Michael Oren ’77, SIPA’78 bridges the American-Israeli divide.
Michael Oren ’77, SIPA’78 bridges the American-Israeli divide.
Michael Oren’77, SIPA’78 is no longer Israel’s ambassador to the United States, a post he held from 2009 to 2013. But here he was this past fall in Washington, D.C., beginning a grueling 10-day, seven-state speaking tour — and this, immediately after conferring with the presidents of Panama and Nepal in their capital cities of Panama City and Kathmandu, some 8,400 miles apart.
During the trip, rising as early as 5 a.m., he would also do 16 media interviews and 17 scheduled events, including speaking to students at American University.
Oren’s memoir of his years as ambassador, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide, published in June, generated buzz for its critical view of U.S. policies toward Israel and came up repeatedly as he toured. But he is writing a new chapter in a hectic and sometimes controversial life and career that have taken him from Morningside Heights to the heights of diplomacy and now into politics as a member of the Knesset.
Along the way, the American-born Oren also earned advanced degrees; taught Middle East history at Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Georgetown to undergraduate and graduate students; and wrote four well-reviewed, best-selling books. His landmark work, 2008’s Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present, and his memoir, published in English, were scheduled for Hebrew editions late this year.
“He has tremendous energy,” says Oren’s close friend, well-known Israeli author Yossi Klein Halevi, with whom he speaks daily — sometimes two or three times — and with whom he has written Op-Ed articles. In their collaborations, Halevi usually sits at the computer while Oren paces and sometimes dictates. “His mind races,” says Halevi.
Oren’s successes in academia, in the publishing world and now in politics were not preordained. Raised in West Orange, N.J., Oren (né Michael Scott Bornstein) struggled with dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. “I didn’t know how to spell, couldn’t do math. I didn’t know how to do a lot of things,” he says. These deficits consigned him to what he calls in his memoir the “dumb classes,” essentially the lowest track in an academic classification system. Even when a high school teacher noticed he was writing poetry and promoted him into honors English, he faced an uphill battle.
Oren was preparing to apply to colleges but scored poorly on the SATs. The problem was he couldn’t draw a direct line from the question to the right answer box. Armed with a ruler when he retook the test, he more than doubled his scores, helping him to gain admission to Columbia, which he says was his “dream school.” (A writer of short stories, plays and poetry — some of which were published in Seventeen magazine — he was impressed that Jack Kerouac’44 and Allen Ginsberg’48 were Columbians.)
Oren’s upbringing also did not seem to presage his pathway to the Middle East. Though Jewish, he went to a YMCA camp because that’s what his parents could afford. While at the Y camp, he recalls, “I went to church every Sunday, said grace before every meal.” The only Jewish kid on the block where he lived, he writes in Ally, “I rarely made it off the school bus without being attacked by Jew-baiting bullies.” When he was in high school, his family’s synagogue was bombed.
In the face of these traumas, Zionism — the creation of a Jewish national state in Palestine — seemed increasingly appealing. “As a teenager,” he writes in Ally, “my Zionism was simple, a passion for an Israel that furnished muscular answers to anti-Semitism and a dignified response to the Holocaust.”
In May 1970, Oren visited Washington, D.C., on a trip sponsored by Habonim Dror, a global Labor Zionist youth movement. There he shook hands with Yitzhak Rabin, former commander of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) who was then Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and later the country’s prime minister; he was assassinated in 1995 by a Jewish extremist opposed to his peace efforts. Through Habonim Dror, at 15, Oren spent a transformative summer working on an Israeli kibbutz. He decided then that he would later “make aliyah” (literally, to ascend) to the ancestral homeland of the Jewish people, a right granted to Jews worldwide; among other things, this would involve immersing himself in the culture and in Hebrew language study and, after becoming an Israeli citizen, serving in the IDF. What motivated him, he says, were “my faith plus 5,000 years of [Jewish] history.”
At the College, Oren took Arabic and majored in Middle East studies. He pledged Alpha Delta Phi, which he describes as the “literary and jazz fraternity,” and joined the crew team not only because he enjoyed the sport but also because was in training, he reasoned, to serve in military.
As an upperclassman, Oren decided to pursue a joint master’s program that, for a total of five years at Columbia, enabled him to earn an advanced degree from SIPA in addition to a bachelor’s. He moved into an apartment on Claremont Avenue with David J. Rothkopf’77, now the CEO and editor of the FP Group, publishers of Foreign Policy Magazine, and still a close friend.
“He was serious, ambitious, an interesting, diverse guy,” says Rothkopf, “in some respects, the ideal combination of these things that Columbia, and places like Columbia, look for.”
While undergraduates, Oren and Rothkopf were instrumental in helping to start the campus television station. Oren also was news director of WKCR and editor of the yearbook, for which he interviewed Herman Wouk’34. He wrote and produced plays; two were performed on campus. He was inspired by professors Karl-Ludwig Selig, Columbia’s Cervantes expert, and Wallace Gray, who famously taught the course “Eliot, Joyce, Pound.”
