TheDC interview: Michael Oren, Israel’s face in America

“What do you need to know about our situation in the Middle East?” asked Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, at the beginning of an extensive interview with The Daily Caller at the Israeli Embassy in Northwest Washington last Wednesday.

I wanted to know a lot. About Israeli policy. About Israel’s position on breaking news in the region. About Oren himself.

And Oren the man is fascinating. Raised in New Jersey, Oren moved to Israel shortly after earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Columbia University. He joined the Israeli Defense Forces, serving as a paratrooper during the Lebanon War. He was among the first Israeli troops to enter Beirut in 1982, where he said in a C-Span interview his “unit was decimated in an ambush.” Oren returned to the United States to pursue a Ph.D. in Middle East Studies at Princeton, which he was awarded in 1986.

Lebanon was not the last conflict in which Oren served. He was one of the few Israelis to participate in the first Gulf War as a “strategic liaison” between the U.S. Sixth fleet and the Israeli army, and would go on to serve in some capacity – more recently a media relations role – in just about every major conflict Israel has engaged in during the last three decades, including the 2008-2009 Gaza war just months before he was offered the ambassadorship.

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tapped Oren in 2009 to become ambassador, he was a visiting professor at Georgetown University and the author of what many consider the most authoritative account of the Six Day War, “Six Days of War.” Previously a dual American and Israeli citizen, he had to sacrifice his U.S. citizenship to take the job, which he told the New York Times was the hardest part of accepting the post. With no political experience, Oren was an interesting choice to be Israel’s face in America. He was also in some respects the perfect choice. Few are as familiar with America’s role in the Middle East as Oren, who wrote a New York Times bestseller, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East,” detailing U.S. involvement in the region dating back to 1776.

To understand Oren’s worldview, I asked what books most shaped his outlook.

This question appealed to him and his intellect. He approached it seriously, taking time to sit quietly and think it through. He broke it down into two categories – books that shaped his view of the Middle East and books that shaped his worldview generally.

For the Middle East, Oren pointed to “The Arab Predicament” by Hoover Institution fellow Fouad Ajami, “Islam in Modern History” by the late religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith, the whole corpus of writings of Princeton Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis, the Quran, and the writings of the medieval Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyyah, one of whose books Oren said “was probably the most important book I’ve ever read on the Middle East.”

“I learned more from a medieval Islamic philosopher than anybody,” Oren said.

Taymiyyah’s writings, which I read in graduate school, were somewhat obscure until they became frequently cited by Islamists justifying the wave of terrorism that threatens the Western world today.

As for his general worldview, Oren cited “The Siege” by Connor Cruise O’Brian, “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” by Robert Pirsig, and “Making It” by Norman Podhoretz as influential on him.

He also cited the Philip Roth novel “Portnoy’s Complaint,” which inspired his press aides to jump in with their favorite Philip Roth quotes and novels.

“Don’t miss a Philip Roth book,” the ambassador advised, summing up the Philip Roth discussion.