How two of Israel’s leading diplomats emerged from a 1970s Jewish commune at Columbia University
After Benjamin Netanyahu was inaugurated as Israel’s prime minister this spring, early news reports identified a leading contender for one of his most important diplomatic appointments, ambassador to the United States: Dore Gold, a longtime Netanyahu aide who’d served as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister. Soon, though, there was another contender: Michael Oren, a distinguished fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, a right-leaning think tank with many ties to the Netanyahu administration, and author of two New York Times-bestselling histories of the Middle East. (I worked as a research assistant for Oren at Shalem last summer; through the Israeli Embassy in Washington, he declined to comment for this article.) Known for holding more flexible political views than Gold, Oren was thought better positioned to deal with a left-leaning Obama administration. In May, Netanyahu appointed Oren as Israel’s 17th ambassador to the United States—and the first one born in the United States.
Oren and Gold were rivals in that case, but the small world of Israeli politics has a long history of old friends competing with one another. Indeed, the two are friends and colleagues who—as went unmentioned in press coverage of their May competition—found their commitment to Zionism and Israel at the same and time place, as undergraduates and then grad students at Columbia University in the 1970s. They were part of a group of activist Jewish students who thrived in an atmosphere of urgency and fervor alien to college campuses today, and their story provides a glimpse into a generation of American Jews who decided to make aliyah and an idealistic Jewish world—centered around a Jewish commune at just off Columbia’s campus called Beit Ephraim—long past.
Last month, Oren was in New York for the U.N. General Assembly; he told the international press that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s remarks there were “classic anti-Semitism.” Thirty-five years ago, at the 1974 General Assembly, Yassir Arafat made his first speech to the United Nations. The Palestinian leader was received like a celebrity, to raucous applause. And, by all accounts, it was his speech that moved Oren and his circle to action.
Eric Sokoloff, then a Columbia undergrad and prominent campus Zionist, started organizing opposition to Arafat even before the speech, founding a group called Student Mobilization for Israel to unite like-minded college students across the city. SMI was dedicated to pro-Israel political activism and education, staging rallies and demonstrations to present what Sokoloff described to me as “a more accurate portrayal of the issues” than Arafat would.
Sokoloff would later make aliyah, change his first name to Yitzchak, work for the Isreali Ministry of Defense, and teach political science at Hebrew University. But back in 1974, he and SMI began publishing the Middle East Observer, a leaflet featuring news and opinion by Columbia students. As the paper exploded in popularity, it helping SMI establish a national network of student activists. “Soon after we started the paper, we were printing 50,000 copies a week and shipping them across the United States,” Sokoloff recalled.
He worked with SMI, and on the Middle East Observer, with Jeffrey Fine, another Columbia undergrad who is today a lawyer and leader of the modern Orthodox community in Dallas, canvassed Manhattan preaching to their often-offended fellow Jews that service in the Israeli army was a moral obligation for all Jews (though Fine himelf never ended up moving to Israel).
SMI held court at Beit Ephraim, which Fine described to me as a “countercultural hub” for the Columbia Jewish community. Also known as “the Bayit,” it had been founded in 1972 with the financial assistance of the author Herman Wouk, a Columbia alumnus. “The establishment Jewish institutions were not particularly attractive to us,” Gold told me. “So a number of us got together and formed the Bayit as an alternative.”
Steven M. Cohen, one of the Columbia students who helped found the Bayit and now a prominent sociologist, told me that the Bayit, which in its early days actively recruited campus Jewish leaders, sought to “cull Jewish activists from various walks of life, people sometimes ideologically opposed to each other, and see if they could live together.” Amid what Cohen described as a “swirl of self-motivated Jewish activity” at Columbia—from left- and right-wing Zionist organizations to advocates for Soviet Jews to various religious groups—the Bayit selected students like Sokoloff and Fine to create and maintain a dynamic atmosphere of young Jews who fiercely celebrated their Jewish identities.
Oren—who changed his name from Bornstein when he made aliyah, though he retained it as his middle name, in deference to his father—and Gold met for the first time at the Bayit, at a guest lecture by an Israeli author. They soon connected with Sokoloff, Fine, Cohen and others at the Bayit’s weekly Shabbat dinners and educational seminars. Eventually, they both moved in. They were joined by a remarkable cast of future Jewish luminaries who frequented the Bayit in the mid-1970s. Leon Wieseltier, the longtime literary editor of The New Republic lived there there, as did Rabbi Joseph Teluskhin, the Jewish author. J.J. Goldberg, a former editor-in-chief of the Forward, lived at a different Jewish collective, but he spent time at the Bayit. So did the nationally syndicated conservative talk-show host Dennis Prager.
Oren and Gold were particularly committed to their Zionism, the other former students said. One Friday night, Fine recalled, Gold discoursed on the potential difficulties of reaching a two-state solution with Palestinians. “We would sit there thinking, what is this guy talking about?” Fine said. “Back then, the PLO was seen as the root of all evil, and here’s Dore postulating all sorts of scenarios, 20 years in advance.” On another occasion, Fine remembered, he was studying Arab nationalism and commented to Oren that he’d encountered a great deal of scholarship in German. “If you want to become an expert in Middle East studies, you probably have to learn German,” Fine recalled saying. Oren pondered him for a moment, then agreed. “Six weeks later,” Fine said, “Oren came back, fluent in German. He was a wunderkind.”
