The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People, by Walter Russell Mead (Knopf, 654 pp., $29.99)
Wall Street Journal columnist Walter Russell Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant (2022) is a 654-page monument to America’s exceptional bond with the Jewish people. We might make a similar point, in far fewer words, by drawing a contrast with another nation that self-identifies as exceptional. In 1789, France and America marked their entry into modernity by granting Jews equal rights as full-fledged citizens. At the time, only about 1,000 Jews lived in the 13 colonies, to France’s more substantial community of 40,000, spread primarily around Bordeaux (largely Sephardic Jews from Portugal) and Alsace-Lorraine (Ashkenazi and German-speaking). Yet through the second half of the nineteenth century, two emigration waves—from Germany in the 1840s and Russia in the 1880s—worked to turn America into the world’s largest Jewish community (2 million) by the time Congress tightened immigration laws in 1924.
France would vie anew for that title in the interwar period, as 70,000 Jews persecuted in Eastern Europe (primarily Poland) took refuge in Paris. In the postwar period, France strengthened its lead, adding 235,000 North African Jews, who resettled to the Hexagon after Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan independence. By 1970, France’s overall Jewry surpassed half a million. Yet the parallel migration of Maghrebi Muslims from those same former colonies would plant the seeds of the anti-Semitism that 200,000 French-speaking Jews in Israel cite as the main reason for having made aliyah to Israel (a whopping 10 percent of the community between 2000 and 2017 alone). Jewish flight at such a scale is unimaginable in America. America’s two-way rapport with Jews, more than with any other group, is an integral part of its soul. “Israel is a speck on the map of the world; it occupies a continent in the American mind,” writes Mead.
Mead calls these two interlocking fates a “great quantum entanglement,” and a singular focus of his magisterial study is to show how little a role Jews themselves played in kindling this relationship. “The perception that America is a pro-Jewish power,” he writes, “antedates significant Jewish immigration to the United States.” This paradox, Mead notes, applies to the wider Zionist movement, whose success in declaring a Jewish state in 1948 ultimately hinged on the support of Gentile politicians, industrialists, and diplomats. “The secret weapon of the Zionists,” he writes, “was their ability to gather up the critical gentile support,” yet replicating that among Jews would, in Theodor Herzl’s mind, “be Zionism’s hardest test.” Israel, he notes later, is “something that gentiles, antisemites included, and Jews made together.” Zionists, Mead explains, were a minority of American Jewry until word of the Final Solution reached the U.S. around 1943.
America’s special bond with Jews, in fact, does not just predate the Jewish-American diaspora; it predates America itself. Mead cites four reasons why, from the fifteenth century onward, the Anglosphere as a whole began turning away from the theologically tinged anti-Semitism that remained a hallmark of Europe’s politics for centuries thereafter. First, the Protestant Reformation shed a new, friendlier light on Judaism by connecting the faithful to the Torah, unmediated by the Church. Second, a vision took hold that “linked the fate of the Jews with the fate of the English speakers,” a point Mead could have expanded on by referring to eminent Hebraists in the common-law tradition, such as John Selden. Third, England and America gradually replaced “total society” with a more pluralistic model of inter-faith concord sooner than continental Europe, though England would remain a religious quasi-monolith for a while longer. And fourth, the advent of industrial capitalism helped destigmatize the largely commercial and financial trades to which Europe’s medieval anti-Semitic laws had relegated Jews.
In addition to these four reasons, the growth on U.S. soil of religious denominations that put Jews firmly back in God’s plan, from Puritanism to Evangelicalism, helped cement America’s philo-Semitic bent. That is not to mention the philo-Hebraism of the Founding generation, which was “immersed in the images, the language, and the historical ideas of the Hebrew Bible”—the same Bible that a philo-Christian Jewish author like Yoram Hazony wants restored in public education. The very idea of America, in fact, is shot through with the kind of Mosaic nationalism that elevated the ancient Hebrews out of bondage in Egypt. Like them, “the American people had been entrusted with a providential message intended for the whole human race.”
