The right thing to do

In May 1948, US President Harry Truman, acting against the advice of his State Department, recognized the new Jewish state 11 minutes after the Israeli proclamation of independence.

US Israel 521 (photo credit: Avi Katz)
US Israel 521
(photo credit: Avi Katz)
In May 1948, US President Harry Truman, acting against the advice of his State Department, recognized the new Jewish state 11 minutes after the Israeli proclamation of independence. Truman did so because he believed that Israel had “a glorious future before it – not just another sovereign nation, but as an embodiment of the great ideals of our civilization.”
Two weeks after the 1967 Six Day War, Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin asked US President Lyndon Johnson at the Glassboro Summit why America supported Israel given that there were 80 million Arabs and only three million Israelis. “Because it’s the right thing to do,” responded Johnson, who believed that the US had a moral obligation to bolster Israel’s security.
One has to wonder: Could Truman or Johnson have shown such support today without being accused of kowtowing to the pro-Israel community? After all, the notion that American political leaders would support Israel because “it’s the right thing to do” is often met with deep cynicism, even outright disdain.
It’s not enough for Israel’s detractors merely to denounce its policies toward the Palestinians. Now, more than ever, it has become standard fare to impugn the motives of elected officials and political candidates who are staunch backers of the Jewish state.
Take, for example, how the media has characterized expressions of support for Israel by Republican presidential front runners Rick Perry and Mitt Romney. The CNN religion editor described it as a blatant “GOP push for Jewish votes.” Similarly, an editorial in New York’s Jewish Forward called it “pandering” for political gain.
To be sure, the Republican candidates as well as President Barack Obama covet Jewish votes, which could be a factor in key battleground states, such as Florida and Ohio. No doubt they perceive an opening with Jewish voters given that 53 percent of American Jews disapprove of the president’s handling of the US-Israel relationship, according to the latest American Jewish Committee poll. (Never mind that Israel isn’t even among the top five issues that Jewish voters typically list as their priorities.) What gets lost in accusations of pandering, however, is the fact that these candidates’ support for Israel is deep and sincere. They view Israel as an important strategic ally in the war on terrorism and appreciate that Israelis share America’s democratic values. Besides, what politician, Republican or Democrat, doesn’t call attention to their positions on the issues if they think it may garner them more votes? A more insidious fallacy meant to deride support for Israel smacks of age-old Jewish conspiracy theories alleging that Jews wield excessive power. In their 2007 polemic, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy,” Prof. John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Prof. Stephen Walt of Harvard argued that an all-powerful “Israel lobby” manipulated and threatened successive US governments into blind and unwholesome support for Israel to the detriment of our national interests.
Mearsheimer and Walt’s book has been widely criticized for its shoddy scholarship. How disheartening it is, then, when a well-respected journalist peddles their theories. In a September 18 article in “The New York Times,” columnist Thomas Friedman brashly asserted that “the powerful pro-Israel lobby in an election season can force the administration to defend Israel at the UN even when it knows Israel is pursuing policies not in its own interest or America’s.”
It does this, Friedman explained, by “hammering anyone in the administration or Congress” who criticizes those policies.
Of course, Friedman isn’t alone in making such allegations. In his new book, “A New Voice for Israel,” J Street executive director Jeremy Ben-Ami claims that many members of Congress won’t voice their true positions on Israel lest they lose Jewish votes and financial contributions. “They know that what they are being asked to support is one-sided or over the top, but few members of Congress are willing to say no,” he writes.
The pro-Israel community may be a force to be reckoned with, yet the idea that “if you cross them, they’ll defeat you” is totally unsubstantiated.
As former US secretary of state George Shultz put it, “Jewish groups are influential. They also largely agree that the US should support Israel. But the notion that US policy on Israel and the Middle East is the result of their influence is simply wrong.”
The limited influence of the “Jewish lobby” is demonstrated by the fact that, despite a concerted Jewish campaign for his release, Jonathan Pollard, the US Navy analyst who spied for Israel, is still in jail 24 years after being convicted.
Israel is far from perfect. Its actions sometimes merit legitimate criticism. But there’s also much to admire about Israel – that it safeguards minority rights, maintains high moral standards for the conduct of its military, provides humanitarian aid to countries in need.
The American people seem to agree. In measuring Americans’ sympathies toward the Israelis and Palestinians respectively over the last two decades, Gallup polls have found support for Israel consistently exceeding support for the Palestinians (63 versus 17 percent in the latest Gallup poll). In a September poll conducted by “The Hill Congressional” newspaper, 62 percent of respondents considered a positive US approach to Israel to be very or somewhat important.
That the US backs Israel, therefore, isn’t due to political pressure or influence. It’s because our national leaders generally concur with the public’s view that supporting Israel is politically sound and morally just. Put simply, it’s the right thing to do.
Robert Horenstein is the Community Relations Director of Jewish Federation of Greater Portland, Oregon.