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We Are Not One
A History of America’s Fight Over Israel
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A bestselling historian uncovers the surprising roots of America’s long alliance with Israel and its troubling consequences
Fights about the fate of the state of Israel, and the Zionist movement that gave birth to it, have long been a staple of both Jewish and American political culture. But despite these arguments’ significance to American politics, American Jewish life, and to Israel itself, no one has ever systematically examined their history and explained why they matter.
In We Are Not One, historian Eric Alterman traces this debate from its nineteenth-century origins. Following Israel’s 1948–1949 War of Independence (called the “nakba” or “catastrophe” by Palestinians), few Americans, including few Jews, paid much attention to Israel or the challenges it faced. Following the 1967 Six-Day War, however, almost overnight support for Israel became the primary component of American Jews’ collective identity. Over time, Jewish organizations joined forces with conservative Christians and neoconservative pundits and politicos to wage a tenacious fight to define Israel’s image in the US media, popular culture, Congress, and college campuses. Deeply researched, We Are Not One reveals how our consensus on Israel and Palestine emerged and why, today, it is fracturing.
WORKING ON A DREAM
The space that Israel occupies in US political debates is, by any measure, extraordinary. In land area, the Jewish state ranks 149th in a list of 195 independent nations—it is smaller than Belize and El Salvador and only slightly larger than Slovenia. And yet, despite its size, and despite its distance from the United States, Israel, and particularly its conflicts with the Palestinians and surrounding nations, remains one of the most intensely debated topics in all of American politics. The participants in these debates often treat competing arguments not as matters of policy, but as challenges to their personal identities. This tendency has long been evident among American Jews, but in recent decades it has also become true of millions of conservative Christians. More and more, it is evident in Israel’s opponents as well. This identity-infused inflexibility is one of many causes of the debate’s intensity and one reason why arguments so often veer away from any recognizable reality experienced by the people who actually live there.
Just as extraordinary as the degree of attention paid to Israel in the United States is the level of support it receives. This support takes countless forms. Most obviously, it can be seen in opinion polls, in which Americans demonstrate significantly more sympathy for Israel, as opposed to the Palestinians, than do citizens of any other nation on earth. This is true for liberals, conservatives, and moderates alike. And it is true not only for Jews, but also for Protestants and for Catholics. It is true—or at least it has been, until recently—for almost everyone, with just a few significant exceptions.1
Israel’s popularity with US citizens, however, does not begin to explain the degree of indulgence it receives from the US government. After all, gun control, strict environmental regulation, and higher taxes on the super-wealthy also poll extremely well with the public but are not at all reflected in congressional legislation. In addition, “foreign aid” is just about the most unpopular cause, at least in the abstract, that any pollster can identify. And yet America’s generosity to Israel is literally unparalleled, not only in US history, but in the history of any nation. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has been by far the largest US foreign aid recipient, despite the fact that it has grown to be among the world’s dozen wealthiest nations (as measured by per capita gross domestic product). What’s more, Israel receives this aid, as policy scholars Amnon Cavari and Elan Nyer have put it, “earlier than other countries, with fewer limitations on how to use the funds and minimal bureaucratic oversight (essentially unaudited allocation) and is one of the very few countries that benefit from laws permitting tax deductions for contributions to foreign charities.” Since 1997, the United States has had a law that demands that it vet the human rights records of all military units in any nation that enjoys US aid. Alas, according to a 2021 study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Israel is “the only country in the world for which the United States does not have tracking mechanisms to determine which weapons go to which military unit,” and hence is free to ignore this requirement.
US law ensures that Israel receives sufficient military support to maintain a “qualitative military edge” over any and all combinations of its potential adversaries. Israel is invited by law to receive preferential treatment as a bidder on US defense contracts, and it is often given surplus US equipment at minimal (if any) cost. Under President Barack Obama, the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) in which it committed itself to providing Israel with $38 billion in military aid over a period of nine years. This pledge is unlike any other US foreign commitment. Diplomatically, the US government has often treated Israeli priorities as indistinguishable from its own. Between 1946 and 2012, for instance, fully more than half of the vetoes the United States employed in the United Nations Security Council were devoted to the defense of Israel.
