Oren has written books, articles, and essays on Middle Eastern history, and is the author of the New York Times best-selling Power, Faith and Fantasy and Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, which won the Los Angeles Times History Book of the Year Award and the National Jewish Book Award. Oren has been a visiting professor at Harvard, Yale, and Georgetown universities in the United States and at Tel Aviv and Hebrew universities in Israel. He was a Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem and a contributing editor to The New Republic. The Forward named Oren one of the five most influential American Jews and The Jerusalem Post listed him as one of the world’s ten most influential Jews.
Oren retired as ambassador to the United States in 2013, replaced by Ron Dermer. In the 2015 Israeli election, Oren was elected to the Knesset for the centrist Kulanu party.
Oren was born Michael Scott Bornstein in upstate New York, the son of Marilyn (née Goldstein), a marriage and family therapist, and Lester Milton Bornstein, a hospital director. His father had served as an officer in the U.S. Army who took part in the D-Day invasion of Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 and participated in the Korean War. Oren grew up in West Orange, New Jersey, in a Conservative Jewish household. He attended West Orange High School. As the only Jewish boy in a heavily Catholic neighborhood, he says he experienced antisemitism. In his youth, he was an activist in Zionist and Jewish youth groups such as United Synagogue Youth. A meeting with then–Israeli ambassador to the United States, Yitzhak Rabin, strengthened Oren's decision to move to Israel. Reading about Rabin sparked Oren's interest in the Israeli ambassadorship to Washington, a post he would eventually attain. Oren won two gold medals at the 1977 Maccabiah Games in rowing, a sport in which he remains active. At age 15, he made his first trip to Israel with the youth movement Habonim Dror, working on Kibbutz Gan Shmuel. In 1973, Oren won first prize in the PBS National Young Filmmaker’s contest for the film, Comrades in Arms, which he wrote and directed. In the summer of 1976, he worked as gofer for Orson Welles.
In 1977 Oren completed his undergraduate degree from Columbia College. He continued his studies at Columbia, receiving a Masters in International Affairs in 1978 from the School of International and Public Affairs, where he was an International Fellow and a DACOR Fellow. After college, he spent a year as an adviser to the Israeli delegation to the United Nations.
In 1979 Oren emigrated to Israel. Upon assuming Israeli citizenship, he changed his last name from "Bornstein" to "Oren", meaning "pine tree" in Hebrew. (He renounced his American citizenship in 2009 upon his nomination as ambassador to the United States, since Israeli law prohibits international representatives from holding dual nationality.)
A few years later Oren returned to the United States to continue his education, studying at Princeton University. In 1986 he earned an MA and a Ph.D. in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton.
In 1982 he married Sally Edelstein, who was born in San Francisco and immigrated to Israel in 1981. They have three children. In an article published in The Atlantic, Jeffrey Goldberg profiled Sally's acquaintance with rock stars Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jefferson Airplane. Marty Balin, one of the main songwriters of Jefferson Airplane, wrote two songs about her in the 1960s.
Oren's nephew is comedian Jon Rudnitsky.
In 1979, Oren began his military service in the Israel Defense Forces. He served as a paratrooper in the 1982 Lebanon War. His unit was caught in a Syrian ambush on the second day of the war. His commander was killed and nearly everyone was wounded. He then joined a unit stationed in Sidon. A day after his wedding, in the summer of 1982, Oren returned to Beirut.
Following his regular military service, Oren volunteered to work with the Zionist underground in the Soviet Union. Sent to make contact with Zionist groups in Ukraine, he was repeatedly arrested by the KGB.
During the Persian Gulf War he was Israeli liaison officer to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. He was called up for reserve duty for the 2005 Gaza disengagement, and participated in the evacuation of settlements. He served as an officer in the IDF Spokesman's Office during the 2006 Lebanon War. and the 2008–2009 Gaza War.
In February 2009, he delivered a lecture at Georgetown University on "The Gaza Operation: A Personal and Historical Perspective". The Today Show broadcast a special segment, "The Oren Family at War."
In the 1980s and early 1990s, Oren taught at Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv University. In 1995, during the government of Yitzhak Rabin, Oren served as an advisor in inter-religious affairs at the Ministry of Religious Affairs.
In 2006, Oren was a visiting professor at both Harvard University and Yale University, returning to Yale in 2007. Beginning in 2008, he became a visiting professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service for the 2008–09 academic year as part of the faculty associated with the Program for Jewish Civilization.
