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We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight over Israel

  • Published

We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight over Israel by Eric Alterman. Basic Books, 2022, 512 pp. 

We Are Not One is a broad-ranging analysis of the debate over Israel—its creation, its actions, and its relation to America. The book focuses particular attention on the Jewish community in America since it has historically stood “at the center of the debate” (3). For their part, supporters of the Palestinians have had limited influence on these debates and thus play a comparatively minor role in the book.

The author, Eric Alterman, is a distinguished professor of English, Brooklyn College, City University of New York. He has a doctorate in history from Stanford, served as a media critic for the Nation for 25 years, and has published 11 other works. Much of his analysis in this book focuses on the public sphere—the debates Americans have had about Zionism since the turn of the twentieth century—but he also details the efforts of each US administration to manage relations with Israel. Experts in the field will be familiar with nearly every episode Alterman addresses, but he puts them within contexts and connects them in ways that even the most experienced observer will find illuminating.

The author does not take clear positions on many of the controversies he covers, but one can often ascertain his opinions. For example, he does not say whether Israel is an apartheid state but writes that its policies are arguably so in the West Bank (398). On the issue of a two-state solution, he never declares his support but paints the alternatives as unacceptable or unattainable. He never clearly argues that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism, but he implies that often it is not. In short, Alterman appears to be the prototypical “liberal Jew” he writes about in the book—someone who believes that Israel has “to be pushed and prodded into saving itself from an illiberal, anti-democratic, quasi-apartheid future” (329). He is clearly disturbed by Israel’s rightward shift, applauds the shattering of the “Exodus Israel” myth in America that painted Israel as simply the innocent victim of Arab/Palestinian hatred, and welcomes the increasingly open debates about Zionism and US policy toward Israel.

Alterman’s book is wide ranging, but at its heart, it focuses on two related issues: how the pro-Israel community in America has shaped public debates and policies regarding Israel and the relationship between Israeli and American Jews. On the first issue, his basic argument is that debate over Israel has become more nuanced and critical over time, even though US policies have not changed much. Public discussion in America about Israel or Zionism has largely been “shaped” and “policed” by America’s Jewish population (3), especially its more conservative elements who tend to lead the most influential Jewish organizations.

For decades, the litmus test for determining the strength of one’s Jewish identity in America has been measured by one’s fealty to Israel (127). And until at least the 1967 Arab-Israel War (when Israel conquered East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip), most American Jews strongly supported the lone democratic nation in a sea of Middle Eastern Arab autocracies. But Israel’s military occupation and settlement activities in the subjugated Palestinian territories began to shake this commitment among liberal Jews, who make up a majority of America’s eight million strong Jewish population. Indeed, the author emphasizes that the leaders and opinion makers of the Jewish community in America are far more conservative and far more “Israel, right or wrong” than the majority. Alterman does a masterful job detailing this gap and explaining how it developed. This story line includes the development of the neoconservative movement in America in the 1970s and 1980s that was largely driven by conservative Jewish personalities with a strong commitment to Israel’s security.

By the time Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and then used extensive military force to put down the first Palestinian intifada (uprising) a few years later, large numbers of Americans had concluded it had ceased to be David and had become Goliath instead. But along with the rise of neoconservatism came the rise of the Christian right in US politics, which spurred the development of numerous Christian Zionist organizations, most notably Christians United for Israel. Together, neoconservatives and Christian Zionists became the central forces in maintaining America’s pro-Israel policies.

The US government has almost always supported Israel. Indeed, the two share a special relationship, one in which the junior partner largely determines its nature and character. Alterman laments what he calls a “pattern of continual repetition” in which the US government requests some type of compromise from Israeli leaders who “listen patiently and then proceed to do whatever they intended in the first place” (83). Government officials might then complain, but usually nothing changes.

While he does not offer a full-fledged analysis of why this special relationship developed and endures, Alterman touches on all the usual suspects: Holocaust guilt, Cold War geopolitics, Israel’s purported strategic importance, and shared democratic values. His most sustained analysis, however, is focused on the effectiveness of pro-Israel lobbying by Jewish and Christian supporters of Israel. He details many examples of such lobbying, including efforts in 1948 to convince President Harry S. Truman to recognize Israel, which Alterman labels “one of the most ambitious and successful lobbying campaigns in political history” (45).

Alterman is careful to note the uncomfortable nature of this line of argument—that any analysis of pro-Israel lobbying skates close to the anti-Semitic tropes of dual loyalty and Jews manipulating governments from behind closed doors. Yet he makes the argument anyway, surely knowing that this and other parts of his book will lead to accusations that he is anti-Semitic or a “self-hating Jew.” Those of us who work in this field know this is a courageous act, but like President Jimmy Carter, Professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, and Steven Spielberg (all discussed in the book), Alterman has the street credibility and resources to withstand the criticism and invective. His already long and illustrious career will not be jeopardized. Junior academics and journalists cannot be so sure and often self-censor for fear of committing professional suicide. 

Another theme woven throughout the book is the superiority-complex Israeli Jews have vis-à-vis their American brethren and the growing political values gap between the two (13). Both tendencies greatly bother the author. Israeli Jews, he explains, have long treated diaspora Jews as inferior in many ways since they are unwilling to carryout aliyah, to migrate “home” to Israel.

Moreover, the majority of American Jews belong to the reform or conservative branches of Judaism, while Israeli Jewish identity is dominated by the orthodox/ultra-orthodox branch. This has led to heated debates over, among other things, the criteria for determining who is a Jew, women’s rights to pray at the Western Wall, and the legitimacy of religious conversions overseen by nonorthodox rabbis. Similarly, Israeli Jews have, over the past few decades, steadily embraced an increasing number of illiberal values and policies relating to the activities of civil society, LGBTQ rights, the mainstreaming of extreme-right politicians, and treatment of Palestinians that offend the sensibilities of most secular Jews in America. The author sees this growing gap between “red-state” Israeli and “blue-state” American Jews as disheartening and maybe irreversible.

We Are Not One is structured in a chronological manner, beginning with the development of the Zionist movement and creation of Israel through successive administration efforts to manage US-Israel relations. While it does an admirable job detailing government relations, the book does much, much more. It also touches on a wide array of political and social topics, including Cold War geopolitics, Jewish diaspora politics, Israeli spying efforts on America, accusations of dual-loyalties, the role of Jews in Hollywood and key media outlets, the rise of neoconservatism in America, the role of billionaire Jewish supporters of Israel, the odd tactical relationship between right-wing Jews and anti-Semitic forces around the world, and the democratizing effects of the internet on media coverage of Israel and Palestine. Alterman’s prose is tight, accessible, engaging, and fair, although it is clearly tinged with the “liberal Jew” viewpoint that he insists dominates Jewry in America. We Are Not One is a must-read for anyone interested in better understanding US-Israeli relations. 

Robert C. DiPrizio, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."