This book is a history of the debate over Israel in the United States: about its founding, its character, its conflicts—both internal and external, especially as they relate to the Palestinians—and many other issues. It pays particular attention to the actions and concerns of American Jews, as historically they have stood at the center of the debate, oftentimes defining its terms and policing its borders. It is not a book about Israel itself, US diplomacy in the Middle East, or the fate of the Palestinian people inside or outside Israel’s borders (however one might define these). My shelves are already groaning from books on those topics, and, as I hope to make clear in the coming pages, actual events in and around Israel and the arguments that Americans have about them are birds of decidedly different feathers. While Middle Eastern realities undoubtedly do play a role in determining the contours of the US debate, they do so in unpredictable, often irrational ways. Over time, the American debate over Israel ultimately turns on its own axis, with a center located not in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, but in midtown Manhattan and Washington, DC. It is in this “public sphere,” as defined in 1962 by the German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, where I find my focus.
Even to use the singular form for the word “debate” with regard to Israel, the Arab nations, and the Palestinians can be misleading. Over time, countless debates have arisen, and these have spilled into one another in complicated ways, psychologically no less than politically, to the point where it becomes virtually impossible to make sense of any of them without taking at least some account of all of them. And as an Israeli policy analyst, Calev Ben-Dor, observed in 2021, “All essays, books and documentaries about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or peace process will inevitably be criticised for perceived bias. Do they give too much or too little attention to any number of factors…?” “Objectivity” and “comprehensiveness” are words that have no meaning in a conflict such as this one, where views are held intensely, and where they frequently seem impervious to contradictory evidence. I don’t doubt that this work will invite considerable criticism by those who see their own side treated in a manner they consider to be unsympathetic or lacking in the crucial fact or insight that would, in their eyes, undermine my entire analysis. It is my profound hope, however, that we—reader and author—will be able to transcend these moments and ultimately come to see this work, to borrow a frequently misused phrase, to be both “fair and balanced” in its treatment of the topics I seek to address.2
The wildly disproportionate amount of attention Israel receives in American political discourse today is not exactly a historical anomaly. Even before the state was born, its future first president, Chaim Weizmann, wrote to President Harry S. Truman that “Palestine, for its size, is probably the most investigated country in the world.” And that has been true across approximately two thousand years of human history. As the historian David Nirenberg reminded us, the ancient Egyptians, the early Christians, the first followers of the Prophet Muhammad, and medieval Europeans all “invoked Jews to explain topics as diverse as famine, plague, and the tax policies of their princes.” In their writings, the words “Jew, Hebrew, Semite, Israelite, and Israel appear with a frequency stunningly disproportionate to any populations of living Jews in those societies.”3
People all over the world have marveled for millennia at the imagined mystical power of the Jews over the societies in which they have found themselves following expulsions from their previous homes. Dedicated to scholarship and spiritual salvation, Jews judged their condition to be one of endless episodes of political impotence and vulnerability. They viewed themselves as an “ever-dying people,” in the words of the mid-twentieth-century Polish-born American Jewish philosopher Simon Rawidowicz. Indeed, it was hardly unusual for the members of a diaspora community in any time or place—even before the Holocaust—to see themselves as “the final link in Israel’s chain.” Aside from the lucky few who relocated from Germany to the United States in the early to mid-nineteenth century, they consistently adopted what the Columbia University Jewish historian Salo Baron termed a “lachrymose” interpretation of their own history. Although Baron had in mind the nineteenth-century Polish Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz, the view he was criticizing was perhaps enunciated most cogently by a historian who also happened to be the father of Israel’s longest-serving prime minister. Speaking to The New Yorker’s David Remnick in 1998, Benzion Netanyahu explained that “Jewish history is in large measure a history of holocausts.”4
The creation of a Jewish state was a dream few ever dared to seriously propose before the founder of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl, came along, at the end of the nineteenth century. Or, if they did, the task of its realization was understood to be the business of the Almighty rather than mere mortals. Even when, in the aftermath of the Shoah, the dream miraculously came true, it nevertheless continued to function as a dream. Ironically, this process mirrored a deeply rooted Jewish tradition. The Talmud draws a distinction between “the Jerusalem of above” and “the Jerusalem of below”—between the Heavenly Jerusalem, the one of hopes and dreams, and the Earthly Jerusalem, the one of walls and stones.
