Israel and the USA: from reservations to dispute, by Jean-Claude Milner

For many years, Jean-Claude Milner has been attentive and lucid about the role of the signifiers “Jew” and “Israel” in the reconfiguration of the post-Holocaust West. His books remain a constant source of meditation for many readers, who are keen to take a fresh look at the scope of the “Jewish question” in Europe. This week he analyzes for K. the restructuring of the relationship between Israel and the United States, in the context determined by October 7 and the war in Gaza.


American Divorce Style, by Bud Yorkin, 1967, screenshot.


After October 7, 2023, one thing seemed obvious to any uninformed observer. If appearances were anything to go by, it would be concluded that, in the event of open war, the State of Israel could not count with certainty on any external support except that of the United States. If one set out to interpret the facts of the day, it would not be neglected to highlight the role of the Jewish community. This community, or at least its prominent figures, retained a strong influence over the Democratic Party apparatus. If only for electoral reasons, our enlightened observer reasoned, a Democratic President running for a second term had every interest in conforming to the expectations of such a powerful community. 

But nothing is ever as certain as it seems. Is the support of the United States as wholehearted as it claimed to be? Assuming that the Jewish community does indeed determine the choices of the current President-candidate, does it hold the same positive view of Israel today as it did in the past? I’d like to take a closer look at these two questions.

After October 7, the White House proclaimed its unconditional support for Israel. Gradually, however, it became clear that this support was not, in fact, unconditional. It depended on conditions that were all the more insistent in that they were not clearly expressed in the form of injunctions; they were confined to suggestions, reservations and warnings. For some time now, a step has been taken; President Biden is less and less secretive about his opposition to Israeli plans and his personal distrust of Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. The White House has given a more than favorable welcome to Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s rival and potential successor. From this set of data, a program can be derived, which we can assume the American Jewish community agreed to, if not conceived: the need to negotiate a halt to the fighting as soon as possible, promotion of the two-state solution, refusal to allow the Gaza Strip, in the event of a temporary truce or lasting peace, to be controlled, even partially, by Israel, abandonment of all forms of settlement in the West Bank, removal of the Prime Minister as quickly as possible and, ultimately, limitation of Israel’s autonomy vis-à-vis the United States. The list may be long or short, depending on the circumstances, but in all its versions, it implies radical concessions on Israel’s part, with regard to its borders and its status as an independent nation.

Even supposing that such a program has been accepted by the Jewish community, it may give rise to some embarrassment. That a majority of its members do not recognize themselves in the actions of the current Israeli government is all very well. But some of its members must find it difficult to accept that an end to the fighting must come at the cost of a structural weakening of Israel. In the name of peace, however, they are resigned to such sacrifices, provided only that they are not explicitly detailed. The Jewish leadership, therefore, speaks with half a whisper; through the voice of the White House, it confines itself to advising moderation to the belligerents. As no one is willing or able to determine objective and universalizable criteria for moderation, the admonition is lost in the sand. 

To conceal its difficulties, the American Jewish community, followed by the White House and all Western leaders, chose a culprit: Prime Minister Netanyahu. The root of all evil is said to lie in the stubbornness of a weak, selfish individual. Weak, they say, because he submits to the demands of a few small extremist parties; selfish, because he chooses to prolong the war for the sole purpose of escaping the legal difficulties that threaten him personally.

West and western, these terms have been used too often. I will give them a strictly objective meaning; they designate a confederation of European and non-European states, whose principle of unity boils down to accepting, willingly or unwillingly, the triple ideological, economic and military primacy of the United States. On top of this primacy, I’m aware that some values have been sprinkled: democracy, freedom, peace, moderation and so on. They don’t matter; I know only too well that the opposite values can be substituted for them at any time. All that matters is acceptance of American primacy. Always minimally detectable, it can be more or less complete, especially in continental Europe; the United States itself oscillates between several modes of exercising its own primacy. In this respect, Trump and Biden have made different choices. Beyond these multiple variations, however, a general trend emerges with regard to Israel: the West is not satisfied. 

From this follows a paradox, which it would not be difficult to establish reflects the oldest Jewish paradox: because Israel is supposed to receive the unconditional support of the United States, it is identified with the West by those who, rejecting the primacy of the United States, also reject the West; except that the West, for its part, and the United States in the first instance, is distancing itself from Israel. On the part of Western states and their opinions, this distancing is expressed in various ways, ranging from simple reserve to condemnation. But here again, there is a general trend: the indictment of Benyamin Netanyahu. As a similar indictment is expressed outside the West, we can discern a global symptom.

