Israel and the Conservative Movement in America
A brief history
Editorial note: The following is the text of a talk given at the National Summit to Reassess the US-Israel "Special Relationship" held in Washington, D.C., on March 7.
As is the case in so many other ways, the conservative movement’s position on the state of Israel isn’t what it used to be. Just as what we call the Old Right, the pre-[William F.] Buckley right was anti-interventionist and good on civil liberties, so the conservatives of the 1940s and 1950s were hostile to Israel. A good example of this is a letter from the neoconservative guru Leo Strauss to the editors of National Review: he was objecting to an article in the November 17, 1956 issue of the magazine that contained the following sentence:
"Even the Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in modern history."
It is unimaginable that such a sentence would ever find its way into the National Review of Rich Lowry, because he represents a movement that has been thoroughly co-opted and corrupted by, first, the cold war, and secondly our endless "war on terrorism."
The conservative movement of the 1940s and 50s openly challenged the entire conception of the Jewish state: this argument was made in several books published by the pioneering conservative book publisher, Henry Regnery, who issued a whole series of books reporting on the dispossession of the Palestinian people and calling into question the whole Zionist project. Nejla Izzeddin’s The Arab World (1953), is noted by the Kirkus Service as follows:
"The writer is also, if perhaps naturally, violently against the creation of the state of Israel which she feels was prompted more by international power politics than by humanitarian principles and represents an American and British threat to the Arab world."
Regnery also put out Freda Utley’s Will the Middle East Go West?, which expressed a viewpoint just as fresh today as it was back in 1957: "Freedom and justice for Israel," she wrote, "depend on freedom and justice for the Arabs."
That same year Regnery even put out a book of photographs depicting life in Palestinian refugee camps, entitled They Are Human Too, as well as a novel about Palestinian refugees. And then there was What Price Israel?, by Alfred M. Lilienthal, which made what was back then the mainstream Jewish argument against the idea of a specifically Jewish state.
On the other hand, we see the same reversal on the left, albeit in the opposite direction. In the beginning, in 1948, the left was very much pro-Israel. Henry Wallace made support for Israel a major issue in his presidential campaign that year as the candidate of the leftist Progressive party, which had the fulsome backing of the American Communist Party.
The Soviet Union was initially sympathetic to the Israelis, with Andrei Gromyko arguing at the UN in favor of the creation of a Jewish state in Palestine. And this wasn’t just talk: the Soviet bloc provided the arms that made the establishment of Israel possible. Indeed, the Czech Communist government was single-handedly responsible for arming the Haganah, and the Irgun. Soviet propagandists even commented approvingly on the Stern Gang when they blew up the King David Hotel. What’s more, 200,000 emigrants from socialist countries in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union came to Israel to fight the British in the war for independence. A US arms embargo prevented all but a trickle of aid from reaching the Israelis.
Harry Truman was not inclined to support Israel, but was persuaded by the challenge coming from Wallace and the left to recognize its existence. Yet the Soviets were the first to recognize Israel as a specifically Jewish state: in the original copy of Truman’s declaration, the word "Palestine" is still used and the phrase "Jewish state" is crossed out.
What happened to change things into their exact opposite?
What happened was the cold war. When the arms embargo favoring the Arabs was repealed by the US, the Israelis began to warm toward the West. Although the Soviets had allowed Jews to emigrate to Israel, the huge numbers of applicants from the Soviet Union itself made them nervous: after all, who would want to leave their workers paradise? When the Korean war broke out and the Israelis sided with the UN, the Soviets dropped their support for Israel, started selling arms to Egypt and Syria, and initiated a series of show trials targeting Jews in the Soviet bloc: the infamous "Doctor’s Plot" and the Slansky trials in Czechslovakia
On the right, the big turnaround was also due to the cold war. The shift can be seen as a tribal reaction to the left’s growing anti-Zionism. It was also due to the incursion of a number of former leftists who gathered around National Review magazine and later became known as the neoconservatives. The neocons, as we affectionately call them, are partisans of Israel who have often been accused – sometimes unfairly – of putting Israel’s interests over and above American interests. The truth is that they see no dividing line: as long as Israel’s interests are served, they believe, so are America’s. This has become an increasingly hard position to defend since the 9/11 terrorist attacks and subsequent efforts by the US government to minimize the influence of Islamist radicals.
Another factor in the turnaround of the American right on the Israel question has been the growth of the evangelical "born again" movement as a force to be reckoned with among conservatives. Here is where theology impacts politics – and this in turn has a direct effect on US foreign policy.
The doctrine of premillennial dispensationalism, which holds that the coming together of the Jews in Israel marks the beginning of the end of days, has exerted a powerful attraction to millions of evangelicals. Dispensationalists hold that the promises made to Abraham and to the Jewish people have been held in abeyance but will be fulfilled when the so-called "time of tribulation" comes to pass – an era of wars and turmoil that will prefigure the end of history and the return of Christ to earth. What this means, among other things, is that the borders of the land supposedly given to Abraham and his descendants – the Jewish people – will extend from the Nile to the Euphrates. In the dispensationalist theology, Christ will return to a Jewish kingdom, the epicenter of which will be a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem.
According to the theology, the "time of tribulation" is imminent: the rapture, the rebuilding of the Temple, and the coming of the Antichrist will all signal the end of days – and the final battle between good and evil on the plain of Armageddon. Many dispensationalists explicitly state that this will be a nuclear war – another Holocaust, in which Israel and all mankind will perish, with only the pure of heart ascending to Heaven.
The single largest – and, arguably, the most effective – component of the Israel lobby consists of a highly organized and very resourceful Christian dispensationalist element. They have their own lobbying organizations such as Christian United for Israel (CUFI), which is run by the Rev. John Hagee and is very active. They are particularly active in the Republican party and pose a mighty obstacle to any politician who seeks to restore balance to American foreign policy in the Middle East.
There is hope, however: there is a resurgence of foreign policy realism in the GOP and in the conservative movement generally: this is a response to the general war weariness. Opposition to US intervention overseas, embraced as a principled position by the increasingly influential libertarian wing of the party, will tend to distance the Republicans from a pro-Israel lobby that is perpetually trying to draw us into Israel’s wars.
For those of us who want to change American foreign policy and steer it in a less interventionist direction, the road ahead is going to be hard, long, and filled with many obstacles, not the least of which is the tremendous motivation the pro-Israel lobby possesses in all its aspects. Yet the costs of maintaining this "special relationship" have long since outweighed the gains, and America is slowly but surely waking up to this fact. Let us hope this event is going to be a milestone in that awakening.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.
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