September 23, 2018

U.S. and Them: How Americans See Themselves in Israel

On our first trip to Israel, we traveled via Rome to Jerusalem. At the hotel in Rome, we needed to get a converter from the front desk to operate our electric appliances, and the only English-language TV channels were BBC and CNN. Our room at the King David, by comparison, was equipped with a U.S. outlet, and we could watch episodes of “CSI” in English with Hebrew subtitles.

That’s only one measure of the cultural affinity between America and Israel, of course, and Amy Kaplan drills down much more deeply in “Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance” (Harvard University Press). Be forewarned: Kaplan is a harsh critic of Israel, and she questions all of the assumptions that prompted President Barack Obama to affirm the existence of an “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.

Kaplan is the Edward W. Kane Professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, a former president of the American Studies Association, and the recipient of fellowships from both the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton.  Her scholarly eye falls on every aspect of what she characterizes as the “mythic status and tenacious appeal” of Israel in the American imagination, and she sharply criticizes what she calls “the strangeness of an affinity that has come to be self-evident.”

Indeed, the title of her book reaches all the way back to 1799, when a New England minister preached a Thanksgiving sermon about “Our American Israel” because, as he saw it, “the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel than any other nation upon the globe.” She is just as intrigued by the way that artifacts of popular culture, such as Leon Uris’ 1958 best-selling novel, “Exodus,” and the subsequent movie version have shaped American perceptions of Israel: “One cannot overestimate the influence of ‘Exodus’ in Americanizing the Zionist narrative of Israel’s origins.” And she points out that AIPAC sent a copy of the 1978 TV miniseries “Holocaust” to every member of Congress “as part of an intense lobbying campaign against a plan to sell aircraft to Saudi Arabia.”

Kaplan recognizes how the hard realities of recent American experience have only brought us closer to Israel. “After September 11, 2001, Israel’s experience of terrorism offered Americans a ready-made vocabulary for articulating their own sense of unprecedented trauma,” she writes. But she also points out that the theological longings of “Christian Zionists” are equally powerful in shaping American policy toward Israel: “The significance of Israel was not in realizing the political goal of Jewish sovereignty, but in manifesting’s God’s sovereignty and making it possible for some Jews to convert to Christianity to correct the fatal mistake they had made in rejecting Christ two millennia ago.”

“Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. ‘The Six-Day War’ is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel…yet the victory also marked the emergence of a ‘global counternarrative.’”

Kaplan often confronts us with facts of history that are sometimes awkward and uncomfortable. A British participant in the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which studied the impact on Jewish migration to Palestine in 1946, pointed out a certain dire parallel between America’s manifest destiny and the Zionist project: “Zionism after all is merely the attempt by the European Jew to rebuild his national life on the soil of Palestine in much the same way as the American settler developed the West,” wrote Richard Crossman. “So the American will give the Jewish settler in Palestine the benefit of the doubt, and regard the Arab as the aboriginal who must go down before the march of progress.”

Kaplan insists on showing us the other side of every coin. “The Six-Day War is commonly considered the turning point in the special relationship between the United States and Israel,” she writes. “The small nation’s lightning victory and righteous cause appealed to a nation embroiled in the Vietnam War, and Americans en masse fell in love with Israel.” Yet the battlefield victory also marked the emergence of “a global counternarrative,” one that “framed the rise of Palestinian nationalism as a Third World revolutionary movement and linked Israel not with anti-colonial struggles but with American imperial power in Vietnam.” By 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, the atrocities in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps prompted columnist George Will to declare: “Palestinians have now had their Babi Yar.”

Ironically, the tragedy in Lebanon only validated the Palestinian in the eyes of some American observers. “A liberal consensus emerged in the 1980s around a narrative of two peoples fighting over one land, and a belief that only mutual recognition could resolve the conflict between them,” she explains. Thus did the two-state solution become an article of faith in American foreign policy, at least until President Donald Trump, “with Vice President Mike Pence, a Christian Zionist, by his side,” recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv. By doing so, Kaplan argues, “he appealed not only to his pro-Likud Republican Jewish backers, but also to white Christian evangelicals, who overwhelmingly supported him in the election.” And so “[the] liberal consensus has now been replaced by a conservative one.”

Kaplan concludes that Israel today is perceived by Americans not as a light unto the nations but as “an invincible victim constantly besting the challenges of a perpetual war.” Her concerns and doubts about Israel, which run throughout “Our American Israel,” are eventually spoken out loud. She concedes that Israel, nowadays hailed as the “start-up nation,” is seen by some Americans as “an idea factory, manufacturing the ‘meta-ideas’ of the future.” But she argues that “it will be a dystopian future: all around the world, people will inhabit cities that look like military zones, occupied by police indistinguishable from soldiers, and monitored by sophisticated systems of homeland security.”

Kaplan must already know that she will draw unfriendly fire from the right for the point of view she expresses in “Our American Israel,” but no American who loves and supports Israel can afford to ignore the arguments that she makes. She points out that the phrase “no daylight between the United States and Israel” has joined the phrase “unbreakable bond” in the vocabulary of the Americans who support Israel, but she refuses to ignore the facts of history or to refrain from the advocacy of even the most challenging ideas. “We must let in daylight if Americans are to understand why and how this bond has come to be seen as unbreakable,” Kaplan writes, and surely she is right about that.


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.