What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel

In a new book, Walter Russell Mead looks at all the ways Americans’ understanding of Israel has been refracted through their own internal conflicts and aspirations.

Israeli and American flags flying over Jerusalem
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP/Getty

In search of atmosphere and inspiration as I contemplated Walter Russell Mead’s magisterial new book about Israel and Jews in the American imagination, I took the bus from my street in Jerusalem across town to the American Colony. Founded in 1881 by fervent Protestants from Chicago, the colony was one of several attempts by 19th-century Americans to settle the Holy Land. Part of the idea was to induce Jews to take up farming by education or example, thus sparking a Jewish restoration that would in turn bring the Second Coming of Christ. But what made sense in Illinois made less sense in Ottoman Palestine, and the believers ultimately had to admit that real Jews weren’t particularly interested. Today the messianic compound is a luxury hotel.

The American Colony, where I’m writing these lines on a table in the courtyard, is one physical incarnation of the thesis of The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People. Mead, a distinguished professor of foreign affairs, columnist, and author, would like to take us on a tour not of Israel but of the manifestations of Israel in the American mind—an even weirder place than the actual country where I live and report.

The American fascination with Israel and with Jews, Mead believes, is not driven primarily by Israel or real Jews. Instead, “Israel” is a political instrument or a way of thinking about unrelated problems, just as those American settlers of the 1800s believed the Jews might serve as tools in a Christian end-times drama. The “idea that the Jews would return to the lands of the Bible and build a state there,” Mead writes, “touches on some of the most powerful themes and cherished hopes of American religion and culture.” And today, too, America’s furious debates about Israel policy have other homespun sources, and are more about conflicts over “American identity, the direction of world politics, and the place that the United States should aspire to occupy in world history than about anything that real-world Israelis and Palestinians may happen to be doing at any particular time.”

In that vein, Mead leads us with an even tone and expert hand through centuries of history, and through disparate topics including Puritan theology, the politics at the court of Kaiser Wilhelm II, and the personality of Billy Graham. Eleanor Roosevelt’s support for the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, we learn, was primarily a way of supporting a new “liberal order” after World War II. Growing Republican Party backing for Israel beginning in the 1970s was thanks not to any Jewish lobby but to the party’s understanding that this was an issue that could unite a fractious coalition of “pious evangelicals, honky-tonking southern good ol’ boys, blue-collar Midwestern Catholics, and elite neoconservative policy intellectuals”—just as today, hostility toward Israel is a way to mobilize a progressive movement that wants to somehow embrace both Dearborn and the Dyke March. For millions of American Christians in the late 1800s, a Jewish return to Zion was less about helping Jews than about proving the truth of biblical prophecy in a country where many seemed to be losing their religion.

In the guise of a book about Israel and America, in other words, Mead has actually written an ambitious and idiosyncratic history of large swaths of Western politics and thought. Implicitly, and perhaps even more important, the book makes a case that complicated and sensitive topics can still be covered with balance, sympathy, and even occasional humor.

Most striking, for this reader, was the reminder of the depth of Zionist enthusiasm in non-Jewish America, where the idea of a literal Jewish return to the Land of Israel was popular among Christians long before it caught on among Jews. The author tells us of a Zionist petition signed by 400 prominent Americans that was presented to the president in the White House in 1891, several years before even Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism, had found Zionism himself. Among the petition’s supporters, Mead notes archly, was The New York Times—which was then under non-Jewish ownership. Later, when its owners were Jews whose primary concern was not redemption but assimilation, the paper changed its tune. One of the recurring observations here is that non-Jewish Americans have often been far more fervent Zionists than Jews, giving the lie to the idea that Jews are twisting American policy in their own interests. This was amply illustrated during the Trump administration, Mead writes, which was opposed by a solid majority of American Jews: “If American Jews controlled America’s Israel policy, the U.S. embassy would still be in Tel Aviv, the annexation of the Golan Heights would not be recognized, and the United States would be pressing Israel on settlement policy.”

