Review of Eric Alterman, We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel (Basic Books, 2022)
By Peter Eisenstadt
So Israelis are incandescent with rage and the West Bank is catching fire, as American Jews look on with varying degrees of concern, outrage, and horror. Almost everyone has the sense of profound change, entering into a new, uncharted, and incredibly dangerous time. And I am supposed to calmly write a book review? Is this the time for American Jews to say to Israelis that we have been moving in different directions for years; we no longer really have anything in common; and in the immortal words of Tammy Wynette, the divorce becomes final today. Or is this the time, with a renewed and almost telepathic sense of empathy, to make common cause with those in Israel and Palestine who are trying to keep fascism at bay?
Whom am I kidding? I am doing what I usually do in crises, which is to read books. Of course, political disasters are a golden opportunity for historians and other professional explainers to tell us how it was and how it is that we became mired and begrimed in our present predicaments, and Alterman’s excellent book, which takes us to the brink of the recent Israeli election, is a sobering, distressing, and absorbing review of the history we all need to review and rethink right now, which is the sad history of how Israel and American Jews have arrived at this terrible moment.
But We Are Not One is not primarily about Israel (or the Palestinians, for that matter.) It is a history of American, and especially American Jewish, attitudes toward Israel. And it shows that at the root of the of many of the problems between American Jews and Israel has been sheer ignorance. In truth, American Jews have never known much about Israel. This is to some extent inherent in what used to be called “the Zionist idea.” Jews may have coined the term “diaspora,” but we have been at it so long we have forgotten how it is supposed to work. Leaving ancient history aside, unlike every other diaspora, such as the Chinese, the African, the Irish, what have you, people leave the homeland to create a diaspora. The Jews, at least in modern times, did it in reverse.
The Jewish diaspora created the homeland, and in many ways Israel is a fictive Jewish homeland. This is not a criticism, just a statement of fact. That is to say, certainly in 1948, very few American Jews knew anything about it except some Bible stories and a few newsreels. Very few American Jews had visited Israel, or could speak the language—if they spoke a Jewish language it was Yiddish, not modern Hebrew. They knew few Israelis and had no kinship ties, no sentimental stories from elders about the old country, and no familiarity with its culture. And of course they knew even less about the Palestinians.
And so, it became very easy, from the early 20th century on and especially after 1948, for American Jews to use Israel as a sort of Zionist tabula rasa, a blank slate on which to project their hopes, fears, and anxieties about themselves, their status as Americans, and the future of the Jewish people. And Israelis, knowing how little American Jews knew about Israel, have been complicit in fostering and manipulating American Jewish illusions ever since. But liars come to believe their lies. And probably the most basic lie is refusing to accept that for all that Israel has accomplished and all the ways it has led to a revival of the Jewish people, one of its foundations is the dispossession and exile of the Palestinians. And as a consequence, there has been a willing away of all historical complexity, a determination to reduce the Israeli-Palestinian struggle to one of innocence against terror, good versus evil. All I would say here is that my version of the history of Israel and Palestine has both sides, all sides, finding themselves, for various reasons, trapped in historical circumstances in which they had assigned roles to play, and from which they have been unable to extricate themselves.
For Alterman, the void of American Jewish knowledge about Israel was filled by the Ur-text (Uris-text?) of American Zionism, Leon Uris’s execrable novel (1958) and equally rotten film (1960) film, Exodus. One of the highlights of We Are Not One is Alterman’s surgical evisceration of Uris and his discussion of how its celebration of Israeli machismo and Palestinian evil is central to the American Jewish myth of Israel, and that has, unfortunately, resonated through the decades and is reverberating still. Exodus turned the history of Israel into something they could more easily understand, a not very good Western, with pioneers farming in a new-found land, the cowboys versus the Indians, all presented with an utter lack of moral ambiguity. Alterman is a well-known writer on rock music, but if his book has a leitmotif, or an anti-leitmotif, it is not the music of Bruce Springsteen but the meretricious but memorable main title theme from Exodus, which I found myself humming to myself each time the book was mentioned. “This land is mine,” sang Rabbi Andy Williams, “God gave this land to me.”
