You may recall the old Superman comic that used to open with the words, “It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, It’s Superman!”
The description could aptly be used to describe Michael Oren. Although he is not Superman, it could be said of him, “He’s a scholar. He’s a television star. No, He’s an ambassador.” Actually, he is all of these, and more.
Because of his unique credentials as an academician, coupled with outstanding communication skills and telegenic qualities, Oren has been an exceptionally effective ambassador for the State of Israel. He has masterfully represented, explained and advocated the policies of his country, government and Prime Minister since his arrival in 2009. Ambassador Oren is as comfortable with political leaders as he is with business leaders, with members of the media as he is with students.
To be with Oren is to appreciate his keen intellect and knowledge of the history and understanding of the politics and dynamics of the Middle East. He clearly revels in and enjoys what he has always called his dream job.
He is thoughtful and listens carefully, taking a genuine interest in what others have to say, often asking probing questions. Yet he is not passive, for he does not hesitate to express and clarify the position and policy of Israel, often in difficult and challenging settings. Willing to defend Israel, even in antagonistic environments, he has memorably gone onto hostile college campuses to represent his country and confront Israel’s opponents. His approach has been to engage and disarm with charm and facts those who oppose the positions of Prime Minister Netanyahu, leading me to wonder if those who so vehemently oppose Netanyahu, but so warmly embrace Oren realize how closely Oren is aligned with Bibi and how much he supports his positions and policies.
Being Israel’s ambassador to the United States has had its share of challenges, especially with the widely recognized poor chemistry between US President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu. He had his work cut out for him these past four years.
I had the chance to witness first hand and up close a small taste during one especially difficult time. Ambassador Oren came to speak at our synagogue on a Friday evening in March of 2010. He entered services visibly shaken. It was a day or two after the visit of Vice President Biden to the Middle East, and Oren came to us straight from having just been summoned to a tough meeting at the State Department where he was castigated for the announcement made during Biden’s visit of housing permits being issued by the Jerusalem municipality. As he was on the bema speaking, trying his best not to be distracted by what had just transpired, his faithful companion and wife Sally, (who has been a tremendous asset on her own) was waving frantically in the back of the sanctuary to get his attention. He was being called by Prime Minister Netanyahu who wanted to speak to him immediately. Without missing a beat or losing his composure, he apologized and told the congregation that his boss was calling, and that he had to take the call in my office. He reassured us that he would be back in time for the Alenu, and would complete his remarks in just a few minutes.
Ultimately, the job of ambassador has to do with forging relationships on behalf of one’s country. Oren has reached out and strengthened Israel’s relations with many diverse communities and segments. He has especially worked to improve relations and communications between the American Jewish community and Israel, smoothing things over when actions by one or the other have been misunderstood or misinterpreted. He has helped to convey to his government concerns of the American Jewish community on various issues, and has been outstanding in his explanation of Israeli perspectives to the American Jewish community. It helps that he understands and communicates both Hebrew and not just English, but “American.” Whether it was the Rotem bill, Women of the Wall, plans for the Western Wall, or advertisements aimed at encouraging Israelis living in the Diaspora to return to Israel, he has personally intervened and helped to diffuse many potentially divisive issues.
Although his tenure has ended, lovers of Israel on both sides of the Atlantic are fortunate that he has served his country in this capacity with such outstanding distinction. Ambassador Oren joins the ranks of distinguished diplomats who have previously served in this post, including Abba Eban, Yitzhak Rabin and others in a job that often calls for Superman like qualities.