Many people think that Jewish lobbying, pressure and influence dragged a reluctant Uncle Sam into the Middle East. Think again.
Now it’s true that American opposition to Zionism has a long and distinguished pedigree. In the 19th century, American missionaries built a network of colleges and hospitals across what was then the Ottoman Empire and what today we call the Middle East. The missionaries and their students helped develop modern secular Arab nationalism. The idea was that if Arabs stopped thinking of themselves as Muslims and Christians, but developed a communal inter-religious identity, this would allow Christian Arabs to play a larger role in political life and, the missionaries hoped, one day open the doors to present the gospel to the Muslims. Many of the great leaders of Arab secular nationalism, including the (French-educated) Michel Aflaq, founder of the Ba’ath Party that once ruled Iraq and still rules Syria and whose beautiful tomb in Baghdad (at right) was built by Saddam Hussein, were Arabs of Christian origin.
For these missionaries, the establishment of a Jewish state in Palestine looked like a disaster. It radicalized and fragmented Arab politics and introduced the motifs of religious struggle that to this day divide, for example, the Palestinians between religious parties like Hamas and secular ones like Fatah. Zionism was especially polarizing in modern Syria, Lebanon and Palestine — where some of the highest concentrations of Arab Christians were. Moreover, the American missionaries in the Arab world identified with the Arab struggles for independence first from the Ottomans, and later from the British and the French. They generally had a great deal of respect for Arab culture and looked to establish a close relationship between the United States and the rising Arab peoples. The missionaries and their successors believed that the smart choice for the United States in the Middle East was to make friends with the Arabs; American support for the Jews was a foreign policy disaster that ran clearly counter to our obvious national interest.
Today when we think of missionaries we tend to think of evangelicals from what we East Coast types call the boondocks when nobody is looking, and the heartland when we are running for office, especially in the Iowa caucuses. One hundred years ago, that wasn’t true. Missionaries for the mainline denominations — which were the ones who predominated in the Ottoman Empire and who controlled the great missionary institutions of the day — were often extremely well connected and were sometimes well heeled members of the establishment. Prominent business and political leaders sat on the boards of missionary colleges and missionary kids regularly returned for college at places like Yale before heading into careers in government service — and especially into the State Department. (Missionary kids understood foreign languages and culture; they played a huge role in the expansion of America’s international presence during and after World War Two.)
The missionaries were more like the development establishment and the Ford Foundation of today than like Campus Crusade for Christ, and the young people (more than half of them women by some counts) who went into missionary service were more like Peace Corps and development workers. They were, in other words, very much like the people in America today who are least likely to sympathize with Israel in the Middle East: well connected, well educated intellectuals and professionals from a high WASP and usually New England, background. They generally had a wider knowledge about foreign affairs than most other Americans, and were interested in and concerned about development, democratization and women’s rights. Their connection to Christianity was closer than that of their descendants; they believed that the promotion of social equality, economic development, rights for women and transparency in government were all intrinsically connected to the promotion of Christianity, but the missionaries and their allies were liberal upper-middle-class professionals from the mainline denominations and their descendants and heirs are very much with us now — and they still tend not to like Israel very much.
Then, as now, they thought Zionism was basically a bad idea (though once the state of Israel was a fait accompli they didn’t support its destruction), that it was bad for American foreign policy, and that the United States ought to stay as far away from it as possible. Then, as now, they were largely clueless about why the Zionist cause was so persistently popular in Congress; then, as now, they blamed it on the Jews. At that time, unlike today, these sentiments were often expressed in overtly and even virulently anti-Semitic language.
Although American anti-Zionists have never quite been able to figure it out, the typical pattern in the politics of American policy toward Israel dates back into the 19th century. Public opinion is generally strongly pro-Zionist and Congress reflects that sentiment. The diplomatic and academic establishment is much more cautious, with attitudes ranging from coolly skeptical to bitterly opposed. Presidents occupy the middle ground, looking to harmonize the public’s support with the establishment’s unhappiness and they tilt one way or another depending on their assessment of the domestic and international politics of the day.
This, I think, is the heart of the matter: American Jews didn’t drag reluctant American gentiles into the Middle East; it’s much more accurate to say that American gentiles pushed reluctant American Jews into the Zionist movement. If American Jews had the power to shape American policy towards the Jews through the twentieth century, most likely there would be no state of Israel today. This is an inconvenient truth. Zionist myths about the Jewish past and gentile myths about American innocence are both challenged by this history.
