The election of Barak Obama brought to surface doubt among some Israelis regarding American Jewry’s identification with, and commitment to the state of the Jews. Within Israel Bush is seen as friend and benefactor. How, the thinking goes, could the US community vote so overwhelmingly against Israel’s perceived interests? But what if it is Israel, rather than American Jewry, that was wrong about Bush? And what does this election result suggest about how our two communities see the world and the security of the Jewish people as we enter our third millennium of Diaspora? Israel is preoccupied with her “special relationship” with the US; worried too regarding its appeal to, and continuing support by the Diaspora. Where Israel appears increasingly uncomfortable, American Jewry appears confident and comfortable. Is Diaspora identity and support really the source of Israeli unease, or is the source closer to home? And is American Jewry justified in its security and confidence?
Antisemitism through the ages
For 1,900 years, since the end of the final war with Rome, the Jewish people have lived dispersed until Israeli independence in 1948. For the first millennium Jews were somewhat tolerated by the church, inheritor from Rome of the renamed Holy Roman Empire. But the First Crusade of 1096 marked a significant worsening of conditions for Jews. En route to wrest the Holy Land from the Moslems, the crusaders prepared for war by slaughtering what they called the enemy in their midst. Whole communities of Jews fell to crusader sword, were burned alive in synagogue and home, were thrown into rivers and drowned, a “baptism” according to their murderers.
The Dark Ages represents a significant step forward in demonizing the Jews. We were accused of poisoning Christian wells to spread the Black Plague; accused of kidnapping and crucifying Christian boys before Passover to provide “innocent blood” believed important in baking matzoth. Leading rabbis, it was believed, held a conclave once-yearly to choose the Jewish community to be honored with the crucifixion, an early version of the 19th century fabrication, the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. A third myth held that Jews steal the “host,” ceremonial bread representing the body of Christ, in order to murder the Christian messiah again. Paintings of the time represent Jews stabbing the bleeding host.
The inquisition, created to uncover and eliminate heresy within the church, functioned from the late 14th to the early 20th century. With the expulsion of Islam from the Iberian Peninsula Spain turned its attention to cleansing the land of the Jews, who were given the choice of conversion or expulsion. Jews who elected conversion were labeled Marranos, or pigs, and were suspected of being insincere in their conversion. Accused of remaining Jewish at home, while appearing Christian in public, thousands were tortured until, confessing their heresy, they were burned at the stake. In dealing with its “Marranos heresy” the Spanish Inquisition also introduced the concept of “limpieza de sangre,” or purity of blood. Applicants for the clergy were required to prove they were free of Jewish blood. With slight change of emphasis 450 years later Germany would adapt purity of blood as its criterion for murder.
Life for Jews remained precarious following the Protestant Reformation. In his last work on the subject, The Jews and their Lies, 1543, Martin Luther described Jews as "poisonous envenomed worms" and recommended that their “synagogues and schools be set on fire,” their prayer books be destroyed, their homes burned. At their trials at Nuremberg, Nazi leaders referred to Luther as their guide, their justification for antisemitism and genocide. Five centuries before the event Luther set the agenda for Holocaust.
With the Age of Reason, beginning in the 17th century, Europe grew increasingly secular. Jews, freed from centuries of religious persecution, from ownership as serfs were, in the emergent nation-states, to be subjected to something far worse. With religion less important than nationality, Jews were now considered an alien nationality, a people apart, Other. Conversion, the religious ticket for social inclusion ceased to be an escape from identity, a path to assimilation. And for those who still sought conversion as path to acceptance and advancement, with the election of Adolph Hitler as chancellor of Germany Jews were defined neither by religion nor allegiance to state, but by limpieza de sangre, purity of blood. And the blood of a single Jewish grandparent was a sentence to death.
The kidnapping and forced conversion of the Jewish child Edgardo Mortara by the Church in Rome and the trumped up conviction of Dreyfus in France; the lynching of Leo Frank by an American mob made up of lawyers, judges, politicians and other professional elites; the bloody pogroms in Russia and Eastern Europe; all these reinforced awareness amongst Jews that the secularization of society not only failed to end discrimination, but continued to subject them to physical danger from neighbor and country. For an assimilated journalist from Vienna observing mobs racing through the streets of Paris in antisemitic rage over the Dreyfus Affair, it was clear that Jews would never be safe in Diaspora. The answer, according to Herzl, was nothing short of a revolution in Jewish awareness, of self-emancipation, of Jewish national liberation: Political Zionism.
America the Exception?
