Ally, By Michael Oren



IN THE RECENT EDITION OF THE TEMPLE BETH AM MESSAGE I TOLD YOU THE TRUE LIFE STORY OF THE AUTHOR MICHAEL B. OREN. I PROMISED YOU AN INTRODUCTION TO MR. OREN’S THREE WONDERFUL BOOKS. HERE IS ONE OF THEM.

From the New York Times, an excerpt

By JACOB HEILBRUNN JULY 6, 2015

Ally, by Michael B. Oren 

“It is here that Oren’s memoir is most illuminating. Oren was by no means Netanyahu’s most truculent adviser, but his personal odyssey exemplifies the shift from a liberal and secular Zionism to a more belligerent nationalism. A gifted historian whose account of America’s interventions in the Middle East, “Power, Faith and Fantasy,” was a best seller, Oren grew up an American in West Orange, N.J., and emigrated to Israel in 1979, abjuring his American citizenship three decades later to become ambassador. Oren traces his devotion to Israel to meeting Yitzhak Rabin briefly in May 1970 in Washington, as a 15-year-old member of a Zionist youth group. According to Oren, “his life remained a model for mine. Following his example, I would devote myself to Israel, fight in its wars and defend it from critics. I shared his vision of peace in spite of disappointments and bloodshed.”

As a child, Oren, who was born in 1955, had to wear a leg brace at night and suffered from learning disabilities. After Israel triumphed in the 1967 war, he writes, it “appeared to be everything to which I — at age 12 still incapable of learning the multiplication tables or of running around the bases without tripping over my own pigeon-toed feet — aspired.” This fierce attachment to Israel was fortified by the anti-Semitism he encountered in his blue-collar neighborhood. “The only Jewish kid on the block,” he writes, “I rarely made it off the school bus without being ambushed by Jew-baiting bullies.” After each incident, Oren says, his father showed him an album that his brother, a World War II veteran, had given him. It contained yellowing pictures of concentration camps and corpses. According to Oren, “The ovens of Auschwitz, I often felt in high school, were still smoldering.”

Oren wanted to fight back. As an Israeli, he volunteered in 1982 for the dangerous assignment of traveling through the Soviet Union to meet and assist members of the Zionist underground. Later that year he fought in Lebanon during the Israeli invasion. But there was also another battle that Oren ended up fighting, which was on the campuses of American universities. In September 1982, he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at Princeton, where he studied with the legendary Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, who was depicted by academic foes like Edward Said as dripping with condescension and contempt toward the Arab world. Oren wrote and lectured to denounce Said’s claim that a Western Orientalist academic tradition viewed the Arabs through imperialist spectacles. After years in the academic trenches, however, he ended up isolated, unable to land a job. “Perhaps I had never fully escaped my high school role of Don Quixote,” Oren says.

His fortunes turned when his idol Rabin was elected prime minister in 1992. He secured a position in the prime minister’s office as an adviser on interreligious affairs. Then came 9/11 and the publication of his book on the 1967 war, “Six Days of War,” which sold out in a week. “The lecturer once snubbed by academia,” Oren writes, “was now a visiting professor at Yale and Harvard.”

It’s difficult to avoid the impression that Oren continues to carry a large chip on his shoulder. He complains, for example, that “The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, both Jewish-edited, rarely ran nonincriminating reports on Israeli affairs.” The odd formulation “Jewish-edited” suggests that Oren views everything through the lens of ethnic identity. In addition, Oren hastily dismisses the historian Tony Judt as someone who “opposed Israel’s existence.” If anything, Judt’s apprehensions about Israel’s future seem more cogent than ever.

To criticize Israel is not tantamount to being anti-Israel, a tiresome tactic that too many of the country’s would-be defenders have adopted. Might it not even be pro-Israel, in the sense of pointing out failings that any Israeli government would be prudent to rectify? Oren, however, elides any discussion of Israel’s actions — other than to refer euphemistically to its settlements around Jerusalem as “robust construction projects.” What’s more, Oren sees the ghost of Said everywhere, including in the Obama administration. Oren depicts Obama’s uplifting but vacuous June 2009 Cairo speech, which called for outreach to the Muslim world, and his desire to reach a nuclear agreement with Iran as part of a wider pattern that reflected “the ’60s revulsion to military strength, the romance with developing societies and the questioning of American primacy. Regarding the Middle East, in particular, one could discern the reverberations of Edward Said’s ‘Orientalism.’ ”

Oren seems stuck in a time warp. Obama has never sought to resuscitate warmed-over pacifist ideas from the 1960s. As it happens, Obama ramped up the drone war and attacked Libya. Nor has he extricated the United States from either Afghanistan or Iraq. So much for the bogus notion that Obama reviles military power.

The pity of it all is that Oren has been a political moderate, at least in the context of Netanyahu’s inner circle. According to Oren, he often counseled prudence in dealing with America. Netanyahu would have none of it. Oren says, “my approach ran counter to Netanyahu’s personality — part commando, part politico and thoroughly predatory.”

But what Oren, much like Netanyahu himself, refuses to countenance is that Obama’s focus on reaching a deal with Iran isn’t based on wishful thinking but on cold strategic considerations. Oren concludes by saying that Israel should not take America for granted and that he wants to help restore ties between the two. If so, he has a funny way of going about it. “Ally” does not strengthen the alliance but could further erode it.”


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