Pariah or Charmed Hero: America’s Obsession with Jews and Israel

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Like seventy million other people around the world, I watched the Joe Biden v. Sarah Palin vice presidential debate with some apprehension. I didn’t expect to learn anything new (about the issues or about each candidate), but the debate’s proximity to world events and an ever-expanding financial crisis gave it a sense of urgency that extended far beyond its importance. But I did learn something new.

Toward the middle of the debate Israel came up. One might have expected a short mention of Israel as America’s most important ally in a region invested with enormous energy and resources. But something quite different happened. In a debate where the candidates agreed about almost nothing, each fighting to distance themselves from Washington, Wall Street greed, oil companies, and corporate America, suddenly not only were they in agreement about their undying love of Israel, they were actually arguing over who was more in love!

The world markets are collapsing, Russia invades Georgia, the Taliban are back in power in Afghanistan, Pakistan is on the verge of imploding, we don’t even know if the dictator of a nuclear North Korea is alive (and, if not, who is running that country), Iran may be building a nuclear weapon, and they are crawling all over one another to pledge their allegiance to…Israel? What exactly is going on?!

Answers came from all sectors. “They’re pandering to the Jewish octogenarians in South Florida,” or “they’re pandering to the Christian Zionist evangelicals.” Each may be true but neither answers the question satisfactorily. As for the Jewish Floridians, many will not vote for Obama anyway, not because he doesn’t love Israel enough but because he is black. This is the dirty little secret of a certain generation of American Jews. American Jewry has spent so much energy fighting anti-Semitism that it has refused to see racism (including Islamophobia) in its own ranks. Regarding the evangelical Christian Zionists, they won’t vote for Obama as they are the Republican base. So why pander?

We should recall that the McCain/Palin ticket has said they would not sit down with the prime minister of Spain, a member in good standing of NATO. And yet, they go out of their way, as do the Democrats, to meet with Israel’s surrogates in Washington regularly (each candidate spoke at a zealously pro-Israel AIPAC meeting and of the five groups Palin met with on a recent trip to Washington, one was AIPAC) and to reflexively support billions of dollars in aid for Israel’s military infrastructure, some of which inadvertently ends up supporting the construction of settlements America opposes. We justifiably criticize our allies all the time (and vice versa), yet God forbid, God forbid, any candidate should say anything—and I mean anything—critical about Israel.

A friend recently drew an important distinction between America and Europe on this question. Many youth in Germany and Poland have taken a strong interest in Jewish culture, music, and religion in the past decade or so. Whether this is a product of guilt or, as she prefers, collective shame, what is interesting is that Europe’s renewed interest in (its) Jews and Judaism more generally does not translate into a reflexive support of Israel. This, I think, is a healthier attitude than America’s, which seems to have has less of an interest in Jews and Judaism per se, yet reflexively supports anything Israel does. It is true, I suppose, that some of this is a product of 9/11, “the War on Terror,” and Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel rantings. But this reflexivity predates 9/11 or Ahmadinejad, so they may have raised the volume but they did not turn on the switch. It is more likely the result of American Jewry’s complex and long-standing campaign to link Jews to Israel so tightly that America can no longer separate the two. For much of the American political machine, there is no substantive distinction between supporting Jews and supporting Israel. This, I suggest, is not only weird but unhealthy.


I am a citizen of both the United States and Israel and I have two grown children who live there. Israel is a wonderful country in many ways—one of the political miracles of the twentieth century. And yet it is also a country in turmoil and embodies certain practices and attitudes that are hardly worthy of praise. Its prime minister just resigned under criminal indictment for illegally taking money from an American Jewish businessman.

By its own standards, Israeli government corruption is extraordinary. It has the highest child poverty rate and the highest disparity between rich and poor of any democracy in the world. One out of every two Israeli Arab children and one out of every three Israeli Jewish children lives under the poverty line. In most ways it is a democracy (although an “ethnic” one that often discriminates between one ethnic group, the Jews, and all other citizens). Yet in matters of marriage, divorce, and conversion, it is not a democracy but a theocracy, ruled by the ultra-Orthodox Rabbinate whose members are appointed, not elected by the citizens of the state, and who are not under the normal jurisdiction of the Knesset or Supreme Court (on this, see the disturbing Israeli documentary Sentenced to Marriage).

It has been occupying another people’s land for over forty years (whatever one may think of the origin or present state of that occupation) and continues to build settlements despite America’s explicit and continued warnings not to. And we must remember that Israel was building settlements in the occupied areas of the West Bank and Gaza a full twenty years before the first Intifada, in 1986, as amply documented in Gershom Gorenberg’s Accidental Empire and Akiva Eldar and Idith Zertal’s Lords of the Land.

