The End of the Special Relationship?


For those inclined to see the workings of Divine Providence in human history, the special affinity of the American people for Israel provides a happy example. If Israel could have only one consistent ally in the world, it would surely have picked the world’s (still) most powerful nation. Without the United States, Israel would be hard pressed to obtain the weapons needed to defend itself.

American popular support for Israel has many sources. The first is historical. The Puritan founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony self-consciously modeled themselves on the ancient Hebrews, and styled themselves as the New Israel. The Hebrew Bible provided their guidance. All the early presidents of Yale College were Hebraists, and the College’s insignia was patterned on the Urim ve’Tumim worn by the Kohen Gadol.

To this day, Americans remain by far the most religious people in the Western world. Seventy million American evangelicals constitute Israel’s most ardent supporters. Americans have always tended to be jealous of their sovereignty and willing to defend against any threat to their liberty. The state motto of New Hampshire, “Live Free or Die,” captures that spirit. As such, they admire Israel’s doughty self-defense against far more numerous enemies.

In Western terms, America is a Center-Right country. A major aspect of the American exceptionalism discussed by historians is its failure to develop a class-based political movement. That too has strengthened the bonds to Israel. Among American liberals, who tend to see the world in terms of victims and oppressors, 59% view the Palestinians more or equally sympathetically (according to a 2002 Gallup poll). Among conservatives, whose focus is on particular values and the determination to defend them, 59% view Israel more favorably.

The presence in America of the world’s largest Jewish community – a community that is both wealthy and politically active – has also shored up American support for Israel. (That community, however, is diminishing both in numbers and concern with Israel; many of the most active supporters of Israel in Congress come from states with few Jews.)

BELIEF IN AMERICAN EXCEPTIONALISM, its chosenness, has always played a major role in American civic religion. The two dominant conceptions of American foreign policy – isolationism and liberal internationalism — are both predicated upon an assumption of American moral superiority. Isolationists fear contamination from the “foreign entanglements,” of which President George Washington warned of in his Farewell Address. Liberal internationalists seek to remake the world in America’s image.

Senator Barack Obama represents a third foreign policy approach – what Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington calls the “cosmopolitan.” Far from taking American virtue as its starting point, the cosmopolitan seeks to remake America in Europe’s image.

Thus Senator Obama presented himself to Europeans last summer as a citizen of the world, one of them. “Mr. Obama,” in the words of Fouad Ajami, “proceeds from the notion of American guilt. We called up the furies . . . .” He accepts the Western European critique of America’s aggressiveness, and seeks to restore American “moral standing” in the eyes of the world.

He shares the Europeans contempt for the terminology of good and evil: “A lot of evil’s been perpetuated based on the claim that we were fighting evil,” he says. If his heart thrilled at the sight of Iraqis twice braving suicide bombers to go the polls, he kept it to himself. The war in Iraq, in his view, was nothing more than a “cynical attempt by Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz and other armchair, weekend warriors . . . to shove their own ideological agendas down our throats, irrespective of the cost in lives lost and in hardships born.”

And he expresses understanding of the grievances for the perpetrators of evil – Hamas, Hizbullah, even the perpetrators of 9/11, which he characteristically portrayed as part of “an underlying struggle between worlds of plenty and worlds of want” (despite the affluent backgrounds of the attackers). He voted against a Senate bill to designate the Iranian Revolutionary Guard a terrorist organization.

Senator Obama’s most fervent support has come from the university campuses and cultural elites – where attitudes tend most to resemble those of Western Europeans and where scorn for those who “cling to guns or religion” runs rampant. The campuses also happen to be the redoubts of the greatest hostility to Israel.

AN AMERICA THAT MORE CLOSELY RESEMBLES Western Europe will not be good for Israel. Western Europeans consistently rate Israel the greatest threat to world peace. And they are remarkably cavalier about Israel’s defense of its own existence. Recent memory does not include any Israeli response to attack that the Europeans did not deem disproportionate. The Western European countries have done little to prevent the United Nations from degenerating into an anti-Israel debating society, and a number have supported or abstained on U.N. Human Rights Council resolutions supportive of anti-Israel “resistance” – i.e., terrorism.

