Why Does the American Public Support Israel and How Does This Affect US Foreign Policy in the Middle East?
The fact that the United States is a strong ally of Israel is an understatement. The United States is more than a friend or a brother to Israel; it is in wedlock with Israel. In their book The Israel Lobby, John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt reason that America supports Israel not because of the cultural and cinematic reasons, but because of the untamed influence of the Israel Lobby on the U.S. government. While their argument is undeniable, there is a very important aspect to consider. How can the Israel lobby work effectively unless the general population does not view Israel favorably? It is apparent that the U.S. government does not favor Israel in a cultural vacuum. There is a definite cultural base which makes the American public support Israel over the Arabs. So what prompts Americans to support Israel? News reports of events happening in the Middle East are insufficient to mold a favorable opinion about Israel. So is film and culture responsible for depicting the Jews and Israel positively to the American public, and, how does it affect US foreign policy in the Middle East? In this paper, I have reviewed four films that show how Israel and her Arab counterparts are depicted to the American public. I believe film and culture are responsible for generating a favorable opinion of the Jews and Israel to Americans, who support and sympathize greatly with the Israel because they see Israel as an extension of themselves in the Middle East.
Movies are visual expressions of beliefs and culture. The four movies I have chosen to review should be used as prisms through which I will prove my thesis. Hollywood has released many movies that have generated a favorable opinion of the Jews. The first movie I chose is The Ten Commandments directed by Cecil B. DeMille, which is about the Biblical Exodus of the Hebrews from the plight of Egyptian slavery and the life of their deliverer Moses. The second movie is Ben-Hur directed by William Wyler, which is about the life of Jewish nobleman Judah Ben-Hur after he is betrayed by his Roman friend and sentenced to slavery. The third film is Munich directed by Steven Spielberg, which is based on real events after the massacre of the Israeli athletes in the 1972 Olympics in Munich, Germany. The fourth film is Black Sunday directed by John Frankenhiemer, which is about an Israeli anti terrorist agent preventing a massacre in a Super Bowl concocted by Palestinian terrorists and an upset Vietnam Veteran. Melani McAlister, author of Epic Encounters argues that “Hollywood . . . addressed the irrationality of hatred against Jews and presented their heroes as ideal American types.” Hollywood’s depictions in the films are of great importance because many Americans believe the depictions Hollywood presents to them. But one must be cautious not to say that the films solely influenced the opinions of Americans. “If we want to argue that cultural products are politically significant—and they often are—we simply cannot make the assumption, implicitly or explicitly, that movie producers or struggling novelists are producing (or reproducing) the ideologies needed by the ruling political elite” writes McAlister. The films are cohesive images that influence people and produce a cultural trend. The movies I will discuss are the products of the ideologies that were developing in America. Whatever doubts Americans had about the plight and virtue of the Jews was firmly confirmed by the movies. What is important is film and popular notions work together to ultimately produce positive effects of the Jews and Israel to the American public regardless of the truth.
Israel is often depicted as the small fry. In The Ten Commandments, the Israelites are forced to face Pharaoh’s mighty army or drown in the Red Sea. In Ben-Hur, Judah’s peaceful white stallions are facing Mesala’s black horses equipped with sharp blades on the spokes of the chariot. Judah and Moses are depicted as strong men but with no support to fight the tyrannical Egyptian and Roman bullies. These images depict Israel as the underdog who has always had to face overwhelming challenges. They were persecuted in the ancient world in Egypt as slaves and were chased away from their homeland by the Babylonians, Medo-Persians, Greeks and Romans. They had a hellish time in Europe and finally suffered in Germany during the Holocaust. These images and depictions of Jews as underdogs in militaristic perspectives generate much emotional sympathy from Americans. Americans sympathized with these images and Jews because they viewed themselves as the underdogs and knew what that felt like. When compared to the Great Powers during the heyday of European imperialism and expansion, Americans saw themselves as the underdogs. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt note “Israel is often portrayed as weak and besieged, a Jewish David surrounded by a hostile Arab Goliath.” The Jewish cause was very palatable to Americans because the Jews had a tough time building a nation and surviving challenges that other nations caused. They always had to fight forces that outnumbered them and constantly be in the guard against foes. So the attitude that Americans have about backing Israelis who need American arms, finance and moral support mirrors what they see about themselves. McAlister says “The Zionist story of Israel also became an American tale. Israel emerged . . . as an America like refuge that had been hard fought and won (morally, politically, and militarily) from an often indifferent world.” Thus public opinion is favorable to them because of immense sympathy. Israel certainly does not look like the underdog after emerging victorious from three major wars against overwhelming odds. But regardless of the truth, the movies show the helplessness and the difficulties of the Jews visually, thereby generating a lasting impression on the minds of Americans.