President George W. Bush appointed Oren to serve on the honorary delegation to accompany him to Jerusalem for the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the State of Israel in May 2008.
While working at a think-tank in Jerusalem, Oren publicly opposed the 2003 Iraq war, believing at the time that America "should not get involved in state-building in a region where states are only held together by savage central power."
On May 3, 2009, Oren was appointed as ambassador of Israel to the United States by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, succeeding Sallai Meridor. Ambassador Oren had to give up his United States citizenship in order to assume this post.
Oren strongly criticized the United Nations Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict report, which determined Israel was guilty of possible war crimes. In an October 2009 op-ed in The New Republic, he stated, "The Goldstone Report goes further than Ahmadinejad and the Holocaust deniers by stripping the Jews not only of the ability and the need but of the right to defend themselves."
In October 2009, Oren declined an invitation to attend a conference hosted by J Street, an Israel advocacy group, which has been critical of the Israel government's foreign policy. Oren called J Street "a unique problem" and that "it's significantly out of the mainstream." However, the two have since come to a more congenial understanding, with Oren stating that "J Street has now come and supported Congressman [Howard] Berman's Iran sanction bill; it has condemned the Goldstone Report; it has denounced the British court's decision to try Tzipi Livni for war crimes, which puts J Street much more into the mainstream."
Oren has initiated Israel outreach events for Irish Americans, Latino and LGBT leadership, and the Chinese embassy. He hosted the Israeli embassy’s first Iftar dinner.
On February 8, 2010, Oren spoke at the University of California, Irvine. During his speech Oren was interrupted by 11 protesters who shouted, "Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech," and "How many Palestinians did you kill?" The outburst and subsequent arrest of the protesters sparked controversy over whether the protesters were exercising free speech, as they claimed they were, or whether it was a suppression of free speech (i.e., of the right of Oren and his audience to a free exchange of ideas), as university officials claimed. On September 23, 2011, a jury convicted 10 Muslim students, 7 from UC Irvine and 3 from UC Riverside, of disrupting Oren's February 2010 speech. The charges and conviction were criticized by civil liberties advocates, as well as both Jewish and Muslim student groups.
Oren has lectured at universities across the United States, including Tufts University, George Washington University, Harvard University, Emory University, University of California, Davis, University of Chicago, Northeastern University, Northwestern University, Penn State, Rice University, Dickinson College, Florida International University, Columbia University, University of Maryland, American University, the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California and the United States Naval Academy.
Following the Gaza flotilla raid in May 2010, Oren wrote an op-ed in The New York Times, "An Assault, Cloaked in Peace", in which he accused the organizers of the flotilla of attempting to "create a provocation" in order to "put international pressure on Israel to drop the Gaza embargo". He further made the claim that the Mavi Marmara was "a vessel too large to be neutralized by technical means".
Oren attempted to influence a critical 2012 CBS report by Bob Simon about Palestinian Christians in Israel, with some calling his interference an attempt to silence the American media. Oren responded that at no point had he tried to prevent the 60 Minutes report, rather that he offered suggestions for balancing the segment.
On July 5, 2013, he announced that he would be leaving his post as ambassador to the United States in fall 2013. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, insiders say that Oren wanted to keep his job, but was removed because Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's senior advisor Ron Dermer wanted the envoy post.
Oren has received four honorary doctorates and has delivered commencement speeches at Brandeis, Monmouth University, and Yeshiva University. In 2011, he received the Outstanding Achievers with Learning Disabilities Award from the Lab School of Washington, D.C. He delivered the keynote address at 2012 Equality Forum on LGBT rights in Israel.
Oren has written many articles commenting on current political issues. Before assuming his diplomatic post, he published frequently in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic, where he was a contributing editor. He appeared on Charlie Rose, The Daily Show, the Today Show, and he John Batchelor Show. As ambassador, he has published nearly forty op-eds and has given dozens of television interviews, including Bill Maher, Colbert Report, The View, and The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer.
His two full-length articles "Israel: The Ultimate Ally" and "Israel's Resilient Democracy", were published in Foreign Policy magazine.
In July 2014 Oren argued against a ceasefire and for the continuation of the 2014 Israel–Gaza conflict, calling on the international community to leave Israel alone to defang and deprive Hamas of its heavy arms and make it pay a "prohibitive cost."
