World

America’s Other ‘Special Relationship’ Remains Worth Preserving

American and Israeli flags outside the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
There is no convincing argument that the destabilized Israel sought by the Ilhan Omars and Rashida Tlaibs of the world would serve U.S. interests.

Clifford May tells this story about George Schultz sending off newly confirmed ambassadors as secretary of state: “He would show them a very large globe. And he would spin the globe, and he would say, ‘Show me your country.’ And with great pride, they’d point out Brunei or Equatorial Guinea or some place in Latin America. And he would invariably shake his head and say, ‘No, that’s not your country. Your country is the United States of America. You should never, ever forget that.’”

America First!” is the slogan of the day, and not only on the right, though populist Democrats generally prefer a slightly different rhetorical formulation. (Barack Obama called for “nation-building here at home” and complained about “free riders” abroad, and even tried to rehabilitate Theodore Roosevelt’s “New Nationalism.” To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to.) One might be forgiven for wondering how seriously people take that slogan: Democrats do not act as though, e.g., our immigration policies should be shaped according to the interests of the American people; Republicans’ “America First!” proclamations often end up meaning “Boeing First!” or “Nucor First!” But we all, it is supposed, know which one is our country.

Of course, Representative Ilhan Omar (D., Minn.) doesn’t believe that. She has argued in the past that American Jews suffer from divided loyalties vis-à-vis Israel, an ancient anti-Semitic libel that should be obvious enough to Representative Omar, who no doubt is aware that certain knuckle-dragging elements in our national life believe roughly the same thing about Muslims, that they can never really be good citizens and good Muslims both.

Israel is the other special relationship. The original “special relationship,” the one we have with the United Kingdom, has received some attention from President Donald Trump and his administration, partly because Trump believes he sees his watery reflection in the Brexit movement, which is at least a little bit true. (Who, then, is the Nigel Farage of U.S. politics? Steve King, maybe?) But Israel is much more on the political map.

Why?

U.S. interest in the Middle East was rekindled after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Israel’s liberalism and democracy were shown in starkest contrast to the savagery of those attacks and the savagery of those around the Muslim world who endorsed and celebrated them. Israel’s social and economic success story is, cynically seen, a great big raised middle finger to the backward and stagnant quarters that incubated and harbored the likes of Osama bin Laden.

And much has been made of the American Right’s religious interest in Israel — perhaps too much. There are American Christians who take a proprietary interest in the Jewish state for religious reasons, including apocalyptic ones. But that tendency is overstated in the public mind. And the old Moral Majority’s style of Evangelical assertiveness is at a low ebb, with neither conservative Protestants nor Reaganite Catholics looming quite so large in Republican and right-wing politics as they once did. This has to do mainly with conservatives’ winning the Cold War and losing the Sexual Revolution. Win some, lose some. The hot Bible-based politics of the moment is explaining President Trump as an avatar of King Cyrus, the ungodly pagan who was divinely anointed in spite of his infidelity. There’s at least as much motivated reasoning in theology as in the law.

But the American Left takes an intense interest in Israel as well: The Left hates Israel, and many of its leading lights wish to see the Jewish state as such liquidated. Representative Omar is hardly alone in that, nor are anti-Israel invective or outright anti-Semitism ever more than an arm’s length from the Democratic mainstream. No less a figure than Barack Obama has felt himself obliged to bend the knee just a little to Louis Farrakhan. As my colleague David French notes, the group that had planned to host Representative Omar and Representative Rashida Tlaib on a trip to Israel not only is knee-deep in the boycott-Israel campaign but also has published Jew-hating propaganda written by avowed neo-Nazis.

Writing in the New York Times, Tom Friedman has, as he often has, a funny way of looking at this. President Trump cannot proclaim his love of Israel and the Israeli people often enough or loudly enough. (His trusted son-in-law and his beloved daughter are, it is worth remembering, Orthodox Jews.) But Friedman sees only darkness in this: “Trump’s way of — and motivation for — expressing his affection for Israel is guided by his political desire to improve his re-election chances by depicting the entire Republican Party as pro-Israel and the entire Democratic Party as anti-Israel.” Well. Imagine going back in time to the 1930s and explaining to a refugee: “At some point in the future, the American president will kiss up to an independent, self-governing Jewish state, but only because it’s good politics!” Glory be.

Friedman is not 100 percent wrong in his argument here — and he is about 80 percent wrong, on average. It may not be that the entire Republican party is pro-Israel, but the GOP is overwhelmingly pro-Israel, and has been with and without Benjamin Netanyahu in office. And it is not the case that the entire Democratic party is anti-Israel, though it unquestionably is the case that the ascendant left wing of the Democratic party is anti-Israel. Representative Omar is bitterly anti-Israel, to the point of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes. Representative Tlaib is anti-Israel. A whole lot of Democrats who support the BDS movement are anti-Israel.

The Right’s celebratory interest in Israel is easy to understand, even if you think some of it is a little dopey. But why is the Left so intensely interested in Israel? Of course, there are things to criticize about Israel and its government. But it is by any measure of decency and liberalism a top-tier country. I am not aware of a boycott movement directed at, say, Pakistan. Or Turkey. Or Egypt. Or Venezuela. Or Russia. Or Burma. Or China. Or the Palestinian statelet, for that matter.

(I once was accosted by one of those clipboard-wielding cretins in Union Square who wanted me to sign on to boycotting Israel on behalf of the Palestinians. I told him I planned to start boycotting the Palestinians as soon as they managed to produce something worth boycotting.)

There are many countries in the world that merit criticism. Why is the American Left fixated on the Jewish state? Belgium can be pretty rough on refugees. Have you ever heard an American progressive collapse into a weeping fit about Belgium? Israel, though . . .

And, really, are Thomas Friedman et al. quite confident that it is Donald Trump and not, say, the people looking to economically ruin Israel as a pet political project, making the U.S.-Israeli relationship a partisan issue? It is easy to see an argument that a thriving Israel accords with U.S. interests abroad. Is there an argument that a diminished and destabilized Israel — or an Israel consumed in fire, as Representative Omar’s rambunctious little Hamas buddies would prefer — is in the interest of the United States?

If there is, I have not yet heard it.

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