Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
Book Review: Ally by Michael B. Oren (2015)Michael Oren was Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. during President Obama’s first term. The first part of the book tells us about Oren’s early years. After all, how does someone who grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, who cannot even read Hebrew as a child, end up as an ambassador representing the State of Israel? The second part of the book deals with all the crises in American-Israeli relations during Obama’s first term.I first read this book when it came out in 2015 and learned much from it. Now, re-reading it during the Trump years, when Israel’s relationship with President Trump is very good, this crisis-filled book seems like ancient history! Remember Obama’s continued insistence on settlement freezes as a pre-condition to negotiations? His disavowal of the 2004 “new realities” letter from Bush to Sharon? His purposely putting “daylight” between the American and Israeli positions? Oren cleverly analogizes the repeated crises of his term to Job 1:16: While Israel is still internalizing one crisis, suddenly comes another! (P.S. Do you remember Rahm Emmanuel and his famously “limited” vocabulary! Oren advises that he learned to curse back when talking to him! )First let us summarize Oren’s early life. He was born in 1955 to parents named Borenstein in West Orange, N.J. (Oren dropped the “B” and the “stein” when he made Aliyah. “Oren” means “pine tree.”) Oren had little background in Hebrew and admits that he read his bar mitzvah portion in transliteration! But he felt the anti-Semitism in his New Jersey neighborhood, learned how Jews were unable to protect themselves in the Holocaust, and was inspired by the idea of a Jewish country where Jews could defend themselves. He strongly wanted to be a part of the Jews’ return to history. Already in his teens, he joined a Zionist youth organization and was able to shake the hand of Yitzchak Rabin. This was in 1970, when Rabin was Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Oren vowed to himself at the time: “This is what I’ll be someday- Israel’s ambassador to America.” He was also inspired by a famous statement made in the early 20th century by the first Jewish U.S. Supreme court Justice, Louis Brandeis: “Every American Jew who supported Zionism was a better American for doing so.”Oren went to Columbia College and majored in Mideast studies. In 1979, he made Aliyah and lived in Israel as a lone soldier. In 1982, he served in Lebanon.He met his future wife Sally Edelstein in Israel in 1981 and married her in 1982. Sally was originally from San Francisco and had spent time in her youth with Janis Joplin and the rock group “Jefferson Airplane.” (In 1995, Sally’s sister Joan Edelstein Davenny was one of several killed in a terrorist bus bombing in Jerusalem.)After the war in Lebanon ended, Michael and Sally returned to the U.S. so Michael could pursue a doctoral program at Princeton in Near Eastern Studies. There he studied under Bernard Lewis and wrote his thesis on the origin of the 1956 Suez crisis.In the mid-1980’s he returned to Israel, and worked on post-doctoral fellowships from Tel Aviv University and Hebrew University. He tried to be a scholar and a writer, but publisher after publisher rejected his books, novels and plays. He writes that “barely able to support [his] family, for the first time [he] wondered if [he] could afford to remain in Israel.”How did Oren finally achieve his success? He tells the story as follows. In 1995, after Rabin was assassinated, Oren was very troubled by the bitter division in Israel. He then decided to research something related to the 1967 war, when Israel was united, so as to attempt to restore a level of unity in Israel. Moreover, by 1995, much material about the 1967 war had become declassified, so the book had potential to be groundbreaking. He was able to receive funding to work on the book from the Shalem Center. He was finishing the concluding chapter at the time of the Sept. 11, 2001 attack. As a result of this tragedy, Americans became much more interested in understanding the Mideast and the cause of the 1967 war. He writes that “after decades of receiving only rejection notices, I could scarcely believe that the prestigious Oxford University Press agreed to publish my manuscript. Never in my dreams did I imagine that [my book] would sell out in a week.” His book, of course, was “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East.” All of a sudden he went from a little known writer who could barely feed his family to a sought-after commentator and public figure.Now let us move on to the main section of the book, the period from 2009-2013 when Oren was the ambassador. Here the book is full of insight and wit.At the beginning of his Presidency, Obama called the Israeli-American alliance “unbreakable.” But as Obama and Netanyahu began to constantly disagree, Oren realized that in order to succeed he “would have to learn the full meaning- and the limits- of that deceptively straightforward word, “ally.” (I recall the wry comment of one pro-Israel public figure at the time: “Obama states that the alliance is “unbreakable.” He should know, because he has been trying to break it!”)One of the most important things that I learned from this book was something that a friend of Oren repeatedly reminded him of: “Obama’s first memory of Israel would not be the heroic Six-Day War, but rather its 1982 invasion of Lebanon. (Obama was born in 1961.)Another interesting observation relates to official governmental portraits. Oren writes that U.S. Presidents and vice-Presidents smile, show twinkling eyes and appear beneficent, charismatic and nice. In contrast, Israeli officials, always determined to project strength, “confront the camera with a mixture of intelligence and grit. Their lips never smile, never even part.”In another clever passage, he writes: “After a career of striving to write the truth about history, bending it in the interests of security did not come easily to me. The seventeenth century English author Henry Wotton observed, ‘An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country.’ But Wooten underestimated the dilemma. An ambassador sometimes lies for two countries.”An amusing anecdote: At the beginning of his Presidency, Obama told American Jewish leaders that it was important to put “daylight” between the American and Israeli positions. Obama said: “When there is no daylight …that erodes our credibility with the Arabs.” Shortly thereafter, Oren went for a medical check-up, as the job was beginning to take its toll on him. His doctor told him that his body was deficient in vitamin D. “You need to get out more into the sun.” Oren demurred. “No thanks, I’ve already seen enough daylight.”Finally, a very sentimental section of the book is a chapter called “The Perforated Passport.” Michael grew up very proud of being an American and a Zionist and was very proud of being able to integrate these two identities and hold two passports. But under U.S. law, any American who officially served a foreign country had to renounce his U.S. citizenship. So in July 2009, after Oren agreed to serve as the ambassador from the State of Israel, he had to enter the U.S. Embassy and present his U.S. passport for perforation and cancellation. He had to recite: “I absolutely and entirely renounce my United States nationality together with all rights and privileges and all duties and allegiance and fidelity thereunto pertaining.” He recited those words while gazing at the flag that he had pledged his allegiance to every school day from kindergarten through high school. He writes that “the consul general inserted [his] American passport into an industrial-sized hole puncher and squeezed. The heart of the federal eagle emblazoned on the cover of the document was pierced.” Implicitly, his own heart was as well.----------------------------------------Mitchell First is an attorney and Jewish history scholar. He can be reached at MFirstatty@aol.com. While Michael changed his name from “Boren” to “Oren,” “First” to “Irst” does not have the same ring to it.