Former Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren ushered in the Jewish New Year on social media in a way that opened him up to a wave of online ridicule and left many Israelis scratching their heads in puzzlement.
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Unlike the traditionally brief and festive Rosh Hashanah greetings posted by leaders from Barack Obama to Justin Trudeau to Benjamin Netanyahu, Oren chose to post a lengthy 18-minute video on his Facebook page where he delivers a speech that sounds like a cross between a confessional therapy session, a minister’s sermon and a pro-Israel university lecture.
Called “Israel - The Antidote for Neo-Paganism,” Oren discusses his own religious views and his critique of those who mix spirituality and politics, before pivoting into praise of Israel’s accomplishments.
Oren, a Knesset member for the Kulanu party, was named Deputy Minister of Public Diplomacy in the Prime Minister’s Office during a cabinet reshuffle in August. He has remained relatively low profile since then and it hasn’t been clear exactly what his new role entails.
On Rosh Hashanah eve, however, he hit the public spotlight by posting the video, which immediately grabbed attention - garnering 40,000 views and counting.
Across Facebook and Twitter, and after the holiday, in the Hebrew-language media, there was strong reactions to the speech. Most were negative, calling it “embarrassing,” “surreal,” “cuckoo,” “freakish,” and even “deranged rambling.” Others disapproved of what they perceived as his disparagement of alternative forms of spirituality, beginning by the title of the speech, commenting that his message “managed to express his bigotry to all of the billions who have a different concept of God and spirituality than the Abrahamic one.”
Some of the comments on social media said it sounded like it was directed not at Oren’s constituents or to Jews around the world celebrating the new year, but at a conservative evangelical Christians in the U.S. and that the style of the video - the lengthy preaching, the multiple camera angles, reminded them of the “700 Club.”
“Move over Pat Robertson, there's a new televangelist in town,” one commenter wrote.
Between the snarky comments and barbed commentary on shares displayed below the video on Oren’s page, however, were sprinkled compliments and praise for the speech, along with warm wishes for the New Year, particularly from his American fans. One commenter wrote, “Inspiring, I am SO PROUD of our USA ambassador Michael Oren for speaking with such sheer courage and poetic bravura.”
Filmed in a flag-draped office tableau similar to the recent blitz of Netanyahu English language videos, Oren’s speech was opens and closes with a personal confession that “as a child I was very different. I was exceptionally different. I was weird.”
He explained that while other kids played sports after school, he stayed alone, and went “wandering off in the woods” and “I enjoyed speaking with God.”
He then contrasts his earnest youthful entreaties to God to the politicized religion of today where people’s faith dictates their stands on issues like gay marriage, settlements and Zionism and that “this is different than the way Jews have interacted with God for thousands of years. Ever since they pioneered the idea of one God with one universal morality, In fact, what I was hearing reminded me less of that revolutionary idea of monotheism than it did of ancient paganism.”
Reviewing - at length - the biblical story of Abraham and the dawn of monotheism, he said the “universal morality” of the Old Testament is being threatened by what he dubbed “neo-paganism,” those who “expect the God who dwells in my house of worship to embrace policies identical to mine. To affirm and even sanctify my political and moral agenda.”
Later, Oren shifted from religion to hasbara, describing to the creation of modern Israel “ surrounded by enemies yearning to destroy it” that “remains one of the very few countries in the world never to have known a second of non-democratic governance.”
Israel “beat the odds, and is today listed as one of the world’s ten most powerful nations. In medicine, computer science, average longevity, even citizen satisfaction, we are global leaders. Israel stood apart—indeed, often we stood alone—but, in doing so, we set an example for all of humanity.”
He further boasted proudly that Israel “exports wine to France, caviar to Russia, gluten free pasta to Italy, and cherry tomatoes to the United States.”
Noting how visitors from Paris marvelled at how few soldiers were on the streets of Tel Aviv as compared to the heavy security in their city, he said, “Our European friends have not yet figured out what Israel has long known—that a modern liberal society can stand up for itself--humanely, morally--and fight. The Israel Defense Forces are larger than the combined armies of France and Britain.”
He then returned to his confession: “As I kid, I was different, I confess. As a kid, I was weird. Perhaps that’s why I felt so Jewish. We are a different people. A people unafraid of being different or being called weird—indeed, we’re proud of it.”