In recent years, numerous commentators have sought to explain the “special relationship” between Israel and America and the reasons for it. Some observers have pointed to the influence of American Jewry either in praise of its persistent vigilance in cementing ties between Washington and Jerusalem or in condemnation of those efforts. Others, particularly such scholars as Warren Bass and Steven Spiegel, assign American Jewry at best secondary influence and underscore instead presidential perceptions of American interests in the Middle East weighed against the backdrop of America’s global concerns.
Michelle Mart, a historian at Penn State University, adopts a novel approach to understanding the special relationship — a battle of “cultural narratives” within America that Israel won and the Arabs lost. In her view, an American culture in the aftermath of World War II that was truly inhospitable to antisemitism became wedded to a favorable view of Israel. Moreover, the context of the Cold War provided a global backdrop for the Arab-Israel conflict. Arabs were perceived as threatening Israel much as communists threatened Western countries. In both cases, forces of aggression confronted peace-loving democracies. Israeli halutzim, or pioneers, evoked images of America’s past and emphasis on individual self-fulfillment. By contrast, Arabs were demonized as “stupid,” “irrational” or “childlike.” (Mart acknowledges her debt to Edward Said of Columbia University, who rebuked Western scholars for their “Orientalist” perceptions that failed to empathize with Arabic or Islamic culture while assigning Israel the virtue of cultural superiority.)
Although Mart completed her research well before the terrorist attacks emanating from Gaza and Lebanon escalated into actual war, this book serves as an appropriate reminder of the significance of public opinion in the West for the Middle East conflict. As such, now is, unfortunately, a very appropriate time to consider this book and its assertions.
To prove her case, Mart mounts an impressive array of scholarly research that is informative in its own right. She focuses primarily on artifacts of popular culture — particularly films and novels. Regrettably, she ignores other sources, such as television, comic books or children’s literature, that might well have further illuminated her analysis. Perhaps most surprisingly, she documents how dear the cause of Israel became in the 1950s to America’s liberal intelligentsia, noting, for example, without irony, the steadfast support for Israel evidenced in The Nation magazine.
Yet her thesis itself is flawed both conceptually and in practice. First, the special relationship between Israel and the United States itself dates primarily from the 1960s and not, as Mart argues, from the 1950s. Israel’s primary friend in the 1950s was, ironically, France, which shared with Israel a common nemesis in Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. America became Israel’s primary diplomatic and strategic ally only in the aftermath of the 1967 Six Day War.
Moreover, one must ask to what extent state policy — of a great power, no less — is formulated on the basis of popular cultural conceptions. For example, she underscores the widespread perception of Israel in 1948 as a newborn baby, yet she fails to ask how influential such a perception could be on an American government appropriately concerned with Great Power interests — countering Soviet expansionism, oil, refugees, declining British power in the area, etc. By the same token, she notes that President Eisenhower’s call for civil religion did not include Islam. Assuming that this, in fact, was the case in the 1950s, she hardly demonstrates that Eisenhower’s policies and actions in the Middle East were in fact motivated by religious principles rather than by American interests in maintaining the Middle East territorial status quo. To be sure, Western journalists were generally quite hostile to Nasser in the 1950s, and for good reasons, including his constant threats to eliminate Israel as a state and, more generally, his anti-Americanism. Subsequently, journalistic critiques of Israel were quite common, and coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict far less pleasing to American supporters of Israel. Yet notwithstanding a barrage of media criticism of Israel that began during the Lebanon War and continued into the 21st century, the American-Israeli “special relationship” has been sustained.
Most critically, by overemphasizing the importance of “cultural narratives” to the special relationship, Mart ignores the actual context that underlay the relationship — namely constant calls for Israel’s destruction beginning in 1948 and continuing into our own days. Confronted with very real threats to her existence, Israel took steps to defend herself. America, impressed with Israel as the sole democracy in the region and a strategic ally for American interests, and, yes, influenced by a vocal Jewish community, resonated to Israel’s appeals for friendship and assistance. Sadly, these threats to Israel’s existence have been quite tangible and may hardly be limited to “cultural narratives.”
Mart correctly concludes that Israel won the battle in the 1950s for American public opinion. The novels of Herman Wouk and Norman Mailer, to say nothing of Leon Uris’s “Exodus,” helped create for many Americans an image of Israel as heroic. By contrast, the image of Arabs fared poorly in popular culture. Yet popular culture alone may hardly account for a strategic alliance, much less for the perseverance of the American-Israeli special relationship, irrespective of whether the government in Washington has been Democratic or Republican and whether the governing coalition in Jerusalem has been Labor or Likud or, more latterly, Kadima. Long after popular culture had been transformed and Israel had assumed a far less heroic stature, the friendship between America and Israel endures. To understand that relationship, we must look to such factors as American interests in the region, support for Israel as a democracy, and the perception within American public opinion of Israel’s moral right to existence and the justness of her cause.
Hamas and Hezbollah have already embarked on a public relations offensive to transform their public image from terrorist organizations to victims of aggression. The critical role for American Jewry in this crisis remains to assert loudly Israel’s right to defend herself and her responsibility to protect her citizens. Contrary to Mart’s assertions, the actual facts on the ground of unprovoked terrorist violence against Israel matter more before the court of public opinion than do “cultural narratives.”
Steven Bayme is the director of The Dorothy and Julius Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations at the American Jewish Committee.