It’s much more than evangelical Christians hoping for the rapture.
Ever since word leaked that Chuck Hagel would be nominated for Secretary of Defense, Senate Republicans have launched a non-stop attack against their former colleague from Nebraska. It’s not just neoconservatives. The assault comes from across the ranks of the GOP. The charge that first dominated the headlines and is still, in many quarters, the loudest: Hagel is “anti-Israel.”
To call the evidence for this charge thin is an understatement. In the Senate Hagel went on record with the same pro-Israel sentiments expected of every senator: “The United States will remain committed to defending Israel. Our relationship with Israel is a special and historic one,” he said.
The L.A. Times notes that he put American money where his mouth was, “voting repeatedly to provide [Israel] with military aid.” He supported an Israeli-Palestinian peace as long as it did not compromise Israel’s security or its Jewish identity — a crucial demand for most Israelis.
So what are his alleged “anti-Israel” crimes?
He suggested that Israel should negotiate directly with Hamas — which in fact Israel is already doing, since it’s obvious that no peace agreement can endure and keep Israel secure unless Hamas signs on to it.
When Hagel affirmed America’s enduring support for Israel, he added that “it need not and cannot be at the expense of our Arab and Muslim relationships.” In other words, he wants an even-handed policy that puts American interests first.
In an interview Hagel once said that, as a senator, he did put U.S. interests first: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people [on Capitol Hill]. … I support Israel, but my first interest is I take an oath of office to the Constitution of the United States.” The interviewer, the State Department’s long-time (and Jewish) Mideast expert Aaron David Miller, saidthat Hagel was merely stating “a fact: the pro-Israeli community or lobby has a powerful voice. … To deny that is simply to be completely out of touch with reality.” Miller called the attempts to paint Hagel as anti-Semitic “shameful and scurrilous.”
To sum up the charge, Hagel has shown that when it comes to the Israel-Palestine issue he faces the facts, takes a reasonable view, and as Secretary of Defense would put his own country’s interest first.
To his critics, that’s simply unacceptable. Like most supporters of the Israeli government, they treat even the slightest hint of criticism as if it were a mortal attack on Israel itself. The slightest deviation from their “Israel can do no wrong” agenda evokes howls of condemnation.
Who are these American devotees of (right-wing) Israel? Here is the one place Hagel can be faulted. His widely cited comment about the power of “the Jewish lobby” suggests that Jews are to blame for keeping U.S. Mideast policy so blatantly one-sided all these years. Hagel later apologized, saying that he really meant the “pro-Israel lobby.” But the mistaken stereotype persists that Jews control U.S. Mideast policy.
In fact, what American Jews do is debate vigorously among themselves about Israel and U.S. policy. There are multiple Jewish “pro-Israel” lobbies promoting quite different views. A spokesman for one of those lobbies, J Street, rightly says that by now “the center of the community is exactly where Sen. Hagel is on issues relating to Israel.” And J Street has recent polling data to prove it.
Maybe that’s one big reason AIPAC (the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee), the Anti-Defamation League, and other old-guard Jewish groups that typically support Israel, right-wing and wrong, are so far remaining silent on the Hagel nomination. Maybe they’re finally recognizing the truth that Peter Beinart and so many others are revealing: Those big-name organizations are run by aging conservatives who are out of step with the rest of American Jewry. Few serious observers credit their claim to speak for the Jewish community as a whole. As their credibility fades, so does their political power.
Another sign of the changing times: Even the Senate’s most prominent Jewish “pro- (right-wing) Israel” hawk, Charles Schumer, has announced his support for the Hagel nomination.
Recent polls from CNN, the Huffington Post, and Pew make it clear that, in the U.S., the strongest support for Israel’s right-wing policies now comes not from Jews but from Republicans. They’re roughly twice as likely as Democrats to take Israel’s side, while Democrats are about five times as likely as GOP’ers to sympathize with Palestinians. (About 70 percent of Jews vote Democratic.)
These polls, taken after Israel attacked Gaza in November 2012, showed that men, whites and older people (dare we say, “Romney voters”?) were most likely to support Israel unreservedly in the conflict.
Now we know that Republicans will attack an Obama nominee unreservedly, even when their charges on his Mideast views are irrational, to say the least. The Republican Party has become the strongest “pro- (right-wing) Israel” lobby, demanding 100% blind support for whatever Israel’s government does.
Why are Republicans so crazy in love with Israel?
One common explanation points to a love triangle: Republicans, Israel and evangelical Christianity. But after studying the interface of religion and politics in America for many years, I’m convinced that the power of religion to shape political life is usually overrated.
Some evangelical theologies do preach that Jews must control all of the Holy Land before the second coming of Christ. (The organized “Christian Zionist” movement is based on this concept, but as a political group they get little press and have relatively little clout in Washington.)
However, in the evangelical vision of the future, the powerful Jewish state is just a passing phase. In the next phase (to oversimplify a bit) all the Jews become Christians or go to hell. The New Testament image of Jews as “Christ-killers,” rejecting and therefore rejected by the true God, has never been totally erased either. So, although white evangelicals are more likely than other Americans to support Israel, their religion makes them rather ambivalent toward the Jewish religion, to say the least.
What’s more, conservative evangelicals were enthusiastic supporters of Israel in the state’s earliest years, when a large majority of Israelis were strictly secular and avoided anything that smacked of religion.
In fact many of those first Israelis were socialists. Yet American conservatives, evangelical or not, gave full support to the fledgling Jewish state.