American Jewish leaders in the old days were largely anti-Zionist for both ideological and pragmatic reasons. Ideologically they mostly accepted the view that Judaism was a religion not a nation. There were American Jews and French Jews and Russian Jews just like there were Swedish Lutherans and German Lutherans and American Lutherans. Pragmatically, they thought that helping the tiny Jewish community in Palestine to grow was a distraction from the much more important job of helping millions of Jews in the war-devastated parts of Europe and the Middle East survive, and defending their rights in the chaos and anti-Semitism that marked the aftermath of the war. (Some were also anti-Zionist because Zionism was strongest among Russian Jews. Assimilated German-American Jews had little in common with these strange new ‘eastern’ Jews.)
If Jews had been running America back then, our foreign policy before and after World War One would have first stressed strong and effective support for Jews in central and eastern Europe. We would have stayed involved in Europe after the war and worked with Britain and France to make sure that countries like Poland treated their large Jewish minorities fairly. But Jews weren’t in charge. Gentiles didn’t want to do that, and it didn’t happen. We wrote nasty notes and pursed our lips in disapproval, but that was about it, and there was virtually no support for a more aggressive human rights policy at the time.
The second priority of American Jews earlier in the century was to permit greater Jewish immigration to the United States, especially as the Nazi persecution intensified. Once again, the answer was clear, unambiguous and united: No.
America made the decision with wide public support after World War One that immigration to the United States could not be the solution to the world’s humanitarian problems. Not for Jews, not for Christian Armenians and Greeks, not for refugees from the massacres of Christian minorities in the post-World War One Middle East, not for Italians, Czechs or Poles. The door was closed; America was full. In 1924 a narrow quota system was imposed which dramatically cut the overall number of immigrants and slashed immigration from countries where Jews lived even more. Well placed and wealthy Jews lobbied to keep immigration open, and when that failed they lobbied for special emergency quotas to help Jews trying to flee the worsening conditions in Germany and elsewhere. No dice and no deal: no ‘special treatment’ for the Jews. (This wasn’t just anti-Semitism, though anti-Semitism played a role. Politicians didn’t see how they could let Jews in without angering other American ethnic groups whose immigration quotas were small. Operating an immigration system that essentially discriminated in favor of Jews was something the American political system could not handle.)
The third and last possibility, something that many American Jewish leaders could only bring themselves to endorse, reluctantly, after World War Two had already broken out, was to ask for American support for Jewish immigration to Palestine and for Jewish political aspirations there. Here, American Jews were basically pushing on an open door. Public opinion always favored this option; after World War One, the Balfour Declaration was endorsed in both houses of Congress by unanimous votes (in the same 67th Congress that issued emergency immigration quotas).
A conspiratorial-minded and paranoid Jew could come up with a description of the modern Zionist movement as a gentile plot against the Jews: to push them all into a narrow, inhospitable strip of desert land entirely surrounded by people who hate them. This in fact is one reason so many American Jewish leaders opposed the Zionist movement in the early years. They saw it as a kind of “Jewish Liberia”; just as whites once hoped to recolonize African-Americans in Africa they might want to send the Jews ‘back’ to their ‘home.’
From a Jewish point of view, it was Zion or bust. Given gentile attitudes in the United States, Zionism was the only possible program to help world Jews that the United States was actually willing to support. This stark and unavoidable fact is what slowly turned many American Jews toward the Zionist movement. If the United States had organized a strong and effective western coalition to defend Jews across Europe after 1919 or alternatively had simply permitted free Jewish immigration to this country after 1923, Jewish history might have taken a very different course.
You may be proud of this history, you may think it was all a ghastly mistake, or you may shake your head over the mysterious and twisting turns that history makes. It doesn’t much matter; when Americans look at the Jewish state today, we need to recognize that if there was a paternity suit in this case, the DNA test would nail us. Like it or not, that’s our baby over there. Jews built the state of Israel, but Israel exists today because it was an American as well as a Jewish dream to build it.
Without an understanding of this history, I think it’s impossible to think clearly either about the realities of the Middle East or about the politics of Israel policy in the United States today. The missionaries never got this; their heirs still get it wrong.
[This post reflects some work I've done on a book about gentile co-responsibility for Israel; I'm publishing these thoughts in part as a kind of open study group. Feel free to comment -- not that you need any encouragement! The responses will help me test my assumptions, see where the argument -- which looks solid to me -- might need more work, and come out at the end with a better, stronger book. Who knows: you might even persuade me that I'm wrong.]