Anyone who spent much time in Israel before the last few years has probably heard this trope from multiple Israelis: “Everything here is crazy! Why can’t we live in a normal country?” The “normal country” of their fantasies was almost certainly the United States.
No longer. And it’s not only because of Donald Trump. Although Israel was one of the very few countries where majorities liked our former president, few Israelis could avoid noticing that “crazy” events in the United States have multiplied during the last decade. Mass shootings. Legislative gridlock. Eleven million undocumented immigrants. Increasing numbers of unhinged legislators. And, of course, January 6 and the whole litany of election denialism.
As a professor of Israel studies, I go to Israel pretty regularly. This summer was my first trip since pre-COVID times, and, apart from a conference, I mostly saw old friends. And virtually every one of them asked me, usually with a note of incredulity, some variation of: “What’s going on in the U.S.?”
Not that Israel doesn’t have its own mishegas, and plenty of it. Most notably, it’s just entering its fifth general election in three and a half years. But that wasn’t exactly unexpected, and people I spoke with took it in stride. Likewise the mini-war with Gaza in August, which was over and done with in a long weekend. Even the annual ritual of beginning the school year with a teachers’ strike was avoided this time with a deal that is supposed to last until 2026.
My time in Israel was very pleasant. True, I could have found lots of issues if I’d looked. Evictions of Palestinians from the neighborhoods of Sheikh Jarrah and Masafer Yatta. Member of Knesset Itamar Ben-Gvir, an Israeli Marjorie Taylor Greene. But people weren’t storming the Knesset (it’s never been stormed). There was no dispute about who had won the four previous Knesset elections (nobody had), nor is anyone predicting actual civil war. Sure, the left is asserting Israeli democracy would be seriously endangered if Benjamin Netanyahu wins again, or if avowed Kahanists become government ministers. Likewise, Bibi is warning that the left will (again) bring “terrorists” into the government (referring to Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List, which supported the last government and the sky didn’t fall). But these are par for the course, and few voters seem to be losing any sleep.
The recent explosion of violent threats here dwarfs anything going on in Israel.
More seriously, though Israel still has daunting problems—particularly the occupation, and the presence of Iran as a seemingly permanent enemy—the sense of fragility that was attached to it for decades is gone. The rhetorical trump card for those who argued that Israel was uniquely endangered was always, “Israel is the only country whose right to exist is permanently threatened by its neighbors.” It’s hard to maintain that nowadays in the age of Ukraine and Taiwan. Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords, along with Israel’s unofficial but seemingly solid relations with much of the Arab world, mean Israel is buttressed by the sort of alliances that other countries have long enjoyed.
Looking at the United States, it’s hard to be so sanguine. With the politicization and weaponization of virtually every public issue, it’s increasingly obvious that our most serious dangers come from within. The recent explosion of violent threats following the FBI search of Mar-a-Lago dwarfs anything going on in Israel. While, strangely, both countries have recent chief executives facing significant legal jeopardy, Netanyahu has been duly attending his trial and not issuing threats of violence if the verdict goes against him. While some of the “deep state” rhetoric is similar, real fear of civil war seems confined to the U.S.
Why the difference—given somewhat similar political polarization in both countries? I suspect the solution relates to Israel having been in genuinely greater jeopardy within living memory—an experience the United States simply hasn’t had. Few Israelis now remember 1948, but it is much closer than our Civil War. Israelis will never forget the existential fears of 1967 and 1973, compared with 9/11, which was a single day—a day when, despite the shock and horror, the existence of the United States was never threatened. Even World War II, which many of our parents fought in, never came close to our own shores after the attack on Pearl Harbor. We don’t have those memories of deep distress.
Not that violence is necessarily a prophylactic—but experiencing it can sometimes give people pause. Wouldn’t it be ironic if our lack of recent exposure to internal political violence, combined with the enormous amount of firepower at large in this country, were to make us more prone than Israel to actual bloodshed? Prediction is beyond me, but the degree to which these countries’ respective national and self-images have seemingly reversed is striking. Like all of us, I wonder: Where do we go from here? And can we change our trajectory?
Paul Scham is director of the Gildenhorn Institute for Israel Studies at the University of Maryland.