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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19 comments to The End of the Special Relationship?

  • Ori

    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.

    The US may move to be more like European in the next few years, but such a move will likely be short-lived. Under the constitution political power comes from having the votes. At the end of the day, conservatives tend to have more children. Barrack Obama may get move votes than Sarah Palin. But her children will outvote his – and that seems to be a general pattern.

    Whether Israel could afford to wait those few years or not is another matter. Israel doesn’t have much of a security margin, especially if the loss in 2006 was symptomatic of deep problems instead of a fluke.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Jonathan, You’re recent Obama and Obama/Israel articles have been fantastic. You’re sounding more and more like Religious Zionist every day! (That’s meant as a compliment. :)

  • Bob Miller

    Menachem Lipkin, are you hinting that Obama’s policies would indirectly encourage aliya from the US?

  • Garnel Ironheart

    That the US has not yet had a cosmopolitan president until now is itself a sign of Divine intervention. For how many decades have liberal anti-Western professors been influencing their university students to hate their own country and its values? Indeed, it was only a matter of time before an Obama-type person became the president. The Dem’s couldn’t screw elections up forever!

    Israel survived Jimmy Cah-ter. They’ll survive the O-man!

  • Steve Brizel

    WADR, IMO, this article and some of the articles in this week’s Yated are essentially a brief for the argument that Torah Jews must support the Republican Party and its social agenda 100%. One can argue that the Democratic Party of today is not the same party as the pre 1968 Party and that Presidents Nixon, Reagan and Bush ( the son) were great supporters of Israel and supported Israel in the clutch and that the US is under siege by those who would have it adopt European views on political issues. OTOH, the notion that we must support all items of the Republican social agenda can and should be the subject of more analysis and discussion simply because one cannot argue that Halacha and TSBP are inherently liberal or conservative. The article also neglects to note that the heterodox Jewish communities are solidly pro Obama. IMO, we err in writing off such communities and their leaders completely simply because it is more convenient for the Orthodox world to discuss some, but not all issues with the base of the Republican Party.

    Like it or not, Halacha neither always views life as beginning at conception, supports the unfettered exercise of reproductive rights, bans or supports every abortion or condemns homosexuals. Halacha has a far more nuanced POV which condemns or condones the action, as opposed to condemning or condoning the actor for his or her actions.

    The notion expressed in the Yated that democracry cannot be found in the Torah IMO cannot withstand serious scrutiny. One can ideally argue that the concession of the need for a monarchy was a concession and not an ideal system.

    However, Halacha Krabim, the rights of a minority and the reluctance to rely on confesssions are Torah values that have become accepted in the US, which no less than RMF called a Malchus Shel Chesed. Shmittah and Yovel, which are as contradictory in nature as one can imagine in their financial impact, are serious halachos that one can argue are the basis of any system of protecting the poor and preventing the dissipation of one’s hard earned wealth. IMO, it is a serious mistake to claim that there are no echoes of democracy in the Torah.

  • Menachem Lipkin

    Bob, that’s not exactly what I meant. Some of Jonathan’s recent articles have had a strong pro-state feel to them.

    However, to your point, people in the US have said to me explicitly that if Obama wins they will be making Aliyah. So, now I’m torn. :)

  • Bob Miller

    The majorities that appear in halacha are typically majorities of people on some elevated level of wisdom/erudition/expertise/character, are they not? What does that type of majority have in common with majorities of entire nations, even of the Jewish nation? For example, in today’s world, no majority of Jews in general could modify or overrule any halacha. Those too ignorant, etc., to meet the needed qualifications would not have a vote.

  • Bob Miller

    Above (11:33 AM) I meant to write:
    “For example, in today’s world, no majority of Jews in general could modify or overrule any previous halachic decision”

  • Ori

    Steve Brizel, other than Massiach, we are unlikely to see a candidate that would follow the Torah 100%, or probably even 75%. That being the case, Orthodox Jews can either stay out of the US political process completely, or select which issues are most important and vote based on those – even if it means supporting a candidate who will promote some non-Halachic policies.

    The article also neglects to note that the heterodox Jewish communities are solidly pro Obama.

    We are? Living in Texas must have wrapped my view ;-). More to the point, this only matters if:

    1. Obama will be more beholden to heterodox Jews than to Muslims (both groups seem to support him).

    2. These Heterodox groups will pressure him to act in a pro-Israeli manner. This does not mean figuring from a distance that Israel should negotiate more and trying to put pressure on its government to do so. It means assuming that Israelis know what they need better than we US Jews do. I haven’t seen a very strong tendency in this direction.

