Friday, August 15, 2008

The New Israel and the Old. Part II

Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State
By Walter Russell Mead


2nd part of 3



Any discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Israel must begin with the Bible. For centuries, the American imagination has been steeped in the Hebrew Scriptures. This influence originated with the rediscovery of the Old Testament during the Reformation, was accentuated by the development of Calvinist theology (which stressed continuities between the old and the new dispensations of divine grace), and was made more vital by the historical similarities between the modern American and the ancient Hebrew experiences; as a result, the language, heroes, and ideas of the Old Testament permeate the American psyche.

Instruction in biblical Hebrew was mandatory for much of early U.S. history at Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. James Madison completed his studies at Princeton in two years but remained on campus an extra year to study Hebrew. Colonial preachers and pamphleteers over and over again described the United States as a new Canaan, "a land flowing with milk and honey," and reminded their audiences that just as the Hebrews lost their blessings when they offended God, so, too, would the Americans suffer if they disobeyed the God who had led them into their promised land. Today, Old Testament references continue to permeate U.S. political writing, oratory, and even geography -- over one thousand cities and towns in the United States have names derived from Scripture.

The most dramatic religious expression of the importance of the Old Testament in American culture today is the rise of premillennial dispensationalism, an interpretation of biblical prophecies that gives particular weight to Old Testament religious concepts such as covenant theology and assigns a decisive role to a restored Jewish state (with Jerusalem as its capital) in future history. An estimated seven percent of Americans seem to hold this theological position (making this group almost four times as large as the American Jewish community), and a considerably larger group is influenced by it to a greater or lesser degree. Proponents of this view often (although not always) share the view of some Orthodox Jews that the Jews must insist on a state that includes all the territory once promised to the Hebrews; they oppose any territorial compromise with the Palestinians and support Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But this is a minority view, even among U.S. supporters of Israel.

Progressive Christian Zionism, on the other hand, is related to Christian ethics rather than prophecy. Much of it is rooted in guilt and a sense that Christians' past poor treatment of the Jews is now preventing Jews from accepting Christianity. For well over a thousand years, the Jews of Europe suffered extraordinary and at times unspeakable cruelties at the hands of Europe's Christians. Although some American Protestants perpetuated this history of intolerance and anti-Semitism, many liberal American Protestants from the nineteenth century forward saw rejecting this past as one of the defining tasks of the reformed and enlightened American church. Such Protestants could (and comfortably did) deplore Catholic anti-Semitism as a consequence of the regrettable corruptions of the church under the papacy, but the anti-Semitic words and deeds of reformers such as Martin Luther could not be dismissed so easily. Many members of the liberal American Protestant churches considered it a sacred duty to complete the work of the Reformation by purging Christianity of its remaining "medieval" features, such as superstition, bigotry, and anti-Semitism. Making amends for past sins by protecting the Jews has long been an important religious test for many (although by no means all) American Protestants.

By contrast, most American Christians have felt little or no guilt about their communities' historical relations with the Muslim world. Many Muslims view Christian-Muslim conflict over the last millennium as a constant and relatively homogenous phenomenon, but American Protestants do not. They generally deplore the cruelties of the Crusades and the concept of a holy war, for example, but they see them as Catholic errors rather than more broadly Christian ones, and in any case, they view the Crusades as long past and as a response to prior Muslim aggression. They also generally deplore the predations of European powers in more recent centuries, but they see them as driven by Old World imperialism rather than Christianity and as such something for which they bear no responsibility. (An important exception deserves to be mentioned: Many U.S. missionaries active in the Middle East forged deep ties with the region's Arab inhabitants and strongly supported Arab nationalism, both from a dislike of European colonialism and out of the hope that a secular nationalist movement would improve the position of Arab Christians. This missionary community contributed both to the development of the Arabist contingent in the State Department and to the backlash in mainstream Protestant churches against Israeli policies in the occupied territories after the 1967 war.)

By 1948, many Christians in the United States felt a heavy burden of historical debt and obligation toward the Jews, but not the Muslims. If anything, they believed that the Islamic world was indebted to American Christian missionaries for many of its leading universities and hospitals and that American Christian support before and after World War II had helped promote the emergence of independent Arab and Muslim states that was then taking place.



The United States' sense of its own identity and mission in the world has been shaped by readings of Hebrew history and thought. The writer Herman Melville expressed this view: "We Americans are the peculiar, chosen people -- the Israel of our time; we bear the ark of the liberties of the world." From the time of the Puritans to the present day, preachers, thinkers, and politicians in the United States -- secular as well as religious, liberal as well as conservative -- have seen the Americans as a chosen people, bound together less by ties of blood than by a set of beliefs and a destiny. Americans have believed that God (or history) has brought them into a new land and made them great and rich and that their continued prosperity depends on their fulfilling their obligations toward God or the principles that have blessed them so far. Ignore these principles -- turn toward the golden calf -- and the scourge will come.

Both religious and nonreligious Americans have looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for an example of a people set apart by their mission and called to a world-changing destiny. Did the land Americans inhabit once belong to others? Yes, but the Hebrews similarly conquered the land of the Canaanites. Did the tiny U.S. colonies armed only with the justice of their cause defeat the world's greatest empire? So did David, the humble shepherd boy, fell Goliath. Were Americans in the nineteenth century isolated and mocked for their democratic ideals? So were the Hebrews surrounded by idolaters. Have Americans defeated their enemies at home and abroad? So, according to the Scriptures, did the Hebrews triumph. And when Americans held millions of slaves in violation of their beliefs, were they punished and scourged? Yes, and much like the Hebrews, who suffered the consequences of their sins before God.

