June 30, 2015

Jerusalem Notebook: Christians, Israel and Michael Oren

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by Useful Group

I have spoken with dozens of American Christian visitors to Israel during my nine years in Jerusalem, especially since the 2008 election of President Barack Obama. As the years have passed, their troubled thoughts and uneasy observations about the present American administration and its policies have steadily increased.

An enormous amount of written material has made its way from my inbox, past my eyes and into my trash folder. I have received blogs, articles, emails, jokes and more. Some are clever and articulate, some are misspelled and some are nearly incoherent. But every one of them communicates a sense of apprehension.

Many of these concerns relate to religious freedom and minority persecution, both in the United States and abroad. Others are economic, philosophical and ideological. Still others are concerned about America’s increasingly strained relationship with the Jewish State. Naturally, most correspondents are quick to say that the American people still “support Israel.”

But what about the American president?

A lot of Christians are aware of shifting global alliances; they share an eagerness to uncover possible fulfillments of biblical prophecy. Others wonder if the president is secretly Islamic. Still others – those from more international backgrounds – have taken me by surprise with the deep fears and dangers they intuit, in large part because of current American policies vis-à-vis Israel.

Since my earliest days in Jerusalem, I have been impressed with the work of one particular scholar, Michael Oren. I met him while he was part of an elite think tank at Shalem Center – the Adelson Institute for Strategic Studies – where he worked in the company of his good friend and fellow author Yossi Klein Halevi, as well as with today’s Minister of Defense Moshe Ya’alon, all under the direction of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky.

Before Oren served as an Israeli ambassador to the U.S. from 2009 – 2013, he was already well known in Israel as an historian and best-selling author. His book “Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East” is an authoritative record that also happens to be beautifully written. It’s not every day that a history book is also a page-turner.

The same could be said of another of Oren’s offerings, “Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present.” Released in 2007, it was acclaimed by historians and critics alike.

This book introduced me to Oren.

One of the first things I learned about him was that Oren holds America’s Christians in high regard. In a conversation with him, he told me about the research he’d embarked upon while writing “Power, Faith and Fantasy” and how it had revealed America’s deep connections to the Jewish State and the greater Middle East – powerful bonds that were strongly rooted in Christian faith and biblical belief.

One of the book’s fascinating aspects is the link it discloses between the first decades of American history and Islam. Between 1801 and 1805, the newly formed U.S. Marine Corps waged fierce battles against the Barbary Pirates, merciless thugs who ruled the high seas along “the shores of Tripoli.”

These Muslims were in the business of ravaging ships, kidnapping fair-skinned western women to be sold (at premium prices) as slaves or to various harems, and abducting naval officers who were held for huge amounts of ransom (some of the men were given the choice of conversion to Islam or death).

It turns out that America’s earliest military involvement in the Middle East was aggressive, ferocious and successful.

Oren reported that in the meantime, as early as 1819, the first Protestant missionaries left Boston for the Middle East “with the goal of restoring Palestine to Jewish sovereignty” along with saving souls.

The Christian dream of “restoration” – re-establishing exiled Jews in their Promised Land – was a powerful influence.

En route to the New World, the Puritans took the concept with them to Holland, where they petitioned the Dutch government to ‘transport Izraell’s sons and daughters … to the Land promised their forefathers … for an everlasting Inheritance.’

Harvard College President Increase Mather went so far as to call ‘…for the destruction of the Ottoman Empire to make way for the Jews’ return.’

Oren told me that this early American heritage was both moving and motivating to him. It inspired him to seek solid footing with today’s American Christian community.

Even more such insights emerge from the pages of Michael Oren’s newly released book “Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide,” which was launched just over a week ago. There he also speaks of the American founders’ generation, which “felt a powerful responsibility for restoring the Old Israel to the original Promised Land. ‘I really wish the Jews in Judea an independent nation,’ John Adams, America’s second president professed.”

Oren went on to say,

Discovery of this “restorationist” strand in mainstream American thinking came as a shock to me, and a deep source of gratification. I felt as if Adams was validating a belief that quietly guided my life. Beyond their common strategic interests, Israel and the United States were spiritually and morally bound.

Historical American Christians and their views about Israel are certainly intriguing. However, that topic is a far cry from the primary focus of Michael Oren’s electrifying new book.

For Christians who continue to wrestle with troublesome questions about Obama, his foreign policy and his treatment of the Jewish State, Oren’s book “Ally” is essential reading.

Even before it appeared on bookstore shelves or flickered to life on Kindle screens, “Ally’s” early buzz had already stirred up a political and diplomatic firestorm. The book provides a surprisingly personal inside look at Oren’s four-year tenure as Israel’s ambassador to the United States. Fortunately for his readers, Oren – who clearly took careful notes from beginning to end of his tenure – is eloquent, candid and thorough.

Ally” has received glowing reviews. John Podhoretz, the editor of Commentary Magazine, wrote in The New York Post, “Michael Oren is going to be the talk of Washington and Jerusalem. I’m not sure that in the annals of diplomatic history there’s ever been anything quite like this astonishing account of Oren’s four years as Israel’s ambassador in Washington. It’s an ultimate insider’s story told while all the players save Oren are still in place.”

In the Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon explained, “‘Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israel Divide,’ is a first-hand account of ‘mistrust, mistakes and missed opportunities’ that Oren saw as ambassador from 2009 to 2013, with ‘Obama in the role of bully in chief.’ In the book he reportedly describes how Israel was continuously blamed for lack of progress on the diplomatic front, while the Palestinians were given a free pass.”

Other interested parties – particularly those who represent Obama’s political orientation or administration – are less than pleased with Oren’s outspoken and revealing account of his Washington years. He has faced criticism for everything from dishonesty to disingenuous book promotion to dabbling in psychobabble.

“Michael Oren published an imaginary account of what happened,” U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro said. “I disagree with what he wrote. He was an ambassador in the past, but he is now a politician and an author who wants to sell books.”

Yair Lapid, former finance minister and leader of the Yesh Atid party, told Israel radio that Oren’s claim of Muslim influence on the U.S. president was “utter nonsense” and “pseudo-psychological analysis not based on anything.”

Interestingly, a majority of such critiques – and there are a number of them – do not dispute specific facts or personal accounts in “Ally.” As the saying goes, they simply attack the messenger because they are displeased with the message.

After I read Oren’s book, I spoke with him and thanked him for addressing so many of the concerns I’ve heard expressed by Christian friends, both in Jerusalem and in the United States: worries about Obama’s political philosophy, his warm embrace of Islam and his hard-nosed attitude toward Israel and, specifically, Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

Oren’s new book addresses many of our doubts and goes a long way in explaining what’s been happening behind the scenes since 2009.

But as far as our spiritual questions are concerned – precise answers about the deepest intentions of our leaders, the fate of their misbegotten plans, and the outcome of the tumultuous times in which we’re living– those answers are yet to be revealed.

Still, other realities are undeniable. We can cherish the powerful words of the Bible’s poets and prophets and kings. We can rely on the ancient wisdom they contain. And we can trust the One who inspired them – whose promises remain true yesterday, today and forever:

Woe to those who call evil good, and good evil; Who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness; Who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter…

Rest in the Lord and wait patiently for Him;
Do not fret because of him who prospers in his way,
Because of the man who carries out wicked schemes.
Cease from anger and forsake wrath;
Do not fret; it leads only to evildoing.
For evildoers will be cut off,
But those who wait for the Lord, they will inherit the land.

 [Isaiah 5:20; Psalm 37:7-9 NASB]