An American politician in Jerusalem
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An American politician in Jerusalem

How Michael Oren, a frustrated, dyslexic New Jersey teen, became a bestselling author, Israel’s US ambassador, and almost certainly the newest English-speaking MK

Haviv Rettig Gur is The Times of Israel's senior analyst.

Michael Oren. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)
Michael Oren. (photo credit: Yossi Zamir/Flash 90)

Michael Oren is an American. He’s not an American citizen, of course. He surrendered that passport when he became Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009. His combat service in Lebanon in the 1980s took place in an IDF paratrooper’s uniform, not an American marine’s. Indeed, his Israeli credentials are pristine, including even that apotheosis of the Israeli experience, a child wounded in battle. His Hebrew is fluent, his Arabic scholarly. After 36 years in his adopted homeland, it’s hard to think of any sense in which he is not Israeli.

And yet.

Throughout his journey from a dyslexic, frustrated New Jersey teen with knuckles scarred in brawls with anti-Semitic bullies to an ambassador with a Princeton PhD and two New York Times bestsellers to his name, he has framed his remarkable life story in profoundly American terms.

Oren’s is an unusually self-aware inner world, the sort one might expect from a writer. And that inner world is exposed, unguarded.

“As a kid I suffered from severe learning disabilities,” he began in a recent conversation with The Times of Israel.

“In high school I was a four-letter man. The letters were A, D and HD,” he quipped. “I was always put in what they called the ‘dumb classes’ with the bad teachers and got the bad grades, and it sort of becomes a self-fulfilling system, a tracking system. And it’s almost impossible to get out. I was on the fast track to working a gas pump.”

Yet this dyslexic boy had a driving ambition: he wanted – needed – to be a writer. It is the first great paradox of his story.

“I started writing at an early age.” First poetry, then plays, film scripts, short stories, even an amateur film he wrote and produced about World War I. Some poems were published in national journals. The film, made when he was 17, won first prize in the PBS National Young Filmmakers contest.

Writing defined him, and saved him. “The poetry writing got the attention of some of my teachers, and they took me from the ‘dumb classes’ and put me in the honors class. Nothing was ever as terrifying as standing in front of the door of the honors English class before I walked in. I didn’t know how to spell. Reading certain things was a problem. Now I’m obsessive about how I spell. Like a person who has a physical disability, you develop other muscles.”

And, like any good writer, Oren read deeply.

“I was into the American Jewish writers. They had a big impact not only on the way I see American Jewry and its relationship to Israel, but on how I see its changes since I was a kid. This was the heyday of the American Jewish writer. Philip Roth, who grew up basically in the same community I did, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow.”

These writers helped launch a lifelong fascination with questions of Jewish identity and belonging.

“What’s interesting about all these writers is they all asked the same question: ‘How can we as American Jews reconcile our Jewishness with our Americanness?’ Today that question is unintelligible to young American Jews. Not only do they not ask the question, they don’t even understand the question. Even Orthodox American Jews don’t understand the question. No American Jewish writer would begin a book today the way Saul Bellow began ‘The Adventures of Augie March,’ his great classic. The first line is, ‘I am an American, Chicago born…’ No American Jew would feel the need to state that,” he concluded with a laugh.

It was that very question, the way his American and Jewish identities intertwined, that led him to Israel.

“I had this other dream, this Israel dream. And that starts at a very early age, around 10 years old. From the earliest age I was fascinated by Jewish history. I loved being Jewish. I was the only Jewish kid in a totally Catholic neighborhood [in West Orange, New Jersey], and had to fight almost every day. I still have scars on my knuckles,” he added, showing his knuckles.

The fights, the “atmosphere of anti-Semitism” in his youth, “the fact that my father and uncle had fought against the Nazis, landed at D-Day and fought all the way through,” all contributed to his fascination with the Jewish state.

But there was something more: “I don’t know. I don’t have a great explanation for it. Just from the earliest age, the minute I knew there was a Jewish state, I said, ‘Okay, that’s where I’m going.’”

The first hint at that mysterious force comes later in the conversation, as he described his first years in the country.

From an early age, “one of the things that excited me about Zionism was the fact that the Jews could take responsibility for themselves. I always thought this was unique. Jews as Americans, Jews as French people, they can take responsibility for things, but not as Jews. Here we take responsibility for our electricity and our sewers, our defense and foreign policy, basic things. The notion of Jewish sovereignty fascinated me, and all that entails. Every time I hear the Herzlian axiom, ‘If you will it, it is no dream,’ I always attach sort of a corollary from William Butler Yeats, who said that ‘in dreams begin responsibilities.’ What I love about Israel is the responsibility. I love the responsibility.”