  • BY

    “WADR, IMO, this article and some of the articles in this week’s Yated are essentially a brief for the argument that Torah Jews must support the Republican Party and its social agenda 100%.”

    Criticism of part of the Democrats’ foreign policy constitutes support for all of the Republicans’ domestic policies?

    I voted for the party I thought fewer people in general and Americans and Jews in particular would be murdered under in the long term. Foreign policy is the chief element of that. Why bother waiting for a party or person you agree with everything on when you can wait for the messiah and save time?

    The two points of this line of articles are that 1) McCain’s foreign policy is more appropriate for the reality we find ourselves in than Obama’s and that 2) this is the most important issue of this election. On domestic policies, reasonable people may differ…or not, if you so believe, but that doesn’t address the article.

    Do you disagree with the foreign policy analysis?

    You only tangentially addressed the second point by pointing out that neither party has a halachic view of abortion. Are you seriously contending that Obama’s is so much better than McCain’s that it is worth ignoring foreign policy? Would Supreme Court Justices appointed by Obama and approved by 60 members of a Senate with 55-60 Democrats out of 100 be more halachic than McCain appointees under that constraint? If so, is it to such an extent that we should ignore everything else and vote Obama?

    I don’t understand your point about heterodox communities supporting Obama. Are you presenting this as evidence that would act well regarding Israel, on the premises that 1) heterodox Jews wouldn’t support a candidate (with what they regard as ideal liberal domestic views) unless he also genuinely supported Israel beyond token words, and 2) that the Arabs in Gaza, America and everywhere else are wrong to support Obama for foreign policy reasons (Ori – I have spoken to many Muslim Pakistanis, all of whom support McCain)? If so, it is thin gruel compared to Rosenbloom’s evidence. Or are you saying that this is an opportunity to act in unity with them, and we are distancing ourselves from them by bonding with Republicans instead? If so, this is a poor reason to abandon Israel to its enemies.

  • SM

    This article retreads the standard frum view that Jews should vote Republican.

    I am uninterested in that argument, although I reject it. Judaism seems to me to demand social action and interaction which the republican Party has regularly stood against.

    However, the thesis above that Europe does not care about Israel is simply, and profoundly, wrong. The research carried out in England within the last year demonstrates that amongst opinion formers – MP’s, Ministers, Newspaper Editors, political activists and so forth – support for Israel’s actions in terms of its own defence runs at 70% plus.

    The concern in Europe about supranational institutions has manifested itself by the concerted rejection of the latest such attempt by all nations who have referred the matter to their electorate – including the French. It is wrong to say that Europe is moving in that direction. Ironically, the European concern is that the drive to supranational institutions will bring about an United States of Europe!

    With so many factual errors I would respectfully suggest that the article’s conclusions cannot be sustained. I hesitate to suggest that the author is starting from his conclusion and working backwards. The answer lies in more research and more nuanced interpretation of what is actually happening in Europe (where I live).

  • Steve Brizel

    I am sure that I am not the only person who is wondering why the public has been not allowed to see anything that Senator Obama wrote or contributed to in Columbia, Harvard LS, U of Chicago or elsewhere. Two books and informercials as well as the absence of authorship of legislation or prominent roles on a Senate committee strike me as a woefully inadequate record.

  • Ori

    SM: Judaism seems to me to demand social action and interaction which the republican Party has regularly stood against.

    Ori: Social action, or government action? Halachically, are we obligated to give Tzdakah, or to vote for laws that will take money by force/threat of force (= taxes) that will then go to Tzdakah?

    I don’t recall any Republican legislation outlawing private charities, so I assume they are only opposed to having government run Tzdakah.

  • Chaim Fisher

    Rabbi Rosenblum’s attempts to tar Obama with the “European” brush don’t fool anyone; we all know that Bush and Rice have been pushing exactly the same surrenders down Israel’s throat as hard as they can (Rabbi Rosenblum always gives Bush a pass on that.)

    The truth is it is precisely the Rosenblums of the world who have their own selves to blame. They did an absolutely terrible job. The foreign and domestic policies they championed with such puerile, and wrong, headlines as Rabbi Rosenblum’s “Bully Pulpit” and “Thank HaShem for George Bush!” braggadocio and Bush’s “You’re doing a heck’of a job Brownie!” fell absolutely flat on their faces, as such immature stuff should.

    The Republicans are handing this election to Obama on a silver platter. The two thirds of the country who can see that Sarah Palin is an incompetent are dead right. What do the Repbulicans want–to be elected just as a favor to them, even though they are incompetent duds?

    They blew it. They should be ashamed of themselves.

  • Naftali

    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.

  • Garnel Ironheart

    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”

  • YM

    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?

  • Reb Yid

    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.

  • Ori

    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.