Addressing this phenomenon, the secular Israeli novelist Amos Oz advised that the “only way to keep a dream rosy and intact is to never live it out.” Would Israel be “a moral light unto the nations,” or a “nonstop macho show”? Or, better yet, “an incarnation of the Jewish shtetl from Eastern Europe”? As Oz so wisely observed, for Jews, at least, Israel is “a conglomeration of dreams, fantasies, blueprints and master plans.” Rather than attempting to unpack, and therefore understand, this extremely complex society and the problems it faced, American Jews imagined an Israel that bore only a passing resemblance to the actual country under construction. When the dream has appeared to conflict with a far messier reality, it has almost always been the dream that carried the day.5
The question of how well Israel has managed to live up to the myths created for it—leaving aside the fact that no nation possibly could have done so—is one that most members of the American Jewish community have long sought to avoid. The political scientist Leon Hadar tells a story that nicely illustrates this dynamic: In the late 1980s, an American Jewish women’s organization sponsored a screening in New York of a young woman’s critical documentary, at least in part financed by the Israeli government, about how the Israeli military treated its female soldiers. Even though the film was shown to what one would have expected to be a sympathetic audience, made up of young, well-educated, and presumably feminist-oriented Jewish women, the reaction, when the filmmaker was introduced following the screening, was polite applause followed by deafening silence. Eventually, a woman stood up and said something along the following lines: “Look, you are obviously a very talented producer and I am sure that you presented an accurate picture. But 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!”6
Before Herzl published his landmark 1896 pamphlet Der Judenstaat (The State of the Jews, usually mistranslated as The Jewish State), support in the United States for the notion of Jewish sovereignty in the Holy Land came almost exclusively from Christians. America’s Jews at the time constituted a largely assimilated, well-to-do community of mostly German origins whose members feared that any sympathy for the cause of a separate nation for Jews could easily lead their Christian neighbors to question their patriotism. Beginning in the early 1900s, however, this stance softened considerably, and in the mid-1940s it changed entirely as the horrific consequences of Nazi atrocities came to light. News of the Shoah provided a kind of last straw for Jews who had hoped they might someday be welcomed to live in relative safety and security anywhere outside the United States (which, in 1924, had also closed its doors to virtually all immigrants). If Jews were to survive in the future, they would need their own homeland.
Once this “miracle” came to pass with Israel’s founding in 1948, for many American Jews, that was that. They contributed funds to help settle new immigrants, plant forests, and build schools, but they did not much visit, and they certainly did not “make aliyah”—that is, move to Israel—in significant numbers. Nor did they encourage their children to do so. Nor did they feel a need to involve themselves in Israel’s political or diplomatic disputes. As Jewish Americans, their concerns were with America. In one of the great ironies of perhaps all human history, “after 2000 years of exile and persecution, the Jews had become a success story,” wrote the Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer. In reality, it was not just one success story, but two simultaneous stories, and each contradicted the other. “American Jews were finally proving that, in the land of the free, there was no need for a Jewish homeland and Israeli Jews were proving that only in their homeland could Jews be truly free.” For American Jews, as Philip Roth put it, “Zion was the United States.”7
But even without Israel looming nearly as large as it later would in the minds of most American Jews, discussions in Congress and the media and in most communities in the United States in the decades following May 1948 were still largely “pro-Israel” arguments. This was due in part to the political savvy of American Jewish organizations; in part to a durable, if muted, loyalty among the Jewish population at large; and in part, and most significantly, to the cultural and (especially) financial power exercised on behalf of Israel’s cause.
