Why is the US embroiled in the Middle East? There are two primary answers: Oil and Israel. Both are fairly intractable problems, the latter in significant part because of the unique convergence of theology and politics that has forged American policy in the region. Dispensationalists insist that we must bless Israel or incur the curse of Israel’s God, and dispensationalism has had an enormous influence on US policy. Daniel Pipes has said that “America’s Christian Zionists” are, next to the Israeli armed forces, “the Jewish state’s ultimate strategic asset.” For obvious religious and political reasons, American Jews pressure the US government, very effectively, to support Israel militarily and diplomatically. Any deviation from a pro-Israel policy is liable to be tarred as anti-Semitic.
Just ask John J. Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago. In 2011, Mearsheimer was condemned for his endorsement of Gilad Atzmon’s The Wandering Who, which a group of writers condemned as anti-Semitic. Alan Dershowitz claimed that Mearsheimer had crossed the “red line between acceptable criticism of Israel and legitimizing anti-Semitism.” This wasn’t the first time that Mearsheimer had dealt with the charge. His 2007 book, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Stephen Walt, was condemned as “anti-Semitic in effect if not in intent.” “Yes, it’s anti-Semitic,” wrote Eliot Cohen in the Washington Post. In response to the original essay that served as the basis of the book, Alan Dershowitz called the authors bigots whose ideas were similar to those found on neo-Nazi web sites.
Mearsheimer and Walt deny the charge, of course. They insist that Israel has a right to exist, reject the notion that the “Israel lobby” of the title is all-powerful or conspiratorial, agree that Israel’s advocates in the US are playing the same game of advocacy as everyone else in political life. Their central thesis begins from their conclusion that the US has neither sufficient moral nor strategic reasons to give unconditional support to Israel. Since moral and strategic considerations don’t explain US policy, there must be another factor: “The real reason why American politicians are so deferential is the political power of the Israel lobby” (p. 5).
I’m less interested in the argument about the Israel lobby than in Mearsheimer and Walt’s analysis of the moral and strategic rationale for US support for Israel. They argue that there is a “dwindling moral case” for supporting Israel. They don’t find the “underdog” argument plausible anymore. While Jews have been victims for centuries, they observe, “in the past century they have often been the victimizers in the Middle East, and their main victims were and continue to be the Palestinians” (p. 79). Israel is no longer the David facing the Goliath of Arab states; they are instead “the strongest military power in the Middle East.”
Nor does support for Israel entail support for democracy, at least not democracy as most of today’s Americans understand it. Israel is, after all, a Jewish state, and “its leaders have long emphasized the importance of maintaining an unchallenged Jewish majority within its borders” (p. 87). The initial draft of the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty contained an explicit guarantee that “all are equal before the law” and an assurance that “there shall be no discrimination on the grounds of gender, religion, nationality, race, ethnic group, country of origin.” When the Knesset passed the Basic Law in 1992, however, that article had been dropped (p. 88). As a result, “Israel’s 1.36 million Arabs are de facto treated as second-class citizens” (p. 88).
Much of the support that Israel has in the US depends on a contrast between virtuous Israelis and vicious Arabs. The Arab world has more than its share of brutes, but from its beginning Israel has been “far from benevolent” (p. 98). From 1949 to 1956, Israel killed between 2700 and 5000 Arab infiltrators with booby-traps and mines, most of them Arabs who tried to cross the border “for economic or social reasons” (p. 99; the authors cite Israeli historian Benny Morris). During the 1967 war, Israel expelled at least 100,000 Palestinians from the West Bank, and between 1967 and 2003 “Israel destroyed more than ten thousand homes in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip” (p. 99). From 1993 to 2000, “Israel confiscated more than forty thousand acres of Palestinian land . . . and increased the settler population in the West Bank and Gaza by almost one hundred thousand” (p. 106). These are hardly policies that make for peace in the region, and blanket US support in the face of these provocations isn’t warranted.
The strategic argument turns on Mearsheimer and Walt’s recognition that US coziness with Israel at the very least cools relations with Arab states in the Middle East and damages our international reputation elsewhere. During the Cold War, Israel was an important ally, they argue, but now “Washington’s close relationship with Jerusalem makes it harder, not easier, to defeat the terrorists who are now targeting the United States, and it simultaneously undermines America’s standing with important allies around the world” (p. 5). Israel doesn’t always “act like a loyal ally” anyway, seeking its own interests even when these run contrary to America’s.
Given the weaknesses of the moral and strategic arguments for an “unconditional ‘special relationship between the United States and Israel” (p. 77), the authors conclude that the US should recalibrate its policy to treat Israel like any other power – supporting them when they act in a way that promotes American national interests, opposing them when they do not.
I don’t share Mearsheimer’s version of Realpolitik. Theological considerations play no role in his calculus. Yet I find The Israel Lobby’s critique of US policy toward Israel compelling. It is a critique that desperately needs to be heard by American Christians especially. For the future of US involvement in the Middle East, the stakes are extremely high.
The stakes for Christians may be even higher. Dispensationalist support for Israel is a huge obstacle in the way of a genuinely Christian approach to international relations. Richard Land, for instance, has stated that America is not God’s chosen people, arguing that God has only one chosen people: Israel! How can we make progress until we recognize the catholic church as the primary Christian polity? US-Israel relations form a political-theological knot, and disentangling the knot requires a massive reorientation of both theology and political commitment. The knot can be cut from either direction – by rebutting dispensationalism or by pointing to the moral and political error of unconditional support for Israel. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick, but this knot needs to be undone.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House and an adjunct Senior Fellow at New St. Andrews College, Moscow, Idaho.