Who Americanized the Israeli-Palestinian Debate?

Americanizing foreign conflicts is a common error, but the left isn't the only one to blame.

Supporters of the current U.S.-Israel relationship — where the United States provides billions of dollars in military aid for Israel every year and offers it diplomatic support at the UN Security Council — have in recent weeks complained about the left’s increasing Americanization of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Liel Liebovitz, a perceptive writer at Tablet (I highly recommend you read his piece on Borat, it’s probably the best thing ever written about the increasingly unfunny Sacha Baron Cohen), offered one of the first arguments of this sort in a piece published in early May. Responding to a Tweet from progressive New York Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman, he criticized progressives for drawing a direct analogy between African Americans and Palestinians:

Yesterday, responding to the onslaught of Palestinian violence against Israel, Congressman Bowman had this to say to his constituents: “Whether it’s the infringement of human and civil rights of Palestinians living in Sheikh Jarrah, the violence against those praying in the Al-Aqsa mosque during the holy month of Ramadan in East Jerusalem… my heart is breaking for people around the world experiencing oppression and hurt.” And in case the virtue signal wasn’t heard loudly or clearly enough, Bowman added in a tweet, “enough of Black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered.” […]

So let’s be clear as day: Israel isn’t America, Jews aren’t white, and Palestinians aren’t “Black and brown people.” Judaism is an identity that predates “race,” just as it predates America, and the sin of slavery, and the idea of nations and the Christian and Muslim faiths.

My friend Bari Weiss offered the same critique in an interview with New York Democratic Rep. Ritchie Torres, who tends to be more supportive of the current U.S.-Israel relationship:

Let’s talk about some of that rhetoric that's been coming out the left wing of the Democratic Party. Congresswoman Cori Bush likened American police brutality to Israeli state violence. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts said Palestinians “are being told the same thing as black folks in America. There is no acceptable form of resistance.” Jamaal Bowman, your colleague from New York, said “enough of black and brown bodies being brutalized and murdered” — as if the majority of Israeli Jews aren’t people of color. […]

The notion that Israel should never have come into existence, that notion Israel is committing the worst human rights atrocities on planet Earth — those are canards that have been with us for a long time. But the statements that I just read to you, those to me seem new. Those are about grafting American parochial racial politics onto a foreign conflict

The latest salvo in this argument comes from Matti Friedman, a former Associated Press reporter who has spent years criticizing how that organization covers the Middle East, insinuating that it is biased towards the Palestinian narrative. Friedman is disturbed not only by the imposition of American social dynamics on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the rest of the world as well:

Western observers are often tempted to see foreign countries as mirrors of their own, because it makes a story more compelling for members of their audience, who are interested—who isn’t?—mainly in themselves. And it means they can analyze other societies without going to the considerable trouble of studying them, learning their language, or even visiting. So Narendra Modi of India is Donald Trump, and France’s problem is racial inequality, and Dutch conservatives are Republicans. It’s seductive to think that everything you need to know you learned back in Berkeley. […]

The truth is that Israel is a small country in the Middle East that has nothing to do with the demons stalking America. We have our own demons. Conflating them won’t make either country’s problems easier to understand or solve.

Some on the left are unfazed by these critiques. Peter Beinart penned a piece this week arguing that analogizing the Palestinians to African Americans is “good” because American Jews should see “the analogy between Black Americans and Palestinians not as a threat to our identity, but as an invitation to struggle for justice.”

I should say here that I actually find a lot to like in the Liebowitz/Weiss/Friedman argument. It bothers me to no end when Americans try to tell other people in other parts of the world how to live. One of my early jobs in Washington was working at a Democratic-leaning thinking, the Center for American Progress. The people at that institution who were leading policy on Afghanistan had only just recently visited the country and had never lived there. After twenty years in Afghanistan, it’s pretty clear that America had no idea how to manage the affairs of that country. We often have the arrogance of believing that the world is so similar to us that we can apply our values and sort everything else out.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue has its own origins and dynamics that are, in many ways, completely indigenous and quite different from anything that is happening in the United States. It deserves to be analyzed within its own context.

But I think it’s worth asking the question of who exactly made the error of Americanizing the conflict first.

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For decades, supporters of a strong U.S.-Israel relationship made arguments that positioned Israel as a country an American-style liberal democracy that shares our values and faces the same kinds of threats.

For instance, on September 12, 2001 — one day after the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history — New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman penned a piece analogizing the security challenges Americans and Israelis face. He gave ample room to Israeli officials to make their case that Americans should now understand what Palestinian terrorism is like:

DO you get it now?

It is a question that many Israelis wanted to ask yesterday of America and the rest of the finger-pointing world. Not in a smart-alecky manner. Not to say, ''We told you so.'' It was simply a question for those who, at a safe remove from the terrorism that Israelis face every day, have damned Israel for taking admittedly harsh measures to keep its citizens alive.

