Interview'The US debates a mythical version of what's going on here'

What Americans don’t talk about when they talk about Israel

A conversation with historian Eric Alterman, whose new book explores critical tension at the heart of US Jewish discourse on Israel and what is missed by debate without listening

A crowd of Jewish-Americans hold a rally in support of Israel near the White House, in Washington, D.C., June 8, 1967. (AP)
A crowd of Jewish-Americans hold a rally in support of Israel near the White House, in Washington, D.C., June 8, 1967. (AP)

Eric Alterman chooses his words carefully. The historian and author of a new book on the roots of the US-Israel alliance knows there is no other way to speak about the minefield of Middle East politics.

Or as he put it in a recent interview with The Times of Israel: “Everything with Israel, and the Palestinians, requires an enormous number of caveats and nuances and you can say anything you want about it, and it won’t change anyone’s mind.”

The 62-year-old author, journalist, media critic, blogger and professor at CUNY-Brooklyn College was visiting Israel this week as a guest of the American Studies Program at Tel Aviv University and the school’s Center for the Study of the United States in Partnership with the Fulbright Program.

“We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel,” due out in late November, examines the history of the American alliance with Israel and how the Zionist movement has become a staple of Jewish and American political culture.

The impetus for the tome, Alterman’s 12th book, was born of Alterman’s desire to get to the root of the American conversation about Israel and the Palestinians and how it got to where it is today.

What’s actually happening in the region, Alterman says, “has very little to do with what is actually being debated in the United States. The United States debates a mythical version of what’s going on there.”

Eric Alterman. (Courtesy: Maresa Patterson)

The author said he tackled the subject as a historian looking in from the outside, the better to wrangle with the issues in an overly noisy discourse in which, he says, few are actually listening to the claims of others.

“It’s pointless to argue about it,” he said.

According to Alterman, Americans, including Jews, paid little attention to Israel or the various challenges it faced in the early years of the state. Only with the outbreak of the Six Day War did support for Israel become a primary component of US Jewish identity, practically overnight.

“Between 1948 and 1967 Israel wasn’t really in the news very much in the United States,” Alterman said. “But Americans had a very rosy picture of Israel. They loved Israel, but they didn’t pay much attention to it. Then after 1967, everything changed.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the 2019 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, as a picture showing US President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other administration officials appears onscreen, at the Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, March 25, 2019. (AP/Jose Luis Magana)

As the book’s title suggests, Alterman identifies a fundamental struggle at the heart of that supportive atmosphere between the community’s affluent benefactors and the Jewish-American street — those who do not have access to the same levers of power.

“I argue in the book that wealthy donors who are generally quite conservative, have exercised an enormous amount of power over the American Jewish institutions,” he said. “The American Jewish Committee, the anti-Defamation League, AIPAC in particular. And they don’t represent the views of the American Jewish community at all. They’re much more right-wing.”

“So the people have no voice and also, the rabbis have no voice,” he added.

IfNotNow activists marching to demand that then President-elect Donald Trump fire Stephen Bannon, Philadelphia, November 22, 2016. (Courtesy of IfNotNow/via JTA)

To him, it is this conflict that underpins the tenor of public discourse on Israel, knotting the American Jewish community into constant tension.

Over time, the friction has also pushed Israel and the American left away from each other, though the Democratic mainstream is still widely supportive of the Jewish state.

“There’s no question that the left in the United States has turned against Israel; that Israel has lost the left but it hasn’t lost Democrats in Congress,” he said. “And it hasn’t lost much of the mainstream media. So you can say that if you go on college campuses, Israel is very unpopular. If you read liberal magazines, Israel is very unpopular. But at the political system, Israel is still winning, and will continue to win, as far as I can tell, for quite a while.”

What follows is a partial transcript of an interview with Alterman ahead of his appearance in Tel Aviv. It has been edited for clarity and brevity.

You mention college campuses, but I was under the impression that the BDS movement in colleges was not making any headway. Lately it has not managed to achieve any boycotts, divestment or sanctions on Israel.

‘We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel,’ by Eric Alterman

Right, no college in America is actually going to boycott Israel. But the movement itself amongst students and faculty is definitely quite strong and getting stronger. The fact that the Harvard Crimson endorsed BDS, or that the Middle East Studies Association endorsed BDS recently, is important. There’s a very spirited debate in Princeton — or where I teach, at Brooklyn College. It is a complete and total failure, in terms of its announced goals, but what it has done is it has given excuses to right-wing politicians to shut down free speech on the issue and it’s created an atmosphere on campus… where is support for Israel is a tiny, tiny minority.

In the preview to the book, you claim that while American Jews take pride in their heritage they also see themselves as having a second-class status in comparison to Jews in Israel.

Yes, leaving aside the Orthodox, I think that Israelis, particularly Israeli intellectuals and politicians, have contempt for American Jews. I think this is quite a common belief among Israeli Jews, that the Diaspora’s Jewry is weak, and their Jewishness is not serious. Whenever there’s any kind of disagreement between the Israelis and American Jews, Israelis can just basically ignore the views of American Jews. And I think that on both sides, there’s a feeling that the “Israeli Jewish” is much more authentic than “American Jewish.” This, particularly since American Jewish institutions made this bet after 1967 that they would define their Jewishness via their support for Israel.

Israel has just gone through several weeks of terror attacks and increased tensions, much of which was fueled by disingenuous reports spread through social networks about police attacking Muslim worshipers on the Temple Mount. As an expert on fake news, can you speak about how social media influences the daily news cycle for the worse?   

Well, there are a lot of people who are invested in what we call fake news, because it is profitable. And the truth has no particular value. So on the one hand there’s, in the United States and enormous right wing, fake news. Beginning with Fox News, and talk radio — Rush Limbaugh. Even worse is Alex Jones, and Newsmax and all these groups, and they have about a third of the audience of the United States. And they don’t care what’s true. And then there is news on social media where you don’t know where it’s coming from.

The point with fake news is that there’s every incentive to keep publishing it and spreading it. The only reason not to spread it is because you care about your reputation. But most do not. It all leaves us incredibly vulnerable to all forms of lies and fake news and, and it’s a form of warfare.

A deleted Instagram post liked by Nerdeen Kiswani says in Arabic: ‘Glory to the axe of resistance.’ (Twitter)

Given some of the horrific incitement on Palestinian social media, would you say that the medium has become a weapon?

Absolutely. I mean, that’s happening all over the world. We saw specific examples of violent incitement on Facebook, that led to murders in both the Philippines and in Burma. And, and we see the United States too. The algorithm on Facebook is designed to send people to more and more extreme views. Because the more extreme the views are, the more engagement there is; the more engagement there is, the more clicks and more money.

The whole January 6th attack on Congress was undertaken by social media. It would never have happened without social media.

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