What ties the U.S. and Israel together? Our arrogant, doomed mythology of exceptionalism

Our two nations are headed for doom, driven by the power of the Zionist right and a conviction we can do no wrong

Published April 17, 2021 12:01PM (EDT)

American And Israeli Flags Waving With Wind On Blue Sky (Getty Images)
American And Israeli Flags Waving With Wind On Blue Sky (Getty Images)

As bad as Republican bloc voting is on domestic issues, what may be even worse are the near-unanimous bipartisan votes on military spending and unconditional support for Israel. It goes without saying that does not reflect the diversity of opinion among American Jews, Israeli Jews or the American public at large, although the pretense that unqualified support for Israel is the dominant view among Jewish Americans — and among Americans in general — is strictly maintained. 

This cannot be justified by straightforward concern for Israel's survival — Israel has long since assured its own survival with nuclear weapons, an open secret for decades — nor by the supposedly all-powerful Israel lobby. Invoking the "power of the Israel lobby" protects the myth of American innocence at the risk of perpetuating the myth of Jewish evil: Innocent, trusting America, no match for those crafty, scheming Jews!

What congressional support for Israel really reflects, I think, is partly the zeal for Israel among a crucial subset of America's most engaged voters — especially hard-line, wealthy Zionists, both Jewish and Christian — which has a disproportionate effect on members of Congress who want to keep their seats. If a member steps out of line, Israel's watchdogs will come after her or him. That's of the power of the Israel lobby. If critics of Israel's policies were as committed to making trouble for lawmakers, U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians would be a more contested issue in Congress, as it is among the public at large.

Aside from the vigilance of pro-Israel zealots, where else does the power of the Israel lobby come from? It comes from the U.S. government itself (along with its media stenographers), the same source that empowers Cuban exiles, the Christian right, the gun lobby, "pro-life" fanatics, right-wing militias and big corporations and financial institutions, because doing so serves both the foreign policy objective of controlling the world and the domestic objective of concentrating and insulating power and muffling dissent. Whichever party is in charge at a given moment, the United States believes it has a mission to rule the world. No conspiracy theory is necessary. 

Do countries ever act against their perceived self-interest and do they ever not try to cast their actions as noble and selfless? Contrary to the arguments of political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, among others, the U.S. is exceedingly unlikely to be duped, bribed or intimidated into acting against its perceived self-interest for the sake of another country. That's not to say that America's leaders understand their true national self-interest any better than other countries do — Israel definitely included — and Mearsheimer and Walt are surely right that we would be better served by a more even-handed policy toward the Israel-Palestine issue. 

To help preclude that from ever happening, the U.S. makes sure to appoint pro-Israel stalwarts to Middle East policy-making positions. The Trump team of White House adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, ambassador to Israel David Friedman and, for a time, the fire-breathing John Bolton as national security adviser was sadly typical. Imagine the howls if Palestinian-Americans were appointed to such strategic positions, or even a Jewish non-Zionist! We also give Israel a free pass to meddle in our politics and domestic affairs. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was invited twice to address Congress, once in an overt attempt to kill the Iran nuclear agreement. The Israel lobby is almost superfluous.

For the most part, the mainstream media takes its cue from official policy. Venerable White House reporter Helen Thomas was forced to retire — and died not long after — for letting her sympathy for the Palestinian cause get the better of her discretion. That would never happen to a Jewish reporter for a comparable pro-Israel lapse — for suggesting, say, that Palestinians should simply resettle elsewhere and give up their doomed claim to any piece of Palestine, because no one's eyebrows would be raised. Jewish reporters advocate for Israel all the time. They themselves may be unaware of the extent of their bias. Our outrageously one-sided policy toward Israel and the Palestinians shields them no matter what they say.  

Some Jewish Americans, especially most of those in Congress, have continued to support Israel unconditionally despite the contradiction between the political principles they live by at home and those their support for Israel forces upon them. Many of them speak out forcefully on respect for the rights of minority peoples but never mention the Israeli position that Palestinians and other Arabs and Muslims have no rights a Jew is bound to respect. Jewish legislators in the U.S. can criticize their own country for infringing on the rights of minorities, or other countries for interfering in our politics, but not Israel. (For readers interested in exploring the turn away from Zionism among Jewish Americans outside government, I highly recommend "Reclaiming Judaism from Zionism: Stories of Personal Transformation," edited by Carolyn L. Karcher.) 

