The ProsenPeople

Interview: Michael Oren

Friday, October 23, 2015 | Permalink

by Yossi Klein Halevi

Michael Oren is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including his latest book, Ally: My Journey Across the America-Israeli Divide, an account of his four years as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. Oren was interviewed by Yossi Klein Halevi, author of Like Dreamers, which won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year.

YHK: In publishing Ally, an intimate portrayal of American-Israeli rela­tions, you’ve been accused of violating the discretion of a diplomat. Why did you write this book?

MO: I felt an urgent need to set the record straight and to tell Israel’s side of the story—especially during the time leading up to the Iran deal—and to remind readers about why the American-Israeli alliance matters. With all due respect to diplomatic niceties, this isn’t a time for Jews to be silent, even former diplomats. I wrote this book because I perceive a life-and-death threat to my country.

By the way, Hillary Clinton and former secretaries of defense Leon Panetta and Robert Gates all came out with memoirs shortly after concluding their terms, and those books also included strong criticism of Obama.

YHK: How do you feel about the way the book has been received?

MO: I learned what it means to go up against the Washington foreign policy establishment. Most of the critical reviews were written by peo­ple who are prominently portrayed in the book—a violation of journal­istic ethics. A campaign was launched, complete with talking points, to undermine my most basic credibility. I was accused of writing the book to make money, of describing meetings where I wasn’t present, and of “spinning” for the Israeli government. Seven Israeli agencies—including the IDF and the Mossad—vetted every line of the book. Not one of my critics took on its central arguments.

On the other hand, the positive response has been overwhelm­ing. None of my previous books seem to have touched readers the way this one has. This is my most personal book, and it’s the book I’m most proud of. I wrote 400 pages in 11 months. Parts of it were written during sleepless nights during last year’s Gaza War. There are five pages that deal with the relationship between American and Israeli Jews. Those pages took me over a month to write. They came from a place of deep caring and anguish. My hope was and remains that that section would initiate an honest discussion about how to restore a shared sense of peoplehood.

YHK: What’s your sense about the current relationship between Israe­lis and American Jews?

MO: The majority of Israelis and of American Jews have moved so far apart politically in recent years that the Israeli center is perceived as right-wing in America. I wrote an emphatically centrist book that talked about the need for a two-state solution, limiting settlements, affirming Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people that embraces Reform and Conservative Judaism. I talk about the need to reinforce bi-partisan­ship in American support for Israel and for Israel to reach out to diverse communities, which is what defined my term as ambassador. I reached out to the LGBT community, to Hispanics, to African Americans. I was the first Israeli ambassador to host Muslim American leaders for the Iftar, the break-fast meal during Ramadan.

It was deeply disturbing to me that the fateful issues I raised—the gulf between American and Israeli Jews, the transformation of America’s policies toward Israel, the existential threat of the Iranian deal—were largely ignored or derided by critics as a neo-con screed. That in itself says a great deal about the current state of discourse on Israel and Jewish peoplehood.

YHK: You’re a historian by training. What tools of the historian did to you bring to this book?

MO: My methodology for this book was the same as for my previous books. I created an extensive database which included timelines of U.S.-Israel, U.S.-Middle East, and American and Israeli politics, and as­sembled files of portraits of key individuals and analyses of the central issues. The narrative is multi-layered. A discussion of the peace process, for example, would refer to other events occurring at the same time, like a blizzard in Washington or the death of Michael Jackson. That concern for narrative is how I write history. When I wrote about the Six-Day War, I also wrote about what was happening at the same time in Vietnam and the ’60s revolution in America.

I also used the same methodology in analyzing individuals. For example, I ask: What was the impact of Netanyahu’s historian father on his son’s worldview? To my dismay, that same methodology, when applied to Obama, was condemned as inappropriate. But raising those questions is as essential for writing history as it is for diplomacy.

YHK: Did you keep a diary?

MO: Along with my classified notes, I kept a non-classified diary of impressions, and that’s what I drew on for Ally. I strove to preserve con­fidences and to spare people embarrassment. Needless to say, there’s a great deal that I could have written that I chose not to.

YHK: The Michael Oren of Ally tells a very different story about American-Israeli relations during the Obama era than the story told by Michael Oren the ambassador. How did you function with that dis­sonance?

MO: It exacted an immense emotional and even physical price. As I say in the book, paraphrasing a seventeenth-century English writer, the role of a diplomat is to lie for two countries. It came as a great relief to be able to tell at least part of the truth as I experienced it. The full story will only be told by future historians.

YHK: What’s next for you as a writer?

