First Published: 2006-08-14

 
Is Israel Good for the Jews?
 

Norman Birnbaum warns that American Jewry's identification with Israel is neither good for Israel nor for the United States (and its Jewish citizens). As the US empire crumbles, it is best to urge Israel away from brutal militancy.

 

Middle East Online

American Jewish citizens can be sure that a large number of Jewish organizations will claim to speak in our name - without being asked to do so. We can also be sure that should we dissent from the US Jewish community's central item of faith, that Israel can do no wrong, we will be pilloried. When our gentile fellow citizens express doubt, they are accused of anti-Semitism. Those of us who are Jewish are taxed with self-hatred.

Is it the supreme duty of American Jews to use our considerable influence to align US policy with that of Israel? There is, the Jewish organizations tell us, no conflict of loyalties and responsibilities; the two nations have common values and common ends. The assertion is nonsensical, but its repetition does negate one stereotype about Jews, our supposed intelligence. It is often accompanied by the claim that there is no Israel lobby, only ordinary US citizens spontaneously expressing opinions to their elected representatives and government. The Israel lobby's successful campaign, coordinated with the Israeli Embassy, to persuade Congress to back the White House decision to give Israel a free field of fire in Lebanon can be read as an unintended postscript to another campaign: This spring professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard published in The London Review of Books and as a paper of the Kennedy School of Government an analysis of the "stranglehold" on US policy exerted by Israel's unconditional backers. Those backers responded with loud denunciations of the authors as malevolently anti-Semitic or (in the most benign of their criticisms) intellectually incompetent.

The assimilation of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who arrived (my grandfather among them) at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries has remarkably altered the position of US Jewry. With Jews prominent in business and finance, the arts and the professions, science and education, media and politics, it is now forgotten how much open anti-Semitism there was in the United States as recently as fifty years ago - at the top of society as well as in its dark crevices. On the gentile side, Holocaust guilt and the philo-Semitism of US Calvinist Protestantism have made American Jewry acceptable. Simultaneously, the seventeenth-century Puritans' idea of the United States as a New Israel readied their descendants to view the state of Israel as spiritually and politically akin to our nation.

Meanwhile, the economic rise and social acceptance of American Jewry is a collective as well as an individual achievement. Indeed, notions of the United States as a totally individualistic culture are too simple; social advancement is the work of highly organized ethnic and religious groups. Jews have been quite skillful at using their ascent from immigrant workers and peddlers to Wall Street executives and university presidents to achieve not only integration in the nation but a very large degree of cultural and political power.

American Jewry's enjoyment of its success has been troubled by bad conscience over our inability to help European Jewry during the Holocaust. That experience, and the inexpungible memory of genocide itself, is a primary component of an American Jewish identity that now centers on unconditional defense of the state of Israel. Jehovah, for many American Jews, of course gets a respectful hearing - but Israeli prime ministers and chiefs of staff are taken to speak directly for the Lord of Hosts.

The engagement of American Jewry with Israel has been welcomed by the American elite. Israel, in the cold war and its bastard offspring, the "war on terror," has served US interests in the Middle East. More, the transformation of a significant group of Jewish commentators, intellectuals and scholars from critical advocates of universal values into apologists for US moral superiority and global domination has suited our leaders very well - and provided profitable employment for those who live by their wits.

Are all these developments, however, good for the Jews? The assumption by Israel of the role of US enforcer in the Middle East is certainly no guarantee of Israel's survival. The much-celebrated "strategic partnership" is not necessarily permanent. Should the American elite decide that broader strategic interests require curbing or even abandoning Israel, it would not hesitate to do so. American Jewry's protests would be met by evoking the issue of dual loyalty - about which the Jewish leadership is now so complacent. American Jewry might serve Israel better by eschewing total identification with Israel to take a more reflective position. Jerusalem has changed hands tens of times since the Roman conquest. Israel's policies, combining brutality toward the Arabs with contempt for them, will bring, sooner rather than later, another change. A Jewish state was supposed to protect the Diaspora, but now it is the Diaspora that protects the Jewish state. The American Diaspora, however, is living well beyond its political means. Its ability to help Israel indefinitely is questionable.

Domestically, the chief allies of American Jewry were once the liberal Protestants; the modern Catholics, whose great achievement was the Second Vatican Council; and progressive secularists. Now organized Jewry has an alliance with those who were not so long ago embittered anti-Semites. The Protestant fundamentalists think the founding of the Jewish state means that the conversion of the Jews is imminent. Suppose the fundamentalists demand that US Jewry anticipate the end of time by beginning their conversion now? Some have welcomed the Lebanon crisis as the initiation of Armageddon. In the meantime, they combat the pluralism of the public sphere, which is indispensable to enduring rights for Jews in the United States. America is in serious danger of becoming a nation defined not by citizenship but by bargains among struggling ethnic and religious communities, united in an impossible project of global domination. Will Nobel prizes and business acumen, and seventeenth-century biblical imagery of America as a New Israel, protect the Jewish minority as our imperial project disintegrates? Its end could generate the domestic deprivation and tension conducive to renewed anti-Semitism.

In FDR's New Deal and Lyndon Johnson's Great Society, Jews had major roles in alliances for reconstructing society. Reinvesting Jewish energies in these projects is a more effective way of insuring American Jewry's survival than forming coalitions with those who reject the nation's beginnings in the Enlightenment. Indirectly, it is also of great potential help to Israel: A United States more realistic about itself would have a more measured view of its influence in the world and a more balanced sense of its responsibilities. Evenhandedness in the Middle East would not harm Israel but would actually aid it by curbing the aggression and militarism now so dominant in Israel's political culture. The other day, an Israeli general took a long-term view of the immediate situation by declaring that Israel has been at war for 6,000 years. The current population of Israel and the neighboring peoples might well prefer to begin the next 6,000 years with some decades of peace. The United States could help by using its considerable influence and resources to oblige Israel to resume serious negotiations with the Palestinians. The vicarious bellicosity of much of American Jewry is destructive, and history will not judge kindly those who encourage it.

The fixation of US Jewry on Israel as the center of US Jewish life was far from evident in the early decades of the Jewish state. Indeed, American Jewish leaders in those years instructed the Israelis that the United States and not Israel was the US Jewish homeland. Curiously, as the Holocaust recedes in time, its grip on the Jewish imagination in both the United States and Israel seems to grow, bringing a host of phantoms to life. The time has come for a more sober appraisal of the historical dimensions of the present. That is difficult enough.

Norman Birnbaum is Professor Emeritus at Georgetown University Law Center. He has also taught at the London School of Economics, Oxford University, the University of Strasbourg, Amherst College, and academic appointments in Italy and Germany. His most recent book is After Progress: American Social Reform and European Socialism in the Twentieth Century (Oxford).

 

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