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Perspective: Support for Israel is not about ‘the Jewish lobby’

To many Americans, Israel is not just another country. It is the Holy Land

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President Joe Biden stands with Israeli President Isaac Herzog on Thursday, July 14, 2022, in Jerusalem.

President Joe Biden stands with Israeli President Isaac Herzog and his wife, Michal, as the pose for photos with children waving American flags and flags of Israel during an arrival ceremony at the Israeli president’s residence Thursday, July 14, 2022, in Jerusalem.

Evan Vucci, Associated Press

They’re still at it. Yet another opponent of the state of Israel has blamed the Jews for running the world. This time, the culprit is Francesca Albanese, the Uniter Nations’ special rapporteur for human rights.

In a 2014 Facebook post that was recently revealed, the Italian citizen claimed that “America and Europe, one of them subjugated by the Jewish lobby, and the other by the sense of guilt about the Holocaust, remain on the sidelines and continue to condemn the oppressed — the Palestinians …” 

Albanese has tried to distance herself from the remarks since they were reported by The Times of Israel, saying in a tweet that the reporting was politically motivated. But there’s really no escape from condemnations issued by the Israeli mission to the U.N., U.S. envoy on antisemitism Deborah Lipstadt, and other officials.  Fear of nefarious influence is among the oldest tropes in the anti-Zionist — and antisemitic — imagination. Rather than mere dislike, hatred of the Jewish state and Jews revolves around a conspiracy theory of secret, yet pervasive power.

That theory has never been true in any of its versions. When it comes to U.S. foreign policy, however, the claim is particularly misleading.

You don’t need campaign donations (“it’s all about the Benjamins” as Minnesota Democrat Ilhan Omar once claimed) or lobbying campaigns to explain why American politicians, have been broadly supportive of the state of Israel since it was established in 1948. The answer lies in the preferences of the American public, which still remains largely Christian and has shown an affinity for Israel for as long as the issue has been polled. 

It’s possible, of course, that public opinion has been swayed by favorable depictions in the media — a charge that’s part of Albanese’s indictment. As any advertising professional will admit, though, it’s not easy to convince people of anything they’re not already inclined to believe. And as historian Walter Russell Mead argues in his new book (and I’ve explored in my own scholarship), the roots of Americans’ inclination toward Israel grow deeper. 

One set of causes is concentrated in the transformation of American foreign policy around the second World War. Arguments that the war shifted the U.S. from international isolation to activism tend to exaggerate a more complicated reality. It’s true, though, that the Near East became more central to American policy than it had previously been. Few Americans before World War II thought of these regions as America’s problem one way or the other. The experience of global conflict brought them much closer to the center of attention.

New interest in the region could have dictated a preference for the Arab states, which many mid-century diplomats recommended. But strategic changes associated with the war were accompanied by ideological ones. By the late 1940s, Americans were becoming accustomed to seeing themselves as the fated champions of freedom against tyranny. That made purely instrumental calculations of interest difficult to sustain as public argument, even as they remained familiar behind closed doors.

But why should a foreign policy justified by appeals to freedom lead to support for Israel? Part of the answer is that Zionist leaders were careful to align themselves with the American-led alliance that emerged victorious from the war. In their new book, “Israel’s Declaration of Independence: The History and Political Theory of the Nation’s Founding Moment,” scholars Neil Rogachevsky and Dov Zigler show how David Ben-Gurion and his colleagues drew on a range of sources, including the U.S. Declaration of Independence, to justify the existence of the new state. Although they didn’t agree on the details, almost all thought it was essential to define Israel as the kind of democratic nation-state that the “United Nations” (originally the formal term for the anti-Axis alliance, later adopted by international assembly) was theoretically committed to supporting.

There was a propaganda component to these efforts, including public relations spectacles that played up analogies between American and Israeli independence. But it wasn’t all propaganda. Despite the socialist origins that made some Americans suspicious of the Zionist movement and later the State of Israel, Rogachevsky and Zigler document a sincere effort to place Israel squarely within what was already becoming known as “the free world.” The drift of some Middle Eastern states into the Soviet sphere of influence only helped cement that connection.

