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Israel: America’s Frankenstein Monster

Israel's harshest critics and most ardent defenders agree on one thing: The battle is really about America.
 
 
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Photo Credit: spirit of america/Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

With Israeli tanks rolling into the Gaza Strip and Hamas fighters firing dozens of rockets into Israel every day, the two sides in the endless Middle East standoff appear to be replaying scenes from a recurring nightmare, with real-world tragic effects. I don’t mean to suggest that the conflict is in any sense symmetrical. As we have already seen, the worst price for this latest round of violence will be paid by the civilian population of Gaza, almost 2 million people fenced into a slice of arid seacoast with roughly the same land area as the city of Detroit. But for those of us in the West, and especially in the United States, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out in public discourse, over and over again, as a drama of rhetoric and propaganda, accusation and counter-accusation.

Both in the real conflict on the ground and the ideological conflict for hearts and minds, both sides feel misunderstood and unfairly stigmatized – and if you’re willing or able to take the long view, they both have a point. Along with every other American journalist, I received emails this week from Arab-American groups complaining about the pro-Israeli bias of the mainstream media, and from Jewish activists eager to elucidate President Obama’s “pro-Muslim agenda” and his long-term campaign to undermine Israel. Within the American left, which for generations has been closely allied with the Jewish intellectual tradition, this ideological combat can often be intensely personal and painful. I’ve managed to stay out of the angry debates between friends and acquaintances in my Facebook feed – about whether Rachel Maddow is an Israeli shill, or whether American progressives are hypocrites for weeping over Gaza but ignoring the death toll in Iraq, Syria and Egypt – and I don’t even want to know what kinds of insults people are hurling at each other on Twitter.

What do we talk about when we talk about Israel? Perhaps this is an index of our bottomless narcissism, but the not-so-secret subtext of both pro-Israel and anti-Israel arguments is that they’re really debates about America and its role in the world. Israel is of course closely tied to the U.S. in military, economic, cultural and psychological terms, and in all likelihood would not exist if not for six-plus decades of staunch American support. Although it’s a distinctive society in many ways, Israel is also a familiar kind of place – a Westernized consumer democracy of yoga classes, designer cocktails and gay pride parades – in a way no Islamic Middle Eastern country even approaches. Israel can be read as an American proxy state, a wayward bastard child or (in the paranoid view) as a sinister force behind American politics, pulling the superpower’s strings. However you understand this “special relationship,” the genetic kinship is unmistakable.

Everything about the politics of the Israel-Palestine debate – which are mostly the politics of guilt, victimhood and mutual, purposeful incomprehension – is distorted and exacerbated by the gravitational effect of America. As I said earlier, both sides have valid points to make about the nature of that distortion. But I don’t mean to retreat to some journalistic posture of false equivalency and despair: Everybody has done bad things, and it’s just dreadful. Can we get back to watching HBO? That only fuels the hapless status quo, as captured so memorably in Mitt Romney’s phrase about kicking the can down the road, in which the U.S. appears subservient to the Israeli right wing while continuing to advocate for a two-state solution that will never happen. I have no solution to that dilemma, but it’s useful to understand that pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian forces are responding to the same phenomenon – Israel’s inextricable relationship with the United States – and interpreting it in different ways.