The confirmation process for those slated to guide American foreign policy can profitably be used to clear up at least one point of confusion. What’s at issue is not the degree of their affection for Jews or for Israel—despite the consternation caused by the nomination for defense secretary of Chuck Hagel, who said in 2006: “The Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here, but I’m a United States senator. I’m not an Israeli senator.”
The Nebraskan’s imputation of excessive Jewish influence in Washington is less worrisome than his failure to recognize why the “lobby” exists. Never mind the Jews: Opposition to Israel camouflages a much more virulent hostility to America. How does an American statesman assess the anti-Jews who attack Israel as a proxy for this country?
Let’s start with basics: The cause of the long-running Arab war against the Jewish homeland is not Israel, it is Arab leaders’ need for war against a “foreign intruder.” Seven Middle East countries rallied their citizens by forming the Arab League in 1945 to prevent the creation of Israel. Failing in that effort, the Arab League eventually expanded to 21 members, which organized their domestic and foreign politics against the Jewish state. When Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979, Egypt was suspended from the league, expelled from the Islamic Conference and ousted from other regional and financial institutions. Re-admission for Egypt came only after the assassination of Sadat and his successor’s abrogation of almost every term of the treaty.
Opposition to Israel is the only glue of pan-Arabism and the strongest common bond of otherwise warring Muslim constituencies. Even those inclined to end the war are afraid of the consequences (including assassination) of giving up hostilities.
Like the anti-Semitism from which it derives, anti-Zionism is less about the Jews than about the larger aims of those aggressing against the Jews. When the League of Anti-Semites formed in Germany in the 1870s, its primary goal was to prevent the spread of liberal democracy. Rather than denounce a freer, more open society, the league called democracy the ruse that allowed Jews to conquer Germany from within.
In the same way, anti-Zionism today unites conservatives and radicals in the Middle East against all that Israel represents—religious pluralism, individual rights and freedoms, liberal democracy, and Western ideas of progress. Jews and Israel are merely a convenient face or emblem for the huger bastions of those same ideals. Israel, “little Satan,” is a handier target than the “big Satan.”
The Arab war against Israel has cost thousands of Jewish lives, but its damage to Palestinians is arguably greater, destroying the moral fabric of a society that was once relatively prosperous and culturally advanced. Anti-Jewish politics works by misdirection, drawing attention away from real concerns toward the alleged Jewish violator. Thus, Arab leaders who tried to deny Jews their country accused Jews of denying Arabs their country. To make the charge stick, the leaders have kept Palestinian Arabs in perpetual refugee status while millions of other refugees around the world—including 800,000 Jews from Arab lands—were resettled and started their lives anew.
Many societies have identified Jews as the threatening alien, but Palestinian Arabs are the first people ever to shape their national identity exclusively around opposition to the Jews. The special ingredient that sets Palestinian nationalism apart from that of surrounding Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan—and reputedly makes it the strongest form of Arab nationalism—is the usurpation of Jewish symbols and history. The most important date in the Palestinian calendar is not any Arab or Muslim holiday or event, but the day of Israel’s founding, commemorated as Nakba, the catastrophe that ostensibly spurred the creation of Arab Palestine. Commemorated as “Palestine’s endless Holocaust,” Nakba simultaneously libels the Jewish homeland and demeans the Shoah by appropriating the Nazi genocide of Europe’s Jews.
A new logo for the Palestinian political party Fatah claims the entire map of Israel. Fatah’s rival, Hamas, is led by Khalid Mashaal, who recently called for the liberation of “Gaza today and tomorrow Ramallah and after that Jerusalem then Haifa and Jaffa.” Clearly, both factions remain more intent on destroying their neighbor than on bettering Palestinian lives.
A perfumer in Gaza has named his new fragrance “M-75″ after the “pleasant and attractive” missiles used by Hamas to attack Israel. A Facebook FB -0.83% page for Fatah shows a mother strapping her child into a suicide belt; when he asks his mother why him and not her, the mother says that she must bear more children to sacrifice for Palestine. Civil war in Syria, turmoil in Egypt, crisis in Iran and an Islamist threat to Jordan—all follow from the same ruinous politics of grievance and blame.
Chuck Hagel does not have to like Jews, but if he expects to defend the United States, he needs to understand the nature and scope of the war against Israel, including its corrupting effect on Arab societies. The alignment between Israel and America is dictated by those who burn the flags of both countries on the same pyre. By contrast, those who lobby for Israel’s protection axiomatically have America’s back.
Ms. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of “Jews and Power” (Schocken, 2007).
A version of this article appeared Jan. 17, 2013, on page A17 in some U.S. editions of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: What the ‘Lobby’ Knows About Animus for Israel.