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MK Michael Oren, former Ambassador to the United States.

{Originally posted to the author’s website, Israel Thrives}

Former Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, has recently published his highly anticipated memoir, Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide.


In the weeks and months leading up to the publication much chatter arose suggesting that Oren primarily blamed US President Barack Obama for the deterioration of US-Israeli relations during Obama’s tenure.  Oren’s recent articles in the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, and Foreign Policy raised very serious concerns about Obama’s foreign policy competency and his friendliness toward America’s foremost ally in the Middle East, the Jewish State of Israel.

Those articles raised expectations concerning the book.

Therefore, many people are asking themselves “who is the villain?”

The Primary Question

Over the years, Barack Obama has nurtured an animosity among pro-Israel / pro-Jewish people throughout the world for his support of political Islam and his apparent eagerness to welcome a nuclear-armed Iran as a strategic partner to the United States… despite the fact that Iran is a Muslim-authoritarian theocracy that likes to hang Gay people from cranes.

Many of us who follow the conflicts in the Middle East want to know why Obama supports the Muslim Brotherhood and the forthcoming Iranian bomb?

As Ambassador to the United States, Oren is used to fielding all sorts of questions concerning Israel.  One question that he found interesting, and I paraphrase, is this:

Is it easier to explain Americans to Israelis or Israel to Americans?

He suggests that it is much harder to explain America – or, at least, the current American president – to Israelis than the other way around.

For Israelis, but also for many alert diaspora Jews, Obama’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood is alarming and unfathomable given the fact that the Brotherhood is the parent organization of both Hamas and al-Qaeda and it called for the conquest of Jerusalem during Muhammad Morsi campaign rallies.

The Muslim Brotherhood is, in fact, a genocidal organization because it contemplates a second Holocaust against the Jews of the Middle East, via the conquest of Israel, and it supported Nazi Germany and the Nazi cause during, and after, World War II.

Thus, Oren writes:

Most challenging to explain to Israelis was Obama’s support for Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood.  Contrary to the assurances I had received that the administration would not engage the Isamist movement, the State Department formally initiated ties with Brotherhood leaders in January 2012.  Six months ater, after the election of the movement’s leaders, Mohammed Morsi, to the presidency – by just over 51 percent of th vote – those contracts became an embrace.”

This is a question that concerned Jews – aside from the ideologically blinkered – have been grappling with for years.  Although Obama’s supporters, and particularly his Jewish supporters, refuse to acknowledge the obvious, the fact remains that the President of the United States supports a movement – political Islam – that oppresses women, is chasing Christians out of the Middle East, despises Gay people, is destroying antiquities, and screams from the hilltops for the blood of the Jews.The fundamental question that Oren seeks to answer is, how is this possible?
The Cairo Speech of 2009
Whether or not the Cairo speech is the most important speech in the career of Barack Obama, it is the one wherein he endeavored to “reset” the American relationship to the Islamic world… as if there is any such monolith.
Concerning the speech, Oren writes:

More passionately than ever, he described his personal connections with Muslims and his conviction that “Islam is part of America.”  He reiterated his vision of a new era of understanding between the United States and Muslims based on “mutual interests and respect” and the shared American and Quranic values of “justice and progress, tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.”

Oren suggests that if you wish to understand Obama’s foreign policy in regards the Middle East then the Cairo speech is key.  Unlike President George W. Bush, Oren claims that Obama was intent on supporting authentic, democratically-elected Muslim leadership.  Whereas Bush hoped to impose democracy, Muslim or otherwise, onto the Arab-Muslim Middle East, Obama was intent on taking what he considered a more “enlightened” and respectful approach grounded in his education at the feet of post-colonial professors such as Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi in places like Columbia University and Harvard.

The events around the Cairo speech presaged what was to come.  Over Hosni Mubarak’s objections, Obama invited the Muslim Brotherhood to the speech despite the fact that the Brotherhood has generally been considered an enemy of Egyptian governments since the 1920s.  However, Mubarak represented old-school Cold War-style Arab-Nationalist dictatorships of the sort that Obama opposes in contradistinction to the new-school democratically elected “authentic” Islamists which Obama supports.

While opposing secular dictatorships is certainly within the liberal tradition, if Obama is a liberal and liberals support freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, and social justice, then why does Barack Obama support the Ayatollahs and the Brotherhood?

The answer, according to Oren, is that both are seen by the president as representing authentic expressions of Muslim democracy.  Many Christian Copts may have been kept from voting at the point of a rifle by Brotherhood members and Iran’s “Supreme Leader,” Ayatollah Khamenei, was not democratically elected and, in fact, was a product of the anti-American 1979 revolution. Nonetheless, according to Oren, Obama concluded that they represent the true democratic will of the Muslim world, along with other milder Islamists like Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey.

