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A Historian-Soldier Bridges His Identities

Sitting on a stage in a mahogany-paneled study of the townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side that contains the venerable Council on Foreign Relations, Michael Oren, the historian, was getting frustrated with the questions the standing room-only audience was lobbing at him. He had come to talk about his new book, a history of America’s relationship with the Middle East from 1776 to the present, but all anybody wanted to ask him about was evangelicals.

Finally, when, of all people, Ted Sorenson, the onetime speechwriter of John F. Kennedy, now nearly in his 80s and on wobbly feet, stood up to exclaim how fearful he is of these “apocalyptic ones,” Christians who support Israel only as a way of bringing on Armageddon, the generally polished Oren snapped back and said: “You know, I’m a historian. I am not the authority on evangelicals.” When the next woman stood to speak, before she could even open her mouth, he preemptively yelled, “Don’t ask about evangelicals!”

“That annoyed the hell out of me,” Oren said in an interview the following day. “What is that? I’ve now become the expert on evangelical Christianity? I don’t know if they want me to tell them that it’s benign or that it’s horrible. I don’t like being put in the position of being the defender or even the explicator. I don’t want to do that.”

Despite Oren’s feigned obliviousness, it seems obvious from a reading of his new book, “Power, Faith, and Fantasy,” that there’s nothing farfetched about asking him to unravel the significance of evangelical Christian support for Israel. Oren spends the bulk of his compelling and authoritative 800-page tome focusing on the 19th-century (with 1948 to the present getting only 90 pages). It’s this period of America’s engagement in the Arab world, from the Barbary Wars to the birth of Israel, that has often been ignored, and Oren set out to color it in. The book is full of anecdotes and insights from this era, from exploring the American cultural obsession with belly dancers and “A Thousand and One Nights,” to looking at the travels throughout the region by such famous writers as Herman Melville, to describing the political significance of the good works of missionaries who set up hospitals and universities in Egypt and Syria.

But the history that has struck a contemporary nerve, at least among his reviewers (and, apparently, Sorenson), is that of Restorationism, a religiously motivated proto-Zionism that had a central place in American Protestant belief for more than a century, with its roots among the first Pilgrim voyagers to the New World. The idea that the Jewish people needed to be “restored” to sovereignty in the holy land became so widespread that by 1863, even Abraham Lincoln declared that “Restoring the Jews to their national home in Palestine… is a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.” Oren takes readers through the evolution of this idea, and the high-profile status it attained among American thinkers and missionaries who installed themselves in the Levant in order to help bring forth this Jewish return to Zion.

This freshly exposed historical context offers a compelling counterpoint to the recent controversial argument put forth by two academics, Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, that the military and financial backing given to the Jewish state is the result of a powerful Israel lobby manipulating American foreign policy to serve Israel’s interests. What Oren’s account of Restorationism tells us is that the American attachment to Israel is more embedded in our DNA then we realize, and has been part of our faith-based identity long before America even had a major population of Jews. Oren himself has used this venerable history of religious American support for the Zionist idea to argue most recently against Jimmy Carter, who, like Walt and Mearsheimer, has been accused of hatred for Israel because of his latest book and its title, “Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid.” Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Oren reiterates this point: “While U.S.-Israel ties are no doubt strengthened by common bonds of democracy and Western culture, religion remains an integral component in that relationship…. In the controversial title of his book, Mr. Carter implicitly denounces Israel for its separatist policies, but, by doing so, he isolates himself from centuries of American tradition.”

And though, as Oren illustrated at the Council on Foreign Relations, he shies away from commenting on contemporary evangelical support for Israel, he was far from agnostic about the issue when talking to the Forward. “If it hadn’t been for George Bush between 2001 and 2005, I’m not sure the Jewish state would have survived,” Oren said. “Because when the bombs started going off at the end of the Clinton administration, Israel was not given much latitude to respond to Palestinian terror. A year into the Bush administration, after 9/11, Bush started giving an unqualified green light to the IDF to go in and smash terror. By doing that, they created a situation where the tourists came back, foreign investment came back. The fact that you could walk down the street as a tourist in Jerusalem today owes a lot to the Bush administration. But the Bush administration owes a lot, in turn, to evangelical backing. So how am I to gainsay that this particular community helped save the lives of my family?”

Oren should be less surprised than he is, or pretends to be, that his latest book is regarded as a weapon in a political debate as much as it is looked at as a work of solid historical research. He has always rocked precariously back and forth between worlds — American and Israeli, academic and political.

