The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia

As a kid, I was a big admirer of Israel.* I kept a scrapbook on the Yom Kippur War in 1973. Back then, Israel was America’s plucky ally, David against Goliath, helping to keep the Soviet bear at bay, or so it seemed to me.

Through a kid’s eyes, Israel in 1973 was an island seemingly surrounded by a sea of well-armed enemies: Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Saudi Arabia. Outnumbered and outgunned. And now look at today’s reality: Egypt and Iraq have been neutralized. Syria is devastated. Jordan is wisely (sort of) neutral. The Saudis are a quasi-ally. Outside of the more-or-less manageable threat of terrorism (Hamas and Hezbollah), Israel’s chief enemy today appears to be itself.

What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower. Yet the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is hobbled and defeated. Meanwhile, as Israel combats terrorism and the legacies of West Bank occupation and isolation of the Gaza Strip, the government prosecutes policies that are considered illiberal and dangerous by many Jewish critics within Israel itself.

A similar David-Goliath mindset exists in the USA, but with far less cause. Bizarrely, the world’s military superpower envisions itself as being surrounded by enemies. Its response is something like Israel’s, as if the USA is Israel writ large. Both countries seek total military dominance over their perceived enemies and rivals; both are led by strong men dogged by claims of corruption; both glorify their militaries; both appear to be spoiling for war with Iran.

Interestingly, both are also obsessed with demographic “enemies within”: many Israelis fear growing Arab/Muslim influence within; many Americans fear minorities will soon constitute the majority (estimates say non-whites will outnumber whites in the year 2045, but some Americans – like Laura Ingraham on Fox News – feel it’s already happened). The result: the ruling administrations of both countries have doubled down on security and identity politics. Israel has made Arabs second-class citizens, a form of apartheid; Trump & Co. has vilified immigrants (especially Mexicans) as rapists and murderers. Both are building walls to keep the “enemy” without. Both see massive military spending (and nuclear weapons) as the ultimate guarantors of peace.

Israel is little Prussia; the USA is big Prussia. And like Prussia (and Germany) of the past, they pose as the aggrieved party, surrounded by enemies, hemmed in and oppressed. It’s never wrong to be strong – that’s their guiding motto. And by strength they mean hardness: military strength, police strength, the strength of superior weapons technology, embraced by leaders willing to kill or torture or imprison others in the name of preserving a “democratic” way of life.

It’s a mindset conducive to authoritarianism, to militarism, to nationalism, even to kleptocracy disguised as essential spending on national security. At its root is fear, which generates a “no compromise” attitude toward the Other (whether Palestinian “terrorists” or immigrant “killers” and “animals”). As the Palestinian activist Bassam Aramin put it in an interview in The Sun (October 2016):

“I think our main enemy is the Israelis’ fear. It’s part of their consciousness. When they talk about security, the Holocaust is always in the background. If I throw a stone at an armored tank, they interpret it as the beginning of a new Holocaust.”

Fear is the mind-killer. It enables perpetual warfare and a police state – and lots of profit and power to those who facilitate the same.

The original Prussia became consumed by militarism and nationalism and collapsed after two devastating world wars. What will happen to today’s Big and Little Prussia? Perhaps a war against Iran, timed to coincide with the 2020 presidential campaign season in the USA? Such an unnecessary and likely disastrous war can’t be ruled out.

Consider the dynamic between the current leaders of the USA and Israel, each egging the other one on to be tougher, less compromising, more Prussian. A pacific future is not in the cards for these military “superpowers.” Not when they’re so busy emulating Prussia.

