May 10, 2009
By Raphael Ahren
Some call him the new Moshe Arens, others compare him to Benjamin Netanyahu – either way Michael Oren has become one of Israel’s most prominent English speakers since being named the new ambassador to the United States this week. While many in the local Anglo community celebrated their fellow immigrant’s success, friends and companions reminisced this week about different aspects of the eclectic scholar-turned-diplomat’s personality.
Jewish Agency spokesman Michael Jankelowitz met him in the early 1980s, while Oren was working on his Ph.D. at Princeton University. Jankelowitz, who was an emissary for American campus activity at the time, says Oren often addressed large groups of students. “He was extremely popular and quickly became a pied piper,” recalls the South African-born Jankelowitz. He points out that while Oren’s affiliation with the Shalem Center identifies him with the political right, he once worked for Labor politician Shimon Sheetrit. “Oren is not a political animal,” he adds. “He has views, but he is not the hack of any political party, and that’s why he’ll succeed in Washington.”
Daniel Polisar, the New Jersey-born president of the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank where until this week Oren, 54, served as senior fellow, says he does not know what it takes to be an ambassador. “But what really sets Michael apart from a lot of scholars and public figures I’ve met is that he has a tremendous liking for people,” says Polisar. “I know many good scholars and speakers, but they don’t have a natural connection with the people. Whether you are watching him interact with his assistant, whether he speaks to people who come up to him after a talk – he’s just a natural people person.”
Oren – who once won a rowing gold medal at the Maccabiah Games and is said to be a keen follower of American baseball – was born in New York. “Michael experienced a great deal of anti-Semitism growing up,” said close friend and colleague Yossi Klein Halevi. “There were physical attacks and constant taunting, which was a formative experience for him. Michael understands Jewish vulnerability on a personal level and he understands that Zionism is a gift of empowerment.”
Natan Sharansky, a colleague at the Shalem Center says Oren’s love of Israel struck him. “In a time when post-Zionism dominates every area of academia, Oren is the last Mohican fighting for our Zionist fantasy,” the designated Jewish Agency chairman told Anglo File.
Growing up in the 1960s, Oren was less impressed with the pacifism that characterized the time than with the many stories he heard from his father, a World War II veteran. “Michael early appreciated the nobility of fighting for a just cause,” Klein Halevi said. Oren, who lives in the Arnona neighborhood of Jerusalem, is a reserve officer in the IDF and during the last two wars served as army spokesman. Two of his three children – Yoav and Lia – served in the Israeli army, while his son Noam will enter an elite combat unit this fall.
Oren spent one summer in Kibbutz Gan Shmuel when he was 16, and moved here in 1978. He had a year’s stint at the English Edition of Haaretz and also worked at the American Jewish Committee’s Israel office. His two bestsellers on Middle Eastern history made him one of the more prominent Anglos in Israel. “I can’t tell you how many fellow American immigrants called me just to say Mazal Tov on Michael’s appointment,” said Klein Halevi. “American aliyah has come of age. We have made many contributions to Israeli society, but this is certainly among the most visible,” he told Anglo File this week.
This week’s appointment is not the first time Israel’s Anglo community was touched by the Orens. Many remember the summer of 1995, when a suicide bomber in Jerusalem killed his sister-in-law, Joan Davenny. “Her death hit the Anglos hard, it was a real tragedy for us,” a friend of Oren’s said. “Back then, the community was in shock. Now they are celebrating. Michael becoming ambassador is a tremendous achievement for all Anglos who come here frightened about what the future may bring. He’s one of us who’s made it to the top. He gives us pride, encouragement and a stronger sense of why we are Zionists.”