“America First” Conservatives Declare: “Actually, We Meant Israel First”

After the conclusion of the Derek Chauvin trial a few weeks ago, it became apparent that across the worlds of culturally left/liberal US corporations, non-profits, academia, professional sports, and electoral politics, certain slogans were mandatory to recite. The phrase “There Is Still Much Work To Be Done,” or some slight variation thereof, was repeated ad nauseam by politicians, CEOs, and other public-facing individuals who had the misfortune of being obliged to release a statement under the circumstances. You’d almost think some creepy blackmail-esque memo had been distributed with an attached script so that these people could swiftly complete the requisite PR task.

Whenever there’s an outbreak of deadly violence in Israel-Palestine, a very similar dynamic plays out; although in this instance it’s concentrated in different sectors of society. While a handful of Republicans joined in on the “Much Work To Be Done” refrain after the Chauvin trial, cultural left/liberals comprised the largest share of offenders. Now though, it’s time for public-facing conservative figures — joined by a sizable portion of liberals — to mindlessly recite the same slogans and phrases over and over again as a signaling mechanism and, conveniently, a substitute for even a modicum of independent thinking.

Usually the formulation is to triumphantly proclaim that so-and-so person, place, or thing “stands with” Israel. Like the state of Arkansas “stands with Israel,” or Rep. Dusty Johnson of South Dakota “stands with Israel,” or some random New York State Senator “stands with Israel.” What it means to “stand with” a foreign military force is seldom precisely defined — no one appears to be physically standing, for one thing. This incantation is quickly followed by a rote affirmation that Israel has a “right to defend itself,” as if that’s responsive at all to the actual details of the situation unfolding. 

Marvel at these manifestations of searing, critical thought:

To the extent most Democrats are any different, they’ll deign to add cursory concern for civilian casualties or a vague call for proportionality.

And while it’s true that a vocal minority of elected Democrats have deviated from this “pro-Israel” consensus, there’s still not nearly enough to meaningfully affect policy or alter the status quo in anything but rhetoric. The most vocally Israel-critical members of Congress — Ilhan Omar foremost among them — are those already used as boogeymen by Republicans, which likely polarizes Republican attitudes even more in the “pro-Israel” direction. Either way, the Democratic Administration of Joe Biden has given the Israeli government a green light to do as they wish in the current military offensive. So if you’re yearning for bipartisan cooperation in this age of acrimony, your heart should be fluttering with glee.

Whenever these rote recitations are systematically rolled out — “stand with” blah blah blah, “right to defend” blah blah blah — you can bet that the person doing the reciting has barely bothered to give any original thought to the wider conflict, including the role of the United States. Rather, his or her intention is to affirm blanket approval for anything the Israeli military wants to do. These slogans are not responsive to the question of whether it’s defensible for the Israeli military to flatten entire apartment buildings in densely-packed areas using provisions furnished by US taxpayers, or decimate entire residential blocks into rubble. The “right to defend itself” mantra just glosses over all that, reducing the whole matter to a kind of meaningless nostrum. 

Despite the raging ideological schism that’s supposedly roiling the GOP, ostensibly between reviled “neocons” and the new wave of principled “America First” reformers, you will find virtually no difference whatsoever on this issue between say, Liz Cheney and the hardcore MAGA stalwarts who just agitated to oust her from the GOP House leadership, like Lauren Boebert. This is unsurprising because MAGA stalwarts are huge fans of Donald Trump, and Trump himself repeatedly bragged about being the most pro-Israel president of all time. (With “pro-Israel” essentially meaning: subsidize and cheerlead whatever the Israeli government desires to do, and then leverage that policy to generate domestic US political support among certain demographics.) 

As such, the same sorts of “America First” people who bleat about how much they want to End Endless Wars — always easy to say in the abstract — will then turn around and declare unflinching, conditions-free support for the war-making activities of a foreign state. Even the small handful of edgy, heavily-online right-wing personalities who profess to be antagonistic toward Israel nonetheless see no contradiction between this professed antagonism and their furious efforts to keep Trump in power — a president who received massive sums of money from the now-deceased hardline pro-Israel megadonor Sheldon Adelson, tried to publicly cajole Benjamin Netanyahu into backing him in the 2020 election, and so on. Overall, Trump was indeed the most ardently, devotedly pro-Israel president at least in recent history, surpassing even his GOP predecessor George W. Bush on that score.

