What We Talk About When We Talk About Israel

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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

Matti Friedman in The Atlantic: 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 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.

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