A Conversation with Michael Oren
When Michael Oren was asked by his editor, “What book about the Middle East has yet to be written but needs to be?” he reached for the story he felt had yet to be told—one particularly salient in the context of Sept. 11 and the war in Iraq. Given the decisions facing the United States, Oren, a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center, felt that it was important to explore that comprehensive history of America's involvement in the Middle East, in order to present a more complete context to judge US policies. He discovered that a protracted, complex, and intense relationship has existed for centuries, much longer than the one commonly perceived by most Americans. Naturally, long-term trends—for example, the ongoing debate on force vs. diplomacy—should and do impact American behavior today.
But beyond this chronology, Oren’s Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present contains a sub-issue—the evolution of American norms vis-à-vis Zionism, a discussion particularly relevant to American Israelis. During repeated references to both Arab and Jewish nationalism in the region, Oren details a rising American ambivalence towards Zionism, caused by a gradual recalibration of previously aligned values.
Support of Jewish nationalism first manifested itself in the US via the concept of restorationism, the belief prevalent among many American Christians, that sovereignty in the land of Israel needed to be returned to the Jews. In the 1800s, many Christians acted upon these values by becoming missionaries in the Middle East. Finding themselves in an environment hostile to proselytizing, they resorted to teaching civil, instead of religious, values; Oren says they went from “teaching the gospel to teaching what they referred to as the gospel of Americanism: civic virtues of democracy and patriotism.”
At the end of World War I, however, civic values manifested themselves differently, given the changing political environment in the Middle East. With the Ottoman Empire replaced by the colonial powers of the United Kingdom and France, restorationism —which in practice was translated into support of Zionism—came into conflict with Arab nationalism. The Jewish national movement was now perceived as being in competition with other regional movements for self-determination; America’s long-held ideological support for restorationism no longer easily coexisted with overarching ideological support for nationalism among colonial populations. Consequently, Oren notes, “Today there are two Americas: what began in Puritan times as a twosided vision has become a deeply polarized vision—one a vision of multiculturalism and secularism and one a faith-guided view, which is very much engaged with Eretz Israel and imbued with religious fervor.” In other words, the evolution of civic and spiritual views over time has created a divide between traditional ideological support for Israel and a more modern belief in secular multiculturalism in America today.
While Oren maintains he “[does not] see a substantive change in US policy towards Israel in the near future,” the abovementioned divergence nonetheless evokes a few conundrums in terms of identity for American Zionists and Israeli-Americans. For those who embrace multiculturalism as the mainstay of their Americanism, for example, it seems that American and Israeli identities would compete for primacy. Even worse, for those who view American identity by other standards, the implicit suggestion still seems to be that pro-Israeli support relies to some degree on traditional missionary zeal of American Christians. With all due respect to Oren’s predictions of strategic consistency, the motivations behind pro-Israel policies are growing increasingly complicated and it can be argued that these are more important than the actual policies in evidence.
Oren, who self-identifies as both Israeli and American, seemed to have no crisis of identity. He said he approached the book with “absolutely no preconceptions” as to the nature of the final product. Methodologically, he stayed consistent to historical documents, and refrained from use of loaded terminology that could be affiliated with one particular side of the debate. However, it can be argued that Oren mitigated overt personal conflicts of identity by framing the book around a purely American perspective and shying away from the ramifications of US policy towards Israel. Interesting to read would be a follow-up analysis which features the Israeli angle with greater prominence. Until then, Power, Faith and Fantasy has many merits as a well-researched, multi-faceted and thoroughly engaging work.
Noa Levanon made aliyah almost five years ago. She completed service as an officer in the IDF’s Liaison and Foreign Relations Division, and is now studying for a Master’s degree in International Relations and Conflict Research at Hebrew University.