With few and marginal exceptions, right-wing figures who declare themselves to be so against foreign entanglements on the basis of some half-formed “America First” ideology have zero qualms about the status quo of the US-Israel relationship — particularly the $3.8 billion per year in direct US taxpayer-funded military aid that flows to the country. Israel is the largest recipient of such aid, so it’s Israel which comes in “first” in that regard. (The budget Trump signed into law in 2019 allocated more money to Israel than to the US Southern border wall.) Right-wing figures who claim to want to “stay out” of foreign conflicts which don’t impinge on the US national interest frequently fail to recognize that the US is already effectively a co-belligerent in this conflict. 

State-subsidized US weapons manufacturers are currently providing the materials with which Israel is pummeling the densely-packed Gaza, a besieged and blockaded occupied territory. Some of these same people will sloganeer as opponents of the “military-industrial complex” while simultaneously coming up with all kind of convoluted explanations for how these military-industrial complex-enriching transactions are just swell: 

The above chart is from a Congressional Research Service report dated November 16, 2020. It adds: “Israel is the largest recipient of US Foreign Military Financing.” Some other facts:

  • “With U.S. co-production, around 60%-70% of the components of the Tamir interceptor [Iron Dome missile defense capability] are now manufactured in the United States before final assembly in Israel.”

  • “In October 2020, the United States and Israel conducted their third Enduring Lightning joint aviation exercise using the F-35. American and Israeli pilots trained together to counter both surface and air adversaries, while supporting units assisted with refueling, radar, and opponent simulations.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that the US is functionally Israel’s allied combatant. If you’re in favor of the US acting as a co-belligerent alongside Israel on the basis of whatever political/theological/strategic rationale, then OK. But stop pretending this is remotely consistent with wanting to disengage from wasteful foreign wars.

And even if you’re also for some reason in favor of elected officials declaring unflinching support for the aggressive military activity of a foreign state, you’d think at least a handful of these politicians could come up with something resembling a unique take that reflects considered autonomous thought. Instead, they repeat taglines and slogans. Sure, leftists who support “Palestine liberation” primarily as a cultural/social fad often do the same; but it’s far less consequential because Israel is a client state of the US, and the policy decisions of the US Congress have a direct impact on Israel’s ability to carry out its military offensives.

Within conservative circles, there is the additional factor of apocalyptic Christian devotees who support Israel based on their belief that the Rapture will soon commence and Jesus will return to that particular piece of land. If that’s your belief, OK. Then just say it, so the veracity of that viewpoint can be debated. Republican elected officials driven by this eschatological theology, however, are usually more inclined to employ the obvious ruse of claiming a dispassionate position on Israel’s “right to self-defense.” 

As former American Conservative writer Daniel Larison correctly observed, “this invocation of the right of self-defense is an all-purpose permission slip that gives any Israeli military action a stamp of approval.” No one would object in the abstract to the idea that X has a “right to defend itself.” But that’s not responsive to actual details of the situation at hand. This mantra has been chanted robotically in relation to every Gaza war, by presidents of both parties, ever since I’ve been a sentient being. And never does it address the immiseration of a tiny strip of land that most inhabitants can’t leave, with 50% unemployment, a wrecked infrastructure, and few resources.

To his credit, GOP Congressman Chris Stewart of Utah did try out a bit of a new twist in vowing his eternal support for this foreign state’s military tactics. He claimed that taking anything but a hardline “pro-Israel” position must be a function of “social-justice ideology,” with the implication being that if you’re not super into all the latest virtue-signaling around racial and gender issues in the US, you have no reason to take exception to the Israeli government’s conduct vis-a-vis the Palestinian territories. It’s a clever pivot on Stewart’s part, but also outlandishly stupid. Because while the cause of “Palestine liberation” is definitely a longstanding priority of left-wing activists, it’s not an inextricably left-wing issue. Pat Buchanan and Ron Paul are far from anyone’s idea of snowflake Social Justice Warriors, but they’ve been vehemently critical of US policy toward Israel, with both having identified Gaza as an Israeli-run “concentration camp.” The pathologies of contemporary US left-wing activism need not distract from a rational evaluation of the situation.

Instead of attempting to reconcile themselves with these contradictions, most putative “America First” types are content to just recite the mandated slogans, because these are the same slogans that the colleagues, donors, and lobbyists by whom they are surrounded are reciting. In this way, they’re not so different from the brainlessly “woke” corporate PR flacks they love to mock.