Thursday, August 10, 2006

Why is the U.S. so pro-Israel ?

Traveling across the U.S. during the Israeli-Hezbollah war is interesting. You get a good feel that this country is definitely pro-Israel – not that it comes as a surprise but the current events have given me some opportunity for some interesting discussion and observations.

It is common knowledge that the powerful Israeli lobby (AIPAC or American Israël Public Affairs) and the religious right can explain why most of the political establishment is so supportive of Israel. It is also clear that the support is bipartisan.

However, this alone does not explain why a majority of the American public is also overwhelmingly supportive of Israel compared to, say, Europe.

The Economist provides some interesting figures:

  • 1/3 of the Americans who claim sympathy with Israel say that this stems from their religious beliefs.
  • 2/5 Americans believe that Israel was given to the Jewish people by God, and one in three say that the creation of the state of Israel was a step towards the Second Coming.

This partly comes from the simple fact that protestant theology emphasizes the idea of a chosen people – then the Jews, now the Christians. Sermons about the Old Testament certainly have people relate to Israel – the chosen people before Christ.

The problem lies in the confusion entertained by some Christian fundamentalists between modern Israel - which, by the way, is a secular state - and the ancient Israel of the Bible. It is as if you considered that modern Baghdad is literally the Babylon of Revelation. (Strangely enough, most fundamentalists identify the Babylon of the Apocalypse as everything but Baghdad). It seems to me that a lot of Christians are unaware of the fundamentalist theology behind such a view. (see our post here).

When you know that Evangelical Christians make up about 25% of the American electorate and are overwhelmingly (mahtough not entirely) Republican, you begin to understand why the GOP has become so much more pro-Israel than it used to be.

There is also a post-911 identification with Israel because of the “war on terror” which is a war against Islamist extremism, and there is great confusion too between Islam and Islamist extremists. In fact, the only Arabs and/or Muslims that most Americans are exposed to are the ones who either blow themselves up, threaten to wipe out Israel or directly threatens America of some apocalyptic catastrophe. The lack of exposure to moderate Muslims is the main difference with Europe which has larage Muslim communities and is dealing with moderate Muslims on an everyday basis. (unfortunately, there are also a few extremists among them).

Those Americans who have a rational approach of the whole situation still often relates to Israel because they see it (rightfully) as the only democracy in the region. But even there, lies a difference between Europe and the US:

Americans see Israel as a plucky democracy in a sea of autocracies—a democracy that has every right to use force to defend itself. Europeans, on the other hand, see Israel as a reminder of the atavistic forces—from nationalism to militarism—that it has spent the post-war years trying to grow beyond. (The Economist)

It is true that the Europeans tend to be more reluctant to see war as a solution to the problems in the Middle-East because they genuinely see the use of force as a negative tool – a failure of diplomacy. Europeans tend to see war as the absolute last resort because they have an acute sense of what wars can do. It is the result of their history and having had two world wars on their own soil. This is not to say that their view is better, it is just different.

It would be wrong, however, to see in the European position a sign of anti-Semitism - one can be critical of Israel's politics without being anti-semitic.

The last point I wish to make concerns the US media. Quite often you hear that the US media is controlled by the Jews. This undeniably rings anti-Semitic to my ears. It also sounds too much like another of those conspiracy theories that people love. What seems true, however, is that American Jews make up a greater part of the media than of the general American population. Also, influential leaders of opinions in the US happen to often be Jews (from Thomas Friedman to Jon Stewart). But then what conclusion do you draw from that? I do not think that you can say that they all think the same way – even with regard to Israel. In fact, a lot of Jews are very critical of Israel right now and some take the heat from right-Wing Conservatives for hating themselves. In other words, criticizing Israel is so taboo in some American circles that Jews themselves are accused of being anti-Semitic when they criticize Israel. That really blows my mind!

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