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Israel and the American antithesis

About the author
Anatol Lieven is a professor in the War Studies Department of King’s College London and a senior fellow of the New America Foundation in Washington DC. A new, updated edition of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, was republished in September 2012 by Oxford University Press.

One of the principal arguments made in defense of unconditional United States support for Israel over the past generation is rooted in the “American Creed”. Namely, that Israel is a fellow democracy, and the “only democracy in the Middle East”, and therefore deserves American support. But as this becomes more and more difficult to square with Israeli actions – most especially, the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the planting of Jewish settlements there, other arguments, which have always been present, may gain greater prominence. These arguments are closely related to values and beliefs which I have described in my recent article for openDemocracy as forming part of the “American antithesis.”

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Indeed, even the argument that Israel is a “bastion of democracy” is often paired with the spoken or unspoken view, more reminiscent of the 19th century, that it is also “an island of western civilisation in a sea of savagery”. Indeed, the use of “democracy” in this context sometimes seems more a contemporary version of the 19th-century use of the word “civilisation” than a reference to actual behaviour.

Arguments rooted in the American antithesis were admirably summarised in a speech to the United States Senate in March 2002 by Senator James Inhofe (Republican, Oklahoma) setting out seven reasons why “Israel alone is entitled to possess the Holy Land”, including the Palestinian territories. These views are widely shared among the other members of the Christian right in the US Congress. Their numbers include both of the last Republican leaders in the House, Dick Armey and Tom DeLay. In May 2002, Armey, then House Majority Leader, called during a television interview for the deportation of the Palestinians from the Occupied Territories.

Democracy was not among the arguments set out by Senator Inhofe; indeed the only one which is compatible with US official public values as presently understood, let alone with the official policies towards the issue of every US administration, was that of “humanitarian concern” for the Jewish survivors of the Holocaust. Instead, the Senator set out archaeological and historical arguments proving that the Jewish claim “predates any claims that other peoples in the region may have” – the same arguments so often used by nationalist intellectuals in the Balkans and Caucasus. By contrast, in 1913, “Palestinians were not there”. Two of Senator Inhofe’s reasons were realist ones in international terms: that Israel is a “strategic ally of the United States” and “a roadblock to terrorism.”

Other arguments of Inhofe’s concerned civilisational superiority: the idea that Israel took desert land which “nobody really wanted” from its supposedly nomadic native inhabitants, and made it bloom. Despite all the years since the conquest of the American west, this is still an idea with great resonance for Americans from the Jacksonian tradition, or influenced by it. After all, both this belief and the explicit parallel between the American settlement of the “new world” and the Israelites’ occupation of Canaan go back to the first days of white settlement in North America. In the words of TR Fehrenbach concerning the Texan consciousness of Texan history (and remembering that Oklahoma borders Texas and was largely settled from there):

“The Texan did not shed his history in the 20th century; he clung to it. Texas history was taught in Texas schools before the study of the United States began…This Anglo history was shot through with the national myths all such histories have; it had its share of hypocrisy and arrogance. Parts of its mythology made both ethnic Mexicans and Negroes writhe. But in essence, it rang true. We chose this land; we took it; we made it bear fruit, the Texan child is taught.”

Or in the words of John Wayne: “I don’t feel that we did wrong in taking this great country away from them [the Indians]…Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” Leo Strauss, one of the intellectual fathers of the neo-conservatives, made “theft of land” the basis for all states, while arguing that this unpleasant truth should be veiled from the masses.

How important is Leo Strauss to American neo-conservatism? In openDemocracy, Danny Postel interviews Shadia Drury, anatomist of his work and influence: “Noble lies and perpetual war: Leo Strauss, the neo-cons, and Iraq” ( October 2003)

In this vein, like so many American supporters of Israel over the decades, Senator Inhofe quoted a passage from Mark Twain about his travels through a desolate Palestine; and long-held views of Palestine’s backwardness before the start of Jewish settlement, and therefore the Palestinians’ inferiority, hark back directly to 19th-century attitudes.

