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The Mideast Is America's New Wild West

A Bedouin camp in the Sahara Desert. (photo: jonl1973/ cc via flickr)Why the enduring "special relationship" between the U.S. and Israel? Cultural historians, who look at symbols and stories more than politics and policies, say a big part of it goes back to the late 1950s, when Leon Uris' novel Exodus reached the top of the bestseller list and was then turned into a blockbuster film, with an all-star cast headed by Paul Newman.

Scholar Rachel Weissbrod called it a "Zionist melodrama." M.M. Silver devoted a whole book to the phenomenon: Our Exodus, with the subtitle, The Americanization of Israel's Founding Story.

A preeminent historian of American Judaism, Jonathan Sarna, came closest to the truth in his blurb for Silver's book: Exodus "consciously linked brawny Zionist pioneers with the heroes of traditional American westerns." The protagonist, Ari ben Canaan ("lion, son of Canaan"), is the Jewish Shane, the cowboy of impeccable virtue who kills only because he must to save decent people -- especially the gentile woman he loves -- and civilize a savage land.

Screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (in his first outing after years of being blacklisted) did add a penultimate scene missing from the novel: Ari swears that someday Jews and Arabs will live together and share the land in peace. But then he heads off to fight those very Arabs. Who could resist rooting for Paul Newman, no matter how bad guys he was forced to wipe out? 

Just a year later the Israelis kidnapped, tried, and executed Nazi bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann. Who could resist seeing fiction come to life, with the increasingly common equation, Arabs = Nazis?

Thus cultural myth combined with historical event to set the stage for widespread support of the Johnson and Nixon administration's sharp pro-Israel tilt, when Israel went to war with its neighbors in 1967 and 1973.

I'm writing about this history now because it still lives, today (December 4), in our flagship newspaper, the New York Times.

The influential columnist Thomas Friedman tells us that the Middle East is a "merciless, hard-bitten region" where everyone is out to get everyone, and "it is vital to never let the other side think they can 'outcrazy' you" -- because the craziest people will be the most violent and thus the winners, one assumes. Apparently those Middle Easterners don't settle their differences politely and rationally, as we do here in "civilized" America.

Are you beginning to see the melodrama of old-fashioned Westerns yet? Wait, there's plenty more:

The Jews and the Kurds are among the few minorities that have managed to carve out autonomous spaces in the Arab-Muslim world because, at the end of the day, they would never let any of their foes outcrazy them; they did whatever they had to in order to survive, and sometimes it was really ugly, but they survived to tell the tale.

Today, just as in the days of Exodus, Israelis must be threatened, Friedman assumes, and they must be willing to be crazy killers to survive. In fact, it's this old mythic narrative that must survive.

Now the plot has been updated to make the Iranian part of " the Arab-Muslim world" the peril to Israel's very existence. (Friedman must have missed the episode of Homeland where Dana Brody informs her high-school classmates that Iranians are not Arabs, so there is no monolithic "Arab-Muslim world.")

Friedman is sure that all the reports of Iranian leader Ali Khamenei supporting the moderate president Hassani (even in the Times itself) are not to be trusted. As evidence, he cites three acts of mass killing attributed to "Iran and Hezbollah" two or three decades ago. For him, this is proof enough that "the Iranians will go all the way" in irrational slaughter and that "the dark core of this Iranian regime has not gone away. It’s just out of sight, and it does need to believe that all options really are on the table for negotiations to succeed."

How to show with "the dark core" at the heart of the "Arab-Muslim world" that we can be violently crazy too? Friedman nominates Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to do the job, to continue being "crazy" with "his Dr. Strangelove stuff and the occasional missile test." How else can we tame the savagery in the Wild West that we call the Middle East?

Well, that's the view from the authoritative moderate voice not only of our flagship newspaper but of the liberal foreign policy establishment here in the U.S.

What about the moderate view in Israel? The Times' website is now giving us that view from Shmuel Rosner, a veteran centrist Israel journalist who specializes in "the special relationship" between his nation and the U.S.

In his Dec. 4 column, Rosner writes about the controversy between the Israeli government and the "thousands of Israeli Bedouins and Arabs [who] staged demonstrations, some of them violent, against a government plan to resettle the Bedouins of the Negev desert." By the third paragraph of the column, you can't help feeling you are back in America's Wild West -- this time with the decent folk facing not crazy gunslingers but primitive "Injuns." 

Rosner hastens to tell us of the dreadful poverty of the Bedouins and shows his sympathy by asserting that their "community needs help to advance" -- help that can come, apparently, only from the civilized Israeli government. Bedouin communities are "more clusters of huts than real villages." Theirs is a historically nomadic society[,] and its relationship to land clashes with the state’s notion of ownership and its need for planned development. ... They claim the land as their own, based on a long history as its residents. They have no legal documents proving ownership, and the country has been reluctant to formalize their claims.

Why that reminds me of the early Puritan minister who opined that the natives' "land is spacious and void, and they are few and do but run over the grass, as do also the foxes and wild beasts." And the Jamestown settler who described the natives as "only an idle, improvident, scattered people, ignorant of the knowledge of gold, or silver, or any commodities."

John Winthrop, head of the Puritans' Massachusetts Bay Colony, explained that since the natives "inclose noe Land, neither have any settled habitation, nor any tame Cattle to improve the Land," the whites could take pretty much as much land as they wanted, leaving the natives just what his government deemed "sufficient for their use" -- which wasn't much at all, of course. No doubt he agreed with another Jamestown settler who said, "Our intrusion into their possession shall tend to their great good, and no way to their hurt, unlesse as unbridled beastes, they procure it to themselves."