“Selig taught me how to read a book,” Oren says. “Gray taught me how to write one.” He made the Dean’s List several times.
Oren likes to point out that a number of his Columbia friends also made aliyah around the same time, in the late ’70s and early ’80s. These include Dore Gold’75, director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations; Judy Maltz, BC’83, an Israeli journalist and documentary filmmaker; and Tom Sawicki’74, JRN’77, director of programming in the Jerusalem office of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Changing his surname was part of Oren’s acculturation and assimilation in Israel, where many American émigrés adopt Hebrew names. “Oren” is Hebrew for pine tree, which Oren describes in his memoir as recalling his American roots but also referring to his regeneration in Israel. But there was more to it than that. After talking with his father, Michael Scott Bornstein became Michael B. Oren, to retain at least part of his birth name: The “B” stands for Bornstein.
“Oren” is Hebrew for pine tree, which not only recalls his American roots but also refers to his regeneration in Israel.
Soon after earning an M.I.A., Oren moved to Israel. He joined the IDF and was a paratrooper in Lebanon, which Israel had invaded in 1982 after cross-border attacks by the Palestinian Liberation Movement.
The year before, a chance meeting on a Jerusalem street led to his marriage to Sally Edelstein, a San Francisco native who was working in a frame shop and teaching dance in the holy city. (She is currently president of the Hadassah International Board of Trustees, Israel, and on the board of Batsheva Dance Company.) Still in the military, Oren redeployed to Beirut the day after their wedding.
When Yoav GS’11, the first of their three children, was born in 1983, Oren told the obstetrician that his son “would never wear a helmet” because of his own traumatic experience in Lebanon, where his unit suffered heavy casualties and its commander was killed. “And I thought in 18 years we wouldn’t be at war still,” Oren says. But Yoav, now 32, did serve in the military; he was wounded in 2004 on the West Bank by a Palestinian terrorist. (Oren’s other children are Lia, 28, and Noam, 25.) Violence affected the family in another, horrific way. Oren’s wife’s sister was killed in 1995 while visiting Israel when a Palestinian suicide bomber blew himself up on a bus in which she was a passenger.
Carrying both Israeli and American passports, Oren easily crossed back and forth between “the Israeli-American divide,” a not uncommon condition for many Israelis with roots or careers spanning both countries. Oren returned to the U.S. in September 1982 to complete a doctorate at Princeton, and to teach history.
Oren, the scholar, wrote the 2002 best-seller Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Eliot A. Cohen, in Foreign Affairs, called it “a gripping account narrative that sheds light not only on the tortured politics of the region but on the broader, troubling question of how politicians may find themselves drawn into a conflict that they have neither anticipated nor desired.”
Oren has also written two novels, one of which, Reunion, is based on his father’s WWII Army combat experience during the Battle of the Bulge.
In 2009, Oren was teaching “America in the Middle East” and “The Military History of the Middle East” at Georgetown when the ambassadorship to the U.S. opened up, and he decided to throw his hat in the ring. The ambassadorship “connected me to the two parts of my identity,” he says now. “It was the link between Israel and the United States. I didn’t want to be the ambassador to Switzerland.” His first diplomatic post was also Israel’s most important.
To assume the post, Oren had to renounce his U.S. citizenship and surrender his American passport. “I cried, literally,” he says. However, he adds, “I understood it wouldn’t make me any less of an American, less of a football fan or less of a Civil War buff.”
In Washington, Oren would represent not only his adopted country but also the Likud government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a controversial figure among American Jews. His challenge would be to walk a fine line, defending the government against its critics and against skeptics in the administration of President Barack Obama’83 while seeking to maintain good relations with the increasingly divided American Jewish community.
Being ambassador was, Oren says, “four years in a pressure cooker, with very little sleep.”
Publicly, Oren frequently referred to Israeli-American relations as “unbreakable and unshakeable.” In Ally, however, Oren writes that privately he found Obama sometimes overly sympathetic to the Arab world while browbeating Israel. “I’m a centrist,” Oren said during his recent American tour. “Enough. Let’s stop calling each other names.” But in his memoir, he is critical of the administration’s negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program, and he discloses that he later disagreed with Netanyahu’s decision to address Congress as politically polarizing.
Being ambassador was, Oren says, “four years [in] a pressure cooker, without a vacation, and not many weekends at all, with very little sleep.” Recalls his friend Halevi, “I used to get phone calls from Michael at 4 a.m. his time when he was ambassador, to just test some ideas. I used to ask him, ‘Don’t you sleep?’ I don’t know how he got through those years on such little sleep and [with] such relentless tensions, because Michael’s job as ambassador was to pretend all was well in the Israeli-American relationship.”
Oren acknowledges that “it was a transformative, challenging period. The Middle East basically unraveled during my time. America was deeply politically polarized. There was the economic crisis. On the other hand, it was an inestimable privilege [to serve].”
