The Roots of U.S. Support for Israel

Juan Cole asks, Do Americans turn a Blind eye to Israel’s Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians because of White Nationalism? He points out that “Israel has a 75 percent favorability rating, versus 30 percent for the Palestine Authority, according to Gallup,” Professor Cole writes. “Some 58 percent of Americans say that they are ‘more with Israel’ in the struggle, while only 25 percent are ‘more with the Palestinians.'”

So, is it white nationalism? Yeah, not exactly, I don’t think. Maybe some of it. It’s complicated.

First, I suspect that if someone did a sidewalk survey of U.S. adults and asked them what is going on in Gaza, only a small minority could explain it coherently. I’m betting more than half probably couldn’t find Israel on a map and don’t know what Gaza is. Nor would they have half a clue why the Palestinians have issues with Israel, just that they do.

Second, sympathy for Israel has been baked into U.S. popular culture since Israel became a nation in 1948. That was a tad before my time, but after the end of World War II, and the Holocaust, there must have been a huge reservoir of sympathy for Israel from the outset. I am old enough to remember when Prime Minister Golda Meir was in the news nearly all the time. In U.S. popular culture she was a hero. There are plays and movies about her. And I am old enough to remember 1967, when many people on the teevee were celebrating the reunification of Jerusalem. Teenage me understood this to be a good thing, and everyone seemed happy about it. On the other hand, the first I remember hearing about Palestinians was in 1972, when Palestinian terrorists took the Israeli wrestling team hostage. Most of America was glued to the television in anger and sorrow during the crisis.

Juan Cole points out that there are other reasons western powers want to like Israel:

Israel represents itself as a Western aircraft carrier in a strategically crucial part of the world full of energy resources. It gathers and shares intelligence on the Middle East with the West, conducts covert operations against challengers such as Syria and Iran, and at least represents itself as helping keep the oil and gas flowing. Some analysts believe that the Israeli contribution to European and US security is greatly overblown, but the national security elites tend to buy the story.

So, there is a huge reservoir of good will for Israel deeply planted in American culture, whether people understand the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or not. And for many years U.S. news coverage of Israel reflected that good will.

The first person I ever heard question Israeli policies toward Palestinians was Jesse Jackson. See, for example, Jesse and the Jews: Palestine and the Struggle for the Democratic Party by Micah Sifry, from Middle East Report, Nov.-Dec. 1988. (This is at JSTOR; you can read articles for free in PDF format if you register.) Basically, Jackson supported a two-state solution, but various missteps (including Jackson’s infamous “Hymietown” remark) poisoned the water, and much of the establishment Democratic Party dismissed Jackson as antisemitic. This included liberal Jews who  had their own misgivings about Israel’s Palestinian policies by then.

Juan Cole writes that, today, African-Americans are one of the few demographic groups that do not wholeheartedly take the side of Israel. One poll “found that only 42 percent of African-Americans have a favorable view of Israel, while 27 percent have a negative view of it. That is, African-Americans only have about half as much favorability toward Israel as whites,” he writes. That’s possibly because Jackson and other Black leaders since the 1980s have been more willing to speak out against the oppression of the Palestinians than other groups. It’s also the case that African-Americans may be more sensitive to the way a culture can willfully overlook oppression happening under its nose. The same poll showed that Latino Christians also tend to be less supportive of Israel than the U.S. population as a whole.

“Support for Israel is highest in the US among the elderly, Evangelicals and Republicans. That is, at its highest levels it is disproportionately white,” Cole writes. I don’t kinow that the elderly are more disproportionately white than other age demographics, but let’s go on. The elderly part is explained by the fact that these are people who grew up rooting for Israel and Golda Meir and who remember the 1972 Munich Olympics.

And then there are the evangelicals. That’s a weird dynamic if there ever was one. I direct you to a paper at the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies titled Why do American evangelicals love Israel? A big chunk of that support does come from their premillennialist beliefs that say Jesus will return to reign over the world for a thousand years before the final judgment. It’s commonly believed that Jews must first return to Israel — I guess we can check that one off — and then convert to Christianity before that can happen. With this crew, to question Israel is to speak against God’s Plan.

The author of this paper, Walker Robins, continues,

Southern Baptists broadly viewed Palestine through orientalist eyes, associating the Zionist movement with Western civilization, modernity, and progress over and against Palestine’s Arabs, whom they viewed as uncivilized, premodern, and backward. This view was shared by Baptist travelers, by missionaries, by premillennialists and by their opponents. It was shared by those who supported the Zionist movement on prophetic grounds and those who decried it on humanitarian grounds. This orientalist framing of the conflict did not necessarily point to political support for Zionism, but it did provide Southern Baptist supporters of the movement a second, orientalist “language”—supplementing the language of the Bible—that they could draw on in making their appeals to other Baptists.

Robins notes that these evangelicals are the same people who have been big-time Trump supporters. Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was all about them. In that population I’m sure there’s a big overlap with white nationalists, although they aren’t exactly identical groups.

Anyway, Professor Cole is looking at polling numbers and proposing a connection between white nationalism and uncritical support for Israel.  There’s a connection, but a somewhat indirect one, I say. Remember that most white nationalists are also raging antisemites, and those who are not evangelical may not give a hoo-haw what happens to Israel. See also How anti-Semitic beliefs have taken hold among some evangelical Christians from 2019.

Of course, it’s also the case that in the weird whiteness hierarchy of American racist culture, which puts the long-defunct tribe of Anglo-Saxons at the top of the heap, Jews are no doubt considered whiter than Muslims.

As far as Republicans are concerned, who knows what goes on their heads these days? If you could x-ray their skulls you might find a homunculus of Donald Trump screaming “Fake news! I won!” They think as they are told to think.

Democrats are more divided on the issue, I keep reading. I haven’t seen any polls broken down by demographics, but I understand younger Democrats are more openly supportive of the Palestinians than older ones. But I don’t think the numbers have yet shifted enough to challenge the status quo.

The latest: Biden is said to have taken a firmer line in his call with Netanyahu

6 thoughts on “The Roots of U.S. Support for Israel

  1. Thanks for writing about this very complicated and tragic topic, a third rail topic I might add.

    Any waning sympathy I had for Israel is rapidly dwindling to nil. A disgusting and terrible situation being used and manipulated by some to maintain political power among other travesties. The abuse of and wholesale demonization of a group of people draw ugly parallels and they should know better.

  2. Having no dog in this fight I tend towards a long term view based on the history of the region. Only twice has there been a nominal Jewish state established in the region. Each persisted for a fairly short while in a time when no single hegemonic power held sway in the area. Within a short period after the establishment of such a power the independent state was assimilated. (Assyria and Babylon ending Israel and Judah respectively. The Romans subjugating Second Temple Judea). A similar dynamic played out with respect to the Crusader Kingdom when the Dar al Islam settled its internal issues and consolidated forces under Salah ad-Din. Bottom line, modern Israel exists so long as neither the Iranians, the Gulf States, nor Turkey gain control of the region. 

  3. Every time Bibi Yes-A-Yahoo gets in trouble politically he does something to bring-on a violent reaction from the Palestinians – usually involving allowing STILL MORE Jewish settlers to move in and take-over Palestinian land.

    And Bibi's in some deep political doo-doo of late, facing a bunch of very serious charges.

    Imo: Bibi is Israel's Dick Cheney.  Only HE'S the leader, and not the VP (and yes, I know Dick controlled Dumbaya.  At least for the first 4 to 5 years.  Then, W finally listened to his father, and Dick was relegated to a back bench – ok, maybe not that far back.  Make it a backER bench).

    The Palestinians and other Muslims in the country are citizens of Israel.  So what Bibi's doing, is "Rizzoing" Gaza Palestinians like Philly's former police chief and Mayor, Frank Rizzo, did to the MOVE people in that great city (PoC).

    They may be Israeli citizens, but not all Palestinians can vote.  Hmm… Not good, Israel.

    I have been saying this for several decades (too many):  I once strongly supported Israel.  But cannot now. 

    Israel is an apartheid country.

    I've been chastised many times for saying/writing that.

    But rather than criticise me, explain to me how I'm wrong.

    There can be no solution except some form of "Two State" solution.

    What's going in now – AGAIN!!!!! – is completely untenable.

    First thing Israel needs to do:  Get Bibi out of office, and unto a jail-cell ASAP!

  4. I think the loyalty to Israel is built on shame and on global Manifest Destiny. The US State Department conducted a policy of anti-semitism regarding Jews fleeing Europe throughout the years prior to WWII and most of the time we were in WWII. Only when the horror of Hitler's final solution became clear did the US formally sympathize with European Jews who survived. Of course, the US State Department didn't want them here, which is why giving them land someplace other than S. Florida looked like a good idea. And they romanticized the decision in the movies. That's the guilt end.

    Manifest Destiny is the John Wayne-style version of whites deserving the Americas  which justified genocide. It was racism and greed wrapped up in christianity. (Small 'c' is deliberate.)  WHat's this got to do with Israel? Oil in that part of the world is critically important in world politics and the way Muslim politicians operate has confounded christian attempts to dominate the region. Iran was once a 'reliable' ally, the best that money could buy.

    The closest we have to a Muslim 'friend' in the region is SA – and their people and their money were behind 9-11. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Israel is willing and able to commit strategic violence on our behalf with weapons we've given. They're there to conduct wars for the US which still give the US 'plausible deniability.' We even gave them Nukes with no authorization from Congress. US oil compnies want to control that wealth and Israel is the attack dog on the US leash indirectly under the control of the petro industry. 

    There's a wildcard in the deck. If we break the addiction to oil, the 'wealth' of the region becomes less important. Green energy may be the key to solving the Palestinian problem.

