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Remember long ago when one political party in the US would suffer a big loss, how they would spend the next year doing “some serious soul searching?” Those were the days… As the country became more divided the losing side would, instead of soul searching, turn to the courts in an attempt to get rid of their elected opponent via politically motivated charges, special investigations, and ultimately impeachment.
Now even that’s passé — instead of soul searching or legal mudslinging, the losing side simply refuses to accede to reality, rioting en mass to protest the “steal.” And although the capital riots are new, historically this has been done by both parties. Both Bill Clinton and Donald Trump were politically impeached. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump had politically motivated judicial investigations initiated against them. Time will tell if the riots go both ways as well. But either way, America’s got problems. Indeed, it feels like America is coming apart at the seams like it’s in a graveyard spiral where half the population thinks the other half is illegitimate. Indeed, rather than post-election articles talking about pulling together, many are discussing whether the losing half should apologize for their views, or whether they are in fact already too far gone and should just pack up and leave. For the Star Trek fans out there, you can almost hear the ship’s computer annunciating, “Warp core breach imminent. Structural failure in thirty seconds. Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven…”
How can we deal with this? What can the remedy possibly be when each half thinks the other is not even worthy of making an apology, let alone being willing to accept one, (let alone being able to make space for the other side as they are?) Perhaps as Americans wonder what, if anything, they have in common anymore, the US-Israel relationship can offer a reminder.
Let’s explore this further. If I were to ask you what’s so special about the relationship between Israel and The United States, what would you say? If you’re like most, you’ll respond by saying that America is the main defender of democracy in the world and that Israel, being the only democracy in the Middle East, is an important American ally. If you have a more religious bent you might point out that American values are founded on the Judeo-Christian ethic and that Israel shares those values. And while these statements are true, neither of them is unique to America and neither gets at the root of the connection between the US and Israel.
Let’s start with the fact that they are both democracies. OK, that’s true, but there are a lot of other democracies — all of Europe, for example. So there’s nothing really unique about that. The second reason is the Judeo-Christian ethic. Again, perhaps true, but then wouldn’t it make more sense for Israel to be “connected” with an actual Christian country, rather than the US, a specifically not-Christian (not any religion) country? For example, Great Britain is an officially Christian state with the official state religion being the Anglican Church. So, as an actual Christian state, would not Britain share Israel’s Judeo-Christian values even more than America would?
You might be tempted to say, OK fine, logically there may be no reason for Israel to be connected specifically with America — maybe it’s only because the largest Jewish diaspora happens to be living in America so that the Jews there invent reasons to support a connection between Israel and their own country. Maybe US Jews simply like pointing to these reasons even though they’re no less true for other countries. Maybe because there are so many fewer Jews in those other countries, the story just sticks better as it relates to the US. And I guess that might be true as well. But is that really all there is? Because if so, that just seems incredibly lame.
OK then, let’s see what AIPAC has to say. You know, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee — the largest, most influential, bipartisan American lobbying group in favor of a strong US-Israel relationship. This is a direct quote from their homepage:
“The U.S.-Israel relationship is a mutually beneficial partnership that reinforces America’s moral values and strategic interests. America and Israel are sister democracies dedicated to the rule of law, human rights, and freedoms of speech and religion. The U.S.-Israel relationship is a key pillar of America’s regional security framework. The Jewish state is a reliable, stable ally that advances American interests in a highly volatile and strategically important region of the world.”
This mission statement mentions both the “moral values” angle (the Judeo-Christian ethic mentioned earlier) and the democracy angle. The AIPAC statement showcases the US-Israel relationship in what I have heard described as the “Batman and Robin” style. In other words, Israel plays Robin to the US’s Batman. Israel is a “reliable, stable ally that advances American interests…” in the same way that Robin helps Batman accomplish his various crime-fighting tasks. But that doesn’t sound much like a “special relationship.” It sounds more like the US can just use Israel to do its bidding around the world. I suppose if you’re trying to convince the American establishment to support Israel, then that’s as good a talking point as any; but is that really the root of the connection between the two countries — that one can use the other to execute its will and further its own agenda (even if that agenda is “good” in some abstract sense?)
By this time you’re probably thinking that we’ve gotten very far afield from the original intent of this article — to look to Israel to find a way to help America maintain some sense of unity. So let’s circle back by finally asking what really is the true relationship between the two countries? In a previous article I talked about the fact that, as opposed to most of the other Western democracies, the US does not have a history stretching back into antiquity and beyond. It does not have a mythico-historical cultural reference point that unites the country in the same way that Britain does, or France does, or Italy does, or Japan does. In that article, I was describing why it seems that so many American whites have turned to white supremacy — in a futile attempt to invent just such a mythical past to grasp onto as American culture and identity change through time due to changing demographics.
