Book Review | America, Jews and Israel— It’s Complicated

By | Apr 03, 2023

We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel
By Eric Alterman
Basic Books, 512 pp., $35.00

The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People
By Walter Russell Mead
Knopf, 672 pp., $35.00

Seventy-five years ago, a few hundred thousand Jews in the Middle East became Israelis, asserting citizenship in an independent Jewish state. Several thousand miles away, a few million American Jews, like their coreligionists in Britain, France, the Soviet Union, Argentina, Morocco and elsewhere, remained “diaspora Jews.” For nearly two millennia, until the moment of Israeli independence, that phrase had been a redundancy. To be a diaspora Jew was to be a Jew. Even those few who had lived in the historic land of Israel had submitted to a distant imperial authority.

Jewishness everywhere was a form of political homelessness. Suddenly, the phrase “diaspora Jew” acquired a distinctive meaning by comparison with an alternative identity, one acquired through the return to Zion.

The story of the interactions between Jews in Israel and the Jewish and gentile supporters of Israel in the United States is complex and colored by the unique conditions that led to Israel’s birth.

Until World War II, Zionism was not a cause universally or enthusiastically embraced by American Jews. By war’s end, when the fact of the death camps was documented to the world, massive majorities of Jews in the United States and other Americans came to embrace the idea of a Jewish homeland. Leaders of the American Jewish community were forced to confront their failure before and during the war, despite great success and influence in American society, to make their country prioritize saving European Jews, by granting them asylum or even by bombing the rail lines that transported them to their death. American Jews shared in the victory over Nazism as Americans and shared in the victimhood as Jews.

Israeli leaders likewise confronted the failure of Zionism to save European Jewry. The worst forecasts for the Jews’ European future had come to pass, and Palestine under the British Mandate had been inaccessible as a sanctuary. As Zionists, Jews in Palestine could demand that Britain stand by the promise of the Balfour Declaration and get out; as Jews, they had hoped for, and some had fought for, a British victory, given the nightmarish prospect of an Allied defeat.

So that’s how the stage was set for the story related in these two books with very different emphases and conclusions: In Israel, a revolutionary movement determined to prevent another Shoah and suspicious of diplomatic guarantees of the sort that had failed the Jews of Europe; in the States, a Jewish population broadly supportive of Israel but more deeply engaged in the less revolutionary but very successful process of deepening their identity as Americans, acquiring education and prosperity in the process.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion (right) accompanied by Israel Ambassador to the U.S. Abba Eban (center), with President Harry Truman in 1951. Photo credit: GPO (cc by-sa 3.0)

Through subsequent decades, American Jews remained highly supportive of Israel. The question that both authors address is: Why did the U.S. government, despite many disagreements, also do so? For votes? Campaign contributions? Idealism? Guilt? Both of these books were published last year, before the right-wing, Netanyahu-led government took power, and it is possible that events might yet lead the authors to amend their conclusions, either weakening or strengthening them.

Eric Alterman, in We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel, finds the explanation of U.S. support for Israel—undiminished by settlements established contrary to U.S. policy—in the manipulation of American public and political sentiment on behalf of Israel and without regard to the fate of the Palestinians. Alterman, a longtime media columnist for The Nation and a professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College, writes that once the Israelis had won their war for independence, their relationship with Washington took on a familiar, recurring pattern:

US diplomats would ask Israel to compromise on something, often having to do with the re-patriation of the Arab refugees who were expelled or had fled during the war. The Israelis would listen patiently and then proceed to do whatever they had intended in the first place. The secretary of state would complain to the president, and there the matter would end.

The ending was often not a happy one. Alterman quotes former Defense Secretary and CIA Director Robert Gates recalling that every president he had served at some point got “so pissed off at the Israelis that he couldn’t speak.”