MO: The historian in me wants to write a three-volume book about the creation of Israel. The novelist in me has other projects in mind. But at the moment I’m engaged in legislation, as a member of Knesset, deal­ing with issues ranging from improved conditions for lone IDF soldiers to maintaining the balance between Israel’s Jewish and democratic character.

Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of The New Republic. He is author of At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew’s Search for God with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land and Like Dreamers: The Story of the Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, winner of 2013 Everett Foundation Award for Jewish Book of the Year

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Interview: Yossi Klein Halevi

Tuesday, January 13, 2015 | Permalink

by Philip K. Jason

Yossi Klein Halevi's first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist, was first published in 1995 and was reprinted in fall 2014. At the Entrance to the Garden of Eden: A Jew's Search for Hope with Christians and Muslims in the Holy Land appeared in 2001. His latest book, Like Dreamers: The Israeli Paratroopers Who Reunited Jerusalem and Divided a Nation, won the Jewish Book Council’s 2013 Everett Family Foundation Jewish Book of the Year Award and was released in paperback in fall 2014. Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. Philip K. Jason recently spoke with Yossi about his writing and his current project.

Philip K. Jason: In the course of your research and interviews for Like Dreamers, what were your most surprising discoveries?

Yossi Klein Halevi: I was constantly amazed at the intensity of life in Israel, from the very founding of the state. I kept wondering how one small country could contain so much history. One of the characters in the book, Arik Achmon, participated in every one of Israel’s wars, beginning in 1948. Where else does life make such demands on the citizens of a nation? Sometimes it seemed to me as if we were trying to compensate for centuries of Jewish life without sovereignty by cramming as much experience into our national life as possible.

I was struck too by the manic depressive nature of the Israeli experience. In 1967 we were euphoric with victory; in 1973, only six years later, we were in despair. And yet, militarily at least, the Yom Kippur War was in some senses more impressive than the Six Day War.

One pattern emerged in the post-67 story of Israel that has particular relevance today, and that is this: When Israelis feel that the international community is against them, they retreat into hardline positions. When they feel more accepted, they are ready to take risks for peace. The Oslo process was launched in an atmosphere of growing acceptance of Israel, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the first Gulf War. By contrast, the settlement movement became mainstream in the weeks following the 1975 UN Zionism-Racism resolution. Israelis pushed back by embracing the settlers.

PKJ: In Like Dreamers, you position yourself as a centrist, someone who is obligated to listen to both (or all) sides – perhaps more than listen. Has this stance helped you gain you access as a journalist?

YKH: Being open to hearing opposing voices gave me emotional access – allowed me to empathize with opposing camps. I moved to Israel at the beginning of the first Lebanon War in 1982, when Israelis were literally shouting at each other on the streets. That was the first time that war had failed to unite the country – worse, the war itself was dividing us. As a new immigrant I had two choices. I could either choose a camp, or learn to listen. I chose the second option and forced myself to listen deeply to what all of Israel’s political and cultural and ethnic groups were really saying. What were the fears of left and right? The visions of Israel being expressed by secularists and religious Zionists and ultra-Orthodox and Arab Israelis? I not only tried to become absorbed into Israeli society, but to absorb Israel, in all its complexity, into my being. That’s how I became an Israeli.

PKJ: I believe it was Jabotinsky who most vigorously argued that social democracy was not and would not be a blessing for Jewish survival. Anti-Semitism would always trump ideological purity. Has that writer-thinker-politician been an influence on your thinking?

YKH: I grew up in the Betar youth movement founded by Jabotinsky: In Betar we called him “Rosh Betar,” head of Betar, a title reserved only for him. So yes, love for Jabotinsky goes deep in me. As for the ideological influence: I support territorial compromise, and Jabotinsky of course was a territorial maximalist. Though I’m not sure that Jabotinsky himself would be a maximalist today. He envisioned solutions for a different time. He was trying to save Europe’s Jews, and Israel was not yet a sovereign state. Today we face threats that Jabotinsky couldn’t imagine.

It’s interesting to go back to the great Jabotinsky-Ben-Gurion debates of the 1930s. Each of them won a different argument. Ben-Gurion won the argument over partition. But Jabotinsky won the argument over what he called the “iron wall” -- the need for a powerful military presence against those who would destroy us. Today we have a literal wall – I see it from my porch on the edge of Jerusalem, bordering the West Bank.

For me, what endures as an example is Jabotinsky’s courage, his willingness to go against the conventional wisdom and try to save Europe’s Jews. He was the only Jewish leader, the only Zionist leader in the 30s, to foresee a coming catastrophe and try to mobilize the Jewish world. He failed of course, and died of a heart attack in 1940.

