A young Jewish boy from a multi-ethnic New Jersey neighborhood is in New York City for the day at Central Park West and 81st Street, the Museum of Natural History.
His name is Michael Bornstein, and he is eagerly climbing the museum steps. It is the late 1960s, and the Vietnam War is escalating every day. In Israel, the June 1967 Six Day War is on the horizon. All of this, the young boy knows too well.
At the moment, though, he is distracted. He is staring at the famous statue of Teddy Roosevelt as a Rough Rider that sits in front of the museum entrance.
“I used to sit there as a kid and say, ‘Oh yes! I want to be just like that,'” Bornstein — who has since adopted the last name Oren — said of the Roosevelt statue that transfixed him throughout his childhood. “His was the kind of activist life that I wanted. So I sort of followed those dreams.”
But “sort of” doesn’t quite describe it. Before his 50th birthday, Oren may have surpassed even Roosevelt in terms of the diversity of roles he has played: historian, novelist, filmmaker, poet, explorer, paratrooper, athlete, mediator, columnist, Israeli advocate and — for the time being — a visiting professor at both Yale and Harvard.
And although Oren said his current work as one of the University’s most popular lecturers — his class, “America in the Middle East: 1776 to 2006,” attracted more than 200 students this semester — has been his most rewarding experience yet, Oren keeps dreaming.
As he finishes up the last chapter of his newest book, which covers much of the same material as his lecture course, the New York Times bestselling author of “Six Days of War” said he plans to enter production for a television miniseries, “Israel,” by next year. He laughed as he wondered aloud whether his lifelong desire to run for the post of Israeli prime minister will manifest itself one day.
“He’s so unpredictable,” said Zvika Krieger ’06, who saw Oren lecture at Yale in 2002 and was so inspired that he went to Israel to serve as Oren’s research assistant for three years. “He’s always looking for the next challenge in his life.”
And when there is no challenge readily available for Oren, he creates one for himself, just as he did 40 years ago as a long-haired Zionist hippie literary magazine editor in West Orange, N.J.
Oren was unusual for his ideological convictions, which may not have been common in a town like West Orange that he said was “caught in the 1950s — inextricably stuck in the world of bebop, pizza shops, pep rallies, and proms.” Oren’s strongest allegiance fell to a land 7,000 miles away: Israel. At age 14, he decided to spend his summers on a radical Kibbutz there.
“What excited me was the notion of Jews taking responsibility for themselves — for their lampposts and sewer systems — and that’s not something that we were doing in New Jersey,” said Oren, who herded cattle and picked alfalfa.
And in a burst of creative energy at age 17, Oren and his longtime best friend Paul Mones filmed a movie, “Comrades in Arms,” for $100. Mones said he was shocked and amused when he discovered the piece had won a contest that named it the best student movie in the country.
But soon after, Oren made what he called the hardest transition of his life, both abandoning his suburban background and deferring his dream of living in Israel. He moved to the big city, enrolling at Columbia University in New York. At Columbia, Oren simultaneously trained for two futures: one in academia and one in uniform. Although Mones said Oren was far from the top sports pick in West Orange, at Columbia he trained until he made the varsity rowing team.
Although Oren said he remembers facing anti-Semitism when someone wrote, “Are Jews White? Yes, But …” on the rowing team locker room wall, he said the academic environment was more conducive to open dialogue and free thought than it is today — at least in Middle East affairs.
“We could be open supporters of Israel in a Middle East studies department, and no one gave us a hard time,” he said. “We all took Arabic and had good relations with the Arab teachers. … That sanctity has broken down significantly today.”
But the comforts of Morningside Heights were soon replaced for Oren by the threat of entering the war zone that was the Golan Heights. He joined the Israeli Defense Forces, which he remains a part of to this day. Not only did Oren join a military known for its grueling training and constant activity, he tried out for its most elite unit: the Battalion 890 Paratroopers Brigade.
“At the time Mike and I were in the army, you could make the legitimate argument that we were not among the elite but that we were the elite,” said Dan Klionsky, a friend of Oren who met him in the 18-month training program. “Once, we marched 120 kilometers in full gear in 23 and a half hours. … We would jump out of airplanes with 110 pounds of gear at 800 feet and then carry this stuff, literally for days, in simulated environments.”
Klionsky said that of all the paratroopers, Oren had the best grasp on the full tactical and political motivation behind every move and was “always ready to see the big picture.”
The bestselling author
Oren soon made another transition, this time from battleground to the quiet town of Princeton, N.J., where he began graduate school. But he was restive and disinclined to accept the suddenly standard Orientalist approach to Middle East study that he said merely viewed the region as the byproduct of harsh and insensitive Western treatment. Thus Oren began to develop his own philosophy, which would later manifest itself in his books. In the meantime, though, he headed back to Israel.
“What drives Michael is curiosity and a very healthy ego, and also just great intentions,” Mones said. “I think he’s so meticulous and studious about what he does, and you can see it’s not just ego out there.”
Just as Oren often frames the decisions facing an American president as a choice between power or faith, he had to face another personal choice, between service and study. In the early 1990s, he settled on service, serving in Yitzhak Rabin’s cabinet as a moderator between religious groups experiencing tensions in Israel. Oren said that years after Rabin’s assassination, he would still find it hard to write about him.