Many commonly-held attitudes predispose Europeans against Israel. Western Europe is far along a project of transferring political legitimacy from nation-states to supranational organizations, like the European Union, the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. Having achieved their nation-state rather late in the day, the Jews of Israel remain proud of it. To the Europeans, however, a non-Moslem state based on national/religious identity appears an atavism.

Western Europe’s almost religious faith in international institutions of open membership, like the U.N., and a declining concern with national sovereignty threaten Israel. International criminal jurisdiction has already rendered Israeli military personnel wary of traveling abroad. Senator Obama frequently demonstrates a similar reverence for the U.N., and has a long list of international treaty obligations to which he is eager to submit the United States.

Europe has adopted a stance of appeasement towards both external threats and to Islamic minorities within. (Ironically, the United States, which offers no special dispensation to Moslems, has done a far better job of integrating Moslem immigrants than European countries.) Europeans’ abhorrence of any resort to military action causes them to instinctively recoil from Israel, as the superior military power in the region.

Having moved beyond simplistic categories of good and evil, Europeans try to take, at best, an even-handed approach to any conflict, invariably warning, for instance, against a “cycle of violence” whenever Israel responds to attack. Obama’s immediate call for “mutual restraint” after the Russian invasion of Georgia was a classic example of that tendency.

At worse, European sophistication favors whichever party can present itself as the aggrieved underdog, or serves to mask an ugly cynicism, as in the recent multi-billion deals signed by Austrian and Swiss energy companies with Iran.

To the extent that Senator Obama’s likely election betokens a move towards a more European America, the special ties that have bound the people of America and Israel show signs of fraying.

This article appeared in the Jerusalem Post on 31 October, 2008

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6 years 11 months ago

Garnel Ironheart: The Democrats, as well as most leftist liberal parties in the west, long ago figured out that most non-Orthodox Jews would vote for them even if they ran a confirmed neo-Nazi as their presidential candidate since leftist parties generally reflect their “Jewish values”

Ori: From what I’ve seen, most non-Orthodox Jews vote based on a candidate’s domestic agenda. While they might support certain policies, such as an anti smoking campaign, other policies, such as denying contraception to certain races, would encounter severe opposition.

The basic fact is that we US non-Orthodox Jews are culturally more Americans than Jewish. It makes sense for us to vote based on what we want in the US, rather than the interests of Israel. That doesn’t mean we don’t judge candidates, only that we judge on different criteria.

My reasons for voting for McCain, for example, have very little to do with Judaism. In my smattering of Jewish knowledge I never saw guidance as to whether pure diplomacy or the threat of force are more effective in specific situations. That I hope to learn from the same history available to everybody.

Reb Yid
6 years 11 months ago

One of the reasons for the “American exceptionalism” as noted above was that, unlike Europe, the US never had an established religion.

The modernizing movements in Europe were largely anti-clerical, since the religious institutions held much (if not all) of the power.

This history also provides one of the big differences between US and Israel, with the latter coming much closer to the European model; so-called “secular” Jews in Israel are much more likely to be antagonistic towards Judaism or the rabbinate than are so-called “secular” US Jews, who are largely indifferent.

6 years 11 months ago

Just curious, I wonder how many people know who their Rav is supporting for President? If yes, and you are planning to vote for the opposing candidate, how many of you have discussed this with your Rav and feel confident that he would support your decision? If you don’t know who your Rav is supporting, have you discussed it with him?

Garnel Ironheart
6 years 11 months ago

Ori, I doubt Obama will feel beholden to the Jewish community because of their support. The Democrats, as well as most leftist liberal parties in the west, long ago figured out that most non-Orthodox Jews would vote for them even if they ran a confirmed neo-Nazi as their presidential candidate since leftist parties generally reflect their “Jewish values”

6 years 11 months ago

How has the Bush administration been helpful to Israel over the past 8 years? Demanding the Hamas stand for elections in Gaza? The “unlinked” roadmap? Annapolis? At the beginning of the campaign, McCain announced that he would appoint James (“You have my phone number”) Baker as his special envoy to the middle east. He may or may not, but it shows his attitudes towards the conflict. I don’t know if Obama will be better, but if we discount for the cultural (dare I say racial?)static he seems to generate among parochial Orthodox Jews, I don’t believe Obama can be worse.