Book Reviews

The Unraisable Issue

Eric Alterman’s history of U.S. views of Israel asks why the topic is so lethal—and minds so unpersuadable.

By Emily Tamkin

Tagged Benjamin NetanyahuForeign PolicyIsrael

We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel by Eric Alterman Basic Books 2022 512 pages $35

On the day I sat down to write this review, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. “We see you as a trusted partner in matters of assuring security and, of course, advancing peace,” Netanyahu told Sullivan, assuring him that he knew President Joe Biden was a great friend to Israel.

This was all taking place as Israel inched toward a constitutional crisis. Israel’s Supreme Court had ruled one day prior that one of Netanyahu’s ministers, Aryeh Deri of the Orthodox Shas Party, who had previously been convicted of tax fraud, was unfit to serve and should be removed. Netanyahu dawdled on firing Deri, but fired him four days later with a promise to later find a way to return him to government. Netanyahu’s justice minister, meanwhile, had unveiled plans that would weaken the judiciary, bringing tens of thousands out to the streets to protest in Tel Aviv the previous weekend. This is to say nothing of his national security minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who had ordered police to remove Palestinian flags flown in public, or of the fact that the United Nations said that 2022, under the previous (and less extreme) government, was one of the deadliest years on record for Palestinians in the West Bank.

Despite all of this, Sullivan went to Jerusalem and stood by, nodding and smiling and listening, as Netanyahu said he considered the United States a trusted partner.

Eric Alterman’s We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel is the story of how this scene came to be. I thought, when I began reading it, that it was going to be about how Israel came to loom as large as it does in the American Jewish imagination, and what, if anything, might change or challenge that. There is some of that in there, but that is not really the subject. We Are Not One is instead the history of how U.S. policy toward Israel was first shaped and then hardened. How did the subject of uncertainty and debate become a seemingly unquestionable allegiance?

Eric Alterman, CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College and a former columnist for The Nation and The American Prospect, did not approach this undertaking as a novice. This, his twelfth book, is the product of decades of not only work but life experience. His book is one of many exploring the relationship between the two countries, and the differences between the people therein—consider Daniel Gordis’s We Stand Divided or Peter Beinart’s The Crisis of Zionism, to take just two examples—and We Are Not One enters the canon as a kind of meta-commentary. Alterman is writing not only about the relationship, but about how the relationship is written about (and debated, and papered over, and so on).

The most effective parts of the book look at the various presidents whose administrations have shaped the U.S.-Israel relationship and examine how they interacted with Israeli prime ministers, members of Congress, and special interest groups, including but not limited to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).

That Israel has bipartisan and largely unquestioning, uncritical support in the United States is now a given, but it is also the result of history, and of the men and women who made it. Alterman capably takes us through that history, introducing us to President Harry Truman, who was under pressure to support the advent of the state of Israel from Jewish assistants on his staff (“Whenever I try to talk to them about Palestine,” Alterman records Truman as having said, “they soon burst into tears”) as well as a non-Jewish political confidant, Clark Clifford—who, per Alterman, “was not particularly interested in Zionism, but…was very much interested in winning elections.” There is President Dwight Eisenhower’s secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, complaining about the Israeli embassy “practically dictating to the Congress through influential Jewish people in the country.” Alterman brings us through the years of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, including one scene in which Golda Meir, then prime minister of Israel, rejects the concerns of American Jews about Israeli pressure to vote for Nixon . “Have you any liberals,” she reportedly quipped, “who can supply us with Phantom [fighter jets]?”

We consider the U.S.-Israel relationship under George H.W. Bush, who clashed with Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and pushed back on Israeli settlements in the occupied territories by sabotaging billions of dollars in loan guarantees to build housing. (When “Washington’s old friend” Yitzhak Rabin returned to the PM’s office, Bush approved the guarantees and allowed 11,000 in-progress housing units in the West Bank to be finished provided the construction of 6,000 future units there was canceled.) Next up came Bill Clinton, who, after his first meeting with Netanyahu, reportedly turned to an aide and wondered, “Who the fuck does he think he is? Who’s the fucking superpower here?” We see the U.S.-Israel relationship under Barack Obama, whom a Congressional Quarterly report describes as having come “into office with grand hopes of revitalizing the peace process” only to end up “isolated and eventually boxed in by the ferocity of lawmakers’ support for Israel.” That’s in spite of the fact that, as Alterman writes, Obama’s somewhat tougher position “consistently proved to be the most popular one among not only all Americans, but also among American Jews.” The final chapter, which covers the elections of 2016 and 2020, is titled “Coming Unglued,” with Alterman concluding that “below the presidential level, among Democrats, liberals, young Jews, and even young evangelicals, the foundations” of America’s support for Israel “had grown decidedly shaky.” The ways in which we should expect to see further shaking are explored in the conclusion, “Not ‘Over,’” where we read that “the demand…that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism be understood to be indistinguishable was no longer accepted by much of the Jewish community” on the same page that we read that AIPAC invested $6 million “to ensure the defeat of yet another woman of color who had been critical of Israel, former Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards,” and $4.2 million in a primary against “liberal Zionist Congressman Andy Levin.” Will establishment organizations retain their power? Will antisemitism and anti-Zionism be understood as indistinguishable going forward? These, Alterman seems to say, are the questions for the future.

