By Leader Dr. Joe Chuman
Originally published on his blog, Beyond Appearances
The installation of Israel’s latest government, the most right-wing in its history, puts Israel back in the news. But Israel has never been far from the headlines. For a small nation, the size and population of the state of New Jersey, Israel commands attention far disproportionate to its size.
No doubt Israel as a focus of international awareness is tagged to its unique and tightly intertwined relation to the United States. It also results from the world’s relentless fascination with Jews, which has served as a basis for prejudice, allegations of Jewish conspiracies, and much worse.
Books on Israel, its history, its origins, and its unique relationship with the United States abound in great numbers. A most welcome addition to the field is a magisterial treatise by historian and journalist, Eric Alterman. We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel is a comprehensive work of more than 500 pages packed with information in which Alterman strives to document every episode in America’s relation to the Jewish state since its founding 75 years ago. It recounts and goes behind the scene to detail well-known events as well as those which have been mostly forgotten.
Watch Leader Joe Chuman’s interview with Eric Alterman from the Puffin Cultural Forum:
Inclusive of Alterman’s concerns is Israel-American relations as a matter of foreign policy. But he is no less thorough in his coverage of the relationship between Israel and Israelis to the primarily non-Orthodox American Jewish diaspora. It is from this relation that the title of the book is most likely drawn. In my upbringing as a Jew, I was taught that Jews are a single people, unified by a common sense of peoplehood which needs to serve as a bulwark of loyalty to one’s own. This never seemed the case to me, and today it is less true than ever. Israel and American Jewry are stridently divided. Most starkly, as Alterman documents, American Jews remain steadily left of center in their political values and voting patterns. Younger generations of Americans are becoming more progressive. By contrast, Israelis have moved consistently to the right, including younger cohorts of the population. As Alterman notes, American Jews comprise a “blue state” and Israel a “red state.” Indeed,70 percent of Israelis favor Donald Trump. Among American Jews, that number is reversed. This chasm is unbridgeable as never before.
Alterman is also concerned with the role of the press in shaping Israel’s image and with major Jewish organizations that serve as a bulwark in defense of Israel and claim to defend American views, even as their positions radically depart from where the vast majority of contemporary American Jews stand on Israel.
I credit Alterman with courage in his undertaking. To write about Israel, or even to render a comment, is to place oneself before a firing squad. Some will upbraid Alterman for being an enemy of Israel. Others will condemn him for being too sympathetic. Still others will contend that he is obsessed with Israel’s sins, while soft-peddling criticism of the Palestinians and the existential threats to Israel’s security looming just over its borders.
Alterman’s voice is that of the historian. He is deeply immersed in the issues, yet he partially floats above them to provide descriptions of events and their actors without becoming ensnared in polemics. This avoidance is not equatable with an absence of criticism. To the contrary, Alterman is a truth-teller committed to getting beneath “official” stories and headlines to reveal hitherto unknown facts and debunk accepted myths.
An early chapter deals with the role that the iconic novel and subsequent film, Exodus, played in framing the image of Israel and the new, post-Holocaust Jew in the American mind. Leon Uris’s book, on the New York Times best-seller list for a year, found its place along with the Bible on the bookshelves in myriad Jewish homes. But as Alterman tells us, David Ben-Gurion admitted that the work suffered from the author’s lack of talent, and Golda Meir opined that the novel contained “a lot of kitsch.” Both averred, however, that it was marvelous publicity and propaganda for the new nation.
The film version, starring Paul Newman, employed romanticized cowboy motifs, Arabs referred to as the “dregs of humanity,” and it is strewn with historical inaccuracies. But the film was a box office success, and as Alterman notes, “it continued to be shown at synagogue fundraisers, community centers, summer camps, and Hebrew schools for decades to come.” It formatted Israel’s image in the American mind in the state’s early years while playing fast and loose with historical verities.
Interesting facts abound. They are too many and too complex to recount, but a few I found of particular interest. New to this reviewer was the role of Harry Truman in supporting Israel’s birth. Truman, coming from Missouri, harbored usual anti-Jewish prejudices, knew little about Palestine before becoming president and was certainly no Zionist. Yet, as Alterman makes clear, Truman had Jewish friends, a warm relationship with Chaim Weizmann, and was deeply moved by the plight of Jews in post-War displaced persons camps. It was emotion, more than political principles, that caused Truman, in the face of opposition from his State Department, to declare his support for the State of Israel just minutes after David Ben-Gurion declared its independence. As such, America’s ties to Israel were launched at its very creation.
