Jonathan Rynhold’s The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture is a welcome and important scholarly corrective to what passes for serious commentary on how Americans see Israel.
Consider one specimen of that commentary. This May, Haaretz published a piece entitled “An Odyssey from Birthright to the BDS Movement.” Relying on an unspecified number of interviews she conducted, Naomi Darom features American Jews who, appalled by what they see on their trips to Israel, become activists in the boycott movement. Darom concedes that these are only “some” Jews, but we do not learn until we are 1300 words in that these Jews are a “very small minority,” that the interviewees that Darom leads with present a misleading picture of Birthright trips, and that the trips are quite effective at strengthening attachment to and support for Israel. Indeed, Rynhold considers the “massive increase in travel to Israel among the non-Orthodox” one reason to think that young Americans are unlikely to distance themselves from Israel.
Such is the character of much of the coverage of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. The weakening of that relationship is a more click-worthy story than its enduring strength. Moreover, highlighting any sign of such a weakening can serve a political purpose. For those, like Peter Beinart, who think the U.S. should pressure Israel to leave the West Bank, every poll that suggests that Americans are growing less supportive of Israel is a reason to ratchet up that pressure, for Israel’s own good. That argument entails highlighting polls like Gallup’s from last July, in which only 25% of young U.S. respondents thought Israel’s actions in Gaza justified, compared to 51% who thought them unjustified. It also entails ignoring polls, like Gallup’s from this February, that show that young respondents have grown more partial to Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than they were in 2005, the year the relentless Israeli Apartheid Week campaign began on U.S. college campuses.
In other words, coverage of the U.S.-Israel relationship tends to exaggerate signs of its weakness, both because Americans turning against Israel makes a sensational headline and because discussions of what Americans think about Israel are nearly as politicized as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself.
In this context, Rynhold, director of the Argov Center for the Study of Israel and the Jewish People in the political studies department of Bar Ilan University undertakes a “new and comprehensive analysis” of “American attitudes to Israel and the Middle East.”
A proper study of those attitudes, Rynhold argues, takes us beyond superficial arguments concerning the Israel lobby, or realism, or the policies of the Israeli right, into the study of “political culture,” the “set of attitudes, beliefs, and sentiments” that undergird our politics and help explain political behavior. An evangelical committed to a united Jerusalem and a Presbyterian not so committed differ not only or primarily about policy but also about how one should understand and feel about the present order broadly conceived.
From the study of American political culture, we learn that “American sympathy for Zionism is widespread, long-standing, and deeply rooted.” The “historical legacy of Puritan Protestantism,” including its emphasis on the Hebrew Bible, bequeathed to Americans a sympathetic interest in the connection between Jews and the Holy Land. The study of Hebrew was a “core subject in the early American universities.” Ezra Stiles, “president of Yale from 1778 to 1795, delivered his commencement greeting in Hebrew.” Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson initially considered as part of a proposed design for the U.S. Seal a depiction of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. That Franklin (no Puritan, he!), saw fit to compare the American story to the story of the Israelites, shows how the sympathetic interest of Americans in the story of Israel breaks free of its Puritan origins. That this interest long predates the rise of Zionism, much less the rise of the Israel lobby, and is connected to Protestantism broadly speaking, rather than a specific apocalyptic theology, shows how shallow, albeit not wholly groundless, some of the leading explanations for American support for Israel are.
In addition to the legacy of Puritanism, Israel’s status as an exemplar of the liberal democratic American creed helps explain the extent to which Americans support Israel. Americans have seen Zionism not only “as a particular example of the universal right of nations to self-determination” and as a democratic force in the Middle East, but also as a reflection of its own best self, as a nation of immigrants fleeing persecution ,and as a nation of pioneers. Rynhold reminds us of Ronald Reagan’s line, “There is no nation like us, except Israel,” and of Eleanor Roosevelt’s statement that entering Israel was “like breathing the air of the United States again.”
Rynhold underscores and extends our understanding of the kinship between Israel and the United States in his first chapter, which compares American to European attitudes toward Israel. America is more religious, more Protestant, and more uniformly attached to liberal democracy than Europe. But its sympathy with Israel extends into other areas as well. For example, Americans are more patriotic and willing to countenance the use of military force than Western Europeans are. In 2011, according to the Transatlantic Trends survey, 74% of American agreed that “under some conditions, war is necessary to obtain justice.” Stunningly, but consistent with data going back to 2003, only 35% of Europeans were prepared to say the same. Similarly, a 2014 Gallup survey found only 25% of Western Europeans willing to fight for their country, compared to a surprisingly low but much larger percentage of Americans, 44%. Europeans are also much more likely, according to Anti-Defamation League surveys, much more likely than Americans to say that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust. In short, although, as we’ll see, Americans differ about Israel, even the least sympathetic groups—liberals, the young, the religiously unaffiliated—are much more sympathetic to Israel than are most Europeans.
Of course, Israel does not always remind Americans of their nation’s best self, which is one reason that “Americans are increasingly divided about the Arab-Israeli conflict.” When we consider that the percentage of Americans who sympathize more with the Israelis than with the Palestinians remains near its all-time high, bolstered by the post 9/11 sense that America and Israel have common enemies, it looks as if the bond between America and Israel could not be stronger. But when we consider the extent to which Israel has been a partisan issue in the recent past, the debate over Iran being only the most recent example, it looks as if the bond is fragile. Rynhold calls this the “Israel paradox.” In six remaining chapters, he discusses three tensions in American attitudes toward Israel and the Middle East: between Democrats and Republicans, between evangelical and mainline Protestants and, of course, between Jews and Jews. For each of these tensions, Rynhold examines the “demographic and political makeup” of the relevant groups, their attitudes toward Israel and Israel-related policy issues, the “historical and cultural foundations” of those attitudes, and their more recent history, “from the early 1990s until approximately 2010.” The overall effect of this approach is to broaden and deepen our knowledge of territory typically explored in haste.
