As September came to a close Lord Heseltine, a man who held high office under Margaret Thatcher and John Major, appeared on the popular BBC primetime television program Question Time and promptly made a pronouncement that floored me.
The show had been focusing on the “snubs” shown British Prime Minister Gordon Brown by President Obama since the release of Lockerbie terrorist Abdelbasset Ali al-Megrahi from a Scottish jail. The question posed to the panel was whether the “special relationship” had been damaged.
Heseltine, his face filled with misery and rage, told the millions watching that there never actually was a special relationship, that it was a creation of some fanciful Britons, and that the only special relationship the United States has is with Israel. The way he vomited out “Israel” was special. It was a sort of “I am talking about human excrement” expression on his face. He added that the heinous behavior of Americans who supported the IRA added to the absence of a special relationship.
I decided to answer his lordship’s accusations in this op-ed in the form of a letter.
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Dear Lord Heseltine,
I understand you think there is no special relationship between the United States and Great Britain. Well, going back to the two world wars which were started by tribal, internecine strife among the peoples of Europe, the U.S. did not have to come in to bail you out. They could have chosen to remain isolationist and tell all sides to go to hell. Ten thousand young men buried at Omaha Beach and thirty thousand dead pilots commemorated at RAF Duxford, not to mention the thousands of American men remembered at Madingley cemetery, died to help keep Britain free from Hitler. The idea that there is no feeling of a bond between us is preposterous if not deeply hurtful.
From the day any American sets foot in England, many a conversation will invariably turn to “the guilt the United States must bear” for the atrocities committed on the British mainland by the Irish Republican Army. The participation of Noraid, the American organization in decades-long campaigns to end the Troubles, is seen by an overwhelming majority of Britons as a ruse to send funds and arms to the IRA. You were seething when you mentioned American support for the IRA. This is a fury I have seen many times. It cancels out any gratitude you Britons might wish to proffer for all the good America has done in the world.
Now we come to Israel: Why, your lordship, do you think the U.S. has a special relationship with Israel? First of all, the fact that in thirty-four years I have never been able to find a liver knish or kasha mit varnishkes anywhere in Britain is neither here nor there. The influence of Jews on British culture is negligible, whereas the positive aspects of Jewish culture that permeate American life are palpable. This, Lord Heseltine, has nothing to do with that horrendous, all-consuming, world menace Britons like to refer to as the “lobby.” Be it Jewish or Zionist, the lobby is perceived as a gigantic Beelzebub that seems to have a stranglehold on American policy. The bond is much more complex.
Just as Israelis celebrate Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) with barbecues and fireworks, so do Americans on July 4th. Just as Israelis observe the major festivals, so do Americans enjoy the four-day weekend feast of Thanksgiving. (All one has to do is see the African-American, Jewish, Latino, and Vietnamese families passionately organizing their respective turkey banquets in the film What’s Cooking? to appreciate the universality of American Thanksgiving.)
Israel, like the American colonies, spectacularly threw off British rule with considerable force and bloodshed. In Palestine, the departure of the British triggered the war initiated by the Arab countries against a tiny, ragtag Jewish state already in existence as a sovereign nation but with pitiful resources.
Americans feel a bond with a small country that excoriated the rule of a large colonial power. It is also of significance that the legacy of the Emma Lazarus “give me your tired, your poor” poetry runs parallel to the Israeli right-of-return laws. Nearly a million Soviet refugees have become Israeli citizens, as have hundreds of thousands of Jewish asylum seekers from numerous Muslim countries. The “nation of immigrants” concept appeals to Americans, their history books now acknowledging with sorrow the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Native Americans, just as Israelis, still painfully only one generation from the Holocaust, have been forced to reflect on the issue of displacement of indigenous peoples in 1948.
From the days of Benjamin Franklin, the American tradition of a free press has been its salvation; over and over again it has rescued the United States from the grips of its own folly, from slavery to Prohibition to the McCarthy witch hunts to the Vietnam War. It was the American press that exposed the Watergate scandal, saving the nation from endless pursuit of “dean’s list” subversives. Israel’s press has always been dynamic and brutally critical of its successive governments; in the Arab regimes nearby, such freedom would result in beheadings.
Israel and the United States afford women equal rights with men; women are not vassals of their husbands, nor must they be covered lest they be stoned to death.
The United States and Israel have a grand tradition of farming and technological advances. Like the American pioneers, the early Jewish immigrants turned a desert into an orchard under unspeakably harsh conditions and under constant attack from marauding Arabs (as did the pioneers in conflict with Native Americans). This unites the two countries in a bond that European critics cannot readily comprehend.
I could go on and on. If, Lord Heseltine, the U.S. has a special relationship with Israel then I sing that to the heavens. Would you rather Americans covet a special bond with Zimbabwe, Somalia, Venezuela, or Sudan?
Finally, your lordship, I suggest you look at a tape of recent years’ Emmy Awards. Presenters, nominees, and winners are often British. Gushing Americans fawn. If anything, it irks because I know only too well how hostile Britons can be to Yanks and how few Americans win prizes in British film, television, and theater competitions.
If you want to be helped in your darkest hours, Lord Heseltine, don’t insult your special friends. And next time your grandchild is saved from illness by a work of Israeli scientific genius, be grateful the Jewish state is supported by its friend across the pond.
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