The resolution of the episode, with details, was reported in Maariv, May 25, 1959, p. 1; and Davar, May 26, 1959, p. 2. David Lazar wrote a strong article ridiculing how the revelation had been used by Mapai’s opponents, in Maariv, May 29, 1959, p. 3. The 1987 interview appeared in Maariv, April 10, 1987, weekend supplement, p. 8f. The episode is mentioned in passing by Robert St. John, Eban (New York: Doubleday, 1972), p. 351.

For a very good introduction to Eban, mostly by Eban himself, with comments by the late Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Henry Kissinger, view the clip embedded below (click here if you don’t see it).