The Multiple Loyalties of American Jews

Being a patriotic American and a supporter of Israel.

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For them Zionism was, in a deep and real sense, Americanism by another name and with a different, though not contradictory, historical inflection. Their commitments to Zionism and to Americanism did not conflict because they sincerely saw each as a reflection of the other. 

Subsequently, of course, the Holocaust deepened the American Jewish commitment to Israel, lending it power, and even terror. However, the ways in which American Jews think about Israel and how their support for it registers with their Americanness still very much resonates along the lines of Kallen and Brandeis.

Interests and Values

At its best, in defending Israel, American Jews are acting out of a sense of interests and values. This sense derives from the belief that Israel guarantees the survival--both physical and cultural--of both American and Israeli Jews. They also give credence to the notion that the Israel they are supporting is a reflection of their own liberal democratic values, or at least not so far-removed, as to make supporting it morally unacceptable (the continuing grief of the Occupied Territories notwithstanding). 

All politics is an amalgam of interests and values, and while the two never can be entirely divorced, it helps to sift them out for the sake of clarity. 

Interests are the imperatives dictated by physical survival. Values are the principles whereby we order our sense of what survival means, and what survival is for. They are the concepts with which we define the terms of meaningful survival and guide our purposive choices towards the kind of world we wish to see. 

The question of the respective roles of interests versus values in foreign policy, though it ought to be a universal dilemma, is in acute fashion a peculiarly American dilemma. The commingling of these two sets of concerns is a hallmark, and to some, a fatal flaw, of American diplomacy and indeed of America's own sense of itself as a republic. Thus while it is hard to imagine European governments fundamentally supporting Israel in the absence of the staggering and nearly supernatural moral burden of the Holocaust, it is less difficult to understand why America would do such a thing, even when it seems to run counter to some of its bolder geopolitical interests. 

American support for Israel reflects a confluence of both interests and values. What marks the present historical moment is that both those sources of support are beginning to give way to other currents. America's interests were so badly damaged by the catastrophic mishandling of the Iraq war that for arch-Realists like Walt and Mearsheimer, the only possible explanation can be the malign influence of an ultimately foreign body which does not have those interests at heart. 

On the value-side, we see the increasing illiberalism of the liberal classes, of whom Professor Tony Judt is perhaps the most articulate exponent. For those like him, the Jewish exercise in political sovereignty cannot be anything other than a retrograde chauvinism, for the sake of whose extirpation one may happily throw a flawed, if boisterous, democracy to the dogs. Taken together, the traditional basis for American support for Israel seems to be eroding, and those who persist in such support are more easily depicted as both unconcerned with American lives and suspiciously immoral.

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Yehudah Mirsky

Yehudah Mirsky, a former US State Department official, lives in Jerusalem and is a Fellow at the Van Leer Institute and Harvard.