‘We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel’
We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel
By Eric Alterman (Basic Books)
In the introduction to We Are Not One, Eric Alterman explains what his latest work is not about: “Israel itself, U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East, or the fate of the Palestinian people inside or outside Israel’s borders.” Rather, he writes, his purpose is to explore the discourse around those topics in the American Jewish community.
Histories are never purely objective, and this book is no exception. Alterman, an historian, journalist and a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, approaches this topic from a left-of-center perspective and buttresses his judgments with a mountain of primary resources; there are 61 pages of footnotes.
According to Alterman, the 1967 Six-Day War caused a tectonic shift of the Jewish community away from an America-centric agenda toward a hyperfocus on Israel advocacy and Holocaust remembrance.
“The Arabs’ pre-war threats [to destroy Israel] terrified American Jews and put them in mind, once again, of the Holocaust, with its ensuing feelings of trauma, guilt, and helplessness,” he writes. As support for Israel came to dominate American Jewish life, he laments that resources were diverted from local Jewish identity-building initiatives such as “Jewish education, community service and the Jewish tradition of social justice known as tikkun olam.…”
Alterman acknowledges that no Israeli government has ever been immune from criticism. Indeed, he points out, there has been strident and routine criticism of Israeli policies from international human rights groups, the United Nations, liberal Protestant denominations and parts of the mainstream media. Yet, he argues, Jewish establishment organizations, first among them the highly influential AIPAC (the American Israel Public Affairs Committee) as well as neoconservative intellectuals and their publications, including Commentary magazine and its former chief editor Norman Podhoretz, and evangelical Christians have largely succeeded in discrediting public criticism of Israel.
The effort to mute criticism has played out in various spheres, he notes, particularly in politics, where elected officials who dissent from the party line, such as Illinois Senator Charles Percy, the Republican who, in the 1980s, voted to approve an arms sale deal to Saudi Arabia and suggested that Israel open negotiations with the Palestinian Liberation Organization, are framed as hostile to the Jewish state.
Thus, Alterman contends, a succession of United States governments has been reluctant to act on what he calls American national interests to restrain Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank, which has made the achievement of a two-state outcome almost impossible. In addition, he observes that as Israel’s harsh treatment of the Palestinians and more than half century “occupation of the West Bank grinds on”—a situation for which he does not hold the Palestinians blameless—American Jews have grown increasingly distant from Israel. That observation, Alterman notes, is backed by data from the Pew Research Center.
Alterman also points out that while American Jews have steadfastly remained loyal to the Democratic Party, most Israelis “now consider themselves to be ‘right-wing.’ ” The result: a schism between the world’s two largest Jewish communities.
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Much of Alterman’s analysis is well founded. That said, there are some significant omissions. For example, he expansively describes a campus environment that swings between virulent anti-Zionist supporters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and hardline right-wing Jewish groups, such as Campus Watch and Canary Mission. However, he fails to mention Hillel, the premier organization that addresses Jewish student affairs. In recent years, Hillel has made concerted efforts to deal with difficult Israel-related issues forthrightly and in a way that would open a path for liberal Jews to embrace the country of Israel even as they criticize its government.
The book is well worth reading both for beginners and experts. Those who agree with Alterman will find much to reinforce their views. And those who disagree, assuming they approach the book with an open mind, should be challenged by it.
Martin J. Raffel is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.