In 1958, Edward Lawson, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, delivered a check to Israeli diplomat Baruch Ben-Yehuda for the construction of a theater in Tel Aviv. In the National Archives at College Park, you can find a photo memorializing the moment. And another one. And another one. And then a whole series of them.
Each plainly staged photo, said Shaul Mitelpunkt, a historian at the University of York in the United Kingdom, illustrates elements of the Israeli-American relationship that have lasted to the present day: The United States eagerly showing off its patronage and the Israelis dutifully playing their part, though wary of looking weak.
These dynamics, the shifting perception of Israel in America and the way Israel has manipulated that perception to its advantage are the topics of Mitelpunkt’s new book, “Israel in the American Mind,” which he discussed Feb. 5 at American University.
“Gratitude,” said Mitelpunkt, “was not natural [for the Israelis], but rather a labored effort. It was choreographed, something to sweat over.”
Mitelpunkt described the relationship during three periods: from 1958 to 1967, from the Six-Day War in 1967 to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and then from the end of the Vietnam War in the mid-‘70s through the ‘80s, which is where his book ends.
Israelis knew from the start that managing what Americans saw of Israel was crucial, Mitelpunkt said. So they deployed a system of propaganda aimed at the Americans, cultivating an image of the “plucky upstart” citizen-soldier state. It manifested itself in both Western and Israeli media. Mitelpunkt pointed to the 1958 novel “Exodus” by American Leon Uris, followed by the 1960 movie version.
Both were so important to the Israeli government that it called its efforts to curate Uris’ and then the filmmakers’ experiences “Operation Exodus.” They also offered massive filming subsidies. In the end, it all paid off, said Mitelpunkt, with the movie becoming a smashing success painting Israel as what he called a noble, “worthy, citizen-soldier society.”
Meanwhile, domestic Israeli films were showing another side of the power dynamic between the two nations. In the 1961 Israeli film “I Like Mike,” a poor Tel Aviv cabdriver’s wife wants to marry her daughter to Mike, a young American millionaire visiting Israel. The young woman, though, ends up falling for an Israeli officer and moves to be with him on his kibbutz.
The message of the film: Israelis didn’t need to rely on American benevolence, Mitelpunkt said.
He argued that American views on Israel changed slightly after the Six-Day War in 1967. Not only was the military victory seen in the United States as decisive, it was also a perfect contrast with the ongoing American quagmire in Vietnam.
After 1967, the number of foreign journalists in Israel more than doubled, according to Mitelpunkt. And once again, the Israeli government was keen to capitalize on the exposure, embedding foreign reporters with hand-picked military units whose members would speak of Israeli unity and desire to protect the Jewish state.
In 1973, though, things changed again. The Yom Kippur War showed Israel caught by surprise by invading Arab armies. The dissent in Israel that followed, revealed an image less of a “citizen-soldier utopia” and more of a “war-weary Spartan society,” said Mitelpunkt.
And American media and government were once again eager to use the opportunity to reframe the relationship, positioning the United States as a neutral, authoritative referee in peace negotiations with the Arab states and over Palestinian territories, culminating in the President Jimmy Carter-led Camp David Accords in 1978.
This is the paradigm the Israeli-American relationship has been largely operating under since, Mitelpunkt argued. One in which Israeli leaders work to maintain a strong relationship, but domestically like to prove their independence from American influence.
“As futile as the American-managed peace process has been over the past decade, it did allow American leaders to assume the posture of compassionate, benevolent statesman,” Mitelpunkt said.
Despite their efforts, American administrations have not been able to slow Israeli settlement expansion. Meanwhile, American aid continues to flow and neither major American party seeks a change in overall posture toward Israel.
At the same time, Israeli leaders attempt to maintain an upper hand with its powerful protector. Mitelpunkt pointed to a 2001 video in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “I know what America is. America is a thing you can move very easily, move it in the right direction.”
“Even though the U.S. has so often served Israeli interests, Israelis like to mock Americans when possible domestically,” Mitelpunkt said. “And boast to their constituents that they know how to resist American pressure.”