Almighty decisions made on a Sunday

April 7, 2006

Two scholars are under attack for accusing the pro-Israeli lobby of distorting US policy. Anthony Lang says the Church has far more clout

Stories are powerful. Even in a world tortured by guns, tanks and warplanes a strong narrative can still move people in unexpected ways.

When Americans go to church, they listen to stories set in Jerusalem, Nazareth, Jericho and other locations in modern-day Israel and Palestine. They hear about how the ancient Israelites fought to establish a community in the face of adversity and they learn of Egypt, Babylon and Persia, the powerful empires that sought to oppress them. And in those stories, they can locate themselves and make sense of the world.

So when the US Government determines that its closest ally in the Middle East is Israel, it fits into a narrative that Americans know and understand. Never mind that the country is officially secular and that its policies oppress both Muslim and Christian Palestinians. The story of supporting David over the powerful Goliath - a common interpretation of Israel's relationship with its hostile neighbours - resonates.

According to a recent Gallup poll among Christians of all denominations, not just fundamentalists and evangelicals, support for Israel hovers at about 65 per cent and for Palestinians at about 13 per cent. Among those who do not attend church, support for Israel falls to 45 per cent.

These basic facts about American views of religion and foreign policy do not seem to register with John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt. In an article racing across the blogosphere, these leading American political scientists have explained the alliance between the US and Israel as a function of what they call the Lobby - the disparate but overlapping think-tanks, lobbying groups and foreign policy establishment types that push for closer relations between the two nations. As they note: "No other lobby has managed to divert US foreign policy as far from what the American national interest would otherwise suggest, while simultaneously convincing Americans that US and Israeli interests are essentially identical."

To Mearsheimer and Walt's credit, they do not conflate the Lobby with the Jewish community, stating that large numbers of American Jews are uncomfortable with the aggressive policies that Israel is pursuing in the Middle East. Their attention to this point renders accusations of anti-Semitism ridiculous.

Despite this care, however, their argument leaves an empty space where there should be an explanation. Why has this lobby been so successful? Are Jews simply better at this than anyone else? This last point, unspoken but hanging over the article, will feed the conspiracy theory mill that they are, in part, trying to dismantle.

Their explanation fails because, like many academics, they do not understand religion, or because they think that religion, as a system of thought that informs everything a person does and thinks about the world, simply does not make sense. The rationalism of the academy is violated by ordinary Americans who sometimes base their views on foreign policy on what they hear on Sundays. It stands outside academic explanation.

But to understand why the US public supports Israel, scholars need to look at these shared cultural beliefs. Americans can disassociate the Bible from the newspaper, but underlying their interpretations of both are certain stories.

These stories played an important part in the birth of the US. While Americans like to remember the founding fathers as wise democrats, they are also the inheritors of the Pilgrims, whose religious views turned the US into the "city on the hill", a line first used by John Winthrop in a sermon on a voyage to the New World in 1630.

American guilt over the Holocaust - and manipulation of that guilt by groups and individuals within the Lobby - buttresses the cathedral of American Christian support for Israel. Churches have worked hard to exonerate their guilt in this matter, sometimes by supporting trips to the Holy Land. These efforts at interfaith communion give even liberal Christians a reason to back Israel.

The controversy over the article by Mearsheimer and Walt results, in part, from their failure to provide an explanation for the power of the Lobby.

But it is clear that while other powerful ethnic interest groups, such as the Greeks, Cubans and Irish, have been influential, only the pro-Israel camp can tap into the shared story of Christianity. As a result, no other has been so powerful.

If Mearsheimer and Walt want to change US policy in the Middle East and challenge the alliance with Israel, they cannot do it by invoking the national interest and by simply describing the Lobby. They need to point to where the real cultural power lies - and that's in the pulpits and on the altars of churches.

Not until pastors, priests and ministers begin to reinterpret the Christian story will Americans see that their support for Israel does not bring the Kingdom of God - only the continuation of injustice and conflict in a region weary of such things.

Anthony F. Lang Jr. is lecturer in the St Andrews University School of International Relations.

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