Home / Articles / Ten Things Most Americans Think They Know About Israel … But Don’t
1. It is odd that Jews, a religious group, have Israel as a state.
Israel is unique, but not exactly for this reason. In ordinary countries one can distinguish readily between ethnicity and religious affiliation among the people who live within it. There are French Catholics and French Protestants, and even French Muslims and French Jews. To be a Frenchman does not presuppose a religious identification.
On the other hand, there are Muslims who are Arab and Muslims who are Turks, Indonesians, Bosnians, Albanians, and Malays. To be a Muslim does not presuppose a particular ethnic identification.
But with Israelis and Jews it is not so simple.
While there are Israeli citizens who are not Jews— about 18 percent are Arabs, mostly Muslim but some Christian— Israel is clearly a self-described Jewish state and was created to be one. Jew can be set in distinction to Muslim, in which case one is contrasting religion, and Jew can just as readily be set in distinction to Arab, in which case one is contrasting ethnicity.
What this points to is that Jews are not just a religious group, but also a people, and to become a Jew by religion is to become a member of the Jewish people as well. This is unique. One cannot “convert” to being a Frenchman or a Japanese; nor does, say, a conversion to Islam make one an Arab or an Iranian or a Malay.
It follows, too, that Jews are not a race, although there are racial (meaning genetic) commonalities between large groups of Jews. Nor does religion as such define a Jew. Not all Jews — and only a minority of Israelis — are religious, but they still consider themselves members of the Jewish people. Perhaps the best way to put it is this: Jews are people defined largely by possession of a common religious civilization, the longevity of which has produced racially identifiable clusters of people, and who today express that civilization in a variety of ways ranging from traditional observance to secularism. To make matters even more complicated, most Jews who are not Israeli citizens consider themselves members of the Jewish people, too — and this binds them emotionally to Israel regardless of how they feel about religion. In the American context, for example, we typically refer to Italian- Americans, Irish-Americans, African-Americans, but to American Jews. Note which word is the identifying noun and which the descriptive adjective. This suggests why Americans of Italian or Irish or Polish decent do not feel the same kind of relationship to Italy, Ireland, or Poland as most American Jews have to Israel. Suffice it to say, this is a complicated matter, one best approached by serious study, not by quick judgments based on categories that fit American realities but not others.
2. If American Jews are so bound up with Israel, fairly substantial numbers must have gone to live there since 1948.
Nope. There are more Israelis living in the United States right now, as resident aliens and some even as naturalized U.S. citizens, than there are American Jews who have immigrated to Israel in all the years since 1948 combined. In general, only those drawn by principle and ideology move from a higher standard of living to a lower one, and such people are never more than a small minority.
3. Devout Jews must have been thrilled when Israel was born.
Maybe they should have been, but many were not. Modern Jewish nationalism — Zionism— dates from only the latter part of the 19th century, and it arose as an avowedly secular movement. Although Zionism always had a strong religious constituency, its central creed was composed of strands of then-current European socialism and romantic nationalism. That creed was hostile to orthodoxy, and some Orthodox Jews were hostile to Zionism on theological grounds. (The book and film The Chosen, by Chaim Potok, are excellent depictions of how this conflict played out in America.)
The balance in Orthodox thinking changed significantly in the 1930s, again between 1945 and 1948, and even more rapidly after 1967. Orthodox Jews today are mostly pro- Zionist, though some are non-Zionist, and a few are even anti-Zionist.
4. Israel is a democracy, just like America.
Yes, Israel is a democracy, and a vibrant one, but it differs from American democracy in several significant ways.
First, Israel is a parliamentary democracy, not a presidential one. In all true parliamentary systems, when voters elect legislators they do not vote for persons associated with political parties but for parties themselves. Unless one party wins more than half the seats in the legislature— the Knesset, in Israel’s case— the parties then have to form a majority to govern, called a coalition. If a government lacks majority support on any vote, it falls and new elections are called, regardless of how long the government has been in office. In the American presidential system, to get elected a candidate must win the majority of the electoral college, and once he does he (or the Vice-President if the President dies or is impeached) governs for four years.
To win an outright majority of the electoral college, political coalitions have to form before elections— that’s what much of the American political process and especially the national party conventions are all about. That’s why presidential democracy tends toward a two-party system, and why third parties in American history have rarely succeeded in becoming influential. In Israel, for the most part, coalitions are formed after the election, and parliamentary democracy tends to encourage a multiparty system. Israel has a dozen significant parties, and not one of them has ever won a majority of Knesset seats.
