Critics of America's support for Israel cannot escape history

Critics of America's support for Israel cannot escape history
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As calumnies go, the hidden power of Jewry over a nation’s affairs is about the oldest one in the book.

In the latest manifestation of that enduring toxin, certain of our recently elected congressional representatives view U.S. support for Israel as inexplicable without reference to the disproportionate influence of Jewish money (e.g., “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby”) and a special allegiance to Israel. They are dismissive of explanations of shared values or strategic importance. With a touch of exasperation, they ask what reason other than a malignant influence could possibly explain why the United States, without parallel among nations, has supported Israel and Zionism.

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Their ill-founded thinking is based on a failure to appreciate the extent to which the restoration of the Jewish people to sovereignty in their ancient homeland has been deeply ingrained in the religious, political and social fabric of America. Before there was an AIPAC, before Theodor Herzl founded the modern Zionist movement, and even before there was a United States, our Founding Fathers and even their forefathers longed to restore the Jews to their ancient homeland.

In short, Zionism is as American as apple pie.

The Puritans saw themselves as a “New Israel” in fleeing persecution and embraced the Old Testament. Increase Mather, the Puritan leader, taught his followers that one day the “Jews would return to their homeland and establish the most glorious nation in the world.” During the colonial and post-colonial period, Hebrew often would be taught in Ivy League universities, and the Yale coat of arms would be adorned with the Hebrew words meaning “light and perfection.”

With the break from England, Americans saw the parallel to the Exodus, and Benjamin Franklin — of “all about the Benjamins” fame — recommended that the Great Seal of the United States be an illustration of the Hebrews fleeing Egypt for their homeland.

The religious and political support for a Jewish homeland would continue in the 19th century. John Adams, who wrote Thomas Jefferson that the Hebrews have “done more to civilize man than any other nation,” would write in 1819: “I really wish the Jews again in Judea an independent nation.” Americans would also evolve from advocating the return of Jews to their ancestral land to interceding on their behalf. The first Protestant missionaries left Boston in 1819 with the goal of establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. This all occurred when the Jews in America numbered only in the thousands.

By the end of the 19th century, evangelist William Blackstone submitted a petition to President Benjamin Harrison for the establishment of a Jewish state; the petition was signed by the most prominent Americans, including the chief justice of the Supreme Court, future president William McKinley and John D. Rockefeller.

Admittedly, Christian religious support for a Jewish homeland was primarily rooted in the belief that a Jewish state was a precursor to the second coming of Jesus. But this belief doesn’t negate the deep historic roots of American support for a Jewish state.

Moreover, religious fervor was coupled with sympathy for the Jews as being subject to the world’s most longstanding hatred. Abraham Lincoln wrote to a Christian Zionist that he hoped the oppression of Jews could be relieved by “restoring the [Jews] to their national home in Palestine” and that relieving such oppression was “a noble dream and one shared by many Americans.” This support was echoed from presidents as diverse as Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Herbert Hoover.

By the time World War II came to a close, both Houses of Congress called for a Jewish state, both parties had pro-Zionist platforms, and polls showed Americans supported a Jewish state by 2-1 margins. While some might see more hidden Jewish global power behind these levels of support, others would recognize that the Holocaust showed the limits of Jewish “hypnotic” power.

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Strong American support for Israel continues to this day. Pew Research Center polls show that American support for Israel compared with the Palestinians has continued at close to a 3-1 margin over the past 50 years. The only difference is that, as is the case of many issues, the support has become more polarized, with 79 percent of Republicans sympathizing with Israel versus 27 percent of Democrats; Democrats are now as likely to sympathize with Israel as the Palestinians. As evidence that Jewish support for Israel is neither monolithic nor the mass of American support for Israel, the Pew polls show that white evangelicals (who represent more than 75 million) approve of greater U.S. support for Israel than American Jews.

While recent congressional critics of America’s support of Israel might dismiss this history, they cannot escape it. To be sure, they could make the point that seeking the imposition of a one-state solution pursuant to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, or otherwise being anti-Israel, cannot necessarily be conflated with being anti-Semitic. On the other hand, those who bring their greatest fervor to the condemnation of Israel should be mindful that criticizing Israel has become the intellectual “safe space” for engaging in anti-Semitism.

And those critics most recently elected to Congress might benefit from the admonition that Winston Churchill offered, in 1932, to a soon-to-be German chancellor who was condemning the influence of Jewish money: “Anti-Semitism may be a good starter, but it is a bad sticker.”

John Finley is senior managing director and chief legal officer of Blackstone, the world’s largest alternative investment firm, based in New York City. The opinions expressed here are his own.