The `67 War was a watershed event that changed the image of Israel in the minds of different political factions. It would be useful to quote Alterman here:
“Before 1967, Israel had been understood to be a progressive cause, and the Arabs a regressive one. Israel had successively positioned itself in the anti-imperialist camp and had enjoyed good relations with other emerging nations, especially those in Africa. The socialist orientation of its dominant party, together with the ‘David vs. Goliath’ global image to which it had attached itself vis-a-vis the Arab world placed it within the geography of the ‘good guy’ camp for most liberals and leftists…”
“Regarding Black-Jewish relations pre-1967, US civil rights leaders, including, especially, Martin Luther King were almost uniformly pro-Israel…”
“The Six-Day War said ‘good-bye’ to all that. The cause of the Palestinians had long been part of the Marxist-inspired ‘third-world’ international revolutionary vanguard that included North Vietnam, Cuba, Nasser’s Egypt, and other non-aligned or pro-Soviet governments opposed to the Americans and their allies…The Black-Jewish alliance had endured for more than half a century…Now the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a New Left civil rights organization, began publishing articles reporting on what it called Israel’s conquest of ‘Arab homes and land through terror.’”
Much else changed with the `67 War and factions and political dynamics concerning Israel have grown increasingly divisive and strident. The War enabled the settlement of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and with the rise of the Likud Party, Israel has moved increasingly to the right. A contributing cause, no doubt, was Palestinian terrorism and the two intifadas which marginalized the Israel peace movement. In addition, the Orthodox sector of the population has grown and augmented its political power.
Alterman’s treatise, which is presented chronologically, details in great complexity episodes in Israel’s history and the involvement of a string of actors who were responsive to changing conditions and competing political dynamics. Nixon was known as an antisemite, but his bigotry’s pervasiveness and crudity are shocking. Alterman cites Kissinger’s discomfort with Jews, despite his own Jewishness, as he engaged in shuttle diplomacy. The author brings us back to the “Zionism is racism” controversy played out at the United Nations, and the role of Daniel Moynihan, which helped launch him into the senate.
Jimmy Carter and the Camp David Accords rightly receives a chapter that includes the painful controversy occasioned by Andrew Young, Carter’s UN ambassador, when Young held a secret meeting with a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) official. The meeting led to Young’s forced resignation, which heightened Black-Jewish tensions. But, as Alterman often makes clear, such controversies were more complex than they were reported at the time: There had previously been private meetings between US officials and the PLO, which did not create a stir.
Lebanon, the massacre at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps, and the complicity of Ariel Sharon are described in their complexity, as well as the allegations that the Iraq War against Hussein was pursued for Israel’s benefit.
I found of special interest Alterman’s chapter on Barack Obama. Its title “Basically a Liberal Jew,” was taken from a remark jokingly made by the president to an audience at New York’s Temple Emmanuel in 2018. It’s my view that Obama is a philosemite whose political career was launched in Chicago with the support of Jewish friends and associates. Though he has disagreements with Israel, it was Obama who had inscribed into law more than $3 billion given annually to Israel, which enabled Israel to construct its Iron Dome defense system, deployed to protect the state from incoming missiles from Gaza. Despite an unprecedented commitment to Israel’s security, the contempt for Obama coming from Israel and the calumny issued from the Jewish establishment has been exceedingly harsh. No less has been the contempt for Jimmy Carter, who brokered the Camp David Accords,that generated the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Egypt comprises almost one-half of the Arab world, and one would think that Israel and its American supporters would be eternally grateful. But because Carter has been critical of the occupation, he has been the object of almost unmitigated calumny by those who have set themselves up to speak for Israel’s interests, and by extension the American Jewish community – which they do not.
Such criticism opens the door to another major theme treated in Alterman’s book, namely the exceptionless defense of Israel by conservative apologists no matter how indefensible Israel’s conduct may be. Among the major voices in that camp are the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. There are multitudes of individuals in the press, journals of opinion (Commentary the most noteworthy), and among neo-conservative pundits who also hold apologist views.
Criticisms of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, the injustices and humiliations generated by the occupations, and abuses perpetrated by the military or by settlers, often with impunity, swiftly result in efforts to marginalize the critics. Very often there are charges of antisemitism, even against critics who are otherwise supportive of the Jewish state. Those pointing to Israel’s excesses are summarily placed in the same category as those who wish to do Israel harm, blindly forgetting that criticism can be rendered in the service of positive support and care. Arguments that require an appreciation for detail, nuance, and complexity are subject to polemics and crude reductionisms. To this reviewer, it has long appeared as an odd and tragic state of affairs for a culture that has long been characterized and enriched by dialogue, engaged discussion, and a non-dogmatic stance in search for truth to avoid constructive criticism.