The historical perspective Rynhold provides is especially valuable. Let one example suffice. Last year, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was in the news for voting to divest from Israel. Among the questions in the air at the time were these: “what exactly is the nature of mainline hostility toward Israel? Does it reflect widespread feeling within the mainline, or is it driven by a small but politically active group of Far Left extremists? Is that hostility primarily a function of changes in the Middle East since 1967, especially changes in Israeli policy? . . . . [Or] is this hostility of more longstanding and fundamental nature?” Rynhold acquaints us with the long history of anti-Zionism in mainline Protestantism, predating the establishment of Israel and going back to missionary work beginning in the nineteenth century. Many “American missionaries in the Middle East and their descendants became active supporters of Arab nationalism.” Mainline clergy had, at first, traditional anti-Jewish theology to draw on, the idea that the Jews have been rejected by God for rejecting Jesus. In the flagship mainline publication, the Christian Century, a 1933 editorial links that view to anti-Zionism by claiming that not all Jews, but only Jewish nationalists were responsible for killing Christ, who “was crucified because he had a program for Israel which ran counter to the cherished nationalism of Israel’s leaders.”
Later, mainline clergy would draw on liberation theology, according to which Christians are called to free peoples “victimized by colonialism, imperialism, and multinational corporations.” Together, these influences help explain the breathtaking hostility of many mainline clergy toward Israel, a hostility so singular in its focus that it cannot be altogether disentangled from anti-Semitism. Long before 1967, the ground was prepared for Henry van Dusen’s breathtaking assertion that Israel’s actions in the Six Day War constituted “the most violent, ruthless (and successful) aggression since Hitler’s blitzkrieg across Western Europe in the summer of 1940, aiming not at victory but at annihilation.” Van Dusen, no fringe figure, was a former president of Union Theological Seminary. Similarly the ground was already prepared for the Christian Century to hand much of its Israel coverage in the early 21st century to James Wall, who would, after his retirement join the editorial board of the fringe conspiracy rag, Veteran News Now, known for its liberal use of anti-Semitic tropes. The Christian Century has to date refused to remove Wall from its masthead, where he is honored as a contributing editor. By the end of the chapter it is hard to imagine reasonable people entertaining the least doubt about the character of the mainline divestment movement or, as Rynhold also documents, its distance from the mainline rank and file, who are not much less supportive of Israel than average.
But Rynhold is on the whole optimistic about the future of U.S.-Israel relations. Mainline hostility to Israel is largely confined to the elite, and the mainline has been hemorrhaging members for some time. It can hardly compete with evangelical support for Israel, which takes in the rank and file, and is likely to be a force for a long time to come, since evangelical membership has held steady, even in the face of an overall weakening of religious affiliation in the U.S. That there is a deep split between Democrats and Republicans on Israel is undeniable, yet this split reflects more a rise in attachment to Israel among Republicans than a decline in support among Democrats.
Finally, It is undeniable that there is a “polarization” within the Jewish community” between those with a more intense sense of belonging to the Jewish people and greater Jewish communal involvement, and those with a weaker sense of belonging and a lesser degree of involvement.” Sometimes that “lesser degree of involvement” can go along with a deeply disturbing distance from Israel: in 2007, according to one survey “less than half of [non-Orthodox]Jews under the age of 35 felt that Israel’s destruction would be a personal tragedy.” Nonetheless, Rynhold argues that the “distancing trend among the non-Orthodox has been offset by the growth of Orthodoxy and by increased visits of . . . young American Jews to Israel.” Although young Jews are on the whole less attached to Israel than older Jews, this split between young and old has been present since the 1970s, and “the levels of attachment for each age cohort have remained stable.” In short, “overall, American Jews are not distancing themselves from Israel.”
Rynhold may be accused of excessive optimism. I am not confident that the growth of the Orthodox and of Israel trips can, in the long term, outrace the deep seated trends toward intermarriage and away from affiliation, both of which correlate with distancing from Israel. But Rynhold is not blind to the risks that the U.S. Israel relationship faces. The basis of the relationship is certainly strong: “the underlying cultural foundations of pro-Israel sentiment in America are so robust that the special relationship between Israel and the United States will remain virtually unbreakable.” But Rynhold knows the difference between feeling attached to Israel and supporting particular policies, and the way in which just what the American public and American administrations are prepared to support is sensitive to historical circumstances large (like September 11th) and small (like the appointment of Robert Gates as Secretary of Defense in 2006). Most importantly, Rynhold writes that although there are “significant domestic constraints on pressuring Israel at the moment, these constraints depend in large part on the still widespread, mainstream perception, since the collapse of the Oslo agreements, that the Palestinians are not trustworthy peace partners. It is not hard to imagine a perfect storm in which a Democratic administration, inclined toward an “evenhanded” approach to the conflict, finding itself at odds with an Israeli government that has put is commitment to a two state solution and its willingness to limit settlement expansion into question, and drawing support from that part of the organized Jewish community which thinks that the salvation of Israel depends on the defeat of Likud, could go some way toward diminishing American support for Israel.” Rynhold, who writes before Netanyahu’s speech to Congress and before his statements on the eve of the election, advises that “consensual support in America is more important than higher overall levels of support concentrated on one side of the political spectrum. In order to protect bipartisan support, Israel likely will be required to put forward policies that demonstrate its commitment to a two state solution.” Rynhold may need to prepare a new edition sooner than he’d planned.
Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is professor of politics at Ursinus College.