top of page
  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

How Republicans Became the Party of Israel

When Conservatives Supported Palestine

Given the recent tendency of the European far-right to utilize deep-rooted anxieties about immigration and radical Islam to swing votes, one would logically wonder if the West has always viewed Islam as a source of civilization conflict. Perspectives on recent military endeavors in the Middle East and North Africa certainly serve to support this idea. Many now view the War on Terror as merely another episode in a saga of perpetual civilizational clash between the West and Islam; a manifestation of deep-seated conflict dating back to the time of the crusades and the conquest of Constantinople. Themes of this existential struggle have been burrowed deep within far-right lore, and in some cases have even found a home in establishment Republican politics. For many American conservatives, the current territorial conflict between Israel and Palestine is yet another revision of this civilizational schism; a brooding conflict between the world’s only Jewish-majority state, seen as upholding distinctly Western and democratic values in the Near East, and an occupied, Arab territory; seen as a rogue Islamic state.

Although the contemporary Republican Party is now viewed as largely synonymous with staunch Zionism, the American conservative movement once featured a decidedly pro-Arab faction. From the late 1940s and well into the heart of the 1960s, Arab nationalism was a mainstay within many right wing circles, and numerous mainstream conservative figureheads were explicitly pro-Palestine. Right-wing book publishing powerhouse Regnery Publishing — now best known for featuring the works of authors such as Sarah Palin, Michelle Malkin, and Newt Gingrich — was in fact once a major intellectual outlet that championed the Palestinian plight. Publishing titles such as “What Price Israel?”, a controversial anti-Zionist work by Alfred Lilienthal, and “They Are Human Too”, a photographic collection of Palestinian refugees by Per Olow Anderson — Regnery brooded the roots of Palestinian nationalism in the United States.

While many now assert that Regnery’s founder Henry Regnery bore a particularly odd affinity for the Palestinian cause, his views on Zionism were actually mainstream among most post-WWII conservative circles. For instance, in 1957 the conservative magazine National Review drew criticism from political philosopher Leo Strauss after they published an article that referred to Israel as a racist state. Authored by Guy Ponce de Leon, the article asserted that, when compared to their contemporaries, the United States was in fact actually ahead of the times with regard to racial justice. Furthermore, De Leon stated that “Jews, themselves the victims of the most notorious racial discrimination of modern times, did not hesitate to create the first racist state in history”. Perhaps foreshadowing future rhetoric on the debate, Strauss responded by asserting that conservatives should support Israel, a country he viewed as a critical component of a greater Western identity. Strauss argued that Israel was essentially an outpost of the West, promoting democratic ideals and educating its populous about the fundamental values of the Occident. While some of the ideas originally iterated by Strauss were eventually adopted by right wing Zionists in the proceeding decades, his arguments at the time fell on mostly deaf ears.

Meanwhile the National Review’s most prominent foreign policy expert, James Burnham, was also a vocal critic of Israel. Burnham, who had long established himself as a key intellectual voice in the American conservative movement, saw Israel as a fundamental strategic liability to American geopolitical interests. Many conservatives believed that Israel’s mistreatment of its Muslim minority could alienate regional Arab powers, who they saw as potential Cold War allies. Burnham’s argument — that Israel’s presence would disrupt relations with oil-bearing countries — quickly became one of the premier conservative anti-Zionist arguments of the era. In addition to worries over Zionism’s geopolitical ramifications, another issue worried conservatives of this time period — the young Jewish nation’s affection for the socialist cause.

The Roots of Labor Zionism

American conservatives of the early Cold War era were, above all else, feverishly anti-Communist. The era of America’s second Red Scare was marked by extensive paranoia of potential communist subversion. Led by Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, hundreds of Americans were accused of either being communists or communist sympathizers. By contrast, as post-war America was adopting a rabidly anti-communist stance, the young state of Israel was deeply influenced by socialist theory.

In the decades preceding the creation of Israel, most Zionist circles in the Jewish diaspora were dominated by left-wing theorists. Russian Jews, who represented the largest contingent of immigrants of the Second Aliyah (Jewish emigration to Palestine), were deeply impacted by early socialist thought. Influenced by the ideology of Russian-Jewish intellectuals such as Ber Borochov and Nachman Syrkin, these early immigrants synthesized class struggle with Zionism, viewing the formation of the state of Israel by the Jewish proletariat as the only effective means of ushering class revolution. This ideology came to be known as Labor Zionism, and it rapidly became an influential intellectual component of the Zionist movement. New Jewish settlers, who were largely devoid of established communities, rapidly settled Palestine in the form of rural kibbutzim and moshavim; cooperative, self-sustaining agricultural communities that fused Zionism with socialist theory. Consequently, Labor Zionism became the predominant ideology of pre-independence Israel, largely dominating the doctrine of early Zionist trade unions and paramilitary groups. The influence of Labor Zionism continued well into the creation of the state of Israel and numerous early figureheads such as David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir espoused the ideology.

