Prof. Michael Oren spoke tonight at a synagogue in DC on “America and the Zionist Idea”. He traced the history of American support for the idea of a Jewish state in Israel from the Mayflower through the modern day.
Oren began by mentioning his upcoming piece on the differences between McCain and Obama on issues relating to Israel. Despite the profound differences that he found, there is no difference between their support for Israel as a Jewish state and as a strategic ally. Unprecedented in American politics, both politicians visited Israel at the height of their campaigns.
There are those out there, especially in the press and academia, who would attribute this to the nefarious influence of the Israel lobby. Oren says that support for Israel comes from something deep-rooted in the American story, and not in any cabal of pro-Israel lobbyists.
Oren starts with William Bradford, who stepped off of the Mayflower and immediately proclaimed that he had reached the new Zion- Massachusetts. How did he come to conflate the two? Puritans, as an oppressed religious minority, looked for an appropriate model for their plight. They looked in the New Testament, but did not find the appropriate inspiration. They reached back to the Old Testament, which had been downplayed in contemporary European Christianity. There they found God speaking to his people, the Jews, in their language, Hebrew. He never spoke to other nations. In their minds and speech, Puritans became the new Israel, England the new Egypt, the King became Pharoah, and the Atlantic the new Sinai desert. They superimposed the geography of ancient Israel on the map of Massachusetts- hence the Sharons, Bethels, Rehoboths, and Jerusalems. Later, the universities they founded included Hebrew on their seals (Columbia, Dartmouth, Yale), and many of the university presidents and influential clergy studied and spoke Hebrew. They named their children Eleazar, Ebenezer, Daniel, and Increase (Joseph).
After the American Revolution, some American leaders wanted the new American seal to be the Bald Eagle clutching thirteen arrows, while another group wanted the seal to depict Moses leading the Israelites out of Egypt. The Moses group was defeated- but its proponents were none other than Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Only the University of Kansas, founded by New Englanders, decided on a seal that depicted Moses (and the burning bush).
This affinity toward the idea of Jewish state was not confined to the elite. Restorationism was a major movement in America, and its adherents believed that as good Americans, they must help Jews get back to Israel. John Adams wrote that it was his most ardent wish that 1000 Jewish soldiers, as highly disciplined as the French Army (it was pretty good back then), would conquer Palestine and claim it as a Jewish kingdom. In 1844, a major bestseller was “Valley of Visions”, which called for the U.S. Navy to sail to Palestine and detach it from the Ottoman Empire so that the Jews would have a state. Its author was the head of Hebrew department as NYU, a certain Professor George Bush, ancestor of two recent presidents. Lincoln, while president, said that returning Jews to Palestine was a dream cherished by many Americans.
Some Americans Christians, especially women, actually went to Palestine to physically recreate the Jewish state. They founded colonies designed to re-acquaint the Jews with the agrarian lifestyle. The Jews were not interested, and these colonies failed.
There was a colony founded in Jaffa in 1856, by the Dixon daughters from Groton, MA. The two girls married two German Lutherans in Palestine, including one Johann Grossteinbeck. Herman Melville came to visit that year, and shortly after he left Jaffa, local Bedouin raided the Dixon colony, killing most of the men, and raping the women before murdering them. Melville, distraught upon hearing the news, included the rape story in his poem about his travels to the Holy Land, Clarel (I don’t advise reading it, it’s the longest poem in American literature). The sole survivor of the attack, Johann, moved to California, and sought to start anew by Americanizing his name. His grandson, John Steinbeck III, included the rape story in East of Eden.
Later, 156 Christians moved to Jaffa, but disease destroyed their colony. The 47 survivors were rescued by the Quaker City, which carried Mark Twain. “Innocence Abroad” was Twain’s work that told of the terrible suffering of the American Christians in Palestine. Twain was so impressed with their mission that he met Herzl in Vienna, and offered to translate Herzl’s play into English.
In 1891, there was a petition presented to the American government that called for America to join with Russia and England and take Palestine from the Ottomans to give to the Jews. 400 prominent Americans signed the petition, including J.P. Morgan, Charles Scribner, Rockefeller, and William McKinley. Missing from this list were Jews.
Jewish Zionism had yet to catch on in America. Emma Lazarus founded the first Jewish Zionist organization in America, but was unsuccessful in attracting Jews to it. Only 10,000 American Jews were part of the American Zionist Federation in 1912, but, luckily for them, that was the year Louis Brandeis became its president.
Brandeis was a close friend of Woodrow Wilson, the son and grandson of preachers. Wilson grew up in the Restoration movement. When Arthur Balfour, an English Restorationist, came up with the idea of the Balfour Declaration during World War I, his government told him he was crazy. Balfour understood correctly that if he could get American support for it, the British would go along. After all, they wanted American participation in the war. Balfour presented his proposal to Secretary of State Robert Lansing, who also told him he was crazy. Balfour then turned to Brandeis.
On May 10, 1917, Brandeis had a forty minute meeting with Wilson. He walked out with Wilson’s approval, which Balfour took back to Britain, and won its support. The support for a Jewish homeland in Palestine was even written into the preamble of the League of Nations mandate for Palestine. Of the declaration, Wilson said, “To think that I, son of the manse, would have the opportunity to restore the Jewish people to the Holy Land”.
On May 12, 1948, there was a meeting in the White House. All of the defense establishment told Truman that support for Israeli statehood would lead to a global catastrophe. Even George Marshall opposed it. Truman, a strict Baptist, and a member of Restoration organization, told Marshall “Thank you”, then shut himself in the White House for 48 hours. The U.S. became the first country to support Israeli independence.
A week later, dignitaries on a tour of the White House ran into Truman. The guide introduced Truman as the man who “helped” establish Israel. Truman took offense at the insinuation the he only helped. “What?” he said. “I am Cyrus!”
Faith plays a very crucial role in the relationship. Nixon’s mother told him that he must never abandon Israel. Johnson’s grandmother told him the same thing. Clinton told Rabin that his pastor’s last demand of Clinton before his death was that he should never fail to protect Israel.
Ultimately, said Oren, the support of the Jewish state is inseparable from the idea of the United States.
Oren shared several interesting asides during the Q & A after the talk. He was flown to the U.S.S. Truman to speak to the 5000 sailors on board as she sped toward Israel to show support during Israel’s 60th anniversary celebrations. The commander, Herm Shalansky, said Hamotzi in the officers’ dining room as all the officers in the rooms stood at attention (including the admiral commanding the task force).
Oren was optimistic about continued support for Israel in America, but sees problems with youth, the media, and academia. Overall, in countries where churches are full, there is support for Israel, and America continues to be the most religious Western country in the world.