USA: When the guardian abstains

In his article published in K. this week, Jean-Claude Milner offers us his sharp analysis of the evolution of the alliance between the United States and Israel, which we are indeed obliged to observe. For the philosopher, it’s all about identifying the forces behind a real divorce in progress. Bruno Karsenti and Danny Trom – with the very recent speech by Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in mind – revisit Jean-Claude Milner’s text and take another look at the depth of the crisis between the United States and Israel.



Nothing predisposed the nascent State of Israel to fall completely within the sphere of influence of the United States. Led by an elite drawn from the Russian revolutionary breeding ground, dedicated to socialist experimentation, backed by a solid welfare state and a powerful workers’ union, it was Czechoslovakia that provided the indispensable weapons during its war of independence, while the Soviet Union was quick to recognize it in the face of a skeptical West. But very soon after the Six-Day War, Israel fell into the American camp, never to leave it again. If Israel can be described as the guardian of the Jewish people, in the precise sense that there can be no collective security for the Jews without it, the United States effectively became the guardian of the guardian, the protector who, from the Democratic left to the Republican right, recognized in the State of Israel the reflection of its own ideals, unified – and sometimes castigated – under the term “West”.

But wasn’t there a misunderstanding brewing there? The period opened by October 7, when protection and support came with conditions, even for the most loyal historical supporters, forces us to ask the question, and to revisit both the principles and the evolution of the alliance between the United States and Israel. Jean-Claude Milner’s penetrating analysis of this alliance sheds light on its projections, and helps us to identify the causes of the divorce that seems to be underway.

According to Milner, everything stems from the powerful American Jewish community, a bourgeoisie in the process of integration and close identification with the hegemonic Protestant ideology, increasingly suspicious of Israel leaving the camp of the West circumscribed by this ideology. So what does it advocate? That peace must be the ever more assertive credo of the American-led West. As a result, the State of Israel, immersed as it is in a world where war is the rule, is increasingly criticized and condemned. Imperceptibly, the way in which Israel is perceived by the American gaze is changing: we see it condemned to go from being an ideal Western state in search of peace despite the circumstances, to an Oriental state that positively shares with its neighbors an allegedly belligerent credo in which the resolution of conflicts implies the annihilation of the enemy.

If this is the dreaded development, then a benevolent trusteeship of the State of Israel is imperative, concludes the West, of which the United States is the leading edge. The need to twist the arm of the recalcitrant state, to pacify it at all costs, is openly expressed, at the risk, suggests Milner, of it being abandoned by its historical guardian, delivered to a hostile environment where it will ultimately be devoured by war. That in this world of Western peace, public opinion allows and sometimes encourages overt hostility towards Jews is, at the same time, the most widespread blind spot. It feeds on the American Jewish consciousness of living in a center of exception, adorned with a certain invulnerability – even if doubt has assailed it in recent years.

This slope towards the trusteeship of Israel, with all its injunctions to forget the Jewish experience – especially the European Jewish experience, the true source of Zionism – is so strongly inclined that Milner finds it hard to see how it can be resisted. At least, if we accept that resisting it is desirable for Israel’s future as guardian of the Jews in a world where antisemitism, for its part, is certainly not a trend without a future. After all, this has also been the case in recent times, as the resurgence and intensification of antisemitism has by no means spared the supposed promised land of the United States.

But perhaps the slope is not as definitively inclined as one might suppose, so that resistance remains possible; and perhaps it even retains a foothold in America itself. Witness Biden’s solemn speech just after October 7, supporting Israel for what it is as a state of the Jews, and not as an outgrowth of a smoothed-out West under American command. The same is true of Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer’s recent speech, in which the mental universe of Europe transplanted to the United States is still clearly recognizable[1]. Certainly, criticism of Israel’s current policy was vigorously expressed, confirming Milner’s diagnosis. But it is no less a criticism than that of Israel deserting the camp of the West. Driven by the ever-present historical awareness that peace, including lasting peace, cannot escape the risk of war – and that it must do so all the less if the price for praising peace is blindness to the globalized antisemitism threat, correlated with the denial of the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel – this kind of voice still permeates the current American administration. It reminds us that Israel does not exist as an extension of the American way of life in the East, but as a Jewish state whose own political project is Zionism, formulated in and from Europe.

So a voice like Chuck Schumer’s sounds like that of a persistent Europe within the United States to our ears. And of course it remains consonant with the European spirit of which Germany was the most eloquent spokesperson after October 7 (see German Vice-Chancellor Robert Habeck’s November 2, 2023 speech in K.). What the Jews have meant and still mean for Europe, and what the State of Israel represents of the European ideal projected outside the geographical circumscription of “Europe”, still counts in a certain pole of international opinion – provided, at any rate, that Europe is willing to stand up to the forces pushing for its marginalization.

Jean-Claude Milner seems to have drawn a line under this possibility. And yet, his diagnosis leads to the conclusion that this is Israel’s only alternative, if not to resign itself to being caught up in the American orbit, to the point of being no more than a negligible extension of it. If the State of Israel is grasped as a coordinate of the European constellation, and if in the United States itself this historical link remains intelligible, then its reason for existing and what threatens its existence are still clearly perceived. And these elements are capable of irrigating a Jewish policy respectful of international norms in terms of the law of war and the preservation of populations.

Twisting the arm of the State of Israel so that it does not immediately embark on an offensive whose cost in Palestinian civilian lives proves indefensible, imposing concrete conditions so that massive humanitarian aid reaches the Gazan civilian population – this is an objective on which we can only agree. It is urgent to emphasize this now, and Schumer has done so in an exemplary manner, in his strong criticism of the current coalition and its policies since it came to power, which deviate from the very ideals of Zionism. But this is only fully valid if we recognize Israel’s right to keep the means to ensure its future existence, in a geopolitical context where the word peace is often the cloak of a simple truce, i.e. a war potentially renewed, as Milner puts it, to the point of envisaging the annihilation of the adversary. For beneath the projections of a world unified by peace lies a very tangible reality: the fact that Israel does indeed live under threat, and that its disappearance may be a fervent wish shared by broad swathes of opinion even in the West, driven by its desire for peace – which is decidedly more ambivalent than we might imagine.

Bruno Karsenti et Danny Trom


1 At the start of his speech, for example, we find these words: “My last name is Schumer, which derives from the Hebrew word Shomer, meaning ‘guardian’. Of course, my first responsibility is to America and New York. But as the first Jewish majority leader in the U.S. Senate, and as the highest-ranking Jewish elected official in U.S. history, I also feel very strongly my responsibility as Shomer Yisroel, meaning guardian of the people of Israel. Throughout Jewish history, there have been many Shomrim, and many of them were far greater than I claim to be. Nevertheless, this is the position I find myself in today, at a time of great difficulty for the State of Israel, for the Jewish people and for Israel’s non-Jewish friends alike.”

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