That American enthusiasm is much older even than the 1891 petition, and is in fact older than America. In 1666, we learn, the American clergyman Increase Mather was preaching to Puritans in Boston that “the body of the twelve Tribes of Israel shall be brought out of their present condition of bondage and misery, into a glorious and wonderful state of salvation, not only spiritual but temporal,” and that the Jews would “recover the Possession of their Promised Land.” Early Americans saw themselves in Jews, nationally and even personally: Increase’s name, a literal translation of the Hebrew “Joseph,” might now be considered cultural appropriation.

Mead’s point is that those who credit or blame Jews for America’s support of Israel misunderstand something basic about America. “The driving forces behind Americans’ fascination with Israel,” Mead writes, “originate outside the American Jewish community and are among the most powerful forces in American life.” Americans have identified with Jewish redemption because of their reading of scripture; or because they took them to be a great ancient people fallen on hard times, like the Ottoman-occupied Greeks, who were beloved by the liberal romantics of the 1800s and were misunderstood in similar ways; or because they imagined that a Jewish state would somehow look like America. Many supported a Jewish state so that Jews would go there instead of New York.

The Arc of a Covenant aims to convince critics who imagine undue Jewish influence on American politics—but also many Jews who have embraced the story that Israel was wrought by their own skill and dedication. That story may be empowering, Mead thinks, but it’s mostly wrong. One classic example, which I took to be true until this book forced me reluctantly to let it go, is about a famous intervention at the White House by Harry Truman’s Jewish friend and former business partner, Eddie Jacobson of Kansas City, Missouri, on the eve of Israel’s declaration of independence in the spring of 1948. Jacobson is said to have swayed the president toward supporting Israel’s creation over the opposition of the State Department. But as Mead shows, Jacobson and the Jews were secondary to the game that Truman was playing against his powerful domestic opponents, foreign allies like the British, and the Soviets. Jewish Zionists, despite both their own self-image and the dark fantasies of their enemies, have never been able to manipulate the political ocean’s currents. They’ve been washed this way and that like everyone else, and have survived by producing some talented surfers.

The fascination with Jews always has a dark side: The same Increase Mather who longed for a Jewish return to Zion, Mead reminds us, also wrote that the same people “have been wont once a year to steal Christian children and to put them to death by crucifying.” If Jews are symbols and not real people, they can be a symbol for all kinds of things, and this, too, remains a part of American intellectual life. The shooter who murdered 10 Black Americans in a Buffalo, New York, supermarket in May left a manifesto identifying Jews as villains engineering the erasure of white America; this view, known as the “Great Replacement” theory, is common on the far right. On the left, meanwhile, the American international-relations scholar David Rothkopf suggested in a tweet and an op-ed that the shooter’s motivations actually had something to do with “the same kind of racism and closely linked political forces” present in Israel. None of this is rational, but neither was the American Colony or the sermons of Increase Mather. This kind of thing will only grow as the sanity of the American body politic continues to erode, and as many on the right and the left abandon the grubby field of reality for a simplistic battle between good and evil.

“Americans are usually optimists; our history has made us so,” Mead writes. “The belief that history is ascending toward a future of more freedom, more justice, more abundance, and higher spiritual values is one of the foundations of American thought.” In this impressive and timely volume, this was the only sentence that struck me as possibly wrong or out of date; it might have actually changed in the decade that Mead tells us he spent writing The Arc of a Covenant. A kind of apocalyptic pessimism seems to have taken hold, and the way this plays out will dictate the next chapters of the story Mead is telling. In keeping with their religious and political DNA, Americans will continue to explain themselves to themselves with stories about a country and a people called “Israel.” From my table at the American Colony, whose founders were certainly optimists, it seems clear that as long as America’s future seems bright, Israel might appear as part of that shining horizon. But when things seem dark, some will find refuge in another kind of fantasy, and the arc might get bent into a different shape altogether.