Throughout, Alterman also examines the work of prominent individuals, like former ADL head Abe Foxman, and the positioning of groups like AIPAC, for example recounting how Rabin, after defeating Shamir, attacked the organization for being overly supportive of the right-wing party Likud. “Rabin let AIPAC know that he would be grateful if it allowed Israel to handle its relations with the U.S. government without its help,” which he describes as “the first of a number of pins” Israeli officials of a variety of political stripes employed to pop the balloon of American Jewish organizations’ “self-importance.” Subjects like Jewish political power and philanthropic influence can often bleed into stereotypes, but Alterman writes on the subject with nuance, carefully separating fact from overstatement.

If We Are Not One had only traced the debate over Israel in the White House and on Capitol Hill, then dayenu—that would have been enough. But the book also serves as a sort of intellectual history, tracing how publications wrote about and shaped the public understanding of and opinion on Israel. We learn how The New York Times shifted away from its early skepticism of Zionism (and how, according to one scholar, less than 2 percent of Times op-eds addressing Palestinian issues over the course of 50 years were written by Palestinians). We learn how the writers of the American Jewish publication Commentary, who would eventually be known as neoconservatives, shook off their Israel skepticism, too. Early Commentary coverage questioned Zionism; the then-editor-in-chief saw it as a distraction from the goal of shaping American Jewish minds. But then neoconservatives—Commentary writers among them—became concerned “with the takeover of the Democratic Party by the kinds of people who had nominated George McGovern in 1972,” resisted those who would draw an equivalence between Zionism and racism, and eventually turned to “foreign policy more generally” to stop President Jimmy Carter from “demanding concessions from Israel.”

On the other hand, we read how “leading liberal” publications like The Nation moved from full-throated support of Israel to something more questioning. Alterman describes The Nation as “ground zero” for debates on “who were the imperialists and who the anti-imperialists in Palestine.” In the beginning, 1940s-era editor-in-chief Freda Kirchwey hailed “the miracle of Jewish Palestine” and lauded those who emigrated there as morally “free.” But in the 1980s, when The New Republic’s Martin Peretz was writing Zionist diatribes, The Nation was lambasted by Commentary’s Norman Podhorertz for “unambiguously venomous attacks on Israel.” (Alterman also notes that, in 2021, The Nation hired Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian activist—and that the post-Peretz New Republic, per Alterman, “also switched sides” and wrote “articles with titles such as ‘Israel’s Never-Ending War Against Palestinian Health.’”)

Alterman also assesses the impact—and accuracy, or lack thereof—of significant cultural works, most notably Leon Uris’s novel Exodus, which was turned into a movie starring Paul Newman. He notes that the bestselling book, which includes a fictionalized account of Jewish refugees’ efforts to reach Palestine on the ship Exodus 1947, downplayed the role of the paramilitary Jewish organization Irgun and all but erased the American Jews present on the ship, romanticizing kibbutzniks instead.

Generally speaking, the focus of the book is on those setting the policy and politics, not those voting for or paying dues to them. Alterman does not make sweeping assumptions but instead makes his case by presenting specific scenes and an (at times) almost overwhelming mass of facts. A compelling narrative thus emerges.

We Are Not One is less strong when it moves away from elite political decision-makers. At one point, Alterman writes, describing the 1970s, “rabbis were no longer the voices that mattered in American Jewish politics. The baton had long ago passed to the executives of the representative organizations and the funders who made their jobs possible. And these people did not, as a rule, listen to latter-day prophets. They listened to wealthy and powerful men like their patrons and themselves.”

But how? And why? The book spends far less time on how this happened—how the most powerful Jewish voices in American political life came to be not rabbis, but heads of institutions—than it does on the policy discussions and debates between the wealthy and powerful. To put it another way, despite what one might think from the title, this is more a book on elite decision-making and policy formation than it is about the divergence of American (Jewish and not) and Israeli politics and identities.

