Nine years ago, two professors from the realist school of international relations published The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, which argued that a small cadre of Washington influencers were responsible for America’s enduring support for Israel. In this essay, “The New Israel and the Old,” Walter Russell Mead offers a contrary view. America supports Israel because Americans–especially non-Jewish Americans–support Israel. They do so for many reasons: shared religious sensibilities, shared experience as a state founded in refuge from oppression, shared enemies.
Both religious and nonreligious Americans have looked to the Hebrew Scriptures for an example of a people set apart by their mission and called to a world-changing destiny. Did the land Americans inhabit once belong to others? Yes, but the Hebrews similarly conquered the land of the Canaanites. Did the tiny U.S. colonies armed only with the justice of their cause defeat the world’s greatest empire? So did David, the humble shepherd boy, fell Goliath. Were Americans in the nineteenth century isolated and mocked for their democratic ideals? So were the Hebrews surrounded by idolaters. Have Americans defeated their enemies at home and abroad? So, according to the Scriptures, did the Hebrews triumph. And when Americans held millions of slaves in violation of their beliefs, were they punished and scourged? Yes, and much like the Hebrews, who suffered the consequences of their sins before God.
This mythic understanding of the United States’ nature and destiny is one of the most powerful and enduring elements in American culture and thought. As the ancient Hebrews did, many Americans today believe that they bear a revelation that is ultimately not just for them but also for the whole world; they have often considered themselves God’s new Israel. One of the many consequences of this presumed kinship is that many Americans think it is both right and proper for one chosen people to support another. They are not disturbed when the United States’ support of Israel, a people and a state often isolated and ostracized, makes the United States unpopular or creates other problems. The United States’ adoption of the role of protector of Israel and friend of the Jews is a way of legitimizing its own status as a country called to a unique destiny by God.