Uris was a right-wing hack, but a deep-seated refusal to look at the history of Israel without blinders was common across the American Jewish political spectrum. My favorite episode, unmentioned by Alterman, is the controversy over a mural depicting Palestinian refugees at the Jordanian pavilion at the 1964–65 World’s Fair in Queens. Every politician in the city, from Mayor Wagner on down, insisted that the mural be taken down. The director of the Fair, Robert Moses, unbendingly imperious as always, and on this occasion surely in the right, angrily refused to do so, and this led to demonstrations on the fairgrounds. In one incident, a protest by the American Jewish Congress ended in the arrest of several prominent members of the Jewish left, among them civil rights stalwarts Rabbi Joachim Prinz and Theodore Bikel. Denial of the legitimacy of the suffering of Palestinians had become a Jewish civil rights issue, its recognition incompatible with their Jewish identity.
The book has many highlights, too many to mention or to cover in detail. In his discussion of the 1947 United Nations partition plan, Alterman makes the crucial point that Zionism in the diaspora was often as much, or more, about who will rule at home than about who will rule in Palestine/Israel. In the case of the creation of Israel, American Zionists engineered a decisive victory not only over non- or anti-Zionism, but over the German Jews who had dominated American Jewish life since the mid-nineteenth century.
The book provides expert accounts of the evolution of the relationship between Israel and the United States; the standoffishness of official government policy towards Israel, and then the extension of copious military aid after Israel demonstrated that it had become militarily adroit. The Six Day War is, of course, a turning point in Alterman’s narrative and a paradox of the war is that it made Israel both more “Jewish” and less Jewish. Israel’s image shifted from kova tembel-wearing kibbutzniks to kippah-wearing settlers all over the West Bank, initiating the creeping desecularization of Israeli life, which has continued apace, At the same time that Israel was embracing a new and heightened sense of national-religious Jewishness, demographically it became less and less Jewish. Its Palestinian population, increasingly no longer a cowed minority, developed into a perpetually restless and hostile near majority. And American Jews, reveling in the ultimate Uris fantasy, could see none of the implications of the pyrrhic conquests of 1967.
Most of the book concerns high national politics, the work of presidents, secretaries of state, national security advisors, and the like; subjects Alterman has written about for many years. I particularly enjoyed his brutal dissection of Henry Kissinger’s claims of his accomplishments in the wake of the 1973 War. Alterman’s account of subsequent events, such as the Sadat-Begin negotiations, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the Oslo accords, Sharon and the Second Intifada, and Benjamin Netanyahu’s long reign and his utter contempt for the Democratic presidents he dealt with, are all astute, well-sourced, carefully argued, and highly recommended.
A good deal of the book is spent trying to account for, and to accurately describe, the amorphous and metaphysical entity known as the Israel Lobby, with AIPAC at its center and any number of major and minor Jewish organizations orbiting around it. One problem with the Israel Lobby is that to accurately describe its power, as Alterman notes, seems like you are borrowing a page from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is so successful that it doesn’t really have to lobby; those in its thrall already know, unasked and unbidden, what to do and how to vote. And the Israel lobby is so powerful that it has in recent years decided that Jews, most of whom remain liberal and MAGA-hating, are a liability, and in any event less numerous than the Christian right. But the question of Zionism remains, as it always has been, as much about domestic politics as about events in the Middle East, and now it is time to fight for democracy both in Israel and within American Jewish life.
Now comes the part of the review in which I offer a few gentle cavils and criticisms. In dealing with the Israel lobby, Alterman first makes a strong case for the impact of Jewish neo-conservatives on the decision to invade Iraq, then sharply criticizes Walt and Mearsheimer’s opus, The Jewish Lobby and US Foreign Policy, for offering what strikes me as only a slightly stronger version of his argument, and then even more witheringly criticizes Walt and Mearsheimer’s hysterical critics, arguing that they failed to recognize the obvious reality and impact of the Israel lobby. I sympathize; the strength of the Israel lobby has so often been both overestimated and underestimated that it is hard to get the balance correct.
I was surprised that Meir Kahane is almost entirely absent from this book. As Shaul Magid and others have argued, he was a significant, if largely subterranean force in pulling the American Jewish community rightward. He was the conduit between American Jewish fears of Blacks, crime, and the realities of the urban crisis, and Israeli fears of Palestinians and terrorism, making these two very disparate phenomena as one. And, unfortunately, there is a case to be made that Kahanism, in the person of Itamar Ben-Gvir and others, has been the most distinctive and important contribution of American Zionism to the politics of Israel.