On June 15, 2015 Oren gave a speech at the Leonardo Hotel in Jerusalem, in which he said that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement poses a "strategic threat" to Israel, which needs to fight it "like a war, which it is". He also warned that the U.S. is gambling with Israel's future over Iran, saying that the U.S. "can afford to make a mistake" with them, while "Israel has zero room for error", adding: "The United States has the most powerful army in all of history, they're thousands of miles away from Iran, and they don't feel any direct threat. Israel is in Iran's backyard, and faces a clear and direct threat from Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah and Hamas. The IDF is a strong military force, but does not have the capacity and magnitude the US Army has to deter aggression."
Also during June 2015, an op-ed piece by Oren published in the Wall Street Journal claimed that Barack Obama had deliberately sabotaged US-Israeli relations, resulting in Kulanu leader Moshe Kahlon distancing himself and the party from Oren's stated views. Shortly afterwards another article by Oren was published by Foreign Policy, which argued that Obama's outreach to the Muslim world as highlighted by his Cairo speech was partly rooted in "abandonment" by his father and stepfather. Oren was criticised by Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who said that Oren's theorising "veers into the realm of conspiracy theories... with an element of amateur psychoanalysis", and characterised the Foreign Policy article as "borderline stereotyping".
In 2015, Oren published Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide (June 2015), which aimed to describe the recent state of Israel–US relations. The book has received both praise and criticism, including a negative review by Philip Gordon, the White House's "point man" for the Middle East during Oren's time as ambassador, titled "Bibi's man in D.C., still spinning for the boss." In response to its controversial reception, Oren stated: "So far a lot of things have been said about me. ... I obviously touched a nerve." Noah Efron wrote in Haaretz that the book, which continued the self-professed "armchair psychoanalyzing" of the U.S. President, "meshes snugly with the racist fantasies of rabid right-wing bloggers and so-called birthers who see in Barack Obama’s African father and Indonesian stepfather indications that he is not a real American." Efron also chided Oren for failing to assign any responsibility to Israeli for the decline in US-Israel relations, calling the book "profoundly un-Zionist."
Power, Faith and Fantasy, a history of American involvement in the Middle East, was published by Norton and quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Power, Faith and Fantasy earned positive reviews from Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Willamette Week.
Oren's Six Days of War is an historical account of the events of the Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors. The book was widely praised by critics and won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History and the National Jewish Book Award. It spent seven weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. The New York Times Book Review wrote positively of Six Days of War, as did the Washington Post, which called it "not only the best book so far written on the Six Day War, it is likely to remain the best". Oren's Ph.D. thesis, "The Origins of the Second Arab-Israel War: Israel, Egypt, and the Great Powers, 1952-1956," was published in 1992.
Oren has written two works of fiction. Sand Devil, published in 2000, is a trilogy of novellas set in the Negev desert. Reunion, based on his father’s stories from World War II, appeared in 2004.
Oren was given the fourth spot on the list of the new Kulanu party before Israel's 2015 elections, adding foreign policy credentials to a party that campaigned almost exclusively on economic issues. He was elected and, on March 31, sworn in as a Member of Israel's 20th Knesset, serving on its Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee. On August 1, 2016, it was announced that Oren would be appointed as deputy minister in charge of public diplomacy.
Oren supported the creation of a new Israeli national holiday, Yom HaAliyah (Hebrew: יום העלייה, Aliyah Day) to be celebrated annually on the tenth of the Hebrew month of Nisan (Hebrew: י’ ניסן). On 21 June 2016 the Knesset voted in favor of adding Yom HaAliyah to the national calendar. The Yom HaAliyah bill was co-sponsored by Knesset members from different parties in a rare instance of cooperation across the political spectrum. The day chosen for Yom HaAliyah is, according to the biblical narrative, the day Joshua and the Israelites crossed the Jordan River at Gilgal into the Promised Land. It was thus the first documented "mass Aliyah".Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Presidio Press. (2002) ISBN 978-0-345-46192-6.
Reunion. New York: Plume. (2003) ISBN 978-1-931561-26-6.
Power, Faith and Fantasy: The United States in the Middle East, 1776 to 2006. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. (2007) ISBN 978-0-393-33030-4.
New Essays on Zionism. Shalem Press. (2007) ISBN 978-965-7052-44-0 (editor, with David Hazony and Yoram Hazony).
Ally: My Journey Across the American-Israeli Divide. Random House. (2015) ISBN 978-081-2996-41-8.