Living in Israel is an act of faith, says author-historian

Michael Oren is one frustrated guy.

Currently on a national book tour promoting his first novel, "Reunion," Oren has found reporters and readers asking him few questions about his new work. These days, apparently, truth is stranger than fiction.

"Unfortunately, because of the situation in the Middle East, people are much more interested in asking me about the 'road map,'" says the noted historian, who made a stop earlier this week at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. "The only people interested in the novel have been from Christian radio."

As a student of the Middle East and as a longtime citizen of Israel, Oren holds a stark opinion as to whether the region's glass today is half full or half empty.

"The glass," he says, "is cracked."

Given his pedigree, it's no surprise Oren is considered by many to be a Mideast oracle. He's the best-selling author of "Six Days of War," a definitive history of the June 1967 conflict, during which a victorious Israel rewrote the regional map.

But throughout his life, Oren has been as keen on fiction as on fact. He began writing poetry and short stories in his teenage years and has previously published a well-received collection of novellas titled "Sand Devil."

However, his new novel has nothing to do with the Middle East. "Reunion" is loosely based on his father's World War II combat experiences, which ranged from the beaches of Normandy to Belgium's Ardennes Forest and the famous Battle of the Bulge.

Oren learned the war stories directly from his father and his dad's Army buddies. While accompanying his father to veterans' reunions in years past, the young Oren would piece together the big picture from fragmented memories of squad members.

"I listened to these guys as a kid," he says. "I remembered their stories better than they did. The stories always riveted me, because they touched on painful memories."

The novel tells the tale of several aging members of the 133rd Infantry Battalion who return to the Belgian village of Saint Vith for one last reunion. While there, dark secrets unfold as past and present converge in an explosive climax.

To research the book, Oren donned his historian's hat and traveled to the real Saint Vith (where his father fought a pitched battle) and to the Ardennes where the Battle of the Bulge raged during the frozen winter of 1944.

He even took his dad along on one of the research trips. "We went back to the battlefields," he says. "In one scene in the novel, the protagonist crosses the Rhine River. We went to the exact point where my dad crossed it. He said the place is unchanged."

Though his novel touches on an era long ago and far away, it wasn't a stretch for Oren to write about combat. After all, he is an old soldier himself — a former paratrooper in the Israeli Defense Force.

Though born and raised in the United States, Oren grew up passionate about Israel. As a kid, he spent every summer in the Jewish state, and for a while wanted to be a kibbutznik ("I was a lousy farmer," he says with a laugh). While still in his teens, Oren made aliyah, moving to Israel permanently more than 25 years ago. He's been a resident of Jerusalem ever since.

"I loved it," he says of his adopted homeland. "It was the most exciting place in the world. I was a Jewish cowboy riding horses across the Golan."

He was more than just a cowboy. During his tenure with the IDF, Oren rose to the rank of major, serving in the Lebanon War and the Gulf War. He also acted as a representative of the Prime Minister's Office to the Jewish underground in the former Soviet Union and was director of Inter-Religious Affairs in the Rabin government.

But his first love has always been history. Over the years, Oren has written numerous studies in Middle East history and politics. He has been a guest lecturer at Harvard, Yale, Oxford and Cambridge and has been a history fellow at Hebrew University and Tel Aviv University.

Though still an ardent Zionist, Oren works hard to maintain the historian's dispassion when it comes to his work. "I have strong opinions," he notes, "but when it comes to history, I want to understand what happened. It's a different dynamic, and to indulge my prejudices will get me nowhere. On every page I ask myself if I'm being as objective as possible."

Coming up next for Oren, he has a contract with Norton Press to write a comprehensive history of American involvement in the Middle East, set for publication in 2005. On the fiction track, he's already sketching a novel set in the Middle East of the 1860s.

"I write an hour of fiction in the morning, have an apple, then do history writing," he says of his daily routine. "I think good history reads like a novel, and good fiction employs a strong sense of history."

Beyond his career, Oren remains irrevocably tied to the state of Israel. One of his sons is in an IDF commando unit, and his two younger children ride the same bus lines that periodically suffer suicide bomb attacks. It's a source of constant worry for him, but Oren has adopted that admirable Israeli doggedness.

"After 25 years, I still love the country to a painful extent," he says, "though the emphasis in on pain. To live in Israel, you have to be an optimist. As a rational historian, there's no way to account for the survival of the Jewish people or the state of Israel. You just have to fall back on faith. There's no way around it."

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.