*Why are Americans, generally speaking, supporters and admirers of Israel? So much so that politicians ostentatiously wear co-joined US/Israel flag lapel pins? For several reasons:

  1. The US media is generally pro-Israel. Meanwhile, the Arab world is often synonymous with terrorism in our media.
  2. Israelis seem more like Americans. What I mean is this: Israeli spokespeople wear western dress and speak English with a faint accent. Until recently, Arab spokespeople on TV looked and dressed “foreign” and spoke English with a heavier accent.
  3. The power of pro-Israeli political lobbies such as AIPAC and fear among politicians that criticism of Israel will be construed (and demonized) as anti-Semitism.
  4. The Holocaust.
  5. The Evangelical Context: I remember listening to a talk show on the radio, soon after the Yom Kippur War, in the mid-1970s. The speaker predicted the Second Coming was near. That got my attention! Why was that? Because, this person said, Israel had gained control over Jerusalem in apparent fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. Fast forward forty years to today and you hear basically the same evangelical predictions about the Second Coming of Christ being imminent as Israel expands its hegemony over the “holy land” in Palestine.

One cannot underrate the importance of (selective) Biblical prophecy as advanced by fundamentalist Christians nestled within today’s Republican Party. These evangelicals couldn’t care less about Trump’s sins and transgressions. Their eyes are on the prize: Armageddon and Christ’s return, which they link to Israel’s domination of the region – which will lead to more wars, a brutal future seen as inevitable, even desirable.

William J. Astore is a retired lieutenant colonel (USAF). He taught history for fifteen years at military and civilian schools and blogs at Bracing Views. He can be reached at Reprinted from Bracing Views with the author’s permission.

5 thoughts on “The USA and Israel as Big and Little Prussia”

  1. What I mean by that is this: Israel, which over the last 70 years has
    fought several wars for its survival, is now a regional superpower. Yet
    the mindset of David versus Goliath persists, even though Goliath is
    hobbled and defeated.

    W.Astore finds out after 70 years that Israel is no David versus Goliath and concludes the status must have changed recently.

    It didn’t change recently. People like Zeev Maoz have demonstrated it always was a myth. And that is from the start.

    W.Astore finds out that Israel is little Prussia. That worried Einstein as well , long before Israel was established. And Hannah Ahrend was clear about the comparison between Israel and Sparta.

    I am not claiming Israel never had any redeeming features or that it was doomed to go bad from the start, but the Prussian expansionist nationalism was always there and Israel never was vastly overpowered by its neighbors. Even at the start, the neighbors were still under British control and only really powerful opponent was Jordan, and they had an understanding not to get into conflict.

  2. Israel NEVER fought any wars “for its survival.” They only ever fought wars of aggression and expansion. I would have thought that William Astore knew better than this. He needs to do more study on the subject.

    What does he think the “Yom Kippur” war about? Egypt was only just trying to RECLAIM the Sinai, which had been lost to Israel in the 1967 war. Would he argue that the 1967 war was NOT a war of aggression and expansion?

  3. The analogy with Prussia is an apt one: it rose to prominence out of a sense of insecurity, coming to dominate the Germanic peoples and create an empire. It pushed Austria out of that former position, yet in 1914 it felt compelled to come to Vienna’s aid, in a proverbial case of the ‘tail wagging the dog’. Frederick the Great described his kingdom as a traveller on the road at risk of being set upon by brigands, murdered and robbed. Brigands being metaphors for rival European powers. Out of that fear came dominance, then ultimately defeat. All great powers eventually get the war they are desperate to avoid.
    The pattern of history is clear. Power (manifested as interest) has been present in every conflict throughout history – no exception. It is the underlying motivation for war. Other cultural factors might change, but not power.
    Interest cuts across all apparently unifying principles: family, kin, nation, religion, ideology, politics – everything. We unite with the enemies of our principles, because that is what serves our interest. It is power, not any of the above concepts, that is the cause of war.
    It is the one thing we will destroy ourselves for, as well as everyone else. When core interests are threatened and existential threat looms nations go to war. There can be no compromise on these. As a result every civilization/nation eventually gets the war it is trying to avoid: utter defeat. This applies as much today as any other time in history. Deterrence doctrine, made for the 20th century Cold War, is irrelevant in the 21st and will ultimately fail us. Deterrence can no longer prevent the scenarios where Mutual Assured Destruction will be resorted to.
    Unfortunately, leaders and decision-makers delude themselves, thinking they can avoid this fate – they can’t. If survival is threatened, there is no alternative to war, however destructive.

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