Why America Hearts Israel

Carl Schramm’s graduation speech to Pepperdine University’s Graziadio School of Business was pretty much what one would expect from one of America’s leading students of entrepreneurship: a paean to American freedom of the individual and the economic freedom on which it is grounded. In the middle of Schramm’s celebration of American capitalism, there appeared a sentence that caught my attention: “The per capita rate of business formation in the U.S. is higher than in any industrialized society except Israel.”

That chance reference to Israel together with the United States set me thinking about one of the nearly open miracles of Israel’s history: The only country in the world in which popular support for Israel is consistently high also happens to be the richest and most powerful nation in history, the one indispensable ally.

American support for Israel has little to do with the wealth or influence of the Jewish community. Many of Israel’s staunchest political supporters in the United States represent states or districts with few Jewish voters. (The same pattern exists in Canada, whose prime minister, Stephen Harper, is by far the most forceful advocate for Israel among current world leaders. The traditional base of Harper’s Conservative Party is in the Western provinces, where the Jewish population is small.)

Schramm’s passing reference to Israel had nothing to do with his topic. Nevertheless, the case can be made that it is precisely America’s historical emphasis on freedom (over equality) that explains the strong support for Israel in America. That emphasis on individual freedom is expressed in many ways. America has, for instance, proven largely resistant to class-based political parties, in large part because there was no rigid class system perceived as impeding social mobility. The private sphere in America has always been large. De Tocqueville, one of the first and sharpest observers of American society, marveled at the plethora of voluntary associations.

Americans have always entertained a deep skepticism about anything that smacks of rule by Platonic Guardians, who deem themselves wiser than the common man, whether in the form of activist judges or Washington bureaucrats. Perhaps that can be attributed to the absence of a feudal past, in which serfs were wholly dependent on the local lord for protection. In part, that skepticism of “wise men” reflects the epistemological modesty underlying free market capitalism, with its preference for resource allocation on the basis of the amalgamated decisions of millions of individual consumers to central planning by government bureaucrats, be they ever so smart.

Americans have always been jealous guardians of their sovereignty, regarding governmental decisions with increasing suspicion according to their remove from the individual voter. Thus the preference for decision-making at the state level – “fifty social laboratories” in Justice Brandeis’s memorable phrase – over the national level in America’s federal system. Americans have traditionally been reluctant to tether national sovereignty to multi-national organizations and resistant to international treaty obligations that limit national sovereignty.

Geert Wilders, a Dutch MP currently on trial in Holland for describing Islam as a “dangerous totalitarian ideology,” recently told an audience in Tennessee, “Do you know why America is in better shape than Europe? Because you enjoy more freedom than Europeans. And do you know why Americans enjoy more freedom than Europeans? Because you are still allowed to tell the truth.” Indeed free speech in America is far more robust than Europe, where it is subject to a panoply of human rights commissions and laws determining what is “proper speech.”

Perhaps most important in terms of the American-Israel relationship, Americans have always been willing to fight to defend their freedom. No country has shed so much blood or expended so much treasurem, not to expand its empire but in the defense of the freedom of others and to spread freedom to places in which it did not previously exist.

And Americans see Israelis as made of the same stuff, kindred spirits who do not hesitate to defend their freedom. David Wurmser, at the time a senior advisor to Vice-President Cheney, observed a decade ago that Americans support Israel because they see the Jews as doughty defenders of common values, who rely on no one but themselves to protect their homes and families against a host of enemies.

IF ONE IMPORTANT THREAD linking America and Israel is their commitment to freedom, it follows that a different type of American society – one closer to the model of European social democracies – would more closely resemble the Europeans in their lack of support of Israel’s independence. And an Israel less brave in its own defense would command far less respect from Americans.

European social democracies in which an elite bureaucratic class maintains the loyalty a majority of the citizenry by conditioning them to expect an increasing array of social benefits paid for through income redistribution is incompatible with the traditional American ideal of maximum freedom to pursue one’s individual goals. And those social democracies produce a radically different citizenry, as reflected in the widespread passivity, even trembling, in Europe in the face of the demands for de facto independence by their growing Islamic minorities.

Just as parents who try to give their children everything often end up producing weaklings, lacking in ambition, and incapable of making their own way in the world, so too a society that attempts to provide for every need will produce an effete citizenry, lacking in vitality, and unwilling or incapable of defending itself.

In his Flight of the Intellectuals, Paul Berman discusses at length the disdain of many leading European intellectuals for the courage (as if there were something fascistic about even praising the virtue) of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somalian-born woman, who as a teenager sought asylum in Holland rather than enter into an arranged marriage with an older relative, and who, in time, fashioned herself into a leading public intellectual and Dutch MP. She once told a supercilious interviewer, appalled by her dark warnings about the threat of the Islam into which she was born and her neo-conservative views: “Perhaps the difference between me and you is that I have lived in a non-free society, and you haven’t.”

AMERICAN CAPITALISM IS EASILY CARICATURED as the celebration of the accumulation of wealth as the highest goal in life and as raising selfishness to an ideal. But both claims are just that – caricatures. The noble yeoman, the family farmer, was the social ideal of the Jeffersonian champions of individual liberty. And in our own day, that social ideal has become the small businessman, the inventor, and enterpreneur, those who create wealth, produces jobs, and are involved in developing products to improve the quality of life, not the Wall Street hedge-fund manager. Many of those areas where the insistence on individual autonomy remains strongest are among the poorer regions in America.