For the first time in 1996 Israel changed from a true parliamentary system to a mixed system by introducing the direct election of the prime minister. This was supposed to result in less power for small parties, but this did not happen, either in 1996 or in Israel’s most recent election, in May 1999. Many Israelis now regret having made the change, and want to switch back either to the original way or to some third option.
Second, American democracy is a federal system. Representation in Congress is proportional to geographic and demographic division, and both state and municipal government play a significant role in governance, as well. But Israel is one single electoral district, and the role of local government is very modest.
Third, American democracy grew out of the historical experience and the intellectual bloodlines, so to speak, of the Founding Fathers. The roots of American democracy go all the way back to Britain and the Magna Carta and, some would say, to the democracies of ancient Greece and the Roman Republic before that. Israeli democracy cannot be explained at all in those terms.
Neither traditional Jewish thinking about politics, nor the gist of European socialism that lay within Zionism’s roots, were inclined to democracy. The overwhelming majority of Jews who immigrated to what became Israel in 1948, too, had no personal experience of democracy, having lived instead under one kind of autocracy or another.
5. Israeli workers have labor unions, just like American workers have labor unions.
Wrong. In the U.S., industrial unions developed long after the state developed, and they had to fight hard for legitimacy and recognition. In time, the Democratic Party came to be associated with unions, but as only one of a variety of social and economic interests groups. In the Israeli case, the socialist ideology of the Zionist founders led them to create an overarching union first, to develop parties second, and to create the state third. The order was completely the opposite.
One can say, then, that in 1948 the dominant Zionist parties became the state, but at the same time the state was beholden to the union (the Histadrut), which was an arm of the socialist party bloc. So did the state own the means of production and operate the economy through its ministries, as in the Soviet model? No, the union owned and ran most of them instead — the union that was an arm of the party that dominated the state.
It’s hard for most Americans to understand such an arrangement that is neither capitalist nor communist in basic structure. Try to imagine a situation in which, say, the AFL-CIO itself owned three-quarters of the U.S. economy, had its own mass-circulation daily newspaper, and ran its own health care system that covered the majority of American workers. Now imagine that this union was inextricably connected to a political party, the Democrats, say, whose ideology justified this situation, and which therefore was always in power because nearly all union members would nearly always vote for it. That was how Israel worked from 1948 to 1977, and, while much has changed since then, the power and nature of Israeli trade unionism still barely resembles the American variety.
6. Since Jews know as much about delicatessens as anybody, Israel ought to have great frankfurters. And with all those orange groves, fresh juice must be cheaper than water.
No way! Order an Israeli-made frankfurter and prepare to gag; to me, at least, it tastes like diesel fumes and glue with grease.
The reason is instructive. One of the motivations of Zionism was to change Jewish traits acquired in the diaspora; so if Jews were masters of hot dogs and salamis in Prague and Poughkeepsie, they’d make falafal and shwarma in Israel. For the same reason, by the way, most Israelis dislike Woody Allen; they find it demeaning that a Jew would depict himself and other Jews as blubbering, frail, insecure nebbishes who are afraid of the outdoors and can never make up their minds.
There are, of course, lots of oranges in Israel. But they’re mainly grown for prepared food and for export. Moreover, since the Israeli economy is still heavily regulated, supply and demand do not determine price except vaguely. Orange juice costs a shopper in Tel Aviv more than it costs a shopper in Boise, Idaho.
7. Israel is a powerful country, with a very strong military.
Israel is strong, true, and its armed forces, man for man, are probably second to none in the world. But Israel is also a very small country — about the size of New Jersey, and much of its territory is sparsely populated desert. It has few natural resources and only about six million citizens, of which about a million are Israeli Arabs. It fact, Israel has fewer people than live in the greater Philadelphia area.
Moreover, its standing professional army is small— a tiny fraction of those of the Arab armies in neighboring countries. Israel’s strength historically has derived mainly from high social morale, technological sophistication, and a vibrant economy (Israel’s gross national product is today larger than those of Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinian-administered areas combined).
8. Israel’s conflict with the Arabs is a religious conflict.
This widely shared notion is not entirely wrong — just mainly wrong.
Israel’s conflict with the Arabs, and specifically with Palestinian Arabs, does have a religious dimension, and to the extent that religion increasingly permeates politics on both sides, this dimension will become more important.
But at base the Israeli-Arab conflict is one of competing nationalisms in the same small space, and nationalism is a modern phenomenon, dating from only the mid-19th century for Zionism, and the early 20th century for the Arabs.
Moreover, historically Jews and Muslims got along better living in close quarters than either Jews or Muslims got along with Christians. If anything, political nationalisms in the Middle East twisted religious traditions more to their missions than the other way around.
