Israel as a Litmus Test for Conservatives

It’s fascinating to witness the extent to which strong support for Israel has become a litmus test for conservative voters. For much of Israel’s existence, “the right,” broadly speaking, was hostile to Israel. Foreign policy wonks saw Israel as a barrier to friendly relations with needed Arab allies, traditional Midwestern conservative isolationism cautioned against entangling the U.S. in the Middle East, and one can’t discount the influence of anti-Semitism. But the realists have largely been written out of conservatism, Midwestern isolationism has given way to concern over the common enemy of Islamic fanaticism, and anti-Semitism is no more prevalent these days among conservatives than among liberals, with philo-Semitism likely more common among the former thanks to some significant shifts in evangelical Christian theology. So, just as one indication of the shift, in the last year I’ve seen several “support Israel” bumper stickers on cars accompanying either conservative or Christian (or both) bumper stickers, in various places around the U.S.

Meanwhile, Israel is becoming a problem for Ron Paul. Yesterday, an NPR report from New Hampshire included the views of a conservative New Hampshireite who loves Ron Paul views on just about everything, but can’t support him because of his lack of support for Israel. ABC News reports on a town meeting in Webster City, Iowa, in which “Paul took a question from a member of the audience who urged him to ‘tell everyone that you love Israel.'” Indeed, it seems that there may be a larger (numerically but not proportionately) base of non-Jewish conservatives that make Israel a litmus test issue than of American Jews.

Interestingly enough, my take on Paul’s campaign is that it appeals to libertarians, but also to a previously quiescent group in American politics, the sort of folks who dominated the American right before the Goldwater campaign. These folks had generally libertarian views on the scope of federal power, but combined it with a populist suspicion of elites, a suspicion of foreigners that led to hostility to immigration, free trade, and foreign policy entanglements (all of which Paul, in practice, opposes), lack of empathy for American minority groups, and a penchant for conspiracy theories. Paul’s record of lack of sympathy for Israel, which goes well beyond his distaste for foreign aid and alliances (e.g.), is fully consistent with his appeal to that base but is apparently becoming a real barrier to his gaining traction among conservatives, so much so that he has lately been trying to portray himself as a true friend of Israel.

I’m not going to open comments on this one, just because I simply can’t stomach reading the type of comments that a post like this typically brings out, especially the wildly ignorant “the evangelicals only support Israel as a prelude to the Second Coming at which time all the Jews will be massacred” meme.

UPDATE: On the latter issue, I commented back in 2006:

If you’re thinking, “they just want to help Israel because they think it will hasten the coming of Battle of Armaggedon,the Rapture, and the conversion/death of all the Jews,” get over it, it just ain’t so. I’ve corresponded with quite a few evangelical supporters of Israel, as well as former evangelicals familiar with the movement, and all agree that the percentage who support Israel for that reason is tiny (equivalent, perhaps, to the Jewish meshuggahs who want to imminently build the Third Temple on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem), though if you read liberal Jewish sources you would come away convinced that it’s 99% of them.

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