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

Relat­ed Content:

Yos­si Klein Hale­vi is a senior fel­low of the Shalom Hart­man Insti­tute, where he codi­rects, togeth­er with Imam Abdul­lah Antepli, the Mus­lim Lead­er­ship Ini­tia­tive. His most recent book, Like Dream­ers, won the 2013 Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Everett Book of the Year Award. He lives in Jerusalem.