Imagine, for a moment, that a US ally that is not Israel - say, Turkey - killed an unarmed American civilian on an unarmed ship in international waters by four bullets to the head at close range. And imagine that president Obama decided that we shouldn't rush to judgment and that Turkey was in an understandable bind, because it was enforcing an embargo on a tiny strip of (say, Kurdish) land it had recently strafed with missiles and bullets, killing over a thousand. The land was home to an elected Kurdish government that was viciously terroristic - even totalitarian in some respects - and wanted to destroy Turkey, even though it had few means to accomplish this. The Kurds, like the Palestinians, had no homeland at all, and were now suffering greatly under the blockade and embargo.
Can you imagine how the Republican right would explode at this example of classic Obama "weakness" and "appeasement"? Can you even conceive that the American right would actually champion and celebrate Turkey's attack - and be far more solicitous of Turkey's actions than any of America's allies? Can you imagine that the conservative British prime minister would be more outraged at this attack on a defenseless ship and the murder of an American citizen than the president of the United States?
This counterfactual really does help reveal that for much of the Republican right, Israel simply isn't a foreign country at all. For many Christianists, it is part of a civilizational war of Judeo-Christianity (an obvious oxymoron) against Islam. Not Islamism, Islam. Ever wonder why Sarah Palin, the next GOP nominee, wore a twinned Israeli-American flag lapel for an address to the Tea Party convention? Ever wonder why every rule we normally apply to foreign countries is automatically suspended when it comes to Israel?
The other dimension is the deep and understandable commitment of many American Jews, particularly of the older generation, to Israel, right or wrong. You listen to Anthony Weiner, for example, a left-liberal Democratic firebrand on almost every issue, suddenly becoming an uber-neoconservative in foreign policy in one area, and one area alone: Israel. The idea of a Jewish congressman actually taking Israel's policies on is close to absurd. Name one. This is not a conspiracy. It is a mindset.
I grabbed some food the other night with a longtime Jewish friend. We had an honest conversation - the kind you cannot have on US television. He's a big liberal but strongly sided with Israel in this latest incident. Why? "They're my people." But you're an American, I countered, you're not an Israeli, let alone a supporter of Netanyahu. None of that mattered to him. His attachment to Israel was indistinguishable from his attachment to America, and, if push came to shove, Israel came first, right or wrong. This had been dinned into him since childhood. His iPhone was deluged with texts from relatives and friends all appalled by any criticism of the commando attack, and immediately seeing it as anti-Semitic or designed to end the state of Israel for ever.
To charge dual loyalty is described as a blood libel, a vile anti-Semitic charge, and it often is. But my friend was very frank about it and unapologetic. That's just the way it is, he said. It was deeply ingrained. Greenwald wonders why this question is rarely asked:
I had it continuously drummed into my head from the time I was a small child, from every direction, that Israel was special and was to be cherished, that it's fundamentally good but persecuted and victimized by Evil Arab forces surrounding it, that I am a part of that group and should see the world accordingly. Is this tribal identity which was pummeled into me from childhood -- rather than some independent, dispassionate analysis -- the reason I find myself perpetually sympathizing with and defending Israel?
But in my experience, this question is asked and answered. In fact, it is fully owned and sustained by memories of the Holocaust, and a narrative of Jewish history in which persecution is the default and permanent position of the Jewish people, even when they exercize overwhelming strength, as they do in Israel.
And there is much to admire and treasure in this. No decent human being who has a grasp of history, let alone the enormity of the Shoah, can fail to have a deep sympathy for the Jewish people, Israel, and respect for its enormous achievements. But the fanaticism and emotionalism that many Jewish Americans have with respect to Israel is so intense that, for some, it overwhelms rationality, and makes a cool strategic analysis of America's national interest close to impossible. Their total identification with Israel is often emotionally as strong, if not stronger, as their identification with America.
And this tragically means that an honest disagreement with Israel's policies is sometimes taken as a breach of friendship, a profound personal betrayal, rather than a moral and political judgment about the actions of a foreign country. It means that the head of the Mossad can be more rational in his assessment of US national interest than Joe Biden. You reach a brick wall in this. And we might as well admit it.
It has pained me enormously to have obviously hurt my countless Jewish friends and colleagues because I cannot support, morally or strategically, the actions of Israel these past two years, and especially its virulent disdain for the new American president who represented, it seems to me, the best chance for Israel in decades. I realize that the difference is that while I admire and support Israel, I do not identify with it. For me, it is a foreign country and an ally. To them it is something far more profound and indelible. So when I attack Israel's policies, it feels as if I am attacking them. I really am not. But I cannot erase how they feel; and I understand why they feel it.
Tribalism, of course, is universal. It is by no means the exclusive property of Jewish Americans. Irish-Americans retain a similar knee-jerk alliance with entities that plenty of people in Ireland find repugnant - just as Israelis are far more candid in their debates than Americans are. Trust me, in my own family, I know the nature of this kind of identification and the righteousness of it in many instances. Many Muslim Americans are as knee-jerk - often more so - about the Middle East as Jewish Americans. But this crisis is, as Peter Beinart has noted, a crisis among American Jews as much as anything, and the inability of some, especially in the older generation, to move even a millimeter away from orthodoxies and rigidities that are becoming almost comically anachronistic, is becoming a form of tragedy.
I think, by the way, that this is the reason some jump so quickly onto the anti-Semitism charge, even when they know that many critics of Israel's policies are not bigots. They simply cannot absorb the idea that people they like and even love believe that Israel is doing wrong, horrible, categorical wrong, and that this is undeniable. And so they cannot explain the criticism, except as a form of self-hatred or animus.
This isn't universal among American Jews, of course, and is mercifully declining in the younger generation. But it is far more common than we might want to admit. It has already deeply hurt American interests and Israeli security. And since it appears it will not really relent for a while yet, who knows what further damage it can do, unless we open up a more honest conversation about it?
(Photo: a pro-Israel demonstration in New York City, by Mario Tama/Getty.)