He is disappointed with Obama and horrified by Trump. He loves the America where he was born, but he feels that the America of today is different.
The Yated interviewed Michael Oren, a member of the Israeli Knesset, who knows the White House of America from within, having served as the Israeli ambassador to Washington. Despite having grown up in an irreligious home, Oren today keeps kosher at home and asserts that his greatest pleasure in life is going to shul.
In a very short time, Michael Oren succeeded in shattering a number of my preconceived notions. He is a humorous man. Diplomacy runs in his veins, but that doesn’t prevent him from making strong statements. Above all, he is a man who is connected to our heritage. He grew up in a home that was estranged from Yiddishkeit, but he managed to find a rov to teach him much of what he did not know, including Gemara. His greatest pleasure today, he asserts, is going to shul, and he keeps kosher at home.
Since he was elected to the Knesset as part of Moshe Kachlon’s Kulanu party, Oren has taken on an aristocratic air, seeming at once exotic and aloof. His Hebrew even sounds like English. I remember being stunned by his first speech in the Knesset. He spoke about his early years in the State of Israel, when he was penniless and seemed to have no future. The fact that he managed to become what he is today, then, should make it clear that he has all the qualities of a winner. Oren himself insists that his success was the product of unceasing hard work.
We met in his office on a particularly pressurized day. Just a few days earlier, Oren had publicized a major interview in which he cast aspersions on the accuracy of a recent comment of President Barack Obama. In an interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, Obama described a mocking rejoinder he had delivered to Prime Minister Binyomin Netanyahu in a meeting between the two. The United States president proudly declared that Netanyahu had taken him for a fool, but that he had soundly rebuked the prime minister. Oren, who was the ambassador to Washington at the time of that encounter, responded to the interview by disputing Obama’s version of the exchange.
Oren is the author of a book on the subject of Israeli-American relations. The book draws on his experience as an ambassador, along with other periods of his life, and includes some important insights. Oren’s opinion seems to be highly respected, as evidenced by the fact that the English edition of his book has become a bestseller in America and has earned rave reviews. The book, titled “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” has recently been published in Hebrew as well, under the title Ben Brit. A fascinating read, it has led to Oren being deluged by requests for interviews from various media outlets. In my discussion with him, I took more of an interest in Oren the man than in the book he authored, and I focused more on Trump than Obama. And on those subjects, the answers I received were definitely surprising.
There is a certain inconsistency that we must address. On one hand, your book is entitled Ally, which seems to be a reference to Barack Obama. On the other hand, Dr. Michael Doran (an expert on the Middle East and onetime key figure in the National Security Council at the White House and Pentagon, who published a review of the book in Mosaic magazine) has called it an indictment of Obama. What did you intend the book to be?
Oren is amused. “Doran was my student; he is not Jewish. You should see him. He is American and very pro-Israel. It is interesting to hear that; I didn’t read his review. In fact, I don’t read many reviews at all.”
Doran considers your book a major indictment of Obama. If I remember correctly, he wrote that you accuse Obama of operating based on “cholent” considerations.
Oren laughs. “Michael Doran couldn’t possibly have used the word ‘cholent.’ He doesn’t know what it means.”
You are correct; I made a mistake. He said “kishke.”
“That is true.”
That doesn’t seem to be a compliment to Obama.
“I put a lot of thought into the title of the book. In Hebrew, it probably should have been Bat Brit. America, after all, is Israel’s ‘bat brit.’”
What is the difference between Bat Brit and Ben Brit?
“Bat Brit is in the feminine form. But I called it Ben Brit anyway. There are a few layers of meaning to that title. First of all, the word ‘brit’ is one of the most beautiful words, and one of the words most laden with meaning, in the Hebrew language. It is even reminiscent of the covenant between the Jewish people and the Creator of the universe. It is a beautiful word. In this case, the ‘ben brit’ is a reference to myself as well. I am a child of the covenant between America and Israel. And it is in the masculine form, because it also refers to Obama. I joked with the people who worked on this book that it might have been better for the title to be followed by a question mark. I assume that that is what Michael Doran had in mind. Despite the historic pact between Israel and America, despite the alliance that is vital to us and, I believe, to America as well, the relations between Israel and Obama, and between Obama and Bibi, have been shaken up very seriously in recent years.”
