Walter Russell Mead: Non-Jewish Interest Groups, not "Israel Lobby" Drive Hawkish US Mideast PolicyHistorians in the News
tags: Middle East, foreign policy, Israel, Zionism, AIPAC, Walter Russell Mead, Christian Zionism, Israel Lobby
The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People
by Walter Russell Mead
In May, Palestinian American student Nooran Alhamdan graduated from Georgetown University. A few weeks before the ceremony to receive her diploma, she learned that United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken would deliver the commencement address. She and other students began to think of ways to stage a protest against the United States’ support for Israel. They decided on a form of “silent protest”: When the day came, she held up a Palestinian flag and refused to shake hands with Blinken.
Alhamdan’s principled stand went viral, symbolizing the refusal of Palestinians to submit to their American-sponsored subjugation. And yet, there was something sad about it; the United States’ support for repressive Israeli policies is so ironclad that Palestinians must resort to isolated acts of disrespect to government officials.
What explains this state of affairs? A common argument, one notably made by the political scientists Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer in 2006, that the United States dependably favors Israel in its foreign policy because of the Israel lobby. Defining the lobby as “a loose coalition of individuals and organizations who actively work to shape U.S. foreign policy in a pro‐Israel direction,” they wrote that it exerted tremendous pressure on Congress, the executive branch, and the broader public debate. The results, in their view, were decades of Middle East policies that harmed the interests of Americans, Palestinians, and even Israelis, who were discouraged from making peace.
Walter Russell Mead started writing his latest book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel, and the Fate of the Jewish People, partly to counter this view. A columnist for The Wall Street Journal and a political scientist at Bard College, Mead comes to the subject from the center-right: He is sympathetic to American policymakers’ dilemmas and efforts, believes the alliance with Israel serves the U.S. well, and understates the roles Islamophobia and anti-Arab bigotry play in American life. In a 2007 Foreign Affairs essay, Mead critically reviewed Walt and Mearsheimer’s book. Here, however, he also combats the much more sweeping and offensive theory that powerful, wealthy Jews manipulate the U.S. into serving Israeli interests. This “Vulcan Theory,” as he terms it, is wrong about how foreign policy made is made, the U.S. political process, the relationship between Jews and Christians, and much else.
Instead, Mead argues that the efforts of non-Jews to forge and strengthen an alliance between the United States and Israel have been more decisive than those of Jewish American groups. Spanning nearly 150 years of history, The Arc of a Covenant elucidates the deep cultural, historical, and strategic forces that buttress the United States-Israel relationship. Because Israel’s most influential supporters in the U.S., Mead proposes, have acted often not out of sympathy with the state of Israel on its own terms, but rather out of the American national interest and in ways that accord with their own notions of Jews and Biblical prophecy.
In Mead’s telling, notions of Jews dominating the Holy Land have usually been most popular in the United States (and sometimes Britain) among non-Jews. He recounts the Austro-Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl’s efforts to attract support for a Jewish state in the late 1890s. He had more success among gentiles with delusions of Jewish financial power than he did with his fellow Jews.
Mead sees the same dynamic in the United States, in a petition presented to President Benjamin Harrison in 1891 demanding he push European leaders to convince the head of the Ottoman Empire to allow Jews to create a homeland in Palestine. It was signed by magnates J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, leading newspaper editors and clergymen, the chief justice of the Supreme Court, and the speaker of the House of Representatives. The fruitless plea remains notable for being opposed by most American Jews at that time.