Kindred Spirits


            There are, perhaps unexpectedly, numerous parallels between the United States and Israel.  Some are unremarkable given the fact that both are dynamic, democratic, modern cosmopolitan societies.  The more revealing connections emerge primarily when we revisit the past.

Such an account predates the formation of the United States and of Israel.  There existed an understanding among both peoples that their fate rested in the hands of God.  To Jews the creation of their own nation in the “Holy Land’ represented the fulfillment of God’s ancient promise to their ancestors, those anointed emissaries of the Lord’s will on earth, as enshrined in their Holy Scripture.  To the early colonists who traversed the Atlantic and established “Bible Commonwealths,” especially in New England, their “Exodus” represented the unfolding of a Divine Plan to make this New World God’s Country, its occupants, the latter day children of Israel, also a “Chosen People.”  (The rapid disappearance of East Coast native populations – owing to disease – they interpreted as confirmation of God’s intentions.)

Before they could fulfill their destinies both peoples needed to shed traditional ways, be transformed and thus better equipped for the formidable tasks ahead.  The generation that escaped slavery in Egypt, we are told, had to pass on (thus the 40 years of wandering in the desert) so that a hardier more committed people could emerge, equal to the task of conquest and settlement in the Promised Land.  Again, early in the 20th Century Jews had first to be “remade” and trained as farmers (back in Europe) in order to survive inhospitable conditions in Palestine.  In short order a new Jewish personality emerged (Sabra), tough, independent, resilient, fully capable of waging the struggle for independence and statehood.  Similarly English colonists had to be transformed over time into Americans, a process aided by their need to accommodate to a novel and challenging environment.  Eventually both Israelis and Americans acknowledged the changeover, and came to define themselves in similar ways – non-traditional, self-confident, independent, energetic, and imbued with the pioneer spirit, people destined to make their mark on the world.

Both states emerged out of the crucible of war, each forced to defend itself against powerful adversaries.  Who imagined the colonists would prevail over England, then the mightiest military power on earth, or that Israel would emerge victorious, even though assailed on every side by the combined armies of neighboring nations.  (Note that in both instances ousting the British paved the way toward independence.)  Also observe the role that foreign assistance played.  Without aid from France the American cause would have foundered.  Likewise, Israel prevailed in part because U.S. citizens went there to fight, while other

American Jews organized supply chains channeling much needed material and weapons to Israel.

At the conclusion of both military struggles neither of their enemies were willing to accept defeat.  The British fought the Americans once again in the War of 1812 and consistently opposed the U.S. throughout the 19th Century.  Meanwhile, Arab populations surrounding Israel continued their armed opposition and remained largely unreconciled to its presence, many denying its very right to exist.

Israel and the United States both opened their doors to peoples from foreign lands, those in distress, together with those with dreams, enabling them to rebuild their lives in a new society.  Each became a nation of immigrants.  Without this influx neither nation would have flourished.  Israel encouraged the ingathering of Jews from across the world and they responded in great numbers from North Africa, the Middle East, the Soviet Union, Eastern and Western Europe, and the United States.  America did likewise, and millions flooded in (mostly Western Europeans at first).  Both nations struggled to incorporate the newcomers, amidst persistent discrimination and intense conflict (WASP/immigrant, Sephardi, and Ashkenazi).  In the end, however, each was strengthened by this invigorating amalgam of peoples who were willing to pledge allegiance to their adopted country.

In constructing their foundation narratives, both societies journeyed down similar paths.  The United States early on viewed the natives of America as unworthy migratory populations whose presence should not impede the rapid advance of settlers.  Similarly, most early Zionists who arrived in the area chose to disregard the Palestinian population and assumed that Jewish claims to the territory were self-evident and indisputably more legitimate.  Indians and Palestinians both, therefore, could, without much remorse, be removed (and in certain instances eliminated).  That led ultimately, for those Indians who survived, to reservations, and for large numbers of Palestinians, to refugee camps.  Both nations chose either to overlook or gloss over such events, but thankfully have, in more recent times, been willing to revisit these chapters in their history.  American textbooks now routinely inform readers about the brutalization and removal of Native Americans, while Israeli researchers and authors have provided detailed accounts, largely unchallenged, of the killing of local Arab populations during the war for statehood and their dispossession from ancestral lands and villages.

Religious tensions currently inflame emotions in both societies.  In the U.S. certain Christian denominations insist that America has been and should remain a strictly Christian nation.  Furthermore, the separation of church and state, as well as social changes, have gone too far and must be challenged, they declare, so that religious values can once more prevail.  In Israel, Orthodox Jews are intent upon maintaining their outsized influence and privileged position (with regard to religious practices, the definition of Jews, the rights of non-Orthodox Jews, etc.) as well as in such matters as educational support and military conscription.  Thus, it is in both societies that powerful religious constituencies (some strongly supporting the establishment of a state religion, in one instance Christian and the other Jewish) continue to be a source of ongoing division and social tensions.

Finally, both societies appear to have lost some measure of self-confidence.  Inequality has advanced across both the United States and Israel, as has political dysfunction and right wing ideologies.  Both nations have been unable to resolve serious border problems and each sees a world full of menace and one with few reliable allies.

This survey should remind us that beyond recent headlines highlighting disagreements are national narratives and historical experiences that parallel each other to a surprising degree.  In the end that may help explain why both peoples were drawn to each other and will remain bound together, the result of mutual interests, but also common experience.

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