Both Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments depict Israel as great group of innocent, hardworking, oppressed and liberty hungry people yearning for a homeland. The people long for freedom from the imperial yoke to pursue peace and happiness; they longed to rule themselves. Moses’ famous line “let my people go” captures the quintessence of what Israel longs to be in the movie plots, a free and sovereign nation. In Ben-Hur, despite Judah’s wealth, respect and friendship with Messala, he is still subject to Rome. Americans sympathize with these depictions because of their democratic traditions. Mearsheimer and Walt support this and say “American backing is often justified by the claim that Israel is a fellow democracy.” Modern Israel is the only vibrant democracy in the Middle East. The majority of Arab countries are monarchies, if not authoritarian republics at most. Only Israel has lively elections that are not rigged and truly representative of at least the Jewish people. The democratic culture that is very deeply embedded in American society is very responsive to a familiar tradition in another country. Given the context of the cold war ideologies, American support for a democracy in the Middle East cannot be overemphasized. It was of paramount importance for America to keep as many countries from falling in to the Soviet orbit as possible. That threat ended only in the 1990s. A democracy in a region where autocracy is rampant engendered much support from the American public. Israel is not a stranger to America because of America’s efforts to befriend a nation that looks similar to her. This idea can be clearly understood from the former president George W. Bush’s statement to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference “ . . . he went on to emphasize that Israel and the United States “have much in common . . . We have both built vibrant democracies, built on the rule of law and market economies. And we’re both countries founded on certain basic beliefs: that God watches over the affairs of men, and values every life. These ties have made us natural allies, and these ties will never be broken.” The movies show ancient Israel struggle from tyranny and oppression and the quest for a homeland. Those very incidents were seen live by the same generation that experienced the founding of the State of Israel a decade earlier. Thus, there is a firm cultural ground for Israel to be seen as a friend of America. There is no doubt that “Americans look favorably upon Israel because it is a democracy, because of the history of anti-Semitism, and because they sympathize with Israel in its fight against Palestinian terrorism.” The fact is whether a democratic country favored America was not of great importance, but as long as it looked like America, talked like America voted like America; it was assumed that Americans must aid that country.
Given America’s Christian heritage and background, it is natural that the American public supports Israel. McAlister notes “Some protestant Christians concerned themselves with the Holy Land less because of its place in history that because of its future in biblical prophecy.” Films such as the Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur were religious in character due to the religiously oriented culture that was prevalent in the 1950s. This was the same time Israel just became a nation and Americans were thrust in to events in the Middle East. These movies greatly supported the Jewish aspirations for the modern nation of Israel. Watching the partition of the Red Sea, the drowning of Pharaoh’s chariots, the trek to Sinai and panoramic view of the land of Canaan provided Americans with visual backing of events in the Bible. Watching these grand films and made perfect sense since this was what they were expecting. Consequently the favor accorded to Israel is naturally established with the combined effect of reality and the drama of the DeMille’s film. This support evolved in to another phase with the rise of Christian evangelicals in the 1970s which became a political force that fiercely supports Israel today. The evangelicals who were hell bent on converting Jews, supported Israel because of the future prophecies that were going to be fulfilled in Israel. “As the new Christian right emerged and gained cultural recognition and political power over the course of the 1970s,” McAlister notes, “ its writers and preachers began to talk more and more about the role of the Middle East in the great end time battles predicted in biblical prophecy. Israel was central to this scenario.” Ben-Hur is crucial because of its depiction of Judah’s curiosity of Christ; though he is a Jew, he ultimately follows Christ after his mother and sister get healed near the cross. The dramatic tie between Christianity and Judaism is vividly demonstrated in Ben-Hur. Hollywood’s attempt to tie the Christian and Jew is visually displayed to Americans, who approved because of Biblical prophecy and political support. Hence, film and culture is very responsible for propagating a positive view of the Jews and Israel.