How Conservatives Came to Love Israel

By the end of the Cold War conservative attitudes towards Israel began to transform dramatically, coinciding with changes in Republican ideology, Israeli politics, and the Jewish diaspora in the United States.

The evolution of conservative’s perspectives towards Israel corresponded greatly with the rapidly increasing influence of the Religious Right of the Republican Party. Socially conservative and opting for literal and dispensationalist interpretations of the Bible, this evangelical political faction no longer saw Israel as a purely political entity. Rather, many fundamentalist Christians came to view Israel as a nation possessing a special relationship with God, consequently leading to hawkish evangelical support of the Jewish state. Furthermore, a significant portion of the community adopted the belief of Christian Zionism, viewing the congregation of Jews in Israel as a prerequisite to the Second Coming of Christ. Others opted for an even stricter Biblical interpretation; with televangelist Jerry Falwell once declaring that, “to stand against Israel is to stand against God. We believe that history and scripture prove that God deals with nations in relation to how they deal with Israel”.

Unsurprisingly as the influence of Evangelicals on the GOP grew through the 1990s, so did support for Israel. In 1993, 6.9 percent of House Republicans identified as evangelical; by 2015 that number had reached 36 percent. Support for Israel has remained particularly prominent among this group, with one report from Pew Research indicating that white evangelicals are twice as likely (82 percent) as US Jews (40 percent) to believe God gave Israel to the Jewish people.

The rise of the Israeli right-wing Likud party from the 1990s to the present has also helped garner Israeli support among key Republican politicians. Many Republicans have grown to see right-wing Israeli politicians such as Benjamin Netanyahu as ideological counterparts. In fact, one studyfrom the University of Maryland found that Netanyahu was revered as highly as Ronald Reagan among many American conservative circles. As Israel shifted right politically and Republican policies grew more sympathetic to the Jewish state, many donors in the Diaspora followed suit. Casino Mogul Sheldon Adelson, for example, began to throw his financial support behind Republican politicians, who he felt better ensured Israel’s continued security. Adelson, who was by far Trump’s largest campaign donor during the 2016 election, declared that he had left the Democratic Party dueto “a visceral anti-Israel movement among rank-and-file Democrats”. Indeed many Republican and Democrat politicians alike continue to be deeply politically influenced by their financial relationships with Israeli special interest groups such as AIPAC.

Republican support for Israel garnered its largest boost with the rise of neoconservatism in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. Neoconservatives, who were themselves advocating aggressive military intervention in Muslim-majority countries, quickly began to see Israel as an ideological ally in the battle against radical Islam. Indeed, the neoconservative movement that dominated the foreign policy of the second Bush administration actually had roots in the anti-Stalinist left. Many of its adherents were in fact former leftists who had moved over to the conservative camp in response to the alleged anti-semitic sentiments and dovish foreign policy of the American New Left. As a broad, social justice oriented political movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the New Left denounced Israel as an extension of western colonialism. Many leftist Zionists thus became disillusioned with the counterculture of American leftism, consequently opting to move further right on the political spectrum. Accordingly, a number of prominent Jewish public intellectuals made the jump from the anti-Stalinist left towards neoconservatism. For example, the American Jewish Committee produced the magazine Commentary, which was only rapidly transformed under the editorship of political pundit Norman Podhoretz. Originally known for its strong liberal coverage of social issues, Podhoretz rebranded Commentary into the intellectual outlet of the neoconservative movement. Gradually gaining political influence through the 1990s, the influence of neoconservatism eventually peaked during the administration of George W. Bush, where a number of neoconservative political advisors played a pivotal role in shaping American foreign policy.

The Future of Partisan Politics and Israel

As sympathy towards Israel continues to diminish among a younger constituency of voters, it remains to be seen how establishment Republican attitudes towards Israel will evolve. A 2017 survey by Lifeway Research found that an ever decreasing amount of young evangelicals hold a positive view of Israel, with only 58 percent of evangelicals aged 18 to 34 supporting the state, in contrast to 70 percent of those over 50. Furthermore, the rise of Donald Trump has seen at least a partial resurgence in the non-interventionist, paleoconservatism of the Old Right, an ideology which many of Trump’s key supporters espouse. Paleoconservatism, with its emphasis on populist rhetoric and ‘America First’ foreign policy, materialized in the current White House via adviser Steve Bannon, and the return of this ideological demographic could spell trouble for neoconservative foes. Additionally, Israel’s popularity also seems to be decreasing among young American Jews, with the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reporting that just 40 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 34 were comfortable with the idea of a Jewish state.

While President Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem demonstrates that support for Israel continues to be a critical component of Republican politics, its continued status as an element of American conservatism cannot be assumed. As the historical transformation of conservative attitude towards the Israeli-Palestinian crisis has shown, American foreign policy is both opportunistic and pragmatic. By extension, American conservatism is a fundamentally reactionary ideology which Israel — as a Western ally — happens to benefit from. As attitudes towards the Jewish nation begin to shift, how long will Israel be viewed as part of this ingroup? There are no safe bets in this field.

33 views0 comments
bottom of page