He remembers emerging from the White House one time and seeing the Washington skyline over the South Lawn. “I felt, ‘Am I really here?’ That feeling stayed with me during the four years I was ambassador” (actually 4½, as he acceded to Netanyahu’s request that he extend for six months).
In Rothkopf’s view, Oren as “a strategic thinker” was “an extremely effective spokesman for the Israeli government. He was a very effective advocate and talented diplomat. He sought to advance what he saw as his country’s interest through a position of strength. He has had to face and navigate moment-to-moment political and personal tensions while keeping his eye on the long-term arc of the relationship.”
After Oren stepped down as ambassador in October 2013, he did not have concrete plans. But Rothkopf had an idea. As he recalls, “I said, ‘Look, what are you going to do next?’ He said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘What about politics?’ He hadn’t thought of it. I said, ‘If you don’t try, you won’t be satisfied. You need to check that box.’ He felt he wanted to retain a seat at the table. That was the most reasonable path.”
A typical day for the Knesset member Oren begins early enough for him to read four or five newspapers before he drives 1¼ hours from his home in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Knesset meets in plenary sessions Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Committee meetings begin at 9 a.m. and last until 2 p.m. or 4 p.m., when the plenary sessions start, and sometimes end late into the night or early the next morning. “I hadn’t pulled an all-nighter since Columbia,” Oren says. “Now, I do it pretty regularly.”
Entering Israeli politics on his own, Oren eschewed the prime minister’s conservative Likud party for centrist Kulanu (Hebrew for “all of us” ) with a center-left domestic agenda but center-right on defense and international issues. With 10 seats, it is the second-largest party in Netanyahu’s governing coalition. “I always considered myself somebody who is center-right on security issues and center-left on social issues; Kulanu is closest to that,” Oren says.
Though he chairs the key foreign affairs subcommittee on security, he admittedly has a lower profile as one of 120 members of the Knesset than as ambassador. “That’s the pinnacle,” he says of his previous position, “and frankly there is really nowhere else to go.” But, of course, there is. Does he aspire to higher office, say, to be the prime minister? “I’m not going to go there,” Oren demurs. “I’m happy serving my country in the best way I can. That’s the diplomatic answer.”
Oren’s fall trip to the U.S. was put together by The Israel Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan educational organization that seeks to “inject facts and an honest perspective into the public conversation about Israel, the Middle East and U.S.-Israeli relationship.”
At American University’s Abramson Family Recital Hall, Oren — who had opposed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq — delivered a ½-hour critique of America’s foreign policies in the years since, which he described as a “hodgepodge of American reactions” to the 2011 so-called Arab Spring and to subsequent events, in Libya, Syria and the nuclear deal negotiated with Iran. He then settled his lanky, 6-2 frame into a leather easy chair on stage for a conversation with Professor Tamara Wittes, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, followed by Q&A. Afterward, he lingered to talk to students. Like the politician he is, he also posed for pictures with them.
Looking on, Leslie Meyers, Oren’s Israel Project facilitator on this trip, recalled his appearance at Washington’s Politics & Prose in June, perhaps the country’s best-known independent bookstore, when eager buyers formed a long line for him to autograph their copies. “He’s so patient,” Meyers says. “He talked to every person.”
Oren’s next stop that night was the Kennedy Center, where he and current Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer were named 12th — as “the new Israel lobby” — on Politico Magazine’s top 50 list of “thinkers, doers and visionaries transforming American politics in 2015.”
A few days later, Oren was talking again, this time at 6:50 a.m.on CNN with Chris Cuomo.The set’s backdrop was an enlarged cover of Ally. The two discussed escalating tensions in the Middle East and the sometimes difficult Israeli-American relations under President Obama, though Obama’s name was never mentioned.
Oren noted that Palestinian terrorists had killed four Israelis within the past few days and there was a “sense of growing violence.” Right-wingers were demonstrating in front of Netanyahu’s residence demanding retaliation. Even Oren’s children, whom he says are not right-wingers, felt Israel should “do something.”
Ever the teacher, Oren explained that Palestinians are Sunni Muslims who “see what’s happening in Syria,” where Shiites backed by Iran are killing their religious brethren. Palestinians “don’t want this,” he said, reiterating his support for a two-state solution. “But you need someone to sit down at the table with you.”
Cuomo turned the focus back to Israel and America. “Things have changed,” Cuomo said. “It feels different.”
There are “serious differences,” Oren acknowledged. “Iran is a big one,” on which he said there is a national consensus in Israel that “this deal is bad. Iran moved 5,000 soldiers into Syria last week. For us, it’s not just a nuclear issue.”
Yet, politicians aside, Oren added that support for Israel in this country is at an all-time high.
Cuomo wrapped up the segment reminding viewers of Ally, adding, “I read it.”
Not missing a beat, Oren offered to autograph his copy.
Eugene L. Meyer ’64 is a former longtime Washington Post reporter, an author and the editor of B'nai Brith Magazine.
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