Walter Russell Mead
International Herald Tribune
June 19, 2008 - 2:41pm

Many observers attribute U.S. support for Israel to the financial and political clout of the American Jewish community. In fact that is only a small part of the story.

For the last 60 years, non-Jewish Americans have overwhelmingly sided with the Jewish state rather than its enemies. Washington's pro-Israel stance in the Middle East reflects the wishes, above all, of American gentiles.

Israelis and American Jews seeking to drum up American support for the Jewish state are pushing on an open door; American gentiles were promoting the return of the Jews to the Holy Land long before Theodore Herzl's 1896 book, "The Jewish State," launched the modern Zionist movement among Jews.

John Adams "longed" for a Jewish state. In 1891 more than 400 American leaders, including Chief Justice Melville Weston Fuller of the Supreme Court, J.P. Morgan, John D. Rockefeller and the editors or publishers of several leading newspapers signed a petition to President Benjamin Harrison calling for the United States to use its diplomatic weight to promote the establishment of a free Jewish state in Palestine.

American evangelicals support Israel in part because of beliefs about Bible prophecies, but liberal Christians and their secular fellow citizens often share this commitment without such belief. Steeped in the language and the ideas of the Old Testament, religious and secular Americans alike have long seen a unique bond between themselves and the Jews.

Both peoples, Americans have believed, have a special mission from God. The Jews brought monotheism to the world; Americans are bringing liberty. God led the ancient Hebrews through the Red Sea and over the Jordan into a land flowing with milk and honey; God also, Americans have generally believed, brought our ancestors into the New World to a promised land.

The United States and Israel have both been powerfully shaped by a history of conflict and confrontation with those they displaced: Indians in America, Palestinians in Israel. The American pioneers believed that the failure of the Indians to "improve" the wilderness with towns and farms justified America's westward expansion; as Israeli pioneers built flourishing towns on barren hills and turned desert wastelands into fertile fields, many Americans felt that Israelis had a similar right to use land the Arabs had neglected.

In recent decades, support for Israel has intensified among "Jacksonian" voters in the U.S. heartland. Jacksonians are populist-nationalist voters who favor a strong U.S. military and admire victory - especially total victory. The sweeping, overwhelming triumph of Israeli arms in 1967 against numerically superior foes from three different countries resonated powerfully with them.

Since then, some of the same actions that have hurt Israel's image in most of the world have increased its support among Jacksonians. When rockets launched from Gaza strike Israel, the Israelis respond with greater firepower, greater destruction, and greater casualties. In much of the world, this is seen as excessive retaliation. Jacksonians, however, see Palestinian rocket attacks and suicide bombings as dishonorable terrorism and believe that the Israelis have an unlimited right, even a duty, to retaliate with maximum force.

For many Americans, Israel, despite its power and its victories, remains an endangered David surrounded by Goliaths. The fact that Arabs and the larger community of one billion Muslims support the Palestinian cause deepens the belief. Although the image of a solitary Israel surrounded by an anonymous mass of pan-Arab armies bristling with Soviet weaponry disappeared with the end of the Cold War, it was soon replaced by the perception of a besieged Jewish state amidst a sea of intolerant pan-Islamism.

Israel's international isolation does not bother Jacksonians; if anything, it reinforces its underdog status and makes American support more likely. Both the Old and New Testaments say that the "world" often stands against God's chosen people; the more Israel is attacked, the more many Americans feel duty bound to defend it.

The breadth and depth of America's sympathy for Israel need not be an obstacle to peace. In fact, if Palestinian and Arab leaders understood American culture better they could act so as to increase their American support and begin to shift American policy. Ending terrorist attacks against civilians would be a significant step in this direction, as would improving conditions for Christian minorities in Arab countries.

But there is one thing that both supporters and opponents of Washington's Middle East policies need to understand. The roots of U.S. support for Israel lie outside Washington and beyond the American Jewish community. The Arabist views of professional foreign policy élites have indeed often been overruled, but not because of the actions of a small, undemocratic lobby.

Wise or foolish, U.S. policies toward Israel reflect the values, hopes, and fears of the majority of American gentiles.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017