We in the United States carry ourselves with confidence, comfortable in our “goldene medina.” But what in our history justifies our confidence? Antisemitism is as old in the New World as our first immigrants seeking sanctuary in colonial New Amsterdam. Greeted at the dock by Peter Stuyvesant, they were unceremoniously told that the colony is Christian and Jews are not welcome. Following the Civil War General and later president Ulysses Grant issued his infamous order informing Jews that, regarding entry into the newly defeated states of the Confederacy, they are again, not welcome. And, around the time Leo Frank was lynched by that genteel Georgia mob, Congress was busily drafting legislation aimed at limiting entry to immigrants of “Nordic” stock, that again, Jews are not welcome. And twenty years later these restrictive laws would provide legal cover and future deniability for the United States closing heart and border to Jews fleeing the Holocaust, for condemning, with full knowledge, Europe’s Jews to the ovens of Auschwitz. Even at the cost of life, Jews were not welcome.
Antisemitism was as widespread in the US before and during Shoah as it was in Europe. Henry Ford and Charles Lindberg, antisemites and isolationists, well represented this national mood. Both considered running for president, were the hoped-for choice of the Republican Party for president. Had either decided to run and, as was very possible, won, then it is very possible that such a government would either have remained true to its isolationist program, neutral in the war almost assuring a German victory. Or, also very possible, that government might have actively joined Hitler’s crusade against atheistic Communism, another popular notion of the time. In either case it is unlikely that local antisemitism, inspired by Nazi Europe, would have been long restrained in expanding the limits of American eugenics to Europe’s lethal conclusion. And taking into consideration that, like Germany, the US had concentration camps, if limited to Japanese-American, this precedent too provides a chilling warning for what nearly was, what is historically available as precedent for the future.
In 1976 General George Brown, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, decided that Israel was a burden to the United States, informed the press that the only reason he could see for US support was pressure by those who “controlled the press, banking and the government,” a not subtle reference to Jews.
In November, 1986 the Reagan Administration, embarrassed by public disclosure of its illegal money-laundering and gun-running operations known as Irangate, attempted to shift blame for the affair to Israel and her “supporters” for getting the US into the project. In fact Reagan had asked Israel and the Arab oil producers (who were not accused alongside Israel) for assistance in order to insulate the administration. Fast-forward to the present Iraq war; at a time when the war seemed spiraling out of control Bush spokesmen, following the lead of their Reagan predecessors, blamed Israel for having “encouraged” the Bush decision to invade. In fact administration insiders, including then CIA chief George Tennant, insist that Bush had already decided to invade Iraq even before entering the White House in 2001 (see, for example, Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, below). It was also reported that Israeli leaders and intelligence services, along with their Saudi counterparts and the CIA, had advised Bush not to invade, that Iran and not Iraq was the main threat; and that an attack on either country would destabilize the region.
American Eugenics and European Genocide
For decades before Hitler much of America’s elite, from politicians to academics to Supreme Court justices believed in, popularized and legalized the “science” of race improvement known as Eugenics. Long before Germany voted Nazi, American eugenics had already defined the ideal racial stock for America as “Nordic.” American eugenics was the inspiration and legal precedent for German laws aimed at improving their racial stock by eliminating the “unfit.” American eugenics was the foundation for German genocide. Until the United States entered the war against Germany American eugenicists continued to collaborate closely with their German counterparts, helping put into practice that which, in the US, was but a shadow of eugenics’ full potential in race purification.
In the aftermath of war, genocide and Holocaust American eugenicists intervened to rehabilitate the reputations of their former Nazi colleagues. As a result many were returned to their former positions of professional and political standing in the “new” Germany. And the influence of eugenics in America also continued after the war, promoting forced sterilization to limit birth of the “unfit,” promoting state laws to prosecute persons engaged in “miscegenation,” marriage or sexual relations between whites and other “racial” stock.
Following Shoah and motivated by guilt, the United States reluctantly voted for partition, then stood by again in passive complicity as the apparently endangered Jews appeared to face yet another holocaust. England openly supported and armed Israel’s Arab enemies, Egypt and Jordan. Only with the withdrawal of England from the Middle East, the United States now protector of Arab oil, did Israel enter the strategic calculation. Israel, American policy-makers recognized, would be useful as balance to Soviet supported radical Arab regimes threatening the oil-rich conservative Arab regimes. Israel’s “special relationship” with the United States is, at least for her senior partner, a convenience, important only so long as oil is at risk. Such sympathies as “shared values” may exist in popular lore, provide a sense of security for those seeking such, but in the end pragmatic national interest is what motivates decision-making. If Israel feels dependent, is insecure about the future of her “special relationship,” she has reason.