Is that your way of saying that our relations are in crisis?
“In my lexicon, it means that there has been a series of crises, not just one.”
Michael Oren, also known as Michael Scott Bornstein, was born in New York and grew up in New Jersey as a Jewish boy in a non-Jewish neighborhood. He arrived in Israel as a young man and worked as a volunteer at Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. He made aliyah in 1979, at the age of 23, after completing his studies at two universities, Columbia and Princeton. After his army service, he worked in the foreign relations department of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, a job that paved the way for him to enter the world of diplomacy. In 2009, Oren was chosen by Netanyahu to serve as the Israeli ambassador to Washington. At that time, he renounced his American citizenship, although America remains part of him to this day. In the most recent elections, Oren was invited by Moshe Kachlon to join the Kulanu party and thus became a member of the Knesset. Today, he lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and three children.
At the beginning of our interview, Oren’s cell phone rings. He checks the screen and hastens to take the call. “It’s my daughter,” he explains, as if to say that there are some calls that must always be answered. I deduce from his side of the conversation that her name is Lia. When he completes his call, I question him about the origin of the name.
I understand that the names of your two sons, Yoav and Noam, are derived from Tanach, but what is the source of the name Lia?
Oren looks at me in surprise. “It means li Yah – Hashem is for me.”
It was my turn to be surprised.
Do you have a close connection to tradition?
“I am a member of a shul, an Orthodox one.”
In one of your speeches, you once told a story about a shul that burned down when you were a child. Was that an Orthodox shul as well?
“It was a Conservative shul. I grew up Conservative. The vast majority of American Jews are Reform, and the Conservative are the second-largest group. The Orthodox are the third.”
I understand that you were born in New York and grew up in New Jersey.
“Correct. I was born in New York, but then my family moved to New Jersey. I later moved back to New York and lived in Manhattan for many years.”
Where in New Jersey did you live?
“In West Orange. When I was growing up there, we were the only Jews in the neighborhood. Today, the entire area is religious; there are even some chareidim.”
Then you probably know more than the average Israeli, who knows barely anything. You know what tefillin are and you know the Shema.
“Yes, but I did grow up in a Conservative family that was very far removed from religion. If we went to shul on Shabbos, it was by car, and we didn’t keep kosher at home.”
But today you keep kosher?
When and where did you start to change?
“I was 16 years old. I describe it in the book. I reached the point where I realized that I was totally ignorant about Judaism and I wanted to learn. I looked for a rov, and I found a man named Rav Shalom Gordon, who taught me many things, even Gemara. We learned together as chavrusos. Going to shul is my greatest pleasure in life.”
Your original last name, Bornstein, is about as Jewish a name as you can find.
“Well, I am Jewish. My father was the director of Newark Beth Israel Hospital. Beth Israel is a very special place, because it is a Jewish hospital, located in an area where there was once a very famous Jewish community with many artists and authors. The poet Harry Ginsberg, for instance, was a member of that community. The Jews moved to the suburbs in the early 1960s and were replaced by African Americans. But my father chose to remain in his Jewish hospital and to serve the non-Jewish community.”
Are your parents still alive?
“Yes. My father is 91 years old today and he still lives in the same house in New Jersey. My mother is almost 88 years old. They are both healthy.”
I’m certain they never dreamed that their son would be an ambassador and a member of the Israeli Knesset.
“Not even in their worst nightmares. My father is not pleased with my decision to live in Israel.”
“He sees it as a sort of betrayal of the family.”
But you are making him famous.
“My parents live far from here. I have a wonderful family, but they are far away.”
I assume that your position made it possible for your father to meet President Obama.
Michael opens the Hebrew edition of his book and turns to the pages of photographs. “Here,” he says. “This is a picture with President Obama. These are my children, this is my wife, and these are my parents. I try to visit my parents every six weeks,” he adds.
Is it standard for an official to bring his parents to the White House?
“Not at all. They gave me a lot of trouble; they told me that I could bring only my wife and children. I refused to accept that. I told them that I insisted on bringing my parents as well. They did not agree.”