Senator Inhofe’s final argument also stems directly from another key strand in the American “antithesis”. In his words:

“This is the most important reason; because God said so. As I said a minute ago, look it up in the book of Genesis. It is right up there on the desk…The Bible says that Abram removed his tent and came and dwelt in the plain of Mamre, which is in Hebron, and built an altar there before the Lord. Hebron is in the West Bank. It is at this place where God appeared to Abram and said ‘I am giving you this land’ – the West Bank. This is not a political battle at all. It is a contest over whether the word of God is true.”

Such an argument not only removes this critical issue from the sphere of negotiation; it removes it from any possibility of rational discussion based on universally accepted criteria. This argument in fact rejects the Enlightenment as a basis for political culture, and in doing so, also rejects modern western civilisation. The rejection of the Enlightenment tradition is especially true of the millenarian Christians in the United States, who believe that the restoration of Israeli rule over the entire biblical Kingdom of David is an essential precondition of the Apocalypse.

Or in the simple words of the Reverend Jerry Falwell: “To stand against Israel is to stand against God.” Over the past decade, unconditional support for Israel has become increasingly strong on the Republican right, in tandem with the rise of the Christian right “from an irrelevant fringe into a centerpiece of the conservative movement”. This is a very marked change from the days of Eisenhower, and indeed of George Bush Sr.

The costs of unconditional support

Such views, of course, represent a distinctly minority opinion in the US as a whole concerning the Israeli-Palestinian issue. But the rise of the Christian right within the Republican party means that on this wing of US politics, they are views which are becoming more and more significant. The Israeli fundamentalist right is developing a closer relationship even with more moderate sections of the Christian right in the US. Indeed, it would seem that from the mid-1990s Likud governments in Israel have come to rely more on the Christian right than on “unreliable” liberal Jewish Americans in their attempts to mobilise support in the US for its policies.

In the case of Israel, both the Democratic Party and the liberal intelligentsia have been disabled from presenting strong and coherent opposition to them; whether by sincere identification with Israel, or fear of being attacked by the Israeli lobby. As a result, there is in effect no real political alternative or opposition in the US concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and US policies towards it.

Over the past four decades US policy has in consequence become bogged down in a glaring contradiction between American public ideals and US-financed Israeli behaviour. On the one hand, America preaches to Arabs contemporary civic ideals of democracy, modernity, and the peaceful resolution of disputes. On the other, it subsidises not only a brutal military occupation but the seizure of land from an established population on the basis of ethno-religious claims which in any other circumstances would be regarded by US governments and a majority of public opinion as utterly illegitimate.

The most truly tragic aspect of all this, as more and more Israelis and Jewish Americans have begun to argue, is that this kind of unconditional US support, coupled with continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory, is also proving disastrous for Israel itself, and for the noble ideals which motivated the best elements in the Zionist enterprise. These critics include not just liberals, but senior retired military and security officials; like the four former directors of the Shin Bet domestic security service who in November 2003 warned the Ariel Sharon government that if Israel does not withdraw from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Israel’s very existence will ultimately be endangered.

The figure for US aid to Israel 2002 was around six times that to the entire desperately impoverished continent of Africa, and ten times the proposed US share of aid for the reconstruction of liberated Afghanistan – the latter being both a US moral imperative and also supposedly a vital US strategic interest. This clearly makes Israel a special case. It makes the US morally complicit in Israel’s crimes, not only in the eyes of the world but in reality; and it gives Americans both the right and the duty to put pressure on Israel to end the occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The United States’s need to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is also dictated on purely realist grounds, especially in the context of the “war against terrorism”. Israeli strategies and tactics in that conflict, and US support for Israel, are central to how a large majority of Muslims view the US and its policies in the Muslim world. This fact has been attested to by an almost endless procession of opinion polls and media reports, including surveys by the US state department, and is not or should not be open to serious question.

In the context of either a realist or an ethical international tradition, there is of course nothing wrong in a US commitment to Israel based on a sense of cultural and ethnic kinship, nor in US willingness to make geopolitical sacrifices for the sake of defending Israel. This, after all, was the position of Britain vis-à-vis its former “white” colonies long after they had become politically independent of Britain, and even when some had ceased to be real strategic assets.

In the case of Israel’s role in the US-Israel alliance, alas, a darker historical parallel suggests itself. If anything, the US-Israel alliance is beginning to take on some of the same mutually calamitous aspects as Russia’s commitment to Serbia in 1914; a great-power guarantee which encouraged parts of the Serbian leadership to behave with criminal irresponsibility in their encouragement of irredentist claims against Austria, leading to a war which was ruinous for Russia, Serbia and the world.

