Why Gentile Americans Back the Jewish State
By Walter Russell Mead
3rd part of 3
THE RIGHT TURN
Although gentile support for Israel in the United States has remained strong and even grown since World War II, its character has changed. Until the Six-Day War, support for Israel came mostly from the political left and was generally stronger among Democrats than Republicans. Liberal icons such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Martin Luther King, Jr., were leading public voices calling for the United States to support Israel. But since 1967, liberal support for Israel has gradually waned, and conservative support has grown.
A variety of factors had come together in the 1940s to make progressive gentile Zionism a powerful force in U.S. politics, especially on the left. First, the impact of the Holocaust on American Protestantism was extraordinary. Germany had once provided intellectual leadership for the American Protestant church, and the passive acquiescence with which most German Protestant churches and pastors greeted Nazi rule shocked mainstream American Protestantism to its core. Anti-Nazi German Protestants became moral and theological heroes in the postwar United States, and opposition to anti-Semitism became a key test by which mainline American Protestants judged themselves and their leaders. This profound shock intensified their humanitarian response to revelations about the death camps and the mass murder. The suffering of the displaced, starving, and impoverished Jewish refugees in chaotic postwar Europe made it inevitable that American Protestants, who had for a century campaigned for Jewish rights, would enthusiastically support steps seen as securing the safety of Europe's Jews.
A second factor was the strong support of African Americans for the Jews at a time when blacks were beginning to play a larger role in U.S. electoral politics. During the 1930s, the African American press throughout the United States had closely followed the imposition of Hitler's racial policies. African American leaders lost no opportunity to point out the similarities between Hitler's treatment of the Jews and the Jim Crow laws in the United States' segregated South. For African Americans, the persecution of the Jews was made real to them through their own daily experiences. It also provided them with important talking points to persuade whites that racial discrimination violated American principles, and it thus helped build the strong alliance between American Jews and the civil rights movement that existed from 1945 through the death of King. Even during World War II, the black activists W. E. B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and Philip Randolph supported the precursor of the Israeli Likud Party in its effort to create a Jewish army. The civil rights leader Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., went further, raising $150,000 for the militant Zionist group the Irgun Zvai Leumi -- which he called "an underground terrorist organization in Palestine" -- at a New York City rally.
The Soviet Union's support for an independent state of Israel also helped. At Yalta, Joseph Stalin told Franklin Roosevelt that he, too, was a Zionist, and in May of 1947, Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko announced before the United Nations that the Soviet Union supported the creation of a Jewish state. This backing, however short-lived, strengthened the view of many American leftists that the establishment of a homeland for the Jews was part of the general struggle for progress around the world. Indeed, in the decades after the war, many American liberals saw their support for Israel as part of their commitment to freedom, anticolonialism (the Jews of Palestine were seeking independence over British opposition), the struggle against racial and religious discrimination, secularism, humanitarianism, and the progressive tradition in U.S. politics. Israel at the time seemed to be an idealistic secular experiment in social democracy; American Jews and American gentiles alike went to Israel to experience the exhilarating life of labor and fellowship of the kibbutz. In 1948, therefore, when Truman decided to support the creation of Israel, he was thinking about not just the Jewish vote. Support for Israel was popular with the blacks in the North, who were attracted to the Democratic Party by the New Deal and Truman's own slow progress toward supporting civil rights. The cause of Israel helped with voters on the left otherwise tempted to support Henry Wallace and the Progressives. And it also helped Truman compete among conservative, churchgoing, Bible-reading southern voters against Strom Thurmond's Dixiecrats. Support for Israel, in fact, was one of the few issues that helped pull the fractious Democratic Party coalition together.
Since the 1967 war, however, the basis of Israel's support in the United States has shifted: backing for Israel has tended to weaken on the left and grow on the right. On the left, a widespread dislike of Israel's policies in the occupied territories and a diminished concern for its security in the wake of its triumph in the war led many African Americans, mainline Protestants, and liberal intellectuals, once among Israel's staunchest U.S. allies, toward growing sympathy with Palestinian views. Increased identification on the part of blacks with anticolonial movements worldwide, the erosion of the black-Jewish alliance in U.S. domestic politics, and the rising appeal of figures such as Malcolm X and the leaders of the Nation of Islam also gradually reduced support for Israel among African Americans. The liberal Protestant churches, for their part, were newly receptive to the perspectives of those missionaries sympathetic to Arab nationalism, and as the mainstream churches became more critical of traditional American ideas about the United States' national identity and destiny, they distanced themselves ever further from traditional readings of the Old Testament. (On the other hand, relations between American Catholics and the Jews began to improve after the 1967 war, largely due to the Catholic Church's new theological approach toward the Jews since the Second Vatican Council.)
