Saturday, June 05, 2010

Sully on the "Israel Derangement Syndrome"

I'd missed this piece about how Israel is thought of in the United States, but it's also worth linking to and quoting. First, he gets into the religious right:

for much of the Republican right, Israel simply isn't a foreign country at all. For many Christianists, it is part of a civilizational war of Judeo-Christianity (an obvious oxymoron) against Islam. Not Islamism, Islam. Ever wonder why Sarah Palin, the next GOP nominee, wore a twinned Israeli-American flag lapel for an address to the Tea Party convention? Ever wonder why every rule we normally apply to foreign countries is automatically suspended when it comes to Israel?
This is undeniably true. If anything, it's understated: I suspect that the most important book for American foreign policy these days is not anything Morgenthau wrote, but Left Behind. Millennialism has more impact than we give it credit for.

But then he gets into the sensitive issue of Jewish Americans and their relationship with Israel:

The other dimension is the deep and understandable commitment of many American Jews, particularly of the older generation, to Israel, right or wrong. You listen to Anthony Weiner, for example, a left-liberal Democratic firebrand on almost every issue, suddenly becoming an uber-neoconservative in foreign policy in one area, and one area alone: Israel. The idea of a Jewish congressman actually taking Israel's policies on is close to absurd. Name one. This is not a conspiracy. It is a mindset.

I grabbed some food the other night with a longtime Jewish friend. We had an honest conversation - the kind you cannot have on US television. He's a big liberal but strongly sided with Israel in this latest incident. Why? "They're my people." But you're an American, I countered, you're not an Israeli, let alone a supporter of Netanyahu. None of that mattered to him. His attachment to Israel was indistinguishable from his attachment to America, and, if push came to shove, Israel came first, right or wrong. This had been dinned into him since childhood. His iPhone was deluged with texts from relatives and friends all appalled by any criticism of the commando attack, and immediately seeing it as anti-Semitic or designed to end the state of Israel for ever.

To charge dual loyalty is described as a blood libel, a vile anti-Semitic charge, and it often is. But my friend was very frank about it and unapologetic. That's just the way it is, he said.
This is a disturbing topic for me. I have no tolerance for this idea that "the jews did x", or "the jews feel y". Even in this time where Israeli public opinion is slamming rightward, there are still a LOT of Israelis who not only despise the IDF's actions aboard the flotilla, but are protesting against it.  And as Peter Beinart pointed out, claiming ubiquity of opinion among American Jews these days is even more wrongheaded, since a division is growing between younger liberal Jewish-Americans who have had enough of this tribalist cant, and their older counterparts who, in Beinart's opinion, "check their liberalism at Zionism’s door." (And the conservatives who only cheer Israel on.)

Yet I do think that Sullivan has a point. Culture does not impose ubiquity and does not justify stereotyping or collective punishment, but it can have an effect. 

Sullivan goes on to discuss the Shoah and its effects; I'll pick up afterwards.

But the fanaticism and emotionalism that many Jewish Americans have with respect to Israel is so intense that, for some, it overwhelms rationality, and makes a cool strategic analysis of America's national interest close to impossible. Their total identification with Israel is often emotionally as strong, if not stronger, as their identification with America.

And this tragically means that an honest disagreement with Israel's policies is sometimes taken as a breach of friendship, a profound personal betrayal, rather than a moral and political judgment about the actions of a foreign country. It means that the head of the Mossad can be more rational in his assessment of US national interest than Joe Biden. You reach a brick wall in this. And we might as well admit it.

It has pained me enormously to have obviously hurt my countless Jewish friends and colleagues because I cannot support, morally or strategically, the actions of Israel these past two years, and especially its virulent disdain for the new American president who represented, it seems to me, the best chance for Israel in decades. I realize that the difference is that while I admire and support Israel, I do not identify with it. For me, it is a foreign country and an ally. To them it is something far more profound and indelible. So when I attack Israel's policies, it feels as if I am attacking them. I really am not. But I cannot erase how they feel; and I understand why they feel it.
A lot of this is about identification. The people and places and things you identify with have a profound impact on what sorts of arguments you are going to find acceptable.  I don't necessarily agree that "their identification with Israel is stronger than their identification with America"; I think many of Israel's American advocates see no difference whatsoever. Israel and America are two sides of the same coin; two "shining cities on the hill" in a world of darkness.  They aren't just allies, but friends and brothers.  To benefit Israel IS to benefit America, and the rest of the world can go hang. (As we've seen here.)

That's how any conflicts or "libels" can be resolved: you don't have "divided" loyalties. You have one loyalty: to "Israel-America."

(This is, by the way, not to say that Israel dictates American foreign policy or domestic policy or any of that nonsense.  It's just about identification.)

Sully goes on again, discussing his own situation:

Tribalism, of course, is universal. It is by no means the exclusive property of Jewish Americans. Irish-Americans retain a similar knee-jerk alliance with entities that plenty of people in Ireland find repugnant - just as Israelis are far more candid in their debates than Americans are. Trust me, in my own family, I know the nature of this kind of identification and the righteousness of it in many instances.
People these days tend to forget the "Troubles", and what it meant to Irish-Americans. A lot of the accusations that are levelled at Jewish-Americans today about "divided loyalties" and an over-focus on what was going on in the Home Country were far more accurate when it came to Irish-Americans. Without Irish-American fundraising, for example, the various armed groups and militias (and, yes, terrorist orgs) that fought in Northern Ireland would have closed up shop long, long before that conflict ended.  People were openly supportive of the IRA and its various militant offshoots—and let us not forget, that was a religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants.
That's something that a lot of Jewish-Americans who lose their minds at the accusation of over-identification with Israel seem to forget. While the Holocaust was a unique evil, and the plight of the Jews during their years without a homeland was tragic, this sense of nationalist identification isn't unique at all. It happens with Turks and Irishmen, Indians and Chinese, Serbs and Lebanese, Greeks and Colombians, Cubans and Bosnians. It happens with EVERYBODY

It's not special. It's common. Boringly, dully common.

Go read the whole piece. It's excellent, even if I disagree with a lot of it. There's an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald, for example, that I didn't cover but is worth checking out. I still have no idea what's happened to Sully, but I won't complain.

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