Monday, 10 September 2012
America and Israel – the ties that bind
The two main contenders for the US presidency are falling over themselves declaring their support for Israel. Already passing into the historical annals is the “oops!” omission from the 2012 Democratic Convention platform of the mention of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of any reference to God at all. Following an intervention by President Obama, to say nothing of’ the whoops of joy at the lapse from Mitt Romney and other Republicans, the Democrats hurriedly corrected both omissions.
The incident should cause no raised eyebrows outside the United States, for to most of the world the ties between Israel and the States seem inexplicably strong. On March 4, for example, at the AIPAC conference , President Obama declared: “America's commitment to Israel's security is unshakeable. Our friendship with Israel is enduring.”
Eight days later, Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney announced: “In a Romney administration, the world will know that the bond between Israel and America is unbreakable."
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had been equally unequivocal two years earlier, at the very start of the Obama presidency,: "We have a close, unshakeable bond between the United States and Israel,” she said,
This “enduring friendship,“ this "close unshakeable, unbreakable bond", however normal and natural it may seem within the USA itself, is a great puzzle to many people in the UK, Europe and beyond. Anti-American political views, which are endemic in many Western countries, are often exacerbated by this solid US support for Israel, which they find perplexing, if not inexplicable.
The "reds under the beds" theorists, of whom there are many, of course ascribe it to the result of some malign Zionist conspiracy, whose aim is to achieve heaven-knows-what sinister ends – all on a par with the notorious, and long-discredited, forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion", incorporated in the charter of Hamas and still quoted as a sort of gospel by extremist Islamist spokesmen.
Others more prosaically nominate the "enormously powerful Jewish lobby at the heart of the Washington machine," referring to the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). AIPAC is indeed powerful, and has proved very successful during both Democratic and Republican administrations in achieving its main objective: to ensure that American support for Israel remains strong.
But why should American policy-makers allow US policy to be shaped by such lobbying?
The current international dynamic suggests a whole host of reasons, including Israel's strategic position in the heart of the Middle East. Israel's western values and democratic traditions provide a strong and reliable base from which to counter Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other extreme Islamist activity in the region – notably from Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, to name but two. Current American perceptions see potential threats not only to US interests, but actually to homeland security, from these sources and their international connections.
Considerations such as these have developed over the years, but they are essentially peripheral to a more fundamental rationale for that “enduring friendship” and "close and unshakeable bond" between the USA and Israel that is such a mystery to many. I am referring not to the so-called "Israel lobby", but to the Jewish connection to the body politic of the USA.
Visit the Jewish museum in Philadelphia (or the National Museum of American Jewish History, to give it its full title), and you find in an early display cabinet a letter of greetings to the leader of the Hebrew Congregation of Philadelphia signed by George Washington. A little further down sits a letter from Abraham Lincoln to the head of his Jewish community, thanking him for his loyal address. The fact is that the history of the United States is quite unlike that of any other western country, and that Jews were part and parcel of the foundation of the nation. The US is a nation of immigrants, and the Jews were there from the start.
In fact, the connection runs even deeper, for most of the early immigrants left their native shores in order to escape religious persecution. The national identity of the United States is embedded in the Judaeo-Christian tradition, and belief in God is at the heart of the Declaration of Independence. The Bible is a cornerstone of the American national structure. Early fundamentalists, no less than those of today, would base their support of the Zionist dream on the Old Testament, its account of the release of the Jews from slavery and their journey, under God's guidance, to the "promised land, flowing with milk and honey".
The Jewish population of most nation states is minute. France has the largest in Europe, and there Jews represent some 0.8 % of the total population. In the UK there are something less than 300,000 Jews out of a total population of some 61 million – that is less than 0.5 %. But while Jews in European countries are counted in their thousands, in the States they number millions. Estimates vary but, according to some, more Jews live in the United States than in Israel. So Jewish opinion counts in the States, and both major political parties court it. Jews notoriously disagree among themselves on almost everything, and they spread their political favours accordingly. Nevertheless, a majority would certainly be in support of Israel's continued secure existence, no matter how opposed they might be to the policies of any individual Israeli government.
So the world had best acknowledge that, for better or worse, the USA has two self-imposed international obligations, regardless of who occupies the White House: its special relationship with the UK, and its enduring friendship and close, unshakeable bond with Israel.
A shorter version of this article appears in the on-line Jerusalem Post of September 13, 2012: