Editor’s note: this is the final part of a series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Part one, on the immediate causes of the recent war, can be read here. Part two, on the major obstacle to permanent peace, can be read here. Part three, about the claims of Palestinian activists and the mistreatment of Palestinians, can be read here. Part four, on the implications of Israel’s new government, can be found here.
Over the past month, I have spent a large amount of time writing about the situation in Israel. While it makes for fascinating political reading and can provide us generalized lessons on history and politics, Israel hardly has a monopoly on unique politics or geopolitical learning experiences. So why am I focusing on Israel in particular? Because Israel has always held a special place in both American politics and even in American culture wars.
It has been well-documented that American foreign policy is largely decided by domestic political pressure, rather than by actual attempts to achieve clearly defined goals. For example, the previous administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, despite the organization’s vital role in containing China — one of the administration’s main goals — because of internal political opposition to international trade deals, and consequently, a resulting pressure to be seen as doing something to eliminate them. Similarly, the current administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan was not made after a cost-benefit analysis of the action (the monetary cost of our continued presence was negligible, and we had not suffered a single casualty in the past 12 months — while in our absence city after city is falling to the Taliban) but was rather due to a desire to be seen as ending “forever wars” because Americans are “exhausted.” Meanwhile, the administration is continuing our presence in Germany — which dates from a war three quarters of a century ago. Israel is no different, in that our policy towards, and relation with, them is driven by internal political forces. I do not just mean the way in which over 74% of American foreign aid to Israel ends up going to American defense contractors, I mean that the question of our policy towards Israel represents yet another front in the culture war.
More specially, I believe that many Americans see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a proxy war between themselves and their supposed political enemies. What I mean by this can be adequately demonstrated by a few examples.
First, a reader sent me a response to this series in which he included the following Bible passage:
“4 Gaza will be abandoned
and Ashkelon left in ruins.
At midday Ashdod will be emptied
and Ekron uprooted.
5 Woe to you who live by the sea,
you Kerethite people;
the word of the Lord is against you,
Canaan, land of the Philistines.
He says, “I will destroy you,
and none will be left.”
6 The land by the sea will become pastures
having wells for shepherds
and pens for flocks.
7 That land will belong
to the remnant of the people of Judah;
there they will find pasture.
In the evening they will lie down
in the houses of Ashkelon.
The Lord their God will care for them;
he will restore their fortunes.”
— Zephaniah 2: 4 – 7 (NIV)
It was sent with the implication that the recent war with Gaza was the fulfillment of the prophecy. (Whether that is the case is a theological argument beyond the scope of this article, my point is merely that this is an argument that is made.)
Second, American social media was ablaze with comparisons between the “free Palestine ” movement and domestic political movements such as Black Lives Matter. The main idea being that “Israel : Palestinians :: America : People of color” and that same structure of “systemic oppression” which is alleged to exist in America with regard to marginalized groups, particularly indigenous people, was replicated in Israel with regard to the Palestinians. This is linked to the leftist idea of settler colonialism, which is discussed more below. Whether these analogies are accurate is not the point. The point, once again, is merely that it has been made.
Interestingly, the replies featured several complaints that BLM was insufficiently committed to opposing colonialist activities in other parts of the world, so why would they focus on Palestine particularly?
Example number three: last week, the UN voted 184 – 2 to ask, for the 29th time, if America would pretty please lift its embargo on Cuba. (Spoiler alert, no.) The two dissenters? America and Israel. This was by no means unique, as evidenced from the data below:
The above chart, courtesy of the State department, shows how much any given country votes with the US at the UN. For context, second place goes to the Federated States of Micronesia, who vote with the US a mere 70% of the time. This was not lost on the authors of the report.
Excerpted from the aforementioned State department report, the above is the introduction of the part of the report focusing on General Assembly measures related to Israel.
Finally, there is the case of Representatives Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib in relation to the frequent controversy surrounding their remarks about Israel and Jewish people in general. The controversy has repeated itself many times, and tends to follow the pattern of:
1. One of the representatives says something about Israel.
3. Pressure on the representative to clarify their remark.
4. After initially doubling down, the representative weakens their statement.
5. Democrats chastise the representative while conservative media has a field day.
6. Everyone forgets about the thing in a week or two.
The most recent case involved a comparison between Israel and the Taliban made by Representative Omar. As of June 29th, she has stuck by these remarks.