One could say that the Palestinians are to blame for the lion’s share of subverting their own legitimate rights of self-determination, having continuously undermined the peace process and making it more difficult for the left in Israel to gain legislative traction. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not; but this is beside the point. Why? Because neither Biden, Palin nor anyone else in their respective campaigns are falling over each other to pledge their love for the Palestinians. This is not to say there isn’t frustration, sometimes deep frustration, about Israel and its policies in the American government. But it is to say that whatever frustrations may exist, legislators and candidates cannot voice their disagreement with Israel in public.

So, what is this insatiable love of Israel about? Has anti-Semitism turned into a kind of disproportionate philo-Semitism? And is this love for Israel really philo-Semitism or something altogether more complex? Robert Freedman has a chapter in his fascinating recent book, Klezmer American: Jewishness, Ethnicity, Modernity, called “Anti-Semitism without Jews,” which is a study of the immensely popular Left Behind series by Timothy LeHay and Jerry Jenkins. Freedman argues that while the Left Behind series is ostensibly philo-Semitic (citing Melanie McAlister, Freedman calls it a kind of “Christian Zionism”) it retains old Christian anti-Semitic structures that are simply turned toward a new enemy (some of whom remain Jews). He writes:

But this is not to say the text is free of anti-Semitic topoi [conventional themes]; indeed to the contrary. Jewish stereotypes of almost startling crudeness recur throughout the text, sometimes attached to Jews, but more often, and more interestingly, floating free of them.

In these books, the Jews that play their role as practicing—that is, Orthodox—Jews and those who support right-wing policies in Israel (secular or religious) may be saved in the rapture as Jews. The fact that they needn’t convert to bring the rapture distinguishes Left Behind from standard Christian rapture theology. Freedman writes:

The implications for Jews across the board are clear. Insofar as they represent the forces of secularism—the forces associated with the likes of Freud and Marx, much less comedians—they are pawns of the devil; only when they are called back to their messianic destiny can their ‘native’ intelligence help enfold them in the ranks of the redeemed.

In the early twentieth century it was a common trope that Jews were disproportionately responsible for bringing atheism and secularism to Christian American shores via communism, socialism, and psychoanalysis. We don’t know whether Sarah Palin reads the Left Behind books, and if she does what she thinks of them; but I am quite sure Joe Biden, Barack Obama, and John McCain do not agree with LeHaye and Jenkins’s worldview. And yet, one can’t help thinking that this series and its tens of millions of readers have in some way helped construct the notion, all too common in America today, that the Jews have the exclusive right to the Holy Land; a position that, while not US policy, seems to resonate in the collective consciousness of a portion of the American electorate.

My point is only to suggest that just as America’s history with its Jews is a complicated story, the history of its love for Israel is no less complicated—perhaps even more so. It is true that Jews have a disproportionate influence in American society. They constitute 2% of the population and 10% of the US Senate. It is true that Jews have strongly—and disproportionately—influenced cultural identity in America. The British Jew Israel Zangwill wrote the The Melting Pot Drama in Four Acts, adopted by Teddy Roosevelt as his American theory of cultural integration in the second decade of the twentieth century. Horace Kallen, a Jewish cultural theorist, was the architect of “cultural pluralism,” which followed the melting pot. Will Herberg, Jewish communist turned traditionalist, wrote the influential Protestant—Catholic—Jew in 1955 advocating the influential “triple melting pot” theory of American society and the Jewish sociologist Nathan Glazer, writing with Daniel Moynihan, gave us one form of multiculturalism in their Beyond the Melting Pot in 1963 (and more recently, We Are All Multiculturalists Now, 1997).

And while it is true that America (rightfully) feels collective guilt about a Holocaust they could have curtailed, if not averted (a strong commitment against a “second Holocaust” was espoused by Biden and Palin, followed by Obama and McCain a week later) it is still somewhat remarkable that the United States built a Holocaust Museum, commemorating a European (not American) genocide, on the Washington Mall, a space exclusive to seminal events or persons in American history. While there is a museum commemorating the genocide (albeit not exclusively about the genocide) of Native Americans on the Mall called The National Museum of the American Indian, the museum of American slavery (The United States National Slavery Museum) is located elsewhere, in Fredricksburg, Virginia. While I celebrate America’s decision to build a Holocaust Museum, I wonder what the choice of that exclusive, almost sacred, real estate implies and how that may cohere with what I call America’s obsession with Israel.

So is this American pledge of allegiance to Israel about the eschatological rapture, Holocaust guilt, or something else entirely? I suggest that it borders on an obsession that is structurally similar to historic anti-Semitism. By this I mean that either depicting the Jews as the devilish scapegoat for all societal ills or this new expression of seemingly unreflective love both present Israel (or the Jews) in an exceptional and, perhaps, unreasonable light. The structure of a double standard, whether to demonize one group or overly favor them, plays into old stereotypes of the “Jew” as other; in one case pariah, in another, charmed hero.

