All Israelis are Jews; All Jews are Israelis: Israel’s False Tautology

Ephraim Moses Lilien, Theodor Herzl in Basel during Fifth Zionist Congress, December 1901 (detail from postcard).

Eretz Yisrael

Israeli leaders have begun to implement a plan they have long been preparing: Gaining complete control of the Land of Israel, “Eretz Yisrael” (אֶרֶץ יִשְׂרָאֵל), including Gaza and the West Bank. I won’t detail here the early political and military milestones in the project, except to note that Israel’s expropriation of Arab land has been well documented by U.N. agencies, Palestinian and other scholars, and human rights organizations. That history includes seizures following wars in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973 and settlement activity up until the present. In the last few weeks alone, there has been a major expansion of “wildcat settlement outposts” in the West Bank, according to an investigation by the Israeli group Peace Now, as reported in The New York Times.

On December 25, 2023, Israeli Prime Minister, Netanyahu told Israeli Knesset member Shani Danon that he was developing a plan to facilitate the “voluntary” transfer of Gazans to other countries. “Our problem,” he said, “is finding countries that are ready to absorb [them] and we are working on it.” A few days later, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said: “The solution in Gaza requires…encouraging voluntary migration and full security control including the renewal of [Jewish] settlement.” Israeli officials have reportedly held talks with several countries on the subject, including Congo, which however have denied any such negotiations. If Netanyahu, Smotrich, and others accomplish their goal of ridding Gaza of Gazans and extending the Jewish state “from the river to the sea,” it will be the bloody culmination of Theodore Herzl’s dream of a Heimstatte (a homeland) for the Jews in all of Palestine; it will also be a second nakba (catastrophe) for the Palestinians.

Whether or not Israel succeeds in its ethnic cleansing will depend in large measure on the response of the Biden administration, the U.S. Congress, and to a lesser degree, the American people. Since about 1970, the U.S. has provided Israel with some $4 billion annually, most of it used to purchase advanced American weapons and aircraft. (U.S. support comprises almost 20% of Israel’s defense budget.) After the October 7 Hamas attack, Biden requested an additional $14 billion in aid and quickly flew to Israel to embrace Netanyahu. The U.S. has in addition provided Israel a global, political backstop by repeatedly vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for a ceasefire; it even abstained from one supporting increased humanitarian aid to Gaza. Though Biden, in an unguarded moment, described Israeli bombing as “indiscriminate,” he has failed so far to do enough to end the slaughter.

Democrats generally vie with Republicans to see who is the stronger supporter of Israel. Both political parties receive significant financial support from the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), with the leading beneficiary last year being Democrat Robert Menendez, until recently chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. In exchange for a cool million bucks, he supported the expansion of the Iron Dome missile defense system for Israel (and every other defense procurement request) and condemned U.S. talks with Iran over reviving the Obama negotiated anti-nuclear pact. (Israel scorns any U.S. rapprochement with Iran.) However, since his indictment for receiving bribes from Egypt, Qatar and U.S. businessmen, the senator’s influence has been sidelined.

Menendez’s friend, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, ranking minority member on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is an equally ardent supporter of Israel and recipient of funds from Israeli lobbyists and conservative Jewish organizations. When asked about the high civilian death toll in Gaza he stated “there is no limit…to what Israel should do to the people who are trying to slaughter the Jews.” The AR-15 toting senator from South Carolina made no distinction between Hamas militants and Palestinian civilians. Many other Republicans rival Graham in bellicosity, including former South Carolinian governor and presidential candidate Nikki Haley. Taking her cue from Netanyahu and Smotrich, she said that “the Palestinians need to move to pro-Hamas countries such as Qatar, Iran and Turkey.” In truth, few if any elected Republicans are supportive of Palestinian rights to life or liberty.

Public support for Israel has diminished somewhat in recent years, though it remains firm. According to the latest Gallup poll, 36% of Americans think the U.S. is giving too much aid to Israel, 38% say it’s the right amount, and 24% say too little. Democrats are far more wary than Republicans of continued support for Israel, and “very unsatisfied” (49%) with the low level of aid to Palestine. Most Jewish American voters support President Biden’s policy toward Israel, with some 80% approving the proposed $14 billion aid package. Younger Jews are less enthusiastic, with approval and disapproval evenly divided. Other polls present a still more complex picture. Opinion surveys by JStreet and the Jewish Electoral Institute, for example, indicate strong Jewish support for imposing restrictions on U.S. aid to prevent it being used to support settlement activity in the West Bank or elsewhere. Still, the majority of Jews appears to support Israel’s war against Hamas and the Palestinians, regardless of its high cost in civilian lives. What’s the basis of that support and can it be reduced?

