Sunday, August 14, 2022



The Arc of a Covenant is a well-researched book about the history of the US-Israel relationship. And it destroys many myths in the process.

Most books about the US and Israel are written by one of two kinds of people: Zionists and anti-Zionists. Both of those suffer from a skewed vision where the American Zionists and Israeli politicians are considered critical players in the drama. 

Walter Russell Mead calls the anti-Zionists who believe in a nefarious and outsized role of Jews in steering the US towards a disaster in foreign policy "Vulcanists." In the late 1800s, astronomers noticed irregularities in the orbit of the planet Mercury, and postulated that there was a hidden planet they called Vulcan that could explain them. Some claimed to have observed the planet. In the end, the irregularities were found to be because of the sun's gravity bending the fabric of space under Einstein's theories, but they didn't have a clue - they convinced themselves that there was a fictional planet. They couldn't even imagine that there was an alternate theory that could explain things better.

The field of research into the US-Israel relationship is likewise skewed, according to Mead, by writers who are convinced that Jews have been at the center of the decision-making. The entire book zooms out from this tunnel vision and looks more fully at history and sees that US (and other countries) made their decisions about Palestine and Israel based on their specific political circumstances at the time, and the Jews (or Zionist lobby, or Christian Zionists) were only a small component of what went into national decisions.

The centerpiece is an analysis of Harry Truman and what went into his policies towards Palestine. Mead notes that Truman was very unpopular in his own party after FDR's death - he was reluctantly chosen as a vice presidential candidate to help Roosevelt get elected in 1944 - and that Truman had a great deal on his plate: political pressure from the Left, including from the very popular former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, a State Department that disagreed with Truman's ideas, a war-depleted Great Britain that wanted to hold onto some Middle East oil fields to help regain money and power, a devastated Europe that needed to be helped without the danger of a new menace arising, and a Soviet Union that had been an ally and looked to be becoming an enemy again, but which many American Leftists preferred to Britain. Truman needed to balance these with many domestic concerns and his own weakness as President. 

The Jewish lobby, and keeping Jews happy, was very far down on his priority list.

Mead busts myths right and left - for example, he notes that the State Department's opposition to a Jewish state was more out of concern that the Jews would certainly lose any war and there would be a new Jewish humanitarian and refugee crisis than any pro-Arab tilt. And he also destroys the myth the Harry Truman's meeting with Chaim Weizmann arranged by his old business partner, Eddie Jacobson, was critical in changing Truman's mind about the Jewish state - it notes that the US announced it opposition to the partition plan a day after that meeting in March 1948. Mead notes that Weizmann may have convinced Truman that the Jewish forces were better armed and prepared than the State Department thought, so the meeting may have had an effect, but this was not the Queen Esther moment that Zionist sources like to portray it as. 

The entire book is this way - looking at all the factors that went into decisions, some of which were far afield from the Middle East itself.

Mead is scrupulously unbiased and hardly a right wing Zionist (he supports a two state solution and is very  sympathetic to Palestinian Arabs). The overriding theme of the book is that Jews have not been as critical in important decisions as the many books written by Zionists and Vulcanists have implied. Sometimes the context that Mead adds to an episode goes on for tens of pages; in this sense this is almost a general history of American foreign relations and the different streams of thought behind it. 

Even though the role of Jews in this history is far more limited than had been previously assumed, to me the story is no less remarkable. On the contrary.

Four years ago, I gave a lecture at a Queens synagogue for Yom Haatzmaut. Given the venue, instead of concentrating on the facts as I do in this site, I spoke about the miracles behind Israel's rebirth - the improbable coincidences that set the stage for the English speaking Christian world to be interested in Jewish return to Israel, the improbable set of circumstances that led to the Balfour Declaration, and the almost unexplainable turn of the Soviet Union toward Zionism in exactly the time period of 1947 and 1948 when it mattered most (a topic Mead goes into here.)  To me, seeing the intricate sets of circumstances that all happened to converge to US and Soviet support of Israel when it was most needed is more incredible than any story about Jewish genius that could have helped bring it about.

The book is long, and the necessary context is at times lengthy. I was surprised that the biggest crisis in US-Israel relations, the 1956 Sinai war, is barely described.  But Arc of a Covenant is an essential and important book that explains the history of the US-Israel relationship - through Donald Trump - much better than any other I've seen. 




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