The main reason was not religion, but politics. Israel was created in 1948, the very same year that the U.S. committed itself wholeheartedly to cold war against the “communists.” Israel soon agreed (under strong U.S. pressure, some historians say) to be the main U.S. ally in the Middle East, where, most Americans believed (inaccurately), the Arabs were all turning pro-communist.
Israel served U.S. military needs in various ways, especially as an intelligence-gathering outpost. When Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger formulated their doctrine of appointing regional “policemen” to serve U.S. interests around the world, Israel and the Shah’s Iran got the job for the Middle East. With the fall of the Shah in 1979, Israel was left alone as our cop on the Mideast beat.
But Republican affection for Israel reflects much more than that nation’s military usefulness. The deepest root of the feeling is the symbolic meaning of Israel in the conservative worldview. The cold war reinforced the conservative penchant for seeing the world in moral absolutes. So Israel became the Middle East’s only “good guy,” surrounded by a sea of “bad guys.”
The Israeli government played on this simplistic dualism with a skillful PR campaign, depicting their nation as an outpost of civilized American values in a savage Arab wilderness. To most Americans, it looked like our own “Wild West” story all over again: Brave pioneers turning the desert into a fertile garden, with a plow in one hand and a gun in the other, using the gun only when they were forced to defend themselves.
In the Israeli narrative, Jews were always the victims, constantly on guard against unprovoked attacks — just like the pioneers of the American Wild West. The fact that Jews had displaced Arabs, just as whites displaced Native Americans, often by violent means, simply wasn’t allowed into the story. Nor was the fact that Israel’s military strength made its existence quite secure. Few Americans questioned the myth of Israel’s constant insecurity.
Americans of the Cold War era empathized with Israel all the more because here in the U.S. we were immersed in our own myth of homeland insecurity, constantly on guard against the imagined threat of communist aggression. In this way as in so many others Israel seemed like a miniature America, a partner in the global battle of good against evil.
Though the Cold War is long gone, that sense of kinship remains just as strong among conservatives, who still see the U.S. and Israel as champions of absolute good in a war against the “evildoers.” Indeed Israel looks even better now because conservatives assume that the “evildoers” plotting to destroy us are the very same Arab “terrorists” who are supposedly trying to wipe out Israel.
Conservatives simply ignore the facts. West Bank Palestinians have shifted almost entirely to nonviolent tactics in their struggle against military occupation. Even in Gaza, Hamas has long observed a truce, firing rockets only when Israeli attacks provoke them. And for years Hamas leaders have been supporting a two-state peace agreement. But none of this fits the conservatives’ beloved Wild West stereotype or their narrative of endless insecurity. So they mistakenly go on assuming that Israel is constantly under attack by vicious savages.
The conservative love for Israel has been strengthened by another mistaken belief: that all Israeli Jews are white folks. In fact a sizeable number of Jewish Israelis came from Muslim lands; they and their descendants have brown skin. But few Americans know it. Yet all know that Arabs generally have brown skin. No one can say exactly how strong the racial (and sometimes, no doubt, racist) factor is in the Republican feeling for Israel. But no one can deny that it’s part of the picture.
Conservatives’ tenuous sense of security depends on the reassurance they get from believing that there’s a permanent structure in the world, based on permanent dividing lines — between nations, races, religions, and most importantly, between good and evil, with their own kind carrying the banner of the good.
As long as they can see good battling evil, it doesn’t matter exactly who the “good guys” and “bad guys” are. It’s all essentially a matter of symbolism. So the roles can switch in surprising ways. (Osama bin Laden was once the darling of the right-wingers when he fought the communists in Afghanistan.)
Israelis are well aware of how easily American affections can change. Their press is full of discussions about the risk of losing their sole remaining ally.
For now, though, the Republican love for Israel is holding firm. It has been cemented by the recent shift to the right among Israeli Jews. Politically, the last few years in Israel have looked a lot like the Reagan years in the U.S., making it easier for the GOP to feel that sense of kinship.
Even if Israel moves back toward the center, it’s not likely to lose the fervent devotion of Republicans. They’ve been so convinced for so long that Israel can do no wrong, it hardly matters to them what Israel does. It’s Israel the symbol, not the reality, that the Republicans love.
Now they are demonstrating their ardor by acting out a symbolic drama in the Senate, attacking Chuck Hagel on the flimsiest grounds. The “pro- (right-wing) Israel” stance is “very much a litmus test for many in the Republican Party,” as Washington Post analyst Aaron Blake says, “and it will make it difficult for any Republican senator to vote for him.” Like all true lovers, they let their passion overrule reason.
So they’re taking a political gamble. In the latest polls, between 39% and 59% of Americans say they support Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. (Between 9% and 13% support Palestine.) That imbalance might make the Republican position look safe enough. But it leaves a huge portion of the electorate holding no clear preference. How all those undecided voters respond to this latest display of Republican fanaticism is anyone’s guess.
And even among those who back Israel, many will agree with what Chuck Hagel has said: “I’m a supporter of Israel, always have been. It’s in Israel’s best interest to get a peace. …Peace comes through dealing with people. Peace doesn’t come at the end of a bayonet or the end of a gun.”
The Hagel confirmation hearings should trigger a public debate, weighing the nominee’s view against the Republicans’ irrational love for Israel, which may serve their own needs in a perverse way but wreaks such terrible harm on Arabs, Israelis and the U.S. position in the Middle East.