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The Secret Tie That Binds the US and Israel

Israel and the United States: two countries who base their national identity on the fear of enemies who they believe are bent on destroying their very way of life.

I was really excited when I saw an op-ed in the New York Times by Israel’s most important critic of his own government, Avraham Burg. He’s the most important critic because of his high political standing (he served as the speaker of Israel’s Knesset [parliament]) because he so persuasively condemns Israel’s occupation of Palestine, and because he focuses on such an important, but too often neglected, motive for Israel’s oppression of Palestinians: the mistaken belief that Israel is a weak nation, vulnerable to enemies who want to destroy it.

In his most influential book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From its Ashes, Burg argued that it’s dangerous for Jews as well as Palestinians when Israel views its political opponents as if they were Nazis. They’re not, and the huge difference is crucial if Israel is ever to have a realistic security policy that will realize bring its people security.

Yet that mistaken equation, Palestinians (or Arabs) equal Nazis, is what Israel’s quite popular prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, promotes at every opportunity. On his recent trip to Israel Mitt Romney embraced Netanyahu, making it clear that, if he becomes president, Romney will base U.S. Mideast policy on the same wrong-headed, fear-based ideology.

Of course Obama as well as Romney justify their pro-right-wing-Israel tilt by claiming that there’s a “special relationship” between Israel and the U.S., that there’s “no daylight” between the two governments on basic policy issues. And the “special relationship” goes beyond geopolitical interests, we’re always told. It’s a matter of fundamental values.

What exactly are those values? That’s just the question Avraham Burg said he intended to address his op-ed. In the 1950s, he began, the crucial ties were a common commitment to “democracy, human rights, respect for other nations and human solidarity.” Now the two nations are bound by “a new set of mutual interests: war, bombs, threats, fear and trauma.”

Right on target!, I thought. The most important message anyone can bring about U.S.-Israel relations, delivered by a former top-ranking Israeli leader on America’s most prestigious op-ed page.

Unfortunately, Burg’s column did not go on to address the crucial issues his opening paragraphs raised. He wrote eloquently about the gradual disappearance of democracy in Israel, as religious intolerance and ethnic chauvinism become the norm — an important subject, to be sure. But he said nothing about the deeper insight of his book: the way unjustified fears and feelings of victimization warp Israeli Jewish life and give rise to anti-democratic, anti-humanistic trends.

Even more unfortunately, he said nothing more about the strikingly similar trends in American political culture. No, we did not endure a Holocaust. But the fear of a German invasion of the U.S. homeland was very real in the early 1940s. And Franklin D. Roosevelt did everything he could to fan the sparks of that fear into an anti-German fire. It was a crucial part of his strategy to build political support for his program of supporting the British war effort with everything short of sending U.S. troops to Europe. That was before December 7, 1941.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the fear for the homeland that Roosevelt had created was immediately, seemingly effortlessly, extended from Germany to Japan. Resistance to war, which had been strong enough to remain Roosevelt’s number one political concern, evaporated as a politically significant force overnight.

Roosevelt did not realize the staying power of the worldview he created for the American people, based on the warning that we must always be watching out for enemies who want to destroy us. That warning had played little role in American life since the 1840s (some historians would say since 1815), except for the brief U.S. engagement in World War I.

World War II changed all that. Once the Axis was defeated, the “red menace” of communism took its place, to be followed by “terrorists,” “Islamofascism,” and now “the Iranian bomb.” Next year the enemy might have some other name. Who knows?

Israel has gone through a similar revolving door of enemies. Once it was “the Arabs,” then particular Arab nations, then “the Palestinians,” then “the PLO,” now “Hamas terrorists” and “the Iranian bomb.” Next year Israel’s enemy might have some other name too.

For now, Israel and the U.S. agree that Iran is bogeyman number one. They differ only on tactics for combating the purported threat. And the agreement is not only among top political leaders. There seems to be as much support for anti-Iranian policies among Americans as Israeli Jews.

Israel’s myth of insecurity and Americans’ myth of homeland insecurity foster the fear of Iran. Indeed the myths demand the fear: Someone has to play the threatening enemy to make the myths believable.

A myth of insecurity, with the sense of vulnerability and victimization that it breeds, is the most fundamental tie that binds the two nations. Both peoples learned long ago to base their national identity and sense of patriotism on fighting off enemies who are, they believe, bent on destroying their nations. Both are deeply committed to and shaped by these myths.

In both countries there are dissenters who say that their own people are being warped by their myths. These minorities see the peril as well as the foolishness of a fear-based worldview. But in both countries the minorities are as yet small enough that they have little influence on policy.

This is what I hoped Avraham Burg would write about: the shared values that so clearly bind the U.S. and Israel yet remains undiscussed, virtually unnoticed, as hidden as any secret. What a chance Burg had to lay the secret out in the open, to try to wake Americans up, just as his book tried (and in some cases succeeded) in waking Jews up.

It’s a message that Americans need to hear, too. If it were delivered in their most prestigious newspaper, at least the relatively well-educated and elite readers of that newspaper might begin to ponder it. It would be secret no longer.

Here’s hoping Avraham Burg will return to the op-ed pages of influential American newspapers with his full message another day. Then we could begin to have a public debate not only about the U.S. relationship with Israel but about our relationship with our own understanding of security.

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