The decision of the Obama White House to pick a public fight with Israel over its interior ministry’s fairly routine announcement of progress towards approval of the construction (some years from now) of apartments in northeast Jerusalem has by now been subjected to sharp and justified criticism for its disproportionality; its bad faith in reneging on signed agreements with Israel; its mean-spirited spitefulness; its dogged attachment to the exploded assumption that “settlements” are the cause of Arab intransigence; its desire to keep intact the possibility of an apartheid state of Palestine that would not accommodate a single Jew; and its entire indifference to the violence that its reckless statements could (and did) incite in Jerusalem.
But there is a more sinister aspect to the relentless expressions of “insult” and “offense” coming from Vice-President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and White House advisor David Axelrod. It is the invocation, undoubtedly originating in the Oval Office itself, of a long-recognized trope of anti-Semitism, a lethal mixture of the ancient blood libel and the modern conspiracy libel.
Already in July 2009, long before the current ruckus, President Obama told Jewish leaders at a White House meeting that he wanted to “change the way the Arabs see us” by putting “space” between the U. S. and Israel. More recently Biden, according to several reports, told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that
“What you’re doing here [i.e., building houses for Jews in “settlements”] undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace.”
In other words, Biden was accusing Israel of being responsible for the shedding of American blood, the loss of American lives. And as recently as March 16, General Petraeus testified that
“The conflict [between Israel and the Palestinians] foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U. S. favoritism for Israel. Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U. S. partnerships with regimes in the Arab world….The conflict also gives Iran influence in the Arab world through its clients, Lebanese Hizbollah and Hamas.”
Stripped of its euphemistic diplomatic language Petraeus’s statement, too, echoes the White House’s bold new offensive against Israel and its supporters: American diplomacy is crippled, the religion of perpetual outrage is being outraged, and American soldiers are at greater risk, mortal risk, because Israel is making Arabs angry. The language of Walt and Mearsheimer and the Anti-Israel Lobby now comes from Obama and his diplomats and generals.
Among the critiques of Obama’s new strategy, only that of Martin Peretz in The New Republic has suggested its unsavory provenance: “Someone at breakfast this morning suggested to me that Obama is like Colonel Lindbergh.” But this is far too vague, and Peretz does not amplify it. Lindbergh made very few public statements against Jews, and even his diaries say little more than that “We must limit…the Jewish influence.” Peretz’s breakfast companion would have provided this once ardent Obama supporter a far better precedent for Obama’s view of Israel and American Jewry in Lindbergh’s good friend Henry Ford, who never tired of arguing that Jews manipulate diplomacy to cause wars in which Christians die to enrich Jews. Or perhaps Patrick Buchanan, who in September 1990 began to argue that “there are only two groups…beating the drums for war in the Middle East: the Israeli defense ministry and its amen corner in the U. W.”
Better yet, given the passionate Europhilia of President Obama, might have been to liken the White House’s unsavory new strategy against Israel to that of English anti-Semites who during the Boer War always asked why the British government was fighting a “war of gold” against the Boers on behalf of Jewish magnates, and during World War I declared (in 1916) that “If Lord Kitchener is dead, the Unseen Hand [then shorthand for the Jewish Conspiracy] killed him,” and in 1939 insisted that “the Jews” (in Germany and England) were to blame for the anticipated war.
Those 1939 accusers of the Jews were, of course, the most ardent supporters of Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement towards Adolf Hitler. That policy could not have been far from the minds of Israelis who heard Biden’s ludicrous March 11 boast (as little believed in Jerusalem as in New York) that “The United States is determined to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, period.” Now that the umbrellas are again going up, this time in Washington, the expedient of blaming Jews for the violence that has been and will be unleashed against them has moved from the streets of London into the Oval office.
Edward Alexander’s most recent book is Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe: A Literary Friendship.