These four examples should serve to demonstrate my point, but it remains to ask how, exactly, some random Middle Eastern country became the focal point of so much of our politics? The answer, I think, is complex, because conservatives and progressives take an interest in Israel for completely different reasons, both of which are more than reflexive opposition to the other side.
Conservatism in America was, and to a lesser extent still is, dominated by Evangelical Protestantism, whose attitude towards the state of Israel is dictated by their theology. Israel, of course, is featured prominently in the Bible, which is full of passages like the above where God promises not only spiritual, but also political and military support to Israel. Any military setbacks, such as the Babylonian conquest, are attributed to divine judgement for insufficient faithfulness. Many (but by no means all) Protestant theologians believe that these promises carry over to the modern state of Israel. (It is worth noting that this is the official teaching of the Catholic Church as well.) The most often cited verse supporting this position is Genesis 12:3, where God tells Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and he who dishonors you I will curse.”
And lest my unbelieving (or Supersessionist) readers scoff at the idea that God is specifically protecting one particular nation state, even without the scriptural support it makes a certain amount of sense. Terrible things have happened to most of Israel’s enemies: Egypt, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, various Caliphates of the Middle Ages, the Ottman Empire, and the Third Reich were all once great empires who, to a greater or lesser extent, set themselves against Israel, and all of them have turned to dust. The British Empire’s fall is blamed, by some, on their lack of support for a Jewish state in the aftermath of WWI, while Arab states, such as the UAE or Morocco, that have taken a relatively friendly approach to Israel have fared much better than Syria or Libya. Not to mention Israel’s repeated victories against overwhelming odds in war after war after war against its neighbors. Finally, the US is Israel’s closest ally, and the only major world power to repeatedly support them on the world stage, while also enjoying global military, economic, and cultural hegemony. This theological principle, more than anything else, sustains the Evangelical support of Israel, although factors such as a shared dislike of the UN, support for greater intervention in the Middle East, and a general reflexive opposition to whatever progressives are saying also play roles. It is worth noting that this is not necessarily an endorsement of Dual-Covenant theology (that is a theological debate for another day) but merely an explanation of the strong Evangelical support for Israel.
But Evangelical Christians also make up a significant portion of the Democratic Party, and the current religious divide between the parties is fairly new, so it should not surprise us that support for Israel has long been a bipartisan issue. Most politicians, including President Biden, have taken steps to portray themselves as pro-Israel. That is changing. As young progressives without strong religious ties rapidly gain influence in politics, support for Israel has grown more and more partisan.
Part of the progressive opposition to Israel is just the generic progressive critique of the military industrial complex, and part of it is also reflexive opposition to whatever Evangelicals are trying to do at the moment, but there are fundmental philosophical reasons for the progressive support of the Palestinian side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Settler colonialism is a progressive social theory in regards to how colonialism perpetuates itself. Basically, it is the idea that an oppressor group will come in and oppress the indigenous people by taking over and pushing them out of their land. The ruling class uses settlers of their own ethnicity to cement their control over the territory. While the theory makes some questionable claims, the general tactics of settler colonialism have been used by everyone from the Anglo-Saxons against the Celts to the Chinese colonization of East Turkistan (the name Xinjiang literally translates as “new frontier”). And, of course, these were the tactics used by the US against the Native Americans.
The relevance to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is that Israel is using settler colonial tactics in an ongoing effort to ensure it controls all of the land within the Mandate. According to progressives, Israeli settlements within Palestinian territory, in particular, are textbook cases of settler colonialism and, unlike in North America or Africa, the settler colonial tactics are ongoing.
But the plight of Palestine has been a global cause since settler colonialism was (presumably) coined by some stoned Indigenous Studies professor, so why do I cite this particular ideology? Two reasons: one, progressive scholars cite settler colonialism as the root cause of the oppression of Palestinians, and two, the data below makes it clear that a significant number of people agree with them:
The Google trends data for “settler colonialism.” note the high frequency of searches originating in Palestine, the global spike at the outbreak of the war, and the top “related search.”
It is worth noting that, while settler colonialism provides the intellectual framework for most criticisms of Israel, many progressives support Palestine simply out of a belief that the Palestinian people are primarily oppressed by Israel (and not, as I argue here, by Islamic extremists within their ranks) and that opposing Israel is the best path to their liberation.
All this being said, whether it be the Abrahamic Covenant, Settler Colonialism, or simply a desire to stick it to the UN, Americans have long had a political stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.