  5. Israel has had a vassal relationship with the US government and the oil companies — between which there has been little effective difference, for decades, in exchange for being the "aircraft carrier" of the west in the region.  "We," defined as America, western nations and the oil companies, support Israel's "right to exist" meaning allow and support its antidemocratic actions to keep and control the land we took for it, because of our own traditional antisemitism, we didn’t want them here, in exchange for Israel fighting proxy battles against the Iranians and Arabs, defined as "Israel has a right to defend itself."  Israel unilaterally bombing Iran and assassinating Iranian nuclear scientists to prevent or hinder Iranian nuclear weapons production, is "self defense."  Never mind the open secret that the Israeli government itself has nuclear weapons, provisioned by the US, in violation of every international law with respect to these weapons, and simply put, because oil.

    And here at home, political insanity central, there's the religious ignorance and bigotry that drives knee jerk support for the Israel government no matter what it does.

    I suspect this relationship will neither culminate nor end well, for the US or the Israeli government.  We've built a monster over there, and just like other monsters we've built, it too will eventually slip our control and turn on us.  

  6. Hmph, don't think I've ever seen a weaker article from Juan Cole.  He even repeats the silly "Israel is an unsinkable Aircraft Carrier" thing – though he must know that the USA didn't have any Military Bases in Israel until 2017 (new Missile Defense base, inside existing Israeli base, with less than 100 permanent US personnel).  

    Cole is a Linguistics professor, fluent in most Middle-Eastern languages, so he's a great source for direct info from those countries; but that doesn't help much in making sense of Americans' attitudes.

    I agree with Maha, that Cole's attempt to explain Americans' support for Israel by "whiteness" is junk – the correlation is weak, and there's no causal relationship. 

    In 1947, Truman officially recognized the new State of Israel over the objections of Sec State Marshall (as in "Marshall Plan").  The US State Dept was – and always had been – run by Ivy League WASPs; their objections to Recognition were partly rooted in aristocratic anti-Semitism, but also grounded in the reality that supporting a Jewish nation in the middle of the Arab/Muslim world would lead to conflict with countries that controlled the lifeblood of Western Civilization: oil.  They were right about that part (see "OPEC").

    The Democratic Party has always (since the Civil War?) been a coalition of disparate ethno-religious groups, sharing only a desire to wrest some power from the more monolithic WASPy GOP.  (Southern Christians didn't really count as WASPs, post-bellum).  Blacks were Republicans – because, Lincoln – until FDR (or rather, Eleanor) started to woo them to the Democratic Party.  Jews were Democrats, as were Catholics, because they weren't WASPs.  Under FDR, the Democratic Party became more "liberal" – generally supporting Underdogs against Overlords by default.

    When Israel was (re-?)established in 1947, it was viewed (rightly, IMO) as a nation of plucky refugees who "made the dessert blossom".  Israel's Kibbutz program gave them extra cred with Socialists, appalled at the fate of Russian Communism under Stalin. 

    American Blacks viewed Jews as fellow Oppressed People – and strongly identified with the Book of Exodus – until Jews got rich and became landlords.  Resentment at Jews' economic success simmered & festered (we're seeing the same thing now with Black resentment of Asians' success).  Oppressed groups often lash out at the visible manifestation of oppression – landlords, shop owners – rather than the larger but more distant forces (Wall Street).

    The GOP was consistently anti-Israel until Nixon – notoriously anti-Semitic, but also resentful of the East-Coast Establishment – skipped over the Ivy-Leaguers & chose Kissinger as Sec State.  By this time, the "traditional" (Northern) Protestant sects were mellowing, becoming more tolerant, and condemning racism & anti-Semitism – a path not followed by the Southern/Evangelical sects.

    After Nixon's spectacular downfall, the GOP regrouped & built the strategy which elected Reagan: luring Southern Racists & Rural Evangelicals from the Democratic Party.  The propaganda conduits which the GOP used to drum up the Culture War were particularly effective there; and they used their legislative power to change FCC rules, opening the door for Rush Limbaugh & Hate Radio, ultimately culminating in FOX "News" controlling the minds of roughly 100 Million Americans.  And Fox – despite it's racist & anti-Semitic dog-whistling – has always been pro-Israel (as have all Murdoch media corps on 3+ continents).  This is the correlation between "whiteness" and support for Israel (Fox' audience in "fly-over country" is overwhelmingly white, old, and/or Evangelical).

    In the meantime, well-informed Liberals came to see that Israel is no longer the "plucky underdog", so support there has eroded.  As the GOP gained political dominance in the US Government, AIPAC jumped on board.  They are still feared by older Democratic politicians; and it's no coincidence that the Senate – which has more influence on Foreign Policy – is a bastion of these "older Democrats".  Younger Democrats have no patience for this, leading to the election of AOC & her "Squad".


    Luckily, there's one guy who breaks all these correlations: Bernie!


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