One might almost say that as a result of the way in which the terms of the Israeli-US alliance have become set, the US and Israel have changed places. The US, which should feel protected both by the oceans and by matchless military superiority, is cast instead in the role of an endangered middle-eastern state which is under severe threat from terrorism, and which also believes itself to be in mortal danger from countries with a tiny fraction of its power.

Meanwhile, thanks largely to support from the US, Israel has become a kind of superpower, able to defy its entire region and Europe too. This is not only bad for the US, it is terribly bad for Israel itself. For Israel is not a superpower. It is rich and powerful, but it is still a small middle-eastern country which will have to seek accommodations with its neighbours if it is ever to live in peace. Blind and largely unconditional US support has enabled Israeli governments to avoid facing this fact, with consequences which are likely to prove utterly disastrous for Israel itself in the long run.

A dangerous entanglement

As in the case of Serbia and powerful pan-Slavist sections of pre-1914 Russian public and official opinion, so in the case of Israel, important sections of US opinion (by no means only Jewish) have over the past half-century come to view the US and Israel as almost one country, so tightly identified with each other as to transcend America’s own identity and interests. They genuinely believe in an “identity of interests between the Jewish state and the United States.” The relationship has been described as a “love affair”; in the words of Jerry Brown (former Democratic governor of California): “I love Israel. If you would show me a map and ask me to identify Israel, I probably wouldn’t find it. But Israel is in my heart.”

This identification with Israel would not matter much to US and western security, except that over the same period the wider Arab (and to a lesser extent Muslim) worlds have come equally to identify with the Palestinians in their struggle with the Israelis. The US has a separate hegemonic agenda in the region, which is focused on control of access to oil, the deterrence or removal of hostile states, and the attempt to develop states and societies so as to ward off state failure, anti-western revolution, or both. This task would be difficult enough in itself, but it is made immeasurably more difficult by the embroilment of the US in an essentially national conflict with the Palestinians and their Arab backers.

So as a result of a combination of Israel and oil, the US finds itself pinned to a conflict-ridden and bitterly anti-American region in a way without precedent in its history. In all other regions of the world, the US has been able either to help stabilise regional situations in a way which broadly conforms to its interests (Europe, northeast Asia, central America), or, if regional hostility is too great and the security situation too intractable, to withdraw (as from Mexico in 1917 and Indochina in the early 1970s).

Also by Anatol Lieven in openDemocracy: “Missionaries and marines: Bush, Blair and democratisation” ( September 2002)

If the result of US entanglement in the middle east is also unprecedented embroilment in a series of conflicts, then this is likely severely to damage not only US global leadership, but the character of US nationalism and even perhaps of US democracy. As the period of the Vietnam war indicated, prolonged war may bitterly divide American society and create severe problems for public order; and it may also help push the American government in the direction of secretive, paranoid, authoritarian and illegal behaviour.

The nationalist black hole

Whatever the natural, legitimate and understandable roots of unconditional loyalty to Israel, the effects often resemble wider patterns of nationalism in the world. One of the saddest experiences of visits to countries experiencing national disputes and heightened moods of nationalism is to meet with highly intelligent, civilised, and moderate individuals whose capacity for reason and moderation vanishes as soon as the conversation touches on conflicts involving their own nation or ethnicity. Otherwise universally accepted standards of behaviour, argument and evidence are suspended, facts are conjured from thin air, critics are demonised, wild accusations are leveled, and civilised and rational argument becomes impossible.

I observed this as a journalist in the southern Caucasus in the run-up to the wars there in the early 1990s, and more than a decade earlier when visiting the then Yugoslavia as a student. It was therefore with dismay that I found exactly the same pattern repeating itself at dinner-parties in Washington as soon as the conversation touched on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Also immensely sad and troubling is to see ethical principles and intellectual standards crumble at the touch of national allegiance among scholars and thinkers whose work you deeply admire.