As it turned out, though, it is not easy to turn down Michael Oren. He has a certain charm that melts the stiffest opposition.
I have the impression that people love to love you.
Don’t you feel that way?
He laughs. “Not always. Certainly not here in the Knesset.”
You don’t agree that you are good at connecting to people?
“I would like to think that I am a good person. I won’t argue with that. I also have a lot of experience with communication. I hope that you are right. I didn’t start out this way. My book describes my difficult childhood. I suffered from severe learning disabilities. I had dyslexia, and I didn’t know how to spell or do math. I spent most of my childhood alone in my room. I had barely any connection to the outside world. I also wasn’t good at sports, and in America, sports are very important. If you don’t play football or baseball, you are a nobody.”
• • • • •
Even though my interview with Michael Oren was scheduled in advance, it wasn’t easy for him to find the time to speak with me. First, he was at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, the most exclusive committee in the Knesset. At the end of that meeting, I discovered that Oren had gone directly to a meeting of the subcommittee, where he serves as chairman. The Knesset plenum was opening at 4:00 later that day, and Oren wanted to be there on time, since he was scheduled to speak. Meanwhile, he was running to the Knesset public relations hall, where he was to meet with a group of lone soldiers – members of the IDF whose families do not live in Israel – in order to award them commendations. A large number of those lone soldiers, in fact, are Americans. “If you want,” his aide suggested to me, “you can go there, and when the ceremony is over, you can approach him.”
I entered the room and watched as Oren addressed the soldiers. Listening to them, and then to him, was a stirring experience. Oren knew exactly what to say to them, not only because he is a master orator, but also because he himself was once a lone soldier. After the obligatory photo session, Oren invited me to accompany him to his office, where he would do his best to get through the interview.
How old were you when you came to Israel?
“I made aliyah at the age of 23, but my connection to Israel began when I was 15 years old. I used to come here every summer. I would do all sorts of odd jobs in America all year long in order to pay for the trip. I even shoveled snow for pay.”
You mentioned in a Knesset speech that there was a time when you lived in Israel and didn’t have a penny to your name. When was that?
“When I was a lone soldier. I was destitute.”
I am referring to the speech when you told a story about getting off a bus with nothing but a knapsack on your back.
“Correct. That was my first speech in the Knesset. I told the story in that speech of how I made aliyah with nothing but a knapsack. All of my worldly possessions were in that bag; it held everything I owned. You heard the lone soldiers just now. When they are discharged from the army, they can go to the Jewish Agency and sign up for all sorts of programs. For them, the only problem is that they don’t know about those programs. But when I was discharged from the army, there was nothing. I walked out of the Bakum induction center, the place where soldiers are inducted and where they are discharged three years later, and I had nowhere to go. I had no home, no job, no family, and no savings. In short, I had nothing.”
It’s like the story of Cinderella.
“It is a story of love. You see me as I am today. I am already an older man and a grandfather. But what you don’t see are the years of struggle, sorrow, privation, and suffering. And I lived that way for many years.”
At this point in our discussion, Oren’s aides politely apologize and interrupt us, explaining that they need to respond right away to the many requests for interviews with him. Oren listens and then asks, “Will I have time to sleep?” His schedule allows for only four hours of sleep tonight, and Oren finds that objectionable. “It isn’t enough,” he says. “I have an intense day tomorrow. I’ll fall asleep in the studio.” His aides argue that the interviews are to his benefit, but Oren counters, “If I don’t speak well, I will lose more than I gain.” He motions for them to allow him to continue our discussion, granting them the authority to make the final decisions. “Remember that I have a grueling trip abroad ahead of me. I am not interested in collapsing on the way,” he says.
The trip to which he is referring, as I will soon learn, is a journey to Washington. Oren was scheduled to attend the AIPAC convention there, which opened this past Sunday, March 20 and ends on Wednesday, Taanis Esther.
Oren comments to me, perhaps intending for his aides to hear as well, “I may know how to communicate with people, but I also know my own limits. If I am not at my best, there can be a boomerang effect. Everything has a price!”
He is intent on being at his best when he arrives in Washington. “You have to understand,” he says to his aides, “that I will have an audience of 19,000 people there.”
