Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance by Amy Kaplan, Harvard University Press (2018)
In December 2016, white nationalist Richard Spencer left the rabbi of Texas A&M’s Hillel slack-jawed and flabbergasted by drawing a parallel between his movement and Zionism.
The rabbi invited Spencer to study the Torah’s message of “radical inclusion and love” with him, presumably as an antidote to Spencer’s hate-filled views.
“Do you really want radical inclusion into the State of Israel?” Spencer retorted. “And by that I mean radical inclusion. Maybe all of the Middle East could go move into Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. Would you really want that?”
“I’m not answering,” the rabbi finally stammered after an awkward silence.
Spencer’s admiration for Zionism exemplifies what Amy Kaplan, in her seminal book Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance, refers to as “the darker shadows of shared exceptionalism” between the US and Israel.
Kaplan recognizes that “Americans do share with Israel a foundational narrative, in which national liberation from colonial rules rests on the history of colonial conquest, and stories of exodus from tyranny rely on the dispossession of indigenous people.” Through this acknowledgment, Kaplan inverts the platitudes of politicians who parrot the unshakeable, unbreakable alliance between the countries.
Kaplan, a professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania who worked in the field of American studies, died in July. Her friend and colleague Judith Frank paid tribute to her as “an extraordinary thinker and writer whose work on the culture of US imperialism transformed the field and will resonate for generations of scholars to come.”
Her final book was her first devoted to Israel, or, more accurately, to the cultural underpinnings of US support for Israel. It is a masterpiece that will undoubtedly augment Frank’s assessment of her scholarly contributions.
Like a cultural archaeologist sifting through the topsoil of quotidian and vacuous political talking points, Kaplan digs deep to uncover the bedrock cultural valences which provide such a solid base of US support for Israel.
For anyone looking for an explanation for this political phenomenon that goes beyond diplomatic histories, studies of domestic interest groups and US imperial strategy, this book is a must-read.
Kaplan expertly weaves together a compelling argument for the religious, historical and cultural factors that make up the tapestry of US support for Israel by examining fiction and nonfiction books, movies, television shows, songs and sermons.
The title of her book is borrowed from a Thanksgiving sermon preached by Massachusetts minister Abiel Abbot in 1799. “The people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe,” Abbot said. “Hence, ‘our American Israel,’ is a term frequently used” and apt, according to Abbot.
Kaplan notes that “this parallel with biblical Israel conferred an exceptional identity on the United States right from the start.” This exceptionalism “grounded the unstable identity of the new American nation-state in the known typology of the biblical Israel.”
This identity was construed in an exclusivist fashion and “effaced the memory of the Native communities that had been exterminated by warfare, disease, commerce and agriculture to make way for the divinely chosen nation.”
Although Kaplan begins the book at the dawn of the 19th century, her narrative focuses on the manifold ways in which US cultural production since the end of World War II has served to buttress US support for Zionism. She examines how Israel is often viewed as a proxy for the deeply-rooted fears, prejudices and aspirations of primarily – but not exclusively – white, male, Christian US society.
Kaplan wades through the schlock of low-brow, mainstream US culture to prove her point. From the Orientalist blockbuster book and movie Exodus, to the mawkish millenarianism of the Christian Zionist Left Behind book series, Kaplan superbly demonstrates how Israel is often used as a stand-in for what the US should aspire to be and as a reminder of what the US has supposedly lost in the minds of these cultural producers.
(She also takes up the laugh-out-loud improbable plotline of the naval intelligence procedural TV series NCIS involving a character named Ari Ashrawi (yes, you read that right), whose father is the head of Mossad and whose mother is a Palestinian doctor.)
Unsurprisingly, for the Christian and Jewish men who produce this culture, the manly, muscular, virile Israeli is often counterpoised to a supposedly effete, flaccid, decadent American in hyper-gendered and sexualized terms.
