by Jeff Jacoby
The Boston Globe
A Gallup poll released last month puts American support for Israel at near-record levels. When asked for their views on the Middle East, 59 percent of Americans say they sympathize with the Israelis, while just 15 percent favor the Palestinians. Pro-Israel sentiment rises with increased knowledge — 66 percent of those who follow international affairs “very closely” support Israel, compared with 52 percent of those who don’t pay close attention.
Other findings are comparable. More than two-thirds of Americans say their overall view of Israel is favorable; only 11 percent have a favorable opinion of the Palestinian Authority. While 22 percent of the public wants Washington to conduct diplomatic relations with the Hamas-controlled Palestinian government even if it refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist as a sovereign state, 44 percent say recognition of Israel must be a precondition to relations with the United States. And another 25 percent — one American in four — oppose any US dealings with Hamas at all.
Staunch American support for Israel is not a new development. In February 2005, Gallup reported similarly lopsided findings — 69 percent of the public viewed Israel favorably vs. 25 percent unfavorably. In 2004, when Israel was being denounced in Europe and the United Nations for its assassination of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the wheelchair-bound leader of Hamas, 61 percent of Americans said Israel was justified in killing him. In 2002, when a CBS News poll asked whether Israel’s actions against Yasser Arafat and his forces were equivalent to US actions against Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, 59 percent agreed that they were.
In short, solidarity with Israel is an abiding feature of American public opinion. Because the American people are pro-Israel, the American government is pro-Israel. And because Americans so strongly support Israel in its conflict with the Arabs, American policy in the Middle East is committed to Israel’s defense.
Only someone far outside the American mainstream, then, would insist that “Israel’s past and present conduct offers no moral basis for privileging it over the Palestinians.” Or that US policy is engineered through a Zionist “stranglehold on Congress.” Or that “neither strategic nor moral arguments can account for America’s support for Israel,” leaving only one possible explanation: “the unmatched power of the Israel Lobby.”
Those aren’t the words of American neo-Nazi David Duke — though Duke has ringingly endorsed them. They aren’t the words of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the granddaddy of Islamist radicalism — though a top Brotherhood official praises them. They aren’t the words of the PLO — though the PLO is actively distributing them.
The source of those words, and many more like them, is a bitter anti-Israel screed masquerading as academic scholarship. Co-authored by Stephen Walt, academic dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and University of Chicago professor John Mearsheimer, “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” was released last week as a “working paper” on the Kennedy School website. But so slipshod is the paper’s research and so extreme its bias that within days the Harvard and Kennedy School logos were stripped from the title page. “It clearly does not meet the academic standards of a Kennedy School research paper,” said Marvin Kalb, one of the school’s best-known scholars.
The idea that the American public and US policy makers dance to a tune played by an all-powerful “Israel Lobby” is an old canard. Neo-Nazis like Duke have long described Capitol Hill as part of the ZOG, or Zionist Occupation Government. Right-wing nativist Pat Buchanan notoriously charged “the Israeli defense ministry and its ‘amen corner’ in the United States” with “beating the drums for war” in 1990, when the first President Bush resolved to roll back the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait.
If the truth be told, it isn’t hard to understand why America’s ardent support for Israel might strike some people as odd, or even suspicious. In so much of the world — Europe, the Middle East, the UN General Assembly — Israel is despised. Even if Americans don’t share the anti-Semitism that is rife in other lands, wouldn’t it be more practical for them to stop taking Israel’s side? After all, there are 500 million Arabs in the world, and they control one-third of the world’s oil supply. Why should Americans alienate them by continuing to support Israel, a country with no oil and just 6 million people?
As a matter of plain economic common sense, the United States might seem to have every reason to turn against the Jewish state. What accounts for its refusal to do so? If it isn’t an “Israel Lobby” pulling hidden strings, what on earth can it be?
The answer, of course, is something more powerful than economics: the kinship of common values.
