Who's really "pro-Israel"?

Science, evolution, and politics explained.
May 1 2002 5:45 PM

Anti-Safirism

According to a recent front-page story in the New York Times, American conservatives are increasingly "pro-Israel." The Washington Post agrees, discerning a "rising cadre of pro-Israel conservatives." The Los Angeles Times reports a "deep pro-Israel sentiment in the conservative movement." What exactly does "pro-Israel" mean? In all three papers, it means supporting Ariel Sharon's policies, particularly the West Bank incursion.

But wait a minute. Yossi Beilin, a member of the Knesset and a former Israeli minister of justice, opposes Sharon's policies. Does that mean he's "anti-Israel"? Some American Jews oppose Sharon's policies. Are they anti-Israel? Is Colin Powell anti-Israel? After all, he tried to moderate Sharon's policies. Indeed, opposing Powell's attempt at moderation is a defining characteristic of the conservatives these newspapers call "pro-Israel." If opposing Powell qualifies you as pro-Israel, then Powell must be anti-Israel—right?

Robert Wright Robert Wright

Robert Wright is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. Follow him on Twitter.

In one sense, the newspapers' use of "pro-Israel" is logical. Any "nation" is actually a hodgepodge, comprising people with different interests and opinions. So in order to talk about nations as distinct entities, we have to oversimplify. And one convention of oversimplification is to use the current government as a proxy for the nation. In that sense, Ariel Sharon is Israel, and to support his policies is to support Israel.

Yet newspapers don't follow this convention consistently. If you support Sharon's policy on income tax deductions, American newspapers don't call you "pro-Israel." So is the military dimension of Sharon's current policy the key? Is it when nations are at war that supporting the government becomes synonymous with supporting the nation?

Not as a strict rule. During the Vietnam War, major American newspapers didn't refer to, say, French politicians who supported American intervention as "pro-America." On the other hand, during less ambiguous wars—World War II, say—it was presumably more common to divide people into pro-America and anti-America depending on whether they supported the war effort. No doubt this sort of litmus test was especially common in nations like Britain, whose very survival was clearly at stake.

But there are two problems with finding precedent for the current "pro-Israel" usage in wars like World War II. For one thing, Ariel Sharon himself would insist that the West Bank incursion isn't a war since calling it a war would imply that the occupied territories belong to the Palestinians. In Sharon's view, this is just a policing exercise. And the New York Times and Washington Post don't equate support of a nation's policing policies with support of the nation. Neither paper would call foreign politicians "pro-America" or "anti-America" depending on whether they think John Ashcroft is too zealous in rounding up Arab immigrants.

The other problem with the World War II precedent is deeper. During World War II, people who opposed the British war effort by and large were anti-Britain. They wished Britain and its alliance ill. In contrast, many of Sharon's critics, such as Yossi Beilin, are quite pro-Israel. In fact, they oppose Sharon's policies precisely because they think the policies are bad for Israel.

This is true of some of Sharon's American critics, too—such as me. (Click here if you're fascinated by the nuances of my anti-Sharonism.) In fact, since Sept. 11, I've worried about the fate of Israel more than ever. My highly non-altruistic reason is that it's clearer than ever how deeply intertwined America's and Israel's fates are. If the Palestinian problem doesn't get solved, Israel will see years and years of increasingly horrendous violence, probably culminating in nuclear and/or biological attacks that kill hundreds of thousands of Israelis. And Americans, too, will be at much greater risk—because, though Osama Bin Laden's actual grievances had little to do with the Palestinian cause, continued Palestinian-Israeli conflict is probably the biggest recruiting asset for al-Qaida and other such groups.

Of course, those "pro-Israel" American conservatives say that they, too, have America's interests at heart. They think a take-no-prisoners policy toward terrorists around the world (regardless of differences in, say, the legitimacy of the grievance) will make America more secure even as it makes Israel and other nations more secure.

Given that both Sharon's American supporters and his American critics are genuinely concerned about Israel's future—even if, for some people on both sides, that's mainly because they think that what's good for Israel is good for America—how come only his supporters get called "pro-Israel"? So far as I can tell, there is no clear answer.

What is clear is that this convention is a public-relations godsend for Sharon's supporters. The day after that front-page New York Times story appeared, William Safire published a Times column noting that some prominent Democrats oppose Sharon's policies while most Republicans support them. The column was titled "Democrats vs. Israel."

On the one hand, this is obvious nonsense. Does Safire really believe that Tom Daschle and Joe Biden, whom he mentions by name, are anti-Israel—that they actually want harm to befall Israel? I doubt it. Does Safire want to intimidate them into silence by threatening to stigmatize them in the eyes of Jewish voters? I don't doubt it. (And, as if this scare tactic weren't by itself scary enough, "anti-Israel" is, as Richard Cohen of the Washington Post recently noted, often taken to mean "anti-Semitic." Of course, most people who truly are anti-Israel probably are anti-Semitic—which is all the more reason to be careful about who we say or imply is anti-Israel.)

Yet, however transparently nonsensical Safire's thesis, it follows logically from usage of the term "pro-Israel" in the Times' own news pages—and in the Post's and pretty much every other American newspaper's.

Rules of usage evolve. Presumably the usage czars at leading newspapers have criteria for deciding when it's time to revise a rule. Here's my nomination for a criterion: When blatant propaganda follows logically from standard usage, it's time to make the usage nonstandard.

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