As far as the pro-Israeli liberal intelligentsia of the US – both Jewish and non-Jewish – is concerned, any condemnation must be tempered not only by the terrible impact of the Holocaust but by an awareness of the extremely difficult ideological and ethical position in which its members have found themselves since 1945, a position which is nothing short of a tragic dilemma. This stems in origin from the fact that for equally valid and legitimate reasons, western Europe, and the liberal intelligentsia of the US on the one hand, and the greater part of the world’s Jewish population on the other, drew opposing conclusions from the catastrophe of Nazism. And this split ran straight through the individual consciousnesses of most of the Jewish diaspora intelligentsia. This is not an enviable situation to be in.

The western European elites, and the liberal intelligentsia of the US, essentially decided that the correct response to Nazism - and to the hideous national conflicts which preceded, engendered and accompanied Nazism - was to seek to limit, transcend and overcome nationalism. Hence the creation of common European institutions leading to the European Union, and the great respect paid in Europe (and by many liberal Americans) to the United Nations and to developing institutions of international law and cooperation. Given the strong past connections between chauvinist nationalism and anti-semitism (even to a degree in the US), and the role of nationalism in fascism, most of the Jewish intelligentsia in the diaspora naturally also identified with these attempts to overcome nationalism around the world.

However, given the failure of the western world (including the US) in the 1930s and 1940s to prevent genocide, or even – shamefully - to offer refuge to Jews fleeing the Nazis, it is entirely natural that a great many Jews decided that guarantees from the international community were not remotely sufficient to protect them against further attempts at massacre, and that in addition, a Jewish national state was required, backed by a strong Jewish nationalism. This nationalism embodied strong and genuine elements of national liberation and social progressivism, akin to those of other oppressed peoples in the world, and it was from this that Zionism drew its powerful elements of moral nobility, as represented by figures like Ahad Ha’am, Martin Buber and Nahum Goldmann.

Unlike most other national senses of martyrdom – that of France after 1871 or Germany after 1918, for example – the Jewish one was truly justified. But that has not saved many Jews from the pernicious results of such a sense of martyrdom in terms of nationalist extremism and self-justification – any more than it has the Armenians, for example. It has produced an atmosphere which has shaded into and tolerated the religious-nationalist fundamentalism of Israeli extremist groups and different groups of ideological settlers in the occupied territories, and crude hatred of Arabs and Muslims.

Furthermore, while Zionism of course originated in the late 19th century and is a classic example of the modern “construction” of a nation, the Jewish ethno-religious basis on which it did so represents the oldest and deepest “primordial” national identity in the world.

An appeal to religious and quasi-religious nationalist justifications for rule over Palestine was also implicit in the entire Zionist enterprise. Given the large majority of Palestinian Arabs throughout Palestine – even at the moment of the declaration of Israeli statehood in 1948 - the claim to create a Jewish state in Palestine could not easily be justified on grounds of national liberation alone. It needed also to be backed by appeals to ancient ethnic claims and religious scripts, and by civilisational arguments of superiority to the backward Arabs and “making the desert bloom”. These could not easily be assented to by other peoples around the world, and indeed made even many western liberals think uneasily of their own nationalist and imperialist pasts.

Today, it should also be quite clear that if one of the absolute preconditions for peace between Israel and the Palestinians is Israeli abandonment of many settlements in the occupied territories, the other is Palestinian abandonment of the “right of return” for those Palestinians who were expelled in 1948. I should add that I strongly support the Jewish “right of return” to Israel within the borders of 1967, as an ultimate fallback line in the event of a real return of anti-semitism elsewhere in the world.

Anatol Lieven’s book America Right or Wrong HarperCollins, 2004) develops the arguments in this essay

But while the expulsions of 1948 may have been necessary for Israel’s survival, the lies which they have generated over the succeeding generations, and which continue to this day, have been extremely dangerous for both Israel and the US. It would have been far better if Israel, and partisans of Israel in the US, had – like David Ben Gurion in private - accepted the truth of what happened in 1948, and then used it as the basis for thinking seriously about compensation and laying the foundations for future peace. Instead, the pro-Israel camp committed itself to an interlocking set of moral and historical falsehoods.

Over time, the intellectual consequences of these positions have spread like a forest of aquatic weeds until they have entangled and choked a significant part of the US national debate concerning relations not only with the Muslim world but with the outside world in general, and have thereby fed the worst strains of American nationalism.


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