Alterman is not a fan of BDS (neither am I), and argues that it has accomplished nothing, which seems fair enough, but spends considerable time talking about Omar Barghouti’s vision of BDS, which calls for the elimination of Israel, without, I felt, sufficiently making clear that there are many versions of BDS, with many different and clashing visions of the future of Israel-Palestine. I presume that Alterman approved of the efforts, ultimately unsuccessful, of Ben and Jerry to pull their eponymous ice cream from the West Bank, which was widely attacked as an example of BDS. BDS is a tactic, not an ideology, and whether or not it makes sense is situational. As to charge that BDS is ineffective, there’s a lot of ineffectiveness going around on the Jewish left these days, and say what you will, BDS attracts attention and draws the right enemies. One can only guess that, given the current government in Israel, there will likely be more BDS rather than less in our future, and those of us on the Jewish left need to be in dialogue with its supporters.
Alterman devotes considerable space to the left-wing academic discourse on Israel—Edward Said and his successors; discoursers on settler colonialism, intersectionality, and the like. Without denying the ways in which intellectual ideas filter down from torrid academic cenacles to a wider public, Israel’s current problem is not that it has lost the sympathy of left academics. The ghost of Edward Said did not make Donald Trump more popular in Israel than in almost any other country in the world. The problem Israel faces, if it doesn’t sound too epistemologically naïve, is simple reality. Americans simply know much more about Israel than they did in 1948. For those interested, there is a plethora of first-class histories, much good reporting in mainstream America media, several English-language daily newspapers from Israel including the excellent Ha’aretz, and myriad internet sources.
Compared to decades ago, there are far more Israelis living in the United States, far more American Jews who have visited or lived in Israel, and organizations like Partners for Progressive Israel—twice mentioned by Alterman—committed to the accurate dissemination of news from Israel; all this, to say nothing of the much greater availability of Arab and Palestinian sources. It has become more difficult for Israel to convincingly lie.
And what many Americans and American Jews have discovered is that Israel day-by-day is becoming less democratic and more theocratic; that it has not faced a genuine existential threat to its security in half a century and yet the condition of the Palestinians has steadily worsened. And many feel that Israel, at least since 1967, has been engaged in what has been can be called a Chad Gadya history-ism, doing the same thing over and over again, each time in a more complex and convoluted fashion, each time with more violence, shedding of blood, and death.
As I read We Are Not One, I feel Alterman’s ultimate purpose in writing the book, perhaps inherent in its title, was as much religious as political. American Jews, he argues, need a Judaism that no longer feels the need to live vicariously through the tragedies and triumphs of the last century, a Judaism that can draw on and stand on its own spiritual strengths, an American Judaism that desacralizes Israel. As Alterman shows, Zionism from its beginnings tried to negate the galut, and this sense of Zionist superiority to diaspora Jews is still very much with us. Alterman presents a long list of Israelis who barely tried to hide their contempt of American Jews; charging that we are assimilated, unlearned in Judaism, unacquainted with real suffering, lacking everything except lots and lots of money. But as long as we are speaking about the problems of assimilation, it seems to me that the country with the more serious problem of Jewish assimilation is Israel. They have created a new Jewish reality, a mixed Jewish/Palestinian polity, a country of some fifteen million people with about seven million Jews. Whatever Israel is, it is not a Jewish state. I do not know what will happen in the future, but Israel faces a stark choice between Jewish supremacy and democracy, and this is at the core of today’s struggles.
We are at a turning point in the history of Israel as profound as anything that has happened since 1948. I hope that their new government will shock Israelis into recovering their forgotten moral senses. This, and the vehement opposition of Americans and American Jews, really does matter. For better and worse, American Jews and Israelis know each other much better than ever before; familiarity breeds both solidarity and contempt; crises bring us together and pull us apart. The Jewish people today still have much in common, a shared past, a beautiful religion, an uncertain future. I kept thinking reading Alterman’s book that its title was intended as a commentary on that most central of Jewish prayers, the Sh’ma: When Moses proclaimed that God is one, he was saying that oneness was an attribute of God alone, and not of the Jewish people, who definitely were not one, and never would be. Denounce evil wherever you find it. Seek justice with raised fists and voices. False unity is the golden calf.
Peter Eisenstadt is a member of the board of Partners for Progressive Israel and the author of Against the Hounds of Hell: A Biography of Howard Thurman (University of Virginia, 2021).