A fundamental change in American Jewish attitudes took place in the immediate aftermath of the 1967 Six-Day War as fears of a “second Holocaust” gave way to an emotional embrace of Israel that shocked even those who experienced it. Before 1967, save for the years immediately surrounding the founding of the state in 1948, the agendas of America’s major Jewish organizations were shaped by the traditional concerns of American liberalism, with a focus on social services together with issues related to racial discrimination and the legal separation of church and state. By choosing liberal causes that were “good for the Jews,” but not only for the Jews, they managed to elude the traditional divide between Jewish “particularism” (that is, concern only for fellow Jews) and “universalism” (the desire to “repair the world,” or tikkun olam, in Hebrew), embracing both simultaneously.
But the polite, law-abiding version of liberalism to which American Jews had attached themselves following the New Deal began to come under siege from both left and right in the period leading up to the 1967 war. Jews often felt themselves caught in the crossfire. On one side were calls for “Black Power” and growing identification with an Israel-skeptical third world among their erstwhile allies in the civil rights movement, along with New Left condemnations of “Amerikkka” from some of their own children, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan and racism in America. On the other were seductive declarations of an aggressive America faithfully standing by her allies emanating from an increasingly influential American right wing, a group that American Jews had hitherto been uncomfortable with politically, culturally, and religiously. Following the shock of Israel’s smashing six-day victory, however, literally everything—race relations, social justice, social services, Jewish education, and anything else you can think of—immediately took a distant back seat in Jewish communal life to support for Israel. The attachment to Israel became what Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a widely respected twentieth-century leader of Reform Judaism, American Jewry’s most popular denomination, compared to “a kind of kidney machine, without which [American Jews] cannot live.”8
The other cause that appeared to excite funders and Jewish leaders inspired by the Six-Day War was Holocaust remembrance. This, too, however, can be understood as an aspect of the community’s arsenal of arguments for Israel. The horrific history of the Shoah became inextricably intertwined with arguments in defense of Israel’s increasingly harsh treatment of Palestinians and its apparently endless occupation of the West Bank. Jews did not forfeit their liberal beliefs, but most were willing to lay them aside whenever they were understood to come in conflict with support for Israel. This transformation reshaped the meaning of secular American Jews’ cultural and religious identities, as these became synonymous with an enthusiastic embrace of Zionism together with angry efforts to excommunicate anyone who dared dissent from this consensus. As the Jewish scholar and rabbi Shaul Magid has written, “The Jewish discourse about Zionism [became] Jewish identity itself.” Zionism now defined Jewish legitimacy. It was “no longer part of a larger conversation. It define[d] the conversation.”9
As just one example of how powerfully this phenomenon manifested itself in the world of professional Jewish organizations, take Kenneth Stern, scholar of antisemitism, who joined the (formerly non-Zionist) American Jewish Committee in 1989 and spent the next twenty-five years laboring in its vineyards. He later recalled that “no one felt less a part of the AJC family because of how, or if, they observed the Jewish religion.” Staff members were never asked whether they planned to attend High Holiday services. But he and his colleagues (including those who were not Jewish) felt “tremendous pressure” to attend New York’s annual “Salute to Israel” parade. “There were multiple memos, the tone and content of which suggested it would hurt one’s career not to show up, even though the parade was on Sunday, a day off,” he wrote. At the same time, Stern saw his organization “sacrifice an instinct for serious thought, discussion and self-reflection in favor of ardent pro-Israel advocacy.” The need to appear “‘strong’ in defense of the Jewish people, as both a political end and a fundraising necessity, trumped nuance,” and “even private, internal questioning of the wisdom of public positions on Israel became more difficult.”10
Prior to 1967, Israel enjoyed broad support in the United States, especially among liberals and leftists. It was perceived to be a Spartan, socialist, anti-imperialist nation and very much an underdog in its constant battle with the surrounding Arab nations that sought its destruction. The image of an Israeli David fighting off the Arab Goliath—memorialized in the enormously popular 1958 book and 1960 movie Exodus—was more misleading than illuminating, but it lived on as a tool for Israel’s supporters in the debates they faced. Once the world separated itself into competing camps during the Cold War—almost simultaneously with Israel’s creation—Israel’s leaders took advantage of multiple opportunities to prove their new nation’s usefulness to the United States in its Manichean struggle with the USSR. Israel’s ability to call itself “the only democracy in the Middle East” earned it considerable credit with the non-Jewish American public, which, in any case, was decidedly not, under almost any circumstances, predisposed to identify with darker-skinned Muslim nations.
