On diverging paths

Israel generates deeply held passions that fuel both debate, conflict

 ANTI-ISRAEL demonstrators protest the 2015 AIPAC policy conference in Washington. Israel seems to be an ongoing deeply divisive issue in the US. (photo credit: JONATHAN ERNST/REUTERS)
ANTI-ISRAEL demonstrators protest the 2015 AIPAC policy conference in Washington. Israel seems to be an ongoing deeply divisive issue in the US.

Whom precisely Eric Alterman intends by “we” in the title of his new book We Are Not One is open to interpretation. Since his subtitle is “A History of America’s Fight over Israel,” it could be assumed that the US itself is his target and that his object is to describe and analyze the long series of political struggles within America about Israel. 

This indeed he achieves in his impressively researched work, but there is so much more to be gleaned from it, and his carefully chosen title could well be applied more widely.

For example, his account of the long interplay between the State of Israel and the US administrations that followed its establishment in 1948, culminating as it does in a profound divergence of views in 2023, would certainly justify the title. 

Then again, a strong theme running through Alterman’s history is the gulf that has opened up between traditionally oriented Jewish-American interests and those on the Left. Their wide disparity of view about Israel in 2023 is reflected within America’s Jewish population. 

Alterman quotes an extensive investigation of Jewish-American attitudes undertaken by the Pew Research Center in 2020. It revealed majority support for the two-state solution; but if that possibility disappeared, those polled were equally divided between ending Israel’s Jewish identity on the one hand, and allowing Israel to annex the West Bank on the other. In another illustration of “We are not one,” the younger generation of American Jews was found to be consistently more critical of Israel than the older.

 Protestors demonstrate against the judicial reform outside the Israeli consulate in New York City. (credit: LIRI AGAMI) Protestors demonstrate against the judicial reform outside the Israeli consulate in New York City. (credit: LIRI AGAMI)

Finally, “We are not one” is an epithet that could very easily have been applied to Israeli society itself for much of its 75 years of existence, but never more so than in 2023, which has witnessed mass public demonstrations opposing a key political aim of the new administration headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – judicial reform. 

In short, in this detailed recounting and analysis of Israel’s history, Alterman endorses a long-recognized truth: Israel in its various aspects – political, religious, social, even cultural – generates in people a strength of feeling, often a deeply-held passion, that fuels not only heated debate but often conflict.

This profound truth will undoubtedly apply to Alterman’s readership – a fact that he himself acknowledges. He writes somewhere: “I cannot imagine that... anyone... will agree with everything in this book.” 

Who is Alterman?

Alterman is a distinguished professor of English and journalism at the City University of New York. We Are Not One is the outcome of some 40 years of assiduous research into both the developing history of Israel and the impact of Israel on the American political scene. The depth and extent of Alterman’s scholarship is evidenced in the 60 pages of references to his source material included at the rear of his work. 

“The space that Israel occupies in US political debates is, by any measure, extraordinary,” he writes. One example is the torrent of foreign aid over the years, “literally unparalleled... in the history of any nation,” as he puts it. Help for the Jewish state also includes vetoes and votes in the United Nations. 

He is not afraid to pose the unanswered question that has come increasingly to the fore within the Jewish-American world, as well as more widely in US political circles: Has the US thereby laid itself open to charges of supporting apartheid or crimes against humanity with which its more extreme critics charge Israel?

Alterman illustrates how, for much of Israel’s early existence, public support for Israel in America was almost universal, regardless of religion or political affiliation. Paradoxically, it was Israel’s overwhelming victory in the Six Day War in 1967 that marked the start of a change. Following a defensive war against massed Arab military forces, Israel found itself holding vast additional territories. Over the years, it returned the Sinai to Egypt in return for a peace treaty; and in its peace treaty with Jordan, signed in October 1994, it restored a proportion of its occupied land and agreed to a number of areas in which negotiations would continue, notably the West Bank.

The Israel-Jordan peace was concluded after the first Oslo Accords agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, brokered by then-US president Bill Clinton in 1993. The world was hopeful that a peace process had begun – hopes reinforced by the second Oslo Accords agreement in 1995. However, the initiative ran into the sand, and although a degree of self-governance by the Palestinians was established in the main Arab-occupied areas of the West Bank, Israel was left occupying an area containing some 300,000 Palestinians. The subsequent unsatisfactory status and treatment of this Palestinian population, living under military occupation and citizens of no state, swung America’s left-wing opinion strongly against a series of Israeli governments. 

Alterman notes the irony of the fact that this was occurring at precisely the same time as the Christian Evangelicals of America were increasingly embracing Zionism.

Alterman is as meticulous in his presentation of facts as he is forthright in his criticism of any interest when he deems it justified. His view of what is justifiable criticism, however, is unlikely to be universally acceptable. We Are Not One is a work that, with scrupulous attention to detail and a clear eye, surveys the history of modern Israel from its very beginnings, set against its relationship with, and its effect on, the United States. 

For anyone interested in gaining a deeper understanding of these matters than has hitherto been available, it is essential reading. 

The writer is the Middle East correspondent for Eurasia Review. Follow him at: www.a-mid-east-journal.blogspot.com