Walter Russell Mead’s latest book, The Arc of a Covenant, places our understanding of United States-Israeli relations on a broad historical and sociological foundation. Mead seeks to approach the fraught subject free from myths and distortions that have plagued analysis and discourse. His balanced Wall Street Journal editorials augur well for the integrity of this project, and he does not disappoint.
American Middle East policy, Mead notes, is “often emotionally dense but intellectually thin.” To get a clear picture, he had to critically confront both pro- and anti-Zionist legends and detach himself from the moralism that generally distorts and inflames discussion about relations with Israel. Historically, much of this discourse has been clouded by various anti-Semitic conspiracy theories—what Mead terms “Vulcanist” polemics about a “shadowy, all powerful ‘Israel lobby’ driving US foreign policy, and a Jewish cabal leveraging global political, media and financial influence.”
Yet the facts show that support for Zionism and the State of Israel is rooted in and has emerged from differentiated political and religious sources.
The Jewish State
The re-establishment of the Jewish people in a Jewish state in Palestine has been seen as the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy, especially by Calvinists and Evangelical Christians. Modern Israel’s founding validates this prophecy and thus Biblical literalism, and the Evangelical movement itself.
Support for Israel today rides on strong spiritual undercurrents, often unnoticed or ignored by mainstream commentators, like anti-globalist literature expressing a “premillennialist theology that has been one of the sources of Christian Zionism since the mid-nineteenth century…” The Evangelical Right promotes Israel, but in fact Israel has been the issue around which that political-religious formation has congealed: “Israel helped evangelical religion become a major force in American life,” according to Mead. “For hundreds of millions of evangelical and Pentecostal Christians in the United States and beyond, the rise of Israel is seen to prove the truth of salvationist Christianity in the real world.” European support for the rights of Jews, and for Zionism generally obtained from a formal universalism based on logic. It was different for many Americans, for whom fraternal feelings for the Jews merged with their attachment to the principles of religious equality and freedom in a way that resonates with the integration of reason and belief in Judaism itself.
However, Jewish communities in Europe and the United States have often been ambivalent, if not hostile, to Zionism as a movement that could undermine their hard-won assimilation—as Theodore Herzl found. Israel is not the most important issue for American Jews, despite Jesse Jackson’s claim that “all Hymie wants to talk about is Israel.”
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, despite the uniqueness of the Jews and their history of persecution, Zionism was in important ways seen as consistent with the emergence of other national movements in Europe’s disintegrating imperial zone. In the 19th century, nationalism had been seen as an “incubator” for democracy, freedom, and social progress; and Jewish nationalism was not viewed as antithetical to positive political principles. Philo-Semitic politics has deep roots in the European left “dating back to the struggle against absolutist monarchies and clerical rule,” sympathies strengthened by the Holocaust. To be pro-Jewish was to be antifascist.
The story of US-Israel relations started with the emergence of Zionism and the forces that led up to it. Mead builds this big picture with numerous passages explaining a wide range of religious and political tendencies and specific events. A number of these sections could work as free-standing essays, and the themes of some extend quite far from the subject at hand. Eleven pages are devoted to a digression on the culture of the 1970s. Mead downloads many reasonable generalities, and some have a patronizing tone. One section, for example, begins: “The story of the Jews under Soviet rule is a complex one.” After broad forays into related subjects, he sometimes links them to the subject of the book almost as an afterthought, adding toward the end of another, “Finally, there was the question of Israel.”
Mead’s even-handed narrative becomes more focused with his account of the intensifying development of Zionism after World War I. He shows how opposition to the establishment of Israel among Arab leaders was differentiated. One of the myths misinforming our discourse is that Arab states act only on passion: “They do not reason, they do not calculate, they do not develop visions of their political and national interests…” But Anwar Sadat’s policy of peace with Israel, and the Abraham Accords, show otherwise.
The prospect of a Jewish state in Palestine posed a dilemma for Great Britain mainly because, following World War II, crippling economic problems made the maintenance of relationships with oil-producing Arab states an existential necessity. No doubt anti-Semitism entered into British and American policies during the violent emergence of the State of Israel, but economic and geo-political factors played the main role. American hesitation formed around fears of Arab radicalization and Soviet subversion. Britain passed its mandate to the newly formed United Nations as an expedient public relations gesture empowering the new global structure. President Truman contended not only with the struggle for Israeli statehood during a period of explosive instability, but with domestic demands to respect UN resolutions and to settle international questions through collective processes. His immediate recognition of Israel overruled objections from State Department officials whom he called “striped pants conspirators.”
