Israel, America, and the Lessons of 9/11

By Abe Greenwald
Friday, September 9, 2011

Two heads belonging to the same monster: This is the way a significant portion of the world saw America and Israel on September 11, 2001. On television that day, we watched people jump to their deaths to escape the flames engulfing the World Trade Center.  But if you switched channels, you could watch a very different scene: Palestinians of both sexes and all ages dancing in the streets to celebrate al-Qaeda's killing of almost 3,000 human beings.  For the celebrants, the attack was first and foremost a blow to Israel's most important ally.  And Palestinians were not the only ones celebrating.

Ten years later, the Obama White House has issued "guidelines" setting a tone for the American government's commemoration of September 11 at home and abroad.  This tone, administration officials told the New York Times, "should be shaped by a recognition that the outpouring of worldwide support for the United States in the weeks after the attacks turned to anger at some American policies adopted in the name of fighting terror—on detention, on interrogation, and the decision to invade Iraq."  To assuage this anger, U.S. officials would emphasize America's kinship with "all victims of terrorism, in every nation of the world, . . . whether in New York or Nairobi, Bali or Belfast, Mumbai or Manila, Lahore or London."

But there was no "outpouring of worldwide support for America" in the wake of September 11.  A Pew Research Center poll conducted soon after the attack produced data that still shock.  Fully 70 percent of non-U.S. citizens said it was "good for the U.S. to feel vulnerable." This sentiment did not come from Arab or Muslim countries alone: it was endorsed by 66 percent of Western Europeans, 71 percent of Latin Americans, and 76 percent of Asians.

Why did these respondents feel good about America's trouble?  The most popular reason, given by 88 percent of those polled, was "resentment of U.S. power."  The second most popular, given by 70 percent, was "U.S. support of Israel."

In the decade since September 11, poll after poll has shown the combined hatred of America and Israel becoming still more widespread and intense.  Barack Obama's 2008 election triggered a modest uptick for America, but it was soon erased.  Theories placing direct responsibility for September 11 with America or Israel rather than with al-Qaeda continue to circulate, even among the non-Islamist reformers of the Arab Spring. Writing in the New Republic, Eric Trager notes that in a recent Pew survey asking about al-Qaeda's role in the September 11 attack, the "same revolutionary Arab Street that toppled Mubarak in Egypt also registered the highest level of denial among all the countries surveyed," with "a full 75 percent of respondents recording their disbelief" in al-Qaeda guilt.

Anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism reinforce one another.  American intervention in the Arab world is seen as an extension of Zionist aggression.  Israel's military operations in Gaza, Lebanon, or Syria are understood in part as imperialist legwork delegated by Big Satan to its smaller regional franchise. In the fantastic universe of such conspiracy theories, there are no contradictions: September 11 was both a righteous blow against Zionist America and the fruit of a U.S.-Zionist plot.

The joining of anti-Semitism with anti-Americanism has produced some complicated alliances among America's enemies—Iran with Venezuela, Syria with North Korea.  Hugo Chavez may have no use for Iran's Khomeinist Shiism.  But any enemy of Washington (and democratic capitalism) is a friend of his, and making life unpleasant for Venezuela's Jewish community endears him that much more to his partners in Tehran. Kim Jong Il probably does not lose much sleep over Israel's existence, but helping the Jewish state's Syrian enemy build a nuclear reactor is a profitable way to make things more precarious for an American ally.  The North Koreans and Chinese support Palestinian statehood.  The Russians provide nuclear and military assistance to Iran.  Such marriages of convenience and ideology, in areas from trade to energy and defense, contribute to Israel's increased isolation.

The isolation has also intensified in the realm of ideas, where the erosion of Zionism's good name has continued since September 11.  Increasingly, the word is taken to denote not Jewish national self-determination but Jewish chauvinism.  In academic and diplomatic circles, the decades-long campaign to place Zionism alongside imperialism, fascism, and colonialism has moved from the far left to the political center. Young American Jews now shy away from a term and an identity whose actual definition they will never know.

The great myth about this growing hatred is that public diplomacy can fix it—that greater attention to "optics" will lead antagonists of America and Israel to rethink their prejudices.  We have now had nearly three years of an extremely optics-rich Obama foreign policy, of which the September 11 anniversary guidelines are just one example.  Yet, despite serial apologies for American power and dogged appeals for global cooperation, anti-Americanism is more intense today than it was when the President took office.

This does not stop the public diplomacy-advocates from scolding Israelis for insensitivity.  Thus, Jerusalem is expected to place security second to public relations and express regret over the problematic symbolism of security checkpoints, the West Bank wall, and the response to the Mavi Marmara flotilla.  Such counsel might be tolerable in a country like the United States, which can absorb its critics' vitriol as one more tribute to its global supremacy.  Israel is not big enough, or safe enough, to afford the luxury of symbolism as statecraft.

After September 11, America placed long-term foreign policy bets on democracy in the Middle East.  And it is undoubtedly true that the emergence of a genuinely democratic order there would diminish the appeal of Islamist hate.  But for Israel, there is no such thing as long-term foreign policy. For the foreseeable future, sacrificing support for Washington's closest Middle Eastern ally in an attempt to pacify anti-Americanism and anti-Semitism is not only destined to fail, it is a willful refusal to learn anything from the events of September 11, 2001.

Abe Greenwald is senior editor of Commentary.


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