My coping mechanism, whenever I feel massive heartache over a global tragedy, has been to try and understand what made the tragedy possible. Maybe this is hubris or intellectual detachment on my part but I always feel better if I can describe the reality of the situation with some level of confidence.

The tragedy of October 7th and the continuing horror in Gaza have put me in that place. I want to understand as best as I can what is going on. I want to understand what conditions allow for such devastation. I want to understand how everyone sees each other.

Fundamentally I want to understand the truth, at least as best as I can approximate it.

"The first casualty when war comes is truth."

This is the challenge of trying to understand complicated histories and controversial subjects. History veers into historiography and mythology and propaganda and it is difficult to figure out who can be trusted to present the truth. I don't want to get caught up in a blame game or spend a lot of time watching horrific videos or go into a very negative place emotionally in my search.

It's easy to find bad guys. It's easy to find people who make things worse. But the people who are trying in their own ways to make things just a tiny bit better are worth seeking out. Anyone who helps make tiny steps to close the gap is someone worth exploring and understanding in my opinion. So I decided that I will spend some time focusing on people who attempt, in their own ways, to be peacemakers and bridgebuilders.

Last year I read "I shall not hate" by  Izzeldin Abuelaish. I reviewed his book and his story of being a Palestinian doctor who was trained in Israel and has done work to improve direct communications between Israelis and Palestinians. His work has continued even after the devastating loss of his three daughters who were killed by Israeli tanks that blew up his home.

I wanted to find someone on the Israeli side who shared similar goals for peace. When I told my friend Rebecca about my goal she recommended that I read Michael Oren's book "Ally."

Israeli Knesset Member Michael Oren: From Native-Born American to U.S ...

I will admit to my biases here. My main bias isn't the one that people would suspect; I can be Arab and still be critical of Arab governments (Arabs have been long accustomed to having governments that don't represent their interests). I try in that sense to be objective and call out what I see as best I can.

But I am strongly biased against government representatives. It doesn't matter what government they represent I tend to assume that they are lying. There is a term in Hebrew that I only recently learned; Hasbara. It doesn't have an exact English translation. The most charitable definition would be "explaining". The least charitable definition would be "propaganda". I've split the proverbial baby down the middle and define it as "spin."

All government spokespeople, regardless of their country, engage in Hasbara. I think it's best to take anything anyone who is paid to present a narrative says with a healthy dose of skepticism.

So it was interesting to hear Michael Oren express his own skepticism about his ability to become an ambassador. Oren quoted the 17th century Henry Wotton who said "An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country." This quote perfectly captures my feelings about statements made on behalf of any government; they have to be lies.

Despite the nature of his mission I got the impression that Oren managed to work as an ambassador with his honor mostly intact. The reason he was able to maintain a level of integrity not normally found in political spokesmen was because he set himself an achievable goal; he wanted to "unearth American truths and explain them to Israelis".

Born and raised in New Jersey, Michael obviously understood American culture and American Jews. After moving to Israel in 1979 and living there for the majority of his adult life he came to understand Israeli culture. Earning his PhD from Princeton in middle eastern history sometime after his service in the IDF gave him the background and the contextual picture to articulate his positions from a disinterested point of view that could serve well as a communicator between the United States and Israel. He was the perfect bridgebuilder between the two worlds.

Ally tells the story of how Oren came to find himself as the ambassador and the trials and tribulations leading up to the ambassadorship (having to watch as his US passport was shredded upon renouncing his US citizenship) and the challenges that came with being ambassador and navigating the ups and downs of US and Israeli relations during the Obama administration.

In a previous life Oren was a historian. He brings his gifts to explain the evolution of the relationship between Israel and the United States in this book. He also does an excellent job of explaining some of the important cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews. I don't think I quite realized until reading this book just how large of a divide exists between some parts of American Jews and Israeli Jews in terms of how they view the world and how they view Israel and Palestine. For most of the people drawn to reading a book like this that might be old news but for an outsider who is trying to get a better grasp of how Israelis think politically Oren offers valuable insight.

I was incredibly moved by Oren's description of the concept of "Tikkun Olam" and his attachment to the concept. Tikkun Olam means, literally, "repair the world." This concept is an ancient Jewish philosophy of reconnecting with the divine light of creation. This very much resonates with me and my life and desires. It also resonates with the good work that I saw when I worked at a Jewish school. The school had as part of its mission to foster Menschlichkeit - meaning something like "a man of great humanity". I saw examples of that constantly as the school and the students engaged in community service and fundraising and drives to help people throughout the country. I was always moved by the generosity of spirit.

I got the feeling that Oren and I are kindred spirits in the fact that we would both be comfortable labeling ourselves as political centrists even if we don't agree on the best path towards peace.

Being a centrist is not easy in any country. You find animosity from both the left and right when you are in the middle. You would think that both sides would appreciate how you find merit in parts of their point of view but both sides focus on where you disagree.

