The Arab-Israeli Con­flict in Amer­i­can Polit­i­cal Culture

Jonathan Ryn­hold
  • Review
By – December 23, 2015

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.

Relat­ed Content:

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions