Jews, Israel anad the religious right

Posted: May 09, 2002 12:00 AM
I never write about the Middle East. You can't know about everything, and the tortuous, painful politics of the region are one area that heretofore I have left for others, more daring or expert than myself. But lately, as the world experiences a spasm of anti-Semitism, and as American Jews feel more beleaguered than ever ("Crisis for American Jews," trumpets New York magazine), I have had occasion to reflect on the reasons for my own deep support for the state of Israel.

In America, this kind of deep support is becoming rarer. In 1989, 69 percent of Americans supported Israel. In the latest ABC News poll, just 41 percent of Americans do. And the really weird thing is, as New York magazine put it, "Even more unnerving for liberal Jews here (in New York) has been the fact that sympathy for Israel is strongest among Republicans. At 64 percent, they are far beyond Democrats, only 38 percent of whom sympathize with the Israelis." Columnist Zev Chafets explains the results this way: "Israel's base is now located in pro-American hawks or conservatives or Jews. Some Jews don't feel comfortable with Jerry Falwell, but that's too bad."

How to explain American support for Israel? Like Desmond Tutu, many people abroad aggressively blame the alleged power of something called the Jewish lobby (in a democracy in which Jews are just 2 percent or so of the population). Meanwhile, Islam, designated representative of Third World culture oppressed by evil Western patriarchy, has become the new darling of the liberal intelligentsia.

In PC-Speak, international alliances are supposed to be defined in rational, secular terms. We support Israel because Israel is a democracy, which is true, but so are a lot of other countries. We support Israel because Israel is a staunch ally. Which is true, but what does it get us? With allies like this, America hardly needs enemies. No, support for Israel cannot be justified by the cold logic of national self-interest. And it cannot be explained away by calling some people hawks. Both sides in this conflict use force of arms. A generalized willingness to use military force does not explain why Americans are still much more likely to identify with Israel than, say, the Palestinian authority.

For me, what it comes down to, right or wrong, is a sense of religious affinity. As a Christian (Roman-Catholic style), I believe the Old Testament of the Bible is true. Jews are the chosen people through whom God revealed himself to humanity. Deeper than the ins and outs of any particular policy Israel adopts toward the Palestinians (which may be as right or wrong), my support is based on an inchoate sense that if put into words would be something like this: As Christians, we just cannot sit by and let Islamic nations exterminate the Jewish people. There are a billion Muslims and only a few million Jews.

I am not sure I know how to defend this as a national policy position. (As I said, I leave that for the experts.) I am not trying to make a political argument so much as explain a political phenomenon. The uncomfortable truth for many American Jews (who remain overwhelmingly allied to the Democratic Party and many of whom view Christian conservatives as political enemies) is this: If America's alliance with Israel is to be maintained over the long term, it will be thanks to the Religious Right.