Why has the United States historically supported Israel? And should the Democratic Party continue to uphold this bipartisan support? Democratic candidates on the campaign trail this election cycle are repeatedly asked where they stand. This question gets at the very core of the party’s values, so much so that when the New York Times asked candidates just 18 questions, their opinion on whether Israel meets international standards of human rights was number four.
While the Trump administration and the Republican Party have unequivocally embraced Israel, the Democratic Party is embroiled in contentious debates about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. The issue currently divides establishment liberals from a rising—and more radical—left within the party. The results of the debate on how Democrats should discuss and interface with Israel are of utmost importance. For while the Republican Party may frame itself as Israel’s primary patron, it is, in fact, liberal Democrats who sustain US support for Israel and undermine Palestinian freedom.
There is a growing conversation in American academia and government that reexamines the special relationship between the United States and Israel.1 American liberals produced cultural works, explains literary and cultural theorist Amy Kaplan in Our American Israel, that constructed a powerful identification with Israel across broad American audiences. American liberals, moreover, were the architects of a skewed diplomacy, as historian Seth Anziska shows in Preventing Palestine, that bolstered Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory. And some even served as foot soldiers for Israeli conquest, as historian Sara Yael Hirschhorn shows in City on a Hilltop, by moving to West Bank settlements to undermine Palestinian self-determination. At a time when Israeli violations of international law and apartheid policies are widely condemned, this scholarship highlights a conundrum: Why are American liberals so enamored with an illiberal state?
By championing Israel as one of their virtuous causes, liberal Americans were able to exonerate their own country from the sins that plague both its history and its present. Narrating Israel as a definitive case of persecuted refugees seeking self-determination, therefore, served to reflect an improved version of America back onto itself, one not ridden with the contradictions between manifest destiny and the violent conquest perpetrated domestically and abroad. These contradictions haunted American liberals, who professed commitment to human and civil rights yet hedged on accepting accountability for US imperialism and settler colonialism.
By analyzing US culture, diplomacy, and migration, these three books shed new light on how liberal Americans enabled Israel. What should have been recognized as a settler colonial anomaly—at a time when decolonization movements swept the world—was reframed by American liberals as an ultimate redress of injustice. In so doing, they empowered Israel to occupy Palestinian territory for over seven decades, perpetrating another grave injustice.
American liberals are captivated by the righteousness they see in Israeli military might, which has always served as the foundation of their allegiance. By interrogating its moral identification with Israel, liberal America might come to acknowledge the racial violence it has actively and tacitly supported both within and outside its borders.
The American consensus on Israel formed in the wake of World War II, explains Amy Kaplan in Our American Israel, when an American discourse emerged that identified with Israel and served its interests. Shortly after Israel’s founding, in 1948, liberal American journalists and writers set the tone on the nascent country as a virtuous project for decades to come. Liberal publications laid the groundwork for this consensus by “Americanizing” the idea of Israel, using New World symbols and mythologies that resonated with their readership. The identification was further strengthened by depicting the Jewish Israeli population as European and white, not Semitic or Arab like the land’s Palestinian natives.
Consequently, at a time of postwar disillusionment with the promise of American and internationalist left ideals, liberal Americans became enamored with Israel. The Jewish state evoked images of the American frontier, restored faith in progressive values, and offered moral clarity. Israel was framed as a novel enterprise reviving the struggle against fascism and securing social equality, ushered in by the UN and a new era of international governance. American journalists, intellectuals, and politicians created a framework through which to understand Israel that wedded humanitarian advocacy for refugees with support for a liberation movement vying for national sovereignty. This framework also explained away Arab objections with assurances that a Jewish state would surely benefit the local population.
Among the first writers and journalists to travel to Israel in its early days were Freda Kirchwey and I. F. Stone, who tried to make sense of Israel’s relationship to Palestinian refugees. Though they presumably knew of Zionist militias’ massacres of Palestinians—such as in the village of Deir Yassin—these writers’ conviction that Israel was a just project prevented them from understanding violence, intimidation, and mass expulsion as the conditions of possibility for the new state’s existence. Crucially, this conviction also prevented many liberal Americans from extending the same argument for the humanitarian and political rights of refugees to Palestinians as they had to Jews.
This emerging framework by which liberals understood Israel, Kaplan shows, was sufficient to resolve all contradictions between ideals and reality. From the writings of Kirchwey and Stone through Leon Uris’s infamous 1958 novel Exodus, American cultural works created a powerful narrative that could explain away Israeli aggression, from the Nakba, in 1948, to the conquest of the West Bank and Gaza in 1967.
