Given the recent tendency of the right to transform deep-rooted anxieties about immigration and radical Islam into major political talking points, one would logically wonder if the West has always viewed Islam as a source of civilizational 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 continuing violently into the present. Themes of this existential struggle have become burrowed deep within neoconservative lore, and in some cases have even found a home in establishment Republican politics. For many mainstream 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.
A strong degree of conservative opposition to Zionism also came from within the Old Right political circles of the Republican Party. An informal designation referring to a loose collection of right-wing political thinkers who favored a non-interventionist, anti-imperialist foreign policy that was at odds with the establishment Republican ideology of global democracy, the Old Right came to oppose Zionism on uniquely ideological grounds. Many within the Old Right were fiercely opposed to any extension of American geopolitical power and the foreign aid that would accompany it, consequently resenting American’s endorsement of Israel as a mere extension of Western geopolitical imperial power. The conservatives of the Old Right, which would eventually grow into the modern paleoconservatism movement, favored an “America First” foreign policy that rejected internationalism in favor of an increased focus on domestic concerns. This sentiment became increasingly common among certain members of the Republican Party who shunned the hawkish anti-communist policy advocated by establishment conservatives such as Barry Goldwater and William F. Buckley. These conservatives saw the advocation of Zionism as playing a part in sowing unrest in the Middle East, consequently creating a destabilized region that would permanently entangle the American military in foreign affairs. Take for example the case put forth by the late Libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, himself an American descendant of Eastern European Jewish immigrants, who described Zionism as an “an ideology of conquest,” responsible for dispossessing a pre-existing Arab population. Despite the rise of interventionist, anti-communist war hawks within the Republican Party of the mid-20th century, many Old Right conservative thinkers like Rothbard continued to espouse a non-interventionist foreign policy.
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. Often cited as an early ideological predecessor to the neoconservative movement, Burnham’s opposition to Zionism came not from the non-interventionist viewpoint of the Old Right, but rather as a product of lingering concerns over maintaining American geopolitical power in the Middle East. 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 mainstream 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 principally 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 being either 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, 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 U.S. 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 study from 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 due to “a visceral anti-Israel movement among rank-and-file Democrats”. Adelson, who has otherwise spouted mostly liberal political positions, has become increasingly supportive of the Republican Party due to its strongly pro-Israel stance, recently pledging $25 million to a super PAC intending to maintain a Republican majority in the senate. 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.
American Zionism and the Rise of Neoconservatism
Republican support for Israel garnered another large boost with the further resurgence 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 both an ideological and fundamental 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. Many of these figures, such as Sidney Hook, Irving Kristol, and Norman Podhoretz, were originally members of the New York Intellectuals, a group of left-leaning writers and political critics who had often advocated for Marxist theory. Consequently, many of the organizations and publications that these men had once been key contributors of began to slowly align with the neoconservative movement. For example, the American Jewish Committee produced the magazine Commentary, which was only rapidly transformed under the editorship of Podhoretz. Originally known for its strong liberal coverage of social issues, Podhoretz rebranded Commentary into the intellectual outlet of the neoconservative movement.
Appropriately, many early neoconservatives were indeed Democrats who began to develop hawkish and pro-Israel foreign policy views in stark contrast to the outspoken anti-war views of George McGovern and the Democratic Party. Senator Henry “Scoop” Jackson of Washington was a prominent example. A member of the Democratic Party, Scoop Jackson was a strong supporter of the Vietnam War and a fervent advocate for the state of Israel. Jackson supported increased foreign aid to the Israeli government, and many of his viewpoints have been cited as influencing future neoconservative thinkers such as Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, both of whom originally served as aides under Jackson. Wolfowitz and Perle would later go on to accumulate considerable geopolitical influence, serving in various positions representing the United States at the international level.
New York senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan was another example of an early neoconservative Democrat. A staunch Zionist and lifelong Democrat, Moynihan eventually served as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations under Richard Nixon, where he fiercely supported Israel. Moynihan’s brief career as Ambassador was highlighted by his fierce opposition to UN Resolution 3379, which declared Zionism as a form of racism. In an impassioned speech opposing the resolution, Moynihan condemned the comparison of Zionism to racist ideology, a defining political move that won him considerable praise from his American constituents.
As George McGovern and anti-war leftists gained control of the Democratic Party in the 1970s, many of the aforementioned intellectuals threw their weight behind Henry “Scoop” Jackson’s unsuccessful presidential primary runs in 1972 and 1976. Many of the early neoconservatives were dissatisfied with McGovern’s dubious policy towards Israel and by the end of the decade, had become staunch supporters of Ronald Reagan. Neoconservative influence was apparent within the reliably anti-communist Reagan administration where Jeane Kirkpatrick, an international hardliner and steadfast supporter of Israel, served as Ambassador to the United Nations. Indeed the neoconservative movement began to transcend party, influencing both of the major political entities in America. The defining characteristic of the movement was not a consistent domestic political ideology, but rather the encouragement of an aggressive foreign policy and an ardent support of the Israeli state.
Gradually gaining political influence all the way through the 1990s, the influence of neo-conservatism 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 generally both opportunistic and pragmatic. By extension, American conservatism is a fundamentally reactionary ideology which Israel — currently viewed by the American political establishment as a Western ally — happens to benefit from. As conservative attitudes towards the Jewish nation begin to shift, how long will Israel be viewed as part of this in-group? There are no safe bets in this field.