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Why America First Loves Israel

‘Jacksonian Zion’

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• July 2, 2022 5:00 am

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Strength is the foundation of the Jacksonian affinity for Israel. Jacksonians admire strength. They can be romantic retrospectively about past heroes and they admire courage against the odds and last stands. But they prefer winners to the "beautiful losers" favored by more sentimental observers of international politics. Israel’s triumph in the Six-Day War while the United States was struggling in the quagmires of Vietnam first drew the attention of Jacksonian America to the Jewish state. The refusal of the Arabs to make peace afterward, and the adoption of terrorist tactics by some Palestinians, heightened what Jacksonians saw as a contrast between a strong and upstanding nation and, again from their particular and partial point of view, what they saw as its cowardly, incompetent, and treacherous opponents.

It is not just Israeli strength that appeals to Jacksonian America. It is Israel’s approach to power. This can be hard for people not raised in a Jacksonian milieu to understand: some of the very things that make Israel most unpopular around the world actually make Jacksonians respect Israel more.

Jacksonian beliefs about war, for example, mesh well with some of Israel’s more controversial policies. When Hamas or Islamic Jihad fighters send a few rockets from Gaza into Israel, and Israel occasionally retaliates with its air force and tanks, much of the world is appalled by what it sees as a "disproportionate" Israeli response. Overreacting to a provocation is, many feel, as bad as launching the original attack. This is not how many Israelis feel, and American Jacksonians agree.

For Jacksonian America, the most logical and appropriate response to a terrorist attack is a massive response that breaks the will and the ability of the enemy to resume hostilities. While one should try to avoid civilian casualties if possible, the original aggressor bears all the guilt for all the deaths caused in the ensuing conflict. When American Jacksonians see Israelis launching massive attacks on Gaza and talking about trying to break Hamas in response to rocket attacks, the Jacksonians support the effort and wish Israel well. Far from agreeing with European and other critics of Israel’s response, Jacksonians wish that more of the NATO allies shared what they see as the refreshingly honest and realistic approach to war that the Israelis have. They believe that if more countries had the courage and determination of the Israelis, there would be many fewer terrorists and the world would have more peace.

Jacksonians see no problems with the controversial American prison for captured enemy combatants established at Guantánamo during the Bush administration. Similarly, they are comfortable with Israeli actions on the West Bank that many find unacceptable. Jacksonians tend to support strong and even harsh measures against terrorists, and they think the job of American presidents is to protect the American people regardless of what squeamish human rights lawyers think about the methods employed. While Israel’s actual policies are often more restrained than Jacksonians would like, and its military is far more concerned about legality than the average American Jacksonian would be in a similar situation, nevertheless Israel’s clear determination to defend its people and its military resonates deeply with Jacksonian ideas about how a country should defend itself.

A strong U.S.-Israel alliance appeals to most Jacksonians in part because they like Israel and admire its approach to world politics, but Jacksonians instinctively think in "America First" terms and their support for an alliance ultimately depends on their views of whether they think an alliance with Israel is good for the United States. Where Wilsonians look for common values in choosing allies, Jacksonians look for allies with similar interests, and by interests Jacksonians mean primarily enemies. Believing as they do that fear is the most important factor in international relations, Jacksonians look for allies who can help the United States overcome the enemies it fears. Believing as they do that nations do not act altruistically, Jacksonians look for countries who fear the same enemies that the United States fears and, ideally, fear them more than we do. That fear, and their eagerness to win American help against their enemies, will keep allies helpful and loyal. Jacksonians also look for evidence that an ally or potential ally is committed to its own security. They do not think it is America’s place to provide free guarantees to foreign countries that refuse to invest in their own defense. America’s help should go to those who are prepared to earn it.

From this standpoint, Israel appears to be an exemplary ally. The United States and Israel share so many enemies that anti-U.S. signs can often be found at anti-Israel rallies and that those most prominently associated with the cry of "Death to America!" will often also be found shouting "Death to Israel!"

Ever since the oil embargos and the seizure of American diplomatic hostages during the Iranian Revolution, Jacksonian America has mostly seen the Muslim Middle East as dominated by the hatred of America and everything it stands for. The wars in the Gulf, the long-standing hostility of the Iranian regime, and the attacks of 9/11 further strengthened this impression.

