Golden Envoy

Back as a boy in New Jersey, Michael Oren thought rowing would get him in shape for the IDF. He was wrong, but at least Israel?s new ambassador to Washington wound up with a few Maccabiah medals

'Ripeness is all,' Shakespeare lets us know. For athletes, and often for diplomats, timing is all. Israel's new ambassador to the United States is big on good timing - in fact, he credits it as the basis for some of his most productive achievements, finest moments and best memories.

Michael Oren's old-fashioned wristwatch requires winding twice daily. But it keeps perfect time and he wouldn't change it for the fanciest of modern timepieces. Michael's father wore the watch when serving with U.S. forces at Normandy in World War II and then again in Korea.

Perfect timing is at the heart of Michael's sport, rowing, "which led to three of my best-ever moments - winning two Maccabiah gold medals and one silver."

Timing was also a key factor in a decision that was to shape Michael's life and career. At the age of 18 he was working on a kibbutz and had to decide whether he should return at the end of the summer to take up the spot he'd won at Columbia University, or postpone his studies and do what he really wanted to do: serve in an Israeli army combat unit.

Timing has also been critical in Michael Oren's decision to take up the offer to represent Israel in Washington "at a time which is certainly going to be challenging in the U.S.-Israeli relationship," he says with a wry smile and a glint in his eye. He ought to know just how challenging - his award-winning 2007 book, "Power, Faith, and Fantasy: America in the Middle East, 1776 to the Present," (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007) spent eight weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. It followed his thorough history of the seminal Arab-Israeli war, "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Oxford University Press, 2002).

On the other hand, the story behind one 'ill-timed' moment bears revealing, if only because it continues to grate even after 32 years. Ambassador Oren tells it with feeling: "At the 1977 Maccabiah, the U.S. rowing team was, frankly, at a different level from the rest of the competitors. [It was fours - the Yarkon River isn't wide enough to accommodate full eights races.] We were favored to win everything, and duly won two golds. But we had to borrow boats from the Israeli Rowing [Federation], and in that third event, just a few dozen yards from the finish line on the Yarkon, our boat literally fell apart."

"We were about a zillion yards ahead of the Argentine crew, and though we kind of paddled, half-swam our way to the finish, they passed us and rowed across the line ahead of us. Given the circumstances, and banking on sportsmanship, we were sure they would agree to a re-race. It was galling, but they insisted on letting the result stand. We had to do with the silver medal to add to our two golds."

In these global times, sport has come to be an important factor for many migrants, either in prompting the decision to move to a different country or in helping them find their way in their new land. Hebrew University Professor Emeritus Billy Daleski used to say, only half-jokingly, that the reason he immigrated was "to get my yarmulke (in the spirit of win my cap, as British and Commonwealth athletes do when selected for their national team)." Another cricket-loving immigrant to Israel from South Africa adds, "It was the only way I could get to play cricket for my country."

Barack Obama could clearly appreciate that: The U.S. president recently revealed that, during the lengthy campaign for the White House, whenever he got tired of delving into relentless briefing papers, he would find solace in a much-lauded recent novel about cricket-playing immigrants in New York.

Much of the narrative force in Joseph O'Neill's "Netherland", about life in the United States post-9/11, is carried by a complex character - one Chuck Ramkissoon, an immigrant Jay Gatsby and Trinidadian dreamer. He says things like, "My motto is, 'Think fantastic'," and dreams of changing his adopted country by converting America's masses to cricket.

Adventure in a cowshed

Sport didn't work exactly that way in shaping Michael Oren's life and career, but they definitely had considerable bearing on how his "fantastic" life in Israel would unfold. Just being at the Maccabiah had long been a dream. "I don't really know where it came from," he says. "I grew up in a mildly passive Zionist family in suburban New Jersey, but as far back as I can remember all I wanted was to come and live in Israel."

Every summer from the age of 15, Michael would use the money he'd earned throughout the rest of the year doing odd jobs - shoveling snow, raking leaves, cleaning windows - to enable him to come to Israel to work on a kibbutz. "It was my idea of heaven, totally romantic, the great adventure to be working in the fields or in the cowshed." He also wanted to learn Hebrew. "I had to do my bar mitzvah in transliteration," he confesses. Then, that critical decision - Columbia or the paratroops? Reluctantly, since Columbia doesn't take undergraduates over 20 and the army would always be there, he decided to return to America to study first. He completed both his BA and MA degrees in international relations.

Much of his time, however, was devoted to a different pursuit.

He'd always been a fairly avid athlete, especially in tennis and baseball, but on return to New York that summer he made a calculated decision - "to take up the hardest possible sport in order to prepare myself to be ready to join the army down the line." He chose rowing. He'd never rowed before, but it captured him heart and soul, becoming almost as much a draw as Israel itself.

"I hadn't realized what I was letting myself in for, however: four to six hours training and rowing on the Hudson - all year long. The operative word is insane; it's so hard that you end a race literally fainting or throwing up. You run marathons just to keep in shape. "I was the smallest in the eights, just 1.92 meters and weighing 80 kilos. I had to get my bulk up and keep it up," he chuckles at the memory - "breakfasts of steak, half a dozen raw eggs and bone powder. Still, the only reason I was good was not my strength, but my good fortune to have a natural sense of rhythm. If the coach or the cox wanted me to do 36 strokes a minute they'd get it, or 42 - right on the nose again, like a clock." That gave him a natural post in the boat, the stroke.

