Nine Remarkable Similarities between America and Israel; and One Critical Difference

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At first glance, the title of this essay seems a bit absurd. An assertion that the United States and Israel are alike is rather easy to refute. They are countries of vastly different size, geography and climate. Their languages are unrelated. One was founded as a haven for people seeking freedom; the other as a refuge for the Jewish people. Their ethnic communities are dissimilar, as are their structures of government, the nature of their courts, how their militaries are populated, not to mention the hospitality – or lack thereof – of their neighbors. The role and place in the world that each occupies bear little resemblance to one another.

Nevertheless, there are some remarkable similarities. I shall describe them and then point out a critical difference. The point of this exercise – aside from highlighting the amazing ways that these two strikingly different countries resemble each other – is to explain how the one critical difference might outweigh in importance the myriad similarities; and how, as a consequence of that difference, the little country might serve to lead the bigger one back to a more righteous path.

Here are the similarities:

  1. Biblical society. The US and Israel are both what I would call “biblical societies” – in the following sense. The Bible, the Old Testament represents a deal that the ancient Israelis made with God more than three thousand years ago – a deal which, incidentally, they viewed as binding on their descendants. The Jews would obey all of God’s commandments and in so doing bring holiness to the world and be a light unto the nations, thus serving God’s purpose of having mankind perfect the world. In return God would make the Jews a great nation that would enjoy peace and prosperity. Israel is the modern fulfillment of that biblical pledge. America has trod a similar path. Namely, a quarter millennium ago, the young Americans made a deal with themselves – a deal that they also viewed as binding on their descendants. The Bible in this case was the Constitution. The people pledged to live according to the rules set forth in the sacred document. In return they would receive lives of peace, freedom, prosperity and moral honor. They and their children would continue to know the blessing of freedom.
  2. Abrogating the founding deal. Regarding the Jewish ‘deal,’ it is easy to argue that neither side (neither the Jews, nor God) has kept his end of the bargain very well. As for the American deal, we did a fairly good job of honoring it for a long time. But now we are in the process of abrogating it.
  3. Born in blood.Both nations gained their independence throughwar.
  4. Prominent part of western civilization. Both countries are prominent outposts of western civilization – that is, societies manifesting: democratic institutions, rule of law, an independent judiciary, citizen’s rights guaranteed by founding documents, a devotion to individual liberty, an open and vigorous culture, and tolerance for minority viewpoints.
  5. Capitalistic. Both enjoy prosperity stemming from a capitalistic economic system. It took the Israelis two generations to figure it out, whereas it’s in the American DNA. Actually, it’s in the Jewish people’s DNA too, but the Israelis needed some time to get over the misguided biases of their socialist founders.
  6. Multicultural. For America this is obvious. For Israel, even though the population is overwhelmingly Jewish, the ethnic backgrounds among the populace (even within each of the two broad Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities) are remarkably diverse.
  7. Nation of immigrants. This is clear in both instances, and is perhaps the most obvious similarity between the two nations.
  8. Innovative and entrepreneurial people. This has been one of the most salient features of the US from its founding (as described, for example, by de Tocqueville). It took a while for the government to get out of the way in Israel, but once it did, the entrepreneurial spirit of the Israeli citizenry exploded.
  9. Bulls-eye on the back. Would that it weren’t so, but both societies are in the cross hairs of the most malevolent movements afoot in the world. Generally, those with their finger on the trigger tend to be Arab fundamentalists, but there is no shortage of other bad actors (radical Islamists, Persian mullahs, the Castro brothers and various South American despots) who profess enmity toward both countries.

In sum, it is really quite astounding. I venture the reader will find it difficult to name another country whose components match those of the United States in as many ways as does Israel’s. The obvious candidates, for example Great Britain, Canada, Australia, perhaps France, share a great many common features and bonds with the United States: language, common history, allies in war, trading partners. But they also lack a few key aspects that define the US/Israel bond: biblical society, born in blood, nation of immigrants, bulls-eye on the back.

So I think that the first glance was misleading. There is an inherent symbiosis between the two nations that is unmistakable. Alas, the current US administration seems to be blind to that fact. Of course, that is not the only perversion characteristic of the Obama administration. Leaving aside its maltreatment of the vast majority of Americans, it has also turned its back to Britain, Poland and the Czech Republic, and largely ignored our other traditional allies. At the same time, it cozies up to the Muslim Brotherhood, Putin – the Czar-wannabee, the Iranian mullahs and every tin pot South American dictator. Fortunately, the overwhelming majority of Americans are cognizant – even if only subliminally – of the unshakable bonds between Israel and the United States. Opinion polls and actions of Congress confirm this. The bonds of affection – based on the similarities I have identified – between the peoples of the US and of Israel will survive Obama. Of course, that is provided the United States of America survives Obama.

Now what is the critical difference? It has to do with the second item – abrogation. Sad to say, but the people of the US seem to be losing faith in the fundamental ethos or creed that unified the nation at its birth and for two centuries thereafter. The election of Barack Obama – twice – bears poignant testimony to that loss of faith. If the loss of faith continues – mirroring what has been happening in Western Europe for the last 60 years – then America, as we have known it, is doomed.

So where is the difference here? I identified the act of abrogation in Israel as one of the similarities to the United States. Ah, but there is a catch. The abrogation is by the Jewish people worldwide with the tenets of Judaism. There is virtually no analogous abrogation going on by the Israeli people with the basic tenets of its creed. Admittedly, Judaism – the religion of the Jewish people and of course of the Jewish inhabitants of Israel – is part of that creed. Moreover, it is true that the majority of Israelis do not practice Orthodox Judaism. But of those who do not, the vast majority are not alienated from it – as are many (maybe most) secular Jews in the Diaspora. And the significant portion of the population that does practice the religion is treated with respect and admiration by the overall populace in Israel. More importantly, the other components of Israel’s founding ethos are alive and well: belief in the nationhood of the Jewish people (Zionism), its language, culture, history, ideals and ethics. I have lived there twice and I can testify to the differences between the US and Israel on that score.

Allow me to cite one minor, but telling example. For most Americans, too many national holidays (Labor Day, New Years, President’s Day, MLK Day – even Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day to some extent) are merely excuses to take off of work and go shopping. The holiday’s content, steeped in American history and culture, is ignored to a surprising extent. On the other hand, in Israel, every holiday is based on either Israeli history or Jewish history and religious festivals. Every holiday is celebrated – even by the most secular Israelis – in relation to its meaningful content. People may go to the beach, but they also go to Synagogue and pay homage to the Israeli and Jewish history that affords the holiday its meaning.

Israelis, unlike too many Americans, have not lost faith in the founding ethos, basic creed and ultimate national purpose of their homeland. The love of country and the willingness to defend and promote it is extremely strong throughout the country. The people of America would do well to pay attention to this aspect of Israeli society. Such faith enables Israel to carry on and prosper despite the enormous obstacles that her neighbors – indeed that the whole ‘international community’ – strew in her path. It might help America if its citizens were to re-pledge allegiance to the idea of American Exceptionalism – which heretofore enabled the US to be a beacon of freedom to the world and a boon to all mankind. If we inspect the valor and faith that Israelis exhibit in defense and pursuit of their Zionist dream, it might inspire us to rekindle our own faith in the value of our nation’s historic role in the pursuit of human freedom, both at home and abroad.

Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, writes about politics, culture, education, science and sports at http://ronlipsman.com. Follow him on Twitter @rlipsman

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