Yet this liberal consensus was ultimately challenged by Israel’s prolonged military occupation of Palestinian territory; the challenges accelerated with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, the Sabra and Shatila massacre, and the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987. Israeli military aggression and images of its military atrocities undermined the narrative of Israel as a besieged underdog. But rather than fundamentally destabilizing support or prompting structural questions about its history, these events impelled liberal Americans to reinforce their commitment to ideas of Israel’s more “virtuous origins” and “exceptional morality” in ways that echoed American exceptionalism.
Even as Israeli aggressions of the 1980s were argued away as aberrations—or as stemming from the state’s more “primitively brutal” Arab neighbors—a new narrative was taking shape to make sense of Israel’s actions. Liberal Americans coalesced around a new, corrective consensus that framed the issue as a conflict of two peoples fighting for one land, to be resolved by mutual recognition. But this narrative of symmetrical claims to a homeland continued to obfuscate the disparities in power and violence between Israelis and Palestinians, which many Americans were already conditioned to overlook.
New scholarship on Israel highlights a conundrum: Why are American liberals so enamored with an illiberal state?
In this way, liberal America’s long-awaited acknowledgment of Palestinian national rights most critically undermined those very rights. When translated to diplomacy, as Seth Anziska shows in Preventing Palestine, this recognition enshrined the inequitable status quo. The Carter administration’s Camp David talks in 1978 were the first time since Israel’s founding that Palestinian self-determination was discussed on a global scale and brought to negotiation. Unlike the Nixon and Ford administrations, which bypassed the question of Palestinian rights altogether, the Carter administration framed its policy in the Middle East through human rights rhetoric and as a break from Kissinger’s détente. But in fact, Anziska reveals, American diplomatic efforts to discuss the Palestinian plight legitimized Israeli sovereignty over Palestinian territory.
Precisely when a just resolution appeared viable, the United States worked with Israel and Egypt to form a regional peace deal that excluded Palestinians and failed to address the foundational demands of their national platform. Consistent with the enduring liberal American framework on Israel, the Camp David negotiations normalized Israeli settlement expansion and de facto annexation of Palestinian territory and legitimized Palestinian self-rule only as narrowly defined by Israel itself. Following pressure from the other parties and concessions made by the PLO, the question of Palestinian sovereignty was negotiated with no discussion of territory, replaced with mere autonomy. Anziska shows that Camp David was the watershed moment—setting the precedent for the Oslo Accords and all future US-facilitated talks—that effectively foreclosed meaningful Palestinian self-determination.
While the US government enshrined Israel’s occupation through diplomacy, some American liberals went so far as to support Israeli colonization of Palestinian territory on the front lines. Among those American Jews who migrated to Israel, Sara Yael Hirschhorn reveals in City on a Hilltop, a disproportionate number moved to West Bank settlements on Palestinian lands. Challenging popular perceptions of Jewish American settlers, she argues that many of the leaders and zealous activists of the settler movement were liberals back in the United States. Excavating stories of the first cohorts of American settlers in the West Bank, Hirschhorn elucidates how American liberals came to participate in what she mildly describes as an “illiberal project.”
The Six-Day War was a turning point for Jewish Americans who were sympathetic to or active in the left movements of the 1960s and ’70s. Israel’s victory signaled the first major rift between American Jewish Zionists and the civil rights and anti–Vietnam War movements, bringing to the fore the contradictions between their commitment to Israel and their anticolonial, antiwar agendas. Future Jewish American settlers resolved this identity crisis by fully embracing the Jewish nationalist agenda, though many narrate their obligation to the settlement enterprise as simply an enduring activist impulse from the liberal commitments of their youth. They enlisted in a project they saw, and many still define, as a struggle for “Jewish human and civil rights,” only, as it happens, in Palestinian territory.
Jewish-American-liberals-turned-settlers understand the incongruence between liberal values and Israel’s military occupation and have definitively chosen sides. Their support for Israel resolved the contradictions of their liberalism by prompting them to abandon its tenets altogether. Instead, they fully committed to the dream of the colonial frontier that, as Americans, they could no longer live out.
Israel was crucial for liberals, these scholars show, throughout historic moments of uncertainty, such as World War II, the civil rights movement, and the Vietnam War. Indeed, they show that Israel’s role at these times was to absolve the United States of the injustices of its racial violence and conquest by serving as its more righteous reflection. To do this, Israel needed to be exonerated of its own sins—from the Nakba to the invasion of Lebanon and the Second Intifada—which American liberals were quick to excuse.
But now young Democrats and Democratic members of Congress have forced open a conversation about US policy on Israel, demanding that the American government address Israel’s violation of Palestinian human, civil, and national rights. If American liberals want to resolve the contradictions of their traditional positions—and offer a true alternative to the Trump administration—they must begin with a reckoning with their support for Israel.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.
- David Lloyd and Laura Pulido, “In the Long Shadow of the Settler: On Israeli and U.S. Colonialisms,” American Quarterly, vol. 62, no. 4 (2010). ↩