There were also rough spots in the relations between the Israelis and American Jews. Early on, Israeli leaders disparaged Jewish life in the diaspora as exilic and provisional. When it came to Jewish life, the real deal was to be lived in Israel. They were on the playing field; American Jews were in the grandstands, and we ought to join the new Jewish reality. The head of the American Jewish Committee (a group previously very skeptical of Zionism), industrialist Jacob Blaustein, mindful of the implication in Zionist rhetoric that American Jews should owe their real loyalty to Israel, negotiated a remarkable agreement with David Ben-Gurion. As Alterman recounts it, in 1950 Blaustein exacted this statement from Israel’s founding prime minister: “The Jews of the United States, as a community and as individuals, have only one political attachment and that is to the United States of America. They owe no political allegiance to Israel.”

Blaustein observed in response that “American Jews vigorously repudiate any suggestion or implication that they are in exile.” This proved a step too far for Ben-Gurion, who for years was criticized in Israel for the concession he did make. “Establishing a tradition to which future Israel prime ministers would studiously adhere,” Alterman writes, “Ben-Gurion proceeded to ignore whatever the Americans believed they had been promised.”

While the currency of the Ben-Gurion-Blaustein agreement was merely rhetorical, the abduction and trial of Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann by Israel (where his crimes had not been committed) was a more substantive demonstration of Israel’s self-image as not merely the world’s only country with a Jewish majority, but as the state of the Jews, the rightful venue for adjudication of the Nazis’ crimes against Jews anywhere. An oddly asymmetric relationship was taking shape: Prosperous American Jews whose political and economic support was highly valued were expected to acknowledge the controlling authenticity of their cousins in Israel.

Perhaps the title We Are Not One would more accurately conclude, What did you expect?

Alterman’s book is deeply researched and written with passion and anger at the tactics that won the hearts and minds of the American public. It tracks the U.S.-Israel relationship through the days when Leon Uris’s novel Exodus and the movie version starring Paul Newman depicted (with much help from Israel in the filming) a nation of suntanned kibbutzniks under assault and willing to defend themselves; not a hint that the people they were displacing might have an argument worth hearing, too. Alterman tracks the shift of power from left to right in the 1960s and 1970s—in Israel, and in international support for the country—as well as the rightward shift of Israel’s American supporters.

Israelis are not the only people Alterman faults. He is scathing on the subject of Yasser Arafat’s inept leadership and penchant for tub-thumping, anti-imperialist orations as opposed to governing.

He prefers the Palestinian advocacy of Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said. He is critical of John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s much-debated book The Israel Lobby for blaming too much, the invasion of Iraq for instance, on pro-Israel lobbying.

I find Alterman’s most important observations are about the impact of the relationship with Israel on American Jews. The cause of Israel in peril, he argues, suppressed debate; no violation of Jewish law or practice, he argues, is deemed so outrageous as criticism of Israel. As of ten years ago, an online survey of more than 500 mostly Conservative and Reform rabbis found that nearly half felt very fearful about expressing their views on Israel publicly, afraid of the consequences to their careers or reputations. Among those with dovish views, three-quarters felt very or somewhat fearful of doing so. (Whether the actions of the current Netanyahu government change that dynamic remains to be seen.) As Israeli opponents of a two-state solution have increased their leverage over Israeli policy, American Jews are “represented” by presidents of major Jewish organizations whom very few American Jews (a typically educated and politically engaged lot) could name. One might reasonably ask whether these institutional leaders (to say nothing of pro-Israel megadonors such as the late Sheldon Adelson) are representing the American Jewish community or Israel’s Likud Party. Alterman rightly deplores the evolution from a profound and impassioned solidarity engendered by the 1967 Six-Day War to a top-down, money-driven pseudo-solidarity made possible by a deep reluctance to criticize Israel publicly, at least until recently—one that even entailed the demonization of Barack Obama, who was captivated by reading Exodus as a kid.

In Mead’s telling, Israel did not need Paul Newman’s blue eyes or the Israel lobby to win over Americans to its side.

In fact, as Alterman mentions more than once, American Jews, when polled, tend to support concessions that the Israeli right opposes. He foresees a crisis with the American Jewish community as the unity forged by the Six-Day War fragments. Of course, the cause is not a uniquely Jewish one. Christians United for Israel was founded in 2009 by the San Antonio Pentecostal preacher John Hagee, who “set out to awaken the sleeping giant of Christian Zionism.” The organization now claims ten million members, more than the entire American Jewish population.

