Israel and Her Critics

American and Israeli flags outside the U.S Embassy in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Amir Cohen/Reuters)
Mythologies Without End, by Jerome Slater (Oxford University Press, 512 pp., $29.95)

Perhaps no aspect of American foreign policy generates more heat and less light than its relationship with Israel. Even before its founding, the idea of the Jewish state excited the fondest hopes and engendered the bitterest hatreds in the United States and across the Western world. Admiration for and consternation about Israel animates not only schools and synagogues but also the White House and the ivory tower. It warps even the keenest minds and often reduces analysis of the relationship to sound and fury.

In Mythologies Without End, Jerome Slater tries to cut through the detritus of legends and exaggerations accumulated over the past 70 years to elucidate a fuller understanding of Israel’s international relationships. Although this book is not a general history, it delivers great insights into the segments of American and Israeli society that have soured on the Zionist project.

Slater, who previously taught at the University of Buffalo and was a Fulbright lecturer at Haifa University, begins by warning that Israel “is well along the road to both a moral and security disaster.” Only by accepting “historical truth” can it “save itself as an enlightened democracy, and perhaps even literally save itself from an attack by fanatical Arab terrorists,” should they ever acquire weapons of mass destruction. Leaning heavily on segments of the Israeli Left for his sourcing — particularly scholars from the “new history” school and journalists from Haaretz — Slater argues that “Israel has not merely missed but sometimes even deliberately sabotaged repeated opportunities for peace with the Arab states and the Palestinians.”

This claim will astound many readers, but it is important to understand Slater’s premises to see how he arrives at his conclusions, which are endorsed by small but vocal minorities in the United States and Israel. After serving in the U.S. Navy as a young man, he volunteered to join the Israeli navy and fend off the submarines Egypt had purchased from the Soviet Union. His offer was not accepted, and after the 1967 war he became disenchanted with Israel. Because of his Jewish heritage, he sees the Israelis as “in some sense, my people.”

His biography illustrates a larger trend in American politics. For the first two decades of its existence, Israel had more friends on the American left than on the right. Presidents Woodrow Wilson and Franklin D. Roosevelt supported the Balfour Declaration and liberal icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Reverend Martin Luther King were among the most ardent Zionists in the U.S. Even Hollywood stars such as Frank Sinatra gave Israel two enthusiastic thumbs-up. American mainline Protestants roared in approval for Zionism when American Jews and Evangelicals offered more tepid cheers. Since the Six-Day War, these roles have reversed: As Slater points out, Evangelicals (82 percent) are much more likely than American Jews (40 percent) to believe that God gave the land of Israel to the Jewish people, and far more Republicans (73 percent) support Israel than Democrats (44 percent).

Although he has lost his earlier enthusiasm for Israel, Slater’s liberal sensibilities remain unaltered. As he sees it, a true accounting of the Arab–Israeli history reveals which country or people has the superior moral claim to this or that piece of territory, and the U.S. should support the most righteous claimant in each circumstance. This attitude has long influenced American foreign policy: American fury at Russian anti-Semitism soured relations between Washington and St. Petersburg in the late 19th century, and the horror provoked by Spanish counterinsurgency tactics in Cuba drove the U.S. to war in 1898.

This well-tread path does not always lead to good analysis, however. During World War I, American missionaries living among the Armenians pleaded for aid as their congregants were slaughtered, but the U.S. government chose to not declare war against the Ottoman Empire, thinking it was better to preserve the missionaries’ ability to distribute aid than for American troops to arrive too late to stop the genocide. In other words, even if his characterization of the past is accurate, breaking out the abacus for some good old moral accounting does not necessarily make for good policy.

In some places, Slater offers correctives to hoary old tales that confuse observers of the Arab–Israeli conflict. For example, he shows that although the senior Palestinian leadership allied with Adolf Hitler, in 1948 many ordinary Palestinians tried to arrange local cease-fires to stay out of the war, that the Arab world is not united in implacable hostility to Israel, and that some countries — particularly Jordan —have come to Jerusalem for help against their Arab neighbors. He also recognizes that “the Israel lobby” has much less power than many of its critics allege and that pro-Israel organizations such as AIPAC succeed because their cause is so popular rather than because of shadowy backroom dealings.

Elsewhere, Slater’s zeal to debunk could lead uninformed readers astray. In the chapter on Israel’s founding, he argues that the Arab countries, despite their genocidal rhetoric, were more eager to prevent Arab rivals from acquiring Israeli territory than to make the Holy Land Judenrein. He is not wrong about their priorities, but he fails to realize that the Egyptians and Syrians could have preferred their slice of territory empty of both Jordanians and Jews. He also neglects to inform the reader that American and British assessments at the time concluded that the Jews could not win a war against their neighbors. Even if the Arab armies did not pose a serious threat to Israel, as he claims, few believed that at the time. He also sometimes claims that certain views are widely believed when his sources only show that they are popular on the left.

A well-intentioned desire to unearth lost opportunities for compromise and peace leads to other analytical errors. As a thought experiment, Slater endeavors to find viable alternatives to the fighting that forced many Palestinians out of their homes. He argues that, if offered enough money, many of the Palestinians would have left the new state of Israel, and that the remainder could have been ejected without sparking a war as long as it had been done “with as little coercion as possible” and accompanied by a public apology. There is little reason to believe that this policy would have worked; before independence, Jewish settlers acquired land by purchasing it from landowners, but they nonetheless engendered resentment. Confiscation, even with some compensation, is more inflammatory than voluntary exchange, so this policy would have enraged the remaining Arabs within Israel’s borders. Moreover, since the Arab states invaded to acquire territory and not out of concern for the Palestinians, the purchases would not have removed the motivation to attack, and the expulsions would have still left them with sufficient pretense to do so. Later in the book, he confuses Hamas’s and Hezbollah’s willingness to enforce cease-fires with an “evolution” toward peaceful coexistence with Israel.

As one might expect, Slater faults the United States for its “nearly unconditional support” for Israel. This position is held by many who have worked on Arab–Israeli “peace process,” and who concur that “the solution is obvious” and believe that Israel would already be integrated into the region were it not for the intervention of foolish Americans. Unfortunately, the most recent diplomatic breakthrough occurred after his book went to print, but Salter presciently identifies the dynamics in the Middle East that are driving a rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf States. This reviewer hopes that subsequent editions of the book will analyze the Trump administration’s success, particularly since it upended so much of the conventional wisdom about Arab–Israeli relations.

Mythologies Without End provides an excellent overview of the attitudes common among Israel skeptics. Although Israel has plenty of adversaries who are motivated by anti-Semitism, many Americans and Israelis of good faith criticize the Jewish state not because of the country’s national composition, but because of how they perceive its actions. Although many will disagree with Slater, his book helpfully encapsulates some of these perceptions. Israel’s supporters who read it will better understand these critics and can have more fruitful conversations with them about the United States and Israel.

Mike Watson is the associate director of the Center for the Future of Liberal Society at the Hudson Institute.