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Why Americans support Israel

By Glenn M. Frazier
web posted April 29, 2002

The European bureautocracy is shocked by the American stance toward Israel. The common views outside of the United States range from seeing Israel as an oppressor state - some say "terrorist" - to the milder stance of "well, both sides are guilty, but Israel is stronger". Americans don't see things that way.

I'm not Jewish. Most Americans are not Jewish. Four out of ten Americans, though (including myself), support Israel. What's up with that? To listen to America's critics, their implied message seems to be that only a Jew could care about the Jews, and that therefore something sneaky must be going on in the United States.

In a poll taken by the Pew Research Center in early April, the growing transatlantic gap in opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict was confirmed. According to the poll, most people on the continent (France 63 per cent, Germany 63 per cent, Italy 51 per cent) disapprove of current U.S. policies with regard to the Middle East, while only 26 per cent of Americans themselves polled said they "disapprove".

Further, when asked to choose sides between Israel and the Palestinians, most Europeans either primarily sided with the Palestinians (France 36 per cent, Great Britain 28 per cent), or selected "neither" (Germany 33 per cent, Italy 32 per cent). Most Americans, on the other hand, placed their sympathies with Israel (41 per cent), with 21 per cent saying "neither", and only 13 per cent choosing the Palestinians. (Interestingly, in every country surveyed, those sympathizing with "both" were outnumbered by those choosing "neither".)

So what's going on, here?

First, it should be noted that in past polls going all the way back to 1978, Americans have generally always sympathized with Israel over the Palestinians, with percentages in the range of 34 per cent in 1990 to 48 per cent in 1997. Our views on this issue, in fact, have not changed substantially since before the September Atrocity.

This, of course, feeds the tired claims of a "Jewish controlled media" and the supposedly stunning power of Jewish lobby groups in the U.S. This is probably the oldest of attempted explanations for American support of Israel. As explanations go, though, these claims are not terribly convincing. If a "Zionist conspiracy" really ran this country, Arabs would be commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of Arafat's martyrdom about now. That David Duke is obsessed with these themes does little to add credit to them, too.

It is true that as lobby efforts go, those supporting Israel are among the most powerful. But how powerful is that? Certainly not enough to so radically sway common public opinion to the point that we see Israel exactly opposite to the way Europe perceives them.

More recent attempts to explain the American public's support for Israel have pointed to two components of the Republican constituency that were core to President Bush's election. The first is the Evangelical Christian movement. The Boston Globe recently cited them as strong supporters of Israel, dismissively implying the motives of the Christian Right as essentially scriptural.

According to a recent article in The Economist, the other group, so-called neo-conservatives (an ever-shifting label), support Israel as part of an overall desire to see America "play a more forceful role in the world." That's...interesting. Being occasionally tagged as a neocon myself, I find it hard to disagree with the author's statement, "Neo-cons are obsessed with the grand design of foreign policy, " but so what? I'd say Marxists are similarly obsessed, but, despite Israel's regrettable socialist idiosyncrasies, this bare fact does not amount to anything.

So let's be generous and lump these two groups together (the total Jewish population in America is too small to have a significant impact on these numbers, by the way), and not question the attributed motives. Do neocons and theocons really make up 41 per cent of the American Public? Some might wish that it were so, but how then would one explain two terms of Clinton? Remember, we're talking about stable levels of public support for Israel since at least 1978.

Here's one more data point: among Europeans, the "highly educated" were far more likely to respond as sympathizing with the Palestinians, compared to their non-Sorbonne-impaired neighbors. France, in particular, showed a dramatic difference among these two demographics, with only 30 per cent of those French of "low" education supporting the Palestinians, versus 51 per cent of those of "high" education.

And here, I think, is the real cause of this historical rift between opinions. Call us middle-brow, say we lack nuance, whine about American exceptionalism, but the basic truth is that Americans are idealistic where Europe is cynical, and cynics where Europeans are idealists.

Take the European response to President Bush's declaration of the Axis of Evil, for example. Across all four European nations polled, the majority disapproved of the statement - France by a whopping 74 per cent. In the United States, the majority approved, with only 34 per cent saying they disapproved.

So do Americans support Israel because we think the Second Coming is, well, coming? (My own faith makes this a particularly odd idea for me to contemplate.) Do we do it out of some nefarious scheme to launch a New Imperialism? Are we bamboozled by the dreaded Jewish Controlled Media?

No. We believe - more than Europe does - that some things are just plain wrong. No excuses, no rationalizations. Like my mom used to say, "I don't care what he did first, if you hit, you're wrong!" Sure, that policy lacked nuance, but it certainly was clear.

President Bush's popularity is in large part due to a great gift he brought us in September: moral clarity.

Academic quibbles among the intelligencia about moral equivalency and "root causes" frankly cause the average American's eyes to glaze over. Sure, Israel's misbehaved. Sure there should be a separate Palestinian state. But once people started blowing up pizza parlors, a far more important - and more clear - problem walked onto the scene. Until the absolutely clear evil of terrorism, suicide bombing, and attempted policide is eliminated, other, lesser problems are put on hold.

Europeans call this idealism simplistic, and maybe it is.

On the flip side, Americans are sometimes dumbfounded to discover how oddly credulous Europeans are when it comes to so much else. Europeans put a value on words that is foreign to the average American. Just because "peace process" sounds like, maybe, there's a process that can create peace does not mean that anything baring the label is actually worthy of any respect. Most Americans, while approving of Powell's recent jaunt to the region, did not expect there to be any meaningful results to the exercise. Socialism is exactly that kind of idea that could never take hold among the majority of Americans. Jenin was a "massacre"? Well, maybe it was, and maybe it wasn't. Let's see some evidence.

As idealistic as many Americans are when it comes to notions of right and wrong, we are deeply, deeply cynical when it comes to words and ideas. We are the "show-me" nation. This is one more reason the notion of a conspiratorial Jewish Controlled Media is so silly to the average American. Who trusts the media??

We sniff out conflicts of interest as a knee-jerk reflex, assume everyone has a bias, and know that just because there's a picture of the batboy shaking hands with Jimmy Carter doesn't mean the event actually happened. Some poor souls here still have a hard time accepting that Elvis is dead. I mean, did you see the body?

This is the great divide between Europe and the U.S.: we believe nothing, they believe in nothing.

This is Glenn M. Frazier's first contribution to Enter Stage Right.

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