We are already familiar with the policy of isolationism during the 1940’s, “America First”, whose main spokesman was the famous aviator Charles Lindbergh, a rightwing nationalist with Fascist tendencies. But there is less talk about the leftwing version of such a policy, which similarly—and dangerously–undermines the rationale behind America’s closest alliances, including the one with Israel. I believe one of the most sophisticated arguments for such an isolationist stance can be found in John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt’s co-authored book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 2008), which seeks to dismantle the prevalent conception that Israel is the U.S.’s top ally in the Middle East and that this alliance serves America’s national best interest.
This book created quite a controversy when it was first published over a decade ago because it undermined the main justifications for U.S. aid to Israel. It argued that such an alliance is aggressively pushed by rightwing Jewish PACs—most notably AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee)—and that, in fact, this alliance destabilizes America’s position in the Middle East and makes the U.S. more vulnerable to terrorism. I think both of these arguments rest upon some false assumptions, which in turn are made possible by reliance upon highly selective evidence. The first false assumption is related to looking at our allies as useful to our national interests only in a local, case-by-case basis. This stipulates that when it’s not in America’s obvious self-interest to pursue a certain foreign policy, then the U.S. has no obligation to pursue it for the sake of its allies. While it’s reasonable to grant that every country should consider its own national interests first and foremost, long-term loyalties to our allies are very important to our national stability and international ties. These collaborations may not always serve our immediate interests or be convenient. Sometimes, as happened during WWII, we must help our allies in times of need or strengthen their position even at some perceived sacrifice to our own immediate national interests.
But the main point in this book is that American Jews pressure U.S. politicians via special interest Political Action Committees (PACs) to be unquestioningly pro-Israel. This argument falsely assumes that American Jews—and their organizations—are more or less homogeneous and hold similar socio-political views. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. While special interest groups such as AIPAC lobbies for pro-Israel and generally rightwing policies (despite being nominally bipartisan), that is just one out of literally hundreds of Jewish organizations that hold different opinions and support different policies towards Israel. Like the Israelis themselves, American Jews hold a variety of opinions towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; settlements in Gaza and the West Bank; Israel’s economic policies and military actions; human rights; the balance between lay culture and religion; public health policies, and pretty much everything else one can think of. In fact, most American Jews tend to lean leftwing and vote Democrat. So do many of their PACs, such the JStreet PAC and the National Council of Jewish Women, both of which, for example, vocally support a two-state solution. This runs contrary to Mearsheimer and Walt’s argument that Jewish PACs pressure the U.S. to be anti-Palestinian. There is no such thing as an all-inclusive Jewish PAC that pushes America in a particular direction in its foreign policy towards Israel precisely because American Jews, like other Americans, don’t agree on what is best for Israel and the U.S.
Furthermore, the U.S. Israel alliance is quite complex and dependent upon deep-rooted and sophisticated long-term diplomatic ties rather than unilateral political pressure by any Jewish Political Action Committee or special interest group.
To find out more about how such ties are nurtured, I recently interviewed Daniel Aschheim, the Consul of Public Diplomacy for the Midwest region in the U.S. Previously, Daniel served as Deputy Chief of Mission for the Israeli Embassy, which covered five West African countries, including Senegal and Cabo Verde, a country that has been home for centuries to many Moroccan Jews.
After completing his Ph.D. in European Studies and defending his dissertation on Bruno Kreisky (the Jewish Chancellor of Austria), Daniel arrived in Chicago with his young family: his wife Elisa and his adorable six-month old daughter Ella. Barely settled in, he has already undertaken several projects to support worthwhile international causes while also strengthening the rapport between Israel and the Midwest. He appears to be eminently qualified for this role, not only because, like every Israeli diplomat, he completed a rigorous Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs Cadet Course, but also because he is personable, warm and–despite his notable achievements at such a young age—winsomely modest.
“Diplomacy,” Daniel indicated in our Zoom interview, “takes pragmatic, in the field, very hard work in order to foster economic, political and cultural ties between Israel and the U.S.” He offered a few examples of such initiatives. In the short period of time he’s been in Chicago, he has helped facilitate, together with the Consulate team and the Consul General Aviv Ezra, collaborations on environmental measures that improve technologies for clean water in Michigan; reached out to local businesses in the Midwest for various economic collaborations; promoted a virtual chess competition; hosted a musical concert with the famous Israeli Conductor Tom Cohen that includes “Arabic sounds and rhythms from North Africa and the Middle East, with the vibrant Israeli music and traditional classical Western music,” and participated in an international forum on combatting violence against women.
Clearly, diplomatic ties between Israel the United States—Israel’s strongest friend and ally—are complex and multifaceted. They are nurtured by a variety of political perspectives–cultural, military and economic exchanges and collaborations–and considerations of both national and international interests that transcend the actions and pressure from any particular lobby group.