[This is] the perfect gift for someone who wants to understand the history of the U.S.-Israel relationship, attitudes of the Jewish community toward that relationship, and the extent to which domestic politics have influenced that relationship. . . . It’s 500 pages long, but it’s so tightly written that an adequate summary would be almost as long as the book. But it’s interesting throughout and it’s a fast read.
The 1967 Six Day War occurred six years after the Eichmann trial sparked renewed interest in the Holocaust. . . . [M]any believed prior to the War that a second Holocaust was imminent. After Israel won, Jewish identity in the United States became increasingly tied not to Jewish ritual or learning, but to pride and identification with Israel combined with Holocaust education and Emil Fackenheim’s 614th commandment: to give Hitler no posthumous victories. But as Alterman notes throughout his book, the Israel that Jews were asked by their schools and organizations to identify with was not the real Israel, but idealized fictional Israel depicted in Leon Uris’s novel (and film) “Exodus.”
That’s why today, many in the Jewish community, especially college students, are unable to address criticism of Israel: The Israel they have been trained to believe in by the organized Jewish community doesn’t exist, so they are unprepared for legitimate criticism of the real Israel. Because the Israel of “Exodus” has become central to their Jewish identity, they interpret criticism of Israel as antisemitism, as attacks on who they are.
As important as Holocaust education is–and as dangerous as Holocaust denial is–connecting Israel with the Holocaust further compounds the problem. Quoting Peter Novick Alterman writes that “‘as the Middle Eastern dispute came to be viewed within a Holocaust paradigm,’ it simultaneously became ‘endowed with all the black-and-white moral simplicity of the Holocaust’–a framework that promoted ‘a belligerent stance toward any criticism of Israel’ no matter who was giving voice to it or what may have been their inspiration.”
Consequently, Alterman writes, one can understand the willingness of some Jewish Americans “to defend Israel as a kind of miracle of redemption that arose from the ashes of European Jewish civilization…willing to support, without much questioning, just about anything Israeli leaders said was necessary to assure its security and survival.”
Holocaust education is vitally important, as is the reborn Jewish State of Israel. Never again means never forgetting, and Israel is both the realization of a 2,00-year-old dream as well as a potential refuge for Jews facing antisemitism anywhere in the world. But their emotional power makes them a tempting target for emotional manipulation. Unfortunately, says Alterman, “American Jewish institutions’ relentless focus on–and demands for–fealty to Israel, tied to the Holocaust and antisemitism, are the only cards mainstream Jewish leaders know how to play.”
It wasn’t always this way and it doesn’t have to be this way. Alterman traces the history of these complex relationships from the rise of modern Zionism to the present day. Along the way, he debunks myths about Jewish control of the media and control of U.S. foreign policy (attempts to influence policy are not the same as control of policy), specifically addressing specious arguments advanced by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in their 2008 book “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy” that exaggerate the power, impact, and cohesiveness of pro-Israel lobbying.
Alterman acknowledges throughout the book that domestic Jewish organizations do sometimes have some influence on foreign policy and that political leaders consider their views when making policy. Why would they exist if their lobbying and political contributions made no difference? But Alterman cites polling showing that the positions taken by legacy Jewish organizations sometimes differ from the views of the Jewish Americans they purport to represent.
Noting AIPAC’s support for insurrectionists in the 2022 election and the inability of AIPAC’s president, when asked, to come up with a single affirmative example of whether there was anything at all “a candidate who supports Israel could support that would rule them out for AIPAC’s support,” Alterman writes that “what AIPAC (with unintended irony) called its ‘United Democracy Project’ clearly undermined its bona fides as a supporter of American democracy.”
(Subsequent polling found that 72% of Jewish voters disapproved of AIPAC’s decision to back candidates they deem pro-Israel but who voted against certifying the 2020 presidential election on January 6, 2021. Among Jewish Democrats, the percentage was 90% disapproval.)
Alterman might have added that not only was AIPAC’s opposition to the Iran Deal in 2015 unsuccessful but no members of Congress who supported the deal lost in 2016. The only two times candidates who voted differently on the Iran Deal ran against each other, the candidate who supported the Iran Deal won (Tammy Duckworth vs. Mark Kirk in 2016 and Jerry Nadler vs. Carolyn Maloney in the most Jewish district in the country in 2022).
Alterman’s book offers no easy answers and lets no one off the hook. If you’re looking for a feel-good read or a book whose every word you’ll agree with, this is not the book for you. But if you want to understand how we got to where we are–which will help you better advocate for and support the real Israel–then this, along with Daniel Sokatch’s Can We Talk About Israel? (which focuses on the Israel-Palestinian conflict), is a good place to start.
We don’t know what policies Israel’s new government will pursue. We do know that Israel’s new government will likely include ministers who have previously expressed support for policies antithetical to our values. But Bibi has made clear that he will set policy and that “they are joining me. I’m not joining them.” In his previous terms as prime minister, Bibi’s policies were more moderate than the Likud’s platform, but past performance does not guarantee future results.
We should, as Secretary of State Blinken said on December 4, “gauge the government by the policies it pursues rather than individual personalities [and] hold it to the mutual standards we have established in our relationship over the past seven decades.” And we should remember the difference between the State of Israel and the government of Israel. Just as we can criticize Biden (or Trump) and support America, so too we can criticize the government of Israel and remain pro-Israel. Those who criticize Israel’s policies are not necessarily anti-Israel, and as I wrote five years ago, pro-Israel is not necessarily pro-Bibi.
Michael Koplow warns us not to fall for the simple narratives that are coming. But it does not take much imagination to foresee potential difficulties emerging in the U.S.-Israel relationship, and those of us who want to preserve the strength of that relationship need to understand its history and dynamics. Alterman’s book is a good place to start.