We Are Not One: A His­to­ry of America’s Fight Over Israel

  • Review
By – November 29, 2022

Eric Alter­man, long-time media crit­ic for The Nation mag­a­zine, has writ­ten a his­to­ry of America’s rela­tion­ship to Zion­ism and the State of Israel that is like­ly to anger a sig­nif­i­cant seg­ment of read­ers — for dif­fer­ent rea­sons. Alterman’s study, which is forty years in the mak­ing, traces the bat­tles over Israel that have tak­en place in both diplo­mat­ic and polit­i­cal are­nas and in the pub­lic sphere. Alter­man briefly traces the ear­ly debates about Zion­ism and then moves, chap­ter by chap­ter, through the key moments of Israel-Amer­i­can rela­tions, from Pres­i­dent Truman’s offi­cial recog­ni­tion of Israel moments after it declared inde­pen­dence, to Don­ald Trump’s deci­sion to move the US embassy to Jerusalem. Although his sub­ti­tle speaks of America’s fight over Israel,” he argues that it has large­ly been a one-sided affair, with a strong cadre of orga­nized sup­port for Israel over­whelm­ing any oppo­si­tion to it. In his view, this is not a healthy sit­u­a­tion. He thinks there should be more open debate over Israel’s poli­cies and practices.

Alter­man begins by account­ing for the psy­cho­log­i­cal role that Israel has played in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty and in the rise of Chris­t­ian fun­da­men­tal­ist beliefs in Armaged­don. For much of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, Israel has become a cen­ter of iden­ti­ty, if not the cen­ter. And for fun­da­men­tal­ist Chris­tians, Israel fac­tors into the final con­flict between God and Satan, its found­ing a presage of the Sec­ond Com­ing. Both trends have giv­en rise to a high­ly orga­nized and out­spo­ken sup­port net­work for Israel in such orga­ni­za­tions as AIPAC and Chris­tians Unit­ed For Israel (CUFI).

Alter­man is very point­ed in his argu­ment that at least since the ear­ly 1970s, debate over Israel’s poli­cies and prac­tices vis-à-vis Pales­tine has been short-cir­cuit­ed by what he calls the sacral­iza­tion” of the Holo­caust and the quick­ness, in his view, to label any crit­i­cism of Israel as anti­se­mit­ic. He offers anec­dotes about how a cho­rus of per­son­al vil­i­fi­ca­tion has been unleashed not only on out­spo­ken crit­ics of Israel, but also on many who, while sup­port­ive of Israel, have had the temer­i­ty, in the eyes of Israel’s sup­port­ers, to try to push Israel in the direc­tion of accom­mo­da­tion with Palestine.

If the past is any indi­ca­tion of the future, Alter­man can expect a heavy bar­rage of crit­i­cism. He is dis­pleased with the recent right­ward-lean­ing gov­ern­ments in Israel, but also with ear­li­er left-lean­ing ones, and he’s espe­cial­ly wary of Israel’s orga­nized sup­port­ers in the US. While much of his argu­ment is exten­sive­ly doc­u­ment­ed and foot­not­ed, his rhetoric some­times leads him into gen­er­al­iza­tion and broad-brush char­ac­ter­i­za­tions of motives.

Alter­man also traces the rise of a most­ly left-wing oppo­si­tion to Israel and its poli­cies. Iron­i­cal­ly, it was the pro­gres­sive left that was Israel’s main sup­port in the ear­ly days of the Zion­ist move­ment. While this oppo­si­tion has made inroads into the cam­pus­es where BDS is a grow­ing (but, in Alterman’s view, a failed) move­ment, it has also tak­en hold among younger Jews, who remain gen­er­al­ly more lib­er­al in their pol­i­tics than the con­ser­v­a­tive donors who sup­port major Zion­ist orga­ni­za­tions. Thus, a widen­ing gap has devel­oped along gen­er­a­tional lines.

In this year, which marks both the 125th anniver­sary of the first Zion­ist Con­gress in Basel, Switzer­land, and the sev­en­ty-fifthth anniver­sary of the found­ing of the State of Israel, Alterman’s book is essen­tial read­ing for any­one who cares about what hap­pens next in the unfold­ing sto­ry of the Israel-Pales­tine conflict.

Mar­tin Green is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Fair­leigh Dick­in­son Uni­ver­si­ty, where he taught lit­er­a­ture and media stud­ies. He is work­ing on a book about Amer­i­can pop­u­lar peri­od­i­cals in the 1920s.

Discussion Questions