The false tautology

The government of Israel has for decades argued that “Eretz Yisrael” – the total territory of historic Palestine – should be the homeland of Jews alone. That was implicit from the nation’s founding but became explicit with the passage in 2018 of the “Basic Law: Israel as the Nation-State of the Jewish People.” The chairman of the committee that drafted the bill and shepherded it through the Knesset, Amir Ohana stated: “This is the law of all laws. It is the most important law in the history of the State of Israel, which says that everyone has human rights, but national rights in Israel belong only to the Jewish people. That is the founding principle on which the state was established”. Though the bill was watered down somewhat from its original version, “it still permitted,” according to the Israeli Attorney General’s office, “harming a person because of his nationality or religion. That is blatant discrimination.”  The law also affirms the right of diasporic Jews to emigrate (aliya — עליה) to Israel, but not Arabs or Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza or elsewhere, even if they are related to Israeli Arabs.

Preservation of the Jewish right-of return is essential to maintaining Israel’s appeal to American and other diasporic Jews. The U.S. has nearly as many Jews – just under 6 million — as Israel, together comprising ¾ of the global population. By making them de facto Israelis, the right of return expands Eretz Yisrael far beyond existing boundaries and implicates the diaspora in Israeli government policy. The underlying ideology of Palestinian exclusion and Jewish inclusion is expressed by the following, implicit (and false) tautology: All (true) Israelis are Jews; all Jews are Israelis.

Of course, not all Israelis are Jews. 21% are Arabs (Palestinian, Druze, Christians, Circassian and others), denied full recognition in accord with Israel’s Basic Law. If you consider the wider region to which Netanyahu’s far-right coalition lays claim, including Gaza and the West Bank, the population is divided roughly 50/50 Jews and non-Jews – the latter mostly Sunni Muslims. (Recent demographic analysis suggests that Jews are now a minority in Israel and the occupied or administered territories.) Neither are “all Jews Israeli.” The Right of Return is an invitation, not a mandate, and only about 3,000 Americans per year accept it. In fact, more than twice as many Israeli Jews migrate to the U.S. every year, as American Jews to Israel.

It’s unclear how significant Jewish support for Israel is to maintaining the current level of U.S. military aid. For decades, American foreign policy was predicated on maintaining a strong, military and diplomatic presence in the Middle East in order to protect its oil interests. The 1967 war greatly increased Jewish-American support of Israel, as Eric Alterman has recently noted, and ramped up the apparatus of political lobbying and campaign contributions. For decades until its merger in 1999 with the Jewish Federations of North America, the well-known charity United Jewish Appeal had as its slogan, “we are one” indicating the idealized unity of American Jews, Israeli Jews and the global diaspora.

But today, U.S. strategic interests are different than they were even a decade ago. The U.S. is the leading oil producer in the world and has recently overtaken Qatar as the largest exporter of Liquified Natural Gas. Mideast oil diplomacy – really gunboat diplomacy — is mostly a thing of the past, and the U.S. has lately been trying to bring together former rivals Israel, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and other petro-states to form a pro-Western alliance. That would allow the U.S. to continue to re-orient its power-projection toward central Eurasia and China. Given this context, the current Israeli war against Palestine is a fiasco, threatening to ignite a regional conflagration and weaken U.S. prerogatives even as they are tested (in its view) by the Russian/Chinese liaison. That why the strong support of Israel by the American President, and to a lesser extent Congress, is so baffling. Is U.S. aid to Israel simply a vestige of former politics – a reflexive response – that will soon run its course? Is it a matter of ideology – and AIPAC donations – temporarily trumping geopolitics?

In the last few weeks, opposition to the war among young Democratic voters has moved the Biden administration away from unstinting support for the war and toward a policy of de-escalation, though far too slowly to protect the Palestinian population of Gaza. What’s needed now is for American liberals and progressives — Jewish and non-Jewish, but especially Jewish — to demand that continued U.S. support for Israel be conditioned upon an end to the killing, and rapid commencement of negotiations for a long-term peace, along the lines of either a two-state or one-state solution. The slogans for that mass movement have already been deployed by courageous students and faculty, union workers, anti-war activists, and progressive Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives They are: “Not in My Name,” “Never Again, Anywhere,” and “Peace Now.”

 

 

Stephen F. Eisenman is Professor Emeritus of Art History at Northwestern University and the author of Gauguin’s Skirt (Thames and Hudson, 1997), The Abu Ghraib Effect (Reaktion, 2007), The Cry of Nature: Art and the Making of Animal Rights (Reaktion, 2015) and other books. He is also co-founder of the environmental justice non-profit,  Anthropocene Alliance. He and the artist Sue Coe have just published American Fascism, Still for Rotland Press. His next book with the artist Sue Coe The Young Person’s Illustrated Guide to American Fascism‘will be published late this summer by OR Books. He can be reached at: s-eisenman@northwestern.edu