In the United States, a pro-Israel foreign policy does not represent the triumph of a small lobby over the public will. It represents the power of public opinion to shape foreign policy in the face of concerns by foreign policy professionals. Like the war on drugs and the fence along the Mexican border, support for Israel is a U.S. foreign policy that makes some experts and specialists uneasy but commands broad public support. This does not mean that an "Israel lobby" does not exist or does not help shape U.S. policy in the Middle East. Nor does it mean that Americans ought to feel as they do. (It remains my view that everyone, Americans and Israelis included, would benefit if Americans developed a more sympathetic and comprehensive understanding of the wants and needs of the Palestinians.) But it does mean that the ultimate sources of the United States' Middle East policy lie outside the Beltway and outside the Jewish community. To understand why U.S. policy is pro-Israel rather than neutral or pro-Palestinian, one must study the sources of nonelite, non-Jewish support for the Jewish state.
THE CHILDREN OF DAVID
The story of U.S. support for a Jewish state in the Middle East begins early. John Adams could not have been more explicit. "I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation," he said, after his presidency. From the early nineteenth century on, gentile Zionists fell into two main camps in the United States. Prophetic Zionists saw the return of the Jews to the Promised Land as the realization of a literal interpretation of biblical prophecy, often connected to the return of Christ and the end of the world. Based on his interpretation of Chapter 18 of the prophecies of Isaiah, for example, the Albany Presbyterian pastor John McDonald predicted in 1814 that Americans would assist the Jews in restoring their ancient state. Mormon voices shared this view; the return of the Jews to the Holy Land was under way, said Elder Orson Hyde in 1841: "The great wheel is unquestionably in motion, and the word of the Almighty has declared that it shall roll."
Other, less literal and less prophetic Christians developed a progressive Zionism that would resonate down through the decades among both religious and secular gentiles. In the nineteenth century, liberal Christians often believed that God was building a better world through human progress. They saw the democratic and (relatively) egalitarian United States as both an example of the new world God was making and a powerful instrument to further his grand design. Some American Protestants believed that God was moving to restore what they considered the degraded and oppressed Jews of the world to the Promised Land, just as God was uplifting and improving the lives of other ignorant and unbelieving people through the advance of Protestant and liberal principles. They wanted the Jews to establish their own state because they believed that this would both shelter the Jews from persecution and, through the redemptive powers of liberty and honest agricultural labor, uplift and improve what they perceived to be the squalid morals and deplorable hygiene of contemporary Ottoman and eastern European Jews. As Adams put it, "Once restored to an independent government and no longer persecuted they would soon wear away some of the asperities and peculiarities of their character and possibly in time become liberal Unitarian Christians." For such Christians, American Zionism was part of a broader program of transforming the world by promoting the ideals of the United States.
Not all progressive Zionists couched their arguments in religious terms. As early as 1816, Niles' Weekly Register, the leading American news and opinion periodical through much of the first half of the nineteenth century, predicted and welcomed the impending return of the Jews to an independent state with Jerusalem as its capital. The magazine projected that the restoration of the Jews would further enlightenment and progress -- and this, clearly, would be good for the United States as well as for the Jews.
Prophetic Zionists, for their part, became more numerous after the American Civil War, and their views of the role a restored Jewish state might play in the events leading up to the apocalypse became more highly developed. Books and pamphlets highlighting the predicted restoration of the Jews and speculating on the identity and the return of the "lost tribes" of the ancient Hebrews were perennial bestsellers, and the association between Dwight Moody, the country's leading evangelist, and Cyrus Scofield, the important Bible scholar, put the future history of Israel firmly at the center of the imagination of conservative American Protestantism.
These groups of gentile Zionists found new, if sometimes unsavory, allies after 1880, when a mass immigration of Russian Jews to the United States began. Some of them and some assimilated German American Jews hoped that Palestine would replace the United States as the future home of what was an unusually unpopular group of immigrants at the time. For anti-Semites, the establishment of a Jewish state might or might not "cure" Jews of the characteristics many gentiles attributed to them, but in any case the establishment of such a state would reduce Jewish immigration to the United States.
In 1891, these strands of gentile Zionists came together. The Methodist lay leader William Blackstone presented a petition to President Benjamin Harrison calling on the United States to use its good offices to convene a congress of European powers so that they could induce the Ottoman Empire to turn Palestine over to the Jews. The 400 signatories were overwhelmingly non-Jewish and included the chief justice of the Supreme Court; the Speaker of the House of Representatives; the chairs of the House Ways and Means Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee; the future president William McKinley; the mayors of Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington; the editors or proprietors of the leading East Coast and Chicago newspapers; and an impressive array of Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, and Roman Catholic clergy. Business leaders who signed the petition included Cyrus McCormick, John Rockefeller, and J. P. Morgan. At a time when the American Jewish community was neither large nor powerful, and no such thing as an Israel lobby existed, the pillars of the American gentile establishment went on record supporting a U.S. diplomatic effort to create a Jewish state in the lands of the Bible.
Any discussion of U.S. attitudes toward Israel must begin with the Bible...