Ambassador Michael Oren welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, August 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)
Ambassador Michael Oren welcomes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Washington, August 2010. (Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90)

Oren’s Israeli journey is at its heart an American one, an exploration of identity rooted in the tensions of the American Jewish experience. His Israel, too, is an Israel only a Diaspora Jew can really see — a symbol of Jewish independence hallowed by the experience of Jewish dependence.

When he finally had to choose between the two identities, a choice forced on him by Israel’s restrictions on foreign citizenship for its ambassadors, the experience of surrendering his American citizenship was viscerally painful.

His friends “stayed with me, and hugged me when it was over,” he recalled to the New York Times in 2009.

Six years later, in 2015, he still vividly recalls the small things. “They take a hole-punch to your passport,” he said gravely. It is the sort of detail one focuses on after an experience of grief.

Adventure

In his second bestseller, the 2007 book “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East: 1776 to the Present,” Oren’s account of American engagement with the Middle East relates in rich detail the journeys of individual Americans driven by a myriad of impulses — missionary zeal, commercial or political ambitions, patriotic fervor — to make their own pilgrimage to the Middle East.

It is a chronicle of Oren’s spiritual forebears, of Americans who could not resist the allure of their own Middle Eastern dreams, which drove them from their native land to travel as soldiers, missionaries, educators and adventurers to the region. It is also a chronicle of how their energies and, yes, dreams helped shape the Middle East in remarkable ways.

This ache for adventure was there from the start, alongside his dreams of writing and his yearning for Israel.

After high school, Oren “desperately wanted to go to Columbia College” because “that was where one of my favorite writers was teaching” — Kenneth Koch, among the most adventurous and charismatic of 1960s American poetry teachers.

But once there, Oren did not major in English, choosing instead to study Arabic and Middle East history.

“I had this strong feeling,” he explained, “that the field of English writing was being monopolized by English departments and people who came out of English departments. The writers I grew up with and admired, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Mailer, they didn’t come out of English departments — they did other things in life, they were boxers and adventurers.”

Michael Oren and Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, March 5, 2013 (photo credit: screen capture/Comedy Central)
Michael Oren and Stephen Colbert on the Colbert Report, March 5, 2013 (photo credit: screen capture/Comedy Central)

Oren has written two fiction books, but admits they “sold dozens of copies.” He became a bestselling author when he turned his pen to nonfiction histories of the Middle East. “Six Days of War,” his 2002 analysis of the 1967 Six Day War, spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It was followed in 2007 by the similar success of “Power, Faith and Fantasy.”

Both are, in a sense, adventure stories. Chapters end at moments of high drama. The narrative is fast-paced and lingers on the motivations of the individuals swept up in the story.

None of that is accidental. “The greatest compliment people gave me about my nonfiction is that it reads like a novel,” he confesses. “I bring to the history writing close to a half century of fiction writing.”

The Knesset

His latest adventure, a run for Knesset with Moshe Kahlon’s Kulanu party, also draws on his deep American roots.

In Israel’s coalition politics, individual MKs are rarely free to vote their conscience, and rarely able to advance their own agendas without the backing of broader groupings of lawmakers. Much of an MK’s time is taken up responding to the day’s crises and pressures. It is, The Times of Israel suggested, no place for idealists. Why would someone with Oren’s resume — a respected scholar, bestselling author and former envoy in the world’s most important capital — subject himself to the indignities of political life?

“Thomas Jefferson,” he began, “has on his gravestone that he was the author of the Declaration of Independence, the founder of the University of Virginia. You know what’s missing? ‘The president.’ The things that people may think are a bump up or a bump down may not be the thing the actual people who are doing the bumping think. To me, being a member of Knesset, and looking back at the course of my life, getting off the bus at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel at age 15 with nothing but a backpack, who would have thought that someday I could be a member of Israel’s Knesset? I see it as a profound privilege.”

Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren announces he's running for the Knesset with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, December 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren announces he’s running for the Knesset with Kulanu party leader Moshe Kahlon, December 24, 2014. (Photo credit: Ben Kelmer/Flash90)

Oren credits his American upbringing for his belief in the dignity of public service and his respect for public institutions.

“Like a true American, and unlike a true Israeli, I salute the rank and not the person.”

