Categorized | Israel, Middle East, US, World

Israel and the United States: The Relationship Holds

How religion, culture and crude politics sustain America’s support for the Jewish state.

Image by AslanMedia

We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people ─ the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world.

Herman Melville, 1850

Anyone taking even a passing interest in Middle East politics over the past year might be forgiven for believing that the US-Israel relationship is in terminal crisis and that it is only a matter of time before Team Obama cuts Bibi Netanyahu and the problematic Israelis loose once and for all. US readers should, however, forego throwing out their Hanukkah candles just yet. American politics, religion, history and culture all have something to say on this matter, especially in an election year which even upbeat Democrats concede will be a tough one. It is precisely during such challenging times that Democrats have historically turned to the US Israel lobby for support. In exchange for professions of undying loyalty to Israel from political candidates, groups like AIPAC have traditionally called upon their nationwide network of donors within American Jewry and beyond to deliver the campaign contributions for favoured candidates that often prove decisive come the Fall.

Although AIPAC stands for the ‘American Israel Public Affairs Committee’, this organisation’s purpose is very much to further the interests of the Jewish state – a raison d’être which the regular attendance of Israeli leaders at AIPAC events merely underscores. Few of these leaders have been as adept as Binyamin Netanyahu at tailoring their message so precisely to popular religious and cultural threads within the American political discourse. Addressing the annual meeting of AIPAC in Washington in March 2010, Netanyahu defended the building of settlements in East Jerusalem, telling his audience that: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem three thousand years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.” The Prime Minister’s words highlight the perceived significance which he attaches to biblical symbolism as a basis of America’s sympathetic posture towards Israel. Netanyahu is on this score quite correct for the religious roots within American political culture sustaining the US-Israel relationship are powerful indeed.

On arriving in the New World in 1630, one of the first settlers, John Winthrop, summoned up the biblical vision of Jerusalem as a light of the world, telling his followers that: “We shall be as a city upon a hill”, an image of American destiny later invoked by Ronald Reagan in his farewell address. Despite the separation between church and state in the US system of government, Judeo-Christian ideology has played a significant role in the American political sphere since the founding period. In the search for a design for the national seal of the new country in 1776 suggestions from Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin all included the story of the ancient Israelites’ flight from Egypt as a symbol of the new nation. It is this Old Testament element in America’s intellectual history which has provided the foundations upon which US support for the modern Jewish state originated, particularly among Christians.

The US today has one of the highest percentages of religious practice in the world and according to a Pew attitudes survey, 59 percent of Americans say that religion plays “a very important role in their lives,” which is roughly twice the percentage of “self-avowed religious people in Canada (30 percent), and an even higher proportion compared to Western Europe.” The significance of religion, a common Judeo-Christian heritage and shared cultural values in understanding US attitudes towards Israel might be of limited import were it not for the fact that such ideas still exert a powerful hold over the American political system. Rarely does an US president deliver a speech without invoking God at least once, and it is this religiosity of Americans and their leaders which has combined with other cultural factors to create a sense of identification with the Jewish state. In their 1984 survey of the attitudes of elite opinion within government, the military, the media and universities, Holsti and Rosenau found that despite the misgivings that many had about military action in the aftermath of Vietnam, three-quarters of the respondents considered that the US had a moral obligation to prevent the destruction of the State of Israel. In short, Israel has become for many American politicians, the de-facto 51st state.

Given Obama’s attempt at reaching out to the Muslim world are there any signs that the US-Israel bond will weaken anytime soon? Not really. Although US support for Israel in an election year is often manifested in terms of crude political expediency, the cultural roots of this relationship within American politics are deep and enduring. This aspect of American political culture greatly explains the ease with which the lobby is able to secure declarations of adoration for the Jewish state from anxious politicians chasing down every vote and dollar they can before November. Expect the Hanukkah candles to be burning especially brightly on Capitol Hill this winter.

Image courtesy of AslanMedia

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About David Miles

David Miles is a former Carnegie Scholar and has a PhD from the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he teaches in the School of International Relations. Apart from writing for, editing, and publishing Global Politics, his writing has appeared in the Daily Beast, Carnegie Ethics Online, Huff Post and the Scotsman. His interests include American political history, US foreign policy, modern German history, American and German constitutional history, the politics of the European Union, peace and conflict studies, and the politics of the Middle East. His book 'Democracy, the Courts, and the Liberal State: a Comparative Analysis of American and German Constitutionalism' will be published by Routledge in 2020.

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