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The Triangle Connecting the U.S., Israel, and American Jewry May Be Coming Apart

For decades, shared interests kept all three players in a mutually beneficial relationship, but its end might not be such a bad thing

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(Illustration Tablet Magazine)
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With no Cold War, however, is Israel still a strategic asset to the United States? Just look around at the spate of post-1991 “greater” Middle Eastern “episodes”—Iraq, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya, Syria, Egypt and, prospectively, Iran. In which of these cases could Israel be aptly characterized on balance as a useful ally of the United States? It is true that Israel helps out in several general ways—intelligence sharing, joint maneuvers, weapons and tactics testing, porting—but in crises it is reduced to bystander status for the most part. In most of the episodes listed above Israel has been either irrelevant or somewhere between a complication and an inadvertent nuisance.

The general lack of fit between American interests in the region and Israel’s utility as an ally in the post-Cold War era helps explain why we hear so many general remonstrations about a shared interest in democracy and in fighting terrorism and countering the proliferation of nuclear and chemical weapons, especially Iranian ones. It all happens to be true, but it only needs to be articulated so publicly and so often because the opportunities for actionable strategic alignment where it counts most—at specific sparking points of geopolitical engagement—are so meager.

This also accounts for the traction the “Israel lobby” thesis has gotten recently. The argument is not remotely new. The same arguments Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer hauled out in 2008 had been rehearsed many times before, including by George Ball, one of the most prominent American diplomats of the postwar era, in a 1992 book titled The Passionate Attachment. But none of the earlier efforts had much clout. More than a decade removed from the end of the Cold War, however, the most recent visitation of this old argument has had a tangible impact, not least in the bowels of the American military and intelligence communities. Again, whether one credits the arguments or not, the point is that they have gained traction for a reason: the tectonic shift of the strategic landscape with the end of the Cold War.

3➷1: U.S.-American Jewry

The decay of the first two sides of the triangle that constitutes the special relationship is no revelation. Honest observers know most or all of this to one degree or another. But the deterioration of the third side is less well understood or acknowledged. The relationship between American Jews—and through them Israel—and American society at large is also changing.

As with Harry Truman—and Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush after him—large numbers of Americans, from the very beginning of the European settlement of North America, came from a branch of Anglo-Protestant stock that made them sensitive to the narrative of Jewish election and the unique, divinely ordained role of the Jews in history. The Christian Zionism and generic Judeophilia of Anglo-American Protestantism is well documented. Indeed, it is not too much to say that the Christian Zionism advocated by Lord Shaftesbury, John Nelson Darby, Laurence Oliphant, William Eugene Blackstone, and many others preceded the advent of modern Jewish Zionism. We see a reflection of this thinking today, of course, in the American Evangelical community.

There has been anti-Semitism in America’s past, to be sure, but there has been less of it than in any other Euro-Christian-based culture. And when it was at its most virulent in the post-mass immigration period of the 1920s and 1930s, its most notable vanguard was no Protestant but rather the Irish Catholic priest Father Coughlin. To one degree or another, all of David Hackett Fisher’s hearth cultures, so brilliantly laid out in his Albion’s Seed, were Judeophilic—and that habit of the heart also came down in large part to black Americans through the African-Methodist and other churches.

This cultural inheritance goes far to explain the affinity of most Americans today with Israel. Ironically enough, intermarriage constitutes a new factor pointed in the same direction, as ever more non-Jews acquire Jewish relatives and, accurately or not, presume their attachment to Israel. It also explains why politicians are reluctant to take anti-Israel positions: They are not just covetous of Jewish support; they know that there are far more Christian voters with strong feelings on the subject than there are Jews.

But this, too, is gradually but ineluctably changing. Just as the affinity between Jews and typical Americans will decline as American Jewry’s public face becomes more religious, so that affinity will lessen from the other direction as American society becomes less Anglo, less avowedly religious, and especially less Protestant. Both non-Christians and non-Protestant Christians lack traditions of Judeophilia comparable to that of most Protestants, whose Abrahamic, Scripturalist focus makes them more familiar with the Hebrew Bible and more sympathetic with the rhythms and lessons of Jewish history. The percentage of Americans who identify as Protestants fell from 53 percent in 2007 to 48 percent in 2012; sometime during those years the majority of Americans ceased being Protestant for the first time since the birth of the Republic. Given immigration statistics and birthrates, that trend will not only not be reversed, it will accelerate.

The data show too that the United States as a whole is fast approaching the point where non-“white” minorities will collectively outnumber “whites,” as is already the case in some states and in many large cities and counties. Political consultants for both major parties are keenly aware of these trends, of course, and are plotting strategies accordingly. It may not be fair or justifiable, but a lot of minority people think that Jews are “white” but Palestinians and Arabs are “people of color.” The latter are also depicted frequently as oppressed and downtrodden at the hands of “white” Jews in Israel and “white” imperialists elsewhere. As American demography shifts away from “white” Protestants, the narrative of American electoral politics with regard to the Middle East is certain to reflect that change.

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The Triangle Connecting the U.S., Israel, and American Jewry May Be Coming Apart

For decades, shared interests kept all three players in a mutually beneficial relationship, but its end might not be such a bad thing