Walt and Mearsheimer are not the first to wade into these swamps. In March 2003, US Representative James Moran inveighed against Jews at an antiwar rally: “If it was not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq,” the Virginian Democrat fumed, “we would not be doing this.” It was at about the same time that Professor Edward Said of Columbia University was ranting: “Wherever you look in the Congress there are the tell-tale signs either of the Zionist lobby, the right-wing Christians, or the military-industrial complex, three inordinately influential minority groups who share . . . unbridled support for extremist Zionism.” A year earlier it had been South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lamenting that “the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal” in the United States; no one dares oppose Israel “because the Jewish lobby is powerful — very powerful.”
But the truth is precisely the reverse. America’s loyalty to Israel isn’t engineered by a Zionist cabal that dupes American citizens and hijacks their government. US policy tends to align closely with Israel’s because Americans *like* Israel. They instinctively sympathize with Israel’s fight for survival in one of the world’s most dangerous neighborhoods. If public opinion weren’t robustly pro-Israel in the first place, the White House and Congress would be far less inclined to give Israel’s advocates the time of day. There’s a name for that phenomenon. It’s called democracy.
The American consensus in support of Israel is deep-rooted and durable. Polls show that it cuts across all ages and both sexes. The dread power of some “Israel Lobby” doesn’t explain it. So what does?
First, Americans recognize in Israeli society a modern liberal democracy — a country like their own, with vigorously contested elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a commitment to civil liberties and human rights that hasn’t flagged despite six decades of terrorism and war. With all its flaws, Israel has the freest and fairest political system in the Middle East. Israel’s Arab citizens are full-fledged voters — women as well as men — and are routinely elected to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament. (Ten Arab candidates won seats in this week’s elections.) The region’s lone Jewish state is the only one that guarantees complete freedom of worship to Christians and Muslims. To American eyes, Israel’s democratic pluralism could hardly be more familiar.
Second, Israel is an invaluable American ally — a stable and dependable base in a highly unstable part of the globe. From military R&D to world-class intelligence services, from a deepwater port to sophisticated air facilities, from hard-won counterterrorist expertise to a solid democratic culture, Israel brings assets to its strategic relationship with the United States that few countries can match. And Americans don’t have to be national-security mavens to appreciate the value of the ally that destroyed Saddam Hussein’s nuclear reactor in 1981, and that pulled off Operation Entebbe — the spectacular rescue of 100 hostages from Idi Amin’s Uganda — on July 4, 1976.
Third, American history is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian soil, nourishing a special kinship between America’s Christians and the Jewish people. The founders of the American republic were deeply influenced by the Hebrew scriptures and believed that they, like the Jews of old, had been taken out of bondage by God and led by Him to a Promised Land. Long before there was a modern state of Israel, American leaders expressed “Zionist” leanings: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation,” former President John Adams wrote in 1819. Nearly two centuries later, millions of American Christians are passionate supporters of the Jewish state.
Finally, Americans sympathize so strongly with the Israelis because both nations face a common enemy. Unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, who can find “no moral basis” for taking Israel’s side in its war with enemies bent on its destruction, most Americans make a clear moral distinction between suicide bombers and their victims. If Israeli terrorists were deliberately blowing up Palestinian school buses, if rabbis were blasting Arabs as “the sons of monkeys and pigs,” if it were Israelis who had danced in celebration on 9/11, American sympathies might not be so clear-cut. Most Americans are not confused, because most Americans understand what’s at stake.
“The US has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East,”President John F. Kennedy said in 1962, “really comparable only to that which it has with Britain.” Today, Kennedy’s words are truer than ever –even if the Kennedy School dean has yet to figure that out.
Written for, and copyrighted by, The Boston Globe. Published on March 26 and March 29, 2006. Republished by permission of the author. See the website www.boston.com/globe/editorial_opinion/oped/jacoby
Jeff Jacoby has been an op-ed columnist for the Boston Globe since 1994, having previously been chief editorial writer for the Boston Herald. He has also been a political commentator on National Public Radio.