America, Israel, and the World
The final chapters of the book examine US-Israel relations under recent administrations, as the association between the two states became increasingly important and vivid. Prior to becoming a major regional military power, Israel was not a preoccupation of US policy. But as the county matured, finding peace between Israel and the Palestinians became a “Holy Grail” for American presidents. George W. Bush, ignoring taunts by his mother about being a “Jewish president,” tilted heavily toward Israel with “ill-founded optimism” about putting the peace process on a more stable footing.
Perceived as a nation of victims, Israel was also, in its first decades, one of the most socialist countries in the democratic world. While Leftist disaffection with Israel has often coalesced around the issue of Palestinian refugees, the Israeli-Palestine conflict is not the only territorial dispute in the world, and others have generated more displacement, misery, and conflict, yet have less concern. What seems to alienate the Left about Israel is the country’s nationalism and unapologetic military defense. As Fiamma Nirenstein chided in a 2003 speech on anti-Semitism, “The Left [had traditionally] blessed the Jews as the victim ‘par excellence’… In return for being coddled, published, filmed, considered artists, intellectuals and moral judges, Jews, even during the Soviet anti-Semitic persecutions, gave the Left moral support and invited it to cry with them at Holocaust memorials.” But a Jewish nation, armed to the teeth and refusing to be victims anymore, and embracing private entrepreneurship, is another matter altogether. Nazism and fascism in the 20th century delegitimated nationalism, and Israeli nationalism looked like a “dangerous relic of a toxic past.”
Barack Obama originally entertained a “reflexive sympathy for Zionism” typical of his generation of Progressives. But part of Obama’s “nuanced” effort to “make the world cooler” was a “tough love” policy toward Israel, combined with a decision to bet on Iran as key to Middle East peace, a major defeat for the pro-Israel lobby. In Israel, a surge of Sephardic and Russian immigrants led to a tougher line on relations with Palestinians and also with America. Israel became too strong and self-confident to be bullied. Israel found common ground with Arab states, which tacitly backed Israel against Hamas, and joined Israel in opposing America’s ingratiatory courtship of Iran. As Mead puts it, “unwittingly…the Obama administration had laid the foundation for the integration of Israel into the Middle East.”
Trump’s “unstinting support” for Israel “united and energized” a political coalition based largely on religious sensitivities. Moving the US embassy to Jerusalem (against years of State Department opposition) was a political victory for Trump. Trump’s pro-Israel policies “inoculated” him from alt-right pressures, amidst a general rise in anti-Semitism in America. While hostile majorities piled on Israel with biased resolutions in the United Nations, Israel became, not “the Jew of nations,” but a hero to “Jacksonian Americans” professing national populism and rejecting cosmopolitan globalism which was seen as a destructive of sovereignty, national traditions, and moral standards.
Hostile states and nongovernmental organizations have used international institutions to defile and delegitimate Israel. About 46 percent of all country-specific UN Human Rights Council Resolutions have condemned Israel. Israel and antisemitism have thus drawn out and exposed the moral fissures in the UN’s model of institutionalized universalism and the integrity of the international human rights system. Theodore Herzl has thus emerged not only as the visionary father of Zionism, but as one who foretold the limitations, and perhaps even the dysfunction, of liberal internationalism, since he insisted that liberalism would not save the Jews not then and not now.
The central subject of the book seems to be America’s moral foundation and how it shapes the country’s role in the world, as illustrated by the country’s relationship with Jews, Zionism, and Israel—how these have brought out the worst, and the best in America, and even increasingly catalyze America’s understanding of itself and its destiny. This focus in turn raises broader, and perhaps even cosmic questions. Why does America’s approach to the Jewish people and Israel hold the key to its moral personality?
Historically, Jews have exerted a spiritually disruptive and revolutionary influence, calling the legitimacy of authorities and religious traditions into question by reference to transcendent principles of which they have been the custodians. They have also unsettled modern societies. As Paul Johnson wrote in his A History of the Jews, “for 1500 years Jewish society had been designed to produce intellectuals” and abstract ideas. In the 19th century, this “machine for the production of intellectuals….unleashed them into secular life,” transforming modern intellectual and economic life. The Jews, and Israel, have been polarizing, and not only in the extensive antisemitic regions of the international community. The question of why this is so lurks behind Mead’s broad and deep analysis of US-Israel relations.