After completing his studies, he returned to Israel in 1979 to join the army. "Maybe a week into basic training, I realized that all that preparation through the rowing was actually useless. I was in pretty good physical shape, but I had to accept then - one week into 17 months of basic training - that what we were being asked was to go beyond the bounds of physical exhaustion."

Motivation makes up the leeway - this is Michael's view on how recruits get through the tough challenge of making it in the Israel Defense Forces' elite units. Michael had bucketsful. He went on to become a paratroop officer, serving in the first Lebanon war. In subsequent IDF wars and campaigns he served as a liaison officer with foreign militaries and with the foreign media.

In between, he returned to the United States to do graduate work at Princeton, where he again plunged into his beloved rowing. Before immigrating, in order to make the Maccabiah team, he'd made a point of learning how to skull (which they don't do much in America) in addition to the traditional sweep rowing. As at Columbia, he found himself the only Jew in the rowing club. He doesn't recall any overt anti-Semitism that would have reflected an infamous slogan which had been attached to Princeton in an earlier generation - 'No Jew in the crew.'

But as Oren (then Bornstein) notes, Waspish predilections came to the fore in graffiti that someone had scrawled in the bathroom stall of the rowing club boathouse: "Are Jews White?" and underneath the answer, "Yes, but..." Apparently, no one ever thought to rub away the message.

In 1977, Michael had been good enough to get accepted into the first round of the U.S. Olympic Trials for the forthcoming 1980 Moscow Games(which, in the end, America boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan). The Maccabiah tryout was held at the same time as the Olympic trials, both at Dartmouth.

"I was never good enough, or big enough, to get onto a U.S. Olympic team, and was just delighted to have gotten as far as I did by passing a couple of rounds of selection," he says. "Dick Grossman, a legendary coach, and Jewish himself, very kindly said that if I'd been bigger, I might well have made the Olympic squad." The promise of the Maccabiah was more than compensation.

"Undoubtedly [a very big] moment in my life was to be selected to carry the U.S. flag through the streets of Jerusalem in the closing parade of the 10th Maccabiah. The Maccabiah helps you realize that Israel isn't only about conflict; it's also about athleticism and striving for excellence. I'm going to say something that sounds corny, but the commitment to physicality in the full sense of the word is so in tune with the Zionist ideal. Part of the essence of Jewish renewal is not only the investing in physicality, but being prepared to revel in it."

A most absorbing time

Michael, now 54, has since kept up his rowing, on and off. It has, however, needed to take a backseat to a soaring career as a historian, and as a fluent and ardent spokesman for Israel, which has won him plaudits for the original way he presents Israel's predicaments in various world forums. And now, too, as he assumes Israel's most important overseas diplomatic role.

With another quiet smile, he dismisses a statement by a journalist friend that he's "not a political animal," even though it was accompanied by the prediction "that's why he'll succeed in Washington."

"Certainly, that's true in the respect that I'm not affiliated with any political party," Ambassador Oren notes - his roots are in Labor Zionism, whereas now he serves a Likud-led government. "But I certainly regard myself as a political commentator."

Speaking to reporters in the United States earlier this year, he said that "I have one ideology, I'm a Zionist." He noted how "I believe in the existence of an independent, sovereign, strong and secure Jewish state. A state that is closely allied with the U.S."

He's a Zionist through and through, but no dewy-eyed idealist prepared to ignore Israel's warts. This is the analyst who posited Israel's dilemmas under the title "Seven Existential Threats," published this past May in the conservative Jewish publication Commentary. The threats included Israeli societys internal rifts and blemishes.

He was also quoted in The New York Times after the collapse of a makeshift bridge over the Yarkon at the 1997 Maccabiah and the death of four Australian participants. This set off an unusual round of painful soul-searching among Israelis about their attitudes toward order and death. He said the deaths and injuries of scores more were "indicative of what Israel has come to represent - not strength and stamina, but recklessness and greed. Not rebirth, but indifference to human life."

It was most upsetting, he says. Immediately, though, he takes us back to "amazing" Israel and "the unique feeling of togetherness that we have here." He came to our chat directly from a meeting in a nearby cafe with Noam Shalit, father of the kidnapped Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit: "Every half a minute someone came up to wish him well, offer a prayer, and wanted to know what they could do to help secure his release," Oren says.

So where does Israel go? Asked about the quote attributed to him from a lecture at Georgetown University in March, he insists it was taken out of context: "I may be the last of the standing unilateralists ... the only thing that can save Israel as a Jewish state is by unilaterally withdrawing our settlements from the West Bank, and waiting for a new Palestinian leadership."

He does not, however, hide the fact that when serving in the IDF during the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, the abrasive attitude of the resisting settlers was "deeply traumatic." On peace prospects, he says firmly, "Israel has now a strong, courageous leadership that is committed to the peace process - though, first and foremost, it is committed to the security of Israel."

Here we're getting awfully close to hard politics, which, since he hadn't yet been installed as ambassador (this interview was conducted before Oren presented his credentials to the State Department), was 'out' for this particular interview. He chooses to recall another seminal moment in his life, when as a teenager in a Zionist youth movement he was among a group taken to meet Yitzhak Rabin, then fresh from the triumph as chief of staff in the Six-Day War and not long before becoming Israel's ambassador to Washington. "That definitely pointed me somewhere," Michael says.

For a time he worked for the Rabin government, but is now particularly pleased that "The government I'll be serving reflects broadly the great bulk of the Israeli people. What's more, I believe this is an era when we are truly closer to peace than we have been - it really will be a most absorbing time."

No less, because he hopes to find a way to convince the embassy security men that taking to the Potomac to resume an interrupted rowing career won't be considered off limits.