Eric Alterman, born in 1960, says the view of Israel he absorbed growing up in a Jewish family in suburban Scarsdale, New York, was decidedly one-sided.
“I went on this nerdy presidential classroom thing when I was in high school,” he recalls, “and some Christian kid from the South raised his hand and said to the rabbi, ‘I don’t get it, if the Jews could have a state, why can’t the Palestinians?’ And I was like, ‘How dare you?’”
Alterman would go on to attend Cornell University, where he wrote his honors thesis on Israel, Vietnam and neoconservatism; spend a semester abroad at Tel Aviv University; study Israeli military history while earning his master’s degree in international relations at Yale, and research a dissertation on American liberalism and the founding of Israel as a doctoral student at Stanford.
Although he frequently writes about Israel as a contributing writer at the Nation and the American Prospect, Alterman is best known for his liberal analysis of the media and U.S. politics. He’s written 11 previous books, including one on Bruce Springsteen.
Yet he never stopped thinking about the widening gap between the idealized Israel of his youth and the reality of its relations with the Palestinians, its Arab neighbors and the West. Even when Israel’s revisionist historians were uncovering evidence of massacres and forced expulsions of Palestinians during the War of Independence, and Israeli politicians and intellectuals began asking why, indeed, the Palestinians didn’t deserve a state of their own, he saw that such discussions were considered blasphemous in most American Jewish circles.
Alterman, now a CUNY Distinguished Professor of English at Brooklyn College, explores that gap in his latest book, “We Are Not One: A History of America’s Fight Over Israel.” The book surveys U.S.-Israel relations, but with a focus on the ways defending Israel have shaped public discourse. It’s a book about arguments: within the administrations of 14 presidents, between Washington and Jerusalem, and mostly among Jews themselves.
Earlier this month we spoke about how the pro-Isael lobby became a powerful political force, the Jewish organizations and pundits who fight to limit the range of debate over Israel, and what he thinks is the high price American Jews have paid for tying their identities so closely to Israel.
“I try to take on shibboleths that in the past have shut down conversation and take them apart and sympathetically show the complexity of the actual situation that lies beneath — so that [criticism and disagreement] over Israel can be understood rather than whisked away by changing the subject, or what-aboutism, or by demonizing the person who is raising them,” said Alterman.
Our conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency: Let me start by congratulating you: It’s the first book about U.S.-Israel relations with a chapter named after a Bruce Springsteen album: “Working on a Dream.”
Eric Alterman: Nobody else has caught that. But it’s not about U.S.-Israel relations. It’s the first book about the debate over Israel in the United States. There’s a million books on U.S.-Israel relations.
So let’s define that more narrowly. The title reminds me of the United Jewish Appeal slogan over the years, “We Are One,” which was about American Jewish solidarity. So who is the “we” in your title, “We Are Not One”?
There are three or four different meanings. The “we” in this book are obviously the United States and Israel. An awful lot of people argue that the United States and Israel have identical interests in the world and that’s crazy, because Israel is this tiny little country in the Middle East and we’re a global superpower thousands of miles away. So obviously, we’re going to have differences. Number two, American Jews and Israeli Jews are very different people. They have very different life experiences. And they see things quite differently as evidenced by the political split between them. The title also refers specifically just to Americans, because we can’t even discuss most things anymore. The pro-Israel community, such as it ever was, is enormously split and it’s split in angry ways.
Much of your book is about what happens to American Jews when the idealized portrait of Israel’s founding and its presumed blamelessness in its actions toward the Palestinians comes up against reality. In that context, tell me a little about your choice to devote a chapter to the Leon Uris novel “Exodus,” an extremely sanitized version of Israel’s founding, and the 1960 movie based on it.
The influence of “Exodus” is something I didn’t understand until I wrote the book. It’s crazy, because Leon Uris was this egomaniac who wrote kind of a shitty book and said that he wanted to add a new chapter to the Bible, and he kind of succeeded. I was born in 1960. When I was growing up in suburban New York, every single family had “Exodus” on their shelves. When the movie came out Israelis understood this. They said, “We can just shut down our public relations office now.” And from the standpoint of reality the movie is worse than the book because it has Nazis — the Arabs in the book are working with Nazism. Uris didn’t have the nerve to do that. So the book created this idealized Israel and this idea of [Palestinians as] evil, subhuman Nazis.
What most Americans don’t understand, or choose not to understand, is that before the 1940s most Jews were anti-Zionist, or non-Zionist. This changed in the 1940s, when, as a result in part of the Holocaust, and the reaction to that, and the triumph of Zionists, they became intensely pro-Zionist, leading up to the creation of Israel. But after that, they kind of forgot about Israel. One might have given their children JNF boxes to carry on Halloween instead of UNICEF boxes, or maybe they paid to plant trees. But Israel doesn’t show up in the American Jewish Committee’s 1966 annual report until page 35 or 36, and Nathan Glazer’s 1957 book “American Judaism” says that the creation of the Jewish state has had “remarkably slight effects on the inner life of American Jewry.”