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We Must Stop Pretending Israel is an Outpost of Western Democracy

My host mother in Jordan this summer had complicated feelings about the United States. She was very supportive of King Abdullah and she was glad for the cooperation between Jordanian and American forces in regional conflicts, but she also believed that the American president had intentionally chosen not to prevent the 9/11 attacks and that the United States was a primary funder of Daesh (ISIS).

Over the course of my time in Jordan, I observed variants of that same tension — everyone with whom I spoke understood that the United States is an ally to Jordan and is supportive of the Hashemite monarchy, which they generally revered. At the same time, I also encountered deeply cynical attitudes toward American interventionism in the region, particularly regarding the invasion of Iraq. I saw Saddam Hussein’s glorified figure in a number of places, including large prints on cars emblazoned with the words “shaheed al-‘Arouba” – “martyr of Arabism.” My overall impression was that the people of Jordan did not reject or oppose American support, but did not see their country as aligned with American interests or policy.

Image by Benjamin Gladstone

I wish I could say the same of the American Zionist movement. I worry that the failure to articulate similar tensions in Israel’s relationship with the United States endangers the Zionist movement on both an ideological and a strategic level, compromising the Jewish claim to agency and self-empowerment and making Zionism less appealing to the American left.

Even in Zionist circles, I hear activists describe Israel as an outpost of “Western” or American influence in Southwest Asia. Some American Zionists discuss the progressive values of Israel as though they come from the United States, or as though Israel is somehow culturally united with Europe and an imagined “West.” In doing so, they surrender Israel’s own accomplishments, including its unique brand of democracy and its own progressive movements (socialist Kibbutzim were a major element of pre-Israel society, for example, while America was still fighting a Cold War against any country that exhibited progressive economic policies), to non-Jewish superpowers.

Image by Getty Images

By claiming that Israel is part of the “West,” many American Zionists dangerously revise Israeli and Zionist history. They forget that the classical form of Zionism in which figures like Theodor Herzl believed developed against white Christians in countries like Russia, Germany, and France, born out of the realization that Jews were not safe in Europe. Viewing Israel as a de-facto member of the West also robs Israel of its sovereignty by tying it to American policies, despite serious disagreements between the Israeli and American governments, so that Israel is held accountable for America’s misadventures.

Israel and the United States are separate countries with very different worldviews and very different roles in the international community. While Israel generally strives to defend its own borders and serve as a stable center for global Judaism, America seeks to advance its economic and strategic interests well beyond its borders as an imperial superpower.

Sometimes, these starkly different roles put the countries’ interests at odds, which is normal even between close allies. Israeli leaders advised America against, for example, the occupation of Iraq and the recent agreement with Iran that American oil corporations and the imperial powers of Europe promoted at the expense of civilians in Israel, Kurdistan, Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere. Other conflicts, such as the US-backed, Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, also draw ire to Israel (Yemeni protesters frequently chant against what they perceive to be Saudi/American/Zionist aggression), even when Israel is not involved.

Whatever one feels about those policy decisions, Israel’s neighbors tend to resent them, and falsely aligning Israel with them is harmful to Israel’s reputation in the region.

Image by Getty Images

Viewing Israel as a member of the West is not only counter to the fundamental essence of Zionism as a movement of Jewish empowerment, but also unproductive for Zionist advocates on liberal college campuses, where the distrust for European/American schemes and solidarity with marginalized populations is growing. At a time that campus pro-justice movements are positioning themselves against European/American hegemony and valuing the agency of marginalized groups, becoming more and more like classical Zionism, the American Zionist community seems to be leaving those Zionist fundamentals behind.

I have even heard Zionists discuss the Balfour Declaration as a source of legitimacy, which troubles me greatly. During my time in Jordan, most of the negativity that I heard toward Israel was not in a context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather in a context of the US-Israel alliance or the Balfour Declaration.

There is an inherent fallacy in citing an imperial power like Britain for legitimacy, as imperialism is understood more and more universally to be unethical and illegitimate. On college campuses, the word “imperialist” is increasingly used as an insult. It is historically inaccurate to view the Balfour Declaration as a founding document of Israel. The British issued three major imperial documents during World War I: the Balfour Declaration, the Sharif-McMahon Correspondence (promising a pan-Arab state to the Hashemite family), and the Sykes-Picot Agreement (promising France control over part of the land promised to the Hashemites). Those documents made overlapping guarantees that the British government never intended to uphold, and of them the Balfour Declaration was perhaps the least committal. The British government lied to the leaders of the Zionist movement just as it did to the leaders of the pan-Arabist movement and to France. After the war, when Britain did control the land that is today Israel, it refused to hand that land over to the Zionist pseudo-state that had developed there. Meanwhile, six million Jews perished in Europe in the absence of a Jewish State and because British immigration policies limited the number of Jewish refugees able to flee the Nazis. In the end, the British surrendered their occupation not in keeping with Balfour’s then thirty-year-old promise but in the wake of civil and violent resistance from both Jewish and Palestinian Arab partisans and as part of a larger process of retraction when it became clear that the British Empire was no longer sustainable.

Image by Getty Images

Citing the Balfour Declaration also gives Britain credit for Jewish Zionist accomplishments. Jewish rebels and civilians died in the fight against the British occupation, and millions more died in the Holocaust or languished in displaced persons camps because of British intransigence. Israel was established with money contributed in small, scraped-together donations by Jews all over the world, with hard physical work by the Jewish labor movement, and with blood shed by Jewish revolutionaries fighting the British occupation and then defending the fledgling nation-state against impossible odds after it was invaded by its neighbors in 1948. Zionists are wrong to give credit for Jewish statehood to reactionary non-Jewish superpowers, such as Britain, that value Jewish lives so little. Zionism is a revolutionary movement that allows Jews the opportunity to reclaim our agency – giving credit to the Balfour Declaration for the fruits of decades of Jewish sweat and blood does just the opposite.

By accepting the “Western” label that anti-Zionists thrust upon Israel, American Zionists also allow anti-Zionists to erase non-Ashkenazi Jewry. The majority of Israel’s Jewish population does not fall under the problematically racialized umbrella of the “West.” In practice, the term “West” tends to refer to majority-white countries regardless of their geography: Morocco is to the geographic west of Germany, for example, but Germany is popularly considered “Western” while Morocco is not, and even Australia might be called “Western,” while China is considered the epitome of the “East.” Most of Israel’s Jewish population is Mizrahi, Sephardic, or otherwise comprised of non-white communities from Africa and Asia. The implication that Israel is culturally or historically European ignores the tremendous roles that members of those groups have played in building the Israeli nation.

The Jordanians with whom I spoke had learned to recognize their relations with the United States and Europe as part of a normal political process, but did not at all see their country as an “outpost” of American interests or as culturally united with Europe. I don’t believe that many Israelis see their country that way either, but certainly many American Zionists do. Perceptions of Israel as part of the “West,” or as a passive conduit for American interests in Southwest Asia, do not fit Israel’s history, demographic makeup, or founding ideology. They rob Jews of our agency and Israel of its sovereignty and history, and they make Israel into a scapegoat for American and European policy failures, both in the region and on the college campus. Zionists in the United States should continue supporting a strong US-Israel relationship as an alliance that is beneficial to both countries (and should continue to recognize that, of course, Israel is far better off because of its friendship with the US), but should sharply and consistently rebuff anti-Zionists’ attempts to label Israel “Western.”

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