''Suppose I had intelligence reports telling me that someone was going to hijack a Boeing 757 and crash it into the World Trade Center,'' an Israeli official said yesterday. ''And suppose I used an M-16 to kill him. According to the arguments being used against us, I'd be an assassin, illegally using American weapons.''

James Bennett, who at this point was also employed by the Times, penned a piece published the same day editorializing that the blood spilled on 9/11 would draw Israel and the United States closer:

In that piece, none other than Benjamin Netanyahu, at that point a former Prime Minister, gushed about the potential of the attack to boost U.S. support for Israel:

Asked tonight what the attack meant for relations between the United States and Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister, replied, ''It's very good.'' Then he edited himself: ''Well, not very good, but it will generate immediate sympathy.'' He predicted that the attack would ''strengthen the bond between our two peoples, because we've experienced terror over so many decades, but the United States has now experienced a massive hemorrhaging of terror.''

Netanyahu, who would go on to become Israel’s longest-serving Prime Minister, did not rely on security challenges alone to analogize Israel and the United States. He has been quick to argue that the United States and Israel have shared values and culture. From his remarks at the 2010 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) conference:

My friends, as the world faces monumental challenges, I know that America and Israel will face them together. We stand together because we're fired by the same ideals and inspired by the same dreams -- the dreams of achieving prosperity, security, and peace for all.

Notice that Netanyahu is very specific here. He says that our countries are driven by the “same ideals” and the “same dreams.” That’s Americanization if I’ve ever seen it.

This is hardly unique to Netanyahu. Supporters of the relationship frequently make these sorts of arguments. Israel is a democracy, like the United States. Israel shares cultural values with the United States.

Here’s former President Donald Trump, also speaking at an AIPAC conference:

I came here to speak to you about where I stand on the future of American relations with our strategic ally, our unbreakable friendship and our cultural brother, the only democracy in the Middle East, the state of Israel.

Maryland Democratic Rep. Steny Hoyer, a key member of the party's Congressional leadership, also speaking at an AIPAC conference:

One of the freshman Members who came with us had been anxious before our departure. She wasn’t sure what to expect from her first visit. But on the last day, she tearfully told us that she understood what Israel is all about. That it is a land of complexity, a special place like America whose diversity is reflected in its vibrant democracy.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, at the same event:

The relationship between our two countries has been so strong precisely because it has transcended partisan politics, both here and in Israel… and because it is built on our shared values: Freedom and democracy… law and justice… integrity and compassion... innovation and ingenuity.

New Jersey Democratic Senator Bob Menendez, who chairs the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, again speaking at that event:

And we must remember why we are pro-Israel – a position I’ve always believed is derived from the better angels of our nature. Hope over fear. Democracy over despotism. Human rights over hatred. These values keep the U.S.-Israel relationship strong. […]

These values do not belong to Democrats or Republicans. They belong to the American people. They belong to the Israeli people. And they belong to all people around the world who know what it’s like to be oppressed and who value a participatory political system rooted in justice, equality, and the rule of law.

As you can see, supporters of the U.S.-Israeli relationship have spent decades arguing that the United States and Israel share similar security challenges, have similar cultural values, and a similar form of government. During these flare-ups with Gaza, the Israeli government and its defenders show no hesitation directly analogizing the plight of Israelis and Americans.

How often have you heard some variation of the argument, “Imagine if Mexico was shooting rockets at America”? The Israeli Defense Forces even put out an ominous video asking us to “Imagine if it was Washington” followed by imagery of rocket fire aimed at Israel:

It should not be any surprise that defenders of the U.S.-Israel status quo have taken to analogizing the two countries. They are using a psychological technique called moral reframing — they’re speaking to the values of the people who they want to persuade. Most Americans, naturally, like their own country and its values. Convincing them that Israel holds similar values and faces similar threats is an intelligent way to make the case that the U.S. should continue to strongly support the Israeli government.

What’s changed in recent years is not that the conflict has been Americanized. It’s who is doing the Americanizing. Increasingly, progressives are taking the same tact. They’re asking why a country that portrays itself as a vibrant democracy that is tolerant of minority rights is holding millions of people under a military occupation that Israeli and American human rights groups have analogized to the conditions of Apartheid in South Africa.

Yes, it’s true that some of these analogies are ham-fisted and don’t capture the complexity of the underlying conflicts. For instance, Israel does face real threats from terrorism at levels that don’t exist here in the U.S. But one reason we can’t directly compare Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians to America’s treatment of African Americans is because the former is in many ways much worse. Israeli law does not permit children under the age of 12 from being arrested. Palestinian kids under that age are arrested and abused all the time. Can you imagine some state passing such a law in the United States? All hell would break loose, and rightly so.

But if we’ve been told for decades now that the United States and Israel are analogous countries with similar values, it’s entirely fair to ask why Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians falls short of the values we as Americans hold. Turnabout is fair play.

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