Given perceptions that he is antagonistic toward Israel, it isn’t surprising that President Obama opened his visit to that country with an effusive tribute to his hosts. Obama took special pains to disarm criticism that he had portrayed the establishment of the State of Israel as compensation for the Nazi Holocaust, rather than the fulfillment of the Jewish people’s dream of re-creating a state in their ancestral territory. (Never mind that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described Israel as a “nation that rose from the ashes of the Holocaust.”)
“More than 3,000 years ago, the Jewish people lived here, tended the land here, prayed to God here,” Obama said. “And after centuries of exile and persecution, unparalleled in the history of man, the founding of the Jewish State of Israel was a rebirth, a redemption unlike any in history. Today, the sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the dream of the ages -- to be ‘masters of their own fate’ in ‘their own sovereign state.’ “
Those remarks will be welcome to Netanyahu. As the prime minister put it in a speech to the U.S. Congress in 2011: “It is time for [Palestinian] President [Mahmoud] Abbas to stand before his people and say... ‘I will accept a Jewish state.’ Those six words will change history.”
Obama’s praise for the “Jewish State of Israel” was unobjectionable. But it sat uneasily alongside another section of his remarks, in which he listed what he said were similarities between the United States and Israel beyond the fact that they were both democracies. The two countries, he said, “share a common story -- patriots determined ‘to be a free people in our land,’ pioneers who forged a nation, heroes who sacrificed to preserve our freedom, and immigrants from every corner of the world who renew constantly our diverse societies.”
Not so fast. The United States is not a society defined by religion or ethnicity (although early Americans may have regarded themselves as citizens of an Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation). Christians account for 78.4% of the U.S. population, but that doesn’t make this a “Christian nation” in the sense in which Israel is a “Jewish nation.” And while both Israel and the United States welcome “immigrants from every corner of the world,” U.S. immigration policy isn’t designed to reconstitute a dispersed people in their ancestral home. Israelis, on the other hand, prefer that immigrants be “the sons of Abraham.”
This is anathema to anti-Zionists, of course. They conveniently overlook the fact that Israel isn’t the only society to define itself on the basis of religion and/or ancestry. A Christian in Iran lives in an Islamic Republic. Muslims and Jews in Britain are subjects of a Queen who must be a (Protestant) Christian. Ethnic German “resettlers” from Eastern Europe are given German citizenship under a special program analogous to Israel’s “Law of Return.”
It’s precisely because Israelis are determined to preserve a “Jewish state” that the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is so important, because otherwise Israel might have to choose between its Jewish character and its commitment to democracy. Despite other similarities with Israel, the U.S. does not face such a dilemma, and Obama knows it.