In his new and fascinating book, The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture,Jonathan Rynhold methodically analyzes the key factors that shape the American public opinion of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rynhold artfully draws on political analysis, history, and contemporary survey analyses. According to Rynhold, American political culture in the twenty-first century is best described as exhibiting an “Israel paradox”: “On the one hand, in the United States sympathy for Israel is deep seated, widespread and increasingly robust. On the other hand, there are increasing divisions among Americans over the Arab-Israeli conflict.” His book incisively analyzes the factors underpinning this “Israel paradox” in American political culture.
Among the social forces compelling Americans to have positive view of the Israeli role in Arab-Israeli conflict is a sense of kinship with Israel. Rynhold reports that this sense of kinship dates back to the earliest days of the United States; the Protestant Puritans were steeped in “Old Testament” beliefs, including an emphasis on biblical Israel and the return of Jews to the land of Israel. The American sense of kinship with Israel also stems from the belief that Israel and the United States share a commitment to democracy and a pioneering spirit, as well as the willingness to act as strategic allies in the Middle East. This perspective is held by many Americans, especially Republicans and conservatives.
Other segments of the United States view the relationship with Israel as more problematic. Political surveys of Democrats and liberals indicate that their support for Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict wanes when they believe Israel is lessening its commitment to its democratic values and lagging in its efforts towards forging a two-state solution with the Palestinians. More troubling, according to Rynhold, are the segments of the American population that have seriously negative views of Israel. These anti-Israel views are more likely to be found on the left liberal side of the American political spectrum, and include members of the “mainline Protestant churches” (a term that encompasses Episcopalians, Quakers, Mennonites and Presbyterians). These groups tend to view the Palestinians as a third-world oppressed people in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a view dates back to the nineteenth century when mainline Protestant churches sent missionaries to the Middle East. When the missionaries returned to the United States they brought with them a strong identification with their Arab congregants. Many vociferously advocated for the rights of the Arabs in the Arab-Israeli conflict including in some cases the denial of the historic connection of Jews to the Land of Israel. It is often among these mainline church groups that one sees the characterization of Israel as an “apartheid” state and urge boycotts, divestments and sanctions against Israel. These anti-Zionist views are further buttressed by the teachings of “liberation theology” typified by the writings of theologist Rosemary Ruether, who characterizes “ ‘the Zionist concept of a Jewish state’ as a ‘remnant of a racist concept of nationalism.’ ”
The political division between the Republicans and Democrats in their policies toward Israel is also found among American Jews. More conservative and religious Jews are the strongest supporters of American militaristic and economic ties to Israel and Israel’s self-defense efforts. Among the more left-leaning Jewish Democrats, there are even elements that are “advocating withholding U. S. aid to Israel in order to pressure it to change policies” reports Rynhold. However, no major Jewish organization has taken that position. It is clear, writes Rynhold, that “In order to protect bipartisan support in America, Israel likely will be required to put forward policies that demonstrate its commitment to a two-state solution.”
Overall, the United States is friendlier and more favorable towards Israel and its role in the Arab-Israeli conflict than are Europeans. Rynhold characterizes the gap in positions toward Israel as a “transatlantic divide.” Many Europeans view Israel and Zionism very negatively. In Europe, the Far Left generally defines Israel (and America) as a malevolent force of imperialism. The Far Right, which includes Holocaust deniers, is steeped in traditional anti-Semitism and is hostile to the very existence of Israel. But even the more mainstream European public does not feel a sense of identification with Israel. Jews and Israelis are no longer seen as the sympathetic underdogs needing protection, as in the view held immediately after the Holocaust. Today, many Europeans view the Palestinians as innocent, downtrodden victims of Israeli militarism and expansionism.
The Arab-Israeli Conflict in American Political Culture is a must-read for all those who want to grasp the subtlety and complexity of the many factors shaping American and European political views of Israel in the Arab-Israeli conflict.