Why do so many American politicians, from state legislators and governors to members of Congress to presidents, express such passionate support for the State of Israel? Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) sparked a social media controversy Sunday night by asserting that the answer lies in campaign donations.
Responding to a tweet by journalist Glenn Greenwald complaining about “how much time US political leaders spend defending a foreign nation,” Omar tweeted “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” — a reference to a 1997 hit by rapper Puff Daddy. Challenged to explain by Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at Jewish publication the Forward, Omar answered “AIPAC!”
Omar’s tweet had similarities with classic anti-Semitism. Beliefs that Jews use wealth and control of the media to manipulate other nations dates to the Middle Ages and is a major theme of the infamous forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” In the United States, its prominent advocates included Henry Ford, who used his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, to promote anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. It is not clear whether Omar intended to evoke these beliefs, although she did also claim in a 2012 tweet that “Israel has hypnotized the world.”
Intentions aside, her explanation of the so-called special relationship between the United States and the State of Israel is wrong. Much of Israel’s influence is based on public support rather than elite attitudes. Furthermore, attitudes to Israel have been shaped far more fundamentally by internal debates among gentiles than the influence of Jewish organizations.
Israel is popular with the U.S. public
The most important reason public officials support Israel is that the public does. In fact, approval is at a 17-year high, with 74 percent of adults reporting a favorable opinion. Over time, that support has become increasingly concentrated among Republicans. However, majorities of Democrats and independents share their opinions.
Public support for Israel is not a new phenomenon. Surveys conducted between 1947 and 1949 showed that nearly three times as many Americans sympathized with Jews over Arabs in the conflict in former Mandatory Palestine. No subsequent survey has ever found greater sympathy for Arabs or Palestinians than for the Jewish State.
This popularity is rooted in part in debates among Christians
American approval for Israel in the 20th and 21st centuries has deep historical roots in the Christian understanding of America. In my book, “God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America,” I show that leaders of Puritan New England predicted the demographic return and political revival of the Jewish people in the biblical promised land. For figures like John Cotton and Increase Mather, the inevitable “restoration of the Jews” was proof that God kept his covenants with chosen peoples, providing reason to expect the success of their own “errand into the wilderness.”
Puritan arguments about the restoration of Israel were based on Calvinist theology and “Judeo-centric” interpretations of biblical prophecy that were developed by English scholars in the early 17th century. They were redeployed after the American Revolution, as Americans looked for precedents for a union of semi-independent communities under a single government. Combining prophetic hopes for Jewish restoration with republican political theory, ministers and scholars proposed that the biblical Hebrews were the best model for how a federally organized nation might work.
It was possible to admire the “Hebrew republic” as Thomas Paine did, without believing that the Jewish diaspora would return, or build a state. However, more theologically and politically conservative writers insisted that consolidation of the United States by the Constitution was a step toward the reestablishment of a Hebrew state in what Christians described as the Holy Land. “Who knows but God has raised up these United States, in these latter days, for the very purpose of accomplishing his will in bringing his beloved people to their own land?” asked Elias Boudinot, a former aide to Washington, member of the Continental Congress, and Federalist politician, in his 1814 book, “The Age of Revelation.”
American Christians expected that Jews would eventually convert to Christianity — a view Jews by definition reject. Yet 19th-century proto-Zionists like Boudinot argued that Jewish return would be accomplished through regular processes of international relations. In 1845, John Price Durbin, a Methodist who served as chaplain of the Senate and president of Dickinson College, insisted on “the undoubted fact of the restoration of a Jewish state in Palestine … by the operation of social and political causes” rather than a miracle.
Hopes for a political alliance between the United States and the people and land of Israel reached an early peak in 1891, when the evangelist William E. Blackstone presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison calling for the establishment of a Jewish State in Ottoman Palestine. Four hundred thirteen “representative” Americans endorsed it, including Supreme Court Chief Justice Melville Fuller, future president William McKinley, titans of industry and finance like John D. Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan, and the editors of dozens of major newspapers.
Much has changed in the United States — and the Middle East — since 1891. But the list of signatories to the so-called Blackstone Memorial is not so different to the rolls of political, economic, and media luminaries who declare their support for Israel today. Nor is the favorable reception they receive in White House. Blackstone’s meeting with Pres. Harrison was engineered by Harrison’s own Secretary of State, James G. Blaine.
History suggests that the United States’ sustained and often enthusiastic support for Zionism and the State of Israel is not a product of Jewish influence. On the contrary, it is primarily the result of arguments and organization undertaken by, for, and among gentiles.
Sam Goldman is assistant professor of political science and executive director at the Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University