Alterman also—somewhat surprisingly for an author who looks so critically and with such nuance at other long-held narratives—repeats some well-worn and only partially true cliches about American Jews and American Jewish history. He writes: “Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the most liberal American Jews, including, especially, Jewish intellectuals, identified with the European traditions of social democracy, while the more conservative ones saw themselves as just plain ‘liberal.’…. Regarding Black-Jewish relations pre-1967, U.S. civil rights leaders, including, especially, Martin Luther King Jr., were almost uniformly pro-Israel…the alliance was real. The Six-Day War said ‘goodbye’ to all that.”

The idea that American Jews and Black Americans worked closely together in the 1960s and splintered in the 1970s is well-trod ground. “The Black-Jewish alliance had endured for more than half a century,” Alterman writes. But works like Marc Dollinger’s Black Power, Jewish Politics and Michael Staub’s Torn at the Roots have already complicated that narrative, entering into the record evidence that things were not as frictionless in the 1960s or as antagonistic in the 1970s as that account would suggest.

At another point, Alterman writes of the late twentieth century: “Young Jews were marrying gentiles in numbers that alarmed their parents and grandparents, to say nothing of the resulting demographic threat that their non-Jewish offspring might pose to future Jewish political power. The result was a significant shrinkage in the number of people who remained passionately and politically engaged with the Israel/Palestine issue, and the subsequent domination of the discourse by those most devoted to their respective causes,” namely ultra-religious Jews, neoconservatives, and evangelical Christian Zionists.

In doing so, he implies, intentionally or otherwise, that intermarried Jews will necessarily have non-Jewish children. He also—again, perhaps unintentionally—echoes people like Orthodox Rabbi Steven Pruzansky, who has long been a hardline defender of Israeli security ready to insult those who disagree with him, and who in 2021 wrote that younger Jews are more critical of Israel because they are intermarried (“It is invariably true that the loudest Jewish but anti-Israel voices in America today—on campuses, in the media and elsewhere—are usually the children and grandchildren of intermarriage.”)

That is a claim I expect to see in a heated op-ed, but not in a thoughtful, nuanced book. The claims are slightly different: Alterman is saying these young people are not engaged with Israel, whereas Pruzansky is arguing that they are engaged, just not in defending it. But both seem to imply that they are taking their positions because of intermarriage—that the mere fact that they married someone who is not Jewish, or that one of their parents is not, dictates the level or direction of their engagement.

That idea is particularly striking given that Alterman, later on in this same book, acknowledges, “Israel’s unquestioning defense made little sense to those whose only experience of Israel was of an increasingly illiberal nation that allied itself with the American right wing…and that occupies another people’s land, denies these people even the most basic political rights, and occasionally launches bombing raids against a population forced to live without access to dependable electricity, clean water, and, oftentimes, food and shelter.” Moreover, on an analytical level, it falls short. If liberal Jewish voices have become less engaged in the debate around Israel, is it really just because they married people who are not Jewish? Could it not also be because, as Alterman himself writes, the groups that purport to represent American Jews “are not in any democratic sense accountable to the community for whom they claim to speak”?

Nevertheless, We Are Not One is a rich, useful synthesis of decades of debate on U.S.-Israel relations and American policy toward Israel, and on how it came to be that the debate is sometimes less a discussion on foreign policy and more an argument as to whether there can be any debate on Israel in the first place.

Consider, for example, the discussion over whether to codify the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism into discrimination law and policy. The lead author of the working definition, Kenneth Stern, has said it was never intended to be enforceable code; and yet institutions like the American Jewish Committee endorse it as “a proven, useful, and effective instrument in the hands of police, government monitors, law enforcement and justice officials, and many others to identify antisemitism.” Their critics worry that they have done so in order to silence pro-Palestinian speech under the guise of fighting antisemitism.

At the very end of the book, Alterman quotes Joan Didion, who, in late 2002, said that the issue of Israel was “unraisable, potentially lethal, the conversational equivalent of an unclaimed bag on a bus. We take cover. We wait for the entire subject to be defused…Many opinions are expressed. Few are allowed to develop. Even fewer change.” Alterman then writes that he has tried to tell the story of why that is, “not just for Israel and for American Jews, but for the sake of civil discourse upon which all hopes for democracy must finally rest.”

Here, Alterman seems to say, not just in the conclusion but throughout the book. Here is what we talk about, and what we don’t talk about, and why. I’ve said it now. What you say next is up to you. I thought about it while watching Sullivan standing next to Netanyahu. If he could have said anything to the Israeli prime minister, what would it have been? To use Alterman’s parlance, what if he felt free to engage in civil discourse? What, then, would we have heard?

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Emily Tamkin is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. She is the author of The Influence of Soros and Bad Jews.

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