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July 1, 2015 9:25 am

Behind the Book: Michael Oren on His ‘American Jewish Zionist Story’ (INTERVIEW)

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Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

Former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren. PHOTO: Wikipedia.

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.”

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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.”

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  • KENNETH C WILLIAMS

    THANK YOU MICHAEL OREN!!! 🙂

  • David Goshen

    What has actually happened to create a complete imbalance in the Middle East has been brought about by the USA trying to introduce Democracy to the Middle East is quite unacceptable to Islam.The Sheite majority did not understand that democracy does not ignore the major minorities and one cant persecute them or exclude them from government.The complete disregard of the Sunis in Iraq with the strong influence of Iran has precipated the rise of all the waring groups in the Middle East.In addition there is the struggle of the hundreds of years of the Sheites to find their Mahadi and overcome the power of the Sunis to give them the control over the Middle East which is indirectly being supported by the USA conciously or otherwise.There will be no peace in the ME unless there is some settlement between the waring Arab groups and Iran is certainly not interested in such a peace.The rise of Iran is only likely to bring any quiet.Iran is a regime which which is not in the majority and needs the international struggle to remain in power.
    Its whole agenda is to create terror world wide and force the world to convert to Islam.
    Obama though he grew up in a Muslim environment does not obviously understand how Islam can be reformed from within to civilize it to the level of humanity acceptable in the world today
    and his policy of trying to introduce incomplete democracy is only unsettling the world.His pressure on Israel to bring a peace between Israel and the Palestineans has placed the the pressure on the Jewish Community in the USA.The majority of the Jewish Community in USA being liberal are influenced by Obamas simplistic beliefs that Israel must move out of the the terrorities ,set up a Palestine State.Obama ignores the fact that Abu Mazem wants a PURE MUSLIM STATE.He and Arafat before him has conducted complete ethnic cleansing of Arab Christians in the PA as Gaza has done succesfully.Obama does not understand that there is a struggle between Hamas & Fatah which wants to create a coup in the PA so they can be the rulers of the whole Palestinean State.Obama does not realise that Gaza is a dictatorship ruling over the people of Gaza which has no human rights .Obama could do much to correct the situation in Gaza and the PA but only talks of getting back to the table.Iran will not allow Hamas to come to a settlement with the PA and certainly not with Israel which it wants to distroy.
    Possibly the only way to progress is for Obama to chose a tough Secretary of State who will deal on a hands on way with the Middle East before its too late.The Secretary General Bank E Mun appointed Abu Mazem to supervise the rebuilding of Gaza.In the meantime Abu Mazem and his Government cannot visit Gaza ,materials for construction flow into Gaza Daily and are diverted to the black market and are used fo the tunnels .Let American Jewry know that
    there is no way progress will be made unless President Obama gets to the root of the problems.As painful as it is there is no way that another “Gaza Retreat” be made to satisfy the liberal thinkers in the USA.The USA pressed Sharon for the gesture.The results are known.It is necessare to tackle the root causes. Abu Mazem it should not be forgotten wants to ethnic cleanse East Jerusalem of
    all Christians and minorities if he gets control .Is that what the world wants??

  • Anatoly Tsaliovich

    ISRAEL DIVIDE
    By Anatoly Tsaliovich
    Through the ages, day by day,
    Jewish people used to pray
    Begging G-d to save the nation
    From pogroms and termination,
    Asking Heaven, time and time,
    To restore Yerushalayim.
    And at last, the dream came true!
    Proud under White and Blue
    Modern Israel stands grand
    In ancestral homeland –
    Shining star!
    Yet, strange and snide
    Turns up “Israel divide”,
    Self-inflicted hard abuse
    Separating Jews from Jews.
    There are Jews with noble goals,
    They support and volunteer,
    Offer their lives and souls,
    Fight for State with no fear.
    These are Jews that merit kudos,
    Proud of the ancient roots…
    There are also “dirty Judas”,
    Foul anti-Semitic fruits.
    Each would scoff at Jewish cause,
    Mock the State, defame, and jeer,
    Snub achievements, hunt up flaws,
    Join boycotts, fling dirt and smear.
    Each of them is ruthless critic –
    Brutal enemy’s delight,
    Each is more anti-Semitic
    Than the worst anti-Semite!
    Never mind, that their masters
    Call them judas, hymies, kikes,
    And enact “man-made disasters”
    Wasting them and their likes.
    Why a Jew becomes Jew-hater,
    Creeping poisonous pest,
    A disgusting rotten traitor,
    Useful idiot at best?
    What could be the valid reason
    For a no-sense making treason?
    Could it be the left-wing bias,
    Communism fairy thrills,
    Snake oil from the false messiahs,
    Or exotic mental ills?
    May be, at genetic layer
    Some mutated chromosome
    Had replaced the ‘freedom prayer’
    With ‘love enemy’ syndrome?

    But whatever is the cause
    Of those weird behavior trends,
    Be on guard with them, because
    They are enemies – not friends!
    Their heart is with your foes,
    They aren’t members of your team,

    Their throes are not your throes
    Of millennia-old dream.
    Such would serve in Judenrats,
    Gift to Hitler Zyclon B:
    Don’t befriend those harmful nuts –
    Think:
    TO BE OR NOT TO BE!

