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  • Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy
  • Lawrence Davidson
Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy, by Kathleen Christison. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 370 pp. $40.00.

American Jews have a big problem which they tend to deny. Reading this book can help bring that problem to consciousness and, perhaps for some, be the first step to a positive resolution. The problem is one of contradiction. Their own history has taught many American Jews the moral, as well as political, necessity and rightness of guaranteeing full human, civil, and political rights to minorities. Such an understanding has led them, until recent times, to unite with other minorities, both nationally and internationally, in a struggle to secure these rights. It has taught them that war, national chauvinism, and religious intolerance only lead to the oppression of minorities who, historically, have often been Jews.

In contradiction to this lesson, however, American Jews support Zionist policies that have systematically deprived Palestinians of their land and rights, have supported Israeli laws that reduce non-Jews to second-class citizenship, have supported Israeli acts of conquest, and reveled in Jewish national chauvinism. They have compounded this contradictory behavior by (inaccurately) promoting Israel as “an American style democracy” in the Middle East, and drawing parallels between Zionist colonization and the American pioneer experience. So aggressive and persuasive have American Zionist leaders been in this effort that they have not only convinced themselves that there is nothing amiss with this stand, but have successfully converted most other Americans to their point of view.

All of this is possible because most American Jews either deny, explain away, or just refuse to consider the contradictions that underlie their support of Zionism and the behavior of the Israeli state. If one could only get them to read Kathleen Christison’s book one might hope that a crisis of conscience would result. In her well written and organized work Christison shows how Americans, Jews and non-Jews, were transformed into Zionists. The book details the evolution of a mind-set that led Americans to see Palestine as an extension of the Judeo-Christian West. For Americans, the real Palestine was the Palestine of the Bible. Muslim occupation was illegitimate and had led to the ruination of the land of milk and honey. This biblical frame of reference also [End Page 140] made the “Holy Land” appear as the logical sanctuary for European Jews (who were pictured as the modern-day descendents of biblical Jews—something like equating today’s Greeks with the Athenians of Plato’s time) seeking to escape antisemitism. And while escaping antisemitism, the Jews could rebuild, and redeem, Palestine in the Western image. The same point of view reduced the indigenous Muslim population of Palestine to barbarians of no account. In other words, Christison shows that Zionism was part of late nineteenth-and twentieth-century Western imperialism.

Christison details the power of this mind-set by laying out the history of the bonding relationship between American Zionists and U.S. politicians, civic and religious leaders, business and labor, and the media. Taking the story from 1917 to the present, she shows how the Zionist ideology, as presented by American Zionists, seemed to meld with American ideology and self-image until the two became almost inseparable. A key practical factor here was the Zionist leaders’ mastery of the American system of interest group politics.

While Christison does a superb job in telling this story, she does not consider the moral implications for American Jewry of Zionist success. Chaim Weizmann once told the leaders of the allied coalition that won World War I that Zionism aimed at the creation of a state that would be Jewish just like England is English. In other words, Jews should be made “normal,” and “like everyone else,” in a world of nation states. And indeed, the Zionists have succeeded in this goal. In so doing, however, they have done great harm to Jewish moral and ethical positions, at least as traditionally understood by American Jewry. The leaders of nation states and their patriotic supporters are notorious for just that sort of hypocritical...

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pp. 140-141
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