“Every time anyone says that Israel is our only friend in the Middle East, I can’t help but think that before Israel, we had no enemies in the Middle East.”As a pure statement of history, this is of course false. The U.S. has had its share of pre-1948 enemies in the Middle East (the Barbary Pirates, the Ottoman Empire in WWI, various Arab factions which sided with the Nazis in WWII, etc.).
But pushing beyond that, I think this statement needs to be unpacked a bit even if we took it at face value. The argument being made by our friendly Jesuit priest is that prior to Israel's establishment, we were all buddy-buddy with the dominant powers in the Middle East, but that all went to hell once the Jews had the temerity to establish their own state. Damn Jews.
This, of course, is an interesting view over how we should think about "friendship," to wit, that the most important consideration is whether it allows us to maintain and preserve preexisting relationships of power. Which ... okay, so that's one way of looking at it. Charles De Gaulle did say that "nations do not have friends, only interests." But I'd hope that's not the only way that we would think about how we select our friends.
Consider the following statement as a parallel:
"Every time anyone says that Blacks are Democrats' only friends in the South, I can't help but think that before Blacks were allowed to vote Democrats had all the votes in the South."As a historical matter, this is at least as true (and probably more so) than Sheehan's statement. And some people do seem to resent Blacks for that, and essentially blame them for the Democratic Party's misfortunes in the American South. But most of us, one hopes, would recognize that supporting civil rights was the right thing to do regardless of whether it ultimately helped or hindered Democratic electoral fortunes. And if we're looking for someone to blame, it should be the White voters who decided that supporting civil rights was a dealbreaker, not the African-Americans who had the temerity to want to be treated as equals.
How much of the current strain between America and the countries of the Middle East can be attributed to the existence of Israel is debatable, but it is fair to say that most of these countries are less than keen on the friendship or the existence of an Israel at all. And they expressed that antipathy quite cogently, in the form of a series of wars and ethnically cleansing 99% of the Jewish population from the Arab World. Such actions don't always result in American opposition, particularly when (as noted) such opposition places us in conflict with the local elites. But where it does, it seems weird to object on the grounds that we weren't sufficiently solicitous of the preexisting hierarchy.
After doing all this work, I got interested in the provenance of the quote itself and who this "Father John Sheehan" is. And that is a surprisingly difficult proposition. The quote shows up a lot on Google, but it is almost invariably unsourced except to say "John Sheehan, S.J." The closest thing I've found to a source is a citation to Volume 21, No. 2, p. 34 (2002) of the Journal of Historical Review. The problem being that the Journal of Historical Review is the house journal of Holocaust-deniers -- it's a conspiracy website with footnotes. Meanwhile "John Sheehan" might as well be "John Doe" if you're thinking of generic name for a Jesuit Priest -- while that could just explain why it's so hard to find the particular "John Sheehan" who said it, it also might explain why there seemingly is no information of the "John Sheehan" who supposedly said it.
The bottom line is that I think the quote is a hoax -- it flies around various anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic circles, but I don't think it's real.
This story does come with a happy ending though: I posted all of this (including my sense that the quote was fake) on my friend's Facebook wall, and you know what she said? She thanked me for my sleuthing, admitted she had probably taken in, and resolved to be more careful next time (and affirmed that the quote did not express her views on the American/Israeli alliance, which she says should be preserved).