My father and I always had a tacit agreement: “We will never speak of That Part of the World.” He’d grown up in an Orthodox Jewish family in Norfolk, Virginia. His own father, a refugee from early-20th-century pogroms in what is now Ukraine, had been the president of his local Zionist organization. A liberal in most things (including his ardent opposition to both of the US wars against Iraq), my father remained a Zionist to his dying day. We both knew that if we were ever to have a real conversation about Israel/Palestine, unforgivable things would be said.
As a child in the 1950s, I absorbed the ambient belief that the state of Israel had been created after World War II as an apology gift from the rest of the world to European Jews who had survived the Holocaust. I was raised to think that if the worst were to happen and Jews were once again to become targets of genocidal rage, my family could always emigrate to Israel, where we would be safe. As a young woman, I developed a different (and, in retrospect, silly) line on That Part of the World: There’s entirely too much sun there, and it’s made them all crazy.
It wasn’t until I’d reached my thirties that I began to pay serious attention to the region that is variously known as the Middle East, the Arab world, or the Greater Middle East and North Africa. And when I did, I discovered how deep my ignorance (like that of so many fellow Americans) really was and how much history, geography, and politics there is to try to understand. What follows is my attempt to get a handle on how the Trump presidency has affected US policy and actions in That Part of the World.
The United States has a long-standing and deep alliance with Israel. During the Cold War, Washington viewed that country as its bulwark in the oil-rich region against both a rising pan-Arab nationalism and real or imagined Soviet encroachments. In fact, according to the Library of Congress’s Congressional Research Service, “Israel is the largest cumulative recipient of US foreign assistance since World War II. To date, the United States has provided Israel $134.7 billion current, or non-inflation-adjusted, dollars in bilateral assistance and missile defense funding.”
The vast majority of this largesse has been in military aid, which has allowed Israel, a country of a little more than eight million people, to become the 14th or 15th strongest military power on the planet. It is also the only nuclear power in the region with an arsenal of at least 80 weapons (even if its government has never officially acknowledged this reality). By comparison, Iran, its present archenemy, ranks 21st, despite having a population 10 times greater.