The Israel lobby is generally understood to mean the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, but AIPAC, influential as it is, is just the visible branch, of a political, economic and media powerhouse that lacks a profile — call it the Jewish Right. Notwithstanding the fact that a good three-quarters of Jewish Americans are generally liberal to leftist, Jews committed to U.S. hegemony, neoliberal economic policies and and an unquestioned alliance with Israel wield far more power because of their prominence in business, banking, finance, the media and government. Conspiracy theory? No, just a fact.

Some of the Jewish Americans listed below are considered liberal or centrist because of their positions on "cultural issues" and climate change, but the foreign and economic policies they advocate align them more closely with Republicans and the right. Consider the following names (there are more): Henry Kissinger, Joe Lieberman, Elliot Abrams, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, the late Richard Holbrooke, Martin Indyk, Dennis Ross, Douglas Feith, Rahm Emanuel, Alan Greenspan, the late Milton Friedman, Robert Rubin, Larry Summers, Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, Stephen Miller, David Friedman, the late Sheldon Adelson, Michael Bloomberg, Stephen Schwarzman, Lloyd Blankfein, David Horowitz, Alan Dershowitz, Bill Kristol, Robert Kagan, the late Andrew Breitbart, Pamela Geller, Ben Shapiro, Jeffrey Goldberg, Thomas Friedman, Judith Miller and Jennifer Rubin.

Despite their influence, these right-leaning Jews, as a collective force, remain under the radar, apart from the one-issue Israel lobby, because their views are somewhat outside the American Jewish liberal mainstream and because they challenge the stereotype of Jews as constitutionally anti-establishment, as well as because calling attention to their Jewishness risks arousing the never-sleeping dogs of anti-Semitism. We hear about the Christian right, but almost never about the Jewish right — as if that were likely to keep the anti-Semites quiet. 

In contrast to their low visibility, George Soros, a Jewish billionaire who supports liberal causes, is notorious in right-wing circles both here and in Europe and is a central figure in neofascist and white supremacist conspiracy theories, most recently as part of the alleged plot to steal the 2020 U.S. presidential election. Soros has also been a target of a bomb plot. 

Unqualified congressional support for Israel reflects the actual kinship of the two governments, which share a policy of permanent war, exploiting overwhelming military superiority, encouraging reactionary religious zealotry and keeping citizens focused on martial glory and security threats. (At least Israel's threats are close at hand, which helps explain why most of Israel's recent leaders have been ex-generals, in a de facto junta. It also points to the fact that Israeli Jews are exceedingly vulnerable to manipulation by fear.) Both countries have conditioned their citizens to the use of military force. The U.S. and Israel do have a "special relationship," if not quite the one normally meant by that term.  

American exceptionalism and Israeli exceptionalism go hand in hand. One hand washes the other. Unconditional support for Israel — and for Israeli belligerence and intransigence, in particular — redounds to America's advantage, as Israel's unconditional support for aggressive U.S. foreign policy redounds to its advantage. Some critics of U.S. policy toward Israel fail to see this, because they cannot see past the elaborately constructed and maintained fiction that we are better than other nations. But this is a major reason why the U.S. will not and cannot move away from a blatantly unjust policy toward Israel/Palestine. To do that would entail a wholesale change in foreign policy, and indeed in America's national self-perception.

Congress tilts further to the right on Israel than on any other issue. It chooses to align itself with evangelical Christians and the most committed of Israel's supporters among Jewish Americans, who are every bit as unyielding and obtuse as their Christian counterparts. These are Jews for whom Israel, like America, can do no wrong, and who believe that the Palestinians and their supporters in the wider Arab and Muslim worlds can do nothing but wrong. 

Many influential neoconservatives, who keep up the pressure for military action against Israel's designated enemies — Iran and Hezbollah in particular — belong to this Jewish faction. 

Some pro-Israel zealots go so far as to encourage hatred of Islam on the grounds that Islam is out to destroy Jews and Christians alike. They can indulge in hate-mongering themselves without fear of being called on it partly because Jews are so firmly identified as victims of bigotry rather than possible purveyors, an identification reinforced by an inexhaustible stream of Holocaust narratives augmenting the post-9/11 stream of anti-Islam tracts. 

How can Jews possibly be persecutors when we have been the eternal objects of persecution wherever we have lived? One critic of an earlier article of mine on the expanded definition of anti-Semitism, promoted by Zionists in order to delegitimize criticism of Israel and support for the Palestinians, referred in his comments to "2,000 years of European Nazism." So much for the peoples of Europe! So much for restraint in using the term "Nazi" — just as long as you don't use it in criticism of Israel, or the U.S. Both countries encourage such paranoia in order to sustain public support for endless aggression.

