Tuesday, February 06, 2007

On U.S., Israel and American-Jews

Highly recommended Norman Birnbaum's Israel on the Potomac: power under pressure. Among other things he makes the following points:
After the six-day war of 1967 war, the Israel lobby was able to count on the support of the media, the marginalisation of Israel's critics, and overwhelming support in Congress. A politician who incurs the anger of the Israel lobby is taking a risk. One example of many is from the 2004 presidential campaign, when Howard Dean called for American "even-handedness" in the middle east - and then retreated, in haste and under fire.

A problem here is that American Jewry has allowed itself to be represented by persons who in manner and personality resemble not the Nobel prizewinners, writers and thinkers of whom it has every reason to be proud, but an earlier generation's formidable gangsters, who are not above descending to vulgar ethnocentrism for the sake of defending Israel.

This can be manifest in the tension between the claim of full rights in the (majority-Christian) United States by virtue of the universal principles of citizenship, and the insistence that nothing be done to alter the Jewish character of Israel. It is also apparent in the acceptance of an alliance with fundamentalist Protestants, whose Biblical literalism translates into uncritical support for Israel. Such contradictions can only be explained by a visceral identification with Israel.

For most American Jews, however, the ties to Israel are symbolic. They are not ready to abandon their promised land (the American suburbs) to settle in Israel. What does generate support for Israel is the combination of ancestral memories both of European anti-Semitism and American variety (once very widespread), along with awareness and imagery of the Nazi genocide of the 1940s.

Moreover, Israel in the American Jewish psyche is not the present corrupt, conflicted and poorly-led country, but a half-heroic, half-victimised and entirely mythic nation. Despite the integration of American Jewry in the larger society, many American Jews live in a hermetic world in which other Jews reinforce their beliefs. It is not only the active minority of committed Zionists whose instinctive reaction to the situation in the middle east is that Israel can do no wrong: otherwise critical and reflective American Jews think the same way.

They could not do so in such serene fashion were their non-Jewish fellow citizens more sceptical of Israel's claims. Such scepticism is made rare by the combination of guilt over the holocaust, a commendable reluctance to appear anti-Semitic, the systematic pro-Israel bias of the media, and (more recently) an identification of the US campaign against Islamist radicalism with Israel's conflict with the Palestinians.

More profoundly, the US's Calvinist traditions, which influence America's political as well as overall culture, nurture sympathy for Israel. If the US is the new Israel, all the more reason to support the old one. The geopolitical advantages of a military alliance (albeit ambiguous), and Israel's capacity to function as a preferred client, help to consolidate this potent mix.

The current president - a fundamentalist Christian attached to Biblical literalism, and a unilateralist in his conception of American power - is in this context a representative figure. His refusal even to pretend that the US feels any moral obligation to the Palestinians, his dismissal of the legitimacy of their elected representatives, his encouragement of the most brutal and reckless of Israel's policies - all are familiar, and any criticism by more rational imperial managers leaves him unperturbed.

In any case, Bush can for the most part count on the Democrats. In the new Democrat-controlled Congress, enough party stalwarts are sceptical of negotiating with Iran and Syria, and opposed to serious pressure on Israel to abandon its unilateralism with respect to the Palestinians, to prevent serious movement in the middle east.


Anonymous said...

Birnbaum is probably wrong when he says Bush is fundamentalist Christian. Strictly speaking, Bush is not even an evangelical. Is he a cafeteria fundamentalist? Maybe, but there's almost zero chance that he's the kind of fundamentalist that Birnbaum and many liberals think. They prefer to put Bush in that fundi box because it's easy for them, but if they were wiser they'd be able to poke some holes in Bush's own religious narrative. Alas, they want him to be a fundamentalist. It's easier to explain. Funny, until Bush ran for President, no one he knew thought he was a fundamentalist and if you'd asked them if Bush was a creationist. they'd laugh incredulously.

Brian said...

Another very interesting article.

I like his discussion of the conflict between "universal principles of citizenship, and the insistence that nothing be done to alter the Jewish character of Israel."

This is a big turd that few wish to discuss. I read some time ago about someone pinning Abe Foxman down on this and he basically said that Jews have suffered, and therefore are entitled to their own, religious/racially majority country.

This of course implies that if you have not suffered like the Jews, you are not entitled to a country of your own.

Global Paradigms said...

Hi..Thanks for the comments. I didn't follow GWB's religious odyssey, but I was under the impression that all the stuff about his religious awakening, Billy Graham, the comparison with his dad's more mainstream donomination had been known for a long time. But you might be right. And, yep, liberal American-Jews like to avoid the inconsistency between their secualr disposition in this country and Israel's identity. Btw, I was in Athens when the Greeks were debating the removal of the religion clause from their identity card as part of a deal to join the EU. There was a Jewish couple from SF in my hotel who were "shocked" that Greece has religion stamped in identity cards. When I told them that that's done in Israel, they were even more "shocked."

Anonymous said...

Do you think the Greeks would be willing to return all that EU development money , in exchange for being allowed to get that religion identity stamp put back on their identity cards?

Global Paradigms said...

They won't... But an interesting point: When they had all the huge population exchanges between the Greeks and the Turks after WWI, it was religion that determined whetner one was a "Turk" (Moslem) or "Greek" (Greek Orthodox). The point is that the notion that national identity includes religious and racial component is something has been part of modern European -- especially east and central -- history.The Germans have their own version of "law of return" that is based on race, Irish and Polish nationalism and Catholicism are linked, etc. In Israel itself the Jewish religious identity is begining to lose its centrality, ironically because of the emigration of close to 200,000 non-Jewish Russians to Israel.