Michael Oren at the 2009 AIPAC Policy Conference held the first week of May.
Photo courtesy The Shalem Center, Jerusalem
May 7, 2009
Israel’s latest ambassador to Washington was raised in West Orange and has an international reputation as a Middle East scholar and analyst.
Michael Oren, 54, was notified that he was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick as envoy to Washington on Sunday night, according to a statement released Monday by the Prime Minister’s Office.
Oren, a dual U.S.-Israeli citizen who currently is a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, has earned plaudits for his extensive scholarship on the 1967 Six-Day War.
More recently, in 2007, he published a popular history (Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present) that traced American Middle East involvement to the founders’ era. It was read as a rebuke to “realists” who advocate tempering close America-Israel ties.
His parents, Marilyn and Lester Bornstein — who still live in West Orange and worship at B’nai Shalom there — both have deep ties to the local Jewish community. Lester Bornstein served Newark-Beth Israel Hospital for 38 years, beginning in 1957, in a variety of capacities, including as executive director and then president. According to Covenant of Care: Newark Beth Israel and the Jewish Hospital in America by Alan M. Kraut and Deborah A. Kraut, he presided over the 1960s-era decision to keep Beth Israel in Newark while other institutions moved to suburbia. He retired in 1996. The hospital’s Lester M. Bornstein Department of Emergency Medicine is named for him.
Oren’s mother, a published author, wrote Hold Fast the Time (2004), a romantic novel about a suburban Jewish widow who travels to Israel.
Oren attended religious school at B’nai Shalom and had his bar mitzva at the Conservative synagogue. He took his first trip to Israel at 15, working on a kibbutz. He graduated from West Orange Mountain High School and earned an undergraduate degree from Columbia University before making aliya in 1979.
Oren changed his last name while working at the Foreign Ministry shortly after making aliya. He was “encouraged” to do so by the ministry, according to spokesman Rafael Frankel, who said, “It was something he had wanted to do anyway.” He selected “Oren” both because it is reasonably close to the family name “Bornstein” and because of its meaning, “pine tree,” a conifer emblematic of Jerusalem.
Oren returned to New Jersey later to earn a doctoral degree in Near East Studies from Princeton University in 1986.
His father was still reeling from the announcement when he spoke to a reporter the day after it became official.
“I’m in shock,” said Bornstein. “It’s all so new to me.” Even during a brief conversation, in which he declined to speak further about his son, another telephone kept ringing in the background. He seemed thunderstruck by all the attention he and his wife were receiving, and deferred all calls to a spokesperson.
Oren’s mother, however, took a moment to kvell before referring questions to the spokesperson. “When Michael was a senior in high school, he had the leading role in his class play, The Man of La Mancha,” she said. “The theme song of that play is ‘To Dream the Impossible Dream.’ He has devoted his life to pursing the impossible dream of helping to ensure the security of the State of Israel.
“We’re very, very proud of him, and we think Israel made a very wise decision,”
Oren’s first book, a novel called Reunion, was a fictionalized account of his father’s service in World War II, when he earned two Bronze Stars for valor in combat. Oren would later serve as a paratrooper with the Israeli military during combat in the first Lebanon War. Today he lives in Jerusalem with his wife and three children.
According to the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, where he is a distinguished fellow, he served as a liaison with the U.S. Sixth Fleet during the Gulf War and as an army spokesman in the Second Lebanon War. He represented the Prime Minister’s Office to Jewish refuseniks in the Soviet Union and was an adviser to Israel’s delegation to the United Nations. He was the director of Inter-Religious Affairs in the government of Yitzhak Rabin.
Since making aliya, Oren has spent considerable time in the United States as a visiting professor at Yale and Harvard universities. In 2003 he testified before Congress on Iraq and the Middle East.
Recalling his congressional testimony in an interview with NJ Jewish News in 2007, Oren said, “I told the legislators I’m not a prophet; I’m a historian. But I know that Arab states are typically held together by a savage central power, and I predicted that Americans did not have it in them to be as savage as they would have to be. Abu Ghraib is a good example — the country tore itself up on these instances of brutality.”
Jeffrey Goldberg, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, has interviewed Oren and considers him a friend. He praised his selection as ambassador, writing that “there is no one who understands the American-Israeli relationship better than Michael…and we’re heading into a difficult moment in the bilateral relationship.”
Other reports have focused on an analysis Oren wrote last year, in which he asserted that an Obama administration was likelier to clash with Israel on certain policies than one led by John McCain, then the Republican candidate. Some critics of Israel in recent weeks have depicted the analysis as an attack on Barack Obama, but Oren’s defenders say it was a dispassionate and scholarly assessment of how each candidate’s stated policies would play out.
More recently, Oren has advocated withdrawing from much of the West Bank, a position that Netanyahu has rejected.
Unlike other postings, made at the discretion of the foreign minister, the Washington envoy is usually chosen by the prime minister because of the sensitivity of the post. Oren will replace Sallai Meridor, who was known to be close to Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
JTA contributed to this report.