WEST ORANGE, NJ – The Israeli Ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, addressed Juniors and Seniors at West Orange High School this morning and engaged them in a lively question and answer period. The Ambassador, in the metropolitan area for meetings, had come to West Orange to visit his parents and graciously agreed to arrange a visit to the High School. Oren grew up in West Orange, attended Pleasantdale Elementary School, Abraham Lincoln Junior High and Mountain High School, graduating in 1973. (Lincoln Junior High was actually the front of what is now West Orange High School, and Mountain High School was the back. Seton Hall Prep was the original West Orange High School.)
Michael Oren, in addition to his position as Israeli Ambassador to the United States, is also a scholar with two Doctorates, a writer, a former member of the Israeli army, and an educator.
Board President Michelle Casalino, Vice-President Megan Brill, Board Member Laura Lab, former board member Paul Petigrow, former Superintendent Jerry Tarnoff, Councilman Jerry Guarino and his wife, and Ambassador Oren’s wife, parents, and aide were also in attendance. After a welcome from Principal Hayden Moore and an introduction by Interim Superintendent James O’Neill, the Ambassador stepped to the microphone. Ambassador Oren began with a story of how, as a senior at Mountain High School, he starred in “Man of La Mancha,” and sang “The Impossible Dream.” His own ‘impossible dream’ began at the age of 15 when he visited Washington, DC, and met then Israeli Ambassador Yitzhak Rabin (Rabin was assassinated in 1995).
The second life changing event he described was the bombing of the Jewish Center of West Orange (now B’Nai Shalom) by the Klu Klux Klan in March of 1972. He said he would never forget the image of a rabbi, priest, and Protestant minister walking hand in hand along Pleasant Valley Way and singing “We Shall Overcome.”
He saved his money to travel to Israel and live on a Kibbutz, where he worked as “a cowboy on the Golan Heights.” He served as a paratrooper in the Israeli army, continued his education and became an educator himself, until he was called to be the Israeli Ambassador four years ago.
A series of questions and answers then followed with the students.
In response to a question regarding the relationship between Israel and the United States, Oren said that Syria, Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon were in the throes of revolution and that there were dangers in the Middle East. He also said that despite some disagreements, that the United States and Israel remain in an historical alliance and that “not everything you read in the paper is true.” He told the audience that President Obama will be making his first trip to Israel next month as President, and though different administrations have had different impacts on the alliance, that there has always been “unbreakable support” for Israel. He said that the United States and Israel were committed to direct negotiation between Israel and Palestine; that there should be no nuclear weapons in Iran; and the issue of the large chemical weapons arsenal in Syria needed to be addressed.
When asked whether his personal opinion ever affected his position as Ambassador, Oren explained that he is a ‘soldier’ and his ‘shirt is his uniform.’ He represents the wishes of the Israeli government. He went on to explain that although allowed dual citizenship in Israel, when he became Ambassador he had to renounce his American citizenship. Yet, he acknowledged, he will still always be an American as well as an Israeli. He tells his staff that to understand Americans, they need to understand football and baseball. He also said that American Ambassadors (45-65 appointed by the President), when appointed, get six weeks of protocol and cultural training. There are 4-5 appointees in the Israeli government, and they get no training, as he laughingly said that on his first day as Ambassor he walked into the embassy and was promptly arrested.
In response to a question regarding the threat of Hezbollah (a Shi'a Islamic militant group and political party based in Lebanon), Oren described the situation was a threat, saying Hezbollah had 70,000 rockets. Despite a military budget of 6.5% that provided for anti ballistic missiles (Iron Dome) that can destroy 85 percent of the rockets, 15 percent still remain a danger to Israel.
In summing up his relationship with other mid-east Ambassadors, Oren smiled and said, “There are three kinds of relationships…Ambassadors that have lunch in public with me, Ambassadors that have lunch in private with me, and Ambassadors that don’t have lunch with me at all, though the latter are in the minority."
The Assembly concluded at 11:00 am.