A little over one month ago, Jewish Twitter received a conspicuous new member: Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (@AmbassadorOren). On his feed (which, he told me, he mostly writes himself), Oren shies from controversy, instead thanking various U.S. dignitaries for visiting or hosting him, linking to op-eds he’s published or speeches he’s given, and wishing folks a happy new week on Saturday evenings. But Oren, who when not wearing an official hat is a respected historian, has elsewhere drawn attention to his role not only as emissary of the Israeli government to the U.S. government but as a public diplomat, advancing the agenda of those he serves to the U.S. people. Most prominently, he forcefully responded on-air to claims in 60 Minutes concerning Israel’s treatment of Christians living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Whether or not the question of Israeli diplomacy ought to be a particularly touchy subject, it is. So Oren’s joining Twitter—an unusually unmediated medium, if that makes sense—seemed a good time to ask him about the extent to which he sees conducting public diplomacy as his job; he responded in part with a history of the shifting role of the ambassador over the past several centuries.
Why did you join Twitter? I’m interested in the public diplomacy aspect of your job.
I come to this job at a crucial juncture in the relationship between Israel and the United States. We face great challenges in getting our message across. Today there are few alternatives as far-reachng and effective, with very wide audiences and young audiences, as Twitter. Twitter is another tool that enables me to communicate with other diplomats and journalists, while also allowing me to add a personal touch. Most young people aren’t necessarily reading your standard newspapers or watching evening news. You can also link them to things that we are putting out. I recently had an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal about the challenges facing Israel’s reputation over the last 40 years, and I was able to able put that link out through the Twitter account and greatly multiply the readers. It’s our messaging.
It’s also about listening. It’s a way that I learn what’s out there. And I get feedback, and that’s important.
Can you think of any feedback that has made an impact on you?
I’m following other people, like [U.N.] Ambassador [Susan] Rice. And Condoleeza Rice! Susan—her tweets are very illuminating. She’s handling some complicated issues, some of which impact Israel.
My counterpart in Israel, Dan Shapiro—he’s used Twitter very effectively in getting a message across about the U.S.-Israel relationship across in all its multiple facets.
Don’t take this the wrong way but … who writes your feed?
Mostly me. I’m blessed with a very young staff, who are very adept at this. I had to come in and learn this. Being a person who writes 800-page books to one who writes 140-character tweets, it’s like going from the Iliad to a fortune cookie.
Some people mix it up on Twitter. One example who comes to mind is your colleague, Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who has gotten into spats with U.S. journalists. Is this the type of thing you could see yourself doing?
I want to be able to communicate. I want people to come into my world. I want them to see what the Israeli ambassador is engaged in every day, the kind of challenges we’re facing,
Being ambassador isn’t your first foray into representing the Israeli government. Didn’t you serve in the IDF in a similar capacity?
Well I was a paratrooper for many years. When I reached my dottage in IDF terms, they offered—I’d already been doing television and writing, so I was familiar with American media. They offered me to be spokesman for the IDF in reserve duty. During the Second Lebanon War and during the Gaza operation in 2008, I served as spokesman. By the way, the IDF is very adept at new media.
Is your experience as IDF spokesman something you draw on in this job?
The major difference is, when you’re in the army you’re talking about one issue, and that’s a military issue. In this job, you’re dealing with strategic and military aspects but also commercial, diplomatic, spiritual, inter-communal facets of the U.S.-Israel relationship. Both the opportunities and challenges are immensely greater. But the similarities—whether being called for reserve duty or being called by your government—is you’re putting on a uniform, putting your personal opinions aside, and representing the democratically elected government of Israel.
One thing that highlighted for me the fact that your job has different aspects—both as emissary of one government to another and as a public diplomat—was the recent 60 Minutes to-do, in which you requested to air the Israeli government’s position on a segment about Israel’s treatment of Christians in the West Bank.
For close to half a century, the job of ambassador has also been to engage in the media—going back to the Sixties. The great change in the role of ambassador probably occurred in World War II.
Well, you’re a historian, tell me what brought about the change.
My official title is ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary—great word. That goes back to the Renaissance, when you’d get on a boat for two months and arrive. ‘Extraordinary’ meant there was only one of them, ‘plenipotentiary’ meant he made the decisions for the government.
But the ambassadorial role changed, in very interesting and dynamic ways. He remained extraordinary, but the plenipotentiary role changed—because now the two governments can pick up the phone and talk to each other. In addition to his or her other diplomatic duties, the ambassador was now in charge of reaching out to various communities. The Jewish community, sure, but the African-American community, the Latino community, the LGBT community, the Irish community. At the same time, the ambassador is very active in the field of media, interviewing on television, writing op-eds, responding to what we believe to be inaccuracies in the media. And it also means Twitter. I have a very active Facebook page. I’m getting the message across, the image of Israel, the policies of Israel, the reality of Israel.