Members of the Bayit and the activist Jewish community shared a sense of kol yisrael arevim zeh la zeh, all of the Nation of Israel are responsible for one another, reveling in each other’s diverse yet strong expressions of Jewish identity. In some cases, Fine recalled, this exuberant Jewish pride bordered on the ridiculous: “Some guys would wear kippot and then march into a trayf Chinese place and chomp on their pork,” he said. “They identified by external symbols.”
These students channeled the prevailing culture of youth protest and ideological zeal into Jewish causes. SMI’s cadre of activists, Sokoloff said, “never took no for an answer” and weren’t afraid “to be angry when necessary” in fighting for Jewish causes. But even among that crowd, Oren, Gold, Sokoloff, and Fine sensed a particular calling above all: Zionism. Columbia’s Middle East and Jewish studies departments allowed the four friends to couple their devoted activism on behalf of Israel with equally dedicated scholarship.
At the time, Israel’s most prominent global representative, the Cambridge-educated diplomat Abba Eban, recently replaced as Israel’s foreign minister, was teaching a weekly seminar at Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs. (Gold took the class; Fine audited it.) The four friends also studied under J.C. Hurewitz, then director of SIPA’s Middle East Institute, who was among the pioneers of Middle East studies in the 1930s. They learned Zionism from Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of The Zionist Idea, a crucial compendium of Zionism’s intellectual history. Zbigniew Brzezinski instructed several of them in international affairs, while David Sidorsky interrupted his moral philosophy classes to expound upon the Hebrew meaning of the word “men.”
Yet they also refused to sequester themselves in a Jewish cocoon, the students said, seeking out classes on Arab nationalism and learning the Arabic language. They thrived on a campus that hosted Edward Said, already a prominent Palestinian activist, as well as Charles Issawi, a former member of Egypt’s finance ministry who specialized in Arab economics. The Middle East studies classrooms at Columbia were not the dens of controversy and ideological warfare they’ve become more recently. Gold recalled Arab professors such as Issawi encouraging him more than any other faculty members to pursue Middle East studies. Fine remembered taking a course on Arab nationalism in which the professor instructed his Arab-dominated classroom to engage with Fine rather than spout polemics. “Here you have an opportunity to talk to a Zionist, and he wants to learn about your faith and your nationality,” Fine recalled the professor saying. “Take advantage of it.”
Though professors encouraged dialogue, meaningful engagement between Arab and Muslim students and their Jewish peers hardly seemed a foregone conclusion. Though the many Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, and Iraqis in his classes had their own divisions, Fine said, “they certainly united to hate Israel.” Twenty years prior to the start of Oslo peace process, said Sokoloff, “PLO supporters didn’t mince their words: they believed in the destruction of Israel, as did the rest of the hard left on campus.”
But Sokoloff and Cohen both described debates with those students as arguments with “worthy adversaries.” In an academic environment “largely untainted by polemics,” said Sokoloff, “Dore and I sat shiva for our Arabic friends.” Arabs and Jews “understood each other’s passions and respected them,” he said. As a leading Zionist activist on campus, Cohen sat on panels with Edward Said and hosted Middle East negotiations between Arab and Jewish scholars in Columbia dormitories.
After Columbia, Gold, Oren, and Sokoloff each fulfilled their pledge to make aliyah. They all served in elite army units and fully integrated into Israeli society. Sokoloff founded and runs Keshet, a educational touring agency, and works with the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to bring thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish visitors to Israel each year. Gold has spent twenty years in the Israeli diplomatic corps, facilitating secret meetings between Benjamin Netanyahu and Jordan’s King Hussein in the early 1990s and engaging in high-level diplomacy with the Clinton Administration as one of Netanyahu’s chief policy advisers.
Jerusalem Post columnist Shmuel Rosner noted that Gold and Oren’s success in Israeli government is incidental, not a sign of American immigrants establishing a larger role in the country but only of the two men’s relationship with Netanyahu. “You see the exception now rather than the rule,” Rosner told me, with a prime minister who uniquely relies upon “Anglo-Saxon advisers” in his inner circle. American immigrants, Rosner said, “remain too small in number, too diverse, and unmotivated” to form an interest bloc achieve true political visibility among Israelis—unlike, say, the politically powerful Russian émigré community.
“My generation of American immigrants came of age with the Second Intifada, when a group of us spontaneously, as individuals, realized we have something essential to contribute to Israel: the opportunity to explain Israel to an American audience in ‘American,’” said the writer Yossi Klein Halevi, a Shalem Center fellow and Oren’s close friend. Oren’s appointment represents “the coming of age of American immigrants” not as a communal political force, he argued, but as a loose movement of public diplomats acting as “counterweights against the demonization of Israel.”
Gold told me in an interview that he and his fellow Columbia Zionists had decided back in Morningside Heights not to “develop careers just for income and needs, but to do something socially and politically meaningful.” That’s what they’re doing. Columbia in the 1970s, Sokoloff said, encouraged altruistic careers. “Israel,” he said, “was our altruism.”
Jordan Hirsch, an intern at Tablet Magazine, is a senior at Columbia University.