The debate about Israel’s character began to shift in the 1980s. Tens of millions of evangelical Christians, newly empowered in US politics by Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory, took up Israel’s cause. In doing so, they joined the mostly secular, mostly Jewish neoconservative pundits and politicos who had seized on an all-but-unquestioning defense of Israel as a fundamental ideological precept. (Israel’s 1977 election of the conservative Likud Party, led by Menachem Begin, to replace the socialist-oriented Labor Party served to smooth the path of both parties into this political space.) The evangelical/neocon alliance was knit together in part by the Israeli government and in part by the growing power of what has come to be called the “Israel lobby.” This alliance was accompanied, however, by a gradual sense of distance and disillusionment on the part of many American Jews, especially younger ones, who became increasingly alienated by the rightward direction of Israel’s politics and its harsh treatment of the Palestinian populations under its (apparently permanent) authority.
In the 1940s, the Zionist leader Rabbi Abraham “Abba” Hillel Silver had defined Reform Judaism as inhabiting “the common ground between Zionism and liberalism, Judaism and America.” But as Israel came to be perceived as more and more a conservative cause, liberals and leftists evinced growing sympathy for the plight of the displaced Palestinians, who, now stateless and oppressed, had come to occupy the underdog role that history had previously assigned to the Jews. Among intellectuals and inside America’s universities, their cause was often likened to the cause of Black South Africans against their country’s apartheid system. Secular American Jews remained stubbornly liberal compared to almost all other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, sociologists Charles S. Liebman and Steven M. Cohen have found that for these American Jews, “liberalism is not merely a characteristic but clearly a major component of their understanding of what it means to be a Jew.”* But the contradiction between support for an increasingly illiberal Israel and for liberal struggles at home, especially in the age of Trump, presaged yet another potential transformation.11
If the Israelis had chosen a motto for their country, they could have done worse than to use a statement that the nation’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, repeated often: “It matters not what the Goyim say, but what the Jews do.” To an awe-inspiring degree, Israel, a tiny, initially quite poor, beleaguered nation, consistently chose its own path regardless of the obstacles that lay before it. From the moment of Israel’s victory in its war of independence—what the Palestinians call the “Nakba,” or “catastrophe”—its leaders have rarely proved willing even to entertain the demands of the Palestinians, the Arab world, or the majority of the members of the United Nations. In resisting these demands, it has always been able to count on the unswerving support of the US government.12
Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, summed up the history of this relationship in 2021, writing, “From the day [Israel] was granted independence, and even before that, relations with the Palestinians have been the central topic on the agenda of the Zionist movement and the State of Israel. And since 1948, every American president and administration has acted in accordance with Israel’s stance without exception.” This was true “even as [the presidents] grumbled about the settlements or sought to restrain the Israeli army in Lebanon or Gaza or mediated the peace process.” Never, Benn continued, has any US administration asked Israel “to dismantle the settlements or grant the Palestinian refugees from 1948 the ‘right of return’—issues which are the foundation of the Arab stance on the conflict.” Moreover, “despite the wide-ranging support of the international community to end the occupation and establish a Palestinian state, the American veto in the UN Security Council has impeded any plan for international pressure or sanctions against Israel aimed at changing Israeli policy.”13
Much of Israel’s success in securing the support of so many US administrations has been due to the efforts of American Jews and their practice of what the Cornell University political scientist Benedict Anderson called “long-distance nationalism.” Anderson coined the term to define the relationship between exiles, immigrants, and the offspring of any individual home nation. The relationship between the American Jewish community and Israel represents a unique political achievement, but what is most extraordinary about it is that this nationalistic commitment is dedicated to a country where few American Jews have ever lived, where a language is spoken in which precious few are fluent, and that many have not even visited.14
