Opinion: What did you hear when Mike Pence spoke to the Knesset?

How did any sentiments such as Pence’s words on Jewish rights or even a recognition of the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital come to be seen as just another front in America’s increasingly bitter partisan wars?

By: Jonathan S. Tobin/JNS.org

In Monday’s New York Times, columnist Max Fisher treated Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Israel as just another expression of what he considers the divisive policies of the Trump administration. Even before Pence gave a rousing speech to the Knesset, Fisher wrote that Trump’s approach to the Middle East conveyed what he called “a particularly American notion of being ‘pro-Israel.’” Trump and Pence’s stances on Jerusalem and the peace process were, he wrote, rooted in the “us versus them” American identity politics of evangelicals that liberals view with disdain.

To this way of thinking, Pence’s instinctive identification with America’s only democratic ally in the region, his robust support for Israel’s right to exist, its claim on its ancient capital Jerusalem and the need for its opponents to come to terms with these facts is just another version of the Trump administration’s immigration policies or its views on abortion.

What Trump and Pence’s critics get wrong

But what Trump and Pence’s critics get wrong is not so much their critique of the details of their policies as it is their resistance to the notion that America’s love for Israel is rooted in its religious heritage as well as its national interests.

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How did any sentiments such as Pence’s words on Jewish rights or even a recognition of the fact that Jerusalem is Israel’s capital come to be seen as just another front in America’s increasingly bitter partisan wars?

Is it really the fault of Republicans or Christian conservatives?

Or is rather that some on the left have come to embrace intersectionality—a view of the world in which Israel is falsely accused of being a colonial power oppressing a group that is identified as the moral equivalent of those who are made to suffer because of their race, gender or sexual preference? For the growing numbers who subscribe to this view, Israel is just another front in the great divide between left and right in which Pence’s stands are easily demonized.

But no matter how you feel about Trump, Pence or the views of evangelicals on social issues, what is really troubling about the way some left-wingers are so quick to lash out at the administration’s stands in such a way as to demonize normative pro-Israel positions.

Reality check needed

The reality check needed here is not for the administration and its supporters but for those so deeply identified with the “resistance,” which made its voice heard last weekend in marches around the country, that anything the president or vice president say on any subject must somehow be shoehorned into a narrative about how awful they are.

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There was nothing particularly controversial in either the president’s remarks on Jerusalem last month or Pence’s speech Monday from the point of view of the pursuit of peace. Neither Trump nor Pence precluded a two-solution or even a re-division of Jerusalem in order to accommodate a Palestinian capital if that was part of a peace plan accepted by both sides.

Support of Israel part of US political culture

It was significant that Pence quoted George Washington and John Adams in his Knesset speech. Few American Jews know that the first US president to endorse a Jewish state wasn’t Harry Truman or anyone else in the 20th century. It was Adams, the nation’s first vice president and second president. That demonstrates just how far back into America’s political history backing for Zionism goes. That vast numbers of Americans are inspired by the Bible to support Jewish rights in their ancient homeland isn’t so much a function of the left-right conflict as it is an integral part of the nation’s political culture. Those turned off by Pence’s rhetoric need to ask what exactly it is about a desire to respect Jewish rights and demand that Palestinians give up their century-old war on Zionism that annoys them so much.

Nor is there anything intrinsically right-wing or crazy about Pence’s declaration that the Iran nuclear deal must be renegotiated to end the sunset clauses that will enable Tehran to legally seek a weapon once the accord expires within a decade. President Barack Obama vowed to end Iran’s nuclear program and never to allow Iran to obtain a bomb, but the only way those promises can be fulfilled are by the measures Trump and Pence advocate.

For those who can’t listen to anything coming out of this administration without re-interpreting it through the lens of the resistance, Pence’s moving comments about the ties between America and Israel may seem like a creepy conservative plot against liberal values. But if that’s how you heard it, the problem isn’t in Pence’s rhetoric, but in a rejection of a belief that the overwhelming majority of American still rightly view as a consensus issue.