This week, President Joe Biden will visit Israel as part of a longer tour of the Middle East. The visit was stimulated by an invitation in April from former prime minister Naftali Bennett. Just three months later, Biden will face a caretaker government heading for elections and an agenda dominated by high oil prices and hopes of containing Russian influence. Relations with the Palestinian Authority have also been roiled by an inconclusive State Department report about the death of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. Despite these unsettled conditions, we can expect Biden to echo John F. Kennedy in proclaiming a “special relationship” between the United States and the State of Israel.
But why should that special relationship exist? There is an obvious difference in scale between America’s 330 million inhabitants and continental territories and the state of Israel, which comprises around 10 million people in a territory the size of New Jersey. There are also ideological differences. At least since World War II, many Americans have embraced a creedal nationalism open to everyone who consents to the Constitution and its underlying principles. According to a law passed in 2018, by contrast, Israel is the “nation state of the Jewish People,” which offers legal citizenship but not full inclusion to ethnic and religious minorities. While its relative power is waning, the United States remains the world’s only superpower and sustains military, political, and economic connections throughout the world. Israel’s interests have grown far-flung compared with the state’s early days. But they remain focused on its immediate neighborhood.
Walter Russell Mead’s The Arc of a Covenant is the most recent attempt to resolve this question. The book ranges widely through periods and sources. At bottom, though, Mead argues that American culture has a deep affinity for the idea of a Jewish state in the biblical promised land.
Although it does not require personal faith, Mead argues that affinity has religious origins. It was born from the British Reformation, which emphasized widespread reading of the Bible, including portions of what Christians consider the “Old Testament” focused on the political history of the Israelites. English-speaking Protestants also developed theologies of covenant, according to which God establishes legal arrangements with human peoples, conditional on their fulfillment of divine purposes. Above all, many Protestants concluded that God was not yet done with the Jews. While proclaiming Scotland, England, or Britain’s American colonies to be a kind of “new Israel,” they also insisted that the Lord was still working on and through the original chosen people.
These ideas were particularly influential among the Puritan settlers of New England, whose identification with the biblical narrative is reflected in towns called Salem or Sharon and multitudinous sons named Joseph, Samuel, and Josiah. But they were nationalized and, to some extent, secularized in the late 18th century, when the liberation of the biblical Israel from slavery became one of the favored metaphors of the revolutionary period. As the independent United States expanded, Americans also found inspiration in the narrative of a covenantal people struggling through the wilderness. This version of manifest destiny would later be refracted through popular narratives of Western settlement. Encouraged by Hollywood, Americans still perceive Israelis as heroic bearers of civilization defending themselves against savage resistance.
Unlike more apologetic accounts, Mead is careful to acknowledge that philo-Hebraic religion and popular culture did not necessarily involve friendly attitudes toward living Jews. American Christians were mostly horrified by the kind of murderous Jew-hatred that became increasingly evident in Europe as the 19th century wore on. As persecution and violence drove more Jews to the United States, though, Jews were often included—and sometimes emphasized—in arguments that undesirable immigration threatened liberty, prosperity, and virtue. Mead points out that sympathy for the nascent Zionist movement offered a kind of escape valve for old-stock Americans who were squeamish about the increasing Jewish population but also allergic to outright anti-Semitism. The Jews were a nation, with the same dignity and rights as all the others, the logic went. Therefore, they should inhabit their own land and practice their own customs rather than subverting, intentionally or otherwise, the American way of life.
The implication that Jews deserve a home of their own, but at a safe distance, helps explain the historical resistance of most American Jews to the Zionist movement. Among the paradoxes of the “special relationship” is that it often seems to connect American Christians with Israeli Jews, leaving their American cousins out of the picture. Before the Second World War, the American Jewish establishment distanced itself from Zionism, insisting that the United States was the modern promised land. It was only after the exposure of Nazi horrors and the recognition that the United States would not accept large numbers of Jewish refugees that many American Jews embraced Zionism—usually at the level of abstract principle rather than as a personal goal. Some of the old resistance has even returned in recent years. Inclined to religious and political liberalism, the American Jewish community has drifted away from an increasingly Orthodox and hawkish Israeli society.
Mead is not naïve about the geopolitical incentives that drew the United States closer to Israel around the middle of the 20th century. The book’s most original chapters explain how American strategists came to regard Israel as an ally in the Cold War. This process was slower and more tentative than conventional accounts suggest. When Kennedy offered his dramatic assurance to Meir, Mead notes, France and West Germany were still Israel’s major suppliers of weapons. And Kennedy’s goal was not to unleash Israeli power, but provide security assurances that might dissuade Israel from pursuing nuclear weapons.
Still, Mead mounts a compelling critique of what he calls “Vulcan theory”—a reference not to Star Trek but to the 19th-century theory that irregularities in the orbit of Mercury were caused by a hitherto unknown planet (dubbed “Vulcan” by the French astronomer Urbain Le Verrier). Mead adopts the term to describe a different way of accounting for the apparently disproportionate role of Israel in American foreign policy. In this view, cultural affinities and overlapping priorities are not sufficient explanations of the close, though not codified, alliance. There must be some sinister explanation, often linked to the dual loyalties of Jews or eschatological hopes of evangelical Christians.
But there’s no need to make such dubious assumptions. American support for the state of Israel since 1948 is sufficiently explained by mainstream public opinion, including a predilection for the perceived underdog. Nor are these views limited to the right, which now dominates the “pro-Israel” issue. Before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, in fact, enthusiasm for Israel was more characteristic of the American left, which saw the Jewish state not only as the haven of an embattled minority but also a model of democratic socialism. This perception of Israel was somewhat mythological—as is the image of a Jewish Sparta that has largely replaced it. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sincerely believed by many ordinary Americans—or the politicians who took their opinions seriously.
But Mead’s riposte to Vulcan theory isn’t limited to Middle East policy. This large, somewhat ungainly book exceeds the boundaries of its nominal subject in mounting a case against any attempt to reduce American foreign policy to the mechanistic calculation of quantifiable interests. This kind of Vulcanism—more like Spock than Le Verrier—simply fails to understand the influence of ideas, culture, and history on America’s intensely moralistic politics. Although it’s unlikely to change any readers’ views about U.S. relations with Israel, The Arc of a Covenant sheds welcome light on why they have been—and remain—so distinctively, often frustratingly, special.
The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People
by Walter Russell Mead
Knopf, 672 pp., $35
Samuel Goldman, an associate professor of political science at George Washington University, is the author of After Nationalism and God’s Country: Christian Zionism in America.