Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Why Do Conservatives Love Israel So Much?

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warmly greeted by Congress, March 3rd

The most striking thing about the conservative reaction to the Obama administration’s unprecedented diplomatic breach with Israel is its abject identification with the other country. To recap: Benjamin Netanyahu successfully campaigned for re-election as Prime Minister by explicitly repudiating what has been the central proposal of both Israeli and American diplomacy for a generation: the two-state solution, the creation of a sovereign Palestinian state at peace with Israel.  He also lamented that Israeli Arabs were actually exercising their political rights as citizens by voting against him in great numbers.  By retracting the only important conciliatory position Israel has taken, and by appealing to the worst instincts of his embattled base he has made progress on the Palestinian problem impossible for the foreseeable future.  Indeed, that seems to have been his intent.  But he has badly damaged Israel’s diplomatic and moral standing, and that is reflected in the new American disapproval.

But American conservatives are angry beyond reason, not at Netanyahu for sabotaging chances for mid-East peace, but at Obama for having the nerve to criticize him for it.  Of course, overwrought indignation deafens our current political discourse, but in this case the apoplectic table-pounding seems all too sincere.  What gives?  Israel, as the only genuine liberal democracy in the region, is an admirable country in many ways.  But how do we understand the intensity and extremity of conservative protectiveness?  Is it possible to imagine conservatives losing their minds over official American reproach of, say, Britain?  Or Canada?  Or any other country in the world?  Why is Israel so special in the conservative mind?  Why do they love it so much?

And it’s not just that they love it.  They seem to love it as much as they love America.  And, crucially, they love it in the same way: it’s pure and noble in essence and can do no wrong.  Of course, many American Christian fundamentalists support Israel because it plays a central role in their vision of the end of days; i.e. Armageddon and the destruction of all non-believers, especially any Jews who stubbornly remain Jewish.  Israel must be quite happy at this sort of “support”.  More to the point, such obscurantist, adolescent revenge fantasies might explain instrumental affection for Israel, but they don’t explain super-national love.

As personal love is the extension of one’s ego to include another, conservative Israel-ardor is the extension of patriotism.  Consider a country whose creation was ordained by God Himself, whose purpose is to bring righteousness to the world, whose political heart is democratic and free, and which from the moment of its inception was besieged by implacable evil.  Is that America or Israel?  Yes.  Yes, it is.  In the conservative imagination Israel is an extension of all that’s good in America, in Western civilization, in humanity.   Conservatives love Israel the way they love America because Israel is America.  It’s the only country that has a franchise on American exceptionalism.

And since, as conservatives have warned us, Obama doesn’t really love America, it makes perfect sense that he doesn’t love Israel either.  Indeed, some conservatives claim that Netanyahu loves America more than Obama does!  The farther fringes are certain that Obama actively desires the humiliationor worse!of both.  The crucial confusion here is mistaking an ideology for a country.  Conservative love America for its essential goodness, which in their minds flows from its strong, beating conservative heart.  Israel equals America equals conservatism equals moral purity.  To oppose any of them is to oppose them all.

But even more important than moral purity is moral strength.  From the moment of its birth Israel has beaten off its attacking neighbors, even expanding its territory and its military power.  This is what makes conservatives swoon: bad-assed righteousness.  God must be on Israel’s side.  At the very least, the conservative principles that made America so great are doing the same for Israel.

And now we can correctly perceive Israel’s enemies.  They’re evil in essence and retrograde in practice.  Non-white, non-Western, non-Judeo-Christian, they’re present-day Native Americans, indulging their strange, savage habits and hoarding land they don’t know how to properly exploit.  They can’t possibly have any legitimate grievances.  Any resistance these place-holding squatters feel toward their eviction by the rightful owners can only be motivated by simple spite.  The conservative vision of Israel as America is complete: sturdy, righteous pioneers subduing the physical and moral wilderness, armed with only a Bible and an atomic bomb.  And this is the Puritan self-image: a pillar of morality strong enough to resist the temptations, corruptions and enervations that threaten his soul.

This is the myth of American and Israeli goodness that, to varying degrees, informs conservative thinking on the subject.  The increasing polarization of American politics – i.e. the escalating ideological purification of conservatism – has increased the influence and intensity of that myth.  As with the embattled Puritan, the greater the evil outside the door, the greater the intensity of belief inside the temple.  The more conservatives feel America is threatened – by immigration, by liberalism, by terrorism – or that Israel is threatened – by Arab demographics, by Iran, by insufficient American devotion – the more they reject reasoned analysis and embrace mythology.  Obama has pushed all their Israeli buttons: by pressing it to halt settlement-building, by negotiating with its enemies, by criticizing its politics, and – most importantly – by not worshiping its moral superiority, by treating it like a normal country, like the flawed and morally complex country that it is, that every country is. 

Of course, fawning conservative admiration of Israel doesn’t negate what actually is admirable about Israel.  But American conservatives defend Israel for all the wrong reasons, for reasons having more to do with American mythology than Israeli reality.  That confusion doesn’t lend itself to the prudential, moderate diplomacy that Obama is trying so hard to practice and that Netanyahu is trying so hard to subvert.  And this is the irony of the American conservative position: they’re defending Israel’s reputation so vehemently just when its own leaders are so carelessly doing it the most damage.