The current strain in relations notwithstanding, the United States and Israel have long been closely aligned, kindred spirits in many ways, the result of mutual interests, and, most unexpectedly, similar historical narratives. These alone cannot account for this strong attachment (which surely results from U.S. security interests in the Middle East and the influential voices of Jewish Americans), but they help explain the unusually close bonds that exist.
Some of these connections are easily understood (both, e.g., are democratic societies and speak the same language), but many have gone unnoticed, become clear only when we revisit the past. Such an account predates the formation of the United States and of Israel. There existed a common 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 His will on earth, as enshrined in their Holy Scripture. To Americans early migrations across the Atlantic also meant the unfolding of a Divine Plan to make the U.S. God’s Country, its citizens His “Chosen People.” Providential destiny thus serves as the ideological underpinning of both nations.
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. Success in the Revolutionary War, Americans explained, was a consequence of their hardiness and vigor, combined with toughness acquired in the struggle for survival in the New World environment. Jews explained their triumph in the War of 1948 in similar terms. They, too, had been transformed, had, after many challenging years in Palestine, become a resilient, self-confident and energetic people, fully capable of defending themselves. (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, despite their difference in age, both regard themselves as youthful nations, characterized by unbridled energy and an enduring pioneer spirit, a people who’ve discarded traditional arrangements and rejected established hierarchies. Both became intensely nationalistic, peace-loving nations, albeit buttressed by powerful militaries.
The Land holds great symbolic importance for both nations. Americans understood their great challenge would be populating and cultivating a vast “empty” continent. They learned over time to penetrate a distant territory and laboriously plow through tough layers of sod on the Great Plains so that the rich soil below could yield its unrivalled bounty. Israel celebrated their land because it was the “promised Land” to which their God had led them and because returning to the land meant reversing centuries of restrictions in Europe, where they had often been barred from cultivating the earth. But they learned quickly Sabras laboring long and hard to make the “desert bloom” and to convert an arid landscape into a land of “Milk and Honey.”
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. Without this influx neither nation would have prospered. 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, but in the end gained strength from this stimulating amalgam of peoples who were willing to pledge allegiance to their adopted country.
Other parallels have long been acknowledged, most especially the formation of free, dynamic modern societies able to generate impressive material wealth. America’s economic engine continues to power the world economy. Meanwhile, the entrepreneurial spirit is equally as intense in Israel. That nation has served as a fertile incubator of new ideas and businesses – especially in telecommunications, pharmaceuticals, computers, software and medical electronics – the securities of many of them listed on stock exchanges across the United States.
Turning to societal problems – past and present – both societies have 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 dismiss the Palestinian presence 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 remarkably, 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. 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 change,, has gone too far and must be challenged, they declare, so that religious values can once more prevail. These religious conservatives have, as a consequence, marshalled their forces in opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and the exclusive teaching of Evolution. 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 supports and military conscription. Most provocatively some Orthodox groups deny the very legitimacy of the State of Israel (in direct contrast to Christian Evangelical groups in the U.S. who are bound emotionally and doctrinally to Israel, based upon their belief that only in the State of Israel can Jesus Christ return to earth and reveal himself). 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 contention.
The survey does not provide answers to those attempting to plot the future course of American-Israeli relations but it should remind us that beyond daily headlines highlighting disagreements are national narratives and historical experiences that parallel each other to a remarkable 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 shared experience.