Where will you be addressing 19,000 people?
“At the AIPAC convention,” he replies.
You are going to be there?
Then you’ll meet Clinton and Trump. They will also be there.
“Possibly. But I don’t need to meet Hillary; I know her already.”
What are you going to say there?
“That is an excellent question. I haven’t had time to think about it yet. They want me to speak about the future of Israel and the United States, and about the future of the Middle East. Those are very broad subjects.”
• • • • •
Michael Oren speaks very cautiously. I don’t even bother asking him how he would vote if he were still an American citizen. Diplomats like Oren are experts at saying nothing, even while using the most glamorous words. Nevertheless, his attitude becomes clear later in our conversation.
It seems from your book that from the low point that has been reached in Israeli-American relations, things can only improve. The situation can’t possibly deteriorate any further. So can we be optimistic now?
Oren’s response surprises me. “Things can also get worse.”
Hillary has the potential to be worse than Obama?
“The problem isn’t Hillary. The problem is America itself. The America of today isn’t the same America where I grew up. When I was growing up, America was very white, very Protestant, very middle-class, and very much united around its ideals. People more or less agreed with each other.”
In other words, the country was more Republican?
“No. Even the Democrats were more conservative. The extremes that exist today weren’t present. Today, there are several ‘Americas.’ It’s hard for me to pinpoint what America is today. Nowadays, the majority is no longer white or Protestant, and the middle class has eroded. What is there instead? There are all sorts of residual tensions and communities that are closed off from the rest of society. There is a tremendous amount of anger and frustration, and there is a good deal of focus on internal issues. The people don’t want to be involved with the world. This is not the America that fought in Vietnam or Korea. Look what happened in Syria: Half a million people were killed and the Americans didn’t intervene.”
What about America’s relationship with Israel? Why is America interested in keeping Israel strong?
“There are a few reasons for that. The basic reason is that Israel is a country that is greatly admired and very popular in America. It is generally ranked among the most well-liked countries. America is a Christian country. It has the highest percentage of Christians who go to church of any industrialized country in the world. In Europe, Christianity is almost dead, but in America it is alive. They read the Tanach, they see what the Jewish people were promised, and they know that the Tanach doesn’t lie. Because of that, they support Israel. There are many Jews in America who support us.
“The second reason is strategic,” Oren continues. “There are not many countries in the world as a whole, and especially in the Middle East, that have a strong military. As an army, the IDF is twice as strong as the French and British armies put together. Israel is a democratic state with advanced science and technology of its own, and it is a state that is unreservedly pro-American. Everyone here loves America. We don’t burn the American flag here, and for that reason, it is in America’s interests to keep us strong.”
I once visited America as a guest of the American government. We traveled around the country and we spent a lot of time in Washington. When I returned from that trip, I understood what America is. Since you have served in Washington, I assume that you would never speak out against America.
“Speak out? In what way?”
We often hear members of the Knesset making comments, such as, “What gives America the right to dictate to us? Who is the president of America that he should force us to do anything?”
“Read my book. I address this subject there. The book describes all the arguments we had in the prime minister’s office about how to deal with the phenomenon called Barack Obama. There has never been another president like him, at least since Eisenhower in the 1950s. There was a very legitimate question as to how we would relate to him, and I was part of the minority. I maintained that we needed to show flexibility and to meet Obama halfway as much as possible. Of course, there are bound to be times when it’s impossible to give in to him. But my advice was for us to be rigid and inflexible only when we truly had no choice.”
In your book, you praise Netanyahu for going as far as he could to appease Obama, even defying his own party in the process.
“The book praises him, but it also criticizes him. Bibi read the book and he accepted the criticism. He didn’t say anything to me about it.”
Was the Bar Ilan speech definitely intended to appease Obama?
“Yes. But the problem was that whenever Netanyahu demonstrated flexibility, he received more demands from the president instead of getting credit for his concessions.”
• • • • •
Michael Oren is one of the most experienced and discerning experts on the subject of American-Israeli relations. One of the subjects that I wish to discuss with him during this interview is the tumultuous campaign leading up to the presidential elections in America. I skirt around the issue for a while, until I finally succeed in drawing him into it.