Thus, Leon Uris’ Exodus protagonist Ari Ben Canaan is presented as the remedy to the domesticated, suburbanized Wally Cleaver of the Leave It to Beaver Eisenhower era. The Left Behind series is a warning for a morally bankrupt US which has eschewed military muscularity and patriarchal “family values” in the post-Vietnam War era in favor of détente, nuclear disarmament and women’s reproductive rights.
And in a post-9/11 world, NCIS instructs its viewers to drop its namby-pamby insistence on civil rights to adopt an Israeli-style panopticon approach to security.
Zionism as liberal cause
Kaplan also expertly demonstrates how nonfiction books have helped shape the discourse for a policy of US support for Israel.
Joan Peters’ shabby and fraudulent From Time Immemorial – which skews Ottoman Empire demographic data to posit that Arabs in Palestine were newcomers who immigrated to benefit from Zionist economic development – receives the scorn it so richly deserves.
Kaplan also resurrects long-forgotten tracts and puts a new spin on more recent, well-known ones.
An example of the former is Bartley Crum’s Behind the Silken Curtain: A Personal Account of Anglo-American Diplomacy in Palestine and the Middle East. Crum was a progressive, Catholic civil rights lawyer who was active in the anti-lynching movement in the US and the anti-fascist effort in Spain.
Crum was appointed as a US delegate to the Anglo-American Committee of Inquiry, which in 1946 recommended the admittance into Palestine of 100,000 Jewish displaced persons who survived the Holocaust. The committee, however, did not endorse the Zionist political goal of Jewish sovereignty in Palestine.
Crum was so far to the left on the political spectrum, Kaplan notes, that the State Department tried to block the appointment of “Comrade Crum.”
Although Crum acknowledged the justice of Palestinian claims, as he recalls in his writings, he was ultimately won over to Zionism through the contrast he witnessed between the gut-wrenching scenes in displaced persons camps in Europe and the thriving Zionist community in Palestine.
In Palestine, “many of the Jewish children I saw were blond and blue-eyed, a mass mutation that, I was told, is yet to be adequately explained,” Crum wrote. Kaplan astutely notes how Crum’s racialized views disposed him to view the Zionist project as an extension of the American frontier.
“By returning to the ancient homeland, the stooped ghetto Jews, bowed by exile, were restored to their roots as brawny and muscular workers of the land. At the same time, they came to look more like white Americans,” she writes.
Crum’s book and subsequent advocacy played a large role in seeding the ground for US support for the partition of Palestine in 1947. His story is one example among many in Kaplan’s book which shows that Zionism was very much a liberal, and even progressive, cause during that critical period.
Kaplan also demonstrates how more recent nonfiction books have played a key role in shaping US discourse on Israel and the Palestinian people. In the aftermath of Israel’s horrific invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and its brutal suppression of the intifada beginning in 1987, sympathy for the Palestinian cause began to build appreciably in the US.
To head off criticism of Israel, “a liberal consensus emerged in the 1980s around a narrative of two peoples fighting over one land, and a belief that only mutual recognition could resolve the conflict between them,” Kaplan writes.
This distorted consensus posited a symmetry between Israel and the Palestinian people, rather than locating the relationship in its actual position of colonizer versus colonized. This “both sides” rhetoric formed the basis of the “peace process” which predominates to this day.
Kaplan highlights the formative contributions that two New York Times correspondents – David Shipler and Thomas Friedman – made to build this consensus.
In Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land, Shipler portrays a psychological equivalency between traumatized Jewish and Palestinian collectives. In From Beirut to Jerusalem, Friedman sketches a political equivalency between Israel and the Palestinians.
Through these and many more excavations and reinterpretations, written so fluidly, gracefully and analytically, Kaplan has left us with a resonant book that provides so much clarity and depth of understanding to the question of why US support for Israel is so tenacious and enduring.
Josh Ruebner is Adjunct Professor in the Justice and Peace Studies Department at Georgetown University.