Back when I was a college senior majoring in history with a concentration in medieval Europe, I decided to write my honors thesis on William the Conqueror’s claim to the throne of England. My argument was that contrary to the universally accepted view among historians of that era, William did not actually have a legitimate legal claim to the throne and that Norman historiography was concocted ex-post facto to make it seem as if he did in order to justify the Norman invasion in 1066. Given that the House of Windsor and all of their forebears trace their lineage back to William, in making this argument I was casting aspersions on the legitimacy of the English royal house, and yet nobody ever asked or cared to know whether or not I was pro-England. Such a question would have seemed ridiculous and would have carried no resonance, as nobody thinks of themselves in such binary Manichean terms when it comes to our former colonial overlords. Whether one enjoys vacationing in historic Albion or detests England for its damp weather and the English insistence on referring to potato chips as crisps, people simply do not divide themselves into pro-England and anti-England camps, and neither do they feel the need to loudly declare their proclivities as a way of staking out political and ideological territory. Despite the close connections between the U.S. and Britain at all levels of state and society, whether or not someone supports Britain is not a political issue.
I now spend much of my time writing and thinking about Turkey. Sometimes I write things about Turkey that are complimentary and sometimes I write things about Turkey that take its government to task, and yet not once has anyone queried whether I am pro-Turkey or anti-Turkey, nor have I ever felt pressured to mark myself as one or the other. I am vociferous about my love of the country, its people, its culture, its food, but I can’t imagine ever describing myself as “pro-Turkey” only because it would seem like a ridiculous category in which to place oneself. If I walked around proudly tying my identity to this notion of being pro-Turkey, what would it even signify? Would it mean that I approve of everything the Turkish government does? That there is something about the metaphysical properties of Anatolia that I favor? That I just happen to like baklava and su boreği? I can tell you which academics and policy folks are hawkish on China and which ones are not, or which prominent DC thinktankers believe that the U.S. has been too tough on Russia since the end of the Cold War and which advocate for an even tougher approach, but I have never heard them labeled as pro-China and anti-China, or pro-Russia and anti-Russia. There is a reason when it comes to states, we generally do not define ourselves in relation to them as pro or anti.
That is, of course, unless we are talking about Israel. Everyone by now is familiar with the way that anyone with an opinion about anything having to do with Israel is immediately placed into one of two categories out of which it is increasingly difficult to escape. You are either pro-Israel or anti-Israel, and rarely is there room for a gray area. This relentless push to categorize comes from both sides, but in many ways it is actually driven by the pro-Israel camp. The stridently anti-Israel camp plays its role in this – and a quick perusal of the comments section of any foreign policy magazine article on Israel will quickly reveal the way the terms “pro-Israel” and “Zionist” are hurled as epithets – but it is the pro-Israel side that does a more thorough job of drawing boundaries. Politicians, pundits, journalists, and others are dubbed with the pro-Israel seal of approval, and those who are critical are dismissed as anti-Israel. While this is generally seen as a winning strategy, in many ways it actually does Israel more harm than good. As someone who firmly and unabashedly identifies with the pro-Israel camp, this 65th Yom Ha’atzmaut provides an occasion to reassess whether this marking of territory is actually productive.
The rush to proudly declare people and groups as pro-Israel harms Israel in two ways. The first is that it perpetuates a view of Israel as somehow different and as a country apart, and not in the sense of being a shining city on the hill but as a constant outsider. Israel is virtually the only country in the world in which its supporters press people to loudly declare this support, whether it be through large displays of strength in numbers like the annual AIPAC Policy Conference or through the omnipresent and explicit pro-Israel branding of Jewish groups and organizations. It reinforces a notion of Israel as an oddity and conveys a sense of insecurity among its supporters, as if without these constant reminders Israel would wither away. This is in no way to minimize the enormous security challenges that Israel faces, as the challenges facing Israelis are both real and constant. Nevertheless, as long as the world is forcefully divided into supporters and detractors, the normalcy that Israel craves will forever be elusive. Israel is not viewed as a normal state because its supporters do not allow it to be viewed as such. It is one thing to personally identify with Israel, and another to work to bring as many people into that same fold who have no real reason to identify with Israel any more than they would other Western democracies. The grassroots effort to get politicians to declare their undying love and support for Israel strikes an odd note to my ears, as I am unaware of any similar move by supporters of other countries. It creates a certain mystique surrounding the Jewish state that has some benefits but also some significant negative externalities. As someone who first visited Israel as a two year old, has been back nearly twenty times, and has spent a year living there, I know why I strongly identify with Israel and feel a deep personal connection to the country. Less clear to me is why it makes sense to encourage politicians with no real personal connection to Israel to express the same sentiment. The perception of strength that it creates is a false one that actually ends up backfiring.
Second, the pro-Israel delineation unnecessarily defines support for Israel according to an extremely high standard and creates a threshold that keeps people out who wouldn’t otherwise necessarily be so situated. For instance, if someone supports a strong relationship between the U.S. and Portugal, believes that the two should have tight military and diplomatic ties, would like to see visits by each country’s leader to the other’s country, but does not think that the U.S. should use its Security Council veto on Portugal’s behalf every time there is a resolution that unfavorably targets Portugal, we would say that this is a person who is favorably disposed toward Portugal. But because being “pro-Israel” implies a certain set of stances, including that the U.S. wield its veto in the Security Council to protect Israel from unfair treatment, someone who argues that Israel should have to fend for itself in the United Nations would find it difficult to gain the pro-Israel label. Similarly, someone who supports every public position advanced by AIPAC but also thinks that the U.S. should press Israel to return to the 1967 borders is guaranteed to be viewed as squishy when it comes to being pro-Israel because this position is seen as being outside the mainstream boundaries of what it means to be “pro-Israel.” The problem with this is that it consigns people who are sympathetic to Israel in most, but not all, situations to the outside of the club looking in, and in doing so alienates plenty of people who are inclined to give Israel more leeway than your average person. Marking boundaries strengthens in-group cohesion, but also makes your group smaller than it needs to be. It reminds me of the debate over whether having enumerated rights in the Constitution ends up being a good thing by clearly laying out lines that the government cannot cross, or actually unnecessarily limits the rights that citizens enjoy by implying that any rights not explicitly laid out do not exist.
If Israel is to ever be seen as just another country – and this would unmistakably be a good thing – the pro-Israel label needs to be left behind. When people no longer feel the need to shout their pro-Israel bonafides from the rooftops, it will be the proof that Israel has finally achieved normalcy, and that will do more for Israel’s security than a host of policy conferences will ever do. Let’s take the occasion of Israel’s Independence Day to rethink whether the term “pro-Israel” makes sense, and let people who are inclined to support Israel do it however they see fit.