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.