Commentary Magazine


Israel in the Mind of America, by Peter Grose

The Special Relationship

Israel in the Mind of America.
by Peter Grose.
Knopf. 361 pp. $17.95.

In Israel in the Mind of America, Peter Grose, director of Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, has written an entertaining and engaging account of America’s fascination with the restoration of the Jews to the Holy Land. The book begins with the early years of European settlement on the North American continent and ends with Truman’s recognition of Israel in 1948 (an epilogue takes the story to 1982). As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to an unending series of vignettes—the book is in fact more narrative than analysis. Grose’s research is first-rate, and the historical nuggets he has unearthed exercise an appeal that compensates in large part for his less than scholarly procedure of citing sources.

Grose argues that from the very beginnings of colonization, the socio-religious climate of America was congenial to the idea of a Jewish state in Palestine. A restoration of the Jews had long been contemplated theologically, especially in Puritan thought, and to some degree even practically. By the 19th century, visionaries ranging from Albany’s Pastor John McDonald in 1814 to Chicago’s William Black-stone in 1891 gained popular support for their notions of a reborn Jewish commonwealth. Blackstone even presented a “Memorial” to President Benjamin Harrison calling for a Jewish state in Palestine and containing the signatures of 413 prominent Americans, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.

Grose does not ignore the way in which American feelings about a hypothetical Jewish restoration to Palestine were connected with American feelings toward the Jews actually living on American soil. The rights of Jews were of course guaranteed in the United States along with the rights of all other citizens. Yet there was a strain of hostility as well, represented by “the popular fear of an ineffable Jewish conspiracy at work to undermine Christian society.” As Jews arrived in ever larger numbers in the middle and late 19th century, “instead of a romantic abstraction they were a reality—more often than not, a distasteful reality.” The idea of their removal to Palestine could thus appeal to non-Jews on more than one level.

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If the “mind” of America is one focus of Grose’s narrative, the “mind” of America’s Jews is another. The fledgling Jewish community in the first years of the Republic was too preoccupied with establishing itself in its new home to think seriously of a return to Zion, he writes. By the first half of the 19th century, Mordecai Manuel Noah and Rabbi Isaac Leeser did indeed envision a Jewish state, but the mainstream was more truly represented by the father of American Reform Judaism, Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise, who declared: “The idea of the Jews returning to Palestine is no part of our creed. . . . This country is our Palestine, this city [Cincinnati] our Jerusalem, this house of God our Temple.” Only when Rabbi Wise was confronted with the wave of new East European immigrants after 1881 did his own interest in Palestine awaken. (He supported a charity created to send Rumanian Jews to Palestine, “to protect us here against an immigration too large and too expensive for the common good.”)

Throughout the 19th century, there was more interest among American Christians than among American Jews in a Jewish return to Palestine. But times swiftly changed. By the early 20th century Zionism had become a serious political movement, whose fortunes Grose traces by shifting his focus away from Christian thinking and onto internal developments within the Jewish community. He dwells at length on divisions among Jews—between the older and wealthier, mostly German Jews “uptown” and the newer East European immigrants “downtown”; between Zionists and their opponents; between Louis Brandeis and Chaim Weizmann, who fought over control of the Zionist movement in the U.S.; between men with contacts in high places who were prepared to rely on quiet, behind-the-scenes diplomacy and those who sought to force action by mobilizing public opinion through mass rallies, letter-writing campaigns, and similar tactics. In these debates, Grose’s sympathies seem to lie with the “great men” who knew how to seek and use power—Weizmann, Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, Nahum Goldmann. As for the East European immigrant masses, these he tends to describe in such revealing terms as “primitive,” “bearded, unwashed, strangely clothed,” “unkempt.”

As the focus shifts from Christian to Jewish America, Grose also begins to write more openly from a posture of sympathy with the sufferings of the Jews and toward the creation of a Jewish state. In his subsequent chapters he is devastating in his remarks about the opponents of Zionism, ridiculing James Forrestal and the King-Crane commission (a missionary attempt to undo the Jewish National Home at the Versailles peace conference after World War I). He is also blunt about anti-Semitism, particularly in dealing with the State Department’s attitude toward immigration during World War II and its despicable reaction to the Holocaust. But this story has been told before, and it is unclear why so much attention should be devoted to it in a book about America and Israel, especially since at the time (as Grose stresses), most Americans viewed the fate of European Jewry as separate from the political future of Palestine.

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Grose is particularly interesting in his rendition of the attitudes of Presidents Wilson, Roosevelt, and Truman toward Zionism. Although he does not say so explicitly, his narrative demonstrates that the policies of these three men were influenced more by their experience and their friendships, and also by their political views, than by any anxiety over Jewish votes. But his analysis of the actions taken by the three Presidents with regard to the future Jewish state is less than completely satisfying.

