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Lecture Series Explores the History and Current State of the US–Israel Relationship

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Written by Joshua Goetz, the UCLA Nazarian Center's 2022–23 Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow

Written by Joshua Goetz, the UCLA Nazarian Center's 2022–23 Harry C. Sigman Graduate Fellow


During the Fall 2022 Quarter, the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies organized a three-part lecture series on the US–Israel relationship. This series featured three experts, each of whom had differing perspectives on the relationship and had recently published a book on the topic. Each lecture was followed by a conversation between the speaker and Professor Dov Waxman, Director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center, and a Q&A session with the audience members. The hybrid series—with one in-person lecture and two webinars—was a great success for the Center, and produced insightful discussions and thought-provoking audience Q&As. All three authors were faced with more questions from their audience than they had time to answer.


The first speaker, Professor David Tal, discussed his book The Making of an Alliance: The Origins and Development of the US–Israel Relationship. Tal assumed an idealist approach when describing the “special relationship,” emphasizing how the “constant” variables of history, values, and religion have come into conflict with—and almost invariably triumphed over—the “ephemeral” strategic interests of the United States. Had the Americans only followed strategic interests, Tal argued, they would have sided with the Arab states over Israel throughout most of the 1900’s. He argued that the idealist approach more accurately described American policy towards Israel than the strategic-oriented realist approach or the wildly controversial “Israel lobby” theory. He downplayed the importance of the Israel lobby by pointing to evidence showing how Israel has always occupied a special place in the mind of the average American, even before money from major Jewish donors started flowing into US elections. He also explained that, despite many pundits arguing that certain American administrations constituted “low points” for the US–Israel relationship, there was really no difference between presidential administrations in their treatment of Israel. All US Presidents, no matter their background or party affiliation, have treated Israel especially well, and Tal argues that this will not change as long as the “constants” remain the same. You can watch the recording of this webinar on our website.


The second speaker, Professor Walter Russel Mead, delivered an in-person lecture on his book The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, at the UCLA Fowler Museum’s Lenart Auditorium. Mead’s description of the relationship focused heavily on modern European history and Christianity. When highlighting the lack of Jewish agency in the creation of the State of Israel, he joked about the temptation to subtitle his book “Don’t blame Israel on the Jews.” In this vein, Mead dismissed the Israel Lobby’s role, comparing those who search for the lobby’s hand in American foreign policy to 1840’s astronomers who searched for the nonexistent Planet Vulcan. In addition, Mead pointed out that in both Europe and the United States, Zionism emerged with the backing of Christians and little support from the Jewish populations. He also discussed how the exclusionary American immigration policy of the early 1900’s helped ensure that Jews fleeing Europe were forced into Palestine by process of elimination—not because it was their first choice to relocate. Mead also brought up a number of other interesting points: it was, in fact, Stalin, not Truman, who saved Israel from stillbirth in the late 1940’s; Israel played a large role in the rise of evangelicals in American politics; democratization in Arab countries would likely increase antisemitism in the Middle East; and, unlike the plight of the Palestinians, the plight of Mizrahi Jews kicked out of Arab countries after Israel’s establishment is given neither consideration nor empathy from the international community. You can watch the recording of this in-person event on our website.


The third lecture featured Eric Alterman, author of We Are Not One: A History of America's Fight Over Israel. Alterman took a different approach to describing the relationship, focusing almost entirely on the domestic debate within the United States and the divisions among the Jewish people. Alterman identified these prominent divisions as American Jews vs. Israeli Jews, German–American Jews vs. Russian–American Jews, and Jews who prioritize Zionism over liberalism vs. Jews that prioritize liberalism over Zionism. The latter division is perhaps the most important in American politics today, as it explains the vast divide between conservative-backed, pro-Israel organizations like AIPAC and the largely left-leaning Jewish public they are supposed to represent. Alterman detailed how Jewish identity is now centered around loving and supporting Israel, as well as remembering the Holocaust, and illustrated how neither of these are particularly appealing to young American Jews. Alterman also disagreed strongly with Mead, especially over the role of the Israel Lobby. He emphasized how powerful the lobby is and criticized Mead for ignoring it as a key factor in the relationship between the two countries. Alterman also waded into debates about antisemitism and devoted time to discussing more recent developments in the US–Israel relationship, such as the rise of the BDS movement (which he is critical of) on college campuses, the addition of Israel Studies programs to universities, and the introduction of Palestinian narratives into the American media. You can watch the recording of this webinar on our website.