More results...

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

More results...

Generic selectors
Exact matches only
Search in title
Search in content
Post Type Selectors

Searching For Bridgebuilders: A Review of Michael Oren’s “Ally”

My coping mechanism, whenever I feel massive heartache over a global tragedy, has been to try and understand what made the tragedy possible. Maybe this is hubris or intellectual detachment on my part but I always feel better if I can describe the reality of the situation with some level of confidence.

The tragedy of October 7th and the continuing horror in Gaza have put me in that place. I want to understand as best as I can what is going on. I want to understand what conditions allow for such devastation. I want to understand how everyone sees each other.

Fundamentally I want to understand the truth, at least as best as I can approximate it.

“The first casualty when war comes is truth.”

This is the challenge of trying to understand complicated histories and controversial subjects. History veers into historiography and mythology and propaganda and it is difficult to figure out who can be trusted to present an accurate history. I don’t want to get caught up in a blame game or spend a lot of time watching horrific videos or go into a very negative place emotionally.

It’s easy to find bad guys. It’s easy to find people who make things worse. But the people who are trying in their own ways to make things just a tiny bit better are worth seeking out. Anyone who helps make tiny steps to close the gap is someone worth exploring and understanding in my opinion. So I have decided that I will spend some time focus on people who attempt, in their own ways, to be peacemakers. Last year I read I shall not hate by Izzeldin Abuelaish. I reviewed his book and his story of being a Palestinian doctor who was trained in Israel and has done work to improve direct communications between Israelis and Palestinians. His work has continued even after the devastating loss of his three daughters who were killed by Israeli tanks who blew up his home. I wanted to find someone on the Israeli side who shared similar goals for peace.

When I told my friend Rebecca about my goal she recommended that I read Michael Oren’s book Ally.

I will admit to my biases here. My main bias isn’t the one that people would suspect; I can be Arab and still be critical of Arab governments (Arabs have been long accustomed to having governments that don’t represent their interests). I try in that sense to be objective and call out what I see as best I can.

But I am strongly biased against government representatives. It doesn’t matter what government they represent, I tend to assume that they are lying. There is a term in Hebrew that I only recently learned; Hasbara. It doesn’t have an exact English translation. The most charitable definition would be “explaining”. The least charitable definition would be “propaganda”. I’ve split the proverbial baby down the middle and define it as “spin”.

All government spokespeople, regardless of their country, engage in Hasbara and I think its best to take anything they say with a healthy dose of skepticism.

So it was interesting to hear Michael Oren express his own skepticism about his ability to become an ambassador. Oren quoted the 17th century Henry Wotton who said “An ambassador is a man of virtue sent abroad to lie for his country.” This quote perfectly captures my feelings about statements made on behalf of any government; they have to be lies.

Despite the nature of his mission I got the impression that Oren managed to work as the Israeli ambassador with his honor mostly intact. The reason he was able to maintain a level of integrity not normally found in political spokesmen was because he set himself an achievable goal; he wanted to “unearth American truths and explain them to Israelis”.

Born and raised in New Jersey, Michael obviously understood American culture and American Jews. After moving to Israel in 1979 and living there for the majority of his adult life he came to understand Israeli culture. Earning his PhD from Princeton in Middle Eastern history sometime after his service in the IDF gave him the background and the contextual picture to articulate his positions from a disinterested point of view that could serve well as a communicator between the United States and Israel.

Ally tells the story of how Oren came to find himself as the ambassador and the trials and tribulations leading up to the ambassadorship (having to watch as his US passport was shredded upon renouncing his US citizenship) and the challenges that came with being ambassador and navigating the ups and downs of US and Israeli relations through major catastrophes.

In a previous life Oren was a historian and he brings his gifts to explain the evolution of the relationship between Israel and the United States in this book. He also does an excellent job of explaining some of the important cultural differences between American and Israeli Jews. I don’t think I quite realized until reading this book just how large of a divide exists between some parts of American Jews and Israeli Jews in terms of how they view the world and how they view Israel and Palestine. For most of the people drawn to reading a book like this that might be old news but for anyone who is trying to get a better grasp of how Israelis think politically Oren offers valuable insight.

