The minority of American Jews who are either more religiously observant or politically conservative look at American Jewry and worry. Assimilation, demographic decline, and the collapse of a sense of Jewish peoplehood all contribute to a situation in which most Jews become either insufficiently supportive of a still embattled Israel or actively hostile to it. Meanwhile, the small rump of anti- or non-Zionist American Jews looks at the same situation and bemoans the political reality that the pro-Israel community is still able to rally most of America behind its efforts.
The hard left sees more than a century of Zionist activism in the United States as a confidence game or conspiracy to hoodwink Americans into suborning their national interests in favor of an ungrateful, militaristic, and oppressive Israeli state. They think that Israel ought to receive, at best, a sound thrashing from its American sponsor until it behaves more like American Jewish liberals and not like a people who understand that their survival depends on themselves and not the kindness of strangers who welcomed them into a uniquely tolerant nation. At worst, they think that an “apartheid state” on its way toward elimination deserves a policy of brutal pressure and isolation.
While some may dream of one or the other of those scenarios happening, those still aware of American political realities know that neither one is a possibility in the foreseeable future. The majority of Americans support Israel, and even most liberal Jews aren’t comfortable with the kind of vicious anti-Zionism that frequently manifests itself as anti-Semitism among supporters of the BDS movement seeking Israel’s destruction.
Explaining how this came about is the conceit of veteran Nation magazine columnist Eric Alterman’s ponderous new book, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel. Though it is packed with excruciatingly dull detail about the infighting among American Jewry, Alterman’s tome provides little in the way of genuine insight or original historical analysis. For all of its veneer of scholarly effort, it is exactly the sort of heavy-handed, snide, and generally clueless effort one might expect from reading him at the Nation.
Alterman’s exegesis makes the banal point that pompous citations of Jewish unity, even in the heyday of postwar American Zionism, have always been more aspirational than descriptive. But Alterman isn’t just trying to make the case that Zionism is a heavy lift for Jews who live in a country in which sectarianism of any kind is despised by liberal elites—save, of course, for those who are designated victims by intersectionality theory, which alleges that beneficiaries of “white privilege” oppress people of color. His goal is to portray Zionists as propagandists for a Jewish national liberation movement, which he thinks demonstrates the validity of the criticisms against it.
Alterman is merely rehashing the claims of Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, whose 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, asserted that the Zionist Israeli tail wags the American dog. What made their argument so risible was not just the façade of scholarly research with which they cloaked traditional anti-Semitic memes about Jews, money, and power. It was their conclusion that the victory of the Zionists was the hidden triumph of a network that encompassed pretty much the entire American political system. Perhaps Israel and its friends are bamboozling Americans to act against their interests, but they are only able to succeed in this effort because most Americans continue to believe that it is in their interests to support the one Jewish state on the planet that is also the sole democracy in the Middle East.
Indeed, the primary problem with the growing body of literature that seeks to explain the endurance of the U.S.-Israel alliance is that Israel’s enemies focus too much on trying to characterize Jewish opinions and influence. The inordinate attention given to what American Jews (who make up 2 percent of this nation’s population) say or do to advance that cause is more of a distraction than anything else.
As Walter Russell Mead points out in his exceptionally valuable The Arc of a Covenant, published last year, every administration from Harry Truman’s to Joe Biden’s has consistently acted in what it thought was America’s best interests, not those of Israel. While Alterman goes over much of the same ground as Mead in tracing the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship, he’s far more interested in highlighting the supposed illogic of American Jewish support for Israel than in understanding the complex dynamic between the United States and this speck of a country.
Contrary to the conspiratorial mindset of most of those raging at the supposedly all-powerful Israel lobby, the United States has not been consistently supportive of the Jewish state. Virtually every president, even Donald Trump, has at times rejected the advice of or actively sought to thwart the government in Jerusalem on issues large and small. Several, including Eisenhower, George H.W. Bush, andBarack Obama, were primarily interested in pressuring Israel into making deals with its enemies that most Israelis had good reason to believe were dangerous if not suicidal.
Alterman is not wrong to argue that, except for a relatively brief period after the Holocaust and during a time when Israel was fighting wars of survival against heavy odds, most American Jews of the mid-20th century were not that interested in Zionism. Zionists were clearly a minority among Jews in the decades leading up to World War II. But as the fate of European Jewry became more apparent to Americans in the 1940s, an understanding began to take hold that Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, had been right about the necessity of creating a Jewish state.
