Few issues are as widely covered as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, as Walter Russell Mead documents in his new book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, few subjects are so misunderstood.
A scholar at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Mead isn’t authoring merely another book in a crowded catalog. Rather, he seeks to understand the roots of U.S. support for Israel. And what he finds rebuts narratives that are both common and superficial.
Some have argued that American support for Israel is the result of pernicious and undue Jewish influence. Mead labels this line of thinking the “Planet Vulcan” theory, after a nineteenth-century astronomer’s mistaken belief that a hidden planet, later named “Vulcan,” was responsible for upending the laws of Newtonian physics. Of course, there was no hidden celestial body that was, through unseen force, manipulating the solar system. But this didn’t stop others from thinking that such a planet existed. Similarly, as Mead thoroughly documents, there is no secret force, no all-powerful lobby, that is pulling the strings to enforce U.S. support for the Jewish state.
Instead, the truth is both more complicated and more interesting.
Support for Zionism—the belief in Jewish self-determination—is as American as apple pie. “Israel occupies a unique place in American foreign policy,” Mead observes, “because it occupies a unique, and uniquely charged, place in the American mind.” To prove his point, Mead doesn’t begin his book in 1948 with Israel’s creation as a modern state. Instead, he begins with the founding of the United States.
From its inception, the United States has had a unique relationship with the Jewish people. America was vastly more tolerant and less antisemitic than many of its European counterparts. This isn’t to say that antisemitism didn’t exist—it certainly did, and Mead does highlight the antisemitic beliefs that were common among many Americans, from the conservative ruling class to the populist movements that helped birth progressivism in the early twentieth century.
But America’s founders were also steeped in both the Bible and classical history, displaying a deep reverence for Greek and Roman civilization. This imparted a respect for ancient Hebrew civilization as well.
From the start, the United States viewed itself as a providential power with a unique mission to democratize the world. This also translated into a desire to restore the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. “I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites,” John Adams wrote to a Jewish friend, “making a conquest of that country and restoring your nation to the dominion of it.” Importantly these beliefs were in evidence long before the mass immigration of Jews to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were part of the national character early on.
Mead also notes, however, that American support for self-determination was not limited to Zionism. Americans have a long history of skepticism toward the empires of Europe and Asia and have advocated for sovereignty and self-rule for a multitude of people. In this respect, Jews were but one in a long line of people, from the Greeks to the Indians to the Arabs, who many Americans wanted to see freed from imperial rule and restored to prior glory.
Americans also have a long-standing fascination with “the lands of the Bible,” Mead notes. This grew considerably in the nineteenth century. After Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery opus Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the second best-selling book at the time was an illustrated work of Holy Land travels entitled The Land and the Book.
Nor was support for Zionism limited to American Christians, whose various sects had differing attitudes toward the idea. While religion certainly did play a role, many early advocates of Zionism weren’t particularly religious. In 1891, for example, Rev. William Blackstone, a famed preacher of the day, presented then-President Benjamin Harrison with a petition calling for the United States government to persuade European leaders to lobby the Ottoman sultan for the establishment of a Jewish national home. Known to history as the Blackstone Memorial, the document has often been cited as an example of Christian Zionism. But, as Mead notes, the signatories included a diverse group of Americans with varying religious commitments: “For many of the signers, the petition merely expressed the long-held belief among both religious and secular people of the nineteenth century that the Jews, like the Greeks and the Italians, could regain some of their ancient glory and greatness if freed from foreign rule and oppression.”
And contrary to the idea of a secret Jewish cabal lobbying for Zionism, Mead points out that many Jewish-Americans were initially indifferent or hostile to the idea. Among other things, they feared that by supporting Zionism, they would open themselves up to charges of dual loyalty.
For many American Jews, supporting the idea of Jewish self-determination was not only unrealistic and unnecessary; it was also seen as endangering their ability to assimilate and become accepted into broader American society. Indeed, several groups of American Jews would denounce the Blackstone Memorial, as well as U.S. support for Great Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration, which called for the creation of a “national home” for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland. Prominent members of American Jewry, such as Ambassador Henry Morgenthau Sr. and Adolph Ochs, the influential owner of the New York Times, would vehemently oppose Zionism.
As Mead observed: “If you actually look at the historical record one of the clearest things that you can see … is that it’s an American policy, not a Jewish policy.” Shortly after World War I, “support for Zionist aspirations in Palestine quickly became part of the boilerplate foreign policy prescriptions of American politicians in both major political parties.”
Most Americans were supportive of Jewish national aspirations, even if many of their fellow Jewish citizens were, at best, lukewarm to the idea. But a variety of factors shored up support for Zionism among American Jewry.
The Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 severely curtailed immigration into the United States, resulting in many European Jews migrating to British-ruled Mandate Palestine when many of them might have otherwise gone to the United States. Accordingly, the legislation, if unintentionally, helped bolster the strength and numbers of pre-state Israel. But it would take the shock of the Holocaust “to bring the organized American Jewish community into the Zionist camp,” Mead notes.
“The relative handful of Jews who dared the hazards and privations of life among the hostile Arabs, malarial swamps, and barren deserts of Palestine had looked eccentric to many Jews in the first decade of the twentieth century; by the 1930s they looked prescient.” Even still, support for Zionism among American Jewry wouldn’t become truly mainstream until after Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six-Day War.
Mead correctly dates the modern U.S.-Israel relationship to the aftermath of that conflict. The United States, he argues, increased its support for the Jewish state after Israel proved its strength on the battlefield. President Harry Truman’s 1948 decision to recognize the fledgling nation came after much agonizing and considerable opposition from many in his own cabinet. Subsequent support was tepid at best and would plummet under the administrations of Eisenhower and Kennedy, both of whom wanted to court Israel’s Arab enemies as potential allies in the Cold War.
It would be up to President Richard Nixon, a man with a history of antisemitic remarks, to recognize Israel’s value as a strategic partner in a region of growing importance to the United States. This is but one of many historical ironies that Mead fleshes out.
The history of American support for Zionism, Mead records, is not only complicated and filled with ironies, but is also a story intertwined with the histories of imperialism, world wars, race, class, values, and immigration. Throughout his book, Mead is not only thorough—he’s also generous to those with whom he disagrees. By going back centuries instead of decades to trace the relationship between the United States and the Jewish people, Mead has found answers that will surprise many readers.
As Winston Churchill observed: “The farther backward you can look, the further forward you are likely to see.”
The writer is a Senior Research Analyst for CAMERA, the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting and Analysis.