This obdurateness is rock solid and forms the basis of policy deployed by AIPAC when lobbying Congress, and is voiced in support of the Israeli government and its American allies. The political stance of Israel’s defenders perhaps reached its most extreme manifestation in right-wing Jewish advocacy for Donald Trump in his alliance with Benjamin Netanyahu. The following is an illustration of where die-hard support for Israel has arrived. I cite from Alterman’s chapter aptly titled, “Coming Unglued.”
“Trump’s extraordinary largess to the Israelis was due in part to the similarities in how he and Benjamin Netanyahu viewed the world…Both politicians were profoundly corrupt…Both leaders displayed degrees of racism, nativism, and ethnocentrism that were considered extreme even by the standards of the racist, nativist, and ethnocentric parties they led. Politically, both were aspiring authoritarians who were eager to forge alliances with fellow illiberal politicians consolidating power based on ethnonationalist appeals in places such as Russia, Turkey, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, the Philippines, Brazil, Egypt, Oman, Azerbaijan, the Gulf States, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere. Neither evinced any patience, much less respect, for democratic niceties such as freedom of speech, freedom of the press, or the separation of powers…Common enemies bred friendships of convenience. Netanyahu repeatedly excused Trump’s antisemitism and that of his political allies. So did Trump’s Jewish supporters, who were willing to make the same tradeoff that had appealed to the neoconservatives of a previous generation, when they had chosen to embrace antisemitic but pro-Zionist evangelical preachers beginning in the 1970s. As long as Trump was willing to indulge Netanyahu, they were willing to indulge Trump.”
The Trump-Netanyahu alliance is emblematic of where Israel has arrived. Israeli society and American Jews, except for the Orthodox (who comprise only ten percent of American Jewry) could not be further apart. With regard to political and social values, they reflect inverted images of each other. As noted at the beginning of this review seventy percent of Israelis, including the younger generations, support Donald Trump. With American Jews, it is the opposite.
Netanyahu is in the Prime Minister’s office again, this time beholden to ominous reactionary forces that promise to undermine and transform Israel’s democracy and its democratic institutions. In the past election, the Labor Party, the party of Israel’s founders and founding vision, won but three seats in the Knesset. Meretz, the left-wing party, none.
As Americans move further to the left, Israelis move further to the right. The American Jewish community holds very little in common with their Israeli counterparts. It’s a multi-tiered tragedy. I have personally known people of my parents’ generation who devoted their lives to Israel and the Zionist cause. It was their guiding passion.
In a sense, Israel had always held them in contempt: eager to accept their support, while, in line with Zionist ideology, disparaging diaspora Jews for refusing to make aliyah, that is coming “home” to Israel, where they could be fulfilled as Jews. Today that contempt has been more fully realized.
Since evangelicals have revived their commitment to “Christian Zionism” they proclaim a special love for the Jewish people and for Israel. Their theology dictates the Jews need to be regrouped in the Holy Land to jump-start the second coming of Christ, at which point they will either be converted to Christianity or die. Israel has been willing to accept the “friendship” of evangelicals who support it with millions of dollars, assist in the immigration of Jews to Israel, and aggressively support the most right-wing and militarist objectives of the Israeli state. A tragic reality is, given that the evangelical population is many times that of the number of American Jews, Israel no longer needs the American Jewish community for its support. American Jews will increasingly be treated as irrelevant to Israel’s interests.
In conversation with Eric Alterman, he opined that the breach between Israel and the American Jewish population (except for the Orthodox) cannot be reconciled. They are moving in the opposite direction and he believes the situation is hopeless.
Alterman further believes that American Jewish leadership for the past several decades has been committing a grand mistake. It has striven to construct Jewish identity on the two pillars. The first is reverence for the memory of Holocaust victims and the other is support for Israel. Yet, the Holocaust is long ago, and as his book makes clear, there is less in Israel to admire.
For Alterman, this current state of affairs opens up new opportunities. It provides a moment in which self-identified Jewish Americans can work to revive and rediscover the riches of their own traditions, religious and cultural. In such a turn, there is very valuable work to be done.
We Are Not Alone does not provide solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor, as suggested, does it offer ways in which Israel can resolve its internal problems, or how American Jewish organizations can relate to Israel with greater integrity as we look to the future. As stated, Eric Alterman’s exhaustive treatise is a work of history, meticulously researched, honestly presented, lucidly elaborated, and eminently readable.
It is necessary reading for anyone who wishes to achieve greater insight and understanding into a central dynamic of American foreign policy and the place of Israel in the political life of American Jews.