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Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Why Americans support Israel

A very nice article in Foreign Affairs shows quite well that Americans have overwhelmingly supported the right of Jews to have a state, well before modern Zionism, and that this is why America has had pro-Israel policies - not because of the "Israel lobby" or an influential Jewish minority.

Highlights:
The story of U.S. support for a Jewish state in the Middle East begins early. John Adams could not have been more explicit. "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation," he said, after his presidency. From the early nineteenth century on, gentile Zionists fell into two main camps in the United States. Prophetic Zionists saw the return of the Jews to the Promised Land as the realization of a literal interpretation of biblical prophecy, often connected to the return of Christ and the end of the world. ...

Other, less literal and less prophetic Christians developed a progressive Zionism that would resonate down through the decades among both religious and secular gentiles. In the nineteenth century, liberal Christians often believed that God was building a better world through human progress. They saw the democratic and (relatively) egalitarian United States as both an example of the new world God was making and a powerful instrument to further his grand design. Some American Protestants believed that God was moving to restore what they considered the degraded and oppressed Jews of the world to the Promised Land, just as God was uplifting and improving the lives of other ignorant and unbelieving people through the advance of Protestant and liberal principles. They wanted the Jews to establish their own state because they believed that this would both shelter the Jews from persecution and, through the redemptive powers of liberty and honest agricultural labor, uplift and improve what they perceived to be the squalid morals and deplorable hygiene of contemporary Ottoman and eastern European Jews. As Adams put it, "Once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians." For such Christians, American Zionism was part of a broader program of transforming the world by promoting the ideals of the United States.

In 1891, these strands of gentile Zionists came together. The Methodist lay leader William Blackstone presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison calling on the United States to use its good offices to convene a congress of European powers so that they could induce the Ottoman Empire to turn Palestine over to the Jews. The 400 signatories were overwhelmingly non-Jewish and included the chief justice of the Supreme Court; the Speaker of the House of Representatives; the chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee; the future president William McKinley; the mayors of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington; the editors or proprietors of the leading East Coast and Chicago newspapers; and an impressive array of Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic clergy. Business leaders who signed the petition included Cyrus McCormick, John Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. At a time when the American Jewish community was neither large nor powerful, and no such thing as an Israel lobby existed, the pillars of the American gentile establishment went on record supporting a U.S. diplomatic effort to create a Jewish state in the lands of the Bible.

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.

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.

...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.
Read the whole thing.