Here I need to correct an omission in my earlier article. I likened Zionism to other late 19th-century ethnic nationalist movements without noting a crucial difference. Zionism arose largely in response to the growth of racial and political anti-Semitism throughout Europe in that period. Other ethnic nationalist movements contributed to that rising tide, which was fed in turn by the increased presence and prominence of Jews in daily life due to emancipation. 

The implausible notion that anti-Semitism would somehow disappear once all Jews returned to their roots was part of the implicit promise of Zionism. What has happened instead is that creating a national home for the Jewish people in the center of the Arab world has only spread and inflamed anti-Semitism. Or, to speak more precisely, it has spread an anti-Zionism that is sometimes or often indistinguishable from anti-Semitism — and Zionists are eager to claim that there is never any valid distinction between the two, and that any criticism of Israeli policy is inherently anti-Semitic. Thus Zionists can use the charge of anti-Semitism to justify Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, as if one were talking about the same phenomenon that gave rise to Zionism in Europe some 125 years ago.    

In keeping with joint U.S.-Israeli exceptionalism, Congress conferred its near-unanimous blessing on Israel's brutal 2014 assault on Gaza, as it did on the December 2008 Gaza slaughter and the July 2006 attack on Lebanon, carried out in the approved fashion, with an expensive, high-tech arsenal of tanks, helicopters and jets, nearly all of it supplied by the U.S.  

Superior weaponry reflects moral and intellectual superiority, which entitles Israel, as it does us, to attack or make war on weaker, less advanced opponents at will. Of course, when Hitler's Germany, its Christian conscience anesthetized by the doctrine of Aryan supremacy, used advanced weapons and innovative tactics against weaker opponents, it showed (except to the Germans and their admirers) what inhuman monsters the Nazis were. 

With its periodic attacks on blockaded Gaza, Israel practically dares the world to remember the Warsaw Ghetto. Israel's flouting of international opinion and international law has become a model for the U.S. We two are the supreme law, the Self-Righteous Among the Nations.   

Both Israel and the U.S. have justified these attacks on the grounds of a nation's right to self-defense, yet it is understood that no nation or people has a right to defend itself or retaliate against Israel or the U.S. We can never be fairly described as aggressors, no matter what we do. We are God's deputies. Our motives are always pure, however ghastly our "mistakes." Whoever resists us is, by definition, evil. 

When Nazi Germany introduced missiles late in World War II, it christened them "revenge weapons" (the "V" in V1 and V2 standing for Vergeltungswaffe) — meaning revenge against those who had carried out massive aerial bombings of German cities (never mind who had showed them the way). Aggressors are always justified in their own minds. Being human, they have to be.

Both the U.S. and Israel make use of the same charade about "defense": the U.S. Department of Defense, the Israel Defense Forces. The Nazis invoked the sacred right of self-defense to justify ridding Germany, and then the rest of Europe, of Jews. In their minds, they were doing humankind a favor, even if humankind proved, as ever, ungrateful. 

One reason Jewish Americans became such strong supporters of Israel is that the Jewish state's military prowess did as much for our self-respect — and the respect of our fellow Americans — as all the scientific, intellectual, political and artistic achievements of Jews in the diaspora, source of a still-potent mystique of Jewish intelligence. Norman Finkelstein, a harsh critic of Israeli policies, has talked about Israel's need to keep demonstrating its military dominance to the Arabs and its own citizens. I think it also needs to do so to recharge the admiration of American politicians and citizens. 

The real turning point in U.S.-Israeli relations came with Israel's stunning victory over Egypt, Syria and Jordan in 1967, a second six-day "miracle" at a time when the U.S. was mired in an endless, failing struggle in Vietnam. Israel transformed itself from being an inconvenient moral obligation — in a neighborhood where the Arabs had most of the people and all the oil — to America's hero, role-model, soulmate and proxy. Even then, our Middle East policy was not as one-sided as it later became because we were still engaged in the Cold War and the Arab states had a rival superpower to turn to. Our own game-changing "victory" came with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Israel is a "small government" paradise. No sharp division exists between "country" and "government," unlike in America, where a favored right-wing bumper sticker declares "Love My Country/Fear My Government." The Israeli government rules in the interests of Jewish citizens at the expense of non-Jews, requires years of active and reserve military service from all Jewish men and women (except the Orthodox), boasts one of the world's most powerful militaries and largest nuclear arsenals despite a population no bigger than New Jersey's and keeps its military employed policing and punishing a large subject population of Palestinians both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories. The Israeli government serves the godly, the well-fixed and the military. 