That sensibility, he believes, made him a better ambassador.

His father and uncle were career US Army officers. “I grew up around a lot of army bases. It was a big help for my job in Washington, understanding the American army. Unlike in Israel, where you have really no cultural gap between the IDF and the civilian sector, in America there’s a huge gap. They almost don’t have the same language. As someone who had served in the army here but knew the American army there, it was a big help to me. I spent a lot of time visiting bases, spoke at all the academies.”

It was also at this time that he first met his newfound political patron.

“Kahlon visited Washington as an MK. I didn’t know who Moshe Kahlon was, but I had the deepest respect for a member of Knesset.”

Oren spent a great deal of time with the visiting Likud lawmaker, who remembered the ambassador when he decided to launch a new party last year.

At the fourth slot on the list, Oren is all but assured a place in the 20th Knesset. If Kulanu finds itself in the coalition — a probable scenario, according to pundits — he stands a good chance of being appointed a deputy minister or chair of a Knesset committee.

But however much he devotes himself to his new role, his public persona will be shaped by his past. His knowledge of the United States and his diplomatic experience there, his expertise in the history of the Middle East, these will define him as a politician, at least at the beginning.

That’s certainly his role in Kulanu. The retired general Yoav Galant is the party’s defense chief, the well-known poverty activist Eli Alaluf its voice on poverty — and Oren is its ambassador to the world.

Oren has taken a central role in shaping the party’s diplomatic agenda, which is decidedly centrist. It seeks separation from the Palestinians, but is skeptical about the chances for actual peace.

In the midst of an escalating row between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations over the Israeli prime minister’s planned speech before Congress, here, too, Oren’s criticism is cautious, directed as much at Obama as at Netanyahu.

“If support for Israel becomes the purview of one party only, that would impair Israel’s strategic interest,” he says of Netanyahu’s escalating row with Democrats. “Right now we’re in danger of doing that,” a danger magnified by the fact that America itself “is polarizing to a degree we’ve never had before.”

Netanyahu could have achieved his goal of addressing Congress about the impending Iran agreement by speaking to the AIPAC conference slated to take place in Washington in early March, Oren believes.

“You have the same stage, 50,000 people watching you, and most of Congress there. And so you’re getting your message across to Congress without having the appearance of interceding between Congress and the president. Everyone knows what the president’s position is, everyone knows it doesn’t accord with ours. It never did.”

But Netanyahu’s fumble with Congress doesn’t mean he’s wrong on the substance, Oren continues.

“The Obama administration’s narrative is binary: if you support sanctions, it’s going to break up the negotiations and [the Iranians] are going to go nuclear. The Israeli reading is very different: it was the sanctions that brought the Iranians to the negotiating table, and the sanctions that are going to keep them there and get them to a deal that’s going to be acceptable to Israel. That’s a very different worldview. We don’t accept the binary view.”

He urges a “third way.” World powers, Oren insists, should “ratchet up sanctions and keep [the Iranians] at the negotiating table. Maybe they’ll leave for a while, but they’ll be back.”

Ambassador

At 15, the young Oren went to Israel to work in the alfalfa fields of a kibbutz. The following year, at 16, he took another “pilgrimage,” a trip to San Francisco to visit the City Lights Book Store, the epicenter of the 1960s San Francisco poetry movement that the restless young writer idolized from distant New Jersey.

Oren’s wife Sally grew up in San Francisco. “Her mother worked in all these San Francisco bookstores, and they knew everybody in these bookstores,” he recalled.

Years after his pilgrimage, “when ‘Six Days of War’ came out, Sally went to the City Lights Book Store and said, ‘How come you don’t have “Six Days of War”?’ It was on the New York Times bestseller list at that time. And they said, ‘We don’t carry that book, it’s pro-Israel.’

“That hurt,” he confesses.

Oren has been Israeli for 36 years, but the interceding years have not dampened his youthful affection for the City Lights Book Store. He won’t be the first American-born Knesset member, but he may be the most distinctively American of them. Indeed, few American immigrants to Israel were as profoundly shaped by America’s poets and novelists, its soldiers and historical figures as this Israeli war veteran and ambassador.

Considering his love of American letters, his scholar’s knowledge of American history and politics, and the pain he still feels at a snub from a San Francisco bookstore, Oren may find himself serving as a kind of reverse ambassador in the Knesset, representing American civilization in the very way he thinks and feels, in the journey he has taken in pursuit of his identity, and in the very love he feels for his adopted Israel.

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