And there is something else that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not: racial. Many Arabs and Israelis are bigoted and prejudiced against one another, but this has to do with cultural distinctions and political conflict, not with race as Americans understand the term. Israelis and Arabs alike tend to be darker skinned than the typical Caucasian American. Indeed, the human shades under the Middle Eastern sun vary widely on every side; few Israelis or Palestinians give it a second thought.
9. Some say that Israel has many times had to defend itself from Arab attempts to exterminate the state; others say that ever since 1948 Israel has been expanding at Arab expense. How can both of these assertions be right?
Actually, neither assertion is right.
Had the Arab states the power to destroy Israel in 1948, and for many years thereafter, they surely would have done so. They said as much, and so soon after the Holocaust Israeli Jews had every reason to believe that such things were possible. Moreover, especially in 1948, no one could know beforehand how the battle would run, how soldiers would fight, or how armies and societies would cohere. Israelis had reason to fear mass murder if they lost.
But they didn’t lose, and objective analysis of the war showed why: Israelis were highly motivated, unified, and well organized, led, and trained. Arab armies were not only ineffectual, but their leaders were as interested in competing with one another as they were with fighting Israel. To most Arabs, though, it looked like Israel was the aggressor— just by having survived the war!
Between 1948 and 1967, too, Israel’s relative strength increased, and mainly for that reason the Arab states never once in that period mounted a serious conventional military threat to Israel, preferring instead low-level raids and terrorist attacks that sometimes developed into regular battles. The only war of that period, that of the 1956 Sinai campaign, was started by Israel in collusion with France and Great Britain.
Even in 1967, the historical archives show clearly that it was not the intention of Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser to go to war with Israel, but rather to use military pressure, in cooperation with Syria, to reverse Israel’s gains from the 1956 war: the use of the Strait of Tiran and the Red Sea to open the Israeli port of Eilat, and the demilitarized Sinai, guarded by a UN peacekeeping force. But war hysteria and competition among the Arabs drove them to escalate their ambitions, to demand the withdrawal of the UN force and to blockade the Strait— an act of war.
Given its predicament, Israel was justified in striking first on June 6, 1967. But its victory persuaded most Arabs that Israel again was the aggressor, even though the actions of the Arab governments initiated the crisis that led to war. In the October 1973 War, too, which the Arabs started, the Arabs never planned to destroy Israel, only to bloody it in a surprise attack to unfreeze regional diplomacy in order to advance the process of recovering their lands taken by Israel in 1967.
Though much provoked by terrorism, Israel started the next war— in Lebanon in 1982— a war that accomplished none of its goals. And then, while it was attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles in the 1991 Gulf War, Israel did not otherwise participate in the fighting.
The point? The politico-military history of the Arab-Israeli conflict in the last 50 years cannot be reduced to simple slogans and easy explanations. It’s complicated!
10. The U.S. has been Israel’s best ally, and protects Israel from serious threats.
Sorry, but this, too, is inaccurate.
In the beginning of Israel’s independence, a few Israeli leaders were as enamored of Soviet Russia as they were of the United States. The U.S. provided no military aid to Israel then either, and for many years during the Cold War U.S. diplomats believed that the Arabs were more important to the U.S. than was Israel. Israel got its weapons to fight the 1956 and 1967 wars mainly from France, Britain, and West Germany. It was really only after 1969, and especially after 1973, that the U.S. became Israel’s main weapons supplier.
But even then, while Israel and the U.S. have had a “special relationship,” and even a “strategic partnership,” the two countries have never been — and are not today— formal allies. The reason is simple. Formal alliances in international politics are formed when two or more states have the same main adversary. But Israel’s adversaries were the Arab states, some of whom were friendly to America, while the main U.S. concern until 1991 was Soviet Russia.
The fact is plain: neither the U.S. Congress nor the Israeli Knesset has ever ratified a treaty of alliance between the U.S. and Israel. Moreover, the U.S. has never sent soldiers to fight in any of Israel’s wars. America did send Patriot missiles and crews to Israel in 1991 when it was attacked by Iraqi missiles, but remember, that’s a war in which Israel did not fight. Actually, the technology and intelligence sharing that has gone on through the years has greatly benefitted the United States. The U.S.-Israeli “special relationship” has not been one-sided, despite the enormous disparity in size between the two countries.
Finally, one might think that with the Cold War over and Israel at peace with Egypt and Jordan, U.S. protection for Israel matters less than it once did. Not really. Israel can take care of itself with respect to its immediate neighbors. But now it must worry about horrific attacks by missile and weapons of mass destruction from afar-from Iraq, Iran, and possibly other countries. As long an arm as the Israeli military has, only American power and diplomacy can truly protect Israel from such threats. Ah the fruits of success at solving old problems-new problems that create new dependencies.