Israel just announced it has loosened Gaza blockade rules to allow in consumer goods and Turkey is demanding an apology for the flotilla raid. As Obama and Netanyahu await tomorrow's meeting, historian Thaddeus Russell argues that it's time to ask if the country makes Americans safer—even if the answer makes everyone very uncomfortable.
When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the White House Tuesday, President Obama will have the chance to be the first American president since the founding of Israel to ask The Question.
The Question is never addressed by Israel's supporters and rarely raised by Israel's detractors. But for those of us who are taxpayers in a nation that has been the state of Israel’s chief benefactor for 42 years—or those of us with Jewish ancestry—it is becoming the only question to ask. It is simple, self-interested, and fundamental: Does the existence of Israel make Americans and Jews safer?
And here is the paradox: Though support for Israel among Americans, and especially Jewish Americans, remains high according to recent Gallup polls, historical evidence says the answer to The Question is “no.”
“There was not a single act of Arab terrorism against Americans before 1968, when the U.S. became the chief supplier of military equipment and economic aid to Israel.”
The history of Israel and its relationship with the U.S. is infinitely complex, but there’s one damning fact that’s ignored as often as The Question: There was not a single act of Arab terrorism against Americans before 1968, when the U.S. became the chief supplier of military equipment and economic aid to Israel. In light of this fact, it’s difficult to credibly sustain the argument that Arab terrorism is spawned by Islam’s alleged promotion of violence and antipathy toward American culture or by a “natural” Arab anti-Semitism. It also suggests that no matter what policies Israel enacts to protect itself—even a withdrawal from the occupied territories or a two-state “solution”—it must be a perpetual wartime state.
Very few Americans today are aware that the question of American and Jewish self-interest was first raised at the time of Israel's founding by officials in the highest levels of the U.S. government. In 1948, several members of Harry Truman's Cabinet predicted that the creation of a Jewish state in the Middle East would spur Arab violence against Jews and Americans, advising the president to shun Israel.
These included Secretary of State George Marshall, Defense Secretary James Forrestal, and George Kennan, then the leading policy strategist in the State Department. They argued that if the United States helped to set up an independent Jewish nation it would provoke terrorist attacks on Americans and inaugurate an endless war between Arabs and Jews. “There are 30 million Arabs on one side and about 600,000 Jews on the other,” Forrestal told those in the administration who favored recognizing Israel. “Why don’t you face up to the realities?”
To support their argument, the anti-Israel faction in the White House pointed to two facts. First, the establishment and maintenance of a Jewish state required at least a partial displacement and disenfranchisement of non-Jews. Second, though not free of bloodshed, relations between Jews and Arabs in the Palestine area were relatively peaceful before the establishment of Zionist settlements there in the early 20th century. The first acts of political violence against Jews in the region took place in 1920, when local Arabs responded to the influx of tens of thousands of Zionist settlers by attacking Jewish settlements in Galilee and rioting in the streets of Jerusalem.
The subsequent increase in Jewish migration to Palestine was met by increased violence by Arabs, who feared—rightly—that many of them would have to be removed from the area so that a Jewish majority could be established. The founding of Israel in 1948—which was advocated by many as the establishment of a safe haven for European Jews who had been driven from their homes by the Third Reich—was met by full-scale war.
Though many Americans think of Islamic terrorism against the U.S. as part of an inevitable “clash of cultures,” not one American died at the hands of a politically motivated Arab or Muslim until June 5, 1968, when Robert F. Kennedy was shot to death by Sirhan Sirhan. The killing came shortly after President Lyndon Johnson declared that the U.S. would become Israel’s major sponsor, and Kennedy announced that if elected president he would supply Israel with whatever weapons it needed so that the Jewish state “can protect itself” against its Arab neighbors.
There is wide agreement that Sirhan's principal motivation was his anger over U.S. support of Israel generally and Kennedy’s pledge in particular. A Palestinian born in Jerusalem, Sirhan had filled notebooks with rage against Zionists—and against Kennedy, for what the Los Angeles Times reported as “the senator’s advocacy of U.S. support for Israel.”
Since then, the United States has given more than $100 billion in aid to Israel, which has been roughly one-third of all foreign aid given by the U.S. Also since then, some 15,000 Israelis and nearly 5,000 Americans have been killed by Arabs opposed to the existence of Israel. Not one of those Israelis would have died had they lived in New York or Los Angeles, and it is reasonable to argue that many more Americans would be alive today had the United States never given aid to Israel.
In 1998, the World Islamic Front confirmed the forgotten fears of Forrestal, Marshall, and Kennan by issuing a fatwa “to kill the Americans and their allies—civilians and military” for grievances including U.S. support of “the Jews' petty state” and “its occupation of Jerusalem and murder of Muslims there.” Three years later, two leaders of the organization, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Osama Bin Laden, followed their own edict.
Though the motivations of Al-Zawahiri and Bin Laden were not limited to outrage over Israel, the heads of al Qaeda have benefited greatly from continued U.S. support of the Jewish state. Recently, Centcom commander Gen. David Petraeus stunned many in Washington when he suggested during a Senate hearing and in a briefing to the Joint Chiefs of Staff that perceived U.S. complicity in the oppression of Palestinians is serving as the most powerful recruiting tool for anti-American terrorist organizations.
This evidence, these arguments, or even The Question itself will never move those who believe—for religious, political, or emotional reasons—that a Jewish state must exist in the Middle East. They will not change the minds of Israelis who would rather live in perpetual war than leave the land they say belongs to them. But they might very well convince Americans, and even some Jews, to no longer participate in what now is clearly an act of self-destruction.
Thaddeus Russell is the author of the forthcoming A Renegade History of the United States (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2010). He teaches history and cultural studies at Occidental College and has taught at Columbia University, Barnard College, Eugene Lang College, and the New School for Social Research.