"New York Times bestselling author Michael B. Oren's memoir of his time as Israel's ambassador to the United States--a period of transformative change for America and a time of violent upheaval throughout the Middle East--provides a frank, fascinating look inside the special relationship between America and its closest ally in the region,"--Amazon.com.
Michael Oren is better known as a historian than as a diplomat or writer of political memoires; his "Six Days of War" is the definitive account of the 1967 war, and his other work about the history of US involvement in the Middle East has some merit too. The problem is that history - by definition - requires time before one gets a true perspective of what happened and what its significance was. For the same reason that I prefer reading monthly news digests and analyses to daily - or even weekly - news stories, I prefer reading real history rather than a rehash of yesterday's headlines – which is how much of this book felt.
There is much to admire about Oren – an American, who made a successful Aliyah, and does well in Israel. The first chapter is essentially an autobiographical account of his life in Israel, meeting his wife and the growth of their family; in it, he recounts his army experiences and also his spells outside Israel at Princeton and Georgetown universities, during which time he got to know various American political figures. These experiences were important in later qualifying him for the job as ambassador. On his appointment to this role, it was necessary for him to renounce his US citizenship; Oren, who while fully committed to his life as an Israeli, had never lost his close identification with land of his birth describes this traumatic development in the chapter entitled “the Perforated Passport”.
Oren dutifully covers the ground on issues that engaged him during his period in office - The Mavi Mara incident, the ongoing imprisonment of Jonathan Pollard, negotiations with the Palestinians, settlements, the ups and – mainly - downs of Bibi Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama. I may, at the time, have missed one or two nuances in the dynamic of the US-Israel relationship; but Oren adds nothing to my overall appreciation of the situation; I got no new insights.
More interesting and disturbing are the changes in American Jewry that he detects after a 30-year absence. The inexorable process of assimilation and intermarriage which inevitably has diluted many American Jews’ identification with their religion and with Israel. The fact that Holocaust memorial alongside other genocidal narratives has begun replacing Israel as the centerpiece of Jewish identity even for many committed American Jews. How Tikun Olam, “repairing the world” defined in its broadest humanitarian, rather than traditional Jewish sense, has sidelined Israel as the focal point of many young liberal American Jews. These trends are symptoms of what Commentary founder Norman Podhoretz described as the substitution of Judaism by liberalism as the religion of many American Jews. In a political culture that increasingly disapproves of all war or militarism, it is harder for American Jews to understand and sympathise with the existential nature of Israel’s struggle with the Palestinians.
If you feel that you missed out on some of the ups and downs of Israel’s relationship with the USA over the last few years, then this book will certainly bring you more or less up-to-date. If you like the kind of who-said-what-to-whom stories that the late Yehuda Avner’s book “The Prime Ministers” was full of, then you will enjoy reading this one too. In case you were wondering, I got bored with that one too.