Tuesday’s closely contested election in Israel has produced a winner: populist nationalism. What does this mean for the United States?

Minnesota’s U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar knows. On the last day of a recent political gathering of Americans, the prime minister of a foreign country, Israel’s recently re-elected Benjamin Netanyahu, took aim at Omar’s views.

Now that his vision for Israel has been supported once again by a majority of his nation’s voters, will Netanyahu continue to engage in domestic American politics?

Would that be going too far, given the international norm of noninterference in the internal affairs of another country?

When is the cause of another nation our cause as well? When should America concern itself with, and take action against, abuses of human rights or economic freedoms by a foreign state?

When is so-called “collusion” between American citizens and foreign governments justified?

Long ago, George Washington in his Farewell Address warned: “[N]othing is more essential than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded; and that, in place of them, just and amicable feelings towards all should be cultivated. The nation which indulges towards another a habitual hatred or a habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest.”

Despite Washington’s advice, taking sides in foreign quarrels has been very American for over 200 years. Ethnic identities in this nation of immigrants have often shaped our politics.

Provoked by the French Revolution, New England Protestants of English origin stood with Britain in the republic’s early years. Others outside New England rallied behind the new French ideals of liberty and equality.

In the South, the Democrats, since their founding by Thomas Jefferson, slaveholder, and Andrew Jackson, Indian hunter, thrived until the 1960s as the party of white supremacy.

Irish, Jews and Italians arriving in the big cities of the East had no fondness for the founding Protestants and their ethic, so they joined the Democrats as the anti-WASP party.

After the Civil War, former slaves voted reliably Republican in gratitude for Lincoln’s ending slavery. Later, from time to time, African-Americans would lobby to help African countries.

During World War I, notably here in Minnesota, German-Americans were culturally and politically oppressed out of fear that their Old World background and language condemned them to be un-American loyalists to Kaiser Wilhelm.

We once lived in a house on St Paul’s Summit Avenue built by a German immigrant, Herman Kretz. During World War I, he was visited by representatives of the patriotic surveillance committee bringing a “suggestion” that Kretz fly the American flag 24/7 over his Commerce Building in downtown St Paul and illuminate it all night long. He complied.

In World War II, on the West Coast and in Hawaii, it was assumed after Pearl Harbor that those with Japanese DNA markers (as we would say today) could not be faithful Americans but would support the Japanese emperor. The government put them in holding camps for unconstitutional preventive detention. A few were relocated here to Minnesota.

After the Nazi Holocaust against the Jews of Europe, a rebellion founded Israel as a protected Jewish homeland. American Jews made use of politics and a groundswell of sympathy for their people’s suffering to advance American commitment to what was religiously and ethnically very important to them — security for Israel.

The success of Jewish Americans in gaining widespread assent for intense U.S. support of Israel has long drawn attention.

More recently, Cuban refugees in Florida used political clout to gain mostly Republican support for tough foreign policy measures against Castro’s Cuba. Armenians in Massachusetts have rewarded with votes and campaign support those politicians who will bear down on the Turks for the Armenian genocide during World War I. Irish-American politicians, especially in Boston, called for opposition to British policies in Northern Ireland.

In the 1990s, I helped Hmong leader Gen. Vang Pao mobilize politicians in Minnesota, Wisconsin and California to pass legislation condemning human rights abuses in Laos.

Rep. Omar, Muslim by faith, cares deeply about the Palestinian side of the dispute over how ancestral differences in Israel and Palestine might be permanently settled. The election victory of Netanyahu and his hard-nosed policies hardly aid the Palestinian cause.

But Omar lacks experience in American ways of coalition building among our different ethnic and cultural “tribes.” Her perception that Jewish Americans play a substantial role in our politics and culture is certainly not wrong. But it also is nothing new or unique.

This is what happens in an open society — influence flows to those who seek it skillfully.


Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, an organization dedicated to promoting ethical capitalism.