Please try to be an Israeli and not a diplomat for a moment, and answer me honestly. Is Obama bad for the Jews?
Oren surprises me again. “No. He is not bad for the Jews. He simply has a view of the world that is mostly foreign to us. Let me give you an example: We are used to the idea of an America that is strong, an America that is proud of its military power and that has no qualms about using that power if it is necessary. We are accustomed to an America that enjoys being a world leader. But Obama has an entirely different view. He says, ‘We are not the leaders of the world, and we are not the world’s policemen. We work with international institutions such as the United Nations. We extend our hands in peace to the Muslim world. I do not like to use force, and I don’t want to be a military power.’ That is Obama’s stance.”
But isn’t it clear that he is wrong, at least from an American point of view?
Oren hasn’t yet completed his thought. “This regime, with its view of the world, would have condemned any Israeli government, even a left-wing government. Even the Labor party wouldn’t have frozen construction in Gilo or French Hill, but that is exactly what Obama demanded of Netanyahu.”
Rabin and Clinton were good friends, but it didn’t help us much.
“Actually, it did. They got along well on a personal level, perhaps because they were both leftists. In the same way, Bush got along with Sharon and then with Olmert because they were all on the right. But Clinton didn’t have the same worldview as Obama, who is distressed by America’s military might.”
Did you ever meet President Clinton?
“Yes. He is an amazing person. He is incredibly gifted and he has a remarkable personality.”
And he likes the Jews.
“He is from the previous generation, and that attitude is a function of his generation.”
Not exactly. Carter was certainly from the previous generation, yet he is very hostile to Israel.
“Carter comes from a very specific background. He is from the south, from a racist orientation. I think that he has a problem with Jews, even though many people would be outraged at that statement.”
I see that there are two books by Hillary Clinton on the shelf behind you. Does that imply that you have a positive impression of her?
“That is correct. I approve of her.”
Do you want her to be the next president of the United States?
“I cannot answer that question. As an Israeli elected official, I don’t express preferences for one American candidate over another. But I do know her, and I know that she is fit for the position. I don’t know Trump, though. I have never met him.”
Then I surmise that you do not approve of Sheldon Adelson’s positions.
“This time, he isn’t supporting anyone.”
What is your opinion of Bernie Sanders?
“I know him only slightly. I have met him, but I haven’t really gotten to know him. He is Jewish, but he doesn’t mention his Jewishness very often, and he is married to a non-Jew.”
They say that experience has shown that when a Jew rises to power, it isn’t always good for Israel.
“Sometimes it is and sometimes it isn’t. Sanders is certainly not American in the classic sense. He is a socialist and an anti-capitalist, and capitalism is the cornerstone of America.”
I presume that you were surprised by the Trump phenomenon.
“My reaction is far beyond surprise. I am shocked. I think that what is happening in the election campaign in America should be a cause for concern – not just because of Trump, but because of what is happening with the elections in general.”
Are you referring to the violence? Did you see the altercations?
“Yes, but I am also referring to the prejudice. I have a liberal outlook. I am a democrat, and I am in favor of civil rights. I am not telling you which candidate I prefer, but I am pointing out that there is one candidate who is speaking out strongly against entire communities, whether it is the Mexican community or the Muslims. As a liberal and a democrat, I consider that outrageous.”
I won’t ask which candidate you would prefer to see elected, but I will ask who you think will win the election.
“I think that Donald Trump has a chance. There can always be surprises, and in fact he is already a surprise. If you had asked me last year if he would even be a candidate, I would never have thought so.”
When Obama was elected eight years ago, the entire world was surprised.
• • • • •
In order to illustrate his liberal bent and his revulsion for prejudice, Oren shows me the scars on his arm that attest to his own brushes with hatred and anti-Semitism. “As I told you, we were the only Jews in my neighborhood,” he relates. “I was beaten all the time, and as you mentioned earlier, my shul was burned down.”
Just a minute. If you were the only Jewish family in the neighborhood, why was there a shul?
“We used to go to shul in a different neighborhood. In all likelihood, the perpetrators of that arson were members of the Ku Klux Klan. The KKK is a racist organization that opposes blacks and Jews alike. I know what it is like to be a target of racism, and I can’t tolerate intolerance. That is the reason that I stand up for every minority, here in this building.”
