At Columbia, Oren Gets A Diplomatic Reception


After fielding about a dozen questions from students at Columbia Law School Monday following a 40-minute talk, Israel’s ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren, apparently felt compelled to remind the students that the U.S. and Israel “don’t always agree on everything.”

It was hard to know that, judging from the warm reception Oren received from the 200 students in attendance.

The first questioner even scoffed at a campaign that questions Israel’s acceptance of gays. Supporters of the campaign, called “pink washing,” held a demonstration at Columbia last week to claim Israel’s gay-rights record is only to conceal its oppression of Palestinians.

That gave Oren a chance to agree with the questioner and explain how seriously Israel treats the subject. “Two women soldiers were sent to prison for roughing up a lesbian soldier,” he said.

Oren answered all the students’ questions, but none were hostile or questioned any Israeli policies.

During his address, which was attended by students, alumni and faculty, Oren said the relationship between Israel and the U.S. is so close that he could not think of an instance in the last six years in which the two did not vote together at the United Nations. He noted that when the UN General Assembly voted in October to condemn the U.S. embargo against Cuba by a vote of 186 to 2, Israel and the U.S. cast the only no votes.

Although the U.S. gives Israel $3 billion in military assistance annually, Oren pointed out that 75 percent of that money must be spent in the U.S., that it creates “tens of thousands of [American] jobs,” and “they tell us what we are buying.”

Oren said the “fastest growing alliance” between the two nations involves commercial trade. He pointed out that one out of every five pills Americans take is made in Israel by Teva Pharmaceuticals, and that virtually every American high-tech company has factories in Israel.

Although the U.S. and Israel reportedly disagree about when Iran must be stopped in its quest to develop nuclear weapons, Oren said they both agreed that Iran must not be permitted to develop such weapons.

“In the Middle East,” Oren said, “one state is stable, has a robust economy, is unreservedly democratic, has never known a second of non-democratic rule, has an army to defend itself that is larger than the British and French combined, is unequivocally pro-American and does not have anti-American flag burnings there. Israel is the ultimate ally of the United States.”

As he was about to leave, Oren noted that he “likes to interact” with Arab students and “looks for diversity and even controversy” when speaking on campuses.

Oren recalled that “only once” did student protesters disrupt one of his speeches, and that was at the University of California, Irvine, in 2010. The incident led to the arrest and conviction of 11 students. Later that year, several students at Brandeis University sought to have rescinded an invitation for Oren to deliver the commencement address. It wasn’t rescinded, and only about 20 students protested his appearance outside the ceremony.

Monday’s event was sponsored by the Columbia Law School Center for Israeli Legal Studies.

The only question that dealt with a disagreement between the U.S. and Israel concerned Jonathan Pollard, the former U.S. Navy analyst who has spent more than 26 years in an American prison for spying for Israel.

Asked if he feared Pollard might die in prison, Oren replied: “Securing the release of Jonathan Pollard is a top item for us and I hand delivered a letter from the prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu] to the president asking for clemency for Pollard.”

Oren was also asked to elaborate on a letter to the editor he wrote to The New York Times that he said sought to correct a Times story that suggested Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, has a “personal relationship” with Netanyahu.

“There is no personal relationship,” he said, adding that Romney received the same meet-and-greet with Netanyahu that all American governors receive who visit Israel. He said that although Romney spoke with Netanyahu by phone when Netanyahu was in Washington last month, they spoke for only about five minutes.

“I was in the room,” he said, stressing that Israel’s need for “bipartisan support is critical for us.”

Richard Stone, chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, who is on leave from the law school faculty, introduced Oren. He said he believes most of the students in attendance were Jewish and that “the event was not viewed as one that would be divisive.”