In Grose’s account, Wilson comes across as vacillating and harassed. This misses the point. Wilson’s secret support for the 1917 Balfour Declaration was a critical factor in its release. In taking the position he did, the President overruled his chief adviser, Colonel House, and ignored his Secretary of State, whom he knew to be vehemently opposed.

FDR’s Palestine policy has been treated unfairly by some historians, according to Grose, because of the Roosevelt administration’s poor record in the Holocaust. He goes to impressive lengths to prove that FDR conceived of an exclusively Jewish Palestine (with the Arabs bribed to leave) in the context of some kind of international trusteeship or regional federation with the Arab states. Even if Grose is right, however, Roosevelt simply caved in when confronted with the adamant opposition of the Saudi king at their meeting after Yalta. FDR may have had a vision but he did not have a policy, and his actions consisted primarily of making contradictory promises to both sides.

When it comes to Truman, finally, Grose’s portrayal is right on the mark. The President who later received credit for assisting at the birth of Israel actually had little interest in the entire matter other than a desire to help the pathetic refugees of the Holocaust get out of the DP camps in Europe. To him the whole business was a bloody nuisance.

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Grose’s narrative ends properly in 1948 with Israel’s declaration of independence and recognition by the Truman administration. The story he has told is so fascinating that the reader may hardly have noticed how much, on the American side, has been left out of the account of the 1930′s and 40′s. In Grose’s narrative Congressmen and other politicians are bit players. Terry Duce, the outspoken representative of Aramco, the Arabian-American Oil Company, is not even mentioned. The labor unions, allies of the Zionists, are referred to only once in the entire book, in connection with Samuel Gompers’s endorsement of “the principle of a Jewish homeland, as Jewish immigrants threatened to glut the American labor market”—this was before the Balfour Declaration. The role played by Christian Americans is particularly unclear, and inadequately developed.

The cumulative effect of these omissions is felt in the epilogue, covering the period 1948—82. According to Grose, this period was marked by a series of paradoxical changes. For one thing, “A new breed of diplomat had taken charge in the 1970′s. . . . They had freed themselves from the bigotries of earlier generations.” To be sure, there was anti-Semitism in American society, but it too had a new form, “no longer . . . an ideological or religious crusade but . . . an expression of social and economic frustration.” As for the Jews, they had undergone a transformation as well—“ ‘We are all Zionists now,’ said American businessmen when demonstrating their loyalty to Israel, thus dismissing half a century of anguished Jewish political debate.” Yet no sooner had this come about than, in perhaps the most significant change of all, criticism of Israel began to be heard from leading Protestant clergymen, and “American liberals who had promoted the creation of Israel, Jews as well as Gentiles, began pulling back.”

All these supposed changes seem confusing, even to Grose himself, in the context of what has gone before in his book. He appears surprised that there should be divisions once again among American Jews, criticism of Israel by Protestant clergymen and American liberals, continuing anti-Semitism. Yet this is simply a consequence of his having concentrated too heavily, in the later stages of his book, on diplomats and Presidents, while scanting the pieces of the American mosaic that now suddenly reappear in the epilogue.

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Israel in the Mind of America prompts a number of observations about the America-Israel relation today.

First, there is the bitterness toward Israel undeniably felt in many circles. As Grose shows, the promise of a “restoration of the Jews” always “contained the seeds of disillusionment.” America has supported the birth of dozens of nations since World War II, but only one was supposed to be the embodiment of the Bible. No ideal by definition can ever measure up to reality. Grose laments that Jews have captured the imagination of the Gentile world “as soldiers and not as dreamers,” but no modern state can be a nation of dreamers, especially if it is surrounded by hostile forces.

Second, and intimately related, is the temptation to exert disproportionate pressure on Israel. Idealism turns quickly to paternalism—any father “present at the creation” is bound to resent the independence of his progeny. One inevitable result has been the syndrome which goes under the name of “saving Israel in spite of herself.”

Third is the persistent tendency to concentrate on Israel as the “problem” in the Middle East—another direct legacy of romantic visions of the Holy Land. Unlike in the earlier periods Grose describes, the United States today is the primary power in the Middle East, and the region is itself of much higher priority to American interests than ever before. Yet, although Israel is peripheral or irrelevant to most of the conflicts in the area, many American officials persist in believing that Israel alone—the land to which so many historic passions are connected—must possess the solution to the region’s woes.

Grose writes: “Even as they go their own way, in pursuit of their own national interests, Americans and Israelis are bonded together like no two other sovereign peoples.” It is ironic that a book which sets out to explain the origins of the “special relationship” between the U.S. and Israel should end by helping to explain the reasons for the ongoing tensions between them.

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