On the right, the most striking change since 1967 has been the dramatic intensification of suppport for Israel among evangelical Christians and, more generally, among what I have called "Jacksonian" voters in the U.S. heartland. Jacksonians are populist-nationalist voters who favor a strong U.S. military and are generally skeptical of international organizations and global humanitarian aid. Not all evangelicals are Jacksonians, and not all Jacksonians are evangelicals, but there is a certain overlap between the two constituencies. Many southern whites are Jacksonians; so are many of the swing voters in the North known as Reagan Democrats.
Many Jacksonians formed negative views of the Arabs during the Cold War. The Palestinians and the Arab states, they noted, tended to side with the Soviet Union and the Nonaligned Movement against the United States. The Egyptians responded to support from the United States in the 1956 Suez crisis by turning to the Soviets for arms and support, and Soviet weapons and Soviet experts helped Arab armies prepare for wars against Israel. Jacksonians tend to view international affairs through their own unique prism, and as events in the Middle East have unfolded since 1967, they have become more sympathetic to Israel even as many non-Jacksonian observers in the United States -- and many more people in the rest of the world -- have become less so. The Six-Day War reignited the interest of prophetic Zionists in Israel and deepened the perceived connections between Israel and the United States for many Jacksonians. After the Cold War, the Jacksonians found that the United States' opponents in the region, such as Iraq and Iran, were the most vociferous enemies of Israel as well.
Jacksonians admire victory, and total victory is the best kind. The sweeping, overwhelming triumph of Israeli arms in 1967 against numerically superior foes from three different countries caught the imaginations of Jacksonians -- especially at a time when the United States' poor performance in Vietnam had made many of them pessimistic about their own country's future. Since then, some of the same actions that have hurt Israel's image in most of the world -- such as ostensibly disproportionate responses to Palestinian terrorism -- have increased its support among Jacksonians.
When a few rockets launched from Gaza strike Israel, the Israelis sometimes respond with more firepower, more destruction, and more casualties. In much of the world, this is seen as excessive retaliation, an offense equal to or even greater than the original attack. Jacksonians, however, see a Palestinian rocket attack on Israeli targets as an act of terrorism and believe that the Israelis have an unlimited right, perhaps even a duty, to retaliate with all the force at their command. Since the 1950s, when Palestinian raiders started slipping across the cease-fire line to attack Israeli settlements, many Palestinians and Arabs have, with some justification, seen these incursions as acts of great courage in the face of overwhelming power. But such sneak attacks against civilian targets, and especially suicide bombings, violate basic Jacksonian ideas about civilized warfare. Jacksonians believe that only overwhelming and total retaliation against such tactics can deter the attackers from striking again. This is how the American frontiersmen handled the Native Americans, how the Union general William Sherman "educated" the Confederacy, and how General Douglas MacArthur and Truman repaid the Japanese for Pearl Harbor. Jacksonians genuinely cannot understand why the world criticizes Israel for exercising what they see as its inalienable right of self-defense -- for doing exactly what they would do in Israel's place.
In the eyes of the Palestinians and their supporters, the Palestinians -- exiled, marginalized, occupied, divided -- are heroic underdogs confronting the might of a regional superpower backed by the most powerful nation on earth. But for Jacksonians, Israel, despite all its power and all its victories, remains an endangered David surrounded by enemies. The fact that the Arabs and the larger community of one billion Muslims support, at least verbally, the Palestinian cause deepens the belief among many Jacksonians that Israel is a small and vulnerable country that deserves help. Ironically, some of the greatest military and political successes of the Palestinian movement -- developing an active armed resistance, winning (largely rhetorical) support from organizations such as the Arab League and even the General Assembly of the United Nations, shifting the basis of Palestinian resistance from secular nationalism to religion, and winning support from powerful regional states such as Saddam's Iraq and Iran today -- have ended up strengthening and deepening American gentile support for the Jewish state.