In an article for Counterpunch at the time of Israel's second assault on Gaza, historian Gary Leupp blamed Israel's treatment of the Palestinians, and U.S. support for it, on a shared Jewish and Christian belief in the "myth of Abraham." In making the Bible the villain, Leupp overlooked political history. Although the John Birch Society was a strong supporter of Israel early on, conservatives and conservative Christians tended to see Jews in negative terms — as Christ-killers, commie-lovers, race-mixers, economic exploiters, war profiteers, etc. — and this negative view extended to the Jewish state prior to 1967. The shared myth of Abraham had currency then only with religious liberals. 

Today, conservative Christians have a negative view of Muslims, shared Christian and Muslim belief in Abraham and Jesus notwithstanding, and religious liberals are again the ones calling attention to commonalities. Current support for Israel is often couched in religious terms, but so was the animus against Jews it has partly supplanted. Right-wing Christians today make an exception for Jews who are unquestioning supporters of the Jewish state.

U.S. support for Israel cannot be divorced from the rightward shift in American politics, the campaign to roll back democracy at home and to impose our idea of order — economic order, most importantly — on the world. Such an undertaking needs, fosters and calls forth the assistance of authoritarian religion like an evil genie. Religion has long been an important force in American life but today the flaunting of religious belief is everywhere. Likewise ubiquitous are tributes to the military, though America once boasted of not being militaristic. 

The same situation prevails in Israel, our fellow "force for good." There, the military has always been lionized, but the promotion of authoritarian religion, especially evident in the settlements, is in marked contrast to the situation before the 1967 war, when Israelis were proudly secular. And what about the support for Israeli policies among nonbelievers? Yes, there is belief in the "myth of Abraham," but there is also the myth of American and Israeli innocence, virtue and victimhood, which blinds believers and nonbelievers alike.

Like Israel, the U.S. has learned how to pose as a victim in order to disable the collective conscience of its citizens. Despite (or because of) the slaughter we loosed on Vietnam and neighboring countries, we cast ourselves as the victims there. Vietnam is our Holocaust, as the siting of the Vietnam Memorial and the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in the nation's capital demonstrates. To point up our hypocrisy in establishing that museum, Norman Finkelstein once suggested that Germany should establish a national museum memorializing the U.S. government's genocide against Native Americans. 

Both the U.S. and Israel encourage their citizens to think only of their own suffering, and never of the suffering they inflict on others. Americans must never forget 9/11 or the POW/MIAs of Vietnam; Israelis must never forget the Holocaust. If too many Americans and Israelis relaxed their grip on innocence, virtue and victimhood, they might begin to question state-sanctioned violence and war. To be ready for the next round, they need to keep a clean conscience, no matter what. 

Israel owes its existence to the Holocaust, which also provides it with a justification that is beyond question. However, Israel's weaponization of tha history is another story. By making the Holocaust the defining event of Jewish history between the dispersion and the establishment of Israel, Zionists implicitly devalue not only Jewish achievements in the diaspora but Jewish life altogether before 1948, or they connect those achievements to the dream of a Jewish state as the abiding inspiration of the Jewish people. In doing so, they magnify their own importance and exalt the Jewish state. The fact that using the Holocaust to absolve Israel of its ongoing crimes defames the memory of the Holocaust's victims does not trouble them. 

For a nation or people to embrace a permanent identity of victim carries the risk of becoming a victimizer oneself, a danger that both America's and Israel's ruling classes refuse to see. The only lesson Zionists deign to take from 2,000 years of Jewish history in the diaspora is that Jews were always hated and persecuted and therefore are exempt from any moral prohibitions in "defense" of the homeland. In effect, Israel claims the right to behave like any anti-Semitic oppressor of old. 

The only grounds Israel has left itself for finding Nazism abhorrent, given its treatment of the Palestinians, is that so many of Nazism's victims were Jews. It has no broader moral grounds for condemning the Nazis, and does not seem to care.

So here, finally, is my question: Who, if not us, is going to hold our governments to account for their lawless partnership, instead of letting them continue to use us as their alibi?

By Doug Neiss

Doug Neiss is a retired business writer and editor.

MORE FROM Doug Neiss