On March 22, 2010, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed uncompromising U.S. support of Israel at the annual meeting of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. On May 4, President Barack Obama had lunch with Elie Wiesel, the Nobel laureate, Holocaust survivor, and icon of American Judaism. As reported in the New York Times,1 the lunch was scheduled “as part of an effort to mend fences with American Jews” who disapprove of the general tenor of the American administration’s policy with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Some American Jews have expressed resentment toward the administration’s position concerning the continuous construction of Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem. The harsher tone toward Israeli expansionist policies is often interpreted by Israeli and non-Israeli Jews alike as a sign of an unfriendly administration in Washington.
Secretary Clinton’s pronouncement that the United States is “committed to Israel and its security ” 2 and the lunch with Wiesel are two rhetorical moments signaling an effort to construe U.S.-Israeli relations as unshaken, despite the increased anxiety of some Israelis and Jews. Indeed, emerging from the presidential lunch, Wiesel declared that, despite recent tensions, “Relations between Israel and the United States have a history. And that history has always been one of understanding.” 3
REDUCING JUDAISM TO ZIONISM
What is interesting about the Obama-Wiesel lunch in the White House is not only that President Obama engaged a Jewish leader in an effort to reaffirm to the Israeli public and Jewish-American community the unwavering commitment of the United States to the security of the Israeli nation-state. Also interesting is the fact that this prominent Jewish author became a spokesperson and a representative of the interests of the state of Israel. This is just one example of the dominant inclination to reduce Judaism to Zionism and the often hysterical way that the mainstream Jewish lobby frames any attempt to critique the policies of the Israeli state as anti-Semitic. Another notable example was the 2002 statement by Lawrence Summers (at the time president of Harvard) that actions to persuade universities to divest from Israel were “anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent.” 4
U.S. support of Israel reflects a deep cultural and religious affinity and assumptions about the Western and democratic character of the Israeli state. Cultural and religious analyst Melani McAlister writes that while U.S. foreign policy may be grounded in material and military realities, it develops in a cultural context. She highlights the role of popular culture, religious beliefs, and news accounts in shaping American perceptions of the Middle East.
U.S. support of Israel reflects a deep cultural and religious affinity and assumptions about the Western and democratic character of the Israeli state.
Political theorist Elizabeth Shakman Hurd’s analysis of the underlying motifs that have informed U.S. approaches to international relations supplements McAlister’s account of the cultural and religious influence on the nature of U.S.-Israel relations. She emphasizes the U.S.’s self-perception as a Judeo-Christian civilization. This insight is relevant to the study of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because a perceived cultural affinity between Israel and the United States is grounded in a presumed civilizational identity and not merely in geopolitical interests.
ALTERNATIVE JEWISH VOICES
The choice of Wiesel as the guest of honor ignored alternative American Jewish voices that express important distinctions between their critique of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories and their commitment to their Jewish identity and Israel’s right to exist within the pre-1967 borders. The new alternative Jewish lobby J-Street is one example of such voices. Another is Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) — an organization that highlights Jewish ethical and humanistic traditions as a resource for its critique of Israeli occupation and settlement policies.
President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton chose the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and a symbolic lunch with Wiesel as their way of expressing a strong commitment to Israel. By privileging these venues, the administration — despite an evident change of policy orientation toward Israel — has reaffirmed a commitment to a particular interpretation of the relationship between Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel. The voices on J-Street and of Jewish Voice for Peace show alternatives.
Atalia Omer is assistant professor of religion, conflict and peacebuilding at the Kroc Institute.
1 Helene Cooper, “Obama Tries to Mend Fences with American Jews” 5/4/2010 http://www.nytimes.com/2010/05/05/world/05prexy.html?scp=1&sq=obama%20tries%20to%20mend%20fences%20with%20american%20jews&st=cse
2 Ami Eden, “Hillary Clinton’s AIPAC Speech: The Transcript, The Video” 3/22/2010 http://blogs.jta.org/politics/article/2010/03/22/1011273/hillary-clintons-aipac-speech
3 Natasha Mozgovaya, “Israel-U.S. ties stronger than recent tensions, Elie Wiesel says after Obama meeting,” http://www.haaretz.com/jewish-world/israel-u-s-ties-stronger-than-recent-tensions-elie-wiesel-says-after-obama-meeting-1.288216
4 David Gelles, “Summers Says Anti-Semitism Lurks Locally,”Harvard Crimson, September 19, 2002.