This long, profound relationship, ultimately rooted less in Judaism itself than in Christianity’s new forms, is among the storylines Mead harnesses to dispel what he calls the “planet Vulcan” theory—namely, “the antisemitic legend that falsely attributes American support for Israel to the machinations of a secretive and all-powerful Jewish lobby.” Another is his methodologically unorthodox recourse to counterfactual history. Mead claims that if American foreign policy were really run by Jews, as the Vulcanists believe, then it would have kept the gates to further Jewish emigration open instead of shutting them abruptly in 1924, which would have diminished the need for a Jewish state in the first place. Mead toys with science fiction when he claims that “if the United States hadn’t voted to restrict immigration so drastically, it is probable that the country of Israel would not exist today.”
Other passages indulging in methodologically fraught counterfactuals include Mead’s claim that “absent Arab persecution of Middle Eastern Jews”—referring to the Mizrahim, the Middle Eastern Jews who fled en masse from mounting anti-Semitism to the newly declared Jewish state—“Israel today might not even exist.” This sits awkwardly aside the fact that the driving force behind Zionism at the time was—and would remain for two generations—not Oriental but rather European Jewry, which had little connection with the region and was, if anything, dismissive toward the Mizrahim. Or his claim that, “without the restrictive American immigration legislation the Jewish population in Palestine might never have reached numbers large enough to build and maintain an independent state.” In these and other cases, Mead is perhaps too quick to draw conclusions as to how history might have turned out differently.
Much of the book’s remaining chapters aim to discredit common misconceptions by reordering causal relationships in Israel’s history back to their proper place. “In the spring of 1948,” writes Mead, “it wasn’t Harry Truman who saved the Jews; it was the Jews of Palestine, with an assist from Stalin, who saved Harry Truman.” Indeed, the UN’s partition plan that year gained Truman’s support by sheer luck, as relations between local Arabs and Zionist settlers were bad enough for him briefly to consider establishing a UN trusteeship that would have delayed the declaration of a state. Later, Mead claims that “Israel did not grow strong because it had American support. It acquired American support because it had grown strong.” Indeed, the Republican coalition in the 1960s turned fervently Zionist only after decades of friendlier self-interested ties with the oil-exporting Arab world. “It is less that Israel is strong in American politics because of evangelical support,” Mead also writes, “than that the existence of Israel helped evangelical religion become a major force in American life.”
Ultimately, Mead more than salvages the academic rigor that his forays into fictional elucubration slightly undermine. This partly involves steering away from the moral questions on which Zionism—and America’s support of it—are founded. That support, in Mead’s view, is ultimately not about the Zionists’ capacity for guile; nor is it about fervent Christians’ attachment to the Holy Land, where the Israelis now live. America’s unbending friendship with the Jewish people is ultimately rooted in the conviction, shared by at least a vocal minority of Americans, that Jews constitute a nation of their own. As such, they’re entitled to run their own affairs, and their state rightfully belongs in the land from which Jews were unfairly expelled 2,000 years ago. In this sense, the Jewish-American entanglement may be tinged with religion, but it ultimately rests on two mutually reinforcing forms of nationalism.
And it’s not just any kind of nationalism. Mead’s overarching, book-length argument is that Israel and America share a “messianic vocation to transform the world” by becoming, per the Old Testament cherished by both, a “light unto the nations.” Moreover, they need one another to accomplish that mission. Without America’s unbending support, Israel would be a much weaker state. Conversely, the integration of America’s Jews and the health of its political ties to the Jewish state work as a barometer of American progress in evangelizing for liberal democracy. The cloud cast over these interlocking missions, however, is the deadlocked peace process with the Palestinians, for which Mead lays the blame at America’s feet. It failed “because the United States did not have the power, the wisdom, or the will to impose it.” Whether the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords palliate that failure would make for another book.
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