Far from celebrating selfishness, the most famous passages in Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published the same year as the Declaration of Independence, describe the interdependence of different artisans and the mutual benefit each one bestows on the other while pursuing his individual gain. Those states in which attachment to the values described above remain strongest – the so-called red states – are also the states with the highest rates of charitable contributions and volunteer activities.

Nevertheless, free market capitalism can degenerate into a Social Darwinian survival of the fittest if not tempered by other values. Last week’s Torah reading, Behar, provides a guide. One the one hand, it is a celebration of freedom. The Jubilee year, in which every servant went free and each man returned to his portion of the Land, explicitly proclaims that servitude is a degraded state, for G-d took us out of Egypt to be servants to Him and not to other flesh and blood.

At the same time, the Torah stresses our responsibility for those less fortunate. If a close relative is forced to sell a portion of his ancestral homestead, help him redeem it; if he sells himself into servitude, and even more so if it is to an idol worshipper, redeem him; if your fellow Jew needs a loan, provide it without interest. Our responsibility for those less fortunate than we is predicated on the recognition that nothing is ultimately ours. Thus we cannot alienate our portion of the Land in perpetuity to remind us that it belongs to G-d and is only entrusted to us.

These Torah passages are not unfamiliar in those parts of America where support for Israel is strongest. Besides being the most freedom-loving areas of America, they are also the most religious.

Ever since the Pilgrims, American exceptionalism has been predicated on a view of America as a chosen land, modeled on the Land given long ago to the Jews.

This article was originally published in the Jerusalem Post, May 20.

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7 Responses

  1. Ori says:

    Schramm’s passing reference to Israel had nothing to do with his topic. Nevertheless, the case can be made that it is precisely America’s historical emphasis on freedom (over equality) that explains the strong support for Israel in America.

    It is interesting to read this in an Orthodox blog. Looking from the outside, G’dolei Israel (the great Torah scholars, who are supposed to lead Orthodox society) look like Philosopher-Kings.

  2. Bob Miller says:

    Are the American elites in government, news media, and academia part of this analysis? They are largely alienated from both American traditions and Israel. While the majority of Americans may hold otherwise, these people today are pretty much in charge. Somehow, the majority let them reach their positions of power and influence despite their views.

  3. mevaseretzion says:

    >Americans have always entertained a deep skepticism about anything that smacks of rule by Platonic Guardians, who deem themselves wiser than the common man, whether in the form of activist judges or Washington bureaucrats.

    See Bloom’s “Closing of the American Mind”, he argues that the goal of the Enlightenment (which was the foundation of the Founding Fathers’ vision) was to replace the monarch with the scientist and philosopher as the unseen “guardian”. I summarized his arguments last year on my mevaseretzion blog

  4. Ori says:

    Mevaseretzion, the Enlightenment was primarily a European movement. I don’t think anybody in Europe of the 1700s could imagine the mostly uneducated commoners livings without guardians. The the Americas it was different, because population density was much lower and people couldn’t have guardians.

  5. mevaseretzion says:

    Ori, this is why I put guardian in quotes. The concept is different from the Platonic one in some ways, but the idea is that democracy is still led by unseen pupeteers.

    See Bloom’s book for his (I believe convincing) arguments.

  6. Jonathan Rosenblum says:

    In answer to Bob’s question: I’m analyzing a popular, not elite, phenomenon. Since I wrote this piece, a reader called my attention to a long treatment of the subject by Walter Russel Mead in Foreign Affairs July/August 2008, “The New Israel and the Old: Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State.” Everything Mead writes is worth reading.

  7. Raymond says:

    This nation was founded primarily by the Puritans, who were Protestant Christians who felt that followers of Martin Luther had not gone far enough in emphasizing our Torah, so much so that they referred to themselves as Old Testament Christians. And for the first couple of hundred years of them inhabiting this land, talking about the Torah was as fashionable as the Oprah Winfrey show or the Dr Phil show is to talk about in our day. Virtually every single Inaugural address has invoked G-d without ever mentioning a specifically Christian G-d. And with really only two exceptions, every one of our Presidents has been pro-Jewish and then pro-Israel when it became applicable.

    People often credit the ancient Greeks with bringing democracy to the world, but that is not true. In that civilization, the only ones allowed to vote were native-born Greek male landowners. Women were treated horribly, worse than animals. Slavery was taken for granted. The real root of democracy is right in the first chapter of our Torah, where it describes how G-d created Us in His Image. It does not differentiate between the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak; it says that each and every one of us have Divine potential. That is about as democratic of a statement as there can be. And, in Jewish society, nepotism plays a relatively minor role, as anybody can become a great Rabbi, Rabbi Akiva being one of the most prominent examples of that. And then there is the phenomenon of how our genuinely good teachers, welcome challenging questions. We do not blindly follow our leaders.

    I think also that free market capitalism is one of the best ways to ensure equality of opportunity. Besides the more obvious fact that any of us has the potential for rising up from poverty to wealth in this country, having to make a profit almost forces us to not discriminate against people on the basis of how they were born. If a person belongs to any given group that we do not particularly like, but brings us business, we would be fools to turn the person down. And, as the great Jewish Nobel Prize Winner of Economics, Milton Friedman, pointed out, economic freedom is a necessary (although not always sufficient) precursor to individual freedoms.

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