This week, I was told that your wife’s sister was killed in a terror attack in Israel.
“That is correct.”
Didn’t that push you a little bit more toward the right?
How is that possible?
“I think that I am almost in the same place I was as a youth. I am a realist and a pragmatist. Aside from being a Jew and a Zionist, I base my perceptions of the world on pragmatism and what I consider a sober view of our situation in the world. I focus on how to guarantee our security.”
And our Jewishness.
“Our Jewish identity is an integral part of our security.”
Moshe Kachlon, the current Minister of Finance, invited you to join the list for his party, Kulanu, and you agreed. If Herzog had invited you to be on his list, would you have accepted his offer as well?
“It depends on the platform. Ideologically, I am closer to Kachlon. If there is any party on the Israeli political scene that I ever admired, it was Achdut Ha’avodah. On issues of political security, they were in the center right, and on socioeconomic issues they were in the center left. Their platform was the closest to Kachlon’s. Today, the differences between the Zionist parties on political issues are actually very small. Aside from Meretz, all of us today agree that there isn’t a single Palestinian who is willing to negotiate with us and that we have no partner for peace. We all agree that the time has come to take our fate into our own hands and that we must take steps on our own.”
We return to the subject of Oren’s book. Ally deals with the fascinating story of Oren’s life as the Israeli ambassador in Washington from 2009 through 2013, including all the details of what took place behind the scenes at the White House, especially in the meetings between Obama and Netanyahu – at least, all the details that he is permitted to reveal. Mahmoud Abbas is also mentioned frequently in the book. But as Oren tells us, it is the story of a man who loves both Israel and America, and who prays that their alliance will continue to remain strong.
Both of your recent books have received rave reviews in American newspapers. Do you take that as a compliment?
For the first time in our conversation, Oren seems flustered. I try a different question.
Were you surprised?
This time, he finds it easier to reply. “No. I will tell you why. May I take a moment to describe myself? I’m not used to doing that.”
If you are objective about it.
“I will try to be objective. My last three books all made it onto the bestseller lists, and that is something very difficult to do. Every week, 80,000 books are published in the United States. The bestseller list includes only twelve titles, and it is not easy to get onto that list, because you have to complete with suspense novels and with books about dogs….
It must be easier when you have fantastic reviews!
“Just a moment. Let me get to something that doesn’t involve self-aggrandizement. As I was saying, getting on the list with three books on subjects involving Israel and the Jews is even more difficult. I had to compete with books about dieting, which are extremely popular. So how does a person accomplish that? With a tremendous amount of effort. There are no shortcuts. A person who wants to write a bestseller must invest enormous effort.”
Oren shows me a copy of Power, Faith, and Fantasy, his previous English book. “This is the first and only book on the entire history of American involvement in the Middle East since 1776, the year when America was founded. It took me four years to write this book, and it is 700 pages long.” He turns to the end of the book. “A historian reads a book from the back,” he comments. “He wants to see the bibliography… Every sentence in this book is based on background material. A single sentence can be taken from a number of sources spanning a wide variety of libraries and archives around the world.”
In other words, your mind is a repository of endless information.
“No. What I am saying is that there is a reason that it took me four years to write a 700-page book. I worked on it day and night throughout those years. There are no shortcuts. It is also important how it is written. Writing about history is very difficult work.”
In a nutshell, only hard work can bring results.
“Exactly. There are no shortcuts.”
Let me ask you one final question. I see that you have a photograph in your office of the astronaut Ilan Ramon. Why is that?
“Ramon was a role model to me. I admired his strength and his Jewish pride. His image is constantly with me. I was sitting in Washington with Amos Yedlin, who was the head of the Military Intelligence Directorate at the time, and with Dennis Ross, when someone came to inform us of the death of Ramon’s son.” Assaf Ramon, who piloted an F-16 fighter jet, was killed in a training accident in September 2009. “His mother, Rona, was in Texas at the time,” Oren continues. “Yedlin, who was very close with the family, got up right away to call her. It was an unbearable tragedy.”