For our purposes here, the point is that America is unlike just about every other Western democracy due to exactly that lack of collective, shared, pre-modern history. Unlike France or Britain, America was not already a country from time immemorial, which then, post-enlightenment, transformed itself into a democracy. Rather uniquely in the world, America was instead founded only on a set of ideas. Think about that for a moment, because people often forget just how strange that is. People not originally from there, came to America and created a new country based only on foundational ideas about human dignity and liberty (notwithstanding the disaster perpetrated on the Native Americans already living there and the later experience with slavery.) Every other country just grew up where they had always been, with the people that had always been there. But not America. Because the US is not just democracy and immigrants and melting pots. It’s an idea about a better society.
To be clear, I’m not saying that other countries don’t have ideas. Liberté, égalité, fraternité are the ideals upon which the French republic is founded. One might therefore say they have their ideas and we have ours and beyond that, it doesn’t matter. But when the French Republic was founded, the French people already existed – they already had a shared culture and a shared history which predated those ideas. Not so with the US.
You’ll notice I hedged above by saying “rather uniquely.” Now if I were to ask you, can you think of any other country where a similar thing occurred, what would you say? Let me make it more clear: can you think of an occasion when, at a time when there already existed many countries with long histories of their own, a group of people with barely any history, originally from somewhere else, came to a new land to found a new country based on new moral and ethical ideas? The answer is yes and that country is Israel — the original, biblical Israel. We are used to thinking about Israel originally as a family so that we think of ourselves as just one big family of Jews. Through this lens, our origin story was simply that our family, starting with Abraham, grew into a nation in Egypt and then settled eventually in the Promised Land, as per God’s plan.
But let’s look at it through a different lens. At that time there were other major powers — Egypt, Babylon, Assyria, Persia, etc. — all of whom were each united by common geography and a common history, similar to the other Wester democracies of today – Britain, France, Italy, etc. And then along comes Israel, moves into a new land — Canaan — and sets up a new country not based on a longstanding shared geographical-historical identity, but rather, based on the ideas contained in the Torah. True, Israel was born out of a single-family with a shared destiny, but at that time it only stretched back several generations – much younger than any of the other surrounding empires. (The Torah counts only six generations between Abraham and Moses.) But just that shared destiny – just being family – wasn’t enough. If it were, the Jews would have left Egypt and gone directly to the Promised Land. But they didn’t. They stopped at Mount Sinai. Because the new country was to be founded not on the basis of family or history alone (one could, after all, marry into or otherwise convert into the Jewish People), but on the basis of the ideas, the ethics, the system of governance outlined in the Torah.
Even the modern state of Israel is composed of immigrants coming (back) together from different parts of the world in order to build (rebuild) a new (old) country based on specific ideals and values – similar to the story of the original American pilgrims.
So now it becomes clear. The special relationship between the US and Israel is not some modern power play where the young Israeli Robin can aid the more established and wiser American Batman. Nor is it simply because they both happen to be democracies. It is because each country — possibly the only two in the world — were founded specifically and solely on a set of ideas about how human society could be better — and therefore as beacons of hope to the rest of the world. No other countries claim that origin story. If there is one idea from which all Americans should be able to draw inspiration, it should be that.
But if I were to ask most Americans, “Why are you American,” most would probably say, “because I was born here,” or “because my family is here.” Maybe for a country whose identity is based solely on the shared historical experience of lots of people have lived together in the same place for a long time, that would be enough. When the French Republic was formed, the people living there at the time probably would have answered the same. Very few people moved to France from somewhere else in the middle of the revolution because they wanted to create some new country based on liberté, égalité and fraternité. Rather, the people who were already living there were just trying to figure out how to govern themselves the best way they could. So while “because I was born here” or “because this is where my family is” might suffice for France, it seems America is beginning to discover that those answers do not suffice for a country based solely on ideas. While the early generations of American immigrants and pilgrims surely knew that — they were, after all, moving there for that reason — perhaps we today need to be reminded. Maybe the correct answer should be, “because I believe in the ideals upon which America was founded.”
But, you say, that sounds awkward and weird. No American would say that. OK, fair enough. But surely you see the problem that any idea-based country has: the farther away it gets from its original founding — the more time that goes by – the more likely the population is to forget those original ideas.
Compared to The United States, Israel is a very young country. But biblical Israel (and Judaism, its inheritor) is a much older country. Perhaps it would be worthwhile for Americans to ask themselves how biblical Israel, or Judaism, has dealt with this issue. In fact, we read in this week’s parsha (parshat Bo, Genesis 13:8) the biblical commandment that it is incumbent on each Jew to relate the Passover story as if they themselves had experienced the Exodus. You see, Judaism and Israel knew that “because my family lives here” is not the right answer. They knew that the only answer that could work, that could sustain the people over the centuries and millennia, was “I believe in the ideas upon which the country was founded.” We recite those ideas every year on Passover, every week as part of the Shabbat kiddush, and every single day during our morning prayers.
So there are two ideas-based countries in the world: The United States and Israel. One of them has been around for millennia. One of them has been around for a mere 250 years and is currently at a crossroads. Maybe in this case Robin has something to teach Batman.