That last fact reflects the central observation of Walter Russell Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People, which came out last year. Mead, the “Global View” columnist for The Wall Street Journal, a Hudson Institute fellow and a professor at Bard College, places Jews and American support for Israel in the broader context of the American Protestant imagination. From colonial times, Americans identified strongly with the Jews of the Bible. This identification did not require knowing any real living Jews (only about 2,000 Americans at the dawn of the 19th century were Jewish). Nor did it interfere with antisemitic quotas or restrictive covenants targeting American Jews after their numbers increased. When the United States clamped down on immigration in the 1920s (keeping most Eastern European Jews out), Congress also voted to support Britain’s Balfour Declaration. That combination of policy moves reflected the sentiment of Americans that Jews deserved a homeland, just not a home in their neighborhood. Indeed, in the era of heavy Jewish immigration just before the turn of the 20th century, John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan were among those signing a petition in support of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, five years before Theodor Herzl published his pamphlet The State of the Jews. In Mead’s telling, Israel did not need Paul Newman’s blue eyes or the Israel lobby to win over Americans to its side; the matter was settled in Israel’s favor long ago, deep in the Protestant American psyche.

Mead argues that American support for the Jewish state has conformed to U.S. national interests, not distorted them—from Harry Truman’s recognition of Israel to Henry Kissinger’s refashioning of the superpower politics of the Middle East around Anwar Sadat’s break with Moscow and later his separate peace with Israel. Recognition had less to do with Truman’s Jewish World War I army buddy Eddie Jacobson lobbying him (a popular exaggeration) than with domestic politics and geopolitics. Stalin supported Israel’s creation, Mead writes, in order to drive a wedge between the United States (where pro-Jewish sentiment ran high) and the United Kingdom (whose postwar government had decided to cultivate the Arab oil-producing states).

Moment for just $19.97...subscribe now and get Good Karma FREE

On the domestic side, progressive Democrats were led by Eleanor Roosevelt, no longer first lady but an influential newspaper columnist, whose faith in the United Nations was absolute and required sticking to the UN partition plan that would surely lead to war. The legacy of Kissinger, Mead argues, was that after the Islamic Revolution in Iran (which under the pro-Western Pahlavi regime had been the biggest regional recipient of U.S. aid) the United States would (profitably) arm the Gulf Arab petro-states, on the condition that Israel would be armed to a level of superiority. Since the Arab states worried more about Iran than about the Israelis (or the Palestinians), Israel’s military might posed no problem. This was the world that gave us the “Abraham Accords.”

Mead tracks the rightward shift in American support for Israel as part of a shift in American Protestantism. The “old stock,” white mainline Protestant denominations, rooted in the northeast and Midwest, experienced sharp losses of adherents in the postwar decades. Their empty pews contrasted with the growth of Sun Belt-based evangelical movements for whom Israel’s survival confirmed a belief that a divine hand operated in worldly events (John Hagee’s congregation, according to Alterman, numbered 18,000). According to Mead, the New Right and Reagan Republicans of the 1980s needed the Israel issue as an example of putting God back in American life and foreign policy.

When Israeli and American interests have sharply diverged, it has not been beyond a president confident of his position and willing to take flak in the opinion columns to resist pro-Israel lobbying. Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez Canal crisis, Reagan’s arms sales to Saudi Arabia, George H.W. Bush’s opposition to loan guarantees for West Bank settlements and Obama’s support of the Iran nuclear deal all conflicted with Israeli policy demands—and all prevailed.

