The Wikipedia page on “culture war” currently lists a few dozen well-known battleground issues in American politics: abortion, global warming, drug legalization, same-sex marriage, gun control, and so on. It’s an impressively comprehensive list, but it’s missing what may well be the most important emerging culture war fault line of our political moment: support for the State of Israel.
Last week, in a story headlined “For G.O.P., Support for Israel Becomes New Litmus Test,” The New York Times described how Jeb Bush was forced to swiftly distance himself from James Baker, the Republican foreign policy elder statesman, after the latter criticized Israel’s hawkish policies at a J-Street convention. Few of the issues on the Wikipedia culture war page command this kind of power — a number of Republican heavyweights in good standing support same-sex marriage, and in 2008, one Republican presidential frontrunner was pro-choice and the eventual nominee had sponsored federal climate change legislation.
Meanwhile, Democrats, led by President Obama, have become more and more outspoken in their criticism of the Jewish state — 58 Democratic lawmakers boycotted Benjamin Netanyahu’s February address to Congress. Voters are just as divided: According to Pew, 62 percent of Republicans have a favorable view of the Israeli Prime Minister, compared to 17 percent of Democrats.
It’s important to note that the term “culture war issue” is not synonymous with “partisan issue,” though the two are related. Culture wars are more grounded in the language of morality, values, identity, symbolism and religion (or lack thereof). The 2012 partisan standoff over the top tax rate, for example, cannot be properly described as a culture war flashpoint. For culture warriors, politics is about more than the implementation of specific policies — it is about reshaping the society around them to reflect their values. The recent rhetoric surrounding Israel reflects this: Republicans have portrayed Netanyahu as “a Churchill in a world full of Chamberlains,” a tough-minded leader confronting enemies of Western civilization with moral clarity, while Democrats have increasingly described him as a militarist who takes orders from religious fundamentalists.
There is no doubt that Israel finds itself on American culture war terrain partly because of the personal animosity between President Obama and the Israeli Premier. But there are deeper demographic reasons for the shift as well. The parties are increasingly divided on religious lines, and evangelicals are more likely than any other group to believe that God gave the Holy Land to the Jewish people. The parties are also increasingly divided on racial lines, and Palestinians’ claims of racial oppression are getting more of a hearing on the increasingly multicultural Democratic left. (There is a dark side to this shift: On college campuses, Judaism is becoming increasingly equated with whiteness and privilege, often with anti-Semitic undertones).
How will our politics evolve as Israel joins abortion and gun control in the pantheon of American culture war clashes? I have three (somewhat scattered) predictions, none of which bodes well for Israel or the United States:
(1) American support for Israel will decrease.
It has been widely observed that the secular, progressive forces are advancing in the culture wars, and that traditionalists are in retreat. This is best illustrated by the triumph of same-sex marriage, but it is also evident in the growing support for marijuana legalization, the softening of previously tough-on-crime policies, the proliferation of online pornography, and the defeat of measures to teach creationism in public schools.
The problem for supporters of Israel is not necessarily the fact that they have become embroiled in the culture wars, but that they are on the losing side. In 2014, the left-leaning Israeli columnist Chemi Shalev observed that “while Israel continues to enjoy substantial overall support in the American public, its weakest links are to be found among the groups that are now on the ascendant on most domestic and social issues of the day.” If public opinion on Israel follows the same trajectory as public opinion on other culture war issues, Israel may one day find that its primary and sponsor and ally no longer backs it unreservedly.
(2) American Mideast policy will become more polarized and less effective.
Because culture wars are fought in hearts more than in minds, and because culture warriors tend to speak in terms of moral absolutes rather than gray areas and tensions and ambiguities, compromise is difficult. Despite frequent calls for a “truce” in the culture wars, none has been forthcoming. As support for Israel becomes more polarized, politicians on the left and right are likely to take increasingly totalized “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” positions and become less amenable to possible middle paths.
This polarization is already taking place. Consider the two most pressing issues regarding Israel: Iran’s nuclear program and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It would be interesting and perhaps productive for U.S. foreign policy if there were prominent figures who were hawkish on Iran but also in the peace camp on Israel-Palestine (this is the position France has taken). Instead, as the Los Angeles Times’ Michael McGough observed, there is 100 percent overlap. More broadly, it is probably not helpful for a delicate foreign policy issue crying out for compromise to become wrapped up in a take-no-prisoners domestic culture war.
(3) Discourse on Israel and Jews will become increasingly contentious and regulated in American culture.
One of the unpleasant features of the culture wars is that (amplified by the social media outrage machine) they tend to shrink the boundaries of acceptable speech in certain spaces. It’s hardly necessary to give examples, but two representative cases are Mozilla’s firing of its CEO for opposing same-sex marriage and a pro-gun publication’s firing of an editor for allowing that certain types of gun control should not be anathema.
Speech surrounding Israel is already becoming increasingly sensitive and regulated — on both sides. On a number of college campuses, Palestinian activists, as well as pro-Israel activists, have been sanctioned for their advocacy. Meanwhile, at the national level, Jewish-related speech is being subject to increasingly strict scrutiny. Lena Dunham was subject to hysterical criticism for a New Yorker comedy piece invoking some Jewish stereotypes, and Trevor Noah was nearly run out of his new job as host of The Daily Show after Twitter users discovered a handful of his (rather unfunny) jokes about Jews and Israel. As Phoebe Maltz Bovy notes, “Jewish humor no longer gets a pass.” Bovy plausibly attributes this, in part, to the rise of global anti-Semitism, but I think the increasingly vitriolic debate over Israel (a related phenomenon) is also at play. As a free speech partisan (and a Jewish American), I tend to think this tightening of cultural restrictions is unfortunate.
Twenty years ago, support for Israel was more or less a bipartisan cause, with its share of critics on both sides. Today, Israel retains strong overall support — but the nature and source of the support has transformed, as support for the Jewish state has become yet another American culture war skirmish. This is an unfortunate development, for both nations.
Jason Willick, a senior studying history, is the editor in chief of Stanford Political Journal.