On this scale, two systems of opinion stand out. In one, Netanyahu embodies the truth about the Jewish people, which boils down to this: the eternal oppression exercised by Jews over non-Jews. By cunning in the past, by force today. In the other, Netanyahu embodies the negation of Jewish truth, as expressed in the virtuous state of 1948. The first position is in the majority outside the West, while awakening old prejudices among Western populations. The second is in the majority in Western ruling circles, and still retains a significant number of adherents among Western populations. In any case, it is widespread in Jewish communities, particularly in the USA. 

Having no regard for B. Netanyahu as a person, seeing no reason to question the validity of the legal proceedings against him, and knowing that I am ready to condemn severely the shortcomings of his strategy towards Hamas, I feel all the more free in my judgment: what is universally detested in Netanyahu, goes far beyond Netanyahu.

Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu at a Knesset meeting in Jerusalem, May 23, 2023.

I’ll leave Europe aside; it only matters to itself. Let me come back to the United States. Since 1948 and until recently, their opinion, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, agreed in recognizing Israel as a Western state, implanted, like an impenetrable and solitary diamond, among non-Western populations, to which everything opposed it. Such a singularity excused in advance any imperfections that censors might point out. These would be attributed to the obstacles Westerners believe to be inevitable when confronting non-Westerners. Once the effects of a difficult situation have been subtracted, the overall balance would be destined to remain positive forever. 

Except that “Western” here must be understood in a restricted sense: in the United States, only the WASP – White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant – is considered authentically Western. Admittedly, Jews are not Protestants, but their relation to the Old Testament forms a basis for alliance with the various churches that founded and built the United States: Puritans, Mennonites, Quakers, Evangelicals of all persuasions. Admittedly, the Jews are not Anglo-Saxon, but they have retained the essential doctrinal core: elective democracy and the rights of the Bill of Rights (whether the English Bill of 1689 or the American Bill of 1791). Hence the endlessly repeated formula: Israel, the only democracy in the Near and Middle East. Finally, judging by their skin tone, Jews, seen from afar, belong to the white race (as we know, in the United States, skin color is a matter of reality, not fantasy). Essentially, from a distance, Israel ticked all the right boxes. It deserved to be ranked among those states that offer an approximation of the WASP, a sort of quasi-WASP. This didn’t rule out the possibility that a Jew seen up close on a New York street or in the countryside of the Bible Belt might suffer insults or brutality, but beyond the seas, the Israeli deserved respect and support. The name Jew might divide, but the name Israel captured the glorious conquest by the American way of life of one of the shores of the ancient Mediterranean. 

At the same time, the entire American Jewish community rallied around Israel. The cause was not a foregone conclusion. During the war years and those that followed, Jewish established figures were distrustful of those who, arriving from Europe for fear of Nazism, brought with them their European culture. This culture still enjoyed real prestige, and its bearers were able to seduce American-born Jews and train them in anti-American (unamerican) ideologies. Particularly as McCarthyism gained strength after 1945, it was necessary to multiply proofs of attachment to the United States. The United States defined its identity by an increasingly systematic rejection of all political imports from continental Europe. Even the death camps were not to be overemphasized. The establishment had long refused to believe in them, because in their eyes, Germans could not deviate so far from the norm. Weren’t they white? Were they not historically and even ethnically close to the Anglo-Saxons? Hadn’t they founded Protestantism? Now that we had to face the facts, the Jewish community feared that insisting on this memory would lead to criticism of the WASP model, the alpha and omega of the West. Although outside the United States, the question of Israel remained marked by these suspicions and fears. 

Zionism was born in Europe; instead of inviting Jews to join the United States, they sent them to the Middle East; after 1945, it claimed to welcome all those who had survived the disasters of continental Europe. Founded by Europeans, populated by Europeans, could the new state conform to the demands of true modernity? Then came the time for hard work and courage. It dispelled hesitations. The left-wing liberal American Jew admired the kibbutz, the right-wing conservative American Jew admired the entrepreneurial spirit that animated the Sabras. Successive wars, won by Tsahal, strengthened the unity; an army of citizens, supposedly made to protect and not to attack, capable of winning by respecting the moral law – here again, liberal and conservative Jews shared the same admiration, for different reasons. Harmony between justice and strength, harmony between Jews and non-Jews, harmony between right-wing and left-wing American Jews, the symphonic concert charmed the ears.