Yes, America's Wild West myth started way back when all the whites lived in towns hugging the East coast, wanting only to do  "great good" for all those native "beasts."

In today's Israel, under the so-called Prawer Plan, "the government is ready to give the Bedouins title to some land." Their "clusters of huts" will be replaced with houses with running water and electricity and officially recognized as settlements.

There's just one catch: "Between 30,000 and 40,000 Bedouins will have to relocate to existing or new towns in the same area." That's why Bedouins and their supporters are protesting.

But, hey, Rosner urges us to believe, that will be in no way to their hurt (unless as unbridled beasts, they procure it to themselves, I suppose). And "Israel will also have to pay a high price." Not only will it give Bedouins land. "It will also spend considerable taxpayer money — about $2 billion for the entire effort, including over $330 million on economic development — to improve their living conditions ... bringing much-needed help to one of the country’s most disfavored groups."

The link will take you to the Israeli government's website, describing its "comprehensive policy aimed at improving [Bedouins'] economic, social and living conditions, as well as resolving long-standing land issues. ...  a major step forward towards integrating the Bedouin more fully into Israel's multicultural society, while still preserving their unique culture and heritage."

You might hear Ulysses S. Grant murmuring approval from the grave -- Grant being the president who did more than any other to promote the idea of putting native Americans on reservations to "improve their conditions." Maybe "The Great White Father" is now Jewish.

To be fair, the parallel is far from complete. The Israelis are not talking about "reservations" in the sense that Americans know them. And not even the most Orthodox Jews in Israel are talking about converting the Bedouins to Judaism. They don't have anyone like the Puritan missionary John Eliot, who created "praying towns" to bring Christian civilization to the indigenous people -- who were doomed, he said, if they continued to live "so unfixed, confused, and ungoverned a life, uncivilized and unsubdued to labor and order."

In fact many Orthodox Israelis reject the Prawer Plan as a giveaway to the indigenous people. One of their icons, Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman,called the situation simply "a battle for the land. .. .We are fighting for the national lands of the Jewish people." You might hear Andrew Jackson murmuring approval from the grave; after all, his USA was still "the New Israel."

Of course Jackson got huge resistance from whites for his Indian removal program. So does Liberman. Just as Americans long debated, sometimes fiercely, about "the Indian problem," Israelis now debate fiercely about "the Arab problem." Yet in the U.S. that debate gets little media attention. The media are more likely to oversimplify the issue, casting it through the lens of a centuries-old American mythology.  

That's why I've gone into such detail about these two Times columns -- not because there's anything extraordinary about them, but precisely because that they are so ordinary. It's just another typical day in American journalism's coverage of "our friend Israel versus the Arab-Muslim world." From the Times, the pinnacle of our journalism, these old Wild West stereotypes trickle down to all the rest of the media and thus to the public at large.

The particulars of Israeli policy toward Arabs are quite different from the specific ways the U.S. has dealt with its indigenous peoples. But the myths that shaped U.S. whites' attitudes toward native Americans for four centuries or more (and to some extent still do) are strikingly similar to the myths that shape American public attitudes toward Israel and "the Arab-Muslim" world.

Especially the conservative public. The old idea that "the Jews" are responsible for the U.S. government's pro-Israel tilt has been put to rest by recent polling data from CNNthe Huffington Post, and Pew. All show that, in the U.S., the strongest support for Israel’s right-wing policies now comes not from Jews but from Republicans.

That's especially true for white evangelical Christians. In one recent poll, 46% of those evangelicals said the U.S. is not supportive enough of Israel, while only 31% of Jews held that view. Half of the evangelicals said Israel could never coexist with an independent Palestinian state while only a third of Jews doubted it. 

But the conservative pressure on any U.S. president to tilt toward Israel -- a pressure Barack Obama feels every day -- isnot primarily a matter of religion. It's much more about a cultural affinity Americans have long felt for the story of Israel that they learned so long ago -- especially conservatives, who are most likely to love that story of the innocent good guys, who just want to civilize the wilderness, constantly threatened by "the dark core" of savage evildoers.

That's the story at the heart of the myth of insecurity so fundamental to political culture in both Israel and America. But in America the media rarely cast the native people as savages any more, at least not explicitly.

So perhaps many Americans are clinging to their old familiar myth vicariously by projecting it onto what Friedman calls the "merciless, hard-bitten" Middle East, where most everyone seems crazy -- if you accept the mass media's story as the truth. As I'm finishing this piece, the Times' website is featuring yet another in the endless string of frightening headlines, which all sound so much the same: "Jihadist Groups Gain in Turmoil Across Middle East." Meet the new news, same as the old news.

The only good news is that myths do change. For years the best historians have been describing a native American culture, going back to pre-contact days, that was fully as rational and advanced a civilization as the whites', and deserves to be understood on its own terms.

Indeed there's a persuasive theory that the British colonies of North America created pejorative myths about the native peoples to negate the lure of native ways, since so many immigrants found the natives' life more civilized -- and comfortable -- than the European life they'd brought across the sea. 

That more accurate story of the American past is beginning to filter into history textbooks that millions of students will read in the coming years. Some of them will become journalists who will eventually control and revise the story line in the mass media. So there's hope that, some day, a more accurate story of Arabs and other Muslim peoples will also find its way into our mass media, too.

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