Still, Alterman can’t resist turning American Zionists into the bad guys, even when it comes to the Holocaust. Recycling discredited revisionist historical interpretations about the period, he blames American Jewry’s relative indifference to the Shoah—and the decision of almost of all of their leaders not to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt to try to rescue those of Hitler’s victims who were not yet slain—on an inordinate focus on fighting for a Jewish state in the postwar era. The argument is slanderous. While some of those leaders, such as Rabbi Stephen Wise, were Zionists, American Jewish reticence about the Holocaust was primarily motivated by a fear of provoking anti-Semitism. Wise was also motivated by fear; he was afraid of losing what little influence he had with FDR—not saving his chits for Zionism.
In fact, the small group of dissidents inside the United States who led the fight for rescue were the most militant Zionists of all—people such as Hillel Kook (then known as Peter Bergson) and the indefatigable writer Ben Hecht. They were supporters of the Jabotinskyite Revisionist movement. It was the ancestor of today’s Likud Party, the one leftists like Alterman so despise. This inarguable fact illustrates the level of Alterman’s cognitive dissonance.
One of the chief malefactors in Alterman’s effort to trace the ability of Zionists to galvanize support for Israel is Leon Uris, whose Exodus—the fictional 1958 account of the founding of the State of Israel—was made into a wildly popular film in 1960. Uris’s literary reputation was worse than negligible at the time and has not improved in the years since his death in 2003. With its pedestrian prose and potted history, Exodus is low-hanging fruit for critics of Zionism. Alterman mocks it as “a new bible” that allowed Jews to view Zionism through the “distorted lens” in which “tough Jews” were empowered while fighting against cartoonish Nazis, British bullies, and Arab bad guys. But Uris’s work resonated with the public, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, because, for all of its melodrama and sentimentality, Exodus accurately captured the reason why Zionism was necessary. In the 20th century, Jews could no longer remain passive and powerless but had to relearn those aspects of nationhood that involved self-defense and the assertion of their rights to their ancient homeland. If Exodus was powerful, it was not because it was a piece of agitprop disguised as a fairy tale about the creation of a Jewish state. It was because it treated that battle and the value of Jewish peoplehood as important.
While acknowledging Exodus’s power, Alterman’s belief that it was essentially fraudulent misses why it was so effective. Myths are, after all, essential to the history of all countries, as those on the left who are dedicated to shredding the reputations of America’s Founding Fathers well understand. Exodus was an essential part of the underground samizdat literature that fueled the revival of Jewish life in the former Soviet Union during the last decades of Communist despotism because it captured exactly why Jews who wish to retain their identity are willing to fight those who wish to wipe them out.
From his introduction to his concluding paragraphs, Alterman seeks to portray American support for Israel as the product of mythology about a fantasy version of Israel that existed only in the imagination of Uris. According to Alterman, even during the country’s first decades under Labor governments, positive portraits of the newborn state were knowing lies that distorted the truth about an oppressive militaristic regime that dispossessed the Palestinians.
Some liberals, who are increasingly disillusioned by a Jewish state that embraces its Jewish nature and its obligation to fight its many enemies, may be represented by the woman he quotes as telling an Israeli critic of Israel’s policies who had traveled to America: “You have to understand that for us, Israel is a fantasy, and we would like to keep it that way. So please don’t come here and try to destroy this fantasy for us!”
Alterman’s version of Israel is the actual fantasy—a fantasy state that does not have to defend itself against those who would destroy it but chooses for some bizarre reason of its own devising to fight rather than concede. Objective reality in the form of still-virulent anti-Semitism and the malevolence of those who plot the Jewish state’s end still point to Israel’s necessity and the justice of its self-defense. To his credit, Alterman laments the bankruptcy of both the Islamists of Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as well as the intellectual dead end of the BDS movement—but his beef against them seems primarily to be that their efforts marginalize the kind of anti-Zionism he supports.
Jewish leftists who seek to disarm Israel in part by discrediting Zionist ideas provide no coherent answer to the historical truths that proved Herzl and his successors horribly prophetic about the necessity of a Jewish state to protect a Jewish future. There is no good solution to the continuing and eternal Jewish need for refuge (at the very least), and that is why Alterman is right to hold little hope for the collapse of the U.S.-Israel alliance. Alterman’s We Are Not One deserves instant consignment to the ash heap of bad, tendentious history.
Photo: Israeli American Council
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