PKJ: You have taken a close look at Israel’s wars, especially the Six-Day (1967) War, and explored how the conduct and resolution of those wars affected the course of Israel’s identity, political and otherwise. In one way or another, this perennially stressed nation finds ways of reinventing and reimagining itself – sometimes losing its memory in the process. From your own experiences, and from those paratroopers and others whose lives you have researched, what do you see is the most likely direction for the future?

YKH: The question that became increasingly urgent for me as I was writing Like Dreamers is: Where will the next great messianic Jewish dream come from? The story that the book tells is not only about the divide between left and right but about the fate of Israel’s great dreams. Two utopian dreams successively defined Israel. The first was the kibbutz movement, the dream of an egalitarian Israel that would be a laboratory for creating the world’s purest democratic communism. Then came the settlement movement, which believed that the messianic era was upon us. Each of those movements helped shape Israel as we know it – from the country’s borders to the quality of its army. In the end though, both failed to win the trust of mainstream Israel.

We’ve paid a price for the utopian delusions of the Jews. But we’ve also been tremendously energized by these two utopian movements. This is the first time in the history of the state – the history of Zionism – when there is no utopian avant-garde trying to lead the nation. The result is a growing sense of drift among Israelis.

My sense – maybe it’s only a hope – is that the next great outbreak of utopian energy in Israeli society will be spiritual, not political, and will focus on creating the next phase of Judaism. What kind of Judaism will we live as a sovereign people in its land? So far, we’ve mostly imported forms of Judaism that emerged under conditions of a persecuted, ghettoized minority. We need forms of Judaism that are worthy of the profound transformation in Jewish life we’ve experienced over the last two centuries, and especially since the creation of Israel.

PKJ: In Memoirs, you write: “To be an American Jew meant being inherently inauthentic, a spectator to Jewish history.” This outlook grows, in part, out of you experience while in Israel during the Yom Kippur War. Do you mean to root this viewpoint in that time, or do you feel that it is a general truth? Is there no Jewish history unfolding in the diaspora?

YKH: That was definitely a reflection of my thinking as a young American Jew. It is certainly not my thinking today. Ironically, I feel more connected to American Jews since becoming an Israeli than I did growing up in America. My American Jewish experience was highly peculiar. I grew up in Borough Park, in a survivor community, on the edges of American Jewish life. I had a great deal of anger against American Jewry. My father, a survivor from Hungary, blamed American Jews for not trying to rescue European Jewry, and I turned his anger into political alienation. That’s why I joined Betar, and then the Jewish Defense League – I deliberately positioned myself on the fringes of American Jewry.

Since moving to Israel, I’ve gotten to know American Jewry far better than I knew it when I was actually living in America. I spend a good deal of time lecturing about Israel in Jewish communities and I’ve come to love and respect American Jewry. Our generation is blessed with two unimaginable Jewish options. The first is to live in a sovereign Jewish state, where we can determine the nature of our public space. The second is to live in the most free and accepted Diaspora in history, where Jews are invited to help shape the public space of the most powerful country in the world. Our great-grandparents would have been amazed if only one of those options had emerged. We are overwhelmed with riches.

PKJ: What are your responsibilities to / benefits from your position as a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute?

YKH: I’m a member of the Institute’s iEngage seminar, which creates a curriculum on Israel for Diaspora Jews. iEngage is an attempt to give Diaspora Jews a richer language in speaking about Israel – less political and more conceptual, an attempt to create a shared values conversation.

Also, I co-direct the institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative, or MLI, together with Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University. MLI aims at educating young emerging Muslim American leaders about the meaning of Israel in Judaism and for Jews today. We’ve graduated our first cohort of 15 participants – a remarkable group of people – and we have two new groups.

Along with those responsibilities, I spend my mornings at the institute writing. It’s a wonderful arrangement for a writer.

PKJ: When/why did you add Halevi to your name? [I realize that it could have always been part of your “ritual” name.]

YKH: When my wife, Sarah, and I moved to Israel, we decided to Hebraize our name. We chose Halevi because, well, I’m a Levi, and the Levites were a caste of service in the Temple, playing music, and Sarah and I were drawn to the idea of serving God through creativity. Sarah and I met in a writing program – at City College.

PKJ: Any new book projects on your to do list?

YKH: I’ve just begun a new book project, which is about the Palestinians. I’ll say only that I intend this to be much shorter than Like Dreamers – both in terms of book length and the amount of time I’ll invest in it. Like Dreamers took eleven years to research and write. As we used to say in JDL – never again.

Philip K. Jason is professor emeritus of English from the United States Naval Academy. A former editor of Poet Lore magazine, he is the author or editor of twenty books, including Acts and Shadows: The Vietnam War in American Literary Culture and Don't Wave Goodbye: The Children's Flight from Nazi Persecution to American Freedom.

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