This mythic understanding of the United States' nature and destiny is one of the most powerful and enduring elements in American culture and thought. As the ancient Hebrews did, many Americans today believe that they bear a revelation that is ultimately not just for them but also for the whole world; they have often considered themselves God's new Israel. One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another. They are not disturbed when the United States' support of Israel, a people and a state often isolated and ostracized, makes the United States unpopular or creates other problems. The United States' adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimizing its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.

More than that, since the nineteenth century, the United States has seen itself as the chosen agent of God in the protection and redemption of the Jews. Americans believed that the Jews would emerge from their degraded condition as they moved from city slums to the countryside -- just as American immigrants from all over Europe had built better lives and sturdier characters as Jeffersonian farmers. Liberal Christians such as Adams believed that this would bring the Jews in time to the light of liberal Protestantism as part of the general uplift of humanity. And prophetic Zionists hoped that mass conversions of Jews to revivalist Christianity would trigger the apocalypse and the return of Christ. Either way, the United States' special role in the restoration of the Jews fulfilled gentile Americans' expectations about the movement of history and confirmed their beliefs about the United States' identity and mission.



The United States and Israel also have in common their status as "settler states" -- countries formed by peoples who came to control their current lands after displacing the original populations. Both states have been powerfully shaped by a history of conflict and confrontation with those they displaced, and both have sought justifications for their behavior from similar sources. Both the Americans and the Israelis have turned primarily to the Old Testament, whose hallowed pages tell the story of the conflict between the ancient Hebrews and the Canaanites, the former inhabitants of what the Hebrews believed was their Promised Land. Americans found the idea that they were God's new Israel so attractive partly because it helped justify their displacement of the Native Americans. As Theodore Roosevelt put it in his best-selling history of the American West, "Many of the best of the backwoodsmen were Bible-readers, but they were brought up in a creed that made much of the Old Testament, and laid slight stress on pity, truth, or mercy. They looked at their foes as the Hebrew prophets looked at the enemies of Israel. What were the abominations because of which the Canaanites were destroyed before Joshua, when compared with the abominations of the red savages whose lands they, another chosen people, should in their turn inherit?" (Roosevelt himself, like his cousins Franklin and Eleanor, was a Christian Zionist. "It seems to me entirely proper to start a Zionist State around Jerusalem," he wrote in 1918.)

Besides a direct divine promise, two other important justifications that the Americans brought forward in their contests with the Native Americans were the concept that they were expanding into "empty lands" and John Locke's related "fair use" doctrine, which argued that unused property is a waste and an offense against nature. U.S. settlers felt that only those who would improve the land, settling it densely with extensive farms and building towns, had a real right to it. John Quincy Adams made the case in 1802: "Shall [the Indians] doom an immense region of the globe to perpetual desolation ... ?" And Thomas Jefferson warned that the Native Americans who failed to learn from the whites and engage in productive agriculture faced a grim fate. They would "relapse into barbarism and misery, lose numbers by war and want, and we shall be obliged to drive them, with the beasts of the forest into the Stony mountains."

Through much of U.S. history, such views resonated not just with backwoodsmen but also with liberal and sophisticated citizens. These arguments had a special meaning when it came to the Holy Land. As pious Americans dwelt on the glories of ancient Jerusalem and the Temple of Solomon, they pictured a magnificent and fertile land -- "a land flowing with milk and honey," as the Bible describes it. But by the nineteenth century, when first dozens, then hundreds, and ultimately thousands of Americans visited the Holy Land -- and millions more thronged to lectures and presentations to hear reports of these travels -- there was little milk or honey; Palestine was one of the poorest, most backward, and most ramshackle provinces of the Ottoman Empire. To American eyes, the hillsides and rocky fields of Judea were desolate and empty -- God, many believed, had cursed the land when he sent the Jews into their second exile, which they saw as the Jews' punishment for their failure to recognize Christ as the Messiah. And so, Americans believed, the Jews belonged in the Holy Land, and the Holy Land belonged to the Jews. The Jews would never prosper until they were home and free, and the land would never bloom until its rightful owners returned.

The Prophet Isaiah had described the future return of the Jews to their homeland as God's grace bringing water to a desert land. And Americans watched the returning fertility of the land under the cultivation of early Zionist settlers with the astonished sense that biblical prophecy was being fulfilled before their eyes. "The springs of Jewish colonizing vigor, amply fed by the money of world Jewry, flowed on to the desert," wrote Time magazine in 1946, echoing the language of Isaiah. Two years later, following the Jewish victory in the 1948 war, it described the Arabs in terms that induce flinching today but represented common American perceptions at the time: "The Western world tends to think of the Arab as a falcon-eyed warrior on a white horse. That Arab is still around, but he is far less numerous than the disease-ridden wretches who lie in the hot streets, too weak, sick and purposeless to roll over into the shade." Americans saw a contest between a backward and incapable people and a people able to settle the wilderness and make it bloom, miraculously fulfilling ancient prophecies of a Jewish state.

The Jews had been widely considered eastern Europe's most deplorable population: ignorant, depraved, superstitious, factionalized, quarrelsome, and hopelessly behind the times. That this population, after being subjected to the unprecedented savagery of Nazi persecution, should establish the first stable democracy in the Middle East, build a thriving economy in the desert, and repeatedly defeat enemies with armies many times larger and stronger than their own seemed to many Americans to be striking historical proof of their own most cherished ideals.

WALTER RUSSELL MEAD is Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author, most recently, of God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World.

Copyright 2002--2008 by the Council on Foreign Relations. All rights reserved.


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