I would imagine that Oren did not win many friends in Israel by saying things like "Israel was certainly not lacking for policies, such as settlement building, that were difficult if not impossible to portray positively to the press. Our frequent need to resort to force and the growth of religiously observant communities tended to paint us in less than liberal colors."

I don't want to put words in his mouth but I imagine that he received a lot of flack from the Israeli side for the implication that settlement building is antithetical to peace (at least that is my interpretation of his words but I could be mistaken). But he also didn't get much credit from those who support the Palestinian side for his characterization. This is because people think emotionally and are rarely willing to engage in a dispassionate analysis of political situations.

Centrists are often branded as cowards or of having no convictions. But I think the centrists are people who would rather get some of what most people want and continue to make forward progress rather than stalling in the mud. Being a centrist means, in my opinion, that you are more interested in calling things as you see them rather than appealing to your side and beating your opponent.

As much as I appreciate Oren's nuanced and thoughtful analysis of the issues affecting Israel and the United States I did have one major disagreement as I read this book. It was one line but it stuck out so much that I need to devote some time to exploring it.

"The hill is a bastion of pro-Israel sentiment, reflecting the affection of a sizable American majority for the Jewish state."

Maybe Oren genuinely believes what he is saying. I can imagine that there are individual representatives for whom this statement is true. But to put forth the idea that congress is a bastion of pro Israel sentiment because of the American people, without discussing the power and influence of lobbying groups, is a clear example of Hasbara.

A part of me understands why Oren wants to underplay the role of AIPAC and other related political action groups. They have become part of a centuries long conspiratorial and antisemitic trope of "Jewish controlled media." I understand why Jews can be alarmed when hearing people even approach this political third rail given its horrific historic consequences. Honestly as I write this essay a part of me keeps saying "just keep these thoughts to yourself... the chances that you will be misunderstood or resented are too high to make this part of the essay worth the trouble."

But I think it is important to be able to rationally and clearly discuss what forces are influencing American policy. I don't think progress is possible when a topic is considered off limits. Even sensitive issues can be discussed respectfully if handled with care in the pursuit of honest discourse. I don't think that there is anything conspiratorial here; AIPAC and all lobbying groups are following the rules of the game and are doing the exact same thing that the pharmaceutical industry, AARP, the con-agra groups and any other special interests are doing; promoting their agenda. There is nothing secret or conspiratorial here; they are playing the same game and following the same rules that everyone is playing.

I try to avoid blanket statements but I feel comfortable saying that all political lobbying groups are bad for American politics and by extension the American people. Regardless of whether you agree with the mission of a lobbying group (I'm generally sympathetic to the goals of the UFT and other teacher groups for example) I don't see how having lots of money influencing political decisions can ever improve representative democracy.

Summary Review

My typical review questions need to change for a book like this. Since I am specifically looking for bridgebuilders I need to take that into account as I review any of these kinds of books. This might not be a category that other people find valuable but that is the number one thing I am searching for.

  1. Was the writing compelling? Oren is a phenomenally gifted writer. He manages to balance in depth descriptions with fun and compelling stories. He offers everyone nuance and he doesn't paint with a broad brush. He reminds me of some of my favorite professors - able to go into incredible levels of depth in any story or keep it light and fun at their choosing. I definitely plan on reading his history books and I am looking forward to reading his political thriller books down the road. (3/3)
  2. Did I learn anything of value? I learned a lot about how unbelievably difficult the political game is. Balancing the wants and needs of all the players is incredibly complicated and one that can't be "won". I also learned a lot about the differences in world view between Israeli's and American Jews. Unsurprisingly there are areas where there is tremendous common ground and areas of significant difference. Oren does a phenomenal job of exploring these areas and trying to find ways to bring the sides together. (3/3)
  3. Did I find what I was looking for? One of the main things I learned from reading this is that there are too many people and interested parties for an ambassador to be the kind of bridgebuilder I am looking for. It is clear that Ambassador Oren is a good man who worked incredibly hard to build bridges between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In this regard he is 100% a bridgebuilder. It is also clear that Ambassador Oren tried to build ties between Judaism and Islam within the culture of the Israeli ambassadorship; his introducing Iftar celebrations into the Israeli embassy was a great symbolic example of trying to connect cultures. I believe that even symbolic steps forward are incredibly important if they represent some kind of forward progress. I do not in any way want to detract from those victories. But the area that I was personally seeking was his efforts towards peace between Israel and Palestine. I think this was probably too much to ask of any government operative. (1/3)

On my arbitrary scale I rate this book a 7/9. I think people who aren't looking for the one thing I was seeking would probably rate this book higher. I enjoyed Oren's work and recommend this book to anyone interested in working under the impossible conditions of diplomacy or anyone interested in US/Israel relations.