“Hopeful About Israel’s Future”

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Back at Penn, Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer W’93 explains why Middle East peace isn’t just a pipe dream.

A recent Shabbat dinner at Penn Hillel was a homecoming of sorts for Ron Dermer W’93. Before an unlikely journey led to him becoming Israel’s ambassador to the United States, he was an entrepreneurial Wharton undergraduate whose ambitions were shaped by Donald Trump W’68’s 1987 bestseller, The Art of the Deal.

“If you would have asked me freshman year, ‘What are the chances of your moving to Israel?’ I would have said zero,” Dermer told the mostly student crowd of about 150. “And what are the chances of me one day becoming Israeli’s ambassador to the United States? I would have said, ‘Go get some mental counseling.’”

Life, he pointed out, doesn’t always go as planned. The son of one Miami Beach mayor and the brother of another, Dermer relinquished his US citizenship in 2005 to become an Israeli diplomat.

Accompanied by his family, Dermer returned to campus on February 22 to speak at an event that was part of Penn Hillel’s Ilan Heimlich Memorial Speaker and Film Series. The series, now in its second year, is sponsored by Lenny Gold C’75 and his family in memory of a friend killed in the 1982 Lebanon War. Introducing Dermer, Gold said the series aims “to present facts and points of view about Israel and post-World War II Jewish history that are perhaps too seldom heard on college campuses.”

Dermer, a longtime adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who in April won a record fifth term, despite facing corruption charges and a bruising reelection fight), made the case that Israel’s foreign policy was a model of restraint rather than aggression. Dermer said he was more hopeful than ever about the prospects of Middle East peace, largely because Arab leaders have begun seeing Israel as a counterweight to Islamic fanaticism. Above all, he urged his audience not to take the Jewish state’s existence—“the greatest miracle in modern times”—for granted.

“The biggest transformation in the history of the Jewish people is that now we no longer beg kings or presidents or prime ministers to defend us,” he said. “Today the Jewish people defend themselves. That is a profound change.”

Dermer—who made his remarks during an hour-long question-and-answer session with Rabbi Mike Uram, Penn Hillel’s executive director—said his own career trajectory changed when he contemplated working on Wall Street, a path taken by many of his classmates. “I just didn’t want to do it,” he said. Instead, he took a trip to Israel, “fell in love with the country,” and “decided I wanted to serve in some capacity.”

In the 1990s, he found Israel to be “a young and vibrant country,” teeming with energy and internal conflicts. “Just to understand how exciting the place is: Israelis go to Manhattan to unwind, to relax,” he said, before adding: “Now, because of Trump, Israel’s actually become more boring than America, which is hard for me to admit.”

Dermer was ardent in his defense of Israel’s military actions, which he said are frequently distorted or misconstrued by the press and world leaders. In the case of a 2002 West Bank offensive to root out suicide bombers, for example, he described Israeli soldiers going house to house and confronting booby-trapped cars and buildings and even bomb-toting children. “We put our soldiers in harm’s way to save innocents on the other side,” he said.

In attacking Israel for allegedly murdering thousands of civilians, “the whole world was wrong and will continue to be wrong,” he said. “But what we should never do is to believe the lies of our enemies.”

On a more hopeful note, he said Arab leaders were increasingly seeing Israel as “a potential ally” in fighting the varieties of Islamic fanaticism that threaten their regimes—all the more so because of diminishing US involvement in the region.

“To the extent that the United States is not there,” he said, “Israel becomes more important.” Arab leaders “see an Iranian tiger and an ISIS leopard, and then they see the 800-pound American gorilla has just left the building. So they look around and then they see a 250-pound gorilla with a kippah on, and they say, ‘Hey, guys, maybe we can work together.’”

He was less sanguine on the subject of the Palestinians, remarking that a solution to the conflict would give Palestinians “all the rights to govern themselves but none of the powers to threaten our existence, and that’s a very complicated thing to achieve.” Palestinian armed forces, as well as Palestinian control over air space and borders, pose threats, he suggested.

“These are real problems,” he said. “With a mistake, we could go from great strength to great vulnerability. And we don’t get another chance. Israel’s got to be undefeated in battle—because if we lose once, our season is over.”

Nevertheless, he said, “I couldn’t be more hopeful about Israel’s future. And the thing that will bring us peace—and this is hard for people to understand—is strength and power. The stronger Israel is in terms of its security, the stronger Israel’s economy is, the more we’re a global technological power, the more it will bring our neighbors to closer relations with us.”

He urged his listeners to reject the notion that a powerful Israel was morally suspect. Throughout their history, Jews “rejected that might makes right,” he said. “The problem that you have today on many college campuses is that people think might makes wrong. That is also against Jewish values. Might is not right and might is not wrong. Might is might, and right is right. They are two separate things.”

Any such moral confusion might pose a risk to American Jews, he warned. “When you enable a world to come about where people who are privileged or people who are powerful are inherently bad,” he said, “that will be a very dangerous world for a very prominent and successful Jewish community here in America. And a lot of people don’t see this danger. And I see it.” — Julia M. Klein

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