Then dissonance set in. An alliance had been forged between the protest of the Black community and Jewish progressivism; it broke down, first in the ghettos, then within the Black bourgeoisie, starting with the campuses, by the end of the ’60s. Among the white bourgeoisie, both Jewish and non-Jewish, there came a moment that was not addressed by all commentators, but which is nonetheless evident: in the eyes of the generation born after the Second World War, the so-called baby-boomers, and even more so in the eyes of later generations (born after 1960-65), Israel gradually ceased to be considered a Western state. Western in the strictest sense, at least, i.e. quasi-White, quasi-Anglo-Saxon, quasi-Protestant. Non-Jews were perhaps the first to have doubts; in any case, Jews are now having doubts of their own.

Jerusalem, Mahane Yehuda market, Wikipédia Commons

I’m not referring to Israeli ethnic groups, even though the American imagination, Jewish or not, has not taken kindly to the arrival of an influential Russian community, of a French community marked by its Mediterranean past or simply very French, not to mention Falashas or Orthodox circles, which have always aroused in American Jews a painful ambivalence between nostalgia and resentment. Such dross clutters minds far more than it should, but it’s not decisive. 

The real divorce lies elsewhere. It concerns peace and war. For centuries, the West has forged a doctrine on this subject, which can be summed up as follows: between different nations and within the same nation, peace is the rule, war the exception. Since peace is the rule, it must be prolonged as long as possible; when it is broken, it must be re-established as quickly as possible. Since war is the exception, each actual war must determine, as quickly and clearly as possible, the conditions for its future conclusion. What we call, depending on the circumstances, war aims or peace conditions. Hence the difference in nature that separates defensive war from aggressive war: the former safeguards the rule, since its aim is the return of peace; the latter violates the rule, since it puts an end to the reign of peace. In all cases, the suspension of fighting, whether through a temporary truce or a peace presented as definitive, re-establishes the rule and puts an end to the exception. In theory, a peace treaty only meets its definition if it promises to be valid for an indefinite period; in practice, it will be judged a success or a failure, depending on whether this promise is kept or not. 

Of course, European and Western history alternates between periods of peace and periods of war. Of course, many rulers have built their legends by systematically violating the doctrine – whether the French are thinking of Louis XIV or Napoleon. Naturally, many European and Western thinkers have scornfully rejected it. Naturally, like any doctrine, it can move towards greatness or debasement, courage or cowardice, generosity or selfishness, depending on the circumstances. At any rate, since the end of the Second World War, it has imposed itself on Europe and the West as a whole. Convinced that it alone could put it into practice with grandeur, courage and generosity, the United States has reserved this mission for itself. They had, after all, adopted the doctrine from the outset, and since then, despite all evidence to the contrary, they have believed themselves to be almost constantly faithful to it. Armed with their illusions, they have made themselves the promoters of world peace. They have thus become the guardians of the rule and the guarantors of its restoration, when the exception has prevailed. In this respect, the primacy of the United States, at the head of the West, claims to be based not only on force, but also on law. 

The proponents of Western doctrine hold it in such high regard that, in their eyes, it should meet with universal approval. The UN prides itself on embodying this ideal of universality. But Westerners have the feeling that other states and entire populations follow other principles than their own; among these supposed dissidents are the Near and Middle East. According to the Western imagination, an anti-Western doctrine exists in this part of the world, where relations are reversed: instead of the rule being ordered by peace and the exception by war, it is war that sets the rule and peace that situates the exception. 

Since war is the rule, it must be prolonged as long as possible; when it has ceased, it must be resumed as quickly and as frequently as possible. 

If we move on from war in general to the various types of war, war of aggression respects the rule better than defensive war; among wars of aggression, the surprise attack prevails over war preceded by a declaration, since the absence of a declaration makes it more difficult to return to peace; among surprise attacks, we’ll take particular note of the one that takes advantage of a moment of relaxation on the part of the Western adversary (the Sabbath, for example, or Sunday): in this case, the Westerner has believed he can respect, even if only approximately, his own rule, which is peace; it is all the more important that the anti-Western rule, which is war, be imposed on him. 

Since peace is the exception, it must be rare and brief; more often than not, it will result from external pressure, directly or indirectly from the West. The latter congratulate themselves on their eventual successes, but they are increasingly convinced that anti-Westerners can only bear the anomaly if the period of peace imposed enables them to prepare for a new war. It has to be said that in the Near and Middle East, several examples point in this direction; the wars Israel has supported against its neighbors illustrate in many respects the doctrine that Westerners attribute to anti-Westerners. Hamas’s tactics on October 7 are exactly in line with this, as are some of its recent declarations.

The Iron Dome intercepting rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, October 8, 2024.