Still, what John F. Kennedy would call the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel is not comprehensible without religion. To a considerable number of Americans, the State of Israel (and its legal predecessor, the British Mandate for Palestine established by the League of Nations) was not just another country, however geographically or politically significant.

Israel was and is the Holy Land, where Jesus and the biblical patriarchs lived, died and served the Lord.  

The land isn’t the only special thing about Israel. The Jewish people are the “Chosen People” of the Old Testament and, in several Christian traditions, living proof of God’s continuing direction of the course of human events. Even before the Holocaust, then, the fate of the Jews was a matter of religious, not merely humanitarian significance. For many Americans the prospect of political rebirth in the biblical promised land seemed like the kind of miracle they had only read about.

To be sure, not all American Christians have held these views. Even if they were nominally Christian, some were simply indifferent to religious considerations, whether for personal or political reasons. Others embraced classical antisemitism, which blamed the Jews for poverty, war and the rest of humanity’s ills. A third group, less prominent but still influential today, insist that a more universal community had replaced the people and land of Israel as the object of God’s interest. That cohort included both Catholics, particularly before the Second Vatican Council, and some ecumenical Protestants, who saw political nationalism as an obstacle to the brotherhood of man. 

For many Americans, though, U.S. support for Israel was a way of confirming America’s own calling within God’s plan. Even for those who were not doctrinal believers, Israel’s independence, survival, and military and political successes extended narratives and imaginative landscapes derived from the Bible into modern times while also allowing the U.S., which is absent from the sources, to step into the spotlight.

That’s what Harry Truman was doing when he proclaimed “I am Cyrus!” at a meeting of Jewish organizations shortly after he left the White House. It’s not that deep faith led Truman to his decision to recognize the state of Israel — a decision opposed by prominent advisers including Secretary of State George Marshall. Rather, the decision made sense within a worldview forged by Bible reading, electoral politics and the geopolitics of the burgeoning Cold War.  

Whether or not Truman knew it, in fact, his comparison of his presidency, and implicitly the United States, to the most prominent gentile patron of Jewish restoration has a long history. Going back to the New England Puritans, Americans have entertained recurring hopes that they might somehow participate in the restoration of the original chosen people to the original promised land. These hopes didn’t necessarily make theological sense. But as they diffused through preaching, literature about the so-called Holy Land, songs that dramatized Biblical characters and stories, and eventually broadcast media, they helped create an American political culture in which a preference for Israel is not merely a viable option, but often seems the natural one.  

If that analysis is on the right track, it includes both bad news and good news for Albanese and other critics of America’s special relationship with Israel. The bad news is that blaming the “Jewish lobby” won’t help their cause — partly because Jewish groups hold a range of positions on Israel, but mostly because even their combined efforts would be insufficient to impose a policy that was unpopular with voters. Although it’s presented as an appeal to liberation from subversive influences, the very concept combines implicit contempt for most Americans with its explicit contempt for Jews. After all, they’d have to be remarkably weak and stupid to be duped for all these years.

But American opinion may be changing as memories of World War II and the Cold War fade. Even among evangelical Protestants, the most enthusiastic Christian supporters for the past half century, younger Americans are less likely to express warm feeling for Israel. And a survey released in May found that the growing cohort of the unaffiliated (which also skews young) are the least likely religious group to express even somewhat favorable views of the Israeli government. That number may drop even further once the Israel’s incoming religious nationalist coalition takes office. 

Significant as it’s been in the past, then, it’s possible that American support for Israeli could at some future date be on the way out. But, importantly, it won’t be because of the rise and fall of some Jewish cabal, as antisemites believe. Rather, it will be as the result of changes within America’s still majority Christian public.

Samuel Goldman is an associate professor of political science and executive director of the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University.