The demonization of the Jew in Nazi Germany became such an obsession of Hitler’s that he was willing to undermine his own war effort, and cause the demise of his empire, to continue the Final Solution. This is a common symptom of obsession as we can see, for example, in films such as Fatal Attraction. So it is fair to ask whether America’s love affair with Israel can bring the United States to act against her own interests and, if so, what that means (for the U.S. and for Israel). This is part of the thesis of John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. While perhaps flawed in many of its details (for a critique, see Stephen Zunes’ article “The Israel Lobby: How Powerful is it Really?”), this book asks a fair and valid question. The assumption has always been that Israel’s interests and America’s were parallel—inspiring Supreme Court Justice and Zionist Louis Brandeis to say that being a Zionist was being a good American—and to a great extent this has been the case.

Still, when dealing with two autonomous and sovereign states this rule cannot be ironclad. The Israel Lobby attempts to show the ways in which Israel’s and America’s interests do not always coincide and to then argue how the United States, influenced by the Israel lobby, has acted against those interests in its support of Israel. Whether this is true in practice or not is not the point here. My point is simply to suggest that the United States has often acted as if these interests were identical (and groups like AIPAC lobby the administration to think that way), resulting in behavior which shows signs of a kind of obsession that structurally replicates older models of the exceptional status of Jews.

And here I come to the golden calf. In the Bible, the Israelites worshiped the golden calf after fearing that Moses was not coming down the mountain with God’s word. They knew, one can assume, that worshiping this calf was wrong (tradition tells us the calf was worshiped in Egypt, a people who’d just perished by God’s hand at the Red Sea). Yet they did it anyway, even against their own interests, even when they knew they could not conceal their behavior from the God who’d just parted the sea and saved them from certain annihilation. But Israel was obsessed—obsessed with a God they could call their own, and more to the point, obsessed with Moses. Israel’s obsession with Moses is a complex story. On the one hand, he liberated them and thus they had a strong attachment to him. Yet he was, to them, an Egyptian (even if he was really a Hebrew) raised in the house of Pharaoh, only discovering his “Hebrew” identity by accident when he witnessed the Egyptian taskmaster beating the Hebrew slave. In short, they did not completely trust him as is evident in the numerous times they blame him for taking them out to die in the wilderness.

Basing his theory on nineteenth-century biblical scholarship, Freud even suggested that the Israelites killed Moses the liberator and appointed another Moses in his stead (see Freud’s Moses and Monotheism or, more recently, the more scholarly rendition by Jan Assman, Moses the Egyptian). Be that as it may, scriptural verses can quite easily be read to suggest that Israel had what we might call an obsession with Moses, which can be illustrated in one rabbinic midrash that the Israelites called the golden calf “Moses.” So, if the Moses who ascended the mountain did not return, they would make one themselves; even as that very act disqualified them from what they really wanted and were promised in the first place, which it did (they wandered for forty years in the desert so the generation that made the golden calf would die and not enter the land). Obsession does not usually produce good gods—or good policy, for that matter.

For many centuries, perhaps beginning with Augustine’s post-triumphalist Christianity, Christendom was obsessed with the Jews (or, “The Jewish Question”). That obsession led them, among other things, to construct the Jew as Christ-killer, anti-Christ and a pariah people. America (along with much of the Christian West) has thankfully righted that wrong even as they have yet to cure their obsession. In some way America seems to have retained the structure of the old negative stereotype despite, or precisely due to, their pledge of uncritical support for Israel.

Has Israel become America’s golden calf, worshiped as if it were something other than it is? It is an important ally and a democracy in the Middle East, but also a flawed country that at times deserves harsh criticism and not reflexive adoration. In other words, a “normal” country, as Theodore Herzl envisioned it over a century ago. Has the age-old obsession now emerged in an inverted form? Has the guilt of centuries of anti-Semitism and the Holocaust yielded the State of Israel as a golden calf that can do no wrong and must be supported at all costs, even as it acts in blatant contradiction to American policy and interests? Is this “normal” or obsessive? This is not only terrible for the United States, but arguably also terrible for Israel, a country trapped in a seemingly intractable situation with the Palestinians, partially of its own making, with growing dissent in its settler society and its Arab citizenry. In some way this raises the larger question as to how much America has freed itself from its Christian anti-Jewish roots. Making Israel its golden calf may simply be an inversion of that age-old animus. I am glad I am no longer one of a people America sees as the anti-Christ. But I don’t want to be a golden calf, either.