Now 52, Oren was born in New Jersey, the son of a career officer in the United States Army. After 10 years of living on kibbutzim on and off from the age of 15, he decided to make aliya in 1979 at the age of 24. He has, as he says, “gone through all the things Israelis are supposed to do.” This is a bit of an understatement. Oren’s accomplished academic career — receiving degrees from Columbia and Princeton universities, and now acting as senior fellow at a renowned conservative Israeli think tank, the Shalem Center — has been interspersed with periods of fulfilling his duties as an “unabashed, unapologetic Zionist,” as he calls himself. Not long after immigrating, he saw combat as a paratrooper in the 1982 Lebanon War. During the Gulf War, he served as the Israeli liaison officer to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. He was then an adviser to Yitzhak Rabin in the ’90s and the director of the Department of Inter-Religious Affairs in Rabin’s government. As recently as last summer, now with the rank of major in the Israel Defense Forces, he was head spokesman for the northern command in the war with Hezbollah, dodging Katyusha rockets as he escorted journalists around the Lebanese border. Asked if he would ever consider entering politics, he responds with enough exaggerated protest to indicate that the thought has crossed his mind (he says he has a recurring nightmare where he wakes up and is the prime minister of Israel).

Tall and imposing with a shock of gray hair and a pointy nose that makes him look a bit like the comedian Steve Martin, Oren said that it strikes him as strange that he has not been cornered more often about how he reconciles his identity as a historian and a sometimes official of the Israeli government. “I understand it’s problematic,” he admitted. “But there’s no alternative to it. I could just drop out of the army. Say, ‘Listen, I’m a historian, therefore I can’t serve my country.’ What if everyone says that? Or conversely, I could go to the army but speak my piece. Then I’m not really a soldier.”

Even though he was critical of certain aspects of the way the war in Lebanon was waged this past summer, Oren said he remained quiet about his opinions while he was in uniform. He insists he would refuse orders if ever asked to lie. He saw his job less as propaganda than as telling “the Israeli Army side of the story,” even when he was aware that there was another equally valid side. Oren said that though he felt the war was being won militarily, he also thought it was being lost politically. “I never talked about losing it politically, but when I came home on leave I wrote two scathing articles, one for The Wall Street Journal and the other for The New Republic,” he said. “Next day, I put on my uniform and that was it. I’m a soldier.”

This discrepancy has never been an issue in critiques of Oren’s work. His previous book, a widely acclaimed and best-selling history of the Six Day War, published in 2002, was praised for achieving the nearly impossible feat of writing with objective detachment about Israeli history. One reviewer for the Boston Globe wrote, “Within [the] paradigm of different realities for different sides, it’s fair to ask whether a former government official for one side can be impartial about the historical record.” The answer he provided, though, was, “Oren plays it right down the middle. He doesn’t give much credence to conspiracy theorists or get caught up in stories of battlefield heroism. Instead, his is a more or less dispassionate accounting of the fighting and its precipitating events.”

This new book, one that Oren had wanted to write for decades and that he feels bridges his identity as an American and an Israeli, is composed with the same detachment. But unlike in “Six Days of War,” Oren does close his 230-year history with a distinct value judgment. He draws a verdict on the ultimate character of the American engagement in the Middle East. In his closing pages, he writes, “On balance, Americans historically brought far more beneficence than avarice to the Middle East and caused significantly less harm than good.”

This statement begs the question of whether Oren was motivated to find the good in America’s actions or whether the conclusion was purely the result of his research. It’s a critique that he says is “legitimate.” But he also insists that he took as neutral a look as possible at the history.

“I am a proud and patriotic American, just as I am a proud and patriotic Israeli, but whenever America screwed up I put it out there,” Oren said. “I tried to see America through embittered Palestinian eyes. But you put those screw-ups against the fact that America built these school systems and built these health systems and really stuck its neck out to ensure the independence of countries, and has tried again and again to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I looked it all down the list, and decided that this country has done more good than harm.”

At a time when America is mired in Iraq and violence seems to be the only byproduct of America’s involvement in the region, it’s a bold statement to make. And just as open for use in a political debate as his history of Restorationism.

Not that he doesn’t see Iraq as a debacle. In his historical long view, the war fits perfectly into a pattern of American engagement that often does tip into disaster. Americans have always approached the Arab world with a certain amount of idealism. The faith that first led missionaries to try to convert the region is part of a continuum with the neo-conservative desire to democratize it. But this altruistic impulse has consistently been undermined by a certain naiveté, a misguided belief, Oren says, that the Middle East is “like us, just a mirror of America” and easily malleable in our image.

Oren thinks the problem in Iraq was our inability to see the Middle East for what it is — according to him, a collection of countries each held together by a “family with an army.” He testified to Congress in 2003, during the buildup to the war, warning against an invasion. But his reasons were singular. He thought America “would not have the necessary brutality” to hold Iraq together once Saddam Hussein was removed.

Despite his willingness to fault American blindness and point out moments of cold self-interest at work in the history, he keeps returning to his main argument: America has given more than it has taken, been more a beacon of good than bad. This might be precisely where his inner politician undercuts the historian. It’s a difficult argument to make these days. But in the end, Oren makes little apology for not being able to see the history other than from his particular subjective vantage point. “Do I think that I’ve managed to leach my history writing of my Zionism and pro-Americanism? No,” he said.

“I’m not about to renounce my Zionism in order to be a historian, or stop being a historian so I can be a Zionist.”

Gal Beckerman, a regular contributor to the Forward, is writing a history of the Soviet Jewry movement, to be published next year by Houghton Mifflin.

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