This is supposed to be the source of an irreparable misunderstanding between the West and the anti-West concerning any suspension of fighting: in Western doctrine, the suspension of fighting is part of the horizon of lasting peace, even if the adversary has retained some means of subsistence. While, in practice, it can never be guaranteed that wars will not start again, theory assumes that the silence of arms, however temporary, initiates a gradual process of restoration of the rule of law. More often than not, the course of events will disappoint this expectation; the doctrinarian doesn’t care. Strictly speaking, moderation and wisdom consist in starting again as long as the goal has not been reached. Ideally, this goal will be achieved in the form of peace between adversaries, where there may be victors and vanquished, but no one has been annihilated. Examples to the contrary abound – need I mention Hiroshima? In spite of everything, the Western doctrine, as a doctrine, continues to be valid. 

By contrast, anti-Western doctrine considers that any suspension of fighting has no horizon other than the coming war. War, being the rule, could only cease definitively if all adversaries, except the victor, were annihilated. Such a universal peace is based on the total destruction of all but one, and on the total victory of that one over all; it is directly opposed to peace based on the freely continued existence of one and all. In other words, the word peace is ambiguous.

With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a similar ambiguity hangs over the two-state solution. The West interprets it in the light of its own doctrine; it envisages the co-presence of two neighboring states, each enjoying its own territory and laws, so that the victor, if there is one, does not demand the annihilation of the vanquished, if there is one. The anti-Western interpretation, on the other hand, sees the two-state solution as a stepping stone on the road to the destruction of one state by the other. Whether Hamas adopts this position, the West is ready to assume it, without being surprised by it; whether Israel in turn adopts it, or segments of the Israeli population do so, the West is inclined to believe it, but remains stunned and scandalized by it.

Indeed, it’s all there. The West suspects Israel of having abandoned the Western doctrine of peace and war. By combating the Palestinians and their supporters, Israel and some Israelis have come to resemble their adversaries, it is whispered less and less discreetly. Netanyahu, as a person and as a leader, is supposed to show that he, who studied and worked in the United States, acts like an Eastern head of state. Hence the contempt he arouses. But many in the West are preparing to go further; they are ceasing to believe that the current Prime Minister’s political adversaries, once in power, will be able to return to sound doctrine. Netanyahu or no Netanyahu, the whole Israeli page is about to be turned. Without even realizing it, too large a section of the population has already abandoned the straight and narrow. Unless the United States and its allies of the moment put Israel under guardianship, it is considered by the West to be lost to the West. 

In short, the nature of the two-state solution has changed in the eyes of its advocates. It is no longer a question, as it was in the past, of a Jewish-Western population living side by side in peace with a Palestinian-Near Eastern population, with the former having to be more reasonable, more moderate and more peaceful than the latter. Rather, it’s a question of two populations, convinced that war is the rule, living side by side in peace. From then on, being put under guardianship cannot be avoided. By the United States for Israel, as I said, and I would add: by one of the major Arab countries for the Palestinians. 

Nowhere is this conclusion more widely accepted than among the younger generations of the American Jewish community. It calls for another conclusion on their part: Israel, now de-Westernized, can no longer offer refuge to those Jews who have made peace their geopolitical and moral rule. In other words, for those Jews, Israeli or not, who saw Israel as the leading edge of the West. Seen from the USA, no country in Europe can promise any security whatsoever; despite the declarations of its leaders, despite its institutions, all these countries have a long tradition of Judeophobia, and many of them, not without claiming to abhor the old, reactionary Judeophobia, consent to all concessions to a new Judeophobia, driven by the youth and tolerated by neo-progressives. According to the American Jewish community, the Statue of Liberty is waiting to be joined by Jews loyal to Western doctrine. Under these conditions, the real return will no longer be Aliyah, but rather the immersion of the Jew in the quasi-WASP, in the land of the original and authentic WASP. 

This is the message that the American Jewish community is sending to Israel: forget the Holocaust, Jewish studies and anything else that might persuade you of the inadequacy of the WASP; abandon the Middle East, which is devouring you; Jerusalem is no longer in Jerusalem, it’s all where I am. The European bourgeoisie is sending out similar messages, vainly, stupidly, following in their footsteps, and part of the French Jewish bourgeoisie is getting ready to join in. But who will believe France, Germany and the others, when these countries claim to be gardens of peace for the Jews? The American message will be the only one to be heard. 

Will it be listened to? Spielberg hoped so, as a precursor, in his film The Fabelmans. I hope it won’t. 

Jean-Claude Milner


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