I was incredibly moved by Oren’s description of the concept of “Tikkun Olam” meaning, literally “repair the world.” This concept is an ancient Jewish philosophy of reconnecting with the divine light of creation. This very much resonates with me and my life and desires. It also resonates with the good work that I saw when I worked at a Jewish school. The school had as part of its mission to foster Menschlichkeit – meaning something like “a man of great humanity”. I saw examples of that constantly as the school and the students engaged in community service and fundraising and drives to help people throughout the country. I was always moved by the generosity of spirit that I saw at the school.

I got the feeling that Oren and I are politically kindred spirits in the fact that we would both be comfortable labeling ourselves as political centrists.

Being a centrist is not easy in any country. You find animosity from both the left and right when you are in the middle. You would think that both sides would appreciate how you find merit in parts of their point of view but both sides focus on where you disagree.

For example, I would imagine that Oren did not win many friends in Israel by saying things like “Israel was certainly not lacking for policies, such as settlement building, that were difficult if not impossible to portray positively to the press. Our frequent need to resort to force and the growth of religiously observant communities tended to paint us in less than liberal colors.”

I imagine that despite his clear love of Israel that he received a lot of flack from the Israeli side for his descriptions of Israeli policy. But he also didn’t get much credit from those who support the Palestinian side for his characterization.

Centrists are often branded as cowards or of having no convictions. This is because people think emotionally and are rarely willing to engage in a dispassionate analysis of political situations. I think the centrists are people who would rather get some of what most people want and continue to make forward progress rather than stalling in the mud. Being a centrist means, in my opinion, that you are more interested in calling things as you see them rather than appealing to your side and beating your opponent.

In reading this book I feel that this is a man with whom I could find plenty of common ground.

Summary Review

My typical review questions need to change for a book like this. Since I am specifically looking for bridgebuilders I need to take that into account as I review any of these kinds of books. This might not be a category that other people find valuable but that is the number one thing I am searching for.

1. Was the writing compelling? Oren is a phenomenally gifted writer. He manages to balance in depth descriptions with fun and compelling stories. He offers everyone nuance and he doesn’t paint with a broad brush. He reminds me of some of my favorite professors – able to go into incredible levels of depth in any story or keep it light and fun at their choosing. I definitely plan on reading his history books and given the quality of his writing I am looking forward to reading his political thriller books down the road. (3/3 )

2. Did I learn anything of value? I learned a lot about how unbelievably difficult the political game is. Balancing the wants and needs of all the players is incredibly complicated and one that can’t be “won”. I also learned a lot about the differences in world view between Israelis and American Jews. Unsurprisingly there are areas where there is tremendous common ground and areas of significant difference. Oren does a phenomenal job of exploring these areas and trying to find ways to bring the sides together. (3/3)

3. Did I find what I was looking for? One of the main things I learned from reading this is that there are too many people and interested parties for an ambassador to be the kind of bridgebuilder I am looking for. It is clear that Ambassador Oren is a good man who worked incredibly hard to build bridges between American Jews and Israeli Jews. In this regard he is 100% a bridgebuilder. It is also clear that Ambassador Oren tried to build ties between Judaism and Islam within the culture of the Israeli ambassadorship; his introducing Iftar celebrations into the Israeli embassy was a great symbolic example of trying to connect cultures. I do not in any way want to detract from those victories. But the area that I was personally seeking was his efforts towards peace between Israel and Palestine. I think this was probably too much to ask of any government operative though. (1/3)

On my arbitrary scale I rate this book a 7/9. I think people who aren’t looking for the one thing I was seeking would probably rate this book higher. I enjoyed Oren’s work and recommend this book to anyone interested in working under the impossible conditions of diplomacy or anyone interested in US/Israel relations.

Selim Tlili is a high school science teacher who writes about science, education and literature.  
If you enjoy his work check out his website at

Scroll to Top