  • Jim40

    Mr Weintraub; you are right…but too polite with your US Jewish brethren!(I am a french Jew and can afford to tell it you more frankly..)
    They are mostly that coward Jews we knew for centuries after they have been definitely disarmed at Middle Age end and never could fight anymore on the Walls of their cities with their Christain Neighbors…(See Bernhard Blmuenkrantz: “Jews in Europe 433-1096. CNRS Editions-1966)
    Now, US Jews are mostly like the Eastern & Western Europe Jews: legalists to have not to FIGHT until they would be wiped out!!!Legally too !
    I foresaw that actual situation firmly about 25 years ago;All US Jews I knew laughed about it and me !!!
    Now they are laughing a bit less…
    (Dems are still fanatically fighting the 2nd Amendment which would force them to have to buy wear and bear and use GUNS…..? They prefer to remain weaponless like the Romanian Jews shot in the Streets of Romania cities in 1943….Or US University students shot randomly one hour long….!!!!???? before some cop came with a gun to shoot him down????????

  • sara rifka

    WITH SIMPLE WORDS THERE IS FEAR….NO DOUBT…..NO WORDS AND YOURS WITH EXCEPTION HAVE THE POWER TO STEM THE POWER OF A GROUP AS LARGE AS THIS…..AND A TRANSPORTATION SYSTEM AND WEAPON SYSTEM THAT EVEN YOUR WORDS
    CAN NOT SAVE LET ALONE GET TO THE BLOWER FAST ENOUGH TO
    ADVISE OR ALERT

    I HAVE NEVER MET ACADEMICS WHO HAVE THE POWER TO HAVE
    AN ON SWITCH TO MOVE THEIR LEGS……USING WORDS AND BRAIN
    ARE AS SILLY AS THESE STREAM OF THOUGHTS.

    LOOK AT THE GAS CHAMBERS LOOK LOOK…….AND READ AGAIN WHAT YOU WROTE…….

  • Steve Loeb

    And its irrational… its some visceral reaction to the word “Likud” because once you remind those who recoil that this is the same Likud that made the most important peace agreement in Israeli history – with Egypt. Those who are so turned off, become very quiet

  • Robert.Weintraub

    I am a great admirer of Michael Oren both as a historian and as an author.

    However, I think he misunderstands the organized American Jewish community. He spoke of his efforts to bring various Jewish groups together during his term as ambassador representing a Likud government. As a spokesperson for American Likud for many years I could have told him he was wasting his time. Aside from the Orthodox and not all of them support for Likud in this country is negligible During the period of my involvement Likud USA received a total of 9 delegates out of 150 for the American delegation to the World Zionist Congress. This was a time of a Likud government. Menachem Begin was not popular among American Jews.

    American Jews, Orthodox excepted, and the organizations that represent them are terrified that actions by a Likud government will compromise their safety in the US. That there is little basis for this fear as Israel is far more popular among than the Palestinians does not seem to matter.

    Incidentally, not only Evangelical Christians are pro Israel but also Americans like John McCain who are concerned about US security.

    • Haile Stresser

      Not their safety. Having twice voted overwhelmingly for Obama, they dread having to choose sides between the Israel they love and the pro-Muslim, anti-Israel President they elected, whom they now perceive as far from the second F.D.R. they once imagined him to be.

      He could have kept U.S. boots on the ground in Iraq with a status-of-forces agreement that Maliki would have welcomed and that would have prevented the rise of ISIS. Instead he preferred grandstanding. The charade of “negotiations” with Iran, in reality the surrender to every one of Iran’s demands plus a one-hundred-and-fifty-billion-dollar sweetener just to keep Iran at the table, effectively legitimizes its ascendance as a nuclear-armed sponsor of international terror. Why are the talks dragging on, repeatedly extended? Because Israel’s hands are tied while the charade continues, and Iran inches ever closer to its nuclear goal.

    • I haven’t read Michael Oren’s book as yet, however, from articles and quotes, and the fact that he is an Israeli-American, as I am, he obviously understands the American scene and American political mentality. Reaching out to Christians, especially Evangelicals, was wise. Of course, there may be Evangelicals who have ulterior motives, however, I believe, that the majority are true supporters of Israel. And as a HERUT – Likudnik, I think it is wise to consider Oren’s devotion to Israel, and his honest and forthright position about President Obama, and Obama’s anti-Israel positions throughout his presidency. IMHO Oren was an outstanding Ambassador. He represented our country with dignity, intelligence, honesty and wisdom.

    • Barry

      ” Menachem Begin was not popular among American Jews. ”

      Something I’ve noticed over the years is the power of the media to influence beliefs over facts.
      With hindsight we can see that Begin was correct in a lot of things, the same with Sharon and Netanyahu, but the media presented them as wild animals.
      Netanyahu while getting the correct things done for the sake of the country as his term in charge of the economy which lifted up the standard of living, certainly has his problems but is by no means the terrible person the media made out.
      The American public for its part always looked to see what the neighbour would think before taking a stand. What surprised me at the time was the comment of an American expat saying that as his friends were in favour of McGovern that he should cast his vote for him.
      Seems that wanting to be IN, and not different, is the driving force.
      Like that they are not threatend. The insecurity is still there for all the bluffing.

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