Both of these books are insightful and disturbing. Neither holds out much hope for the peaceful coexistence of Jews and Palestinians anytime soon (which is not either author’s main concern). Yes, as Alterman describes it, institutional Jewish supporters of Israel push hard, often treat conscientious critics of Israeli policy (e.g., J Street or Peter Beinart) as apostates rather than dissenters and can place Israeli interests above a decent regard for human rights (as when some groups supported Turkey’s opposition to a congressional declaration that the slaughter of the Armenians was genocide). But, to be fair, solidarity has never been the strong suit of American Jews, who, at various times, have disdained Jews from the other side of Europe, Jews from the other part of Poland, and Jews from the other camp in the Socialist-Communist and
Stalinist-Trotskyist splits. Perhaps the title We Are Not One would more accurately conclude What did you expect?

Would U.S. policy on the Middle East really have unfolded as it did even without organized pro-Israel pressure, as Mead argues? Perhaps. But if all that lobbying was for naught, it certainly wasn’t for lack of trying. For me, Mead captures something fundamental when he describes a central difference between American Jews and Israeli Jews. The United States has evolved from a country led by its “old stock” Protestant establishment, he argues, into a diverse society where identity can no longer be defined by blood and soil. It is defined by a creed rooted in a liberal democratic order, an optimistic creed to which a great many American Jews feel deeply committed: freedom of expression, minority rights, separation of church and state. “The single most important thing about Israel that most Americans do not understand,” Mead writes, “is that Israel was founded on a reasonable and historically justified skepticism about the ability of the liberal order to protect Jews.”

Israelis prefer the support of American evangelicals like Hagee, whose eschatology entails a Jewish endgame of conversion or damnation, to the protection of UN peacekeepers (like the ones who failed the Bosnians at Srebrenica), even though the latter are the product of modern, liberal thought and the former smacks of the Middle Ages.

As we have seen in this year’s Israeli political upheaval, there are many Israelis who value a rules-based liberal order and such a fundamental principle as the separation of powers. Perhaps American Jews, even if only from the grandstands, will cheer their support for such principles, and for the imperfect but hopeful political condition that we inhabit.

Robert Siegel is a special literary contributor to Moment.

Moment Magazine participates in the Amazon Associates program and earns money from qualifying purchases. 

3 thoughts on “Book Review | America, Jews and Israel— It’s Complicated

  1. Leona Garza says:

    As a modern, very American Jewish woman, I am proud of Israel and the Israeli people and feel a strong connection to them. My problem with this connection is the strict adherence to Jewish law that lacks sensitivity to humanity’s gifts and challenges, and when the gifts of understanding and truth are inconsequential. When the religious aspect is more important than contemporary life issues and kindness, and is inert, it is diminished in my eyes. For me it is not a rich flowing testimony of what Judaism stands for, but dogma.

  2. Doris Fine says:

    Judaism like democracy requires its adherents to maintain constant vigilance that its means and ends remain congruent. Participation in democracy and judaism call those who adhere to the relevant principles to work at sustaining those principles. Both call for thoughtful understanding of the risks and pitfalls that each entails. only by perceiving and responding to the difficulties each confronts can the principles that underlie them be sustained.

  3. hag says:

    In the Jewish world, Israel and I are the same age… I was a bar mitzvah, shortly before Israel was created (?)….My orthodox synagogue was against the formation of Israel, but luckily for me my teachers were all WWII combat vets…. I supported Israel, with money and words, but Had no intention of Imagrating…I was an American, served in both the Army and nat’l guard….

    But as time passed, I moved away from Orthodoxy, but always maintaining Synagoge membership… But as Brooklyn became more orthodox, I felt disconnected from Judaism… I didn’t go to College to meet a nice jewish girl… in fact I met lots of women, and was embarrassed as to what a hick I was..

    when my father died, my mother who had been president of the sisterhood, DID NOT HAVE A VOTE… Asking questions about Torah got simplistic
    answers… and lo and behold< lots of readings were FORBIDDEN, like Josepheus… , Macabees, the anchor bible… I have come to the conclusion that, these super Jews, Haradi and even lububicher are NOT jewish, but just a scam….

    Regarding Israel, how can a country, take property from its Arab residents… sounds like hater… how can a country tell you, you are not pure enough… aryan????

    and don't tell me things will get better

    how can country DENY citizenship to half its population ???

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.