Image: MediaPunch Inc / Alamy. Composite by David McAllister / Prospect

A struggle for the souls of two nations

Once members of an alliance founded on shared ideological and religious values, Israel and the United States now find themselves in a fractious relationship. Only the most reactionary are set to gain from it
February 12, 2024

Israel’s relations with the United States are in flux. On the one hand, the American administration is unprecedently aligned with Israel, standing unwaveringly by its side during the most challenging days in Israel’s history. On the other, the two are becoming distant in a way that we have never before witnessed.

The US president has become an elder brother to Israelis—a responsible, compassionate statesman, filling the emotional and leadership void left by Netanyahu’s political unravelling. Jerusalem is governed from Washington, which provides it with the kind of money, weapons, support and diplomacy that permit Israel to take actions in Gaza and the occupied territories that no other western country would be allowed to do. Meanwhile, the sentiment across college campuses, progressive political factions and parts of the media in the US indicates an entirely different direction. The disassociation from Israel is turning into real animosity, even posing a threat to Joe Biden’s chances of re-election. Generally, the more Democratic and younger you are, the more your disassociation from Israel grows. And the more you identify with the struggles of the black community in the US to rectify historical injustices, the more you align with the symbolism of the Palestinian struggle—even if you do not necessarily understand the complexities and differences.

What is the source of this duality? Much has been written about the severe damage inflicted by Netanyahu on Israel’s relations with the US. The Israeli prime minister has pushed his country into the arms of its most conservative factions, striking deals with its worst elements as he makes a political base of evangelical Christians in the US—and all while distancing himself from most Jewish Democrats. Yet a Netanyahu-Trump alliance is much more than a passing political conjuncture.

By 1947, after 25 years of overseeing the Mandate for Palestine, Britain’s influence was on the wane; it couldn’t impede the winds of independence in the region. The Bible alone was no longer sufficient to counter new world trends. British romanticism towards orientalism and the Arabs—as well as the sacred Old Testament and the Jewish people—gave way to realpolitik. The European powers came to the region during the First World War, but it was the Second World War that saw their withdrawal, making room for the rise of a new Middle Eastern nationalism. In Israel-Palestine, the legacy of the British Mandate left behind two bleeding peoples, Jews and Arabs.

The UK withdrew, and the US stepped into the vacuum. For the Americans, Israel was a regional bastion against the Soviet Union’s southern gates, the frontline of western democracy against communism. Their entry was marked by deep feelings of spiritual partnership and a shared Old Testament-based value system with the young state of Israel. Beyond diplomacy and strategy, the spirit of the Bible, particularly the American Protestant Puritan spirit, created a new Israel-America covenant.

The Puritan pilgrims fled to the American colonies to uphold their pure faith in the Bible. Zionism aimed to save the Jewish people by returning them to the land of the Bible. England was the driving force behind both movements: Zionism to Israel and Puritanism to North America. When Britain withdrew from its mandate, it was natural for its daughter, the US, to assume the role of biblical mother.

Throughout numerous political epochs, the shared values between the mighty US and the diminutive Israel have been a recurring theme. Initially, the emphasis was on the two nations’ shared dynamic democracy, a resolute struggle for freedom and the centrality of the Bible in national identity. The Cold War elevated Israel to an essential partner in America’s battle against Soviet influence in the Middle East. However, over time, this once-strong relationship has transformed into an alliance where economic and military foundations outweigh any commonly held beliefs. The euphemism of “disagreement between friends” conceals the erosion of shared democratic and liberal values, leaving behind only surface-level interests and connections. Rarely has there been an acknowledgement of the dark side of this partnership, the shared secrets that thrive in silence.

Today’s Israel bears little resemblance to the romanticised nostalgia of American author Leon Uris’s novel Exodus. The pioneers who shaped the nation are gone, replaced by narrow-minded rabbis, while the political leadership is both meagre and embarrassing. The values enshrined in Israel’s Declaration of Independence have become mere relics on a neglected bookshelf which nobody reads anymore. Grand ideas of a model society and tikkun olam have vanished. Present-day Israel is more Jewish than democratic, driven by a vision of Jewish supremacy in both genetic and religious terms. It engages in an all-out war against two of the west’s fundamental values: freedom and equality. Strikingly, it finds common ground with counterparts in North America—namely in white supremacy, an existential war against the “other” and a conservative system that upholds privileges for the elite while persecuting those seeking to reform the existing order.

The US has yet to purge its institutions of deep-rooted distortions. The historic election of Barack Obama was followed by the era of Donald Trump, an aggressively chauvinistic leader striving to push back American democracy, promoting narrow-minded discrimination and racism. The true Maga is a longing for a previous era of supremacy based on colour and religion. Understanding the US of 2024 requires acknowledging the extermination of America’s original peoples and recognising slavery as a source of the capitalist system, itself the foundation of the wealth and oppression that still propel the American machine.

Israel is also built on rocky foundations. In 1948, a paradox emerged in the country: it was a declared democracy, which depended on discrimination against those outside the Jewish tribe. There was the paradoxical premise of sublime freedom for the Jewish people at the cost of a tragic fate for the Palestinian people. Independence and Nakba, twins born together, symbolised the hoped-for end of Jewish suffering and the beginning of Palestinian plight. The current Israel is embroiled in a cold civil war, not just between conservatives and liberals but mainly between those embracing separatist and tribal ideologies and those striving for a normal democracy for all citizens.

Right now, colossal forces are clashing for the souls of two nations, both revered and scorned—little Israel and its older sister, the US. Over the years, democratic values have dwindled in both countries, giving way to religious, separatist and conservative forces. The once-democratic partnership has been replaced by collaboration with dark elements present since its inception. The Bible has become the foundation of alliances with fundamentalist Christian churches and the extreme settlers of the occupied territories, embracing radical interpretations of notions like the “chosen people”, “redemption” and the “promised land”.

The looming breakdown of relations between these two nations can either be viewed as a bleak picture or as an invitation to a new, exciting partnership—an alliance of global progressives and liberals standing against prevailing populism. A raw model, rather than a rotten one.