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How the U.S. Rooted Israeli Relations in its Own Religiosity

By Lexi Kallaher

Evangelist Billy Graham in Jerusalem visiting holy places in the city in 1969. Photo by PW/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Exodus 3:8 writes, “I have come down to rescue them from the Egyptians and to bring them out of that land to a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey,”. Exodus was referring to the land geographically at and adjacent to the present-day state of Israel. Yet, this did not stop settlers in the 1600s from regarding their new home in America as the new land of “milk and honey”. American pioneers believed in such a presence of divinity amongst them, settlers saw themselves in the same light as the biblical Israel described in Exodus. Over time, the comparison of the new America to the Jewish holy land would morph into a hope of being able to use Israel for Christian salvation. As the U.S. government took shape and began forming and enacting foreign policy objectives and stances, the initial groundwork and framing of these relations remained. As Water Mead explains, from puritans to the present day, there is a foundational belief present in the United States that God has led Americans to a new holy land and that ignoring this historical and divine calling will bring ill to the State and its people. Timothy Weber further qualifies the importance of this by saying, “(t)he close tie between evangel(ism) and Israel is important: It has shaped popular opinion in America and, to some extent, U.S. foreign policy.” However, I posit that stances to use Israel for oneself religious reasons or in hopes to one day convert its peoples, laid the foundation for policies today that use Israel as a geopolitical proxy.

The religiosity in the foundational U.S. government and early settlers encouraged and resulted in the legitimization of Israel in the hopes of it being a Jewish state, to forward Christian-American messianic aspirations. Despite shifts to secularization in both states, the groundwork of abuse and use of the land and its peoples pervades all aspects of Israel notions by Americans, religious or not.

A few Presidents that have supported the establishment of Israel include George Washington, John Adams, Theodore Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson. Adams had been directly quoted expressing support for a Jewish state. Walter Mead explains that this support was not out of goodwill, moral, or even geopolitical strategy, rather it stemmed from the idea that if Jews were not persecuted for having their own land, they would lose their “peculiarities” and become American-esque Unitarian Christians. For President Adams, Zionism was about spreading a religion that boasted American morals and ideals. Further on in colonial New England, the belief that Americans had a duty bestowed upon them by God was circulated, even by various sects of Christianity. A Presbyterian pastor in 1814 foresaw American allyship with the restoration of an ancient Jewish state. About 30 years later, prominent Mormon voices such as Elder Son Hyde, expressed that God’s will of a return to the land of Israel had already begun materializing with the support of Americans. In colonial examples like these, it becomes clear how American Zionism formed around a notion of American and religious self-interest.

Religious motivations of American Zionism particularly take hold when American fundamentalism strongly emerged. Dispensationalism is characterized as an “interpretation of biblical prophecies that gives particular weight to Old Testament religious concepts such as covenant theology and assigns a decisive role to a restored Jewish state (with Jerusalem as its capital) in future history” (Mead). Per this belief, the ability for Jesus to return to Earth to set up his millennial kingdom requires a Jewish Israel. Mark A. Raider explains that this notion contributes to evangelicals viewing Israel as theirs just as much as it is that of the Israeli people. People that hold these beliefs can also be unfettered and uninterested in losing any holy land for compromise with Palestinians. While this is not as popular of a belief, it is one shared with Ultra-Orthodox Jews who find no issue with settlements in the West Bank and believe all land promised to the Hebrews should be returned to them.

During the 19th century, American Zionism took shape into more of what we know it to be today. While Jewish immigrants had initially been immigrating from Germany, in the 19th century, Jewish migrants came from all around the world. Raider explains that American Jewish life had a community infrastructure that supported each other. This increase in Jewish immigrants in the US led to the more formal introduction of Zionism into American society. Tangentially, Americans began to be able to visit the holy land of Israel. Expecting the “milk and honey” they read about in the Bible, Mead explains that Americans were mortified by what they found. Palestine was a poor, rocky, and seemingly “godless” land, that Americans perceived as punishment for not recognizing Jesus as the messiah. This fueled conviction in supporting the return of the land in full to Israelis so that the land could prosper again. American’s connected the Yishuv in Israel to the pilgrims and pioneers, which supported the notion that Zionism is intrinsically connected to American ideals.

The rise of labor Zionism and the labor party in Israel gifted American policymakers and politicians something to align themselves with, and reciprocally align Israel with the U.S. Louis Brandeis, before becoming a Justice to the Supreme Court, worked as a labor lawyer. here Brandeis saw the connections between the U.S. and the Zionist labor party. He emerged as an American Zionist leader, reaffirming Zionist positions in the institutional U.S. American leaders further began drawing on moral debt and guilt arguments to support Israeli policies. As Americans learned more about the Jewish plight and the Holocaust there was a “moral debt” sentiment that emerged when debating pro-Israel policies. This was not the first time Americans held guilt in regard to the Jewish people. Mead explains that progressive Christian Zionism often had guilt for the prior treatment of the Jewish people and viewed that as their barrier to accepting Christianity. In this case, it seems to be less about guilt and repentance, and more about fulfilling the mission of Christianity. The rise of labor Zionism and American guilt may be unintentionally reflecting on the religious roots, but regardless, I still argue that it shows the intertwined origins of the relationship. This is through the focus on American salvation and moral standings and the alignment of politics to bolster U.S. positioning despite there being guilt and moral debt.

Religious undertones and the foundational dispositions it created are not meant to disqualify other reasons behind policies between these two states. Cold War analysis, domestic pressure, bureaucratic reasoning, and other factors all offer explanations for the U.S. position when it comes to Israel. Using states for one's own gain is not an anomaly or unique among world power politics. But, the origins of such a longstanding relationship, and the notion one could use a state for one's personal gain, serve as an interesting and fruitful case in history. Israel will continuously fail Zionist Americans, religious or not, ideas/expectations of what a State should be and act while it is held in the high regard of a land of milk and honey that could fulfill messianic aspirations.

Lexi Kallaher is a junior majoring in Religious Studies with a minor in International Affairs. She plans on getting her masters in religious conflict and her J.D. in international law, with the goal to work in the legal/ policy aspect of religious violence and conflict. She interned for her local senator, Jacky Rosen, who is an active voice on Jewish issues and the first former synagogue president to serve in the U.S. Senate. On Capitol Hill, Lexi was introduced to the policy aspects of religious issues on the domestic front. At AU, Lexi enjoys working as a freshmen Resident Assistant; and in her free time, she loves going to new restaurants, trying to become a food blogger, and reading.

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