Few issues are as widely covered as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, as Walter Russell Mead documents in his new book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, few subjects are so misunderstood.
A scholar at the Hudson Institute and a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, Mead isn’t authoring merely another book in a crowded catalog. Rather, he seeks to understand the roots of U.S. support for Israel. And what he finds rebuts narratives that are both common and superficial.
Some have argued that American support for Israel is the result of pernicious and undue Jewish influence. Mead labels this line of thinking the “Planet Vulcan” theory, after a nineteenth-century astronomer’s mistaken belief that a hidden planet, later named “Vulcan,” was responsible for upending the laws of Newtonian physics. Of course, there was no hidden celestial body that was, through unseen force, manipulating the solar system. But this didn’t stop others from thinking that such a planet existed. Similarly, as Mead thoroughly documents, there is no secret force, no all-powerful lobby, that is pulling the strings to enforce U.S. support for the Jewish state.
Instead, the truth is both more complicated and more interesting.
Support for Zionism—the belief in Jewish self-determination—is as American as apple pie. “Israel occupies a unique place in American foreign policy,” Mead observes, “because it occupies a unique, and uniquely charged, place in the American mind.” To prove his point, Mead doesn’t begin his book in 1948 with Israel’s creation as a modern state. Instead, he begins with the founding of the United States.
From its inception, the United States has had a unique relationship with the Jewish people. America was vastly more tolerant and less antisemitic than many of its European counterparts. This isn’t to say that antisemitism didn’t exist—it certainly did, and Mead does highlight the antisemitic beliefs that were common among many Americans, from the conservative ruling class to the populist movements that helped birth progressivism in the early twentieth century.
But America’s founders were also steeped in both the Bible and classical history, displaying a deep reverence for Greek and Roman civilization. This imparted a respect for ancient Hebrew civilization as well.
From the start, the United States viewed itself as a providential power with a unique mission to democratize the world. This also translated into a desire to restore the Jewish people to their ancestral homeland. “I could find it in my heart to wish that you had been at the head of a hundred thousand Israelites,” John Adams wrote to a Jewish friend, “making a conquest of that country and restoring your nation to the dominion of it.” Importantly these beliefs were in evidence long before the mass immigration of Jews to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They were part of the national character early on.