Bush as “friend” of Israel
According to then Treasury Secretary Paul O’Neil, at the first meeting of the National Security Council just ten days after the 2001 inauguration, Bush tasked those present to come up with a plausible reason to invade Iraq. Remember, this was more than two years before 9/11. From his 2003 decision to invade until his infamous 2008 secret letter to Bashar Assad the Bush Administration pursued what observers generously describe as a confused and contradictory Middle East policy. At times Israeli interests converged with those of Bush, as with their shared “war on terror,” and this may partly explain Israel’s positive regard for the man. But from a wider perspective, did the eight years of this administration help or harm the state of the Jews?
Until his final year in office Bush almost entirely ignored Arab-Israeli peace-making. On the rare occasions he did show interest, as with the Palestinian election of 2006, his intervention proved not only misguided but a regional disaster. Prior to the election Abbas and Israeli leaders, anticipating the Hamas victory, were unable to convince Bush. The president insisted the elections proceed on schedule with the result that, not only did Hamas win the election, but won also new respect and credibility among Palestinians. Within days Bush had second thoughts about his support of Palestinian democracy and concluded that Hamas had to go. With US funding, training and planning Fateh attempted a coup in Gaza. And again, not only did Hamas route Bush’s insurgents, but Hamas prestige among Palestinians soared, this time as a military force.
Barely two years later, with Israel one year into negotiations with Assad over peace and the future of the Golan (in face of Bush criticism for talking to that Axis of Evil country), in October, 2008 Bush sent PA president Abbas to Damascus to hand-deliver a personal and secret letter, president-to-president, Bush-to-Assad. Its contents, leaked to Arab media, assured Syria that in exchange for breaking relations with Iran, Israel would withdraw from the Golan before the end of the Bush presidency. Of course none of this had been even discussed with Israel. So whatever his personal ambitions or motives, Israeli security was not among his concerns. Should these examples raise questions regarding Bush as “friend” and “benefactor”? Is another example needed? Then consider his use of the 2007 US National Intelligence Estimate (NIE), his transfer of responsibility for dealing with Iran from the US to Israel.
Bush and the “Iranian Bomb”
A fair and not raised question regarding an Iranian bomb is against whom might such a weapon pose the greatest threat? Israel, now apparently abandoned to her own resources by Bush and Europe, is convinced that she is the primary target. While this may or not be true in the future it is not likely today. The ability to build a small nuclear device is not the same as possessing the technology and human resources to create a warhead, to produce a missile capable of accurate warhead delivery. So the immediate threat of a Nuclear Iran is not a high-tech weapon for nation-to-nation combat, but a small “dirty bomb” of the suitcase variety, a weapon more suited to hand-delivery by a terrorist. And since Israel likely has the best anti-terror defenses in the world, a softer target, such as Madrid or Chicago, would offer the better chance for success. Yet Israeli policy makers appear convinced that Israel is the primary target that, abandoned by the US and Europe; that, as a matter of self-defense, it is up to Israel to eliminate the threat, unilaterally if necessary. Certainly Ahmadinejad’s bluster contributes to raise the temperature, to feed the perception. But Israel is by decades of same accustomed to enemy bluster.
I suggest that, while naïve and not gifted in diplomacy, when it comes to public relations, to political manipulation, Bush is a master. Bush perceived Israeli sensitivity and exploited it. He sold Israel a bill of goods, and Israelis swallowed the bait hook, line and sinker!
By the facts it should be clear that Israel’s trust in her “special relationship” is the result of justifiable insecurity, and that American Jewry’s opposite response shares the same source. But for Israel angst expresses a subconscious awareness of a danger which, for a people armed and independent, defense is a realistic possibility. But American Jewry and our entire Diaspora are no more capable of self-defense today than during Shoah, Inquisition or Crusade, so rather than serve as warning, we shroud ourselves in false security, deny the reality of the danger. For the Diaspora, our collective “confidence,” “ease” and “comfort” are a willful act of Denial.
One hundred years ago German Jewry, more assimilated and intermarried than are we today in the United States, described their fatherland as “exceptional.” American Jewry today apply the same description. The difference is that today we have the benefit of historical experience. Limpieza de sangre is, as were concentration camps in the US during WWII, a historical fact, a legal precedent.
History may not repeat itself, but it does serve as precedent. It is our responsibility to accept the facts of history, to recognize our Denial and accept the lessons of history. The lives of our children depend on it.