Shared interests?

Professor Amy Kaplan explores how American support for Israel developed and calls for it to come to an end

AMERICAN AND ISRAELI flags fly during a demonstration in support of Israel at the US Capitol in 2002. (photo credit: KEVIN LAMARQUE/REUTERS)
AMERICAN AND ISRAELI flags fly during a demonstration in support of Israel at the US Capitol in 2002.
Writing in the immediate aftermath of World War II, Richard Crossman, a British Labour MP and member of an Anglo-American Committee investigating the impact of mass immigration on the inhabitants of Palestine, attributed the enthusiasm of Americans for Zionism to their “frontier mentality.” The idea of a Jewish state ruling over an Arab majority did not offend Americans’ democratic ideals, Crossman declared, because they had long ago concluded that if the cause of “red Indians” had prevailed, “half of the United States would still be virgin forest today.”
Other things being equal, he predicted, Americans “will always give their sympathy to the pioneer and suspect an empire which thwarts the white settler in the name of native rights.”
In the ensuing decades, things did not remain equal. Americans rarely cited the “frontier mentality” and the march of progress and civilization as justifications for the displacement of Indians. And critics of Israel became more visible and vocal. That said, a series of narratives promoting a shared identity and shared interests between the two nations helped sustain support for Israel in the United States.
In Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance, Amy Kaplan, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of The Anarchy of Empire in the Making of US Culture, draws on the perspectives of television and print journalists, public intellectuals, novelists, and filmmakers to examine the cultural factors that led Americans to confer moral authority on Israel, grounded in its identity as an “invincible victim.”
As she sets these narratives and the threats to the popular consensus in the political context in which they emerged over the last 70 years, Kaplan seeks to illuminate “the darker shadows of shared exceptionalism” so that Americans can “break free from the fantasy” of equating image with reality and take responsibility for what she regards as the “tragic consequences” associated with the “eternal bond” between the US and Israel.
Our American Israel includes lots of interesting information about the cultural work that reinforced affinities between the United States and the Jewish State. Kaplan reveals, for example, that a reviewer in the Los Angeles Times deemed Exodus “the story of our own Revolutionary War against the British, transposed to Palestine.” The film, she adds, invited Americans to put Israel, albeit temporarily, in the vanguard of an anti-colonial global trend.
Kaplan demonstrates as well that the Six Day War appealed to Americans who felt stuck in a Vietnam quagmire and longed for moral clarity, national unity and military heroes. Most importantly, the war convinced many of them that Israel was both existentially vulnerable and an invincible victim.
When Israel’s attack on Lebanon threatened its image, Kaplan indicates, supporters in the United States blasted critics as antisemites; Jewish organizations set aside their ambivalence about accepting support from the Christian Right. One leader advised his colleagues to weigh their options if the Messiah comes: “Meanwhile, let’s praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
Kaplan also shows how the massacre at the Olympic Games at Munich and the Entebbe rescue persuaded many Americans that Israel and the United States faced the same barbaric foes. Following September 11, 2001, she writes, Americans put themselves in Israel’s shoes and adopted its model of national security.
As she assesses their cultural work, Kaplan implies that Israel’s American supporters have made a tragic mistake. A military powerhouse, Israel, she claims, does not face existential threats. An oppressive, colonialist state, Israel should be condemned, not aided and abetted.
Acknowledging that liberals’ “symmetrical” treatment of Palestinians and Israelis offers “a powerful corrective to the dehumanization” of Palestinians in American discourse, Kaplan insists that the approach obfuscates realities of power, implies the two groups are “equally vulnerable and equally threatening to one another,” and puts the onus of negotiating in good faith on Palestinians. Both groups have terrorists, liberals admit. Israelis punish their terrorists, while Palestinians hail theirs as heroes.
According to Kaplan, American supporters of Israel have politicized the Holocaust. They interpret it “as an historical catastrophe that is never quite past, and a portent of evil that is ever imminent,” stoke guilt for the failure of the United States to rescue Jews during World War II, and equate criticism of Israel with antisemitism.
Kaplan indicts Israel-backers for drinking the Kool-Aid about the threat posed by Islamic terrorists. She seems to associate herself with the disturbing allegation that Israel’s use of the occupied territories as a “vast security laboratory” for testing techniques to track, interrogate, incarcerate, and restrict the movement of people, “provides an explanation” for the government’s refusal to relinquish land for a political agreement with the Palestinians.
With the election of Donald Trump as US president, Israel’s partisans are back in the saddle. And so, Kaplan ends her provocative and polemical book with a warning. Shaken by the invasion of Lebanon, the intifada, the use of overwhelming military force in the Gaza Strip, and the doubling down on settlements, the liberal consensus about Israel has broken down, she notes. Younger American Jews, moreover, do not share the commitment to Israel exhibited by their parents and grandparents. The allegiance of evangelicals may also have peaked.
Post-Trump, Kaplan suggests, cracks may appear in the “unbreakable bond.” And Americans may endorse a different narrative about their “entangled alliance.”
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Our American Israel
By Amy Kaplan
Harvard University Press
368 pages; $29.95