The Post-Colonialists
Obama’s instincts are not his alone.
The Cairo speech is an expression of American post-colonialism as derived from an important strand of western academia typified by the late professor of literary criticism, Edward Said, and historian Rashid Khalidi, among others.
Obama grew up in the aftermath of the Vietnam War and through the decay of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States toward the end of the twentieth-century.  He attended university at a time when veterans of both those fights held influence and tenureship throughout the Western academe and who generally looked upon American and Western influence throughout the non-western world as one of imperialism, racism, and theft of natural resources.Oren says this:

Their ideas found fullest expression in Orientalism, a book published in 1978 by Edward Said, a Columbia literary critic and spokesman for the Palestinian cause.  Said denounced Middle East experts – the Orientalists – as “racist, imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentic,” and accused them of abetting the region’s conquests by the West.  Only by identifying “wholeheartedly with the Arabs” and becoming “genuinely engaged and sympathetic… to the Islamic world” could these scholars redeem themselves.  They had to shun traditional Middle Eastern professors such as Bernard Lewis and reject Israel, which Said maligned as the ultimate Orientalist project.

Thus according to Said and any number of currently working academics – including Jewish ones who claim to be pro-Israel – Israel represents a western, racist imperial intrusion onto the land of other people.

So, really, just who is the villain here?

The Villain
If anyone intends to use Oren’s book to castigate or malign the Obama administration there is plenty of material here to mine.Do not be shy.  Go right ahead.I do not need to draw bullet points, just go into the index and choose the pet-peeve of your choice.{Mine is the apology to Erdogan which Oren actually approved of.}

An important truth of this book, however, is that while Oren is unsurprisingly kinder to Benjamin Netanyahu than he is to Barack Obama, he is also more than fair to Barack Obama.  This is not a book intended to smear anyone.  Oren is a well-respected historian and I, as someone who follows the conflict closely, found his portrayal of his central characters, including himself, to be decent.Obama is not a villain in this treatment because the writer, in terms of Obama versus Netanyahu, is not dealing in Good Guys versus Bad Guys.  He is doing his best to be fair while, simultaneously, keeping an eye on his own political future, in the coming years, within Israel as a Knesset member with the moderate Kulanu party.If there is a villain in Oren’s story it is not Barack Obama nor, obviously, Benjamin Netanyahu.The real villain is the news media.

Again and again throughout the book Oren castigates the news media for distorting the truth and Matti Friedman’s important contribution to this subject did not go beneath notice.

Oren writes:

Israel sells.  Arabs massacring Arabs in, say, Syria is a footnote, while a Palestinian child shot by Israeli soldiers is a scoop.  The racist undertones are clear but the reality, irrefutable.  And no one understands it better than the terrorists, Hamas and Hezbollah.  If they fire at Israeli civilians, Irael will retaliate and invariably kill the Palestnian and Lebanese civilians behind whom the terrorists hide.  The pictures will be gruesome, and if insufficiently so, the terrorists will manufacture them, exhuming bodies from morgues and graveyards.  The staged images, picked up by editorless blogs proliferate on the Internet.  Many will be reproduced, uncritically, by the mainstream press.

Oren has many significant criticisms of Barack Obama and understands his flaws as a product of western post-colonial ideology which, in my view, is correct.  The problem is not that Obama has malice toward Israel, but that he honestly believes that the Arabs have been abused under Israel due to circumstances that neither could well control.  Obama is sympathetic toward the plight of the Jews in the Middle East, but he is also sympathetic toward the local Arab population who he believes have been displaced and occupied.

The End
Ultimately the book is a terrific read because, throughout, Oren is on the run and he is a man with a mission and that mission is defending and protecting the Jewish State of Israel.  His take on Barack Obama, however, is fair.  He gives Obama credit where credit is due, but he also criticizes Obama in an honest and straight-forward manner, which is why this highly sensitive administration takes such objections to the book.
The main criticism that he has of Obama is that he is an ideologically-driven president who simply does not understand the Middle East.  Obama hoped that an unclenched American hand could meet an unclenched Islamic hand.  This is an admirable goal for any president of the United States, but the only happy faces that Obama is finding in the Middle East are in the faces of the Iranian ayatollahs.
And that is not good for either Israel or the United States or Europe or the Sunni-Arab states.No one is happy with the Iran nuke deal aside from the Iranians, Barack Obama, and some within the Democratic Party.Oren certainly is not.

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Michael Lumish is a PhD in American history from the Pennsylvania State University and has taught at PSU, San Francisco State University, and the City College of San Francisco. He regularly publishes on the Arab-Israel conflict at his own blog, Israel Thrives ( Lumish is also the founding editor of the scholarly on-line discussion forum H-1960s. He can be contacted at [email protected].