Another important factor leading to increased American support for Israel is that since 1967 a series of religious revivals have swept across the United States, with important effects on public attitudes toward the Middle East. One consequence has been that even as the mainline, liberal Protestant churches have become more critical of Israel, they have lost political and social influence. Another consequence has been a significant increase in prophetic Zionism, with evangelical and fundamentalist American Christians more interested now in biblical prophecy and Israel's role in the lead-up to the apocalypse than ever before.
Many evangelical and fundamentalist Christians had shown relatively little interest in Israel immediately after its war of independence. Biblical prophecy, as they understood it, clearly predicted that the Jews would rebuild the Temple on its original site, and so with the holy sites of Jerusalem in Arab hands, the countdown to the end of time appeared to have slowed. Meanwhile, the secular and quasi-socialist Israel of the 1950s was less attractive to conservative Christians than to liberal ones. With their eyes fixed on the communist menace during the peak years of the Cold War, evangelical and fundamentalist Christians were less actively engaged in U.S. policy in the Middle East than they had been in the nineteenth century.
The Six-Day War changed that; it was a catalyst both for the evangelical revival movement and for the renewal of prophetic Zionism. The speed and decision of the victory of Israel looked miraculous to many Americans, and Israel's conquest of the Old City meant that the Temple site was now in Jewish hands. The sense that the end of time was approaching was a powerful impetus for the American religious revivals that began during this period. Since then, a series of best-selling books, fiction and nonfiction alike, have catered to the interest of millions of Americans in the possibility that the end-time as prophesied in the Old and New Testaments is now unfolding in the Middle East.
Since the end of the Cold War, an additional force has further strengthened the links between the state of Israel and many conservative American Christians. As the religious revival gave new power and energy to evangelical and fundamentalist churches, their attention turned increasingly outward. Past such revivals led to waves of intense missionary interest and activity; the current revival is no different. And as American Christians have taken a greater interest in the well-being of Christians around the world, they have encountered Christianity's most important rival worldwide, Islam, and have begun to learn that the conditions facing Christians in a number of Muslim-majority countries are not good.
Interest in the persecution of Christians around the world is a long-term feature of Christianity, and not only in the United States. The same church leaders involved in efforts to protect Jews in Europe and the Ottoman Empire were often engaged in campaigns to protect Christians in China, Korea, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire, among other places. The rise of communism as the twentieth century's most brutal enemy of religion ultimately led American Christians to build organizations aimed at supporting believers behind the Iron Curtain. Since 1989, the persecution of Christians by communists has diminished (although not disappeared), and so increasingly the center of concern has been the Muslim world, where many Christians and people of other faiths or of no faith suffer legal and social discrimination -- and where, at times, Christians are beaten and murdered for what they believe. Laws in many Islamic countries, moreover, forbid proselytizing and conversion -- issues of vital concern for evangelical Christians, who generally believe that those who die without accepting Christ will suffer in hell and that spreading the Christian faith is one of their central moral duties. Mainstream media generally do not make the foreign persecution of Christians a major focus of their news coverage, but that does not prevent this issue from shaping the way many Americans look at Islam and, by extension, at the conflict between Israel and some of its neighbors.
U.S. opinion on the Middle East is not monolithic, nor is it frozen in time. Since 1967, it has undergone significant shifts, with some groups becoming more favorable toward Israel and others less so. Considerably fewer African Americans stand with the Likud Party today than stood with the Jewish army in World War II. More changes may come. A Palestinian and Arab leadership more sensitive to the values and political priorities of the American political culture could develop new and more effective tactics designed to weaken, rather than strengthen, American support for the Jewish state. An end to terrorist attacks, for example, coupled with well-organized and disciplined nonviolent civil resistance, might alter Jacksonian perceptions of the Palestinian struggle. It is entirely possible that over time, evangelical and fundamentalist Americans will retrace Jimmy Carter's steps from a youthful Zionism to what he would call a more balanced position now. But if Israel should face any serious crisis, it seems more likely that opinion will swing the other way. Many of the Americans who today call for a more evenhanded policy toward the Palestinians do so because they believe that Israel is fundamentally secure. Should that assessment change, public opinion polls might well show even higher levels of U.S. support for Israel.
One thing, at least, seems clear. In the future, as in the past, U.S. policy toward the Middle East will, for better or worse, continue to be shaped primarily by the will of the American majority, not the machinations of any minority, however wealthy or engaged in the political process some of its members may be.
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.
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