“I used to tell my wife, ‘They’re going to assassinate somebody,’ but I never thought for a second that it was going to be Rabin,” Oren said. “They say that if you’re in politics, you have to have the [skin] of a rhinoceros. To be in Israeli politics, you have to have the skin of an Abrams tank.”
In Israel, Oren also married his wife Sally, who now works for Birthright and teaches tai chi on the side, and had three children, one of his favorite conversation topics.
In 2002, Oren published “Six Days of War,” which became a New York Times bestseller and Pulitzer Prize nominee. The Atlantic Monthly wrote of Oren’s book, “With a remarkably assured style, Oren elucidates nearly every aspect of the conflict. … His achievement as a writer and a historian is awesome.”
Daniel Yergin ’68, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, said he agreed to give a rare guest lecture in Oren’s class on Wednesday largely due to the reputation Oren gained from his book.
“Having worked on that subject myself, I know that his book on the ’67 war is a very impressive and dispassionate piece of scholarship,” Yergin said. “He’s one of the outstanding scholars really with a very high reputation right across the spectrum.”
But Norm Finkelstein, an outspoken critic of Israel, wrote a review claiming that Oren had falsified parts of the historical record and deliberately omitted well-known facts in order to lend more credence to Israel.
“He doesn’t even pretend to actually see it from the Arab side,” Finkelstein said. “It’s not a serious book. It’s just propaganda.”
Finkelstein said President George W. Bush ’68 drew on the success of Oren’s book, which depicts the preemptive Israeli strike on Egypt, as fuel for preemptively attacking Iraq in 2002.
But Jeremy Ershow ’06, who interned with Oren last summer, said Oren, who is now a frequent op-ed commentator in American publications, effectively sees the complexities of the issue.
“He’s a very patriotic Israeli who has the beliefs and convictions about the best way for that country to move forward,” Ershow said. “At the same time, I think that the same patriotism lends him to the view that [it’s important] to have an understanding of history as it actually happened, not as we wish it to happen.”
Oren himself said his views changed as he researched for the book. Although he had grown up as an enemy of Gabal Abdel Nasser, he began to understand the Egyptian leader’s value to the Arab people and also found that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson “was not the bad guy he was growing up.”
Oren, however, was still much the same as he was growing up. As always, he started to look for a new challenge.
When Bob Weil, executive editor of Norton Books, traveled to Israel for the Jerusalem book fair in 1999, he hoped for a new book pitch. But he never expected to find the warm persona of Oren who, they soon discovered, had a godmother who was a long lost cousin of Weil.
Weil says they became instant friends. One night soon after, they met over dinner.
“I said, ‘What’s the most important book that hasn’t been written on the Middle East?'” Weil said. “He felt, and I quickly concurred, that there had never been a one-volume, comprehensive history of America’s involvement in the Middle East. … As an editor, I always look for books that take us to new places, and I felt instinctively that this book was already in this category.”
The duo outlined the book’s structure at that very dinner — on a napkin. The rest, so to speak, was history, as Oren began the research that would bring him and his research team, consisting largely of Yale students, on a journey from George Washington’s struggle in the Barbary War through the establishment of Middle Eastern missionary movements in New Haven and the biblical messages of President Bill Clinton LAW ’73, as expressed through his necktie.
Ted Bromund, a Yale lecturer and assistant director of the University’s International Security Studies program, said Oren was hired to work at Yale because of his stellar lecture as part of the Grand Strategies lecture series as well as his unique focus on the importance of power in foreign relations.
Jessica Rubin ’09 said she altered her already-set schedule after listening to Oren deliver his third lecture.
“One of the most interesting lectures for me when he talked about how America is like the new Zion and the new Israel, and all these town names in the U.S. were based on town names in the Middle East,” she said. “I think it’s the way he does every lecture. All are just unbelievable. It’s told like a story.”
Jay Harris, chair of the Middle Eastern Studies Department at Harvard University, said Oren combines military history, general political history and contemporary matters in a way that sets him apart from many others. He said Harvard would “certainly love to have [Oren] back next year” as a guest lecturer. But, as with Yale, Oren has not solidified his plans for next year.
But Gul Raza ’06, past president of the Yale Muslim Students Association and a current student of Oren, said she would be hesitant to welcome him back.
“He’s obviously very brilliant, but I do sometimes think that he says things in lecture that are definitely debatable and aren’t necessarily very objective historical facts, though he presents them as such,” Raza said, expressing concern that the United States had been painted too benevolently by Oren. “If you don’t have any background, you’re likely to come away with an inaccurate perspective.”
Still, Martin Peretz, editor-in-chief of the New Republic, a publication to which Oren often contributes, said he is looking forward to the Middle East scholar’s new book.
“He’s a marvelous raconteur,” Peretz said. “I count myself among the people who know something about American policy in the Middle East and American attitudes in the Middle East since Jefferson, and I found that whatever he told me at least was new to me. He’s also such a lucid and elegant writer that it’s bound to interest readers and, more than that, cause a stir.”
Weil said explaining Oren’s popularity is not difficult. Just watch him, Weil said.
“Really, there’s an incandescent quality to him; He just lights up,” Weil said, hardly able to contain the enthusiasm in his voice. “He’s so inspiring. And you can also inspire him.”