The Arc of a Covenant: The Unit­ed States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jew­ish People

  • Review
By – May 30, 2023

Wal­ter R. Mead is a week­ly colum­nist for the Wall Street Jour­nal, a pro­fes­sor of for­eign rela­tions at Bard Col­lege, an edi­tor of the Amer­i­can Inter­est mag­a­zine, a Hud­son Insti­tute Fel­low in Strat­e­gy and States­man­ship, and the author of four pre­vi­ous books on Amer­i­can for­eign pol­i­cy. His most recent vol­ume, a chron­i­cle of Amer­i­can atti­tudes toward Jews in gen­er­al — and Zion­ism in par­tic­u­lar — from the nine­teenth to the twen­ti­eth-first cen­tu­ry, seeks to explain one of the most enig­mat­ic aspects of mod­ern Amer­i­can diplo­ma­cy: the pas­sion­ate com­mit­ment of many non-Jew­ish Amer­i­cans to the safe­ty and wel­fare of the State of Israel.

In con­trast to his­to­ri­ans and for­eign pol­i­cy ana­lysts who have empha­sized the bale­ful polit­i­cal and finan­cial influ­ence of Amer­i­can Jews in shap­ing Amer­i­can pol­i­cy in the Mid­dle East, Mead sug­gests that Chris­t­ian teach­ings and the image of Amer­i­ca as a mis­sion­ary nation have encour­aged Amer­i­cans to look favor­ably upon the Zion­ist move­ment and the State of Israel. His inter­est­ing and provoca­tive book charts the con­nec­tions between America’s Israel pol­i­cy and the inner life of the Amer­i­can peo­ple.” If America’s poli­cies in the Mid­dle East have at times gone astray, the blame lies not with the Israelis or with America’s Jews, but with the myths and his­tor­i­cal expe­ri­ences that have influ­enced the think­ing of the Amer­i­can peo­ple, for good and for bad. These poli­cies, then, can­not be dis­en­tan­gled from cul­tur­al factors.

Mead’s empha­sis on the role of reli­gion is hard­ly sur­pris­ing, giv­en that his father was an Epis­co­pal priest in South Car­oli­na and that he him­self was raised in the very Chris­t­ian South. The Defense and State depart­ments, the CIA, and Amer­i­can oil com­pa­nies warned against form­ing close ties with Zion­ists and Israelis, a tac­tic that was favored by Protes­tant cler­gy­men. They argued instead that America’s inter­ests would be best served by extend­ing friend­ly poli­cies to Arabs and Arab nations. These warn­ings were effec­tive in neu­tral­iz­ing gov­ern­men­tal sup­port for Israel until the Six-Day War of 1967, when Amer­i­can pub­lic opin­ion turned deci­sive­ly in Israel’s favor.

Sup­port for Israel would fur­ther increase in 1973 as a result of the Yom Kip­pur War; and in 1987, Pres­i­dent Ronald Rea­gan deemed Israel a major non-NATO” ally. The Amer­i­can-Israel entente would grow even clos­er dur­ing the 1990s and ear­ly twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry, when the Unit­ed States became involved in wars with Iraq, Afghanistan, and rad­i­cal Islamists. In the 1990s, Mead observes, the Unit­ed States appears to have devot­ed more atten­tion to Israeli-Pales­tin­ian affairs than to the fail­ure of Russ­ian democ­ra­cy, the Taliban’s con­quest of Afghanistan, the nuclear pro­grams of Iraq, Syr­ia, Iran, and North Korea, or the rise of Chi­na.” No for­eign coun­try, he con­clud­ed, has ever received the same lev­el of atten­tion as Israel, and no great pow­er in world his­to­ry has ever ded­i­cat­ed this much atten­tion to a ter­ri­to­r­i­al dis­pute between two very small peo­ples thou­sands of miles from its frontiers.”

Mead writes that dur­ing the first two decades of the twen­ti­eth-first cen­tu­ry, events in the Mid­dle East were more cen­tral to Amer­i­can pol­i­tics than at any oth­er time in our his­to­ry.” Nev­er before had Amer­i­can-Israeli rela­tions been so close, nor pub­lic opin­ion in the Unit­ed States so par­tial toward Israel. And nev­er had this rela­tion­ship come under such hos­tile scruti­ny. Where­as pre­vi­ous crit­i­cism of Israel had emerged out of con­ser­v­a­tive cir­cles, the major crit­ics of Israel were now on the polit­i­cal Left. They accused the Jew­ish state of a series of wrongs, rang­ing from mis­treat­ment of Pales­tini­ans and respon­si­bil­i­ty for America’s mis­ad­ven­tures in Iraq and Afghanistan, to being an out­post of West­ern colo­nial­ism and cap­i­tal­ism. In Mead’s view, this rel­a­tive­ly small coun­try of nine mil­lion peo­ple had become for many Amer­i­cans a sym­bol of cos­mic impor­tance. And in mak­ing pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive judg­ments about Israel, they were in fact see­ing their own country’s faults and virtues reflect­ed back at them.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

Discussion Questions