America's longstanding solidarity with Israel suits most Americans just fine, but it does set some people's teeth on edge. Two of those people are Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, and political scientist John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, co-authors of a sour new polemic about the insidious "Israel Lobby" that manipulates US policy in the Middle East and dragged the Bush administration into war.
Walt and Mearsheimer are not the first to wade into these swamps. In March 2003, US Representative James Moran inveighed against Jews at an antiwar rally: "If it was not for the strong support of the Jewish community for this war with Iraq," the Virginian Democrat fumed, "we would not be doing this." It was at about the same time that Professor Edward Said of Columbia University was ranting: "Wherever you look in the Congress there are the tell-tale signs either of the Zionist lobby, the right-wing Christians, or the military-industrial complex, three inordinately influential minority groups who share . . . unbridled support for extremist Zionism." A year earlier it had been South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, lamenting that "the Israeli government is placed on a pedestal" in the United States; no one dares oppose Israel "because the Jewish lobby is powerful -- very powerful."
But the truth is precisely the reverse. America's loyalty to Israel isn't engineered by a Zionist cabal that dupes American citizens and hijacks their government. US policy tends to align closely with Israel's because Americans like Israel. They instinctively sympathize with Israel's fight for survival in one of the world's most dangerous neighborhoods. If public opinion weren't robustly pro-Israel in the first place, the White House and Congress would be far less inclined to give Israel's advocates the time of day. There's a name for that phenomenon. It's called democracy.
The American consensus in support of Israel is deep-rooted and durable. Polls show that it cuts across all ages and both sexes. The dread power of some "Israel Lobby" doesn't explain it. So what does?
With all its flaws, Israel has the freest and fairest political system in the Middle East.
First, Americans recognize in Israeli society a modern liberal democracy -- a country like their own, with vigorously contested elections, a free press, an independent judiciary, and a commitment to civil liberties and human rights that hasn't flagged despite six decades of terrorism and war. With all its flaws, Israel has the freest and fairest political system in the Middle East. Israel's Arab citizens are full-fledged voters -- women as well as men -- and are routinely elected to the Knesset, Israel's parliament. (Ten Arab candidates won seats in this week's elections.) The region's lone Jewish state is the only one that guarantees complete freedom of worship to Christians and Muslims. To American eyes, Israel's democratic pluralism could hardly be more familiar.
Second, Israel is an invaluable American ally -- a stable and dependable base in a highly unstable part of the globe. From military R&D to world-class intelligence services, from a deepwater port to sophisticated air facilities, from hard-won counterterrorist expertise to a solid democratic culture, Israel brings assets to its strategic relationship with the United States that few countries can match. And Americans don't have to be national-security mavens to appreciate the value of the ally that destroyed Saddam Hussein's nuclear reactor in 1981, and that pulled off Operation Entebbe -- the spectacular rescue of 100 hostages from Idi Amin's Uganda -- on July 4, 1976.
Third, American history is deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian soil, nourishing a special kinship between America's Christians and the Jewish people. The founders of the American republic were deeply influenced by the Hebrew scriptures and believed that they, like the Jews of old, had been taken out of bondage by God and led by Him to a Promised Land. Long before there was a modern state of Israel, American leaders expressed "Zionist" leanings: "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation," former President John Adams wrote in 1819. Nearly two centuries later, millions of American Christians are passionate supporters of the Jewish state.
Finally, Americans sympathize so strongly with the Israelis because both nations face a common enemy. Unlike Walt and Mearsheimer, who can find "no moral basis" for taking Israel's side in its war with enemies bent on its destruction, most Americans make a clear moral distinction between suicide bombers and their victims. If Israeli terrorists were deliberately blowing up Palestinian school buses, if rabbis were blasting Arabs as "the sons of monkeys and pigs," if it were Israelis who had danced in celebration on 9/11, American sympathies might not be so clear-cut. Most Americans are not confused, because most Americans understand what's at stake.
"The US has a special relationship with Israel in the Middle East," President John F. Kennedy said in 1962, "really comparable only to that which it has with Britain." Today, Kennedy's words are truer than ever -- even if the Kennedy School dean has yet to figure that out.