Israel’s sixth president, Chaim Herzog, paid tribute to the remarkable accomplishment of American Jews in 1985 when he observed, “Never have Diaspora Jews been so politically powerful since Joseph sat next to Pharaoh’s throne.” Though they barely constitute 2 percent of the US population, American Jews—or at least their self-appointed leaders and spokesmen—have fervently supported Israel in politics as well as in the media and in their home communities, and they have met with remarkable success. Once conservative Christians joined them in the 1980s, the two communities, while sharing little else politically and almost nothing at all culturally, created one of the most powerful political forces in all of American politics—one that politicians resisted at the risk of their careers. In December 2018, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi proudly proclaimed to a Jewish audience that if the US Capitol ever “crumbled to the ground, the last thing that would remain is our support for Israel.”15
- “[A] fearless account…a scrupulous history of the crucial debates over Zionism, anti-Zionism, Palestine, the role of memory and the Holocaust, and America’s interactions with Israel.”—The New Yorker
- "Impressively researched work…detailed recounting and analysis of Israel’s history…For anyone interested in gaining a depper understanding of these matters than has hitherto been available, it is essential reading.” —The Jerusalem Post
- "Alterman’s book is essential reading for anyone who cares about what happens next in the unfolding story of the Israel-Palestine conflict." —Jewish Book Council
- “Historian Alterman (Lying in State) delivers a thought-provoking and thorough study of America’s political relationship with the modern state of Israel….Evenhanded yet incisive, this is an accessible history of a complex geopolitical matter and a persuasive call for more open-minded debate on an issue tearing at the fabric of the American Jewish community.”—Publishers Weekly
- “The author employs rich contextual social and media history to reveal the lively intellectual discussions over the decades among the various factions… Illuminating history and a convincing case that Israel’s drift toward illiberalism has led to further divisiveness.”—Kirkus
- “Alterman is fearless in tackling the controversial, sometimes toxic, US debate over Israel. Based on meticulous research, his thoughtful arguments make We Are Not One an absolutely riveting history of a debate critical to our understanding of Israel, American politics, and the future of the Middle East. It will be impossible to ignore.”—Kai Bird, coauthor of the Pulitzer Prize–winning American Prometheus
- “Deeply researched and beautifully written, Alterman has sketched out the forces in the public debate that seek to influence and shape the image of Israel in the mind of America. With support for Israel still very strong in many quarters, he also tracks the increasing divisions, generational differences, and partisanship in America’s politics that have made discussion of Israel more complex than ever before. Spoiler alert: if you’re looking for the Israel of Leon Uris’s Exodus, you won’t find it here.”—Aaron David Miller, senior fellow, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
- “Eric Alterman masterfully traces the long, fraught debate over Zionism that has shaped US policy and politics regarding Israel and, by extension, the Palestinians. His book is not just an excellent account of that crucial history, but an invaluable guide to where this still-vital conversation is headed in the twenty-first century.”—Hussein Ibish, senior resident scholar, Arab Gulf States Institute
- “This is a magisterial work of history by one of the nation’s shrewdest, most eloquent commentators on politics and journalism. Alterman’s sharp, often witty judgments about what Israel has meant to Americans of all persuasions are both comprehensive and convincing. The influence of this erudite, passionate work should not just endure but grow larger over time.”—Michael Kazin, professor of history, Georgetown University
- “We Are Not One offers a sweeping and definitive account of how America has thought and talked about Israel over the last seventy-five years. Eric Alterman applies his formidable talents to one of the trickiest of subjects, and the result is a book that strikes an impossible balance: massively knowledgeable, readable, fair-minded, and hard-headed. Both novice and expert will derive great benefit from this deeply engrossing book.”—David N. Myers, distinguished professor of history, UCLA
- “In a lucid and highly accessible manner, Alterman tells the story of Israel in the American imagination with verve, humor, and honesty. Combining a deep and broad knowledge of the field with a journalist’s pen, Alterman leads his reader through the political, cultural, and identarian marshlands of American Jews’ struggle with the country they choose not to live in. We Are Not One is learned, fact-based, unvarnished, and full of fresh insights. Highly recommended.”—Shaul Magid, distinguished fellow in Jewish Studies, Dartmouth College
- On Sale
- Nov 22, 2022
- Page Count
- 512 pages
- Basic Books