Michael Oren Played Don Quixote — and 18 Other Quirky Things About Him

Even before its publication date this week, the memoir of current Israeli MK and former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Michael B. Oren has created a firestorm of controversy. But beyond Oren’s claims about the Obama administration, his memoir promises to be a window into his fascinating metamorphosis from childhood victim of bullying to elite Israel Defense Forces paratrooper. In the course of my academic research, I have attempted to find every public statement made by or about Oren — ever. So, in advance of his book’s release, allow me to present 19 things you need to know about the life of arguably the most influential American Zionist of his generation.

1) Growing up in the Italian Catholic suburban enclave of West Orange, New Jersey, Oren experienced relentless physical bullying on a daily basis, which he has attributed both to his being overweight and his being Jewish. Oren has cited this experience of powerlessness as the driving force in his Zionism and enlisting in the IDF.

2) As ambassador to the U.S., Oren often claimed he loved America and described his suburban upbringing as being like the 1950s sitcom “Happy Days” — or “painfully normal.”

3) Oren (nee Bornstein) first realized he wanted to become an Israeli soldier when his father showed him the June 22, 1967 cover of Life magazine featuring Yossi Ben Hanan in the Suez Canal. Lester Bornstein, a decorated WWII veteran and his son’s role model, exclaimed “You see that!” and “That is what we can do!” before kissing the magazine.

4) In his formative years, when he wasn’t in the library, in his room, or walking in the woods, Oren would take the train to the Museum of Natural History. There, he would spend hours gazing at the statue of Theodore Roosevelt as the Rough Rider. Oren told the Yale Daily News that he “used to sit there as a kid and say ‘Oh yes! I want to be just like that.”

5) Oren’s favorite movie as a young man was “Lawrence of Arabia,” not Otto Preminger’s “Exodus.” When Oren first visited Israel and stayed on a kibbutz at the age of thirteen, he purchased a keffiyeh and claims to have fancied himself Lawrence among the Arabs.

6) At the age of sixteen, Oren published a poem in Seventeen Magazine about the New Jersey highway with strangely militarized metaphors: “Tracer bullets across the nighttime range,/ aimed at targets down the highway.”

7) Oren listed Philip Roth’s 1969 novel-cum-therapy-session-monologue “Portnoy’s Complaint” as a formative text. Author and professor Bernard Avishai has suggested that Oren perceived his IDF service as a “graduation from Alexander Portnoy’s couch.” It is also interesting to note that Portnoy is famously unmanned in Israel; despite his successes with shiksas, he cannot sustain an erection in Israel.

8) After reading neoconservative Norman Podhoretz’s 1967 memoir “Making It,” Oren claims to have resolved to follow in Podhoretz’s footsteps by attending Columbia University and becoming a public intellectual. Prior to becoming the U.S. ambassador, Oren was a fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, a neoconservative think tank funded in part by Sheldon Adelson.

9) Oren credits sending a deluge of letters to Columbia’s admissions office with his acceptance into the Class of 1977 despite his poor math scores. In 2005, Oren claimed that if he had been better at mathematics, “for a period there” he would have attended West Point.

10) During his sophomore and junior years at Columbia, Oren lived in Beit Ephraim, a Jewish countercultural house founded by sociologist Steven Cohen. Student Mobilization for Israel, a radical Zionist group founded by Oren’s friends, advertised meetings in his living room for “students seriously considering entering the Israeli army in the next two to three years” and were known to preach about Jewish Americans’ “moral duty” to serve in the IDF.

11) While at Columbia, Oren participated in the rowing team, wrote articles for the newspaper, and acted in and wrote plays. One uncharitable review stated that “Bornstein has a definite problem in writing roles for female characters.” In high school, Oren starred as Don Quixote in “The Man of La Mancha.”

12) While at Columbia, from which he also earned a master’s in international relations, Oren overlapped with former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. Abba Eban, who was a visiting professor. Oren was Eban’s last research assistant before he died.

13) In 1978, Oren won a gold medal in the Maccabiah Games; strangely, a Jewish Telegraphic Agency article did not list him as among the eight gold medalists who planned on making aliyah, which he would do the next year.

14) Oren served in an elite paratrooper unit during his mandatory service, and as part of an elite reserve unit, was one of the first soldiers to enter and conquer Beirut in the 1982 Lebanon War.

15) In a 1991 American Jewish Committee convened dialogue event between Israeli and American Jewry, Oren revealed that the first time he felt a tension between being a Jewish American and an Israeli Jew was upon returning home from the military following the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “I realized,” Oren said, “that American Jews did not want to know about this part of my existence.” Oren recalled becoming “more alienated [from Israel], having to do with my feelings about the Lebanese War and the West Bank.” However, he disapproved of American Jews criticizing Israel publicly, claiming that he never heard Hispanic Americans criticizing their homelands, and claiming that American Jewish criticism often “borders on self-hatred.”

16) After the end of his regular IDF service and before attending graduate school, Oren wrote for a Jerusalem think tank and served as a spokesman for the “civil administration in Judea and Samaria.” He was once interviewed by the Miami Herald (Florida) about the deportation of outspoken Palestinian mayors.

17) Oren received his Ph.D. from Princeton University, where he studied with famed Orientalist Bernard Lewis. Perhaps in deference to his father or as a result of his post-Lebanon estrangement from Israel, he submitted his dissertation about Egyptian-Israeli relations under the name “Michael Scott Bornstein.”

18) Michael Oren’s late mother, Marilyn Bornstein, published a novel late in life about a suburban widow who travels to Israel; Oren credits her with being his inspiration for writing. Oren has published two novels: Sand Devil, drawn from his time spent at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; and Reunion, drawn from his father’s and his former comrade’s WWII stories about the Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

19) In 1987, a Jewish Exponent story described Oren, then a fellow at Hebrew University, as a specialist in Palestinian history and as part of the Israeli peace movement. Oren told the reporter that “studying Palestinian history is a most depressing academic endeavor.”

Aaron Steinberg-Madow graduated from Haverford College in 2014 where he majored in History and concentrated in Peace, Justice, & Human Rights. His thesis is titled “Our America: Jewish Americans and the Dream of Israel after the Six-Day War.”

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

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Michael Oren Played Don Quixote — and 18 Other Quirky Things About Him

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