It is safe to say in many films Israel depicted as virtuous, masculine, morally upright and skillful. The movies depict “Israel as a country that has sought peace at every turn and showed great and noble restraint even when provoked. The Arabs, by contrast, are said to have acted with deep wickedness and indiscriminate violence.” In the movie Munich, Avner, the main protagonist is depicted as a mild-mannered man concerned about protecting his family. Avner is a father reluctantly taking arms to pursue the terrorists with utmost care. His team is not made of professional Mossad agents but regular men with a few special skills that suit the job. The movie goes to great lengths to show how carefully the bombs were planted as in the case of the Al Zardari, who had a daughter whom Avner and his team wanted to avoid killing. Avner also restrains himself from being enticed by the Dutch counter spy. Though she coerces him, he refuses and walks away, dedicated to his wife for his marriage and dedicated to the mission for Israel. When one of Avner’s agents is murdered by the Dutch counter spy, the bomb expert has great qualms about Avner’s decision to kill her. He says “We’re supposed to be righteous. That’s a beautiful thing. That’s Jewish” It is clear beyond a shred of doubt the image Munich’s producers and director wish to convey to the viewers. Many Americans, believe this to be true and accord them favor and admiration. Munich is certainly not an exception in doing this. Black Sunday directed by John Frankenhiemer also shows another character that is strong and ready for action yet mature enough to kill only when necessary. David Kabakov, the main protagonist, does not kill the female antagonist Dahlia while she is showering, but kills her later after he has sufficient evidence she was going to attack the Super Bowl audience. This depiction of reluctant and morally upright Jews “that is sufficiently manly to go to war but sufficiently moral to regret war’s necessity” is impressed firmly in the minds of Americans by Hollywood. In Munich, the Arab gunmen are depicted as senseless brutes brandishing AK-47s bent on slaughtering innocent Jews. The same image is also in Black Sunday where Palestinian Arabs are responsible for the massive attacks that are about to be unleashed on an unsuspecting crowd. The Arabs are portrayed as unwilling to compromise with no value for reasonable talks and mutual understanding. These depictions obviously make the viewers favor Israel. Another trend which fascinates Americans is Israel’s military capabilities. Israel’s successes in the 1948 War of Independence, the Six Day War, the 1973 Yom Kippur War and the rescue of hostages from Entebbe have immensely fascinated Americans and made them admire Israel. These depictions make Americans favor Israel greatly because they think Israel is not guilty of brutality, violence and oppression. As in all cases these images needed to be substantiated by evidence. Of course not everyone believes this out rightly, but the fact that there is a general consensus agreeing with the opinion the movies have generated shows the success of depictions.
Another reason why Americans have a favorable opinion of Israel is because of the past crimes that were committed against them. Mearsheimer and Walt note “Because Jews were persecuted for centuries and many believe they can be safe only in a Jewish homeland, Israel is said to deserve special treatment.” The mistreatment they have suffered in the past most notably during the Holocaust forces many Americans to think that the Jews ought to be compensated for the disproportionate amount of suffering they have gone through. This is evident in the movie Munich when the main character’s mother says they finally have a home now. The plight and suffering of the Jews were put on screen for Americans to watch. In The Ten Commandments, the screen shot of the old man getting whipped and speared for publically objecting to the Egyptian chief builder taking the beautiful Hebrew girl Lilia as a concubine definitely makes an impression on the viewer. Neither the girl nor the old man was guilty of anything, yet they were simply killed and violated. These kind depictions engender a generous attitude in all those who watch The Ten Commandments. These depictions, combined with scattered knowledge of the reality make the American public offer generous assistance to Israel and the Jews. This general effect of this phenomenon can be seen as the 1950s became to the 1960s. American opinion became very favorable to the Jews during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. The status of Jews in America improved rapidly with segregation barriers down in residential areas, universities and jobs. The visual effect of movies along with the reality generated a soft spot for Jews in America and Israel.
So why does Hollywood portray Israel in a favorable manner? The ultimate purpose of cultivating a favorable opinion of Israel is so that America will help Israel financially and militarily against the belligerent Arab states. Americans firmly believe Israel needs help and that is what will happen regardless of the truth. The importance of Hollywood filmmakers to release a pro Israel and anti Arab view of America is evident. The movies generate visual expressions capable of forming opinions in the hearts and mind of those who view them without the knowledge of the truth. The larger picture is the power to elect the leadership in America is with the people. If many people believe Israel’s cause is just and necessary, then a leadership which supports Israel will be voted in to power. A sample election is the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and the reemergence of the conservatism spearheaded by the evangelicals. Once the leadership is in power, they will not break their campaign promises. Thus “foreign policy has a significant cultural component.” The people are influenced by the visual effects of depictions, and that molds their perceptions whether it is founded on the truth or not and that certainly affects American foreign policy. Since the people and their leaders believe that Israel needs American help, they ally themselves firmly with Israel. The repercussions of this alliance is America’s inability to broker a genuine and lasting peace in the Arab Israeli peace process, America’s uneasy dependence on Arabian oil and the trouble of being targeted by Islamic radicals and terrorists. Thus, the importance of what Americans believe regarding cultural assumptions cannot be understated. The depictions shown by Hollywood over four to five decades have put America in a quagmire. An awareness of cultural assumptions is absolutely necessary so that foreign policy might be executed successfully in the Middle East.
Ben-Hur. Dir. William Wyler. Perf. Charlton Heston, Jack Hawkins and Haya Harareet. 1959.
Black Sunday. Dir. John Frankenheimer. Perf. Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern and Marthe Keller. 1977.
McAlister, Melani. Epic Encounters:Culture, Media and U.S. Interests in the Middle East since 1945. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005.
Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen M. Walt. The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007.
Munich. Dir. Steven Speilberg. Perf. Eric Bana, Daniel Craig and Ciaran Hinds. 2005.
The Ten Commandments. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. Perf. Charlton Heston, Yul Brynner and Anne Baxter. 1956.