May 10, 2005

Famed historian Michael Oren talks to the Maroon

Historian Michael Oren spoke to a packed lecture hall Monday evening as part of Israel Week, sponsored by Chicago Friends of Israel. Oren, a New Jersey native, moved to Israel over 25 years ago, becoming a citizen, soldier, and eventually best-selling author. He proposed in his speech that a fear of power was one of the biggest problems facing Jews trying to form a sovereign nation, and he discussed issues concerning Israel as a moral entity. After he answered audience questions, Oren took a moment to speak with the Maroon.

Chicago Maroon: You mentioned in your lecture that: "In America, especially in universities, Israel is increasingly vilified." Why is that a trend here? I don't know if you heard that posters advertising this event were defaced

Michael Oren: Yes. I was told. I'd be curious to see one actually.

CM: Did you feel concerned about coming here?

MO: I've had a very good reception here. I've never had any problems at American universities. I think the problem is American universities are focused on academic freedom; it's not an issue of academic freedom but one of diversity. They have access to the Palestinian narrative and the question is whether students have access to an Israeli-Zionist narrative. For example, a couple of weeks ago I was at Columbia University—students there don't have access. My concern is for diversity.

CM: Have you ever given talks here where you have felt unsafe?

MO: Yeah, in a Canadian university. Not in America. I was once assaulted in Canada. I have to have a guard now just for safety's sake. [Looks around.] There isn't one here? Huh. There was supposed to be.

CM: Do you view your work as controversial?

MO: Not my historical work, no. I have two sides: I'm a political commentator and I'm a historian. My goals are, in a certain way, mutually exclusive and contradictory. When I express my opinions, they are colored by my politics. When I express history, I view my political opinions as something I have to overcome. I wrestle with it. It's not a very post-modern view. Now it's seen as: You have political opinions, well, you have them. But I think there is only a chance of understanding if I can put aside my political views.

CM: I know you've worked especially hard to be open-minded and unbiased in your book. In reviews you are frequently commended for how even-handed you managed to be. Does it hurt to then receive this type of criticism from relatively ignorant college students?

MO: There is a vast gulf between legitimate criticisms of Israel—I find myself criticizing it everyday, people who live there criticize it all the time—and compare it to Nazi Germany.

CM: Is that what the swastikas were signifying?

MO: Yes, I think that's what it meant. It's untrue. Show me where someone has put six million Palestinians in ovens.

CM: You talked just now about how Israel goes out of its way to be just, to be moral. What then causes this Western vilification of Israel?

MO: Israel is held to a higher moral standard, there is no question. The reasons it's held to a higher standard are various. First is we hold ourselves to a higher standard. Second is a tendency of Western press to be overly critical. It is also overly critical of itself. And I think you can't ignore elements of anti-Semitism. Palestine is perceived as the underdog. I think that is incorrect; I think Israel is the underdog.