The Magazine

A Nation Like Ours

Why Americans stand with Israel.

May 20, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 35 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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A PHILOSOPHER'S JOB is to show you what you would otherwise miss because it is right in front of your nose, too close to focus on. In one of Mel Brooks's worst, funniest movies, he played a "stand-up philosopher," and we could use some stand-up philosophy right now.

Have you ever wondered (a stand-up philosopher might ask) why so many Americans feel an instinctive sympathy for Israel that Europeans can't understand? According to such noted experts on U.S. culture as Bishop Desmond Tutu and certain leading French statesmen, this sympathy merely goes to show the power of American Jews in U.S. politics. It's hard to tell whether the bishop and the French elite are against Jews, or merely against Jews' having opinions. In any case, a stand-up philosopher would suggest that they drop it and look at a history book instead. Find out where the United States came from; then look up Israel. It's never too late for world leaders to learn the facts of life. Jews are powerful and influential in this country. But if no Jew had ever set foot in America, the United States and Israel would tend to understand each other nonetheless--because they are two of a kind.

Both are pick-up nations created out of ideas, with populations drawn from all over the globe; they are self-made nations in a world where most nations had nationhood handed to them on a silver platter. A Frenchman or Japanese is so far removed from nation-building that he no longer has any moral stake in it; the energy and struggle that created France or Japan are none of his business. He washes his hands of them. Americans and Israelis still remember that nations do not create themselves.

Proto-Americans arrived here and proto-Israelis over there uninvited, from Europe, and set about making homes for themselves in the large empty spaces between indigenous settlements. They were small minorities at first, far from home and (in many cases) in strikingly unworldly frames of mind. Europeans can't conceive of creating a nation in such a manner.

The indigenous Indians and Palestinians confronted America and Israel with roughly similar moral problems from the start. But American and Israeli settlers had to leave Europe; they felt the pressure at their backs. And once they arrived in their new lands, everywhere they looked they saw empty space, and so they naively assumed that there would be room for everybody. In the years immediately after the First World War, Martin Gilbert writes, "less than 10 percent of the land area of Palestine was under cultivation. The rest, whether stony or fertile, was uncultivated. No Arab cultivator need be dispossessed for the Zionists to make substantial land purchases. The potential of the land, on which fewer than a million people were living on both sides of the Jordan, was regarded as enormous."

WHY DOES THE United States belong to Americans? Because we built it. We conceived the idea and put it into practice bit by bit. Why does Israel belong to Israelis? True, Jews have lived there in unbroken succession since the Romans destroyed the Second Temple in the year 70. True, Jews were hounded out of their homes in Europe and the Arab Middle East, had nowhere else to go, and demanded the right to live. But ultimately, the land of Israel belongs to Israelis for the same reason America belongs to Americans: Because Israelis conceived and built it--and what you create is yours.

If you want a homeland, you must create one. You drain swamps, lay out farms, build houses, schools, roads, hospitals, playgrounds, movie theaters, office parks (and don't forget the discount souvenir shops). That's how America got its homeland, and that is why Israel belongs to the Israelis.

American settlers (the tragic fact is) committed gross crimes against American Indians. We don't lessen the significance of those crimes by noting that Indians committed crimes against the settlers too, and crimes against other Indians. The United States has long since acknowledged and deeply (even bitterly) regretted its own crimes. No killing or exiling of Indians would have been necessary for the settlers to realize their goal, as they laid it out in a ballad in colonial Virginia: "We hope to plant a nation, where none before hath stood."

Israeli settlers had similar goals. In 1937, a British government commission called on Winston Churchill to address the future of Palestine; would it not be "harsh injustice" to the Arabs, he was asked, if Jews were allowed to enter Palestine at will, become a majority and eventually set up a Jewish state? "Why is there harsh injustice done," Churchill answered, "if people come in and make a livelihood for more, and make the desert into palm groves and orange groves? Why is it injustice because there is more work and wealth for everybody? There is no injustice. The injustice is when those who live in the country leave it to be desert for thousands of years."