The rise of the threat of Middle East terrorism has made Israel’s position seem even more sympathetic to Jacksonians. To Jacksonians deeply concerned about what they believe to be serious and long-term threats from the Middle East, Israel looks like a good ally to have, if only because Israel’s geographical position and relations with militant Islam put it even more firmly in the crosshairs than the United States. Israel needs American help in what is ultimately a war of survival, and so Americans can count on Israel being there through thick and thin. Rather than wanting to distance themselves from Israel in the hope that this will deflect the terrorists’ wrath from the United States, Jacksonians see Israel’s regional unpopularity as an asset because it ensures that Israel is fully committed to the common cause. Beyond that, Jacksonians do not believe that it is either prudent or wise to let fear of your enemies make you abandon your friends. This, in their view, is cowardly and dishonorable behavior that signals weakness and invites attack.

Israel’s enemies have always, despite their best efforts, been Israel’s most helpful friends. It may not be rational in the sense that non-Jacksonians understand the meaning of the word, but every time a violent mob burns American and Israeli flags side by side in the Islamic world, every time a United Nations office issues what to Jacksonian ears sounds like a grotesquely one-sided condemnation of Israel for behaving exactly as Jacksonians under enemy fire would behave, every time a suicide bomber kills innocent people out of a twisted and fanatical belief, every time a village of Christians flees their ancestral homes in terror, American Jacksonians become less interested in the case against the Jewish state and more eager to deepen our alliance with it.

Finally, Israel holds up its end of the bargain when it comes to defending itself. While rich countries like Germany reject any and all American requests to pay an appropriate share of NATO’s costs, Israel invests in excellent military forces and is not afraid to use them. In 2020, Israel spent 5.6 percent of its GDP on defense, compared to 2.2 percent in Britain, 2.1 percent in France, 1.4 percent in Germany, and 3.7 percent in the United States. For many Jacksonians, Israel is a better, more trustworthy, and more useful ally than most of the NATO countries. While both Germany and Japan have had major American bases on their soil since World War II, the American military presence in Israel is minimal. Israel does more, many Jacksonians feel, and asks less, than many of the American allies that coast on American security guarantees while criticizing both Israel and the United States nonstop.

The alliance with Israel, far from looking like a strategic liability to Jacksonians, looks like a source of strength and prestige. One advantage, in the Jacksonian mind, is the signal Israel’s success sends about the wisdom of alliances with America. Israel is a small country that (until recent oil and gas discoveries changed the picture somewhat) had few natural resources and a much smaller population than many of its enemies. Criticized by Europe, ostracized by the Muslim world, Israel has only one true friend in the world—and look at how well Israel is doing. It is prosperous, extremely well armed and well integrated into global financial markets. The message to other countries: there is only one country in the world whose friendship you need. If the United States is your ally, even if everyone else turns against you, life will go well. Jacksonians believe that this perception around the world will help keep America safe.

Similarly, ever since the United States became Israel’s principal arms supplier during the Cold War, Israel’s wars and confrontations with its neighbors have served to showcase the superiority of American technology and weapons. When Israel’s American-supplied arsenal overmasters its rivals in conventional warfare, governments all over the world get two messages. First, you want to have the kind of relationship with the Americans in which you can buy their top-shelf hardware, and second, you do not want the Americans so annoyed with you that they sell the really powerful gear to your opponents.

Finally, Jacksonians have come to see Israel as a kind of symbolic surrogate of the United States. Their view of Israeli Jews—as a Chosen People with a unique message, embattled in a hostile world by the enemies of God, united against hostile outsiders in an unbreakable unity of kith and kin—applies the ideas that Bible-reading Protestant Christians in the British Isles and the American colonies once held about the ancient Hebrews to the Jews of today. It is easy for scholars and skeptics to take issue with this vision, but its roots are deeply implanted in American culture.

As Israel has gone from strength to strength it has become a kind of talisman for many American Jacksonians. Recent generations have seen Jacksonian America undergo a series of shocks and challenges. The civil rights movement undermined long-held ideas about the nature of American society and forced Jacksonians to confront some of its historical demons. A culture and belief system shaped in a rural, ethnically homogeneous America had to adapt to life in multiethnic suburbs. Feminism and the gay rights movement forced Jacksonians to take another look at the relationship of their traditional social values and assumptions to the individualism that Jacksonian culture cherishes. As Jacksonian America struggles to make its peace with a host of new forces and new ideas, signs of continuity with the past are welcome. The modern Israeli success story appears to vindicate both Jacksonian principles and biblical religion; there is a balm in Gilead that soothes the wounded soul.

Walter Russell Mead is James Clark Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College, Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship at Hudson Institute, and the Global View columnist at the Wall Street Journal. This essay is adapted from his new book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, which will be published by Knopf on July 5.

Published under: Feature, Israel