Behind the Book: Michael Oren on His ‘American Jewish Zionist Story’ (INTERVIEW)
JNS.org – Seemingly lost in all the debate over U.S.-Israel relations is that Member of Knesset Michael Oren’s new book, “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” is a memoir—and the memoir covers more than the author’s four years as Israeli ambassador to the U.S. from 2009-13.
“Very few people have actually read the book and seen what’s in the book, and the book is an American Jewish Zionist story,” Oren said in a phone interview with JNS.org. “It’s about a young man who grows up in the post-Holocaust generation, whose father landed on Normandy and fought all throughout World War II. It’s a total American story. I grew up in this working class neighborhood, and I was the only Jewish kid, and I experienced a lot of anti-Semitism as a kid.”
During his childhood, Oren—who was born in upstate New York and raised in New Jersey—also overcame learning disabilities and the need to wear a leg brace due to physical limitations.
“I had a lot of challenges,” said Oren. “So the thought that I would somehow get through this and fulfill my dreams—I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to move to Israel, I wanted to be a soldier—is a big part of the story, before I get to Washington. I think it’s a story that will resonate with a lot of American Jewish readers and even with American Jewish young people.”
Oren added that the book tells “a profound Jewish story. I talk about my relationship with Jewish history, with God. I talk about my faith. And that’s well even before we get to the period where I become ambassador.”
Yet much media coverage and some American Jewish communal reactions have focused not necessarily on the book, but instead on recent essays Oren wrote for The Wall Street Journal and Foreign Policy magazine around the time of his memoir’s release. For the Journal, Oren wrote that Obama abandoned “two core principles of Israel’s alliance with America”—that there must be both “no daylight” and “no surprises” between the allies. For Foreign Policy, Oren wrote that Obama’s ambition to harmonize relations between America and the Islamic world might partly be the result of his personal interactions with Muslims while he was growing up.
“It’s a legitimate examination of the president’s very revolutionary relationship with what he calls the Muslim world,” Oren told JNS.org. “That’s an important part of his foreign policy, and it’s an important part of foreign policy for Israel as well.”
‘My life’s goal’
For Oren, “Ally” is a simultaneously analytical and personal look at his time as ambassador.
“[Being ambassador] was my life’s goal, and I fulfilled it,” he said. “And I fulfilled it at a very challenging time for Israel. Not only did the United States have a left-of-center government, while Israel had a right-of-center government, but there were different worldviews. And the Obama administration came in with a worldview that was very different than anything Israel had known, and we had to deal with it. It came with a time of deepening divisions within America, between political polarization, bitterness over the wars in the Middle East, and also deep divisions within the Jewish community.”
To address those divisions, Oren said he adopted adopted a “policy of engagement” as ambassador—“to engage as much as possible, to reach out as much as possible.”
“I reached out as much as possible to American communities, [including] the Latino community, the LGBT community, [as well as] the Irish, Iranian, and Hispanic communities,” he said. Yet the crux of Oren’s outreach efforts remained U.S. Jewry, with the task of “always trying to get them to talk to one another, not just to us (Israel).” In programs called “tisches”—translated as “tables in Yiddish—Oren said he would convene rabbis of the different Jewish religious denominations to sit down and talk “under the neutral auspices of the Israeli Embassy.”
Oren, now a representative of the Kulanu party in the Knesset, has moved on from diplomacy to politics. But before assuming his current and former Israeli governmental positions, he worked primarily as a historian—which made being a diplomat particularly challenging.
“I enjoyed many parts about being a ambassador, but I do talk in the book about the emotional and even physical price of having to maintain a certain facade, and how difficult that was for me as a historian, someone who is struggling to get at the truth. As a diplomat you know certain truths, but you don’t necessarily want to share them, for many important reasons,” he said.
‘I basically know every church in the Holy Land’
Besides the Israeli, Jewish, and mainstream media interest in “Ally,” Oren said he has “interviewed extensively in the Christian press” about the memoir. He said the book contains “an important message for Christians, particularly in the section of the book that talks about my struggle with ‘60 Minutes,’ which had a segment that tried to portray Israel as anti-Christian.”
In the 2012 segment Oren is referring to, the CBS News program attempted to depict an allegedly shrinking Israeli Christian population—what reporter Bob Simon called “the invisible people, squeezed between a growing Muslim majority and burgeoning Israeli settlements.” But while Christians are widely persecuted in the rest of the Middle East, Israel is actually home to “a growing Christian population, a flourishing Christian population,” noted Oren.
Before the segment aired in 2012, Oren confronted CBS News chairman Jeff Fager about its expected content. Looking back on the controversy, he said it “was not easy” to take on a major news network and one of its flagship programs.
Also at the forefront of countering the “60 Minutes” segment’s bias on Israel was the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) watchdog group.
“It was our impression that the Israeli officials knew very well that this program was in the works, and that they were doing their best to provide information to the [television] networks. Sometimes there are inadvertent mistakes, and sometimes there is real bias,” Andrea Levin, executive director of CAMERA, told JNS.org.
“We can say that CBS has yet to fully correct very basic issues related to the segment on Christians,” Levin added, offering the example of “the absurd claim that Bethlehem was completely surrounded by a wall making it something like an ‘open-air prison.’”
Oren explained that he perceived the “60 Minutes” issue “not as a public relations problem, but as a strategic problem, because American Christian support for Israel is so crucial for us [in Israel].” Having served as former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s advisor on Christian affairs, Oren said, “I basically know every church in the Holy Land. I have a huge appreciation for Israel’s Christian community, and that Christian community has always felt that they have a good partner in me. I channeled that experience to defend Israel against the charges that somehow we were anti-Christian.”
Asked how he would respond to those in the American Jewish community who are skeptical of staunch Evangelical Christian support for Israel—often stemming from suspicion of messianic motives—Oren recounted his journey from being raised in what he called the “American liberal Jewish tradition” of Conservative and Reform synagogue communities to ultimately gaining deep respect for Evangelical Christian Zionism.
“In my professional capacity, I worked extensively with Evangelical Christians and came to appreciate, out of my liberal position, their unconditional love for Israel,” he said. “I never felt that they were trying to proselytize me, never once encountered any sort of end of days theology, or even replacement theology. It was just unconditional love.”
Despite some attempts to delegitimize his new book, Oren said his email inbox “is flooded with people saying thank you, and I draw a lot of strength from it.”
“All the while, keep in mind that with all the differences and rifts in our community, it remains overwhelmingly pro-Israel,” he said of American Jewry. “You can lose sight of the reality of the tremendous wellspring of support that Israel has here.”